Technological civilizations arising on such planets will be, at some point of their histories or another, tempted to embark upon massive geo-engineering projects. If, for some reasons only very recently understood, large-scale geo-engineering is in fact much more dangerous than previously thought, the scenario in which at least some of the extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way self destruct in this manner gains plausibility. In addition, we speculate on possible reasons, both physical and culturological, which could make such a threat even more pertinent on an average Galactic terrestrial planet than on Earth.Be sure to read the entire article (PDF). Learn more about geoengineering. And be sure to read Jamais Cascio's article, "It's Time to Cool the Planet."
January 27, 2010
Is geoengineering an existential risk?
Followup on Haiti, Science, Brinstuff and the Enlightenment!
Salon Magazine asked to publish as a main article an updated version of my essay about reconstruction in Haiti, wherein I suggest the establishment of clear corridors for every kind of right-of-way, across the capital city—mass transit, sewer, water, electricity, fiber-optics, even WiFi can go in cheap, if all pathway issues are settled at once—so that the skeleton and sinew and bloodstream of a vibrant city can arise... leaving all the subsequent details to Haitians. Drop in and give the essay traffic! Comment if you like.
And hold on till the end for one of my mini-essays about "The Enlightenment and It's Enemies" !
And on the Transparency front... See the les professional kind of police behaving exactly as predicted in The Transparent Society. “Since the police beating of motorist Rodney King in 1991, men in blue have looked warily at the civilian videotaping of arrests and other police activities. Some cops are so opposed to the practice, they've begun arresting the amateur videographers and charging them criminally.” In fact, nearly all such arrests have been dismissed. The important thing now is to make all police aware of that fact, so that continuing to do this becomes knowing and culpable false arrest.
==== A Holocene Grant Proposal ===
Any educators out there... or folks interested in creative new approaches to interface... here’s something interesting you might browse. "HASTAC and the MacArthur Foundation are excited to launch the third year of the Digital Media and Learning Competition. Today, young people are learning, socializing, and participating in civic life in dramatic new ways and assessing information in ways never before imagined."
I have a small consortium that has submitted an application for a grant to develop breakthrough “collaboration ware” to help students do team projects (a big part of the modern American curriculum) with vastly more efficiency and fun.
And now my request from some of you. Public commenting on the 2010 HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition is now open! Join the conversation. Log in to provide feedback and comments on applications and see how others are reacting to your application. Register to add your comments at: http://dmlcompetition.net/pligg/register.php by creating a user name and password (please note the user name and password you created to submit an application will not work; all users must create new logins). You will receive an activation e-mail, with a link to confirm your address, and can then log in to the system. Take a look at as many of the brief 50-word project descriptions as you can. If something looks interesting, you can either read more (a 300-word description) or save it and come back later for a closer look.Once you’ve taken a look, we encourage you to discuss (post a comment) or tell a friend.
Favorable comments on our “TeamBuilder” proposal are, of course, most welcome!
=== SCIENCE MISC ====
Shaped like a leaf itself, the slug Elysia chlorotica already has a reputation for kidnapping the photosynthesizing organelles and some genes from algae. Now it turns out that the slug has acquired enough stolen goods to make an entire plant chemical-making pathway work inside an animal body. The slugs can manufacture the most common form of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that captures energy from sunlight, Pierce reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Pierce used a radioactive tracer to show that the slugs were making the pigment, called chlorophyll themselves and not simply relying on chlorophyll reserves stolen from the algae the slugs dine on. (BTW... I showed humans doing this in Heart of the Comet.)
Have you heard of Rav Patel? In his book The Value of Nothing, Patel reveals how we inflate the cost of things we can (and often should) live without, while assigning absolutely no value to the resources we all need to survive. Though, of course, there probably is some vegetarian bias in there!
UPDATE on AUDIO BOOKS from audible.com. See these great Brin titles available in audio version to listen-to during your commute!
=== Defending the Enlightenment = a mini-essay ===
See a fascinating review of The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition by Zeev Sternhell, in which the Israeili philosopher covers a vital topic, resonant with many things I’ve been saying about how the progressive Enlightenment is under frenetic attack, by those scheming to restore older, oppressive ways...
... only with an important difference that prompts me to offer up an observation and a cavil. For, when I speak of the “Enlightenment” I am referring to something much more modern and ongoing that what campus academics refer-to, when they use that word. To me, it stands for the great experiment of Western Civilization, the sole time that any post-agricultural society discovered a viable alternative to the age-old human attractor state, the standard pattern that dominated perhaps 99% of cultures since history began -- rule by inherited oligarchy.
Yes, our current experiment evolved out of the French Enlightenment of Voltaire and Rousseau. But what we have today—and must defend against concerted assault—is only related to that drawing room debating society, as a child is to its grandparent.
Indeed, had the Enlightenment depended only upon its French-Idealist wing, whose love of abstraction sometimes borders on the mystical, the movement would long ago have foundered. It is the Anglo-Scot-American offshoot, with its emphasis on pragmatism, reductionist science, “otherness” inclusionism and material progress in the physical world, that truly changed the world. It is this wing that kept the Enlightenment alive, by powerfully resisting and then quelling the fascist and Stalinist empires. It also was responsible for spreading both practical advancement and modernist ideals to all corners of the globe.
This is an important distinction. For, while the French and American branches of the Enlightenment share many values -- a belief in progress, in human improvability, in divided and accountable power, in free argument and in the value of the individual—the more abstract French wing turns about and partakes in a kind of madness that is rooted in bad old habits that stretch all the way back in Plato—the notion that one can logically derive important conclusions about reality, via words alone. Given that Plato turned out to be just about the most anti-enlightenment philosopher of all time, an implacable enemy of democracy and science, this descent of reason should be troubling.
Indeed, the obsession of scholars, associating the Enlightenment with abstract reasoning, runs smack up against what should be considered the Enlightenment’s greatest insight -- that humans are inherently delusional beings, able to talk ourselves into anything at all. The French Idealist branch acknowledged this problem -- and replied that the answer would be found in better reasoning. A well-meaning, but inherently untrustworthy prescription. One that is, in fact, delusional in its own right.
By contrast, the pragmatic-scientific wing said: “Everybody will be deluded, as a matter of basic human nature, and we are terrible at spotting our own errors. Rationality can be just another method for incantatory justification and rationalization. But there is another answer. If we cannot spot our own mistakes, we can often notice each others! Through well-run competitive systems, like democracy, markets, and science, the give and take of reciprocal accountability can edge us ever forward toward the truth.”
Oh, sure, these competitive systems are very hard to set up and maintain. As one of the earliest leaders of the Anglo-American wing, Adam Smith, described, it is hard to arrange circumstance under which competition delivers all its benefits—creativity, innovation, vigor, accountability and error detection—without soon drawing in its own worst enemy, cheaters. As both Smith and Karl Marx pointed out, Capitalism and Democracy can turn into their own worst enemies. These pragmatic tools require endless fine-tuning, a gritty chore that often makes people tempted to turn back to simplistic dogmatism. (e.g. our present “culture war.”)
Still, the Enlightenment needed path away from the trap of essentialism, in which Rousseau and Hobbes railed at one another over flawed, overly simple descriptions of human nature. It was John Locke, founder of the Anglo-American branch, who said: Wait, you are both right and both wrong. Man is both noble and corrupt. We are complex, and we need systems that can harness that complexity, rewarding the noble traits and binding the corrupt ones. Toward this end, abstractions may inspire, they may lift our hearts... but they do not get the job done.
Hence, my conclusion to a garrulous aside. It is wrong for well-meaning scholars like Sternhell to continue calling the abstract-idealist branch of the Enlightenment its defining center. Not when most of the movement’s greatest continuing achievements were attained by the other, pragmatist/materialist branch. Not only does this ignore the Enlightenment’s greatest strengths, at a time when it is under siege by deadly foes, but this old-fashioned fixation seems obdurate, scholastic, and even rather quaint.
(Thanks Michael Rus, for spurring this thread.)
=== AND MORE SCIENCE! ===
Shades of the Crystal Spheres!
What the Ancient Greeks Can Tell Us About Democracy
And more soon......
Drake: Use the Sun as a 'magnifying glass' to find ET
Microlensing is based on the gravitational lens effect: massive objects can bend the light of a bright background object. This can generate multiple distorted, magnified, and brightened images of the background source. More specifically, when a distant star or quasar gets sufficiently aligned with a massive compact foreground object, the bending of light due to its gravitational field leads to two distorted unresolved images resulting in an observable magnification. The time-scale of the transient brightening depends on the mass of the foreground object as well as on the relative proper motion between the background 'source' and the foreground 'lens' object.
In other words, Drake is essentially suggesting that we use our Sun as a 'giant magnifying glass' by positioning an observatory at a distance of around 500AU from it. Theoretically, the resultant microlense would be so powerful that we could see alien planets—and even their continents and oceans.
He contends that advanced extraterrestrial civs may have been doing this for millions of years already and we need to get with the program. Moreover, Drake says this isn't just a one-way system—gravitational lensing could be used to transmit signals to other worlds as well. Considering that our civilization's entire communications schema is about to go digital, he argues that this may be our best bet to communicate with our celestial neighbors.
Okay, now the bad news. The primary problem I have with Drake's suggestion, aside from the fact that it would take over a hundred years to set the crafts into position (which is more an issue of patience than a technical concern), is that the exercise would likely result in failure. Yes, such an observatory would undoubtedly help us discover more exoplanets—even those teeming with life. But it's unlikely that we'd receive any kind of communication by using it.
Among other things, the Fermi Paradox suggests that the timescales in question would not just allow for a civ to set-up and use gravitational microlensing, but to seed every solar system in the Galaxy with Bracewell probes. Sure, extraterrestrials could set microlenses up, but if they're capable of that feat then they're not too far from being able to send out swarms of self-replicating Bracewells.
Again, like I've harped on time and time again, if there are advanced civs out there, and they've wanted to communicate with us, they would have done so by now.
I'm not suggesting that we bail on Drake's project. Quite the contrary. Let's do it. Let's set up this microlense and see what we get. A negative data point can be just as useful as a positive one. And maybe it'll help us discover Dyson Spheres or other megastructures. In addition, the astrological benefits of such an observatory would be incalculable, so it wouldn't be a complete waste by any means.
We just need to temper the expectations of the contact optimists out there, of which Frank Drake is one.
How Markets Fail [book]
A quote from the Business Week review:
Cassidy agrees with free-market advocates that the market performs wonders, but he believes its reach is limited. In that spirit, he favors greater government regulation of the financial-services industry. Although he doesn't dwell much on practical ideas for reform, he argues that it's necessary to tame Wall Street now that financiers have learned they can privatize profits during good times and socialize losses in bad. He admires the changes that came out of the Great Depression, such as the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated banking from investment banking. Even if current legislators aren't willing to go that far, banks must be required to keep more capital on hand and be given limits on how much debt they can accumulate, he says. He considers the proposed Financial Product Safety Commission a sensible idea. "The proper role of the financial sector is to support innovation and enterprise elsewhere in the economy," he writes. "But during the past 20 years or so, it has grown into Frankenstein's monster, lumbering around and causing chaos."Essentially, Cassidy is suggesting that a return to hands-off economics would be a disaster. His views mirror my own, namely the suggestion that, left to its own devices, and without oversight, blind market forces will eventually eat itself.
Strike another victory against the advocates of market libertopianism.
January 25, 2010
Rebooting Haiti: Eliminating poverty to reduce the impacts of disasters
That poverty kills. And it kills big time.
Stop for a moment and imagine an earthquake of similar magnitude in San Fransisco. It's highly unlikely that we'd see a similar death count -- not with San Fran's first-world infrastructure and emergency response network, not to mention the support from surrounding areas.
But we don't have to imagine these things. Back in 1995 the Great Hanshin Earthquake rocked the Kobe area in Japan killing 6,434 people. This earthquake hit 6.8 on the Richter scale and struck a heavily populated area -- very comparable to Haiti. And in 2008 the Sichuan Earthquake killed nearly 68,000 people in China, a country that sits firmly between the third and first worlds.
There's obviously a direct correlation with the relative affluence of a community and their ability to cope with disaster. There's no question that the the death toll in Haiti was severely accentuated by the poor state of affairs in that country.
It's all fine and well that the world's attention is now focused on Haiti, but the damage has already been done, an outcome caused directly by the earthquake and indirectly by years of global neglect and indifference. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Poverty is the worst form of violence." Indeed, this is exactly the kind of unintended violence we impose upon the impoverished peoples of world when they're largely forgotten.
Moreover, the violence that's unleashed by poverty is hardly limited to the impacts of natural disasters. As Peter Singer recently noted, "Every year, more people die from poverty related causes than entire population of Haiti."
It's clear that poverty has to be eliminated, and Haiti offers a remarkable opportunity to take a de facto post-apocalyptic society and set them on the right track. Success in this matter could provide an unprecedented blue print for similar reconstruction efforts around the world.
Here's what has to happen in Haiti:
- All the money that's pouring in has to be routed to the right areas. While aid agencies are doing an exemplary job dealing with the initial humanitarian crisis, they are far too chaotic, uncoordinated and decentralized to rebuild the country. Rebuilding efforts will have to be conducted by dedicated transnational institutions working in tandem with private industry.
- Haiti's infrastructure will have to be rebuilt from scratch. This will include roads, ports, housing, electricity, sanitation and water. The entire Haitian country has to be redesigned for resilience in anticipation of another earthquake.
- The development of viable economic opportunities is paramount, particularly ones that are sustainable. Agriculture would be a good start; Haiti has some of the sweetest mangos on the planet. Looking further ahead, however, the country's infrastructure needs to be brought to first world standards if it hopes to compete and do business with the rest of the world.
As Bono of U2 once said, "We're not looking for charity, we're looking for justice."
January 22, 2010
Anthony Atala on growing new organs [TED]
Anthony Atala's state-of-the-art lab grows human organs -- from muscles to blood vessels to bladders and more. At TEDMED, Atala shows footage of his bio-engineers working with some of its sci-fi gizmos, including an oven-like bioreactor (preheat to 98.6 F) and a machine that "prints" human tissue.
January 21, 2010
Why imposing the gender binary on athletes is a violation of human rights
Andrea James has an excellent article in BoingBoing about Caster Semenya and the apartheid of sex—a term attributed to transhumanist Martine Rothblatt. James correctly points out that Semenya is being subjected to the latest "sex science" in order to fit her into our socially imposed gender binary, so that "the apartheid of sex can be upheld within the sporting tradition."
Indeed, fostering discussions of intersexed persons within the context of social tolerance and inclusion is not where the IOC wants to go. They have a problem on their hands because they are completely unwilling and unable to look beyond fixed male and female roles. Introducing new leagues or classifications that cater to these kinds of athletes would be far too uncomfortable and complicated for them to deal with. Insisting that there are only males and females simplifies things, and coercing these athletes into conforming to a gender-specific roles is a seemingly quick and easy fix.
Except for the fact that it may be a human rights violation.
I use the word coerce because intersex athletes like Semenya would likely have to undergo therapies should they want to compete. "Those who agree to be treated will be permitted to participate,” said Dr. Maria New, an IOC hired panel participant and an expert on sexual development disorders. “Those who do not agree to be treated on a case-by-case basis will not be permitted."
Some activists contend that this is a human rights violation, and they may be right. The intersex rights advocacy group Zwischengeschlecht.org certainly thinks so. They are condemning the IOC's attempt to re-introduce mandatory gender tests for female athletes via what they consider a back-handed channel. "We also strongly condemn IOC's notion of apparently blanket exclusion of "ambiguous" athletes, unless they agree to undergo potentially most harmful genital surgery and hormone treatments," they write in a recent press release. Zwischengeschlecht.org is demanding the prohibition of forced genital surgeries on intersexed people.
It also appears to me that the IOC is picking on intersexed athletes. The primary issue with these athletes participating as females arises from their increased testosterone production. Trouble is, however, not all women produce testosterone in the same amounts. In fact, some successful female athletes have a genetic abnormality in which they produce more testosterone than average females. Why is it acceptable for them to compete 'as is', but not for intersexed athletes? Should they be forced to undergo therapies, too? And if so, why should they be considered abnormal simply because they fall outside the averages?
Moreover, testosterone levels can change for women depending on a myriad of factors. Take Mary Decker for example. Decker was the 1983 world champion at 1,500 and 3,000 meters and once held every American women's outdoor record from 800 through 10,000 meters. In 1996 she was one of the athletes routinely tested by the United States Olympic Committee for illegal drugs. The report on her test said she had a testosterone-epitestosterone level higher than international rules allow. Decker contended that the test was invalid for women and that her suit be thrown out. She argued that the test did not take into account the hormonal swings a woman goes through during menstruation while on birth control and nearing menopause.
Should the IOC rule that intersexed athletes have to undergo therapies in order to compete, they will also have to consider cases such as these. To do otherwise would not just be hypocritical, but a blatant sign of discrimination. As it stands, the IOC's contention that intersexed athletes are a special case and that they must be physically modified in order to complete is a human rights violation.
The answer to the problem is not conformism, but accommodation.
January 20, 2010
IOC wants to 'treat' intersex athletes
Athletes who identify themselves as females but have medical disorders that give them masculine characteristics should have their disorders diagnosed and treated, the group concluded after two days of meetings in Miami Beach. The experts also said that rules should be put in place for determining an athlete’s eligibility to compete on a case-by-case basis — but they did not indicate what those rules should be.The decision is in reaction to the recent controversy surrounding Caster Semenya, an intersex athlete who won the 800 meters at the world championships in Berlin last August.
“We did not address fairness,” said Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson of Florida International University. He is an expert on such disorders and participated in the meeting. “The entire concept was that these individuals should be allowed to compete.”
While this clearly solves a problem for the IOC, the decision to "treat" athletes with genetic abnormalities will likely have far reaching repercussions for those with other types of genetic endowments. The IOC is in danger of opening a pandora's box in which virtually every athlete with a biological advantage will be questioned.
Immediate examples include swimmer Michael Phelps with his many advantageous traits (including the possibility of Marfan Syndrome) and those athletes with higher levels of hemoglobin which gives them superior oxygen-carrying capability.
But as any athlete knows, it doesn't even need to be this extreme. There's never been a perfectly level playing field in sports, whether it be the quality of the facilities, coaching, funding, and of course, genetic constitutions. Dedication and heart will only get professional athletes so far; so many winners these day are, for all intents-and-purposes, genetic freaks. To suddenly start 'treating' these sorts of athletes and constrain their physicality within a pre-determined sense of normality is overtly problematic.
Who is the IOC to determine what is physically normal in sport? Why should the attainment of fitness peaks (natural or otherwise) be prevented or constrained? And how could they ever come to describe the perfectly 'normal' human athlete?
The IOC is clearly hoping that this issue will be limited to intersex athletes, but what's to prevent others from crying foul when they feel that they're at a genetic disadvantage? The IOC needs to tread very carefully should they chose to move forward with this recommendation.
Dan Buettner: How to live to be 100+
Dan Buettner gives a TED talk about the practical things we can do today to extend our healthy lifespans. Nothing too radical or out-of-the-box here, but what he says makes sense (but I think I'll pass on joining a faith-based community); these are lifestyle changes we can make in the here-and-now as we wait for more substantive life extending interventions.
Buettner's talk reminds me of an article I wrote a while back, "Eight tips to dramatically improve your chances of living forever."
January 13, 2010
Dog senses Arcata earthquake seconds before it happens
January 7, 2010
Five simple reasons why the Copenhagen Climate Conference failed
But it was not to be. The immediate reasons for the conference's failure are complex and laden with the political and economic realities of our time (e.g. settling on exact targets and incentives). But these reasons are part of a deeper malaise that is currently paralyzing the countries of our warming planet. As this crisis is revealing, our social and political institutions are ill equipped to deal with a pending catastrophe such as this.
More specifically, there are basically five 'bird's eye view' reasons that can account for the conference's failure:
1. Nation-states are far too self-serving: Countries don't like to be told what to do, and when push comes to shove it's far too easy for them to hide behind the sovereignty shield. Instead of acting proactively and with leadership, many nations (particularly those in the developed world) are 'aligning' themselves with what other countries are doing. No more and no less. And seeing as no one is doing anything....well, there you have it. Compounding this problem is the realization by some countries that they aren't going to be too negatively impacted by climate change -- a disturbing reminder that nation-states are unwilling to deal with threats that are not considered local.
2. Democracies are too ill-equipped and irresolute to deal with pending crises: A reader of mine recently complained that the people of the world were not being consulted on what they feel should be done about climate change. Well, this would only work if the 'people of the world' were universally educated about the intricacies of the issues (including scientific, economic, cultural and political considerations) and disarmed of their petty selfishness and local biases. This isn't going to happen anytime soon, and consulting the Joe the Plumbers of the world on something as multi-faceted and complex as climate change is probably not a good idea. Moreover, like the politicking politicians who supposedly represent them, the masses have shown a tremendous unwillingness to deal with a problem that has yet to show any real tangible negative effects.
3. Isolationist and avaricious China: One thing that the Copenhagen failure revealed is that China's isolationism is alive and well--even as they emerge as a global superpower. They're going to go about this whole global warming thing on their own terms, whatever that's supposed to mean. This unilateral approach is particularly disturbing considering that they're the largest manufacturing state in the world and house a massive population that will soon start to demand first-world standards of living. And exacerbating all this is the communist Chinese system itself with all its corruption and lack of accountability and due process.
4. The powerful corporatist megastructure: As the onset of last year's economic crisis so beautifully illustrated, capitalism, if left to its own devices, will eat itself. This is because corporations don't act rationally or in a way that would indicate foresight or a desire for long-term self-preservation. Moreover, corporations will never voluntarily deal with a seemingly ethereal and controversial problem, especially one that requires a dramatic reduction of profits.
5. Weak consensus on the reason for global warming: Global warming denalists are no longer the problem. What's of great concern now is the growing legitimacy of anthropogenic climate change denialists -- those individuals who believe that global warming is a natural phenomenon. This is a particularly pernicious idea because it absolves humanity from the problem. Adherents of this view contend that human civilization is not responsible for the changes to the Earth's climate and that as a consequence we don't need to fix anything--we can keep on spewing carbon into the atmosphere with reckless abandon. This idea is particularly appealing to politicians who use it as a convenient escape hatch.
I'm inclined to think that the only way the nations of the world will band together and act decisively on this issue is if an actual climate-instigated disaster happens--one that touches all international stakeholders in a profound way. But even this isn't guaranteed as there will always be global disparities in terms of impact.
Part of the problem right now, aside from the intangibleness of it all, is that some countries will be impacted more than others, a prospect that will ultimately lead to the rise of a new geopolitical stratification: different regions (both inter- and intra-national) will experience the effects of global warming differently, whether it be coastal areas, those dealing with desertification or those having to contend with the exodus of climate refugees.
Given the failure of Copenhagen, I'm inclined to believe that semi-annual conferences are not the way to go. Instead, I'd like to see the United Nations assemble an international and permanent emergency session that is parliamentary in nature (i.e. representative and accountable) and dedicated to debating and acting on the problem of anthropogenic climate change (a sub-parliament, if you will). The decisions of this governing board would be binding and impact on all the nations of the world. The chances of outright failure (like the one in Copenhagen) would be significantly lessened. Instead of ad hoc conferences, the emergency sub-parliament would conduct a series of ongoing debates over proposed legislation that would ultimately result in internationally binding agreements.
The current climate problem has caused the emergence of another crisis, namely a crisis-of-resolution. Failure at this point is not good enough. What's required is something more respective of the dire situation we're in.