Saturday, October 31, 2015

Have U.S. R & D expenditures declined?

My just-finished, month-long marathon speaking tour -- talking to many groups and audiences about creative problem solving -- ended with NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts Symposium in Seattle. (More on the trip, including my skype encounter with Edward Snowden, soon.)  But my number one takeaway is how eager so many folks are, in our civilization, to enhance our greatest advantage -- the trait of openness and exploration of new ideas, new solutions, new ways of getting things done. You see this, for example, in the runaway popularity of the hit film The Martian, and its central theme of innovative competence.

Very few issues are more reflective of attitudes toward the future than where politicians and pundits  and ordinary people come down toward Research and Development, or R&D.  

According to sage estimates, we owe half of the value of our economy... plus most of our increased health and lifespan... to technological advancements wrought by past investment.  And very likely the liberty to enjoy them and to argue freely across miracles like the one you are staring at, right now. 

Has our rate of R&D declined?  Certainly climate-related research has been axed, every time the GOP gets a chance... though it has grown increasingly clear that the hostility is aimed at science, in general. 

Some claim that declines in federally-funded pure research are made up for by increases in pragmatic, short-term, product-oriented development in many industries.  Let's dive into that for a few, nerdy paragraphs:

"Economists often use the ratio of Research and Development expenditures to GDP to examine R&D in the context of a nation's overall economy. This ratio reflects the intensity of R&D activity in relation to other economic activity and is often interpreted as a relative measure of a nation's commitment to R&D.

 Since 1953, the first year for which national R&D data are available, U.S. R&D expenditures as a percentage of GDP have ranged from a minimum of 1.36 percent (in 1953) to a maximum of 2.87 percent (in 1964).

"From 1994 to 2001, R&D outpaced growth of the general economy and the R&D/GDP ratio rose close to its historic high. It is estimated that the amount of R&D performed in the United States equaled 2.71 percent of the United States GDP in 2001 and 2.64 percent in 2002.[8]

Most of the growth over time in the R&D/GDP ratio can be attributed to steady increases in non-Federal R&D spending.

"Non-federally financed R&D, the majority of which is company financed, increased from 0.63 percent of GDP in 1953 to an estimated 1.90 percent of GDP in 2002 (down from a high of 2.02 percent of GDP in 2000). The increase in nonfederally financed R&D as a percentage of GDP illustrated in figure 4-5 figure corresponds to an upward trend in R&D and technology intensive activities in the U.S. economy.

Historically, most of the peaks and valleys in the R&D/GDP ratio can be attributed to changing priorities in Federal R&D spending. The initial drop in the R&D/GDP ratio from its peak in 1964 largely reflects Federal cutbacks in defense and space R&D programs. Gains in energy R&D activities between 1975 and 1979 resulted in a relative stabilization of the ratio. Beginning in the late 1980s, cuts in defense-related R&D kept Federal R&D spending from keeping pace with GDP growth, whereas growth in non-Federal sources of R&D spending generally kept pace with or exceeded GDP growth."

== Okay, that's one perspective. ==

 But the rise of corporate R&D -- 

(1) is very near-term and product focused. It does not create seed corn, as farther-horizon federally funded research does, and…

…(2) Rising corporate R and D masks a deeper problem that we'll get to, in a future posting -- that this corporate research funding is not being matched by equivalent investment in actual productive capacity aimed at longer range returns.  Instead, the "financialization of capitalism" has lead to companies selling off not fat, but muscle, bone, sinew and brains, all in order for CEOs to meet quarterly dividend and stock price targets.

... (3) Ironically, this proves that Karl Marx, while a bright observer, was also really dumb at times.  His entire scenario of eventually being able to do without the services of bourgeois capitalists depends upon the assumption that society must build a certain level of capital stock, infrastructure, factories by capitalists stealing and investing labor value from workers.  Once they have “completed capital formation,” there’s no further need for capitalists.  The Prols take over and no one’s labor value gets stolen any more to invest in factories and such.

We now know this to be insane.  In a modern society, productive capital must be retooled at an ever-faster pace!  Hence, there is no end to the need for an entrepreneurial caste… though it can be tamed, kept honest and regulated for fairness to workers and the environment and to keep market competition flat-open-fair. 

In fact, the current Chinese “communist” party openly admits that Lenin’s Great Error was not keeping to his original plan of allowing Russian capitalists a role in the early Soviet economy, according to Marxist theory, but instead deciding to kill them all, hoping capital formation could be done by State Committee.  That proved disastrous and the Chinese now rationalize that they are bypassing that mistake! By fully unleashing their capitalists to perform their historical-economic role.  Indeed, they factor in the need for rapid re-tooling and allowing capitalists to be incentivized by wealth.

Alas, this rationalization fails on many levels.  First, most of the “privately owned” Chinese companies are in fact state enterprises which are subsidized and never have to earn a profit.  Second, so much of it is based upon predatory theft of IP from Inventing Nations. Some of this is to be expected — America was a major IP thief in the 19th century!  

But the rapaciously insatiable approach that is now the entire basis of their inflated system risks -

 (a) killing the goose that lays golden eggs, 

 (b) eats away at your moral underpinnings, and

 (c) devastates any chance of creating an autonomously fecund local inventing caste.

In other words, bypassing Lenin's Great Mistake does not protect you from making the next one... the assumption that you can maintain a repressive society that quashes individual creativity, by stealing creative elements forever from nations who you deem to be "cattle."

The presumption does not work.  It cannot. There are other, braver approaches, with better prospects.

== The crux? You're all nuts! ==

Seriously.  Every dichotomy that's zero-sum should be treated with suspicion.  Those screaming at sinful-greedy "capitalism" are actually denouncing what Adam Smith called the number one enemy of truly functional, flat-open-fair-creative enterprise -- the rent-seeking and parasitical conniving of oligarchs.  The devastating form of cheating that manifested in 99% of societies that ever had agriculture, across 6000 years.

It was the underlying reason for our revolution and new enlightenment.  Lest we forget.  And neither today's insipid, ill-educated right, nor the reflexive and passionately simple-minded left have even a clue.

Moving forward is going to take a wide stance, utilizing (though never trusting) government for what it does well... and breaking up undue concentrations of cheating power in the world of commerce, so that it will function as well. 

 Above all, we must want to solve problems.  That means investing in tomorrow.  It truly is that simple.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Science Fiction vs Reality

Science Fiction fans: Site selection for the World Science Fiction convention has chosen Helsinki, Finland for Worldcon 75, to be held in August of 2017. Next up is MidAmerica Con II, the 74th Worldcon which will be in Kansas City in August, 2016. Mark your calendars!

== Science Fiction vs the real world ==

Alien megastructures? NASA's Kepler space telescope observed dramatic and irregular dimming of the lightcurve for star KIC 8462852 -- larger than expected for a transiting planet (with data analysis aided by citizen scientists of the Planet Hunters). While radio astronomers are listening for signals from the Allen Telescope Array, media latched onto suggestions that an alien-built mega engineering structure, such as a Dyson Sphere, could be responsible. On, several Sci-Fi authors weigh in with appropriate skepticism. More likely causes may be debris from a wide-scale planetary collision or a massive comet cloud -- or we may be seeing an irregularly shaped and rapidly spinning star, explained in this article about "gravity darkening." 

When Robots Colonize the Cosmos, Will They Be Conscious? This article on by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host of the public television show, Closer to Truth, takes a deep look at the nature of consciousness. Kuhn envisions a universe colonized by robots, and suggests that "if robots can never be conscious, then we humans might have some kind of moral imperative to venture forth" ...for the greater good. As I discuss in my Smithsonian talk: Will we meet beings with minds different than ours? Or will we make them?

A terrific interview with my revered peers Nancy Kress, Ramez Naam, Frank Catalano and former astronaut and asteroid pioneer Ed Lu, about: "Why this futurist, sci-fi writer, and former astronaut are optimistic about the future."   

Sci Fi or real life? Six science fictional ideas that are happening now... takes a look at innovations in hoverboards, under-the-skin GPS tracking and body scanners. 

See ten technologies that are precursors to the realization of true AI, including Stephen Wolfram's Mathematica, IBM's Watson and Amazon Machine Learning. Indeed, Artificial Intelligence is increasingly transforming the financial industry, especially stock trading. Here's an interesting look at portrayals of Artificial Intelligence in 25 Science Fiction novels, from Daemon to Excession and Hyperion to The Diamond Age

See also this summary of AI in film, from Wall-E  to Her, Tron to The Machine, The Matrix to A Space Odyssey.

The reason for so many dire visions... Rather than predicting the future, the greatest aim of Science Fiction is the self-defeating prophecy.

While nanotechnology in movies is usually used for evil purposes, researchers are developing drug-carrying nanoparticles disguised as blood cells which can slip past the immune system to deliver drugs to targeted parts of the body. 

Johnny Mnemonic? People are getting brain implants to boost their memory -- apparently just a few zaps to stimulate the brain!

See how real-world rockets compare to their Sci Fi counterparts in this chart of top space travel speeds. Sci Fi clearly wins...

What the economies of Star Trek can teach us about the real world: A fun discussion of the economics of the post-scarcity world of Star Trek --- a topic explored in more depth in the upcoming book, Trekonomics by Manu Saadia, to be released in 2016.

Eternal life online? The Old Max Headroom TV show did this, back in the 1980s. Now Eter9 promises digital immortality using a kind of artificial intelligence to scan your online posts. After death, it will continue posting for you... so you can live forever on Facebook.

Self-driving cars are nearly here. Meanwhile, New York is already getting wired with traffic signals and signs that can talk directly to cars.

Terminator star and former California Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says that climate change is NOT science fiction.

== Sci Fi Shorts and movies ==

I like this decryption of The Matrix, proving that Neo was never "The One," after all (even if his name is an anagram for One). This is my kinda meme meddler! 

Under development at Amazon ... Galaxy Quest, the TV series. Did anyone ever tell them that comedy is hard?

What if you could manipulate reality? Take a look at this lovely, hyper-inexpensive sci fi short.  The One-Minute Time Machine.

An amazingly cogent, entertaining and totally on-target dissection of one of the greatest motion pictures of all time – GHOSTBUSTERS – by Moviebob (Bob Chipman).  I only rarely see a critic cover every single point that I would have made about a work of art. But Moviebob gets down to it, completely nailing why this is one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cinema, and Ghostbusters is more pertinent than ever to our times.

Speaking of which, the cool indie Trek film "Axanar" tells the story of Captain Garth and his crew during the Four Years War, the war with the Klingon Empire that almost tore the Federation apart.  Garth's victory at Axanar solidified the Federation and allowed it to become the entity we know in Kirk's time. It is the year 2245... and the war with the Klingons ends here. 

Star Trek is the one major-media sci fi mythic system that builds our confidence in the future... rather than tearing it down. Think about that and give your support. (Though as I've said repeatedly, the one glaring Trek omission is any mention (except in one episode of ST: The Original Series) of the conquered planets and races, inside Klingon territory.)

A fun trailer for a film about… well… uplifted dogs getting organized?  Worth a watch in its own right. White God, a Hungarian movie, was released in 2014.

True Confessions time?  The movie Battleship should've been fun.... but it was utter nonsense with dismal dialogue and story qualities.  But dang if it wasn’t a hoot in its battle-visuals.  And the whirling flywheel weapon was the coolest innovation in what-if war machinery I’ve seen in a long time.  You should be able to slum occasionally, and enjoy a work for its positive qualities.  Or am I just rationalizing?

Coming in December… SyFy’s adaptation of “Childhood’s End," -- Arthur C. Clarke's classic novel. If it's been a while, give the book a second read before the series!

The movie, 2001, A Space Odyssey provided a compelling vision of the future. Now, a beautiful new book: The Making of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has just been released -- a lavish portfolio-style hardcover with behind-the-scenes photographs and detailed descriptions of the filming of Arthur Clarke's masterpiece. See it reviewed on Slate.

== SF Miscellanea ==

Which was the worlds first science fiction convention? There was an informal gathering in Philadelphia in 1936. But the first pre-planned and formal event happened in Leeds, England in 1937 and guests included a young Arthur C. Clarke. See a fun article about the early history of Sci Fi fandom.

Thug Notes: A cute series does literary analysis in hood-thug talk. Sure, from one angle it’s kinda offensive.  On the other hand, who am I to judge? It’s a form of expression and done super-cleverly.  This episode analyzes Frank Herbert's Dune.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Putin on the rips in Syria, Chinese troops in Africa, and #%$@! Spartans!

Here’s an epic example of the art of propaganda. An essay by Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post, in which he falls all over himself to gush admiration for the way Vladimir Putin has outmaneuvered the West in both Ukraine and in Syria “catching the Obama Administration flat-footed.”  

Diehl is joined by the entire panoply of right wing fools who gave us “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, then proclaimed that we were actually there to spread democracy… and then shouted “squirrel!” to point elsewhere when that frenzied exercise in Nation Building didn’t work out so good. Now take this screech by Charles Krauthammer: Putin's Gambit, Obama's Puzzlement: in which he writes, “Kerry and Obama are serially surprised because they cannot fathom the hard men in the Kremlin.” 

And yes, I spoke of this a little while back, citing the declaration by Forbes Magazine that Vladimir Putin is the "most powerful person in the world." Actually read the Forbes drivel! But the flood of such ravings, from Diehl and others, proves that it is now a central right-wing catechism, meant to confirm that "Barack Obama is a wimp."  And therefore, by contagion, so are all democrats.

And hence, for all their sins -- having not one single example of good governance outcomes to point to, across the last two Republican administrations -- they get to sneer "at least we admire guys who are strong!"

But let’s see what their facts might be.  The West advised the Ukrainian government to grant some autonomy to the Donbass region, where ethnic Russians mostly live and would prefer separation. But that separation is now prevented.  (For now.) 

And even if the Donbass does eventually go to Moscow, like the Crimea, as the locals clearly want?

Such nibble-backs are signs of failure, not strength. Moscow is desperate to put a positive spin on the biggest loss from the Russian sphere of influence since Peter the Great – absolute loss of the Ukraine, which will never, ever, ever again allow a Muscovite puppet to hold power in Kiev.  

That is the big story, the huge story. The only part of the story with major geopolitical repercussions and long term effects.

And yet, the ability of Vladimir-idolators to ignore huge defeats, while touting their hero’s tactical-retreat “victories,” is simply stunning. 

To be clear - and repeating the point so that it can rise above the Fox/Forbes fantasy - the Russians themselves are not as stupid as Fox commentators. They do not ignore the devastating setback in Ukraine. 

They deem it to have been a hugely aggressive and successful assault on Russian interests by Barack Obama. They view Obama as anything but the wimp he is portrayed in right wing American press.  They see him as the most aggressive and successful opponent they have faced, since Reagan.

Or, as described on Slate by Fred Kaplan:  “The portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a grand chess master, shrewdly rebuilding the Russian empire through strength and wiles, is laughable. Syria is just one of two countries outside the former Soviet Union where Russia has a military base (the other being Vietnam, and its naval facility there, at Cam Ranh Bay, has shrunk considerably). His annexation of Crimea has proved a financial drain. His incursion into eastern Ukraine (where many ethnic Russians would welcome re-absorption into the Motherland) has stalled after a thin slice was taken at the cost of 3,000 soldiers. His plan for a Eurasian Economic Union, to counter the influence of the west’s European Union, has failed to materialize. His energy deal with China, designed to counter the west’s sanctions against Russian companies, has collapsed.”

I might add that no one seems to be talking about the elephant in the room… and I guarantee you heard about it here, first.  But watch. Just watch as Vladimir Putin gradually and glacially proceeds with his already-done deal to sell China something thy want and that declining Russia cannot keep.


== What’s the deal in Syria? ==

But let’s pull back from that scenario that seems like sci-fi (for now)... and return to today’s headlines. Although Kaplan is more lucid than Krauthammer or Diehl, he still misses the very tight limitations on Putin’s goals in Syria. Seriously? You’ve putting  - or Putin’g – us on, right? 

Russian moves in Syria are clearly aimed at bolstering the Assad regime’s hold on the coastal region where the dictator’s Alawite sect is centered and where Moscow has its only Mediterranean naval base. Moreover this has been a long time coming. Mr. Assad has spent years prepping the Lataika-Tartus coast and its mountain approaches to serve as a redoubt, a refuge for when his hold on Damascus becomes untenable. That coastal mini-state might be held, with Russian help, especially now that the Allawites have engaged in half a decade of ethnic cleansing, though only by surrendering most of the rest of Syria, leaving the West to deal with the Islamic State mess.

A mess that might be resolved by exactly such a partition of Syria! If the Europeans (who want to slow the flow of refugees) and Turkey, which wants an end to the mess, next door, make a deal with the Kurds to consolidate to the east, moving some Kurd populations away from the Turkish border… and Turkey establishes a Sunni safe zone in Aleppo and Iran fires the worst Hezbollites so that a Shiite zone near Lebanon and around Damascus…. Oh but we’re back to sci fi scenarios, again.  Sorry. It just makes more sense.

Though in fact, even my wildest arm-wavings are more realistic than the dismal, diametrically-opposite-to-true stuff you get from Fox.
== International ==

Speaking to the UN, President Xi said that China plans to set up a United Nations permanent peacekeeping force of 8,000 troops and would provide $100 million to the African Union to create an immediate response unit capable of responding to emergencies. In addition to the peacekeeping pledge, Mr. Xi promised a $1 billion donation to the United Nations for a “peace and development fund.”  

This article explains many details and some background. Of course, they are also learning a lot about the logistics of moving lots of troops far and fast…. 

== Visions of Democracy ==

Turning to pop-historical culture... I am pleased to see this comic called Democracy, telling the difficult, tragic and triumphant tale of Athens and its experiment with moving away from pyramids of inherited privilege, toward (partially) respecting the rights and ingenuity of a new kind of being called “citizen.”  

These rebuttals matter to me, after my own eviscerations of the “300” series came online. I ripped Frank Miller’s grotesquely evil paean to Spartan “virtues” in an article that showed how vastly more effective the Athenians were in every field of life, including war.  But above all, how deceitful Miller and his colleagues were in their trumped up propaganda against democratic values.

There I called for a movie about the Athenian admiral Themistocles, who succeeded in every way that Leonidas failed... so imagine my mixed feelings when Director Zack Snyder delivered that very story! Only warped by Miller’s uniquely anti-truth and anti-democratic sentimentality. This, too, I dissected.

But have a look at the new comic. I think you’ll enjoy the refreshing chance to actually see the real story, and how vastly more dramatic and compelling history is… than lies..

== Political manias ==

In the Guardian, an article by one Sam Thielman proves that insipid political mania is ecumenical.  While today’s entire American right wing appears to have gone loco, there certainly are substantial islands of left-wing mania, as well.  

The article on white supremacists is actually very interesting, portraying a neo-Nazi polemicist -- right-wing sci fi author Harold Covington, whose attempts at promulgating incitement novels – fomenting white power revolution – were cited by the Charlseton church shooter, Dylann Roof. As happened in the last century, when Timothy McVeigh cited “The Turner Diaries,” it is only by association with lunatic murderers that such execrably-written trash ever gets attention beyond a small circle of the mentally ill.  A process that Norman Spinrad brilliantly satirized in his novel, The Iron Dream.

So why am I aiming some of my own ire toward Mr. Thielman, if I agree with almost everything he says about such tripe-spinners?  Well, the following should give you a hint:

Covington, the latest in a long line of rightwing sci-fi writers…”  and American science fiction has long had a rightward tilt, from the contemporary strain of small-press sci-fi Tea Party fantasias swarming the Hugo Awards nominations all the way back to libertarian deity Ayn Rand.” 

Alas, this author knows very little of the field. No genre of literature ever did more to question ancient prejudices and pave the mental path for progress than Science Fiction. Let 
tho be a lesson, then.  You can agree with one thing a person says… while also avowing that he/she is -- in other ways -- an ignoramus.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Space! Heading out there...

First some fascinating news about how seriously some of our leaders in politics and industry are starting to take Our Future In Space.

Shall we begin “bootstrapping” our space technologies toward the goal of a Solar System Civilization? The idea is no longer science fiction alone. “Right now, the mass we use in space all comes from the Earth. We need to break that paradigm so that the mass we use in space comes from space,” said one NASA official – quoted on a page at the site of the White House. 

Yes, the White House. Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and his page is a down payment on what might become a special program out of the president’s office, aimed at helping spur the techs we'll need, in order to use space resources.  Look it up… and stay tuned.

Pie-in-the-sky?  Well, the potential methods for extracting space resources are looking more and more manageable, starting with the plentiful water contained in some kinds of asteroids.  Probably the most needed-desirable of all materials in space, and the most expensive need we must fulfill, both for life support and fuel, if humans are to live and work out in space.

Unlike the gold and platinum and iron that our children will relish from rocks out there, water may be accessible much sooner, according to the folks at Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries.  And TransAstra Corp, where Caltech engineering prof Joel Sercel has worked out a plausible method. In optical mining, thin-film inflatable reflectors and containment bags are used to extract, collect, and store water from asteroids, using concentrated sunlight to crack asteroids and extract the water they contain. Once the water is stored in bags it can be used directly as rocket propellent in a type of engine called a solar thermal rocket. Later solar systems will crack and divide H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, allowing even more effective propulsion and portable power.

== More Space! More Space! ==

Um... At risk of making you all howl over the (utterly deserved and necessary) repetition... have I said already this is our best year in space since the seventies… and possibly ever? 

The roll call of stunning milestones just keeps flowing, with data from Mercury, Venus and Earth… orbiting and mapping Ceres (with its weird white spots and possible underground lakes), tons from Mars (including a comet swooping past the Red planet!), news of a likely Europa mission, wonders from Cassini at Saturn, including amazements from Titan…

…plus landing on a comet!  And of course, New Horizons swooping past Pluto (Watch this beautiful 16 second composite video and remember your civilization did something this competent.)

An article about Pluto Truthers… who claim the New Horizon images are faked, like everything else in the space program.  Eep.

== What more could you want? ==
Well how about another Mars landing, next year?  InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investi­ gations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a NASA Discovery Program mission that will place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep inte­rior.

But that’s 2016. Heck we might have a Singularity by then, so let’s stay focused. (Did I elsewhere promise 2014 - 2015 would be transformative?)

Meanwhile, the mavens who gave us spectacular Pluto-Charon images have chosen New Horizons’ next target!  The spacecraft is to make a similar examination of a small, Kuiper Belt object, an icy body known as 2014 MU69 in 2019. Pluto is about three billion miles from the sun; 2014 MU69 is almost a billion miles beyond Pluto. “The New Horizons spacecraft is to adjust course through a series of four thruster firings in late October and early November. New Horizons would also make more distant measurements of 20 other Kuiper belt objects en route to 2014 MU69.”That they can do this at all, with their excellent fuel reserve, is one more checkmark of stunning human competence.  Let’s bring that back into fashion!

Technicians have begun assembling the world's largest radio telescope, with a dish the size of 30 football grounds, deep in the mountains of southwest China's Guizhou Province. Yesterday afternoon, they began to assemble the telescope's reflector, which is 500 meters in diameter, compared to Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, which is 300 meters. "Having a more sensitive telescope, we can receive weaker and more distant radio messages. It will help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy and explore the origins of the universe," Wu Xiangping, director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society said.

Okay fine. But please read the first few chapters of Liu Cixin’s epic Science Fiction novel (and 2015 Hugo Award winner) The Three Body Problem. That will teach you caution not to press SEND with any “outgoing messages.” Listening is good.

== Other space news? ==

How about a patent on a 20km tall inflated tower from which payloard can be more easily launched into orbit?  This vision from Thoth Technology sounds exciting. Indeed… this is exactly what I described in 1980, in my novel Sundiver. Remember the “Vanilla Needle?” Except that my concept in Sundiver was even grander: an inflated tower that went up past 70,000 feet and was cavernous enough inside so that cargoes would rise up in it using... balloons! 

The Hubble Space Telescope has discovered tiny primordial galaxies, which are estimated to have formed only 600 million years after the universe came into existence.  
By now you’ve heard about the discovery of a possibly Earthlike planet orbiting a very sunlike star. And you were wondering… are there aspects of this that I’m not seeing in even the science press?  I wonder what David Brin makes of this!  Did I read your mind? All right, in a nutshell…

… While Kepler-452b is larger than Earth, its 385-day orbit is only 5 percent longer. The planet is 5 percent farther from its parent star Kepler-452 than Earth is from the Sun. Kepler-452 is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our sun, has the same temperature, and is 20 percent brighter and has a diameter 10 percent larger.While Kepler-452b is larger than Earth, its 385-day orbit is only 5 percent longer. The planet is 5 percent farther from its parent star Kepler-452 than Earth is from the Sun. Kepler-452 is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our sun, has the same temperature, and is 20 percent brighter and has a diameter 10 percent larger. When Earth is that age, it will already be baked by our sun's shifting CUZ or Goldilocks zone. The Kepler 452 CUZ is probably shifting, too.

Astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) have tasted space-grown lettuce. The red romaine lettuce leaves were grown entirely by the team and it marks the start of the "veggie project" that will see more food grown in space.

I often mention that I serve on the Board of External Advisers for NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group… or NIAC… which offers grants for developing far-out-but-plausible concepts for advancing space exploration.  Now see a handy website explaining the criteria used for judging grants!  

A deep astronomical study (the 2015 Space Weather Workshop) found stellar flares on other G-type main sequence stars (of about the same size and rotational period as the Sun) that had far more energy than anything observed by humans coming from the Sun. Combine this with an update on the mysterious "774-775 carbon-14 anomaly," showing that another anomaly happened about the year 993, and the report concludes that superflares 1000 times more energetic than those observed in our historical records of the Sun could be expected to occur about once every 5000 years.  

We need more resilience. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Who would you trust with the nuclear codes?

Okay, when do you ever see some (rational) person take one of Donald Trump's wild, paranoid rants and declare "he didn't go anywhere near far enough"? 

Well, I am about to do that. He has lately taken flack for being the first prominent figure to (at long last) connect the dots and publicly lay at least partial blame for the 9/11 attacks at the feet of President George W. Bush, the man who was not only captain at the helm, but proximately responsible under any adult standard. Certainly, had the legitimately elected fellow - Al Gore - been in the White House, and the same tragedy occurred, we would never have heard the end of it!

To Trump's remark I grunted "amen, but let's plumb deeper!" For years I've been begging that someone with Washington access dig into FBI and Justice Dept records and see how many agents were re-assigned, after G.W. Bush's inauguration, to hunt for indictable offenses supposedly committed by Bill Clinton and his officials.

 We do know that the search for 'smoking guns' was fervid and intense… and ultimately fruitless, as the Clinton Administration -- long proclaimed by Fox to be the "most corrupt" -- in fact turned out to be the only one in U.S. history with ZERO high officials even indicted (let alone convicted) for malfeasance of office. Though not for lack of desperate GOP effort, during the first 8 months of 2001, using their complete control over all branches of government to seek anything they might pin on the Clintons, anything at all.

What I don't get is why not a single journalist has asked "what were those federal agents doing, before George Bush diverted them into that wild-goose witch hunt?"

If even one of them had been shifted from anti-terrorism duties, then suddenly Donald Trump's brash remark starts to take real substance. Might those diverted agents have uncovered the 9/11 plot in time to thwart it? Given how nearly the plotters were caught, several times, it certainly seems plausible. Especially by the standards of evidence that are currently deemed normal in Congressional committees "investigating" the death for four (as opposed to three thousand) Americans in Benghazi. 

(Note, if you tabulate aftermaths, the casualties from 9/11 might amount to forty thousand.)

The negligence of Congress to apply similar standards to a far worse failure - because it happened under a Republican president - is the most stunning of several hundred hypocrisies.

You think I am making this up, or even exaggerating? Richard A. Clarke, Bush's National Security Council counterterrorism czar and author of Against  All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror -- later testified that dire warnings were consistently not taken seriously: "This administration didn't either believe me that there was an urgent problem or was unprepared to act as though there was an urgent problem."

If you read this article, you will never again offer up the pablum that Bush bore no responsibility for 9/11… or that he "kept us safe."  That anyone would screech about Benghazi, while tacitly accepting the far greater coverup re 9/11, displays hypocrisy of truly volcanic dimensions.

== Competence with nuclear codes? ==

Only now the drama escalates! In a ramping up of the war of words between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, Jeb has declared Trump too shallow and unstable to be trusteed with America's nuclear deterrent.  

But… but is this not - in effect -- a renunciation of the pledge that Bush himself helped corner Trump into signing? That vow to support the eventual GOP nominee, no matter whom?  Yipe, nasty stuff.

But then, which Republicans would YOU trust with the launch codes? Not wild-eyed and proudly-ignorant Carson, nor spittle-raving Cruz, nor bring-me-the-heart-of-Snow-White Fiorina. Not 
petulant Jindal… nor Mike Huckabee who actively calls for an end to the world.

See my earlier posting: When Does a Candidate's Religion Matter? where I posit that it should be relevant to voters if a particular candidate prays openly to hasten the day when all ambition and adventure and progress and democracy vanish, and the United States of America will come to a fiery end.

Given that every single major attributable statistical metric of US national health - including conservative ones like the economy, rate of change of deficits, business health and US military readiness - plunged across the span of both Bush administrations, could we survive another?  Which leaves Rubio -- who seems a nice fellow, though callow and utterly-utterly-utterly beholden to crazies and oligarchs.  

Sorry. By the very standard Jeb raised, we'd be insane to let any one of them have a burnt and doused match.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Back to the Future... and Back to the Moon

Okay so October 21 is "Back to the Future" Day," when movie houses all over will be holding special showings of BTTF-II, to commemorate our crossing that particular frontier -- when Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrived at the 'future' of 2015 from the year 1985. Here is a rundown of ways the film was eerily on target… and another… if you set aside hover boards and flying cars and hydrated pizzas. And Mr. Fusion, alas.

Hey, everyone wear a DOUBLE TIE that day!  I haven't heard anyone else pushing that meme, so pass it on starting here!

I've long opined that our next major goal in human spaceflight should not be the Moon, which I deem to be far inferior to asteroids by any near-term measure of accessibility or potential usefulness. (This controversy has been politicized, with the Republican-Murdochian party line insisting on "return to the moon," against advice from almost the entire scientific and space development community - surprised?)  Only let me be clear, this is not entirely either-or! I am fine with private ventures taking their own risks to prove me and the other smartypants wrong!  Hence I actually applaud news that California-based Moon Express is planning to make the first ever private moon landing by 2017.

They hope to find rare earth elements that the team believes are abundant on Luna. (I doubt it, in usable concentrations, compared to what's already pre-separated in some asteroids… but good luck guys!  I'd be delighted to be proved wrong, in this case!)

Speaking of the moon and the future, here's a retro look back at the moon.... Historian Robert Godwin who is an author and editor of dozens of books on spaceflight released his findings about a Presbyterian minister named William Leitch, born in Scotland in 1814. Godwin asserts that Leitch was the first trained scientist to have correctly applied modern scientific principles to space flight in an essay which he wrote in the summer of 1861 called “A Journey Through Space”. It was published in a journal in Edinburgh that year before being included in Leitch's 1862 book “God's Glory in the Heavens" - much earlier than the Russian, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the American, Robert Goddard. (Though Leitch apparently concluded that hitching a ride on a comet would be preferable.)  I have to wonder if it was read by E.E. Hale,  whose wonderful story "The Brick Moon" was published in The Atlantic during the American Civil War. 

== Signs of the Future ==

Robotic flies on the wall: Hovering, insect-sized robo-bees weighing a tenth of a gram? And the camera corollary of Moore's Law continues.

Reconfigurable rooms... built by tiny robots?

With uterus/womb transplants in the works, the "ectogenesis" dilemmas long gestated in science fiction will pour forth into the real world.

The X-Prize methodology has been really taking off. Its advantages are huge and manifold. (1) it stimulates imaginative thinking from a wide variety of outside competitors who feel incentivized to think outside the box. (2) In most such contests, the teams each spend much more than the prize purse, in (realistic) hope of followup patents, partnerships, contracts and publicity for outside customers, even for second or third placers. (3) the prize-givers do not have to spend much till they get results dropped into their laps. (4) This creativity-stimulating methodology is inherently difficult for closed or despotic societies to emulate.

Google is close to completing its Loon helium-balloon technology and plans to scale it globally to provide reliable internet connectivity worldwide. Other efforts include high end satellite systems from my friends at ViaSat, and satellite clusters from Microsoft, all of which will empower people to bypass Internet choke points… like those now used by Russia and Iran and other freedom-clamping regimes. And NASA has successfully completed the first step towards delivering 200Mbps broadband internet from space with the CubeSat Network.

Read more at:  

(Next week I will be attending NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concept group symposium in Seattle, the last stop in an exhausting, monthlong speaking tour. As a member of NIAC's council of external advisers, I'm proud of the wonderful concepts that are seed-funded. The symposium is public by the way, if you register.)

== More cool News ==

Elon Musk envisions a future of electrically-powered supersonic passenger jetships, with vertical take-off, such as the designs for SonicStar by HyperMach Aerospace.

Scientists have chemically transformed human brain "support" cells, called astroglial cells, into functioning neurons, suggesting another tool for nerve and for brain repair. 

Fascinating insight into the brain: Researchers show how brain's wiring leads to cognitive control. Researchers are uncovering fundamental rules that govern which parts of the brain are most able to exert “cognitive control” over thoughts and actions. Confirming that the core area is the prefrontal cortex, they found surprising that "the human brain resembles a flock of birds. The flock comes to a consensus about which way to fly based on how close the birds are to one another and in what formation. Birds that fly at specific places in the flock can drive changes in the flock’s direction, being leaders in a so-called multi-agent system." In fact this is no surprise to folks like me and Marvin Minsky ("The Society of Mind") who have long held that there are many "participants" in the complexity of consciousness.  

Global Poverty Rate Likely to Fall Below 10 Percent For the First Time: According to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty is likely to fall for the first time below 10 percent of the world's population in 2015. Extreme poverty has long been defined as living on or below $1.25 a day, but the World Bank's adjustment now sets the poverty line at $1.90 a day.  That's 702 million people or 9.6 percent of the world's population vs 2012's 902 million people or 12.8 percent. In 1990 1990, 1.9 billion people lived under $1.25 a day. 

Does this news enrage you? Pause and ponder how both the right and the left have a vested interest in gloom and destruction of our confidence. Sure fight complacency! Redouble our efforts! But that does not excuse the unforgivable mental illness of reflexively rejecting good news.

87% of Americans Say Candidates Should Have Basic Understanding of Science Informing Public Policy. A new poll reveals Americans across political spectrum support presidential debate on science, of the sort they are trying to develop at  

I would go much farther. All legislators (including state) should have to say who their top five go-to fact-folks are, especially scientists, i.e. in their home districts. In fact all journalists should answer the waifling evasive  "I am not a scientist.." cop-out with "Then senator please tell us who your personal science adviser is! And make HER available for questions!"

== Transparency updates ==

Only in an open society can we charge into the future… that was my message at Bard College and the Hannah Arendt Center's recent conference on Privacy. (Attended - via Skype - by Edward Snowden and by Robert Litt (in person) the government's counsel in the Snowden Case.  I'll post more on this when I get a chance.)  Meanwhile...

Who Watches the Watchers: "Secret-encrypted communications tools, such as Wickr, are being used by parliamentarians, officials, members of special inquiries and others who deal with information that is politically sensitive or official.  Increasingly "use of private messaging systems by a digital 1% – an elite that is well connected and powerful – is eroding expectations about oversight by journalists, official monitors and ordinary people."  This article then cites my worries about how a privileged “Them” will know a lot about us and increasingly “We” know less about them.  The article focuses on Australia, where a super-rightwing administration has been underfunding or pressing to eliminate watchdog groups and Freedom of Information access -- as the Murdochian-Saudi-Bushites did in America and will return to doing, if one of their puppets  gets back into the White House.  Heck, we face grinding damage to our supervising ability under liberals, and they don't even try hard! 

Maker-funding site Patreon was hacked resulting in the dump of gigabytes of code and user data. User passwords were encrypted using bcrypt which suggests they are mostly safe but some users have found their data in the trove. 

Jeez how many times must this happen before folks out there realize it is going to occur over and over and over again… forever. 

We will not solve the problems of this era with a reflex to keep trying to hide. It will not work. It cannot work. It never has.  There is a better, more assertive and powerful and proven-successful way.