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Science Updates: from Consciousness to CRISPR

Contrary Brin - Sat, 04/14/2018 - 14:43
Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have long pursued a concept – not exactly a model – of consciousness that’s based on a notion that quantum effects take place along tiny rods called microtubules that are vital structural elements inside most living cells. These rods are everywhere, but especially in neurons, and some experiments suggest that perhaps a kind of entanglement might happen along their length. 

It's not laughable! Much stronger evidence supports the existence of quantum activity in the chlorophyll molecule that plants use to convert sunlight into stored chemical energy. This article offers details on the Penrose-Hameroff notion. (I watched-heard them both at a Consciousness Debate, held at the home of Irwin Jacobs, three months ago. I spoke with Penrose, several times, about his clever re-scaling explanation for how Big Bangs fit into a cyclical cosmos.)

I suspect they are about half-right about there being some quantum effects inside neurons. Even that much would be amazing, and would imply that it may take a lot more than a Moore's Law doubling of flip-flops to emulate human consciousness. See also their latest book Consciousness and the Universe: Quantum Physics, Evolution, Brain and Mind.
== Contemplating the stuff we're made of ==

Might genetic meddling in actual humans be a little harder than to recent hopeful/terrifying press reports led us to believe? Our immune systems may be formidable. 

“The CRISPR–Cas9 system, which functions as a genetic scissors and tape for editing DNA, is generally derived from either Staphylococcus aureusor Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria. Most people have been exposed to staph or strep by the time they reach adulthood, which their bodies are likely to remember and may mount an immune attack when re-exposed to them….  Or worse, it could trigger the kind of immune storm that killed a young gene therapy patient named Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, derailing the field for more than a decade.”
A new study showed that it is possible to recreate DNA using information from living descendants. Which may empower fellows like George Church to give us back mammoths... then dinosaurs... then maybe (as in Existence)... Neandethals?
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the very first algorithm that monitors patient vitals to predict potentially lethal events hours before they could have occurred.
If You Had a Human Head Transplant, Would You Still Be You?  A topic actually explored in The Organ Bank Farm, a novel by the under-rated science fiction author John Boyd. Jim Cheetham has an answer that’s +1. 'It's a body transplant. Does that make it an easier question?'

== Ain't Nature a kick? ==
If true, this is… wow. “In the first recorded instance of fire being used by animals other than humans, three Australian birds of prey species have been seen carrying burning twigs to set new blazes…” offering “…evidence that birds are very good at “generating innovative solutions to foraging problems.”
A fascinating and erudite article asks whether humans have some in-built morality, an ancient question with light shed by recent science.
Why Males Are Biology's Riskier Sex: This article explains some of the fantastic amounts that reproductive biologists have learned lately about sperm, eggs, mutations and how those mutations are contributed vs. age by mothers and fathers. 
Fascinating. Vertebrate animals apparently use a basic information-processing system that derives from genes that infected some ancestor via a virus. That transmission and retention isn’t unusual – large fractions of our genome apparently come from viruses. But this article describes one of a myriad info-processing functions that we never knew about, till recently. When a synapse fires, it apparently triggers an RNA messenger to enfold itself into a protective capsid and travel to some adjacent neuron, where… well, this is way complicated and not easily emulated via binary flipflops and Moore’s Law.
Adding this blue dye to standard malaria treatments seems to reduce the chance new mosquitoes will pick up and vector the disease. 

== But human stupidity clings and claws at us ==
Alas, sometime SciFi gets it too right: Remember the lurid sci fi flick THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW? Its frenzied-fun premise was based on a real fear... now apparently coming true, as ocean circulation in the Atlantic has plunged to its lowest level in 1600 years.

Meanwhile... Coral bleaching has accelerated to a clip at which established reefs can no longer keep up. Part of it comes from pollution and warming waters, but also ocean acidification.  

And the last of those three has special significance. Oh, talk about ocean acidification. Speak the phase aloud... because you’ll find that members of the Climate Denialist Cult always shout “squirrel!” or run away, when they hear those two words. Because:

(1) anyone can go to the shore and measure it for themselves; it’s happening, and serious. And...

(2) there are no possible alternative excuses – the way the cultists try to blame the sun for global warming. Ocean acidification comes from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, put there by humans. Period. And those who are aiding the villains waging war on science are now as culpable – and should be as financially liable – as the Koch Brothers and their petro-sheik and oil-boyar allies.

But then... the fact people keep coming up with... hope!

== Future Tech ==
A thin membrane made of graphene, called “Graphair,” which can make dirty water clean enough to drink after just a single pass through. Consumption of contaminated drinking water can transmit a number of diarrheal diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio, as well as many parasites, like giardia. In water-stressed areas that also have limited access to medical care, diarrheal illnesses can be life-threatening. The next steps for the team will be to connect with industry partners who can help them scale Graphair up for practical use.

A DARPA-funded prosthetic neural system has made progress toward improving memory by writing codes into the hippocampus of human subjects via electrodes implanted in the brain.

MIT's Media Lab has severed ties to startup Nectome which offered digital immortality to individuals through brain uploading - seeking to embalm brains while preserving the neural connections.
A new approach to 3D imagery that’s different – using lasers to push a speck of dust around to form genuine three-dimensional object views. I doubt you can apply the term "hologram."

Elon Musk's latest venture: Solar Roof tiles - made of tempered glass, promise to be durable and cost effective (with an "infinity" warranty) and power generation lasting 30 years.

Even more advance is a concept that uses the heat of solar panels to distill and purify water, while cooling the cells to make them more efficient. Built-in batteries store power for night and outages. (Something lacking in the million solar homes we have, today.)

Need more memory? Next generation optical disc storage offers 10 terabyte capacity and six century lifespan. Gimme!  Seriously. Send me a sample and (if it works) I'll tout it loudly!

And finally...Lasers so powerful they might rip apart raw vacuum? It’s actually quite plausible.  Hey, didn't I predict that in....
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

New Books and ARCs, 4/13/18

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/13/2018 - 17:00
This is a very lucky Friday the 13th, I have to say, because it brings us all this very fine stack of new books and ARCs. What in this stack bewitches you? Tell us all in the comments.

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 04/12/2018 - 10:33
Disclosure: I liked Catherynne Valente’s new book Space Opera so much I gave it a blurb. And as you read the Big Idea below about the book came to be, you might understand why the book appealed so much to me. CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE: Sometimes you plan a book. Carefully. Meticulously. You hone it, prune […]

New Books and ARCs, 4/11/18

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 04/11/2018 - 17:18
Oh, look, new books and ARCs at the Scalzi Compound. That so rarely happens! So, anything here that tickles your fancy? Tell us all in the comments!

Finally a True Sign of Spring

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 04/11/2018 - 15:48
To wit, the lawncare people come to aerate and fertilize the yard. It’s a nice, sunny day, too! Let’s hope it sticks.

Cryptocurrencies, stock buybacks, regulations... they are counting on you being bored!

Contrary Brin - Wed, 04/11/2018 - 14:17
== Cryptocurrencies ==
Coin mining (prime number factoring) operations are now using as much electricity as the Republic of Ireland.
In the last 5 months I’ve joined the advisory boards of FIVE ICOs, or Initial Coin Offerings, learning far more about blockchain and “tokens” than I ever really wanted to know. I’ve had to point out things that some of these bright fellow never thought-of. Like some important ways to stay out of jail.
Oh, then there’s this: Bitcoin “tape-washing” by the top 1000 Bitcoin owners (40%) of all coins) lets them boost price simply by selling to each other, luring in suckers.
Do I believe in Adam Smith and the power of flat-fair-open-competitive-creative markets?  You bet! 
Has the magic ever, ever, ever - even once - happened on this planet without regulatory frameworks to stymie cheating? Not once. Ever. 

Lefties are fools to ignore the creative power of competition. Righties are jibbering insane to ignore 6000 years of history wrought by market-ruining cheaters. 

Adam Smith would be a moderate, pro-enterprise democrat, today.

== Stock Buybacks ==
Under the Greatest Generation (when America was 'great') this was illegal. Almost a $trillion will be spent on Stock Buybacks in 2018, rewarding the top 1% but especially the CEO caste, who thus trivially get their stock-price-tied incentive bonuses, without increasing actual value of the company one cent. The tax cut's shills said this would stimulate investment in R&D, productive capital, infrastructure and new jobs. Those could have been incentivized in the bill. But as in all previous Supply Side scams, it never happens. Instead we get:
1. Shortened ROI (Return on Investment) horizons, from the traditional 5 years down now to 5 weeks!
2. Less investment in R&D, productive capital, infrastructure and new jobs. Yes, these go down every single time the GOP has its way.
3. Steeply falling Money Velocity. (Exactly what Adam Smith said happens, when the rentier aristocracy hogs all the money. More on this, in a future posting.)
4. Skyrocketing wealth disparity.
5. Decisions on our economic destiny made by an ever-narrowing caste of delusional, conniving, incestuously conspiratorial, secretive oligarchs, demolishing any hint of the flat-fair-open-creative competition that both Hayek and Keynes agreed to be the core essential of market enterprise.
An interesting aspect to this! John Mauldin points out that there are some LIBERAL constituencies who benefit. Pension funds do great in this environment, and they certainly qualify as "rent-seeking" centers of money-slowing investment. Pension funds are indeed, fellow culprits in almost-zeroing money velocity. Only, unlike oligarchs, they cannot cash-out when the market has peaked. Their benefit is brief.
Note also that a minority of those investors benefiting from all of this hate what's happening. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates and most of the tech zillionaires will take this free money being shoved at them. But they vote and demand better policies that might actually no good for civilization and the republic. They know this is how feudalism returns, and the renaissance (that made them successful) ends.

== On Regulation ==

Ironic that Friedrich Hayek is generally dismissed as an apologist for elimination of all market regulation, yet the liberal (leaning-Keynesian) economics site - Evonomics - explores Hayek’s views on both market theory and evolution with considerable respect. (Evonomics is also the one place, online, that most often studies and lauds Adam Smith!)

In this conversation, several leaders in both economic theory and evolution start by praising Hayek’s revelations that markets are about information and how over-regulation is inherently fraught with errors that stymie the crowd- and open-sourced wisdom of markets.
Alas, Hayek thereupon was lured to the opposite extreme, as his arguments were used to justify elimination of regulations that kept markets flat-open-fair and competitive. If 500,000 civil servants are too narrow a clade to allocate economic resources well, then how is an incestuous, conniving-secretive and conspiratorially greedy CEO caste of golf buddies supposed to be more wise?
Hayek’s criticisms of socialism applied cogently to Leninist regimes, but as these scholars point out, they’re much less meaningful when aimed at Norway. Hayek’s greatest failing? His inability to refer to the other great enemy of market enterprise, feudalism, which wrecked far more nations and economies than poor, dumb socialism could ever dream of.
A flawed and stupid system that wrought hell in 99% of past cultures, feudalism is rooted in human temptation to cheat, and it appears to be roaring back. And the shills who work for the lords are - alas - really good at oversimplifying and misquoting Friedrich Hayek.

== Rising Corporate Profits ==

Why have corporate profits (and hence dividends to the owner caste) skyrocketed and stayed high across 25 years, while wages stagnate? Economist Jonathan Tapper makes it clear in an appraisal that’s circulated widely by John Mauldin, a conservative newsletter guy who knows something’s gone wrong with the branch that has taken over U.S. conservatism. 

“Something has indeed gone very wrong with capitalism. In a competitive market, if a company is making a lot of money, other companies will get excited by the prospects of high profits and will enter the industry and compete. Eventually margins decline as more competitors fight each other. That is how dynamic, capitalist economies should be. Something is profoundly broken with capitalism if corporate profit margins do not revert to the historical mean. 
“Rising industrial concentration is a powerful reason why profits don’t mean revert and a powerful explanation for the imbalance between corporations and workers. Workers in many industries have fewer choices of employer, and when industries are monopolists or oligopolists, they have significant market power versus their employees…. The Economist found that over the fifteen-year period from 1997 to 2012 two-thirds of American industries were more concentrated in the hands of a few firms.” 
Let me add that monopoly or duopoly is a reason most profits aren’t plowed back into R&D and production (as Supply Siders always promised.) Because these CEOs don’t fear new rivals, so they might as well grab the profits for themselves, rather than invest.
Tapper continues: “In a monopoly, there is only one seller, while in a monopsony, there is only one buyer. The extreme example of a monopsony is a coal town in West Virginia, where the only buyer of labor is the coal company. Large parts of America are dominated by monopsonies.” 

The trend is far worse in rural America, which puts a real fear into the confederate masters, because at any moment the voters in those areas might start to see through the propaganda that “liberals, unions, scientists and government” are responsible for all your problems; so never, ever look over here at plutocrats!” This plan is anchored in the notion that folks will reliably and always forget their own parents were union men and women, who supported anti-trust laws and whose favorite living person was Franklin Roosevelt.
Tapper continues: “In the U.S. CEO pay has exploded. From 1978 to 2013, CEO compensation adjusted for inflation increased 937%. By contrast, the average worker’s income grew by a pathetic 10% over the same period.”  He documents the plummet in union strength, even as the right’s media portrays unions as villains against poor, virtuous CEOs.
Sign up to receive chapters in Tapper’s growing book The Myth of Capitalism
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 04/10/2018 - 10:16
It’s an adage that writers use everything for their writing. In the case of Fire Dance, the follow-up to Ilana C. Meyer’s fantastic debut Last Song Before Night, a trip to Spain laid the floor for her novel to dance upon. ILANA C. MYER: The heart of a story doesn’t always come first. This one […]

One Week Until Head On

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 04/10/2018 - 09:55
The author copies for Head On have arrived at the Scalzi Compound and they look groovy. In just a week they hit the stores. Wheee! Also, a reminder that if you want signed copies, Barnes & Noble have a bunch available for pre-order. Or you can get me to sign one for you when you […]

The Big Idea: The Oracle Year

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 04/09/2018 - 11:09
I’m going to make the prediction that you’re going to want to read author Charles Soule’s Big Idea post on The Oracle Year, in which he talks about the future and how each of us makes predictions, every single day of our lives, and what that means for his novel. Am I correct in my […]

And Now, Almost Entirely to Shove the Picture of Me at the Hospital Down the Page a Bit, Here’s Me Wearing a Clown Nose

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 04/08/2018 - 16:03
As one does. This photo was taken at the Subterranean Press warehouse last week, while I was signing and personalizing pre-orders of Head On. Why did they have a clown nose? Maybe because they’re a fun-loving lot! Or maybe because they have a basement clown abattoir filled with body parts. Maybe both! Anyway, here you go. […]

Space news! Loyal robots, cool simulations... and water, water everywhere?

Contrary Brin - Sat, 04/07/2018 - 11:31
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SPACE  is like politics these days. So much happening that you can't keep up. Only with the difference that most space news elevates the spirit and makes you realize how wonderful we can be. 

Last week Cheryl and I visited the greatest relic of the Soviet Period, in Moscow -- yes even finer than their wonderful subway/metro stations. The Cosmonauts Museum and the awesome Monument to the Conquerors of Space.  Yes, they did some things well.

== But looking ahead... ==

Okay, you've all seen it. Still, seriously watch again SpaceX launch the Falcon Heavy. The simultaneous double-landing is even better.  But the view of Elon's roadster in space... okay you've all seen it.  Watch it again, whevever you're about to give up on us.

Almost as cool… The largest simulation of the cosmos is a first of its kind, a billion light-year-across universe-scale model, producing more than 500 terabytes of simulation data, and suggesting how black holes affect the distribution of the ever-elusive dark matter throughout galaxies. A stunning video, too.

We are a mighty, scientific civilization. Applying heart and tons of brains, we saved the ozone layer and every species of whale and are wiping out polio - competence portrayed in stunning beauty by this panorama from Mars, showing our loyal robot’s five year journey up a towering mountain, making huge discoveries along the way.

These steps forward are accompanied by danger signals all around. But they show abilities we could apply to every other crisis, if lunatics of the farthest-left and entire-right weren’t determined to trash our confidence as a logical, fact-using, problem-solving people.
While the epic journey of the Curiosity rover across Gale Crater and then up the slopes of Mt. Sharp has us enthralled (those with spirit in our hearts) - let’s recall there’s another faithful little robot on the Red Planet. I was on the committee that chose the names “Spirit” and “Opportunity” from proposals by school kids, and Opportunity is still eking her way along on measly-aging solar cells after 5000 (long) Martian days, or “sols.”  Bear in mind the rover was only built to run for about three months, and it's now been exploring Mars for just over ten years. But so far, systems look good, and there's lots of science ahead.
“Opportunity will be exploring Perseverance Valley, a shallow channel running down the inside slope of the western rim of Endeavor Crater. Scientists want to understand whether flowing water or blowing wind carved the valley in the side of the crater, and they want to understand when that process began.” The rover has covered about 28 miles since 2004, in short bursts, always seeking a stopping place tilted so its panels can soak in the sun.
And yes, I know you are already doing this. And my finger-wagging about the vital importance of optimism can get nearly 0.00000001% as tedious as the endless litanies of gloom, out there. Still, repeat it again and again, until maybe some confidence and pride bubbles forth: “I am a member of a species, civilization and nation that are competent – and cool -- enough to do stuff like this.”
== Outward into our solar system ==
A revolutionary satellite concept could give us a close view of the mysterious Martian moon Phobos. Funded by NIAC - NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts program (I’m on the external advisory council) - PHLOTE would “float” above Phobos, which I have long thought one of the most valuable sites in the solar system. If it finds volatiles like water ice, near the surface, then in-situ propellant production and water for life support could slash the cost of any expeditions to the surface of the red planet, and teach us plenty about accessing and using asteroidal resources. All of which is so vastly more likely to pay off for us than joining a crowd of wannabes in a silly race to plant more footprints on the dusty and (for now) useless Moon we see above Earth.

Still, if you want to hear all sides, come to the International Space Development Conference, or SpaceDev (ISDC 2018), near LAX on May 27. There will be a debate! Robert Zubrin speaking up for Mars, Brad Blair for the Moon, Al Globus for free space, and me? I'll stand for the destination desired by most tech zillionaires and nearly all scientists and anyone who wants us to get rich enough out there to turn Earth into a garden. Asteroids.

== Details! ==

It's nearly the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing of humans on the lunar surface.  Only 24 astronauts have stood on the moon and gazed back upon the orb of their home planet. How did this perspective change their worldview? A topic explored in the newly released The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves, by Christopher Potter, which examines the path of the far-seeing visionaries that pushed incrementally toward those brave first steps on lunar soil.
The SETI Institute and the Mars Institute announced today the discovery of small pits in a large crater near the North Pole of the Moon, which may be entrances to an underground network of lava tubes. The pits were identified through analysis of imaging data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). If water ice is present, these potential lava tube entrances or “skylights” might allow future explorers easier access to subsurface ice, and therefore water, than if they had to excavate the gritty ice-rich “regolith” (surface rubble) at the actual lunar poles.  The new pits were identified on the northeastern floor of Philolaus Crater, a large, 43 mile (70 km)-diameter impact crater located at 72.1oN, 32.4oW, about 340 miles (550 km) from the North Pole of the Moon, on the lunar near side.
The new discovery opens an exciting prospect: potentially much easier access to - and extraction of - lunar polar ice. Three factors could help: 1) skylights and lava tubes could provide more direct access to the very cold polar underground, alleviating the need to excavate vast amounts of lunar regolith; 2) if ice is present inside the lava tubes – which is not yet known - it could be in the form of massive ice formations as often occur in cold lava tubes on Earth – instead of mixed-in within lunar grit, and 3) solar power would be available nearby, just outside each skylight.” Could be cool, in every sense and at NIAC we've funded some innovative ways to explore such tubes.

Still, all will depend on how much ice there is. Copious gigatons? Then I'll change my mind about prioritizing moon settlement. If mere megatons? Then that water belongs to our descendants who will need it there, and not squandering it to make rocket fuel when there is vastly more (teratons, maybe) in them thar rocks out there. Listen to the visionaries who dream of heading out The Space Barons, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, by Christian Davenport.

Still... the moon serves as grist for science fiction plots. Try Andy Weir's Artemis, Ian McDonald's Luna, David Pedreira's Gunpowder Moon, Stephen Baxter's Moonseed, among many other lunar tales.
== From Mars to Asteroids ==

Circling back around.

Ice on Mars? At least in the higher latitudes, it sure appears to be so. Highlands that have eroded edges are revealing what appear to be thick layers of pretty clear and pure frozen water, improving prospects for ISRU or “in-situ resource utilization,” though at least as much of a difference might be made if there’s also ISRU usable ice reserves on Phobos.
Still, blatantly, the wealth is...

More on asteroid mining… and how the Falcon Heavy and New Glenn might greatly expand the number of potential targets. And how this terrifies the old resource oligarchs on Earth. Let's suppose the asteroid miners win. Huzzah! Only... does this portend a New Oligarchy, out there, like in all the clichéd space operas?
A joint India-Japan lunar mission is just the tip of growing cooperation between the two nations in a wide range of projects that have an obvious, geopolitical underpinning.
Bigelow – the inflatable space station company – is exploring a variety of options, including one in lunar orbit.
We were just in the Arctic, as docents for a tour group, explaining to them the aurorae... and one question came up...

Are we due for a magnetic field flip?  North and south magnetic poles tend to flip over the course of the planet's history. For the past 20 million years, the pattern of pole reversals take place every 200,000 to 300,000 years. The last time a full reversal took place was approximately 780,000 ya.  The fields extend more than 10 Earth radii, or 63.7 million meters, out into space on the side facing the Sun extending all the way to the Moon's orbit at 384.4 million meters on the opposite side.  When this happens, weakened fields can no longer protect us from solar radiation and cosmic rays. Fortunately the flip process only lasts a few centuries generally.  But one more reason to maintain a watchful and scientific and science fiction loving civilization.


Kilopower small nuclear reactors for space. NASA is investing heavily in this.

There's lots more, and I'm looking forward to the NIAC meeting in DC, in June. We are wonders. Believe it, and we can accomplish anything.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

How I Spent My Afternoon

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/06/2018 - 21:25
Spoiler: I’m fine. For the last few days I’ve been having a bit of a low grade pain in my chest that wasn’t really going away. I mentioned it to Krissy last night, who informed me I’d be calling to schedule a doctor’s appointment this morning, and this morning, when I indeed called to schedule […]

The Big Idea: Leo Carew

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/06/2018 - 09:47
For his debut novel The Wolf, author Leo Carew considers what it might take to be more human than human — not superhuman, but differently human. And what does it take? Read on, humans! LEO CAREW: Our current age is unusual, in that we are the only species of human on earth. For most of […]

I Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny That I Am A Timeless Goofy Immortal

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 04/05/2018 - 18:16
So @laurenalexg and I both did a double take last night, thinking we saw a photo @scalzi hanging in a restaurant. This is some serious Altered Carbon shit. — Peter V. Brett (@PVBrett) April 5, 2018 No comment. NO COMMENT I SAID.

The Big Idea: John Schwartz

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 04/05/2018 - 14:46
  Anyone who knows me knows that I spend I lot of time urging people — particularly writers — to get their financial houses in order. John Schwartz is a writer — a reporter in fact — and the way he got motivated to get his financial ducks in a row was to give himself […]

The Summer Kills: “Collide”

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 04/03/2018 - 17:33
My brain is a bit scrambled today, so in lieu of subjecting you to unintelligible babble, here, have this pretty nifty song by the new band The Summer Kills, which features my pal Matthew Ryan on vocals. It’s called “Collide,” and if you like Achtung Baby/Zooropa-era U2, this will be your new jam: If you […]

Transformations and light

Contrary Brin - Tue, 04/03/2018 - 17:30
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Have you missed your regular dose of ornery-brinnian contrariness? We've just returned from more than two weeks on the road… first in Finnish Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, guiding an aurora expedition. Woof. Setting up telescopes in the night-wind can be, well, ‘bracing.’ (It helped to have a comfy glass "igloo" to return to, each night, plus some excellent winter gear.) Traveling by dog sled was an experience! 

In Red SquareThen on to St. Petersburg and Moscow for the Russian national science fiction convention. We learned a lot and made new friends, though our Moscow phase was too frenzied-busy with speeches and interviews to really feel we've seen the place. We made lively and fascinating new friends... saw the trailer for a terrific new SF film based on Sergei Lukyanenko’s novel “Chernovik” … and encountered the worst traffic I've seen. Folks were forgiving of - and far too easily impressed by - my fumbling efforts at their beautifully evocative language.

More on all of that, soon.

And yes, certain topics came up in conversation, bringing to mind the book I read on the plane  -- Vladimir Sorokin's Day of the Oprichnik (2006) -- which chillingly foretold a return of fierce Czarist-Orthodox autarchy, tech-amplified to a degree only dreamed of, in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

To be clear, the Russians I met - those expressing an opinion - seem to feel a bit less constrained and micromanaged than in Soviet times, and measurably more prosperous, but still highly cautious. While the State is somewhat less overbearing than before, skyrocketing inequality and the return of inherited social class throw shadows on the future. (Shadows now girdling the globe, making Sorokin seem prophetic.) For all of its countless, brutal hypocrisies, communism was idealistic, inviting citizens to squint toward some kind of aspirational goal . We saw the best of this at Moscow's fabulous Cosmonauts' Museum and soaring Monument to the Conquerors of Space (pictured). 

Even if based on magically-unrealistic models of human nature, that era at least envisioned a lofty future for all. Even if betrayed by a hypocritical nomenklatura, at least the touted aim was to end 60 centuries of overlordship by men who whose sole justification for absolute power derived solely from being someone's son and heir. There is a way to achieve that. It's just not the path prescribed by the sci-fi writer -- Karl Marx.

Which brings us back to our recurring theme. Accountability. And why it can only happen where light flows. Only where it flows in all directions.

== Rivers of light ==

Street lamps are fast-becoming the central nervous system of either our new, smart cities or else an Orwellian nightmare.  Read about the experiment in San Diego’s East Village neighborhood, whose streetlights were looking—and listening—all around them, while also monitoring temperature, humidity, and other characteristics of the air. By sometime in May, about 3,200 of the sensing lights, will each monitor an oval area of roughly 36 by 54 meters (120 to 180 feet). They could easily be hooked into the city’s existing ShotSpotter network, which automatically locates the source of gunfire, increasing ShotSpotter coverage from just 10 square kilometers.
Along with the sensing streetlights, San Diego will be replacing an additional 14,000 of the city’s more than 40,000 streetlights with energy-efficient LED lamps that can communicate with one another and operators and allow brightness adjustments to save energy.”  And none of this should surprise anyone who read The Transparent Society … or even EARTH.
Those who fear that this could help lead to Big Brother have reason for their worries! Elites will be tempted to make all of this surveillance information go in one direction – either for nefarious reasons or else, initially, “for our own good.” Some champions of civil liberties think we can prevent harmful disparities of power by hiding from these elites. 

Alas… that… is… stupid. Because every year, the cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, better more mobile and vastly more numerous, faster than Moore’s Law. There is no scenario - of any kind - under which hiding or shadows will even conceivably help the little guy or average citizen.
The answer is for us all to share in these information tsunamis. Sousveillance. It won’t prevent being looked at. That tidal wave is coming. But looking back at power could teach us all to surf.
== Visionaries ==
Here's an extraordinary work of intellectual honesty. Astrophysicist Brian Keating explores the fascinating history and mixed effects of the Nobel Prize, especially on the field of physics. For a few years, Keating felt these effects, as people chattered about his own possible candidacy, before the chances and mischances of science changed course. That experience informs Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor. An amazing journey.  Pre-order for April publication.
Oh, I'll be interviewing Brian on stage on April 25 at UCSD's Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, where the sciences and arts come together to explore humanity's most unique gift.  (Get on the mailing list for cool events.)


Increased demand from “coin miners” (e.g. BitCoin) has ramped up the prices for Nvidia and AMD processors called GPUs. Nvidia asked retailers to try and "put gamers first when they are conducting retail GPU sales. Even worse, as reported by the BBC, radio astronomers and scientists observing our galaxy are struggling to expand their work due to a lack of these key components.
“Berkeley-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), for example, wishes to expand their research at two observatories, but without the latest GPUs to process data and support the use of software applications, the scientists' options going forward are limited. "We'd like to use the latest GPUs [...] and we can't get 'em," Dr. Dan Werthimer. (My friend & colleague.)
Huh! So-o-o-o… Bitcoin etc is an alien plot to keep us in the dark?
Peter Diamandis - who founded the XPrize Foundation and who has famously become wealthy while partnering or stimulating dozens of new businesses and projects that spread abundance to all - says: “Having the right mindset is essential in preparing yourself for these new opportunities. And something I call a “Massively Transformative Purpose,” or MTP. I’ve put together free training to teach you exactly what an MTP is, how you can discover your own, and how this knowledge affects everything else you will do for the rest of your life. Watch the video.” 

Essentially, he’s offering tips how to evade the gloom trap spread by all media and all political factions, and activate your prefrontal lobes to see opportunities. “If you can anticipate what’s coming, you have a tremendous advantage in life.”
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Consuming Fire UK Cover Reveal + Head On Gender Thoughts

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 04/02/2018 - 12:10
First, hey, look: Here’s the UK cover to The Consuming Fire! Ooooh, pretty. Bella Pagan, my Tor UK editor, writes about it here, and specifically does a shoutout to cover designer Lisa Brewster for her work. Which pleases me: Always give credit where credit is due, I say. Also today, a piece I wrote on […]

What The Hell, April Fool’s Snow Storm: A Photo Essay

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 04/02/2018 - 09:59
It’s not like we needed more snow at the moment, it being April and all, harumph, harumph, but at least it’s pretty.

Thoughts On This Year’s Hugo Finalist Ballot

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 03/31/2018 - 19:03
In no particular order: 1. First, and obviously, I’m delighted that The Collapsing Empire has been nominated. I like that book a lot, and it has some of my favorite characters ever in it, so to see it on the Hugo ballot this year is real validation for me. To be honest I had no […]
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