Monday, February 08, 2016

A perfect storm of politics

Okay, skim down for links to weightier postings by some big thinkers about U.S. politics.  But if you have the patience for some ... er... unusual insights, start here.

First -- this piece of lovely satire by Andy Borowitz about how, completely aside from any policy or cultural issue, the victory of Ted Cruz in Iowa has given heart to America's most despised minority -- Nasty Folks who are hated by their peers:  

"In the wake of the Iowa caucuses, America’s most unlikeable people were lighting up Facebook with comments in praise of Cruz, bursting with pride that one of their own - the despicably unpleasant and deservedly friendless - had a legitimate shot at the White House."  Ha.

Turning more serious, here's a political weird-thought of the week: There has been a perfect storm striking the re-ignited Confederacy -- formerly called the Republican Party.

1- The oil price plunge has hurt the secret masters of the GOP, sapping their eagerness to spend.

2- Meanwhile the PAC putsch -- attempting to buy American democracy -- has run into a wall. Vast sums did nothing to reverse the plummet of Jeb Bush, nor has cash had much visible effect on other races.  Sure, big retail states like Florida may bring money back to the fore.  Still, what's an oligarch to do? What has come of America when elections are getting harder to buy?

3- Prediction.  We will very soon discover that much of that secret-master PAC money has shifted to social media.  For example, many of the angriest-sounding, most vehemently anti-Clinton folks on the Sanders sites - especially anon or pseudonymous folks - will be found to be agents provocateurs - (look up the term) - under pay to drive wedges through the Democratic coalition. 

What? You think there’s any way on Earth that’s not true, at least in some large fraction of cases? What would you do, if you were David Koch?

It won’t work.  Sanders himself will staunch that, knowing that “it’s the Supreme Court, stupid.” He's already made clear that he and Secretary Clinton will each come down hard on any of their supporters who don't, later, converge behind the nominee.

Still, my advice to emotional Sandersites is this: Fight for Bernie! But don't be like the irrationally sanctimonious Baby Boomers. Be logical and positive, then kiss and make up, whoever wins the nom. And if your blood is still up, then turn youthful vigor to your local state assembly race, where one more volunteer could wreak a seismically important shift! And where the candidate will know you by name.

4- Okay, okay, there are some old fart boomers doing the same damn thing. Madeleine Albright made the amazing statement that "there's a special kind of hell" for women who don't support Clinton, and Gloria Steinem managed to top that, telling the press that young women supporting Sanders where "just doing it to please the boys." Argh, such arrogance. Well, well. These are fools, part of a foolishly emotional generation. But certainly not on the payroll of any Koch PAC. 

Geez get it through your heads, boomers. This is no longer about you.

5- Wild card Donald Trump has been especially hard on the republican establishment, hammering Roger Ailes's Fox News -- the Murdoch-Saudi, Confederacy-rousing, poison machine. Their formula worked for years, stirring populist fury among lower middle class whites, using immigrants, scientists, teachers and all other "smartypants elites" as objects of ire, in order to distract from growing wealth disparity.  But working class whites can only be diverted this way for so long, without one of two things happening:

 -- The first possible outcome – that we saw tragically happen in Germany, 80 years ago, will be if this fervid, right wing populism stampedes even farther into crazy land, yanking the reins out of Roger Ailes's hands, much the way Junkers lords found the horse they had spurred into a froth running away with them, toward a cliff. You reap what you sow. 

Or else --

-- or else many in the tea party activist wing might (just might) start to remember their parents in the Greatest Generation. Heroes who overcame the Depression and Hitler and Stalin and built those halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s that non-college white Americans so yearn for -- days of mighty capitalist entrepreneurship that happened under high, Rooseveltean tax rates. And those working class whites may start to wonder:

"Say… did my folks know something, about class struggle, that I don't know? Like suspicion of oligarchy? And why should I keep drinking koolaid offered by oligarchs?" 

What happens to the Murdoch-Saudi game plan when white boomers ponder that Greatest Generation, and remember that their parents' favorite living human was Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

6- Hence my final weird fantasy. Only a science fiction author would or could concoct this one.  And to be clear I do not favor this weird thing!

And yet there is a scenario for some populists out there to start pushing it. A nascent, super-populist movement for TRUMP-SANDERS... or else SANDERS-TRUMP.  

Sound insane?  Of course it is! But Robert Heinlein predicted America would pass through "The Crazy Years."  Anyway, the more you ponder the wild idea, the more likely it seems that someone – somewhere on our populist-frothing internet - will raise a banner.

== Are there "cycles" to politics? ==

Jonathan Rauch notes the rule of 14 -- "No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency" -- may be coming to an end. Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate 16 years ago. Jeb Bush to his governorship18 years ago. 

On the other hand, many of this year's leading candidates have little or no political or military experience. A reflection of an underlying public preference for presidents who are battle-tested but not battle-weary, experienced enough to know their way around but fresh enough to bring new energy to the job. 

See a chart from The Atlantic that shows the experience level of presidential winners and losers from 1960 to 2012. Starting in 1996, the candidate with more experience begins consistently losing. Moreover, as the trend lines show, the inexperience premium has increased over time.   

Two generations ago, James Q. Wilson wrote in The Amateur Democrat that political amateurs who were unyielding in their righteousness had begun supplanting political professionals who were willing to make deals and compromise. The ascendency of amateurism, he predicted, would cause social friction and governmental gridlock: 'Political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party's ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.'

Time to shrug off the boomers’ self-indulgent trips and snap out of this.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Big questions for the future

The Big Questions Contests aim to expand Quora’s already marvelous system for posing quandaries and getting fascinating answers.  

For example “How can we prevent runaway AI (Artificial Intelligence) from becoming a dystopian threat to humanity?”  Interesting discussions!  My own suggestion – unlike any other – was re-published on Forbes, in an article titled: The one thing we need to stop robots from achieving world domination.

I believe the nearest and most blatantly obvious, transformational shift will come from the micro-biome. Within two to five years there will be an end to voodoo-guesswork-yoghurt-based "probiotics." They will be replaced by far more specific and well-understood implantations we can add to our digestive tracts (from both directions), as well as skin and other crevices, with major effects on individual and mass health.

Why so quickly? Because although there is a dizzying array of these firmicutes and other bacterial genuses in our guts and skin etc... the variety is actually fairly limited and very, very linear. Various versions of Moore's Law (in computation, sensing, genetic analysis) will cross the microbiome's complexity in very rapid order. Big studies - some already underway - will nail down how these bug-zoos correlate with your genes, body type, heredity, diet......and truly useful prescriptions and lifestyle and diet recommendations will issue forth quite rapidly, enabling us to both add beneficial microbiota and target species that currently wreak harm. For example by forcing upon us low-level, erosive inflammations.

There are many other biomedical miracles on the horizon, of course. But most of those -- in the genome, proteome, regulatome, connectome and so on -- get exponentially more complex as we dive in. Hence, our tools must improve at an ever-increasing rate, just to keep stepping forward. The same appears not to be true of the microbiome, whose linearity and limited needed dataset make me certain it will se amazing developments in just 3-5 years.

== More opportunities on the tech horizon ==

Where should we look for the next Silicon Valley? What industries will survive -- and which are likely to perish in the near future? In his new book, Industries of the Future, Alex Ross peers ahead to the next decade to identify major global trends and technological forces driving innovation and pervasive social change. Openness and transparency will be critical requirements for success in both business and government. Ross notes, "the 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak," for the next stage for innovation is more likely to arise in "50 different versions of Silicon Valley, all unique from each other and all focusing on different domains."

How soon will we see workable brain - computer interfaces?  The first dry-electrode, portable and commercially off the shelf 64-channel wearable brain-computer interface (BCI) has been developed by bioengineers and cognitive scientists associated with UCSD Jacobs School. Obama's Brain Mapping Project seeks to better understand and map the neural activity of the brain. Meanwhile, Harvard is trying to build an AI as fast as the human brain.

Is evolution in the natural world at all “tendentious” (directional)… or even propulsive… in directions that might be called “intelligent?  A computer scientist and a biologist propose to unify the theory of evolution with learning theories to explain the “amazing, apparently intelligent designs that evolution produces.” 

Meanwhile, human design work looks more like nature. Drone evolution moves quickly, with now an ecological niche for predatory “falcons” -- a drone catcher that can pursue and capture rogue drones that might threaten military installations, air traffic, sporting events, and even the White House.  Wow, watch it spit a net over the intruder and draw it in.  I want one!

How do parts of the brain communicate? With around 200 billion neurons in a single human brain, and the possibility of hundreds of thousands of synapse connections from a single neuron, the brain can process a vast amount of information. Yet, a hundred trillion active synapses aren’t all there is.  We now know that there is chemical information exchange between neurons and neighboring glial or astrocyte cells.  Also there is increasing evidence suggesting that intracellular computing may take place, perhaps as many as a hundred thousand transactions per synapse flash.  Is that plenty?  Well, now research suggests that we may use electrical fields to communicate information across different sections of the brain.  Well, well, some of us expected this.  Take the “standing wave” of consciousness that I speculate about, in both EARTH and KILN PEOPLE.

== And more science still! ==

How has quantum mechanics expanded our understanding of time and the cosmos? My friend and colleague John Cramer’s new book on the translational interpretation of quantum mechanics, entitled The Quantum Handshake- Entanglement, Nonlocality and Transactions has just been published by Springer (ISBN: 978-3-319-24640-6). It is available at the Springer website or on Amazon.

Researchers have developed a remarkable new injectable bone foam that not only repairs bone damage but also allows bone formation.  

Kyocera's fourth floating solar power plant in Japan will suspend modules on the surface of a reservoir. It’s the latest in a series of innovative solar plants, such as India's solar powered airport and ambitious plan to cover canals with sun-harvesting panels

Prehistoric massacres... Wow, archaeological proof of how far back go our ways of war. Of 12 relatively complete skeletons recently unearthed at the shores of Lake Turkana, in Kenya, 10 showed unmistakable signs of violent death, the scientists said. Partial remains of at least 15 other persons were found at the site and are thought to have died in the same attack.

Woven nano-materials may have a wide variety of uses that require exceptional resiliency, strength and flexibility. 

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has awarded a $1 million grant to UCSD to develop new skin-wearable systems that can rapidly and efficiently detect chemical and biological agents.  The proposed wearable epidermal sensors will also be equipped with therapeutic agents that are released upon detection of the chemical and biological threats.

See the extent of warming of the oceans. The actual, non-fox’d science. 

But of course the real alarm bell is ocean acidification.  It is utterly demonstrable, clearly happening and no one has even proposed a reason, other than human generated CO2.  Denialist cultists hurry to change the subject, whenever the words “ocean acidification” come up. Try it and watch what happens! Sane people need to start using those words more often! 

Heck it’s getting so blatant that even Forbes is allowing articles like this one, showing that science and denialism are opposites, at least when it comes to the oceans.  When this happens on Forbes, you know that some folks in the oligarchy have started realizing, they need the planet, too. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Iowa, Inanity, SOTU and political games

In the wake of those frenzied and overblown Iowa Caucuses, a number of interesting thoughts:

1) That Donald Trump should have done a little traditional Expectations Dampening - you know, like politicians do. But that is not in his nature.  Anyone could tell you (as I did) that Iowan conservatives are very religious and that faction turns out - hence Cruz was always the leader there, whatever the polls say. (Weirdly, Iowa democrats turn out to be way more leftist than liberals nationwide.  What a state.) In any event: "The bad news for Ted Cruz: His Iowa win looks very similar to Mike Huckabee’s and Rick Santorum’s."

Only I still maintain Cruz has a cunning plan.

2) The near tie between Clinton and Sanders is actually great news for democrats. Both candidates will benefit from lively and invigorating tension. But this assumes Bernie is able to keep perspective and not get so caught up that he forgets -- you are vying, vigorously, for captaincy of a team you both know must win. Bruise each other... a little... but not too much for genuine hugs and kisses, later.

Oh and Hill? No thumbs on the scale. A cute trick would be to offer Bernie at-minimum the right to pick your Inspector General and your SEC head. No quid pro quo.  Just offer it.

3) NYT Nobelist economist Paul Krugman highlights ‘uplift’ in his analysis of the Iowa returns. 

Yes, he chose that word. His point being that we should choose to be more ambitious -- the one core thought that Bernie Sanders has contributed. Can we ‘uplift’ our society, our civilization? 

Right now, the American public mood is addicted to downer memes, despite almost every statistical metric having improved. While science fiction is filled with many negative stories, often unecessarily so, it remains the one medium where perhaps 10% of the time, we see real optimism and hope. Prof. Krugman knows this, else why would he feature a Michael Whelan sci fi cover to illustrate his essay?

4) Did I mention demmie 'hugs?' Among many young Sanders supporters I have been noting a bit of a shrill tone, even hatred for the Clintonite Democratic 'establishment.' And sure, some degree of complaint about that is valid. And yet, I am from the 1960s, and you kids are pure amateurs at indignation. Seriously? Some persepective is called-for. Especially when some bright-bozos have been proclaiming that "radicalism" is preferable to "well-meaning but too-moderate incrementalism."

The implication is that pragmatic moderate are tepid in desiring reform. But indeed, I warned about the threat of a secret world oligarchy in my novel Earth way back in 1989 -- see my portrayal of the "Helvetian war" -- and no one dissects that trend more often or deeply than I do. Also, that novel was early re Climate Change warnings.

Do I agree with much that Sanders says? Sure. I am glad of some of the radical enthusiasm he's fired up. And note that PAC money is playing a much smaller role in this election. Cool.

Still, the world is ultimately made by pragmatists and incrementalists. Franklin Roosevelt reset capitalism and gave the workers such a big stake that it created the fantastic American middle class. Which oligarchs are busy undermining, sure. So? All that means is another Rooseveltean reset is needed.  Hey, if our parents in the Greatest Generation could achieve that miracle, without diluting the best aspects of creative-competitive capitalism at all -- then we should be able to, as well.

Only dig this well, The New Deal had some radical aspects! But deep down, anyone who knew Franklin Roosevelt also knew that he was above all a politician, a pragmatist, an arm twister, and a moderate. A negotiator! The only way you can reconcile those two facts is by recognizing this: radicals will not accomplish as much in the American context as fierce pragmatists will. 

And we must do our part. Obama or Clinton needed us to give them a Congress. Any failure of their incrementalism was our fault. And "radicals" without a Congress will be even more pathetically ineffective.

== Congress listens -- in sullen crankiness ==

President Obama’s State of the Union address (SOTU) got a lot of attention, including nervy Paul Ryan, who either smirked "knowingly" or else scowled, theatrically-disrespectful through the entire address, then accused Obama of “degrading” the office of president… this from the party that gave us Richard Nixon and both Saudi-Bushes. 

Obama’s content – appealing for a return to the politics of actual-negotiation – was in fact filled with things to which we might all reasonably agree.  But one topic I have long inveighed against… electoral cheating. Especially gerrymandering  --  "the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around."

This article appraises how easy it would be to create fair electoral maps based upon “compactness of districts". In fact though, I do not agree with this solution – though it would be a vast improvement.  Elsewhere I offer a ‘minimum overlap” proposal that would require just three sentences and end the problem in a shot.  

Only here I want to comment less on President Obama’s SOTU address than on South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's official GOP response. The sub-text implications are quite interesting. Haley admitted in an interview on CNN that her speech partly targeted Trump & Cruz and that party leaders reviewed her speech before she delivered it Tuesday.

Choosing her as SOTU responder was one of the few actions that the Republican establishment could take, having completely lost control over the wild presidential nomination race. Earlier, I suggested 1:3 odds that they are setting up Paul Ryan to step in, should the convention be deadlocked after a first or second ballot (see below). (Ryan's scowl, all through the SOTU? A hour of silent-and-free publicity.) But back to Haley...

The GOP establishment knows that Jeb is toast and Rubio - their new boy - is unlikely.  The Ryan Gambit is plausible, but their backup plan...?  

Set up their choice to be the VP running mate.

Let's back up a bit. I believe Ted Cruz never intended to win the GOP presidential nod.  He knows how hated he is, by the GOP lords.  (In fact by almost anyone with normal intelligence.) His role model has to be Richard Nixon in 1952. And sure, if Jeb or Rubio or Ryan get the nom, then Cruz would be their shoe-in VP pick -- their envoy to the fundies and tea partiers, to keep them in line.  

What's Cruz's payoff?  Either 4 or 8 years as VP, pulling in IOUs... or else, if the GOP ticket loses this year, becoming the heir apparent to oppose the sitting dem's re-election in 2020.

Only now that plan is dashed!  The rebels - Trump and Cruz - have been too successful! If Trump wins the nomination, he simply can't choose Cruz as his running mate. They'd torch the whole party. Donald would have to find a "moderate" to mollify the Lords and to soothe offended folks in Trump's wild wake. (Unless Trump then intends to dash-for-the-center! In which case Cruz might make sense as veep, after all.)

Moreover, Ted Cruz - if by some chance he wins the main nom - would have to do the same.

And so we arrive in South Carolina, where the most important Republican primary will be held. Nikki Haley will be potent there. Moreover, she is a solid VP choice for many reasons.  A woman and a soother... and somewhat of an ethnic minority... though not Hispanic and not from a state the GOP needs. No matter! How better to reach out to GOP grownups and urge them to stay loyal, while either Cruz or Trump rampage about?

Haley: “It takes everyone to get their egos out of the room and really sit down and say, ‘OK, how are we going to get to a solution? That’s not something we’re seeing in D.C. right now.”  

Further: Haley said that Republicans share the blame with Democrats for the nation’s distrust of Washington and need to “recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership.”

Look, it's possible she's even sincere about wanting to forge a path for American conservatism out of the hellish pit Roger Ailes led them. If so, then her getting a VP stint on a losing zombie-festival could be good news for us all, putting her in position to bring back some version of the party of Eisenhower, in 2020.  It's a scenario.

I'll put no money on it though.  I do know this... actually winning the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 2016 was not Ted Cruz's plan. As in The Manchurian Candidate, his scheme was a patient one, and now his prize, the VP slot, is slipping away from his hands, because he's been too successful.  And I can just imagine him murmuring "Oh crap, now what!"

Summary: If Trump or Cruz win the nom - VP goes to Haley or some hispanic GOP pol.
If it's anyone other than those two, then Cruz gets what he really wanted - (though perhaps sugar plum fairies are now dancing in his head) - the VP slot.

== Has Trumpism run its course? ==

Donal's lack of savvy expectations limiting before Iowa means his aura has taken a hit. So, is it over? Of course not.  Still...

The Eight Causes of Trumpism: This stunningly cogent article from The Atlantic fills in the historical trends that - since 1990 - have contributed to turning American politics from being about policy argument and negotiation, to an utterly polarized hate-fest. "The 8 causes of Trumpism" is actually not about Donald Trump, at all, but the forces that made 1/3 of Americans so volcanically (and illogically) furious that only a manipulative outsider-savanarola like Trump or Cruz can be viewed as appealing.

There are factors that Mr. Ornstein leaves out.  Like the role that Saudi investment played in building Fox News into the incendiary fuel behind a New Confederacy.  Or how  those petro-sheiks and our own coal barons created a populist frenzy that (to their chagrin) is now slipping out of their control, much the way Junker-class lords in 1920s Germany thought they could foster another right-wing populism, then lived to regret it. 

Still, Ornstein does feature a crucial moment -- the treasonous know-nothing act when Newt Gingrich's House GOP dissolved its own Office of Technology Assessment, and sent all the techies and boffins and nerds packing, openly declaring that science and facts that conflict with dogma have no place within the Capitol walls..

Now that phase 8 of the American civil war is thoroughly blatant, is it time, at last, to call it what it is? (Start ordering your blue-kepi 1865 caps now, for next Halloween!) Only then might the Blue Union do what it was forced to do, during other phases of this recurring, national fever.  Win.  Overwhelmingly.  Then, "with charity for all," resuming our ambitious role in remaking a better world.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Insistence of Vision and other forward-looking tales

Fantastic news for those of you out there who love the genre-of-an-active-mind. 

First, my long anticipated and long-delayed third short story collection is now available for pre-order.  (Discounts only for pre-orders.)

To be released in March, Insistence of Vision will open doorways into possible (and mind-blowing) tomorrows and alternate realities. Through tales like “Chrysalis” and “Transition Generation” and “Stones of Significance” you’ll explore the consequences, if we get want we ask for.  You’ll meet alien invaders unlike any other, in “Mars Opposition” and in “The Logs.”  There is also a novella offering new drama from the Uplift Universe! 

The most recent tale in this volume -- "Tumbledowns of Cleapatra Abyss" -- is included in four best-of volumes from 2015, so far, and it's only January. 

Surprises and ironies abound in Insistence of Vision… as they will in the territory ahead.* Our future.

More good news? Download your free e-version of  Future Visions: Microsoft has published an anthology of original Science Fiction short stories reflecting its research projects, with entries by Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Robert Sawyer, Seanan McGuire, and Jack McDevitt. My story in Future Visions is the only recent tale of mine that's not included in Insistence of Vision.

== Star Wars on Trial: the force awakens ==

The new edition of Star Wars on Trial! The new “Force Awakens” edition of Star Wars on Trial has been released, just in time to tie in with the Force Awakens movie (Episode -what-is-it-seven?) No, the editions aren't that different.  Mostly my new introduction... and a cool modification to the already hilariously apropos cover.  You still get terrific, incisive, often-sarcastic but also on-target skewerings… and defenses… of this incredibly popular pop-culture phenomenon. 

And yes... I finally did take the family to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. See my comments on this phenomenon.

Meanwhile, another author appraises why the Jedi themselves undermined the Old Republic. Others are decrypting secrets of Star Wars… as in this hilarious... and rather convincing explanation of how the seemingly insipid and foolish Jar-Jar Binks is almost certainly a Sith master.  You will chuckle, growl, and finally admit it must be true!

== Brief looks at recent Sci Fi ==

What alien life might we find under the vast ice shelves of moons such as Jupiter's Europa? A Darkling Sea, by James Cambias, explores a First Contact scenario under the kilometer-thick ice sheet of the moon Ilmatar, which circles a distant gas giant. Humans have established a deep sea research station, with a strict promise of non-interference with the blind, but intelligent creatures that have evolved in the dark ocean depths. Tensions rapidly rise when the Terran crew is discovered, setting the scene for a solid adventure story and complex inter-speces political negotiations... as two vastly different cultures seek to communicate and possibly, reconcile. With intricate world-building and vividly detailed aliens.

For a fast-paced science fiction mystery-thriller, try The Fold, by Peter Clines. The hero, a high school teacher with a perfect eidetic memory and the ability to make tremendous deductive leaps, is called upon to evaluate a super-secret DARPA project -- a team of scientists have developed The Albuquerque Door, a bridge through a fold in space-time. The reclusive researchers claim it works perfectly and will soon be safe for teleporting humans, until things go horrifyingly wrong… with implications that may threaten all of humanity. 

Scheduled for release in January: All the Birds in the Sky, a debut novel from the talented Charlie Jane Anders, editor of io9, which SF Signal calls, "a stunning novel about the end of the world - and the beginning of our future. 

It’s their planet now! A riveting post-apocalyptic tale that taps into your darkest nightmares: Slavemakers, by Joseph Wallace, is a sequel to his earlier novel, Invasive Species, where deadly parasitic wasps (known as thieves) nearly wipe out humanity. In Slavemakers, set twenty years later, most remaining humans have been enslaved, under the mind-control of the venomous wasps;  isolated pockets of refugees eke out an existence, protected by a vaccine created from a rare cultivated plant. And a few uniquely powerful individuals are able to tap into the linked hive mind of the wasps in order to alter the fate of the planet...

What if your tablet didn't just provide you with information, but anticipate your needs, providing prompts... as you find it harder and harder to recall even ordinary words? The Word Exchange, a debut novel by Alena Graedon, envisions a near-future where the written word is nearly extinct; people are dependent upon their handheld Memes to the extent of buying words they can't remember. Our protagonist, Anana Johnson, is assisting her father in producing the final print edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, when he mysteriously disappears. She desperately seeks clues, even while communication becomes increasingly challenging as a word flu pandemic sets in, causing many to lose the basic ability to speak. Interesting, but the random word substitutions in the text do slow the flow of the novel.

Octavia Butler did a charming short story - Speech Sounds - along similar lines.

What lies are told to keep society functioning? In Emma Newman’s recent novel, Planetfall, one individual is ‘called’ to an alien planet by a vision. The story takes place twenty-two years after colonists established an outpost at the base of an immense alien artifact -- God’s City. When a mysterious stranger shows up, it opens up long-hidden secrets from the founding of the colony. The story centers around Ren, a talented 3D printing engineer, her social isolation, anxiety, her eventual mental unraveling… and perhaps transcendence.

Keep your eye open, soon, for Avengers of the Moon, a rollicking space opera in the Doc Smith tradition, by Allen Steele, and Charles Stross's new paratime series opener Dark State.

*Which prompts a smile-worthy thought. Our daughter, Ari, observed that “ironman” actually translates as FeMale! A spooky/fey observation and an ironic one… till my wife pointed out that “Fey” and “Irony” are the very same thing.  Oog. Never mind that.  Pre-order Insistence of Vision! 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Is cheap oil a bad thing? And more science.

I cannot understand the markets’ panic over lower oil prices.  Sure, it hurts if you own Exxon or drilling-fracking services companies, or work for one, or if you are Saudia or Venezuela or Russia or Iran.  But for most of the world, it amounts to a spectacular tax cut and cost discount for all manufacturers, transportation and consumers of almost anything. See this article on much cheaper airline deals.

 Is this flood of spendable cash supposed to somehow… hurt us? For 50 years, steep rises in oil price sent us tumbling into recession and drops helped get us out.  What's different this time?  Pundits claim that it is because a larger fraction of the oiul we use is produced domestically, now.  But (a) that was true in the 1970s too, and the oil shock killed Jimmy Carter.  And (b) increased energy independence from foreign sources is... er,... bad news?

The plummet in stocks smells funny to me. I'd look closely at some of those petro state sovereign wealth funds.  Just sayin'.

Only now, a truly salient fact that will weave together with the others. 

== Does denial have any limits? ==

Two U.S. government science agencies announced that 2014, which had smashed the 1998 record as hottest year in human history, did not hold the top title for very long. It’s official, 2015 has topped even 2014’s torrid temperatures.  And the forecast is for 2016 to be hotter still.

But hey, let’s suppose 2016 dips slightly, as would be natural, as each year oscillates around a slope that has arced steadily higher for 50 years. What then? Expect to see Ted Cruz and other murdochians leaping to announce: “See? It’s going DOWN!”  

(They can no longer use their former lie-trick, pegging the El Nino year 1998 as their “before” comparison. That year, which shattered records across all of recorded human history, was left in the dust by hot 2014 and hotter 2015.)

There is only one response… to those of you out there who have bought into the Murdoch-Saudi-Koch-Fox propaganda and War on Science.  And I will append that message below. 

== Too late to stop sustainables ==

Well, the petro-price plummet might have really hurt us all, if it happened a few years ago, by choking solar and wind companies to death with floods of cheap oil. But it’s too late for that, now. 

Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds that 2015 was a record year for global investment in the clean energy space, with $329 billion invested in wind, solar panels, biomass plants and more around the world. (The number does not include investments in large hydroelectric facilities).

That’s 3 percent higher than the prior 2011 global investment record of $318 billion — and most striking is that it happened in a year in which key fossil fuels — oil, coal and natural gas — were quite cheap.  “Measured in terms of electricity generating capacity, the world saw an additional 64 gigawatts of wind capacity added and 57 gigawatts of solar capacity, BNEF estimates. The most striking figure here is that while 2015 only saw about 4 percent more clean energy investment than 2014 (when $316 billion was invested), the growth in renewable energy generating capacity was much higher at 30 percent. This, again, signals declining cost.”

Sure, if oil had dropped five years ago, it would have been a disaster for the Earth by undermining and possibly destroying solar and wind etc. Now? They have huge momentum, are competitive even with cheap oil -- something denialist then claimed to be impossible -- and new techs are looming that will make the transformation epic.

At this point, cheap oil is only good news. It frees western nations from fretting to please petro princes, it boosts every industry except corrupt resource extraction, giving both producers and consumers in-effect a huge tax cut (a "tax" that had been going to Saudi Arabia). And it lets us cap the bitumen wells, the tar sand pits and other dirtier sources, reducing fracking, keeping those wells ready in case we need them in-future, a reserve-surge capacity that should keep prices down.  Which is exactly the right approach.

We lucked out. The princes kept oil high during the span when sustainables were being born. Now the infant is walking and starting to run. And the Carbon Age will taper off, perhaps even in the nick of time. Maybe.

Oh but timing is everything? Take this headline: Scientists say global warming has canceled the next ice age

Okay okay. I can just imagine the next denialist chant, after they are forced to move the goal posts yet again. Having to admit that science shows huge global warming due to human-generated CO2? The next riff will be:

 "Yay!  We polluters prevented an inevitable ice age!"  

That's one interpretation - (a moronic one) - of this scientific study that suggests - indeed - human activity 5000 years ago might have tipped the balance and prevented another glaciation.

In which case yay ancestors. Now let's be scientific and responsible and not wreck the place.

== Miscellaneous News Items ==

Robert Waldinger heads the 75 year continuous Harvard study of four score men and their families and what traits correlate with long or healthy or happy lives, in this fascinating TEDx talk. 

The Fixion? If they ever find a particle like this one, will they give a Nobel to the XKCD guy, despite his being a cartoonist?  

Stunning video closeups of a real-live giant squid near Tokyo. So cool.  

Researchers believe that we could manipulate genetic human intelligence and give human cognitive capabilities a boost, using a newly discovered network of genes directly associated with neuron and brain activity.

Crash Course is a YouTube Channel that adds to the list of cool sites that explain things clearly and well.           

Here’s an interesting site. “How We Do It” by Robert Martin, MD covers a wide of fascinating topics having to do with human reproduction, including of course sex. For example most mammal females have two womb chambers and so do a few, rare women. Why do human males have no penis bone?  Why do testicles have to “chill”?  And can warming them serve as a male contraceptive? Why must childbirth be so challenging?  Marin also has a book, How We Do It: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction.  

And finally... The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, a worm species 1 millimeter long with a nervous system containing just 302 neurons, is the perfect organism to model, on our path to understanding how neuron based nervous systems function. So far, these models have (for example) successfully run a LEGO mindstorms robot.  Now scientists have observed record the activity of 77 neurons from the animal’s nervous system in action, flashing in real time as the worm moves about. 

And if you don't yet think we live in cool times... well we do.

========= Addendum for you denialists =========

*You… are… science-hating morons.  Worse, you are fanatics who threaten the lives of our children. All children.  And when climate refugees flood the planet, they will be given your homes.  Hey... just... sayin'.