I just attended the NASA Innovative and Advance Concepts group (NIAC) symposium at Stanford —(I am on NIAC's Council of External Advisors)—watching and appraising and questioning terrific presentations about future-potential "game-changing" space technologies. In four days the recipients of NIAC seed grants, showed us how NASA's small but strategic investments in exceptional… even risky… technologies might prove valuable—even vital—if given a chance.
During his State of the Union Address, President Obama brought into the open, a topic we've all been mulling, lately… the worrisome rise in wealth and income disparity. Especially in the U.S., where two generations have grown up under the blithe illusion (unprecedented in human history) that matters of class are no-big-deal. Knowing that we're about to discuss the calamitous effects of a rising plutocracy, some of you will click away.
As if you didn’t already have enough to be nervous about, here’s something creepy to ponder as the new year opens. This what-if isn’t technological, social, political or even science-fictional. Rather, it’s a bit of wholly unscientific, superstitiouspattern-recognition. The last two centuries (and possibly more) didn’t “start” at their official point, the turning of a calendar from 00 to 01. That wasn’t when they began in essence, nor when they first bent the arc of history.
Following up on my previous posting, about the rationalizations of the new aristocracy, this time I plan to reveal to you a pernicious trend among some of society's best and brightest. But first, will you indulge me with a riff of background? In Existence, I portray a grand conference, held in the Alps around the year 2045. The secret meeting has been called by a consortium of "trillies," or trillionaire families, with the objective of commencing a new, world-wide era of Aristocratic Rule. But their goal is not just to re-institute the ancient pyramid of privileged domination, but this time to start off on the correct foot. To get it right.
While Americans await the recoil of their government's impending shut-down, I recommend, for light reading/listening, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, especially the last sentence, which is a tonic for those who have been taught the koolaid mantra that "all government is vile, all the time." Ask yourselves what our parents in the Greatest Generation would have said to that noxious oversimplification.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working on the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS) allowing authorities to identify individuals by their faces—from images collected by street cams, driver’s license photos, mug shots or other sources. As Ginger McCall points out, there is little or no "legal oversight of such technologies." And I agree! Oversight and "under-sight" or sousveillance is absolutely essential lest this lead to Big Brother!
R.J. Eskow - on Salon - offers "11 Questions to see if Libertarians are Hypocrites." And yes, most of Eskow's posers certainly do set up some stark and thought-provoking contradictions - even hypocrisies - in the oft-touted positions held by many who today use the "L-word" to describe themselves. The article is well-worth reading and it does skewer especially those who bow in obeisance to Ayn Rand, the patron saint of resentful ingrates who want desperately to blame society for being under-achievers. And yet…
I cannot recommend too highly an excellent article that appeared in The Guardian— Technology as Our Last Best Hope —about the concept of ecological modernism, which sees technology as key to solving big environmental problems.
My last posting about Climate Change remediation got a lot of attention, positive and negative, so let me emphasize: I do not consider any form of "geoengineering" to be a substitute for responsibly investing in energy efficiency and finding ways to maintain a great civilization without ruining our planet.
First: Sad News - Though expected, the passing of author Iain Banks came as a shock and a blow. I first met Iain in London, where I lived in the mid-1980s, when we were both brash young newcomers. I've always respected his literary fiction, but even more deeply admired his science fiction, especially the last two decades. His Culture Universe was among the few to confront straight-on the myriad hopes, dangers and raw possibilities that might be faced by a humanity-that-succeeds….
Poverty and violence are decreasing worldwide, at truly amazing rates. And of course - as we have seen - this fact seems anathema to grouches of both the far left and the entire right. But it does prove that the Great Program instituted by George Marshall, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and Dwight Eisenhower has been working, in a spectacular mix of good development assistance and the better half of capitalism.
First, before getting down to science, congratulations to my bro Kim Stanley Robinson, for winning this year's Nebula Award for best novel. 2312is an epic that spans the solar system and a myriad fascinating ideas. And felicitations also to the other Nebulists - the delightful/brilliant Nancy Kress and the talented Andy Duncan and Aliette de Bodard. Learn more at the SFWA site.
Amid fretful resignation, we learn of the likely loss of the magnificent Kepler mission...which discovered as many as three thousand planets beyond our solar system. (About 10% of them now confirmed.) Only two of the four gyro systems are still working, not enough for the probe to aim at more than a hundred thousand stars with uncanny accuracy, each day. While this will be a sad loss, the epoch introduced by the Kepler Mission bodes well for you understanding of the universe.
Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) and I have both agreed and disagreed about transparency, for years. In his posting, Crime and Privacy, he has opined, for example, that “Ironically, the more the government clamps down on individual privacy, the more freedom the residents will have. When the government can detect every sort of crime, it will be forced by public opinion and by resource constraints to legalize anything it can detect but can’t stop.”
Optimism is so out of fashion these days, on both the left and the right, that - ironically - a guarded optimism has become the natural state for any genuine contrarian. I could try to ignore that reflex and stay true to my natural dour cynicism. But facts are lining up with those who see light at the end of the tunnel. For example, I often cite Professor Steven Pinker's proof (The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined) that on average, per capita levels of violence have declined steeply (if unevenly) around the world every decade since 1945.
Baseball fans, here’s a unique (true?) tale of how - just after World War II - a baseball team consisting of Stratford-on-Avon actors and ex-POWs would dress in Elizabethan blouses and crush teams from nearby US air bases. “A dream team “with Paul Robeson (Othello) on first base, Sam Wanamaker (Iago) on second, Laurence Olivier (Coriolanus) on third and Peter O’Toole (Shylock) at shortstop.
We'll start this time with CHASING ICE —a documentary by and about one of the world's greatest adventurers, who spent years with his brave & hardy team designing, building and setting up some of the world's toughest cameras to endure the planet's harshest environments, all to track by time-lapse whether glaciers are growing or shrinking. It's spectacular to watch, long before you finally get to see the hard-won footage.
Straight from the pages of Existence… though sooner than I expected… researchers now claim to have the entire Neanderthal genome in published form, as clear as that of “any person on the street.” Okay, start your countdown till someone announces she is pregnant with… That will be a real boat-rocker…
...but there are other events on the near horizon that may be more important to saving our world.
I haven’t said much political in a while. Moreover, amid all the talk of budget balancing and sequesters, I’d like to shift attention to a topic that may - at first sight - seem a bit wonkish and detached: farm subsidies. In fact, they are an area where Blue America remains frightfully ignorant and where the flood of entitlement spending merits closer attention, in times of near bankruptcy.
That’s like asking: Which of your children do you like best? Glory Season is my brave, indomitable daughter. The Postman is my courageous, civilization-saving son. Earth is the child who combined science and nature to become a planet. The Uplift War…well, I never had a better character than Fiben the earthy-intellectual chimp!