October 31, 2003

Non-Linear Thinking 101

This week's essay questions are taken from our readings in climatology. Answer any two of the following:

  1. Explain how driving a big stonking SUV is actually the responsible thing to do for those concerned about our future environment.

  2. What role might plankton play in supporting greenhouse emissions in warding off the next ice age?

  3. True or False: If plankton had evolved earlier, the Andes wouldn't be as tall as they are now. Defend your answer.

You have 30 minutes. Remember to show your math.

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ITF #81

In the Future...

...we won't have to settle for anything less than an ultra-super-hyper-mega scramjet

via Spacecraft

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The Atkins Hack

Salon has an explanation of the appeal of the low-carb diet to Hackers

But while there's nothing particularly bleeding-edge about eating the hamburger but not the bun, now that low-carb dieting has gone mainstream, the diet does appear to hold a special attraction for hackers, programmers and other close-to-the-machine dwellers. For some geeks, the low-carb diet is itself a clever hack, a sneaky algorithm for getting the body to do what you want it to do, a way of reprogramming yourself. Programmers, who are used to making their computers serve their will, are now finding that low-carb diets enable the same kind of control over their bodies.

(Either a paid subscription or sitting through a commercial is required to access the whole article.)

I've been theoretically on low-carbs for a long time now, but I've only recently become serious about it. I think the paradoxical aspect is what appeals most to me about Atkins. Any diet where you're better off putting heavy cream in your coffee than skim milk has a huge contrarian appeal to it. Maybe that's why it resonates so well with hacker culture. Those hackers would probably be interested to learn that their diet may be increasing their lifespan.

And then there's this to consider:

There's also a subversive element. Go low-carb, and you're going against the dietary establishment, against the conventional diet wisdom from the USDA's food pyramid. You're doing something that you're maybe not supposed to do.

That's it, of course. No wonder I like this diet.

I'm a rebel.

Posted by Phil at 10:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Closer to Quantum Computing

A team working in Japan has developed one of two components essential for the development of a quantum computer:

The team has built a controlled NOT (CNOT) gate, a fundamental building block for quantum computing in the same way that a NAND gate is for classical computing.

By manipulating particles that exist in more than one state at a time, quantum computers will operate at speeds far greater than any existing computing technology. Here's why:

Among the startling properties of qubits is that they do not just hold either binary 1 or binary 0, but can hold a superposition of the two states simultaneously. As the number of qubits grows, so does the number of distinct states which can be represented by entangled qubits. Two qubits can hold four distinct states which can be processed simultaneously, three qubits can hold eight states, and so on in an exponential progression.

So a system with just 10 qubits could carry out 1,024 operations simultaneously as though it were a massively parallel processing system. A 40-qubit system could carry out one trillion simultaneous operations. A 100-qubit system could carry out one trillion trillion simultaneous operations.

That means calculations, such as working out the factors of prime numbers, which present problems for even the fastest supercomputers could be trivialized by a quantum computer. As an example Tsai estimated that using the Shor Algorithm to factor a 256-bit binary number, a task that would take 10 million years using something like IBM Corp.'s Blue Gene supercomputer, could be accomplished by a quantum computer in about 10 seconds.

The same team which has now developed the CNOT also developed the first qubit back in 1999. So they have both pieces of the puzzle now. It's just a matter of time before quantum computing becomes reality. Their estimate is 10 years.

via KurzweilAI.net

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October 30, 2003

Let's Not Outlaw Any More Than We Have to, Here

A good piece in Reason on whether adult stem cells are a viable alternative for the kinds of research currently being done using embryonic stem cells. The essay concludes:

The continuing struggle over stem cell research highlights the dangers of politicizing biomedical science. Various lines of research should be pursued simultaneously in order to have the best chance of discovering effective future treatments. It may well turn out that adult stem cells are good treatments for certain diseases, and embryonic stem cells are better at curing other maladies. Contrary to the claims of bioconservatives, it has never been either adult stem cells or embryonic ones; for the sake of millions of suffering patients, it's both.

It's too bad that adult stem cells are turning out not to be as effective as was originally hoped. They provided a nice work-around for the ethical issues that embryonic ctem cells represent. But I was intrigued by this explanation:

Embryonic stem cells are derived from seven-day old blastocysts (microscopic balls of 150 or so cells). Immune rejection might be handled either of two ways: First, researchers might derive and preserve many lines of stem cells that would genetically match the immune systems of a wide number of patients. Or second, embryonic stem cells might be created to order by means of somatic cell nuclear transfer; that is, by taking a cell nucleus from a patient's cells and inserting it into an enucleated egg to produce a blastocyst from which stem cells of nearly identical genetics could be derived and used for transplant. Since obtaining human eggs is uncomfortable and expensive, researchers hope eventually to decipher the biochemical signals that human eggs use to reprogram mature nuclei into embryonic stem cells. Once this is achieved, physicians would dose a patient's adult cells with the right chemicals, transforming them directly into embryonic stem cells. In the meantime, embryonic stem cells are opposed by pro-life activists, and the House of Representatives has twice passed a bill that would outlaw medical treatments using them.

If we're going to outlaw these things (which I'm not convinced is a good idea, although I'm not convinced it's not) shouldn't we be taking a closer look at how they're harvested? If a technique such as the one described above is developed, I don't see why the use of stem cells produced in that manner would raise the same ethical issues as stem cells derived from a fertilized human egg. Maybe I'm missing something, here. But it seems to me that the former would represent terminating a potential human life, while the latter would not.

That has got to make a difference to at least some of the opponents of stem cell research. Instead of a ban on any use of embryonic stem cells, maybe the law should require that all such research be able to attach this disclaimer:

No potential babies were harmed or prevented in the harvesting of these stem cells.

The everybody's happy, right? I guess the real question is how far away are we from being able to convert adult cells into embryonic stem cells?

Posted by Phil at 10:27 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Stranger Than We Thought

Bruce Sterling offers a pithy yet mind-blowing assessment of what the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe has revealed about the nature of the universe.

Already, the probe's findings have provided a few salient new notions about the nature of cosmic reality. For starters, the universe is 13.7 billion years old. Unlike previous figures, this is not a rough estimate; the margin of error is about 1 percent. In addition, the universe is flat. Forget all that mind-boggling space-time-is-curved stuff. Euclid was right all along. And the space-time pancake will expand infinitely. There's no such thing as an end to this particular universe.

Now here's the really wacky part: Everything we're made of or can measure - from atoms to energy - is only 4 percent of the whole shebang. The rest is dark matter (about 23 percent) and, best of all, dark energy (73 percent).

So what is this dark energy, anyway?

This mysterious stuff pushes the universe apart. It forces the cosmos to expand. This is not the steady state model of Einstein's heyday, when the universe was static and conservative. It's not even the jazzy big bang model, where everything blew up way back in the beginning. We denizens of the 21st century live in a steady bang. The bang never went away - in fact, our natural habitat is bang. Three-quarters of the universe is dedicated to pushing itself open. It's a gigantic heaving that has worked from the first primal instants and always will. It's the very nature of space to expand.

Whoah. What could be cooler than that? How about trying to tame it?

There's one more thing to consider: What will it take to get our atom-smashing mitts on some dark energy? This stuff is the fountainhead of the universe. It makes Iraqi oil look like a dust mote. The 21st century offers us a new quest. Dark energy is irresistible.

Read the whole thing. Interesting days lie ahead.

Posted by Phil at 10:05 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

You Want to Talk About Scary?

Try this on for size.

Am I crazy, or does this strike anyone else as a little odd? Why is the US government paying somebody to develop super-viruses? I can't think of any possible legitimate use for such a thing. What are we going to do, unleash it on the enemy's army? Or on the civilian population?

A legitimate government has no use for this. It's a tool for terrorists.

Posted by Phil at 08:25 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Signs of Intelligent Life

Rand Simberg has, as promised, a more complete picture of the Senate hearings on the future of NASA in his column on FOX News. He also has a correction here.

Sounds like our next big step might be back to the moon. I could live with that, I guess. As long as it doesn't stop there this time.

Posted by Phil at 08:11 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #80

In the Future...

...minihamsters will give way to microhamsters and, inevitably, nanohamsters.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

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Life in Abundance

In a recent essay in the Globe and Mail, futurist Peter de Jager writes about the unexpected problems that result from abundance:

What do traffic jams, obesity and spam have in common?

They are all problems caused by abundance in a world more attuned to scarcity. By achieving the goal of abundance, technology renders the natural checks and balances of scarcity obsolete.

So we're fat because our bodies were designed to alternate between scarcity and abundance, and we never give them the scarcity side of the equation. All the dieting that goes on is really just an attempt to reintroduce scarcity. We have traffic jams, de Jager claims, because we have an abundance of speed, which kills the constraint of distance. (Personally, I'd be more inclined to say that traffic jams result from the combination of an abundance of cars and a scarcity of lanes.) We have spam because spammers can send out e-mail in vast quantities justified, from their perspective, by even a minuscule return.

He concludes:

Any technology which creates abundance poses problems for any process which existed to benefit from scarcity.

Let's take one of our favorite emerging technologies, life extension, and see how it might affect the interplay between scarcity and abundance.

Linear thinkers tell us that life extension will lead to extreme overpopulation and environmental catastrophe. There's already an abundance of human life on the planet and longer lifespans will only make the situation worse. But those scenarios may miss the mark because they don't take another type of abundance into consideration. In order to become widespread, life extension will have to accompany higher levels of technological and economic development. It's been observed that birth rates consistently level off, and even begin to go down, as a society develops economically. This is currently happening in some parts of India. This abundance of material development, on the other hand, might very well have a negative impact on the environment. Throughout human history, the biosphere has generally fared best where economic development has been the most scarce. But another disruptive technology, nanotech, may turn that truism on its head.

Life extension will play havoc with life insurance. Life insurance companies make their money off the scarcity of time that our lifespans represent. Longer lives will benefit the insurance companies, with people taking longer to get the death benefit or missing it altogether by outliving the policy's term. On the other hand, annuities will pay out for much longer than planned. So the advantages and disadvantages will offset, at least to some extent..

With an abundance of time in their lives, people might begin to perceive a scarcity of meaning. There's plenty of time in a 75-year lifespan for existential angst, even with everything else we have to get done in that brief interval. Think how much more meaningless and depressing the world might look to a jaded 400-year old. The scarcity of perceived meaning may lead to the development of an abundance of philosophical and religious outlooks, many more than we have today.

Organized religion, at least the kind that emphasizes an afterlife, may paradoxically take a hit from life extension technologies. I'm thinking primarily of the longer-range life extension techniques such as cryonics and personality uploading. Religions have traditionally benefited from the scarcity of afterlife options. Give people a way of achieving "life after death" without all those ethical and metaphysical requirements and a lot of them are sure to jump at it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, even for the churches (or other religious bodies) that lose members. The folks left won't be primarily interested in salvationism, what the evangelicals call "fire insurance." They'll be looking for something deeper. Thus will the sheep be separated from the goats.

All of our notions about education and careers are firmly rooted in the unspoken assumption that life is short. Our time is scarce. A few years ago, working adults rarely decided to drop everything mid-career and do something else (or go back to school.) When post-retirement-age folks would do something like this, we tended to describe it as commendable, albeit sometimes in a patronizing way. But it was regarded as foolhardy for someone in their 30's or 40's to try it. Since I've been in the workforce, I've seen perceptions of such a shift evolve to the point that it's no longer even considered "daring" (which was the second wave after foolhardy), but a fairly standard practice. So far, this evolution has occurred not so much because we're living longer, but because we're experiencing more change faster than we ever have before. There may have always been an abundance of change experienced in a single human lifespan, but even that abundant amount is increasing geometrically. As we come to tolerate greater and greater amounts of change in our lifetimes, we become increasingly intolerant of any scarcity of options. This intolerance will only increase with substantially longer lifespans. Multiple educational specializations and careers will be the norm.

For similar reasons, multiple places of residence and multiple choices of life partner will also be the norm. For many, they are already are. For all of human history, it's been understood that (religious beliefs aside) we have but one life to live. Life extension will eliminate that dreadful scarcity. An abundance of choices combined with an abundance of time means that we will all have many lives to live, should we choose to do so.

Posted by Phil at 06:44 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 29, 2003

Senate Hearings

Rand Simberg has a good run-down on the the Senate Commerce Committee's hearing on the future of NASA which was held this morning. Sounds like there wasn't much enthusiasm for the orbital space plane. Robert Zubrin was there, making his case for Mars (if you'll pardon the expression.)

It will be interesting to see what fallout, if any, there will be. Stay tuned.

Posted by Phil at 03:43 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #79

In the Future...

... having secured the rights of its own kind, a mechanical pundit will head up RETH (Robots for the Ethical Treatment of Humans).

via InstaPundit (of course)

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October 28, 2003

If Only They Could Stay Little Like This

I missed this yesterday. Randall Parker has the scoop on the isolation of a specific gene that triggers puberty.

NIH-funded researchers have identified a gene that appears to be a crucial signal for the beginning of puberty in human beings as well as in mice. Without a functioning copy of the gene, both humans and mice appear to be unable to enter puberty normally. The newly identified gene, known as GPR54, also appears necessary for normal reproductive functioning in human beings.

Randall argues that numerous benefits would accrue from using this knowledge to delay the onset of puberty.

Read the whole thing. He makes some pretty strong arguments.

Posted by Phil at 03:18 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fire Update

Posse member Joanie (that's Ms. Goddess to the likes of guys like me) has the latest on the impact of the fires in San Diego. She offers some sound advice to the evacuation-averse:

Anyone who is told to evacuate, but hasn't, should keep this in mind: by remaining in your home after you've been ordered to leave, you are risking your life and that of the rescue crew. Please, think about that. Maybe you don't have much regard for yourself, but there are many of us who have loved ones out there trying to save your sorry hides. Get out when you're told! "I'm not going to be comfortable over at so-and-so's house." Well, guess what? You'll be even more uncomfortable on fire. And, putting others in harm's way because you're feeling stubborn just doesn't cut it in my book.

So true. All the best to you and everyone there, Joanie. Keep us posted.

Posted by Phil at 10:47 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Just in Time for a Halloween Broadcast

They say it's a binary asteroid, which is interesting enough in its own right. But look at that picture and then compare it to this.

I'm spooked, folks. Pretty darn spooked.

Posted by Phil at 10:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Mercury to Apollo in One Step

For those who sneered that the recent Chinese space mission was only a repeat of something we did 40 years ago, try this out for size:

Now China Plans to Send Three People Into Space

BEIJING (Reuters) - Basking in glory after its first manned space launch, China has set its sights on putting three people into space for a week, the China News Service said on Tuesday.

A space official who worked on the October 15-16 voyage that made China only the third country to rocket a person into space, said preparations were under way for the next in the Shenzhou, or "Divine Ship," series, the semi-official news agency said.

The Shenzhou VI was expected to blast off within the next two years, it reported.

Of course, this could all be just so much commie propaganda, but what if it isn't? The first Mercury launch was in 1961. The first Apollo launch was in 1965. That's four years. If the Chinese get their 3-man crew up there in 2005, they will have cut the time in half. Of course, I realize that there's a more significant difference between Mercury and Apollo than the number of crew on board. Nowhere does the article say that they'll be doing any of the EVA's (space-walks) or docking maneuvers that NASA pulled off in the intervening Mercury and Gemini years.

Still, it's an interesting development. And enough to make me think twice before categorically denying that a new space race might be in the works.

Posted by Phil at 10:26 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

I've Never Been There

Via KurzweilAI.net, There.com has launched its interactive online 3-D universe. It looks like a pretty cool environment; they're currently offering a free trial. Looks like the response has been pretty good. I'm currently on a waiting list for it.


Dear Phil,

Thank you for your interest in There. We're very sorry, but according to your answers on the survey, your computer does not currently meet the There minimum system requirements.

We would love to have you participate, but based on the information you provided, you need the following upgrade(s) in order to run There:

Reported OS: Other

Reported CPU Speed: < 800 MHZ

Reported Amount of RAM: 128MB OR LESS

Reported Videocard: Other

For more information on upgrading your system to run There, contact us at help@there.com. You can also read a detailed overview of our minimum system requirements at: http://www.there.com/help/compatibility.html.

If you upgrade your system, or decide to use another computer to run There, please contact us at help@there.com. Also, please don’t hesitate to contact us if you think your system meets our requirements, and that you've received this email in error.

Thanks again from all of us at There!

Nicole A. Craine
Director, Customer Service

Hmm...looks like I won't be going There for a while.

Posted by Phil at 06:26 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Linear Thinking at Its Finest

A piece on global warming in today's WiredNews suggests that we may be looking at an $18 quadrillion price tag to fix the problem. But there's a cheery upside:

Luckily, most estimates of the costs of curbing global warming by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change run to just hundreds of trillions of dollars over 100 years -- a relative pin prick for a growing world economy.

Um, I'm going to say that hundreds of trillions is quite a nasty little pin prick, even if you put the word "just" in front of it. Later we get some good news:

Even the strictest constraints would brake GDP by only 4.5 percent in 2050. Quadrillions of dollars apparently evaporate because they start in 1990 dollars and get eroded by inflation.

Well, hey, that's a relief. I'm wondering how many times in the past all the nations of the world have come together and put 4.5 percent of the total global GDP to use for some constructive aim?

I'm just asking.

Pardon me if I'm a little skeptical about these cost estimates as well as the dire conclusions that lead to them. Here's some logic to chew on:

A heat wave in Europe this year killed about 15,000 people in France. About 1,300 died in a heat wave in India. There were 562 tornadoes in the United States in May, more than any month on record. Was any of that caused by humans and "dangerous"?

If so, humanity would have to start slashing the use of the fossil fuels, a backbone of the world economy from coal-fired power plants and steel mills to trucks and cars.

The 15,000 deaths in France have definitely been linked to humans. It seems that the French humans leave their elderly untended and their hospitals understaffed in August. Plus they eat a fairly dehydrating diet and have never planned what to do in case of a heat wave. Even neglected by their vacationing offspring, most of the victims would have been okay if they had consumed water and taken a cool soak in their bathtubs. If the heat wave was caused by something other than fossil fuels, slashing their use will do nothing to prevent more deaths if there is another heat wave. On the other hand, even if fossil fuels are the culprit — and there are dozens more of these heat waves in Europe in the years to come — the kinds of measures outlined above actually would be effective in preventing death.

The author of this piece (I just noticed that it came from Reuters) engages in thinking that Arnold Kling would describe as excessively linear. To reiterate a recent Kling quote:

My sense is that environmental radicals tend to be point people. This makes their long-term forecasts particularly suspect. For long-term forecasting, nonlinear thinking is best. Linear approximations may work well for forecasts one or two years ahead. Point-based thinking is rarely accurate for more than a few months in today's dynamic economy.

Oddly enough, the author of the Reuters piece seems to agree:

Even the strictest constraints would brake GDP by only 4.5 percent in 2050. Quadrillions of dollars apparently evaporate because they start in 1990 dollars and get eroded by inflation.

And the scenarios do not gauge benefits of averted climate change -- like the possibility of not having to build Dutch-style dykes -- nor examine short-cut solutions such as sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and burying it.

The trouble with these scenarios isn't just that they fail to gauge solutions; they don't even take all of the climatological risks into consideration. For example, what if over the next century, solar activity causes our planet to cool off substantially? What if human-induced global warming is the only thing that can save us? I know, it would sound silly if it was just me saying. But it isn't just me saying it.

The trouble with the future is that it can be harder to predict than a lot of experts would like to make out, especially when they're committed to a particular conclusion. So maybe we should relax a little, realizing that we don't have a clear picture of

  1. Whether the Earth is actually warming up, and if so whether this is being caused by the use of fossil fuels.
  2. What the world economy will be like in 50 years (or even five).
  3. What new technologies might be developed over that time that can prevent further environmental damage, and even repair the damage that's been done.

We need more nonlinear thinking on global warming. I don't know who's going to do it, but I doubt it will come from Reuters.

Posted by Phil at 05:28 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

This Week 10/28/03

This will be an unstructured week here at The Speculist. We're taking a breather from all regular features except for In The Future...

Next week, we'll be back with a new interview, an entry from the time traveler's notebook, and the beginning of a new storyline in Stillness. Until then, just sit back and enjoy the stream of consciousness.

Posted by Phil at 04:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 27, 2003

ITF #78

In the Future...

... we'll drive down to the river for a recharge.

via Posse member Chris Hall

Posted by Phil at 03:42 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

October 25, 2003

Future Roundup 10/25/03

Here's the full collection of last week's In the Future... predictions. A couple of them related to robots, otherwise there was no real theme to speak of. Hat tip to FastForward Posse member Robert Hinkley for helping us to look ahead.

In the Future...

...we'll also be saying goodbye to our snowshovels and leafblowers.

...astronomers will continue to defy any notion of celestial privacy.

...convicts will be the primary innovators in the field of robot pets.

...we'll be even more fascinated by the blindingly obvious than we currently are.

...strong law enforcement will finally eradicate the menace of non-standard marmalade.


That does it for last week. Until next time, we'll see you in the future.

Posted by Phil at 05:53 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

October 24, 2003

A Great Question for Bloggers and Blogreaders

Stephen Green is asking (and answering) one of the all-time great speculative questions. I can think of three answers right off the top of my head:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

Philip K. Dick

"There is no pravda in Pravda."

Old Soviet saying.

"What do you think, sirs?"

Posted by Phil at 12:07 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Anti-Senility Gene

FuturePundit Randall Parker has the scoop on a single gene that influences the age at which both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's set in. Money quote:

It is worth noting that glutathione serves as an intracellular antioxidant that gets oxidized in order to reduce free radicals to less harmful forms. It is not at all surprising that a gene playing a role in antioxidant metabolism would turn out to influence age of onset for two different neurodegenerative diseases. A body that expresses a higher level of genes that detoxify free radicals is, all else equal, not going to age as rapidly as one that expresses those genes at a lower level.

So this is why a lot of people (myself included) take supplements that are supposed to be antioxidants. I wonder if they really are of some help in warding off these diseases?

Posted by Phil at 11:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

In Your Dreams, Professor Hall

No offense, Chris. I don't mean to question the prowess of one of my own posse members, but come on.

Anyhow, if it somehow is true, I hope you used one of these new ankle deals.

And by the way, stop trying to confuse people with your circular references to rumors that may or may not be denied here.

Posted by Phil at 10:58 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Nonlinear the Better

Via Rand Simberg, here's an excellent essay by Arnold Kling on the subject of nonlinear thinking. Reflecting on his experiences at the recent Pop!tech conference, Kling notes that nonlinear thinking is hugely important for creating models of the future. He demonstrates how it can take us in one step from 85-year lifespans to (essentially) infinite lifespans and how it can get us past worrying about catastrophes that may destroy the planet when we realize that someday we won't need Earth.

Kling says:

My sense is that environmental radicals tend to be point people. This makes their long-term forecasts particularly suspect. For long-term forecasting, nonlinear thinking is best. Linear approximations may work well for forecasts one or two years ahead. Point-based thinking is rarely accurate for more than a few months in today's dynamic economy.

That is precisely the point I made in my discussion with Nina Paley last week. Nina's rejoinder was that problems, not just solutions, can hit us in a nonlinear fashion.

As a guy who publishes his fair share of predictions (more than 75 so far and counting), I was very interested in this:

The economist Robert Solow showed what was wrong with this type of thinking thirty years ago. At that time, the "Club of Rome" had what they claimed was a complex, nonlinear model which forecast environmental catastrophe. However, because their analysis took no account of prices, technical substitution, or technological change, it was no better than a point-based tool for forecasting. One of the speakers at this year's Pop!tech, Geoffrey Ballard, pointed out that every prediction made by the Club of Rome has been false.

Ouch. That's gotts sting. On the other hand, if even one of my predictions ever comes true, I can claim that The Speculist is more accurate than the prestigious Club of Rome.


Read the whole thing. Between this essay and what I've read elsewhere, I'm very much looking forward to going to Pop!tech next year.

Posted by Phil at 10:31 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

They Sure Grow 'em Tall Down There

If the climate is right, you can grow your mountains taller.

Scientists have long recognized that the emergence of a large mountain range can produce climate change. New work indicates that the converse is also true. In a report published today in the journal Nature, researchers propose that chilly waters and dry weather helped push the Andes skyward.

Who would have guessed it?

Posted by Phil at 09:57 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Optimism Explained

People ask me why I'm so optimistic. How can I be so convinced that technology is going to provide the means to solve our problems and make this world a paradise?

Oh, I don't know. It's just little developments like this, I suppose.

Posted by Phil at 09:52 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #77

In the Future...

...strong law enforcement will finally eradicate the menace of non-standard marmalade.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 09:41 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Finding the Perfect Book

Via KurzweilAI.net, Amazon today launches a full-text search feature for 120,000 books, more than 3.3 million pages of text. The future has arrived, folks. Searching for the perfect book just got a whole lot easier.

Go to Amazon and read about the prizes they're giving for the best search experiences. They give examples showing the books you find when you do a search like "rocket experiments for kids."

I thought I would give it a try, doing a search that would yield a particular book by looking for an obscure phrase within it. I tried to find Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land using the phrase "water brother." (In the book, becoming "water brothers" is an important aspect of Martian religion.) A search on the words water brother produced some 64,000 results. I guess this means that more than half the books available for search have both the words "water" and "brother" in them.

Interesting, but not all that helpful. I added quotes and searched for the phrase "water brother," which narrowed the list down to 60 results. This was a bit of an improvement, but Stranger in a Stranger Land was not one of the 60. Unfazed, I decided to do a search on the word "grok." In the book, grokking is another key aspect of Martian spirituality. Heinlein introduced the word to the English language. At one time, it was unique to his novel.

Well, not any more. My Amazon search for grok yielded 188 books. What a legacy for Heinlein! His word has definitely made it into the language. Unfortunately, Stranger in a Strange Land was not one of the 188. Here are a few examples of books that the search did find:

That's a pretty neat collection of books, but still no luck getting to a book that I could have found in a few seconds by doing a straightforward search on the title. I decided to give it one last go: "Valentine Michael Smith". In the book, that's the Man from Mars' name

No luck. I got 11 items, each of which mentions SiaSL, but no pointer to the novel itself. Anyway, just to get it out of my system , here's the book I was looking for:

But enough of my manipulation of the system. Let's use this Amazon full-text feature the way it was meant to be used. Let's find books that contain text that we're interested in. As a service to my readers, here are a few books that contain ideas that are important to me.

A search for "fabulous monkey" gave me this title:

A search for "snot sandwich" yields this book:

If, like me, you enjoy reading books that include the phrase "wet glistening buttocks," then you'll probably be interested in this one:

How about something for the kids? I bet your family enjoys books about "frustrated squirrels" as much as mine does:

A good Halloween story allows includes a "gleeful fiend"or two:

Like a good mystery? Heck, who doesn't. Amazon can point you to 830 books in which "shots rang out" and 84 books in which both "shots rang out" and "dogs barked." If you want a book featuring a guy named Max in which both "shots rang out" and "dogs barked," Amazon has 27 titles for you. If you want a book featuring a guy named Max and a gal named Lucy in which both "shots rang out" and "dogs barked," there are four to choose from.

But let's get creative, here. Let's shoot the moon and look for the perfect book. I want a book in which "shots rang out" and "dogs barked," a book that also has a monkey in it, along with a fiend and some buttocks and a squirrel. Thanks to Amazon and their advanced full-text search feature, I have located this, the perfect book:

And now for the ironic twist: I'm actually a Harry Turtledove fan! And here I was just trying to be a wise guy. I even mentioned one of Turtledove's books in a recent entry. This one sounds pretty interesting, too. I might just have to buy it.

Anyhow, don't take my word for any of this. Go try the new Amazon full-text search feature for yourself. You might find the perfect book after all.

Posted by Phil at 08:25 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 23, 2003

ITF #76

In the Future...

...we'll be even more fascinated by the blindingly obvious than we currently are.

Posted by Phil at 09:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

If You Can't Laugh About Terrorism...

Robert Zubrin — our good friend, outspoken critic of the space program, author of The Case for Mars — has either lost his mind or charted out a brilliant new course for himself. Or maybe it's a little of both.

His new book is a novel (okay), a science fiction novel (makes sense), a satire of the War on Terrorism (huh?) According to a review found on the well-named FantasticReviews website:

The story opens when a race of galactics called Minervans occupy the town of Kennewick, Washington, which they claim as their ancient homeland. For those of you unfamiliar with the state of Washington (like the Minervans, I call it my homeland), Kennewick is a dusty little town in apple-growing country, about as unlikely a piece of real estate for people to fight over as . . . you guessed it. Although Zubrin never mentions it, Kennewick’s main claim to fame is that it is the home of Kennewick Man, whose fossilized remains certain Native American groups have disgracefully sought to conceal from scientific study. One suspects that in the universe of The Holy Land, Kennewick Man was a Minervan from the time before they emigrated into space.

The Minervans are looking for a quiet place to escape the persecution they have suffered at the hands of other space-faring civilizations, including a recent attempt by one of the major galactic empires to exterminate them completely. Kennewick proves a poor choice.

The United States government, largely controlled by Christian fundamentalists, finds the presence of these pagans on American land intolerable. It launches a military campaign, which the Minervans defeat with their technological superiority.

It shouldn't be too hard to see the parallels with the events of 1948. After the "U.S." suffers this defeat, they adopt a new strategy:

Unable to evict the Minervans by force, the US government turns to guile. It forces former residents of Kennewick, most of whom had already settled in other parts of the country, to live in squalor in refugee camps outside Kennewick, then trains the refugees’ children to carry out attacks on the Minervans.

All of this is designed to generate bad publicity for the Minervans and sympathy for the “Kennewickian” refugees. The other galactic races, including the largest galactic power, the Western Galactic Empire (“WGE”), are shocked by the Minervan mistreatment of the Kennewickian refugees and the atrocities against the Kennewickian children.

You can see why Zubrin decided to make this a science fiction story. If you set a story like this in the real world, it would be too absurd to be believed.

Oh...yeah. Right.

Matters are complicated when Earth is found to possess huge reserves of helicity, a valuable resource necessary for space travel. The proceeds of helicity sales soon begin to line the pockets of corrupt American officials. Some of the funds are used to purchase anti-telepathy devices. These devices facilitate suicide attacks against the WGE, beginning with the hijacking of four spaceships, three of which succeed in destroying WGE planets.

The WGE is well aware that Earthlings carried out these attacks, but is reluctant to take action that might interrupt its supply of helicity. The Americans, aided by an extremely friendly galactic press, try to persuade the WGE to place the blame on the Minervans, on the theory that their mistreatment of the Kennewickians caused the whole situation. Failing that, the US tries to divert WGE reprisals to Peru and Mexico, where the terrorist training camps were located. Never mind that the terrorists were Americans, funded by Americans.

Read the whole review.

I just got my hands on a copy of the book last night, so I can't recommend it yet. But I have to say that I like the idea and I'll be disappointed if I don't enjoy it.

I'm sure some will find it offensive that Zubrin attempts to draw humor out of a tragic situation, but there's something to be said for looking at these events from arms' length. As a warblogger-sympathizer, I tend to bristle at the suggestion that our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were somehow diversions. But Zubrin isn't saying they were; he's just pointing out the absurdity of attacking "Peru and Mexico" while still claiming to be friends with the "US" And that situation is absurd. Others might object that it wasn't really the Israel/Palestine situation that inspired Osama to attack the WTC. That's true, although incursions into the "holy land" of Saudi Arabia were one of his major beefs. Plus, I think you have to allow for some artistic license in a work like this.

I was at an event last night at which Zubrin spoke about The Holy Land to a group of science fiction fans. The members of the group had read the book in anticipation of the event; most of them appeared to like it quite a bit. That response may have been colored somewhat by the fact that they were face-to-face with the author. Still, I was encouraged by their response because the group was in no wise conservative or pro-war (one expressed an admiration for Michael Moore; another for Noam Chomsky). And yet, none of them took issue with the basic premise of the book: that the situation in the Middle East is logically and morally absurd.

Perhaps the artifices of satire really do help to get the point across. In any case, I would expect this book to be of great interest throughout the blogosphere. I hope it gets some lively discussion going.

Posted by Phil at 07:02 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 22, 2003

ITF #75

In the Future...

...convicts will be the primary innovators in the field of robot pets.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 03:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 21, 2003

Good Nano, Bad Nano

Howard Lovy provides a quick run-down on positive and negative coverage of nanotechnology in the mainstream press. Also, look here if you haven't read his piece on the Foresight Conference.Turns out those nano-crackpots are a pretty respectable bunch.

Heck, I could have told him that.

Posted by Phil at 02:27 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

ITF #74

In the Future...

...astronomers will continue to defy any notion of celestial privacy.

Posted by Phil at 02:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Rail Gun or Space Elevator?

Finally someone is taking on this vital question. Jay Manifold of A Voyage to Arcturus has this to say on the subject:

The hint that space elevators and linear accelerators are economically complementary is correct. Space elevators can lift large, finished assemblies (with people in them if desired) at relatively long intervals (hours to days) and low accelerations; linear accelerators are best for inserting small amounts of raw materials into orbit at short intervals (seconds) and high accelerations.

This then raises an intriguing question: how long would a rail gun need to be in order to comfortably launch humans into orbit. Read the whole thing to find out. But if you don't follow along and do all the math, you're cheating!

Posted by Phil at 01:58 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

ITF #73

In the Future...

...we'll also be saying goodbye to our snowshovels and leafblowers.

Posted by Phil at 01:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Futures Market

It's been a while since I've written anything about the futures market in terrorism. Science News provides an intriguing look at some markets that seem to provide accuarte predictions in a number of different areas.

Economists have found, for instance, that orange juice futures predict the weather in Florida better than conventional weather forecasts do. And on the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, Wall Street traders correctly guessed within minutes of first hearing the news which of the four main suppliers had provided the faulty part, whereas a blue-ribbon panel of experts took months to come to the same conclusion.

Markets, such as the New York Stock Exchange, distill the collective wisdom of millions of individuals into a single statistic, and they do so with amazing efficiency. In contrast to other information-gathering institutions, such as committees and polls, markets require participants to put hard dollars behind their opinions. What's more, markets reward the people who are right, not those who lie convincingly or are loudest or most aggressive or who have the longest string of titles after their name.

Some markets have been engineered for the express purpose of providing forecasts on matters beyond the price of commodities. The Hollywood Stock Exchange, a Web-based virtual market that makes predictions about Hollywood stars and movies, correctly guessed 35 of last year's 40 Oscar nominees in the main categories. For more than a decade, an academic project called the Iowa Electronic Markets has predicted the outcomes of presidential races better than 75 percent of the polls do. And in a recent trial, a market specially designed to predict sales of Hewlett-Packard products performed better than the company's internal sales forecasts did.

I don't think this idea is going to go away, even if betting on disasters is deemed distasteful. Markets are just too powerful a tool to be ignored.

via GeekPress

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Interesting article in Wired about research in regeneration:

Keating himself believes that regeneration research is on the brink of a revolution - the very place genetics was 20 years ago. "We've been studying regeneration for 200 years, sure," he shrugs. "But we've got different tools now. For the first time, we can see what's happening at the level of molecules and genes." From Keating's perspective, growing a whole arm would be a needlessly complicated parlor trick. But if our regenerative abilities could be sped up even a little, the effect would be extraordinary. "Patients with kidney failure need just 10 percent of their cells back and they can go off dialysis," says Dean Li, Keating's colleague at Utah and now his business partner. "Likewise, when you have a heart attack, there's a big difference between losing 20 percent of your heart cells and 40 percent."

Evidence suggests that the ability to re-grow damaged tissue (rather than cover over it with scar tissue) may involve a genetic switch that was thrown off somewhere in the process of evolution. If we can find that switch and figure out how to turn it back on, we've taken a major step towards life extension.

And we may be getting close:

Until the fall of 1998, when, on something of a lark, Keating and his colleagues, postdoc Shannon Odelberg and researcher Chris McGann, decided to treat mouse muscle cells in a petri dish with a liquefied extract made from a newt's regenerating leg cap. Unlike newt cells, mammalian muscle cells change dramatically as they mature, growing fat bundles of ropelike fibers and merging their cytoplasms en masse, like eggs whose whites have run together. Believing that this elaborate structure could be reversed was, researchers thought, like expecting a Ming vase to morph back into a lump of raw clay and powdered pigments.

And yet, under the influence of the newt extract, that was exactly what happened. "Nobody expected it to work," admits Odelberg, still sounding baffled. In a follow-up experiment, the researchers were able to apply growth factors to dedifferentiated cells, making the stem cells mature again to resemble muscle, bone, or fat cells.

It was a staggering discovery. "People had been studying regeneration for years and had zero evidence it could happen in mammals," Li says. "It wasn't until Mark and Shannon debunked the myth of terminal differentiation that anyone believed this could work."

Very interesting. Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 01:10 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 20, 2003

Flying Beyond Whatever

An article in WiredNews about the coming demise of the Concorde is a good illustration of how limited thinking about the future can be:

When the Concorde lands for the final time at London's Heathrow Airport on Oct. 24, it'll be the last chance in a generation for commercial air passengers to pierce the sound barrier, aviation analysts say.

In a strict, technical sense, this may be true. It could be years and years before one of the big aviation manufacturers decides to build another supersonic passenger aircraft. But the aviation analysts who tell us this are basing their predictions on the stated intentions of these companies, rather than the larger environment in which those companies operate.

I doubt the planners at Boeing or Airbus have spent a lot of time considering how the X Prize and the push towards space tourism might unsettle their current plans. But it doesn't really matter whether they've thought about it or not. If space tourism becomes reality, many "commercial air passengers" (if we choose to describe them as such) will have the opportunity to "pierce the sound barrier," and do plenty more besides.

The present grows out of the past in unexpected ways. As I demonstrated last time, it took a highly unlikely combination of events to get me from Kentucky twenty years ago to my current circumstances. Remove or rewrite any of those events (particularly the early ones) and I would almost certainly be somewhere else doing something else right now.

In a very real sense, I would be a different person.

My present life isn't perfect, nor is it the fulfillment of some vast master plan. But I'm not unhappy with it. I'm glad things have worked out the way they have and that I'm who I am. Still, I haven't achieved all that I would like to; I've fallen well short of some of the highest hopes I had (and still have) for my life.

One could probably draw a similar line through the history of commercial aviation. If some decisions had been made differently in the 60's, we might never have seen commercial supersonic flights at all. Had other decisions been made differently in the 70's and 80's, we might not now be witnessing the "end" of it.

In both cases (my life and the history of supersonic commercial aviation), the line has ended up somewhere short of where it could have. So how do I take that line from me-20-years-ago through me-at-the-present and extend it to the me-20-years-from-now that I'd like to be? Likewise, how do we draw a line from the demise of the Concorde to a near future in which more people are traveling at supersonic speeds than our good friends the aviation analysts ever would have dreamed?

Practical Time Travel, the art of moving from the present to a specific defined future, involves four phases:

Phase I: Imagination
Phase II: Foundation and Reimagination
Phase III: Action, Reaction, and Reimagination
Phase IV: Realization and Reimagination

I'm going to spend the next few weeks exploring each of these phases. As you might guess from its recurrence in each of the subsequent phases, imagination is probably the most important of the four.

Imagination gives the first whiff of reality to the nonexistent. We often end up in circumstances that we never imagined. Sometimes this is wonderful, and sometimes it's horrible, but most of the time it is simply what it is for me - okay. Not too bad. Not that great. It's just what it is.

Whatever happens, happens.

Imagining an outcome is the first step we can take to ensure that whatever happens isn't just "whatever." Whatever is undifferentiated possibility. i Space is chock full of whatever; whatever is a substantial part of what i Space is made of. Even if we narrow our view down to everything within the beam of Reality's Flashlight, we're still looking at tons and tons of the stuff.

Only imagination has power over whatever. Via imagination, we're able to differentiate possibilities and select a single good one, or a group of good ones. If we use our imagination properly, we're able to see beyond false boundaries and grasp the very real possibilities that lie ahead.

This is the mistake the aviation analysts have made about supersonic flight. They're basing their picture of the future on the statements of a few individuals who believe (wrongly) that their decisions will determine the future commercial flight. These individuals say there will be no new supersonic passenger aircraft. Without such aircraft on hand, there's no way to carry out such flights.

So we know that supersonic commercial flights won't happen. But what will happen? What big breakthroughs can we expect? The experts shrug.

"Whatever," they tell us. "We're not looking at breakthroughs. We're looking at what the aviation giants say they're going to do."

They aren't exactly wrong to do that. What those companies have said would happen has pretty much been what happened over the past 50 years or so.

But now we have some new folks on the scene drawing lines to very different futures — futures which, like those of the analysts, currently exist only in the imagination. The analysts tell us that the greatest speed that people like us can expect to experience, possibly for the rest of our lives, will be whatever an incrementally improved Airbus or 7X7 aircraft can deliver. But the folks who have imagined, and who are working hard to create, the space tourism business tell us that not only will we be able to go much faster than any Concorde, the speed won't even be the point. It will just be one part of a package that will also include experiencing weightlessness and flying so high that we leave the atmosphere behind.

How can we get sentimental over something like the Concorde when there's so much to look forward to? And how can people waste their time and energy on regret when all they have to do in order to begin creating the future they want is to imagine it?

UPDATE: Speaking of flying faster than sound, Dale Amon provides an interesting report on one of my favorite (currently) imaginary flying machines, the hypersonic scramjet. Also, Randall Parker recent reported on this enabling technology.

Posted by Phil at 11:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Future Roundup 10/19/03

I took the weekend off, making the drive from humdrum Denver through depressing Leadville to glorious Aspen, via the spectacular Independence Pass. I highly recommend Aspen in the off-season, when it's only outrageously (as opposed to inconceivably) expensive. Anyway, my little weekend junket is the reason, for the first time in Speculist history, we're doing a Future Round-up on Monday rather than the preceding Saturday.

Here's the full collection of last week's In the Future... predictions. Hat tips to FastForward Posse members Robert Hinkley and Chris Hall for helping us to look ahead.

In the Future...

...we'll have microwave-friendly tanks and dishwasher-safe aricraft carriers.

...hired-gun Ninja robots will defend Asian Tech Fairs from similar attacks.

... astronomers will assist FBI agents with fingerprinting.

... we'll have a clearer idea of what impact, if any, doughnuts have on them.

......scientists will be delighted by pink lizards, stripy newts and tartan toads.

...parents may have to come to terms with the related benefits of body piercing, spandex, tattoos, and big hair.

...we'll give our toys better toys to play with.

That does it for last week. Until next time, we'll see you in the future.

UPDATE: While it looks like Dave Cullen's weekend was distinctly different from mine, we're both basking in a post-Aspen glow.

Posted by Phil at 05:58 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Space Elevator Blog

Via Transterrestrial Musings, here's a a new specialty blog dealing exclusively with one of our favorite topics.

Posted by Phil at 05:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 17, 2003

ITF #72

In the Future...

...we'll give our toys better toys to play with.

via Posse member Chris Hall

Posted by Phil at 10:24 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Funding the Wheel

Howard Lovy provides a keen insight into the difficulty of acquiring funding for nanotechnology (and similar) start-ups by treating us to a rejection letter sent to a highly industrious and creative entrepreneur some time ago:

You tell many fanciful stories about what your technology may someday do, yet this "wheel" concept is still just a theory. I realize your team believes it is close to chiseling a proper shape for such a device, but even if a prototype leaves the laboracave, it would need to undergo a series of tests required by the Herd Council before approval could be granted. And we haven't even mentioned mass-production and standardization.

Also, have you ever even considered the societal and ethical implications of such a "wheel" on our society as a whole? Those things could rip up our hunting and grazing land, and even "roll" out of control, destroying all living things in its path.

Read the whole thing. It's both hilarious and sadly familiar.

Posted by Phil at 10:16 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #71

In the Future...

...parents may have to come to terms with the related benefits of body piercing, spandex, tattoos, and big hair.

Posted by Phil at 09:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Weasel Watcher is Watching Us

And, contrary to how that might sound, it's a good thing.

Watcher of Weasels has organized a Watcher's Council that puts together a weekly collection of links to selected posts. The members of the council vote on their own posts as well as posts of others that they choose to nominate. Think of it as Survivor meets The Carnival of the Vanities. Check it out. It's pretty cool.

Anyhoo, my recent ramblings on Stephenson, Eco, and whether we're living in a turbo version of the middle ages was nominated and made the cut. I recieved a 1/3 vote! Read that carefully. I don't want to mislead anyone. I didn't get 1/3 of the votes cast, I received 1/3 of one vote. (At least I think I'm reading that right. My understanding of election math is demonstrably weak.)

But, hey, that was good enough for me to be included. I'm honored. Seeing as I have no way of identifying the 1/3 of one member who voted for me, I'm adding the entire Council to my blogroll.

Posted by Phil at 08:32 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Scully's Honor

As a devoted Gillian Anderson fan, I can only bow in gratitude to the good work this man is doing.

Posted by Phil at 07:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Enlightening the Universe

Ray Kurzweil, in an interview in What is Enlightenment? magazine, spins a scenario by which intelligence may re-shape the universe itself:

In my mind, we will ultimately saturate all of the matter and energy in our area of the universe with our intelligence, and I suppose you could say that's an end in itself. All of this dumb matter and energy around us will wake up and become sublimely intelligent. Then it will spread out to the whole universe at the fastest speed information can flow. And one could make an argument that it's not going to take an infinitely long time because there may be other ways to get to other parts of the universe through shortcuts like wormholes, which physics has postulated. Eventually the whole universe will, essentially, wake up.

But isn't it interesting that you never see cosmologists give any role to intelligence in the future destiny of the universe? Rather, they talk a lot about whether or not the universe will contract back to a big crunch or expand indefinitely, as if these sorts of mindless forces of physics are just going to endlessly grind on like a big dumb machine.

Nowhere do they consider, "Now, wait a second, intelligence could spread through the universe and actually make an intelligent decision about what the destiny of the universe is, and even though the gravitational force and other forces might cause the universe to spin apart, the intelligent civilization infusing the whole universe will decide, 'No, we're not going to do that. We're going to do something different.'"

Such an evolutionary development will represent a confirmation or even vindication of sorts for pantheists. Those who have always believed that the physical universe is host to a divine intelligence will, in a sense, be proved right.

The intelligence will be there — in every pebble on the beach, in the birds, in the trees, in the clouds, in every star in a moonless sky — but it won't exactly be divine. It will be us.

Posted by Phil at 06:46 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #70

In the Future...

......scientists will be delighted by pink lizards, stripy newts and tartan toads.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 06:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 16, 2003

Low-Carb Life Extension

Here's an interview with one Cynthia Kenyon, whose research with worms indicates that hormones hold the key to curing aging:

We found that mutations that lowered the activity of a single gene, called daf-2, caused the worms to live more than twice as long as normal. We showed that their long lives weren't caused by changes in feeding or reproduction - two boring possibilities. But the best thing was that the long-lived worms remained active and healthy long after normal worms were decrepit or dead. They were like 90-year-old people who looked like 45-year-olds.

The daf-2 gene encodes a hormone receptor similar to the human receptors for insulin and IGF-1. So hormones control ageing. They speed it up. Then there are many genes "downstream" of this receptor that do lots of different things. Some of them code for proteins that protect animals from all sorts of stresses, chaperones that help other proteins fold correctly, and antioxidant proteins such as catalase and superoxide dismutase. Then there are those that encode proteins that kill bacteria, and metabolic genes. But you have a single hormone receptor, the IGF-1/insulin receptor, and a transcription factor commanding between 50 and 100 genes that directly affect the ageing process. It's like an orchestra conductor coordinating the flutes and the cellos and the French horns. That's how you get these big effects on lifespan.

Kenyon believes that controlling insulin levels may be key to prolonging human life. Her recommended lifespan-enhancing diet sounds a lot easier than caloric restriction, and in fact sounds a lot like a diet much discussed in the blogosphere:

I eat a diet that keeps my insulin levels low. So, for example, at breakfast I have bacon and eggs with tomatoes and avocados. It's bit like the Atkins diet. I don't actually know if I eat fewer calories, but I feel great and I weigh what I did in high school. I certainly wouldn't want to be hungry all the time, but I'm not, I'm never hungry. I tried caloric restriction just for two days but I couldn't stand it, being hungry all the time.

I've been on Atkins (theoretically) for quite a while, but my progress is slow because I cheat so much. I'm going to have to do some serious rethinking of that strategy.

UPDATE: Randall Parker reports that cholesterol, as well as insulin, may have a significant role to play in fighting aging.

Posted by Phil at 02:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #69

In the Future...

... we'll have a clearer idea of what impact, if any, doughnuts have on them.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 02:04 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Speaking of Buzzkills

Rand Simberg explains (again) why doing something fun like going to the Moon or Mars just won't solve the problem.

Posted by Phil at 11:28 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

An Animated Discussion

Speaking of the Future with Nina Paley

One of the distinguishing characteristics of what I have dubbed serious optimism is the requirement that we deal substantively with objections to projected positive outcomes. "Cheap" optimism makes no such requirement. Disciples of Dr. Pangloss insist that all outcomes are positive, even optimal, by definition, while Pollyanna's brothers and sisters insist that every setback leads inevitably to an even happier ending than was originally expected.

Serious optimists can't allow themselves to indulge in these fantasies. Any sought-after positive outcome is one possibility among many. Like the hero of a Greek tragedy, the tomorrow we seek most earnestly may carry within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Consider MacBeth (not Greek, but a good example of a tragic hero.) The Weird Sisters tell him that he will be king, that he will hold power until a forest marches across the land, and further that no "man born of woman" can ever harm him. This all sounds pretty good: he gets to be king, and there doesn't seem to be any way anyone can hurt him.

To kind of kickstart the process, he and the little Lady commit a fairly gruesome act of regicide right in their own house. Taking the crown in such a barbaric manner is not well-received by MacBeth's fellow nobles, so they put an army together and come after him. The soldiers employ a crude form of camouflage, covering themselves with tree branches (taken from the very forest the Weird Sisters mentioned) as they make their way towards MacBeth. Our hero ends up in a sword fight with his enemy, MacDuff, whom he learns a little too late was delivered via caesarian — and was thus (technically) never "born of woman."

The serious optimist must do what MacBeth could not, anticipate the catastrophes that may paradoxically result from going after some good aim in the wrong way. A cynic can achieve apparent prescience by speaking with delphic ambiguity (and therefore always be "right" no matter how things work out), but this is of no help to those who earnestly pursue a specific outcome. The serious optimist has to embrace multiple possibilities, outcomes both positive and negative, in order to formulate scenarios that transcend the pairs of opposites. It's no coincidence, for example, that the same guy who coined the term nanotechnology also introduced us to the idea of gray goo.

In an effort to transcend simple pairs of opposites, to embrace risks and dangers as well as rewards, I have actively sought individuals with outlooks distinctly different from my own for the Speaking of the Future interviews. Although I may have points of disagreement with any and all of the people I've interviewed up to this point, I share a common philosophical orientation with all of them.

Not so with today's guest.

Filmmaker and cartoonist Nina Paley has agreed to be the first participant in a planned subset of these interviews, what I have facetiously referred to as the "Buzzkill of the Month." (Since this is the first such interview I've published, it would probably make more sense to call it the "Buzzkill of the Quarter," but I do intend to do them more often and, besides, that name just isn't as funny.) Having completed the interview with her, and having already published her answers to the Seven Questions, I've come to the conclusion that Nina is probably not a very good candidate for the position of Buzzkill.

She's just too lively and interesting to be any good at it.

However, in spite of her shortcomings, I've decided to go ahead and run the interview. In our recent cyber dialog, Nina and I talked about overpopulation, biodiversity, and the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Nina sets me straight on Escher and takes issue with my use of the term "anti-humanist." And while I strongly disagree with her assertion that anything these creeps do might be described as having "artistic merit," overall I find that Nina sketches out an intriguing alternative role to that of the serious optimist: the interested observer of interesting times.

These certainly are interesting times, all the more so from having folks like Nina living within them.

Nina, I really enjoyed your short film, The Stork. Living in one of Denverís biggest suburbs, I resonated with the images of tract housing and SUVs piling up on each other in the wake of the bombs the Stork was dropping. How did you come up with the idea for The Stork, and how has it been received?

Thanks! The idea for The Stork came out of a conversation. Iíd seen a lot of those illustrations of storks for new parents — cards, signs in front of peoplesí houses, "stork parking" — and I joked that the "bundle of joy" the Stork is carrying is really a bomb. Then a friend of mine added, "yeah, and instead of leaving craters in its wake, it leaves new subdivisions."

The filmís been received remarkably well. It was invited to Sundance last year, and it just won a prize in the EarthVision Environmental Film Festival in Santa Cruz. I thought it would anger and confuse people, but most viewers seem to get it, even if they donít agree with it.

I made a few other shorts about overpopulation along with the Stork: Fertco and the Wit & Wisdom of Cancer. Those films kind of exorcised my demons. I used to get into heated arguments about population; now I donít. The films speak much more eloquently and concisely than I do, and the fact that theyíre animated makes them go down easier. My anger went into those films, and now Iím much calmer and can get on with my life. So as therapy, The Stork and its companions were a raging success.

Itís interesting that you choose the image of an archetypal Gerber Baby — with blonde hair, blue eyes, a sweet smile, etc. — as the culprit. But if the filmís message is about overpopulation, why aren't those little brown bundles that the Stork is dropping? In the West (where the blonde babies come from) the birth rate has dropped dramatically over the past 50 years. Even in the US, where the population continues to grow, the rate is considerably less than in much of the third world.

Thereís an equation used by population activists: I = PAT. Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. The Stork is about population in the affluent West, where consumption and pollution are 20 to 40 times the rest of the worldís. The point I tried to make is that every new First World consumer has a huge impact on the environment.

Thereís a little-known paper written by Dr. Charles Hall of the State University of New York, called "The Environmental Consequences of Having a Baby in the United States." He actually measured how many barrels of oil, how many hectares of forest, how many cows and chickens and pigs, each new American will consume in their lifetime. Meanwhile environmental groups urge us to "save a tree," save this, save that ó but saving a tree is like pissing in the ocean when we destroy dozens of trees just by living an American lifestyle.

Speaking of which, I know many Americans who delude themselves into believing they donít really live an American lifestyle, because they (like me) recycle or donít drive or donít eat meat. But the "savings" inherent in those choices pale in comparison to what impact we do have, just living here. A car-free vegetarian in India has a fraction of the impact of a car-free vegetarian in the US, because of social circumstances beyond our control. For example, food in the US travels hundreds of miles by truck, is over-packaged, and comes from unsustainable agriculture. So an order of rice and curry in the US has many times the impact of the same meal in India, where food is grown locally and served in a banana leaf and an old newspaper, instead of a styrofoam clamshell in a paper bag in another plastic bag with plastic forks and extra napkins. But I digress.

My point is that as the biggest per capita consumers and polluters on the planet, every new American has a huge environmental impact. Add to that the choices many parents make, of moving to the suburbs and buying larger cars and SUVs, and disposable diapers for their offspring, and it all adds up to The Stork.

If, on the other hand, your subject was consumerism rather than population, why blame the babies? Itís adults, after all, who build the tract housing and drive the SUVs.

I donít blame babies. I blame their parents. At the very end of the credits thereís a childís voice saying, "I donít want to!" followed by the harsh shriek of a hawk, which represents the Stork. Babies donít make any of these decisions, including the decision to be conceived in the first place.

Thereís no question that the culture of child-rearing can be overbearing, especially for those who have decided not to be a part of it. I personally find it disturbing when I meet adults who describe raising their children as "the meaning of life" or who seem to have completely subsumed their own identities in the pursuit of bringing up their children. But what I read on your site, along with some of the sites youíre linked to via the Childfree Ring, seems to go well beyond simple disagreement or opposition to this culture. You use epithets to describe children ("kidlets," "baybees," "bag-o-sprog,") and openly accuse their "breeder" parents of being stupid, irresponsible, and dishonest. One "humor" site in the Childfree Ring includes a cartoon showing a man smashing babies with a sledge hammer to make baby oil, with an interactive feature that allows readers who are so inclined to help smash the babies. Canít people be opposed to having children without being so strident (and often downright nasty) about it?

Please donít hold me responsible for the Childfree Ring! A lot of these people are nuts. Others arenít nuts, but are ranting in anger, as I did on my own site. Thatís why the page says "rants." But you raise a good point Ė if I want serious attention for my project, I should probably remove the more provocative rants. Politics.

I really have nothing against babies and children. Some of my favorite people are children. Babies Iím simply not attracted to, and the constant expectation that as a woman Iíll be delighted by some strangerís baby wears me down. Again, itís parents I have more of a problem with, although I count many parents among my friends, and all of my immediate family. Most members of the "Childfree Movement" are outraged by bad parents, people who neglect or abuse their children, and expect the "Village" to cover for them. Iím not really a spokesperson for the CF movement, and The Stork isnít a film specifically for or about that movement. Itís a film about human impact on the environment.

Iím pleased to see the Childfree movement growing, though. In my more obnoxious zealous days, I tried to convince people not to have children for the sake of the environment. Then I discovered the CF movement, people who just didnít want to have kids for any number of reasons. Instead of convincing people who do want kids not to have them, I realized I should help make it possible for people who donít want them to not have them. Then everybodyís happy, and no oneís making a "sacrifice." Thereís nothing worse than someone who intentionally creates more humans and considers it a sacrifice; that burdenís especially heavy for their kids, who are raised with excessive guilt and resentment. The CF movement says, if you donít want Ďem, donít have Ďem. If you have Ďem, make sure you want Ďem, and take responsibility for your choice.

Some of the more extreme groups that you link to on your site are the Church of Euthanasia and the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. The latter group makes the pitch that we should eliminate the human species completely in the interests of biodiversity. They appear to be serious. Do you identify yourself as a member of this movement? If so, can you explain how you reconcile being an artist, a proponent of the humanities, with membership in an anti-humanist movement?

VHEMT appeals to me in large part because of its humor. It takes an obvious idea to its logical end. The only means of human extinction advocated by VHEMT is voluntary non-reproduction, a strategy with exactly two chances of success: "slim and none." It stuns me that people donít recognize, let alone enjoy the overt absurdism in VHEMT and the Church of Euthanasia.

As for being an artist, a "proponent of the humanities" ó VHEMT and the Church of Euthanasia are art. The CofE especially ó it was founded by artists, and its main activity is performance art, street theater. It has an environmental message, but it exists to communicate ideas to, and entertain, humans. The CofE is a modern descendant of the Dada movement, which was equally misunderstood in its day.

Iíve never called myself an "anti-humanist," but as long as weíre on the subjectÖ. I donít know exactly what people mean by anti-humanism. I suspect anti-humanism isnít against humans, but rather against the philosophy known as Humanism, which arose in response to the European Christian worldview that placed God in the center of the Universe, and man in a subordinate position. Humanism placed Man in the center of the Universe. Anti-humanism, I think, simply says Man is not the center of the Universe; that humans are part of an interconnected web of life, that we need biodiversity but biodiversity certainly doesnít need us. Maybe a more accurate term would be Post-humanism. I think this philosophy is also called "Deep Ecology."

What are your thoughts on the relationship between economic development and population growth? Itís been widely asserted that, as a nationís economy grows, its rate of population growth slows. A good example of this is India, where the population growth rate has slowed almost to zero in the four southern states. India has benefited tremendously in recent years from its participation in the global information technology marketplace, which has contributed to this change in population dynamics. I know from reading your web site that youíre an outspoken critic of globalization. But if globalization contributes to raising standards of living and lowering population growth rates, why oppose it?

I = PAT. Itís not just population, itís consumption times population. Lowered birth rates donít mean lowered environmental impact if consumption and pollution increase. And they are increasing in India, far more rapidly than the birth rate is decreasing. Furthermore, a decline in birth rate doesnít mean a decline in population. The birth rate must drop to below replacement for population to decline. People talk about "slower growth", but growth is growth. Any growth rate above zero translates to exponential growth. Just because something is growing less fast this year than last year, doesnít mean itís not growing.

I spent last Summer in Kerala, India. That experience really took the wind out of my sails. Theyíre dealing with huge environmental problems in India, things as simple as garbage removal. Garbage in Kerala was traditionally biodegradable; you could just chuck it in the back yard or on the street and it would compost itself. Now they have plastic bags mixed in with the garbage, and the results are disastrous. It piles up in the streets, stinks, and attracts vermin. Now it needs to be trucked away to landfills (where will they put the landfills?) and thereís simply no infrastructure to handle the increasing amounts of garbage piling up. The garbage is a by-product of economic prosperity. Having seen life there first-hand, who am I to fault Indians for wanting economic prosperity? They want computers, they want cell phones, they want electricity to run 24 hours a day. They want stuff to work like it does in the US. And I donít blame them Ė I want that stuff too, and Iím glad I have it. So you have what humans want vs. what the rest of life on Earth needs to survive. And these forces seem to be totally at odds with each other. And I no longer think I have any answers. Now Iím just sitting back and watching events unfold like a big show.

If your objection to economic development is that it brings about higher levels of unsustainable consumption of resources, what are your thoughts on emerging technologies that are expected to simultaneously increase material production and make the environment cleaner? Many of those who are optimistic about the future share the concerns of the Green and Sustainable Growth movements, but disgaree with the proponents of these movements on the question of how these problems should be addressed. Christine Peterson, the President of the Foresight Institute, has said that she is motivated by "a desire to help Earth's environment and traditional human communities avoid harm and instead benefit from expected dramatic advances in technology." Christine's views are shared by many of the folks involved in developing these new technologies. What if we could produce more, more cheaply, without the negative impact on the environment and, in fact, begin to correct much of the damage that's been done to the environment?

Hey, sounds great to me. You wonít convince me of anything, but I donít need to be convinced; Iím just watching the show.

Technology has solved all our problems so far. Itís just that itís created new problems we couldnít foresee. Cities used to have the terrible problem of horse shit all over the streets. The Horseless Carriage solved that problem. Now we have suburban sprawl, loss of public space, pedestrian deaths, obesity, air pollution, and oil dependence.

Whether Iím cynical about technology or optimistic doesnít matter. Technology is part of the unfolding drama, and itís interesting to watch. Really, the best I can do to try to make the future brighter is simply not reproduce. In my opinion, thatís the best any of us can do, but thatís just my opinion. People will do what they will do, whether thatís breed like rabbits or have just one kid or no kids or solve problems with technology or make art or start wars or whatever. Iím just one person, out of 6.5 billion, living in "interesting times."

Letís switch back to your movies. I love Fetch!. Iíve watched it repeatedly. Itís like an Escher painting come to life. In fact, if Iím not mistaken, the dog and its owner run through some of Escherís work

You are indeed mistaken; the optical illusions in the film are based on the "three-pronged blivet," which never made its way into Escherís work, as far as I know. The "impossible box" toward the end is the only truly Escheresque scene in the film, but that design pre-dates Escher. Iíve given up on the distinction, though, and just write "Escheresque" in the festival entry forms, because people associate Escher with all optical illusions.

The film is obviously informed by a sense of play, but it seems to touch on some profound ideas about shifting perspectives and the somewhat malleable nature of reality. I get into some of that kind of stuff myself from time to time. So tell us...is Fetch! a philosophical treatise, or were you just having fun making a cartoon?

Fetch! was inspired by philosophical pondering on the malleable nature of reality. You know, "that horizon is actually a wall! Wait a minute Ė itís just a line. Why do I think a straight line is anything other than a straight line? What is real, anyway?Ö" That kind of thing. Fortunately, I made it kind of cute, so the result is watchable, even by my friendís 4-year-old. Fetch! has done well in childrenís film festivals. Kids are a tough audience, so I consider it an honor when they like my work.

Pandorama is another short film combines evocative images, a sense of fun, and serious (in this case, mythic) themes. You employed an unusual technique in making that one, drawing directly onto 70mm film. Youíve also used that technique on at least one other film. How does that technique compare to the animation techniques you used in making Fetch or The Stork? Which do you prefer?

Drawing on film is about as low-tech as you can get. You make every image by hand, unmediated. Fetch! and The Stork were created digitally, relying on high technology; the art is all virtual, untouched by human hands. I enjoy both techniques. I do more stuff digitally now because itís faster and cheaper, but working by hand is exciting because itís so real.

What can you tell us about your latest project, Thank You for Not Breeding?

Thank You for Not Breeding is on the back burner right now. I completed 4 animated shorts about population and the environment, and planned to fold them into a documentary about fringe groups like VHEMT and the CofE, but I put that project on hold last Summer when I went to India. My current project is actually called The Sitayana, based on the Indian myth the Ramayana, or Story of Rama. The Sitayana, or Story of Sita, is about Ramaís wife. Iíll have a web site for it up soon.

What kinds of projects do you hope to be taking on in the future? Do you think you might ever be persuaded to do a film about i Space or Practical Time Travel?

If someone gives me a free Time Vacation, Iíll make a film about it, sure. Actually, visiting India was like Time Travel, and a little like going to another planet.  

Posted by Phil at 06:09 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The Little Brown Universe

All kidding aside, this piece on brown dwarfs (for some reason I can't shake the non-sequitur that Professor Tolkien presumably would have called them "brown dwarves") is really interesting. I remember first reading about them years ago. We don't hear much about them, but they're fascinating. Consider:

Brown dwarfs are failed stars about the size of Jupiter, with a much larger mass -but not quite large enough to become stars. Like the sun and Jupiter, they are composed mainly of hydrogen gas, perhaps with swirling cloud belts. Unlike the sun, they have no internal energy source, and emit almost no visible light. Brown dwarfs are formed along with stars by the contraction of gases and dust in the interstellar medium, McLean said. The first brown dwarf was not discovered until 1995, yet McLean suspects the galaxy is teeming with them.

"Brown dwarfs are the missing link between gas giant planets like Jupiter and small stars like red dwarfs."

If large numbers of brown dwarfs exist, they "could make a small, but significant contribution to dark matter," the so-called "missing mass" in the universe, McLean said.

"Brown dwarfs won't account for all of the so-called dark matter," he said. "There is mass in the form of ordinary matter that is unaccounted for because we don't yet have the technology to find it. There are brown dwarfs, and maybe small black holes, and faint white dwarfs - regular stars that lost their outer gaseous envelopes leaving the burned-out core of old stars. White dwarfs, brown dwarfs, black holes, and gas account for some of the dark matter. The rest is presumably a new form of matter."

It's been said that astronomy is the second oldest profession. For the vast majority of human history, beginning when we lived in caves, astronomy has had to do with looking at shiny objects in the sky. In terms of human history, the notion that there's more out there that we can't see than we can is a novel one.

Brown dwarfs are now one of the suspects in The Case of the Missing Matter. They certainly raise some evocative images. What if, all along, there were as many invisible brown dots as there were twinkling white ones in the night sky? In fact, what if there were more of the brown dots? As a speculist, I'm devoted to the idea of parallel universes. Brown dwarfs provide a kind of convenient and economical parallel universe.

There could be trillions of these enormous cool worlds — or should we call them stars? — lying side-by-side with the universe we see. Suppose some form of life took hold on one of them and made its evolutionary way to intelligence. How fortunate these creatures would be if they decided to venture out into space. There's a whole universe of similar worlds out there for them to explore. So far, we can't say the same thing about our own planet. The brown-dwarfers might develop a vast intragalactic civilization, a galactic empire from which the bright stars and stony micro-planets that we think of as making up "the universe" would be viewed as an interstitial backwater. Pretty, perhaps, and even kind of mysterious, but having no real significance when weighed against the real universe.

Posted by Phil at 06:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #68

In the Future...

... astronomers will assist FBI agents with fingerprinting.

Futurist: Posse member Chris Hall

Posted by Phil at 05:11 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 15, 2003

Earthquake Prediction Update

Speculist reader Mona Toyama has provided a couple of updates on last month's entry on Yoshio Kushida, a Japanese astronomer who claims to be able to predict earthquakes by monitoring radio waves in the FM band. Mona sent this report last week:

Mr. Kushida predicted an earthquake in the Tokyo area for around September 20th, I believe. There was one at 4 in the morning. It wasn't as big as he had predicted but it shook our house up in Tokyo and knocked over a Chinese panel. He didn't predict the one off the coast of Hokkaido because the point of origin was too deep and if it's too deep he can't pick up any FM air waves. He has predicted a very big quake for the Tokyo area on October 16 or 17th plus or minus 2 days. That means from Tuesday, October 14 through Sunday the 19th. If it doesn't occur then, he believes a big one will occur at the end of October. He has been 80% correct in his quake predictions that were a magnitude of 5 or over.

And she has just provided this update:

Earthquake prediction correction We misread the dates for the earthquake prediction--it's not going on now. This is it: October 30 plus or minus 2 days for magnitude 7.2 plus or minus 0.2. Kushida has made this prediction based on measuring the FM waves in the atmosphere. He didn't predict the one that hit Hokkaido last month because according to him, the epicenter was too deep, and FM waves weren't registered/picked up by his equipment. Other scientists in Japan are poo-pooing his prediction, saying that you cannot predict earthquakes. He did predict the one in Tokyo last month, but it wasn't as big as he'd predicted. Hopefully there will be no big earthquake this month. That's all for now.

Kushida's technique for predicting earthquakes will be a major breakthrough if proved right, but I sure hope he's wrong that a 7.2 earthquake is about to hit Tokyo.

Thanks for the update, Mona. By all means, keep us posted.

Posted by Phil at 02:25 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

China Conquers Space

Posse member Chris Hall has the latest on the first Chinese manned space flight.

Rand Simberg is underwhelmed by the accomplishment.

[A]s during the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese government is wasting valuable state resources on a circus that may, in the short run, provide some small bit of national pride to a government that is stealing those same resources from a people to whom it's unaccountable, but will not significantly contribute to the wealth of their nation. Ultimately, the only way to do that is to harness free enterprise to the task.

Rand says we're not in for a new space race. Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 09:23 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Elevator Approaches

Via Kurzweilai.net, it looks as though the Space Elevator is continuing to gain respectability. Now Los Alamos is jumping on the bandwagon:

Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers are proposing an elevator reaching 62,000 miles into the sky to launch payloads into space more cheaply than the shuttle can.

"The first country that owns the space elevator will own space," said lab scientist Bryan Laubscher. "I believe that, and I think Los Alamos should be involved in making that happen."

Some Los Alamos scientists are so convinced it can be a reality that they are working on their own time on technical details.

Five to 10 scientists at any given time are analyzing the economics, technical specifications of how the elevator would work and possible health risks to those using it. Laubscher said the grassroots effort hopes the U.S. Department of Energy could someday use the information as a start for investing in a space elevator.

This thing is looking more likely every day.

Posted by Phil at 09:13 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

So Sue Me

I'm thinking about re-installing Kazaa. I let it go after the RIAA started suing people, but now it appears that not being a Kazaa user is no defense against getting sued.

Hey, if they're going to sue us anyway, we might as well get some good music out of the deal.

Posted by Phil at 08:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Carnival of the Vanities #56

...is up, over at the wonderfully named Priorities and Frivolities.

You know what else would be a good name?

Profundities and Inanities

Somebody ought to do that one.

Posted by Phil at 08:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 14, 2003

Blog Trek

Chris Hall wants to be Worf?

And notice how nobody wants to be Wesley Crusher!

Posted by Phil at 05:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

An Open Letter (er, Prayer) to Da Goddess

Divine One

In utmost humility do I enter thy holy presence, beseeching that thou wouldst now — as thou hast countless times before — look down upon me with favor and, in thy great and incomprehensible mercy, smile radiantly upon me and grant me out of thy goodness a boon that will show forth to all that I am highly favored among thy servants. Grant, then, my prayer, oh Queen of Heaven, oh transcendent Mother/Harlot/Warrior/Sage. Speak then unto mortal ears Divine Wisdom, I pray thee, and answer these my Seven Questions.

In pathetic gratitude do I beseech thee.



[ For those who may be wondering, I don't address all the FastForward Posse members in these terms — only the ones who rose spontaneously from the foam of the sea. ]

UPDATE: Da Goddess replies!

Posted by Phil at 01:48 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The Very Real Pain of Rejection

Randall Parker has some provocative thoughts on the implications of research showing that rejection has an effect on the human system similar to that of physical pain.

There is another ramification to this report: humans are wired to not want to be rejected by other humans. As the authors state, this is probably a consequence of human evolution. Well, suppose it becomes possible for people to modify their minds to reduce their need for acceptance by others. This would have all sorts of consequences for behavior. A great many human activities are performed (for both good and ill) in order to win acceptance from others. What would be the net effect of a reduced desire to be accepted? My guess is that among many other effects it would tend to reduce altruistic behavior and would reduce the incentive to avoid doing things that are inconsiderate of others.

The ability to edit memories, change one's personality, change very basic desires, and to change what causes pain or pleasure could provide us with many benefits. But it could also create changes in human nature that undermine civilization. When it becomes possible to reduce one's feeling of empathy or to stop oneself from feeling guilty over acts committed against others some malevolent and foolish people will choose to do so. This could be done out of a motive to reduce suffering. Some who feel very rejected and in pain from rejection will decide to eliminate the pain response that occurs when one is rejected. Imagine the consequences if more people became indifferent to the approval of others.

As I wrote over in the comments section on FuturePundit, I wonder whether the moral sense that drives altruism and the fear of rejection might originate in different places. To me, there is a rational component to moral action. The Golden Rule is almost a mathematical proposition -- I expect kindness from others because I extend kindness towards them. I do fear the rejection of my family and friends if I commit some egregious crime, but that isn't the primary thing stopping me from doing it. I don't seek to commit such acts covertly, for example. Even if my hard-wired inclinations against doing such things were to evaporate, I think I would still reject them on rational grounds. (Of course, it's hard to be sure of that. A lot of what I think of as rational behavior might just be hard wiring.)

In my own case, the fear of rejection seems far more likely to inhibit productive rather than destructive behaviors. I think that shyness must be one of the most common defensive postures that people assume against the fear of rejection. Shyness prevents us from forming friendships or even having pleasant, normal social interactions with casual acquaintances. In the business world, it can make us ineffective at selling ourselves or our ideas and products.

If I could access a treatment that would shut off my fear of rejection and therefore cure my shyness, I would jump on it.

Posted by Phil at 01:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #67

In the Future...

...hired-gun Ninja robots will defend Asian Tech Fairs from similar attacks.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 01:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Seven Questions with Nina Paley

Filmmaker and cartoonist Nina Paley is our special guest this week, and will be the subject of this week's Speaking of the Future interview. You can learn more about Nina and her work (and view some of her films) by visiting her website at www.ninapaley.com.

1. The present is the future relative to the past. What's the best thing about living here in the future?

Iím still alive. I wasnít sure Iíd last this long.

2. What's the biggest disappointment?

People are even dumber than I thought they were.

3. Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference be between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

If I died tomorrow, the biggest difference in the world would be that there are more than twice as many humans on Earth than when I was born, and significantly fewer other species. Far more cars, more suburban sprawl, fewer old forests and wildlands, less ocean life; overall, a significant transformation of the Earthís biosphere. But if I live to be 100, I have 65 years to go, and a lot could happen in that time. Weíll never get the lost species back, but maybe weíll move out of the current mass-extinction. Culturally, maybe weíll recognize that other species exist and "deserve" to continue. Maybe technology will solve all our problems. Or maybe the human population will take a nosedive in some ghastly way, like disease or social collapse. When I make predictions based on historical and scientific evidence, theyíre pretty grim. For the sake of my mental health, I prefer to say "I donít know," which leaves room for optimism without indulging in utter fantasy.

4. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

Funner toys.

5. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

The loss of wildlands, old growth ecosystems, and biodiversity. Weíre already living in (arguably causing) the largest mass extinction since the dinosaursí 65 million years ago.

6. Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

Iíd like to stop the mass extinction of other species, and the loss of wildlands. Preserving DNA in zoos is not acceptable. We need wild spaces.

Iíd also like to bring about more sanity in my own life. Thatís a more realistic goal. I canít run the worldís show, but Iíd like to find a comfy chair to watch it from.

7. Why is it that in the year 2003 I still don't have a flying car? When do you think I'll be able to get one?

Drive any car off a cliff; itíll fly. So we have flying car technology. We just donít have the technology to handle the sudden stop.


What's the deal with these Seven Questions?

Posted by Phil at 06:11 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 13, 2003

Lines Through Time

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

David Byrne, "Once in a Lifetime"

Practical Time Travel is the art of getting from the present to a future of our own choosing. We do this by navigating possibility space and by realizing favorable outcomes. So the big question is, how do we get to a particular outcome? To answer that, let's start by examining how we get to any outcome.

As I'm so fond of saying, the present is the future relative to the past. So here I am living in 21-year-old-me's future. Am I living the outcome that Young Phil was looking for? It's hard to say, for a couple of reasons:

  1. It's difficult from this vantage point to get back inside the head of my younger self. Unless we're really thinking about it, we tend to remember our past selves as being substantially similar to the people we are today. This is almost always wrong. We need to remember specific things we did and said in order to really come to grips with how different we used to be. Writing samples are tremendously helpful in this process.

    Unfortunately, even if we do remember what we wanted at an earlier point in our lives, it's hard not to evaluate those desires in light of subsequent attitudes and experience. So I tend to say things like "I used to have this stupid idea about becoming a tree farmer." Granted, I did once entertain that rather unlikely ambition and, in light of my subsequent career choices and what I've learned along the way about the kinds of things I'm suited to do — not to mention the business side of it, about which I then knew and still know absolutely nothing — it was a pretty stupid idea.

    By calling it stupid, I mitigate the embarrassment of being associated with such a harebrained idea, but I do so at the expense of truly remembering how appealing I used to find the idea. If we can't empathize with our younger selves, we can't get much of a handle on who they were or what they wanted.

  2. Young Phil had, at best, hazy notions as to what it was that he wanted out of life. And he tended to scrap what vague plans he did make every few weeks. So, for all I can recall, the life I'm now living is a precise match to one of my plans. But even if it is, it's also a huge miss on several other plans.

But it doesn't really matter whether I was following a plan or not. I was there; I'm now here. The process of how that happened is instructive whether it was carefully planned or totally random. One way to get a handle on that process is to examine a chain of cause and effect from the present to the past. I was thinking about this while looking out my bedroom window this morning. Our house overlooks a small park, and as I was enjoying the view of the rosy October sun on yellow leaves and green grass, I got to thinking about how it was that I happened to be sitting right there at that moment. Why was I there and not someplace else?

We bought this house in 2001 because my wife had taken a job with a telecommunications company located in the far south end of the metro Denver area. Commuting from where we were living in Boulder County was arduous for her, so we moved. If she hadn't taken the job, we wouldn't have moved there.

My wife found her job through the help of a friend who worked for the same company. If it weren't for the help of her friend, she probably wouldn't have taken that particular job.

She became acquainted with this friend when she visited Denver in the year 2000. If she hadn't come to see me, she never would have met her friend.

She was visiting me because I had moved back to the Denver area in 1999. I had to leave Malaysia for economic reasons. If I hadn't moved back, she wouldn't have been here visiting me.

Prior to coming back, I had stayed in Malaysia for as long as I could, past the extension of my contract. If I had allowed the company to rotate me back in at the end of my contract, I would have taken a job in either Europe or California in 1997.

I stayed in Malaysia for as long as I could because I wanted to be near my (then) girlfriend. If I hadn't met her, I wouldn't have tried to stay longer.

In 1995, my original contract in Malaysia was for a few weeks. Then I was offered a one-year contract; then a second one-year contract. If I hadn't taken both contracts, I would never have met my girlfriend.

I was originally brought down to Malaysia because of the experience I picked up in Russia. If I hadn't done so much work in Russia, I would never have been called down to Malaysia.

My suggestion that we use process management tools from the total quality management system in rolling out new businesses was well received by management in Russia. If I hadn't suggested this (or if they hadn't liked the idea) I would not have made several trips to Russia in 1993 and 1994 helping to outline the business roll-out process.

My co-worker Cap got sick and had to take a leave of absence. He asked me to take over a project for him in his absence. The project was documenting processes for our joint venture companies in Russia. If Cap hadn't gotten sick (or if he had asked someone else to cover this project for him) I would never have taken that first trip to Moscow.

In 1992, after I had been with the company for about a year, my boss became concerned that I was being underutilized in my position as a technical editor. When the position of Lead facilitator opened up for the Product Engineering and Development quality management program, she suggested that I take it. I did. If I hadn't become lead facilitator, I would never have recommended using tools from the quality management system for the Russian start-ups

I was hired on a technical editor at U S WEST Advanced Technologies in 1991. If I hadn't taken the job with US WEST, I would not have been able to take over Cap's project for him.

My friend Mike started working at U S WEST a few months before I did. If Mike had not taken a job at US WEST, I would never have learned about the job opening there and would not have applied for it.

Mike and I met in grad school in 1986. If either of us had decided not work on that particular degree at that particular time, we would have never met.

I dropped out of law school a couple of years before starting my master's. If I had stayed in law school, I would never have started my master's.

After I graduated from college in Kentucky in 1983, I decided to move to Denver to go to law school. Had I not decided to go to law school, I might not have moved to Denver.

So there you have it: a straight causal line across 20 years from my ill-considered (and soon regretted) decision to go law school to my sitting in my current house. The items listed are not the only possibilities that had to be realized in order for me to be there, there are others. But if you take any one of them away, the sequence is destroyed and I almost certainly would have ended up someplace else.

So that's how a particular outcome is accomplished—through conscious choices, happy accidents, and just plain dumb luck.

Next time we'll look at extending the line from the present into the future.


Previous entries:

What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future
Types of Future
i Space
Reality's Flashlight
And Now the Extremely Good News
Give Yourself a Present
Roots of the Modern World

Posted by Phil at 04:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monkeys with Robot Arms

I don't know about you, but nothing perks up my Monday morning quite like reading about monkeys controlling robot arms with the power of their brains. And check out this neat animated illustration of what the experiment looked like.

This research has major implications for the development of brain-controlled prostheses and the treatment of victims of paralysis. And think of the implications for developing virtual reality environments. Now we have 3-D displays built into computers; soon we'll be able to navigate those displays with the power of thought (actually a combination of voluntary and involuntary virtual motor acitivity.)

Posted by Phil at 09:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

3-D Computing Arrives

Sharp has released a notebook computer with a built-in (no-glasses-required) 3-D display. According to WiredNews:

The computer, dubbed the Actius RD3D, also displays two-dimensional images. It's selling on the Sharp Systems of America website for $3,300, or about three times the sum for an entry-level laptop.

Industry analysts say Sharp's release could boost interest in 3-D imaging, which up to now has lured few viewers and required customers to use special aids. Sharp's offering is the first notebook computer in the United States that lets customers automatically view 3-D images without wearing special glasses or downloading software, analysts say.

So far, the Japanese have taken a lead in this technology. Japanese electronics maker NEC said it would release a 3-D-enabled notebook computer in Japan next year. Sharp already sells a cell phone that displays 3-D pictures in Japan. A year ago, 100 companies, including Sharp, Sony, Sanyo, Toshiba and the Japanese division of Microsoft, formed a coalition called the 3D Consortium to brainstorm ways to bring 3-D products to market. One goal: making sure the various companies' products work together.

Okay, 3-D display sounds pretty cool. But what's the point?

[I]n the future Web merchants could use 3-D graphics to show off their products, or gamers could play even more realistic first-person shooters.

Sharp also sees uses by the medical industry. A doctor who normally would wear 3-D goggles could view a patient's organs directly on the screen.

The medcal applications sound good, but I think I'm to old to enjoy 3-D gaming. I developed my computer gaming skills in the era of Galaxian and then Galaga; the closest to 3-D I ever got was Q*bert. The games today are already too 3-D if you ask me. My daughter won't even let my play with her any more; all I do is run into walls and go "Huh?"

Posted by Phil at 09:42 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

ITF #66

In the Future...

...we'll have microwave-friendly tanks and dishwasher-safe aricraft carriers.

via GeekPress

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This Week 10/13/03

Our special guest this week is cartoonist and filmmaker Nina Paley. Later this week, we'll be talking to her about overpopulation, animation techniques, and the nature of reality.

You know — the usual stuff.

This week in The Speculist:

Time Traveler's Notebook, we'll look at completed voyages through time and what we can learn from them.

Nina Paley answers Seven Questions about the Future, providing what is probably the best answer yet to the flying car question.

Stillness, Chapter 10. Can I interest anyone in a mysterious ancient manuscript and the hidden society that protects it? How about learning Sergei's tragic secret?

We'll be Speaking of the Future with Nina Paley.

Future Round-up. All of the In the Future... predictions for this week brought together in one handy list.

Plus, throughout the week we'll be blogging developments in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, space exploration, and other future-impacting areas.

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October 11, 2003

Future Roundup 10/11/03

Here's the full list of this week's predictions for the future. Hat tips to FastForward Posse members Robert Hinkley and Chris Hall for helping us to look ahead.

In the Future...

...we'll find a means to change sports fans back to their original form.

...your underwear will routinely talk to your doctor.

...regulations will prohibit the launch of satellites with stupid or excessively long names.

...soldiers may have to reboot the dogs of war.

...guidebooks will have to expand their categories beyond hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions.


That does it for this week. Until next time, we'll see you in the future.

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October 10, 2003

Our Top Futurist

I just paid a visit to the Foresight Exchange site to see how the predictions I've invested in are doing, and I noticed that FastForward Posse member Karl Hallowell is ranked as the number two player!

Now that's a futurist, folks.

Too bad it isn't real money; Karl could buy us all a round of drinks to celebrate...in Hawaii. Of course, he's too modest to make a big deal about it himself. Karl doesn't even acknowledge it when people engage in public self-flagellation in order to appease him.

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ITF #65

In the Future...

...guidebooks will have to expand their categories beyond hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions.

via GeekPress

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Longer Life, But at What Cost?

Nobody ever said life extension would be easy. Just yesterday, I wrote that the caloric restriction—the one method that's been clinically proven to extend lifespan (at least in mice)—is probably just too dificult to maintain.

Well, via InstaPundit, here's something else that might work. What are we to make of an activity that provides all of the following benefits:

  • Cuts the death rate in half for men who practice it most dutifully
  • Reduces risk of heart disease
  • Contributes to weight loss and overall fitness
  • Improves sense of smell
  • Reduces depression
  • Relieves pain
  • Wards off colds and the flu
  • Improves teeth
  • Encourages bladder and prostate health

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? The trouble is, to get the benefits you have to be ready to do this thing three times a week or more. It seems like a fair trade-off to me.

Read and judge for yourselves.

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I Never Had School Projects Like This

I don't link to Nanodot nearly often enough. Check out this discussion, addressing a series of questions on utility fog. It's intriguing that these questions come from a university student working on a class project.

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ITF #64

In the Future...

... soldiers may have to reboot the dogs of war.

Futurist: Posse member Chris Hall

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The Soccer-Ball Universe Debated

I never got around yesterday to writing about this new theory that states that the universe is a sort of big, mirrored soccer ball that only kind of looks likes it's infinite because of all the reflecting surfaces.

In a paper being published today in the journal Nature, Dr. Jeffrey Weeks, an independent mathematician in Canton, N.Y., and his colleagues suggest, based on analysis of maps of the Big Bang, that space is a kind of 12-sided hall of mirrors, in which the illusion of infinity is created by looking out and seeing multiple copies of the same stars.

If the model is correct, Dr. Weeks said, it would rule out a popular theory of the Big Bang that asserts that our own observable universe is just a bubble among others in a realm of vastly larger extent. "It means we can just about see the whole universe now," Dr. Weeks said.

Well, already the idea is taking some (it's not my pun; blame the NYT) sharp kicks.

If the model is correct, Dr. Weeks said, it would rule out a popular theory of the Big Bang that asserts that our own observable universe is just a bubble among others in a realm of vastly larger extent. "It means we can just about see the whole universe now," Dr. Weeks said.

Why it matters so much:

The stakes for cosmology, should the soccer ball or some other variety of small universe prevail, are not small at all. A small universe, everybody agrees, would present severe problems for the prevailing theory of the Big Bang, known as inflation, which posits that the cosmos underwent a burst of hyperexpansion in its first moments.

Moreover, Dr. Weeks said, a small universe would eliminate one popular variant of the theory known as eternal inflation, in which bubble universes give rise to one another endlessly in what some cosmologists call a "multiverse."

"This puts the whole universe in view," he explained. "It wouldn't rule out other universes. There could be others. They would be totally unrelated, without any contact between them."

I just find it surprising that this could even be the subject of debate. Hasn't the shape of the universe already been established to everyone's satisfaction?

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October 09, 2003

ITF #63

In the Future...

...regulations will prohibit the launch of satellites with stupid or excessively long names.

Posted by Phil at 09:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

So It's Like This

In the next hundred years or so, the Sun will cool down and the Earth along with it. The only thing that might help us stay warm would be the greenhouse effect, but we probably don't have enough oil to make it happen.

Read the whole amazing, scary thing over at FuturePundit.

Posted by Phil at 08:57 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fighting the Alzheimer's Protein

Speaking of life extension, here's a report on from BetterHumans (via Howard Lovy) on a major nanotechnological development:

Nanoparticles to Detect Alzheimer's

The discovery of small, toxic protein aggregates in people with Alzheimer's disease has led to work on a nanoparticle diagnostic tool to catch them.

Researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles found up to 70 times more small, soluble aggregated proteins called amyloid beta-derived diffusible ligands in brain tissue of people with Alzheimer's disease compared to people without the condition.

Researchers are now working to develop nanoparticle-based diagnostics to detect ADDLs in blood or cerebral spinal fluid.

Wow, I wonder what Michael Shermer will make of this development?

Posted by Phil at 08:20 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #62

In the Future...

...your underwear will routinely talk to your doctor.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 08:12 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Fisking Sci Am

Skeptic Michael Shermer is having a little fun at the expense of the life extension movement with an opinion piece running on ScientificAmerican.com. Let's have a look:

For most of our history, humans could turn only to prayer and poetry to help cope with this reality. Today we are offered scientistic alternatives--if not for immortality itself, then at least for longevity of biblical proportions. All have some basis in science, but none has achieved anything like scientific confirmation. Here is a short sampling, from the almost sublime to the near ridiculous:

It's true that none of the items he has listed have been confirmed scientifically. This isn't terribly surprising, seeing as they all rely on technology which is proposed for future development or which is currently being developed. The one life-extension method that does currently have some evidence backing it up, which we'll come back to, somehow never makes it onto Shermer's list.

Virtual immortality. According to Tulane University physicist Frank J. Tipler, in the far future we will all be resurrected in a virtual reality whose memory capacity is 10 to the 10123 bytes. If the virtual reality were good enough, it would be indistinguishable from our everyday experience. Boot me up, Scotty. One problem, among many, is that Tipler's resurrection machine requires so much energy that the universe must one day collapse, which present data show is not going to happen.

Tipler's ideas are definitely on the fringe. But resurrection in his proposed "God computer" is not the only way life might be extended via computer. For one thing, we don't need a model of the entire universe.

What we do need is a computer sophisticated enough to model human consciousness and a means of uploading a brain's contents to electronic media. Those are obviously huge requirements, but nothing like the scale of Tipler's machine. Ray Kurzweil predicts that — assuming Moore's Law hangs in there — in 25 years or so, $1,000 will buy you a machine with the approximate computing power of a human brain. A decade later, that same $1,000 will get you the equivalent of a thousand human brains in a box. There are a number of ways that a human mind might be uploaded into a computer, but the most straightforward approach, and the approach that we will most likely use at first, will start with a sophisticated brain scan. The uploaded mind will function within a virtual copy of the brain.

Ray Kurzweil:

Seven years ago, a condemned killer allowed his brain and body to be scanned in this way, and you can access all 10 billion bytes of him on the Internet. You can see for yourself every bone, muscle and section of gray matter in his body. But the scan is not yet at a high enough resolution to re-create the interneuronal connections, synapses and neurotransmitter concentrations that are the key to capturing the individuality within a human brain.

Our scanning machines today can clearly capture neural features as long as the scanner is very close to the source. Within 30 years, however, we will be able to send billions of nanobots-blood cell-size scanning machines-through every capillary of the brain to create a complete noninvasive scan of every neural feature. A shot full of nanobots will someday allow the most subtle details of our knowledge, skills and personalities to be copied into a file and stored in a computer.

This may all sound pretty far out, but give me a break. Kurzweil's ideas are much more closely rooted to current capabilities than Tipler's, although Shermer (for some mysterious reason) gives Kurzweil nary a mention.

Genetic immortality. Oh, those pesky telomeres at the ends of chromosomes that prevent cells from replicating indefinitely. If only we could genetically reprogram normal cells to be like cancer cells. Alas, this is no solution, because biological systems are so complex that fixing any one component does not address all the others that play a role in aging.

...and since there's no way of ever getting a handle on what what those other components are, there's really nothing we can do.

Tell it to Aubrey de Grey, Shermer.

De Grey has identified the seven types of cell damage that work together to constitute aging as we know it. Telomeres are just one part of the problem, but the overall problem is understandable and solvable.

Cryonics immortality. Freeze. Wait. Reanimate. It sounds good in theory, but you're still a corpsicle. And when your tissue is thawed, your cells will be mush. Don't forget to pay the electric bill in the meantime.

Oh, for Pete's sake. Get caught up and then we'll talk.

Replacement immortality. First we replace our organs (which today are often rejected), then our cells and molecules nano-a-nano (not yet technologically feasible), eventually exchanging flesh for something more durable, such as silicon. You can't tell the difference, can you?

Shermer's Caveman ancestor:

Okay, first we're going to use this "fire" thing (which we usually can't keep going for long and haven't even figured out how to start yet) to preserve our food and ward off predators. Then we're going to figure out a way to build our own caves in more convenient locations (not yet technically feasible). Then we're going to start making the plants we like to eat grow where we want them to grow, and keeping herds of the animals we like to eat close by so we always have some handy. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Some might argue that my little caveman digression proves nothing. I would agree, and add that Shermer's "analysis" of life extension via replacement proves nothing. Organ rejection is a major issue, which we will eventually solve by finding a way to re-grow organs or by producing non-rejected synthetic substitutes. It isn't exactly news that we don't yet have sophisticated molecular nanotechnology that would allow us to rebuild cells one at a time. And the crack about replacing flesh with silicon is just plain silly.

Lifestyle longevity. Because this is a goal we can try to implement today, the hucksters are out in force offering all manner of elixirs to extend life. To cut to the chase, S. Jay Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick and Bruce A. Carnes, three leading experts on aging research, have stated unequivocally in the pages of this magazine that "no currently marketed intervention--none--has yet been proved to slow, stop or reverse human aging, and some can be downright dangerous" ["No Truth to the Fountain of Youth," Scientific American; June 2002].

It has never been satisfactorily demonstrated, for example, that antioxidants--taken as supplements to counter the deleterious effects of free radicals on cells--attenuate aging. In fact, free radicals are necessary for cellular physiology. Hormone replacement therapy, another popular antiaging nostrum, helps to counter short-term problems such as loss of muscle mass and strength in older men and postmenopausal women. But the therapy's influence on the aging process is unproved, and the long-term negative side effects are unknown.

I'm not really a proponent of calorie restriction (I think it's too hard), but there is clear scientific evidence that it can be used to extend life, at least in mice. It will be a few years before we learn whether it works with people, but right now all indications are that it will. I wonder why Shermer failed to mention it?

Shermer wraps it up with a few words of wisdom:

As 20th-century English poet Dylan Thomas classically admonished, "Do not go gentle into that good night .../Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Rage all you like, but remember the six billion--and the 100 billion before. Until science finds a solution to prolonging the duration of healthy life, we should instead rave about the time we have, however fleeting.

And what if we enjoy spending the time we have looking for ways to prolong our time? Is that okay with you?

I choose to give Aubrey de Grey the last word. As he so eloquently proclaims from the sidebar:

Well, first of all I have a lot of catching up to do — all the films I haven't seen, books I haven't read, etc.— while I've been spending every spare minute in the fight against aging. But in addition, there are masses of things that I enjoy doing and will always enjoy — spending time with my wife and friends, taking a punt out on the river Cam, playing a game of Othello, etc.— and I reckon I'll just carry on doing those things forever. At root, the reason I'm not in favor of aging is because I like life as I know it.

Posted by Phil at 07:01 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 08, 2003

Galt's Speech Summarized

Don from Anger Management reports that reader Tom is about to start reading Ayn Rand. I am personally not an Objectivist, but I do admire some of Rand's writings and agree with her on many key points.

Anyhow, I hope Tom knows what he's getting into. Those novels are a tad on the long side. Unfortunately, I don't think the Cliff's Notes will do them justice, and there are no Classics Illustrated versions of the Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. Plus I recommend watching the movie version of the Fountainhead only after reading the book, for reasons which will become obvious after you've done both.

Having said all that, I think I can help Tom out in a big way. About two-thirds of the way through Atlas Shrugged, John Galt takes over the radio airwaves to deliver a speech. The speech rambles on for about 300 pages. That may be a bit off; I'm working from memory. Nobody ever reads the thing in its entirety.

Well, I take that back. Most people don't read it in its entirety. But I have, and I'm therefore in a position to save you some time. Here's Galt's entire speech, summarized:


I dig my own life.

We're outa here.

So long, losers!

So I'm hoping that saves you some time.

By the way, another author who has explored many of the issues that Rand did in Atlas Shrugged is Nancy Kress in her Beggars series. Plus, if this kind of thing is important to you, Kress's work is overtly science fiction, unlike Atlas Shrugged, which tries to hide the fact that it s.

Hmm. I wonder if anyone ever described Atlas Shrugged as "genre-defying?" (Okay, four times in two days is enough. I promise to stop using that term.)


Posted by Phil at 11:41 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

They're More Than Just Hip and Fun

Appropos of the Ray Kurzweil piece on the dangers represented by coming technologies, here's Glenn Reynolds on the dangerous future, and the important function that space colonies might play in it:

Sounds like a scary world, but an inevitable one. I attended a high-level conference that discussed terrorism and advanced technologies a few years ago. One of the participants mentioned afterward that all of this talk made her think that colonies in outer space might be the only thing that would save the human race. She might be right.

She might at that.

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The Future Needs Us

Found on CIO.com (of all places), a thoughtful and eloquent essay by Ray Kurzweil on the dangers posed by coming developments in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics: Promise and Peril of the 21st Century. Kurzweil uses the generic term GNR to refer to these technologies, the same term that Bill Joy used in his (in)famous screed, Why the Future Doesn't Need Us.

Kurzweil does an excellent job of explaining how the kinds of controls recommended by the Foresight Institute will be instrumental in preventing many of the dreaded nightmare nanotechnology scenarios. Moreover, he points out that our defense against abuse of these technologies comes from learning more about them, not from trying to prevent them from arriving. Money quote:

As an example in the nuclear arena, who would have guessed in 1945 that the next half-century would not see a single nuclear weapon (beyond the two dropped on Japan) used in anger? The offsetting factor to the inherent advantage of destructive over defensive technologies is the overwhelming balance of resources devoted to constructive and protective applications compared with malevolent ones.

This is an important analysis of how best to deal with very real challenges on the horizon. By all means, read the whole thing.

via Kurzweilai.net

Posted by Phil at 10:11 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chinese Manned Launch

Well, it looks as though some of my earlier speculations were incorrect. China is announcing exactly when and where their first taikonaut (so that's what we call them) will be launched into orbit. Xie Guangxuan, the head of the Rocket Design Department:

China's space technology has been created by China itself. We may have started later than Russia and the United States, but it's amazing how fast we've been able to do this.

From reading the story in Yahoo! News, it looks as though the launch and subsequent manned program are a source of real patriotic pride for the Chinese (they even go so far as to boast that their astronauts get much better food than our astronauts.) So the launch will be shown live on TV.

I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Posted by Phil at 06:57 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Election Math

While I don't normally do politics on this site, I don't mind the occasional foray into simple arithmetic. I've now read in a couple of places how amazing it is that Schwarzenegger and McClintock took a "majority" in yesterday's recall election. That's a delusional reading of the numbers.

Let's go through it real quick. The recall won with 54.2% of the vote. Of that 54.2% (not of the total votes cast) Arnold won 47.6. So that's 47.6% of 54.2%, or about 25.8% of the votes cast. McClintock won 13.2% of 54.2%, which comes out to about 7.2% of the votes cast. So, all told, the Republicans took a respectable 33% of the total votes cast, compared to 45.8% of the votes cast against the recall, effectively in favor of Gray Davis.

I don't think things have changed as much as the Pundits want to make out. There was no Republican majority, and more people voted for Davis than voted for both Republicans combined. If you combine the Davis and Bustamante votes, you get 45.8% plus 32.7% of 54.2% (about 17.72% of the toal votes cast) which comes out to 63.52%. The majority of voters voted for a Democrat.

None of this is to take anything away from Arnold's victory. But let's not have any nonsense about a Republican majority in California. The numbers don't support it.

UPDATE: I'm an idiot. (Yes, that is too an update. It's a Major News Flash, in fact.) I had this silly idea that if you voted no on the recall, you didn't get to pick a recall candidate. Reader JimO the Bunkbuster has graciously set me straight. See comments, below.

So everything I said about being delusional, etc. — well, they're rubber. I'm glue. All right?

Posted by Phil at 06:34 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 07, 2003

Roots of the Modern World

I spent part of my Saturday at the Colorado History Museum, where one of the displays is a timeline running along an entire wall on the first level. There are two timelines, actually. One sits at the top of the wall tracking national events; the other is at about waist-level, tracking Colorado events. Between the two timelines there are pictures, newspaper articles, and other artifacts attesting to the events listed. The timelines run from the beginning of 1800 to the end of 1949.

It's interesting to see how sparse the walls (and the timelines themselves are) on the far left side of the wall and how crowded they become as you move to the right and forward in time. It's a neat demonstration of accelerating change. I suspect that one reason the timeline ends at 1950 is that the museum directors don't want to devote every inch of wall space on all three levels to the period from 1950 to the present, which they would have to do in order to do the era justice.

I got to thinking about that timeline when I read Glenn Reynolds' interview with Neal Stephenson. Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver, is the first of three volumes making up a larger work called The Baroque Cycle. Set in the 17th century, and peopled with historical figures as Isaac Newton and the pirate Blackbeard, Quicksilver is both science fiction and historical fiction.

(Quick rant: I read a newspaper review yesterday that described the book as genre-defying. I doubt it. That sounds like a term lifted from the publisher's press release, a come-on to those who are intrigued by the book's premise, but who don't want to admit they're reading science fiction. Describing a work of science fiction as such doesn't disparage the author's work, nor does it demean the scope of his vision. A critic reviewing a science fiction novel should be sufficiently familiar with the breadth of the genre not to be taken in by this kind of marketing nonsense. Of course, I say all this without having read the book.)

One of the topics that Reynolds and Stephenson touch on in their discussion is the idea that the 17th century is the source of much of what makes up the modern world.

What I found interesting on a political level was that the Cromwell types were pushing a bunch of ideas that struck people as nuts at the time, but that are bedrock principles of modern society -- things like free enterprise and separation of church and state and limited government that took years to actually achieve.

Many of the people called Puritans were small businessmen and independent traders. They had a real bent toward free enterprise, and they developed a real resentment of government and taxes -- as a result, they were free traders. It's like what we see with a lot of pro-business people today.

That's very interesting. So is the 17th century the source of the modern world?

It is beyond question that all of our social constructs, institutions, and political ideologies are rooted in the past. But it's intriguing to consider that we may be especially linked to one particular era, an era that gave birth to the world we know.

I first came across this idea reading Umberto Eco. In a series of essays written in the late seventies/early eighties, Eco drew parallels between the modern world and the middle ages, asserting that the roots of our present civilization lay there. He later expanded on this theme with his novel, The Name of the Rose, a "genre-defying" murder mystery set in a 13th-century monastery. Eco goes beyond suggesting that the earlier era has had a strong influence on the current one; he intimates that we are living in the middle ages, albeit a technically enhanced version thereof. The idea is that history is cyclical, and that the middle ages represented a time of transition that we are currently going through again.

How interesting. Eco tells us that the roots of our era lie in the 13th century, Stephenson insists that it's the 17th. Both make a pretty compelling case. (Well, Stephenson's case is compelling on the face of it. Again, I haven't yet read the book.) Why the disagreement? I can think of three possible explanations.

  1. They're talking about slightly different things. Eco points out that modern institutions like banks and universities had their origins in the middle ages. As quoted above, Stephenson gives the 17th century credit for introducing such concepts as free enterprise and separation of church and state. They're both right, it's just a question of what you want to emphasize.

  2. Speaking of emphasis, maybe it has something to do with the fact that Eco is a European while Stephenson is an American. Perhaps European civilization is rooted in the middle ages, while American civilization is rooted in the enlightenment. I don't think I'd get any argument on that from my warblogger buddies.

  3. Maybe Eco is right about the cyclical nature of history. A quarter of a century or so ago, perhaps we were revisiting the middle ages. Eco's essays certainly made a lot of sense at the time. But today, I think I would have to agree with Stephenson that our era is firmly rooted in the 17th century. It's another example of accelerating change.

If the third explanation is correct, it means that we've gone through four hundred years worth of social change in the past 25, emerging from the doldrums of the middle ages to a dynamic age of enlightenment. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. I don't know enough about history to guess where we'll go next, or how long it will take for us to wind back around to ancient Egypt, or wherever it is that the cycle begins. But I would venture to say that any era you're particularly interested in should be coming up fairly soon.

Posted by Phil at 10:06 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

A New Kind of Space Race

I just saw this in my daily dose from Ray Kurzweil:

Shooting for Space

Cisco and its partners, including NASA, have launched a router into low Earth orbit as a test of extending the Internet into space.

Space-based routers could be used to tie the military's myriad networks together and the government's research networks together so that personnel on land, in the air or at sea can communicate directly.

On the one hand, pushing the Internet into space is a good thing, an important step towards a number of important developments. On the other hand, Cisco has rather thrown down the gauntlet. Who will decide to take them on in the quest for space supremacy? How long will Bill Gates allow his company to remain earthbound when others are taking this kind of step?

Posted by Phil at 07:07 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

What Does this Say About Me?

If this were to happen to me, I doubt I'd be worried about the damage to my house or how close I had come to being killed. I would be too overwhelmed by how cool it was.

via Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 06:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Watch Movies at Home Using Your Television Set!

Okay, let's just consider this for a moment:

The Walt Disney Co. piqued the interest of film buffs last week when it unveiled a set-top box that comes with 100 pre-installed movies, 10 of which get replaced automatically each week with newer flicks.

The MovieBeam service, which costs $7 a month plus $2.50 to $4 for each movie watched, is designed to let movie enthusiasts avoid trips to the video store and late fees.

So far, sounds pretty good. Let's read on:

To power MovieBeam, Disney is using one-way data broadcasting, a content-delivery mechanism considered a bust in the 1980s and then again in the late 1990s as a "dot-bomb."

Rather than build their own networks or rely on more-modern methods -- like cable, satellite and broadband Internet connections -- to deliver video on demand, so-called datacasters rent analog airwaves from television and radio stations to push their products. In this case, Disney is leasing airwaves from ABC and PBS to sell movies to customers.

It will be interesting to see how this thing pans out. The WiredNews article makes an issue out of this data broadcasting technology, but I doubt the platform will have much to do with whether MovieBeam succeeds or fails.

I'm pretty sure that I, for one, would not get it. I don't see much advantage over the system I currently have, certainly not enough to make me want to put yet another box on top of my TV and shell out yet another monthly charge.

With Tivo and the satellite Dish, I already have access to hundreds of movies every month, via HBO, IFC, TCM, and AMC. If I don't mind blasting through commercial interruptions (I don't; with Tivo it's kinda fun) or having key scenes mangled or cut out (I do mind, very much) I can access many more movies via TBS, TNT, USA, BRAVO, SCI-FI, F/X, etc.

I'm sure MovieBeam's list of one hundred includes mostly recent releases, too recent to be showing even on HBO or one of the other premium channels. But I already have access to most of these movies via pay-per-view. The presumed advantage of MovieBeam is that, unlike pay-per-view, you can watch these movies any time you like. But with Tivo, you can watch pay-per-view any time you like, too. You don't have to start it at the assigned start time. You do need to know in advance that you want to watch that particular title.

That would appear to be the lone advantage of MovieBeam—support of the impulse buy. And don't get me wrong, that can be a powerful thing. I'm just saying that I wouldn't go for it.

Posted by Phil at 06:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 06, 2003

ITF #61

In the Future...

...we'll find a means to change sports fans back to their original form.

Posted by Phil at 07:03 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

This Week 10/06/03

This week in The Speculist.

Time Traveler's Notebook. Give yourself a present and read it. This entry includes a slightly exaggerated goal. See if you can figure out what it is.

Seven Questions About the Future with still another ringleader from the FastForward Posse.

Stillness, Chapter 9. Reuben continues to recuperate, and we meet the mysterious Father Alexy.

Speaking of the future, I don't know what I'm going to do on Thursday.

Future Round-up. All of the In the Future... predictions for the week brought together in one handy list.

Plus, throughout the week we'll be blogging developments in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, space exploration, robotics, and other future-impacting areas. So be sure to stop by often.

Posted by Phil at 06:54 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nano Laser Surgery

Here's a development that I think will have major implications both for life extension and cryonics, not to mention its fairly staggering implications for conventional medicine.

With pulses of intense laser light a millionth of a billionth of a second long, US researchers are vaporizing tiny structures inside living cells without killing them. The technique could help probe how cells work, and perform super-precise surgery.

Physicist Eric Mazur of Harvard University and his colleagues have severed parts of cells' internal protein skeleton, have destroyed a single mitochondrion, the cell's powerhouse, leaving its hundreds of neighbours untouched, and have cut a nerve cell's connection without killing it. They christen their technique laser nanosurgery.

Seems like this ought to come in pretty handy when attempting to repair some of the different kinds of cell damage that contribute to aging or that might occur in the process of being placed in cryonic suspension.

Lasers are already used in eye surgery: in the future, laser scalpels could cut inside tissues without opening up the patient, says Mazur.

Or they could pick off cancerous cells, suggests Wiseman. At present, tumours are only found when they are too big for such treatment, but researchers are striving to improve detection. "If one could detect the rare cell in a mass of cells, one could intervene with targeted destruction," he says.

What we'll need long-term to exploit this capability is nano-machines capable of seeking out cancerous cells. I wouldn't mind hosting an army of such machines in my body, deployed for an ongoing search-and-destroy mission. No, I wouldn't mind at all.

via KurzweilAI.net

Posted by Phil at 06:40 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Give Yourself a Present

What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future
Types of Future
i Space
Reality's Flashlight
And Now the Extremely Good News

So how do we ensure that a particular future happens? It is all determined by what we do in the present. The present is where possibility space meets reality. In the present, possibilities are realized, eliminated, and redefined. Like the past, the present comes in three varieties depending on point of view. They are as follows:

T Present

This is the big present, the one thatís experienced by the whole universe at once. The T present has limited practical applicability because it requires an omniscient observer in order for it to be anything more than an abstraction. Absent such an observer, a universal present moment would require universal simultaneity. Most respectable models of space-time have little use for simultaneity.

3PL Present

This is the present as experienced by a group. Unlike the 3PL future, the 3PL present is determined by the physical proximity of the group. The crowd at a football game, for example, shares an extended 3PL present although most of the spectatorsí futures have little to do with each other.

IAM Present

This is the present moment experienced by an individual. The IAM present is where possibilities from your personal possibility space are realized, eliminated, or redefined.

Letís take a closer look at how that works.

Later today I plan to go the gym and work out with weights. Iíve been gradually increasing the amount of weight I work with, and may try for a new personal best on the bench press. Letís say Iíve decided to try to lift 400 pounds. Is my bench pressing 400 pounds today in my current possibility space?

It is. Even if my previous record was 125 pounds, itís possible that later today Iíll load 360 pounds onto the 40-pound bar and hoist it. Of course, if my previous record was 375, doing 400 today would be in a better position in my possibility space, closer to the present.

So I go to the gym, load up the bar, assume the position, and heave. Several different things will happen in that moment:

Possibilities will be realized. Either Iíll lift the weight or I wonít. One of those two possibilities becomes reality.

Possibilities will be eliminated. If I fail to lift the weight, the possibility that I was going to succeed on that try is eliminated. If I succeed in lifting the weight, the possibility that I was going to fail on that try is eliminated.

Possibilities will be redefined. If I leave the gym without having lifted 400 pounds, the possibility of my doing it today is eliminated, but the possibility of my ever doing it has not. It has merely changed. It continues to sit there in possibility space, a little further out, now, because itís not going to happen today and I probably wonít be back in the gym for a couple of days. On the other hand, if I succeed in bench pressing four hundred pounds today, the more remote possibility that I might one day lift 500 pounds draws closer.

The ability to redefine possibilities is the Practical Time Travelerís most important tool. We can take actions that skew the odds in favor of the future weíre trying to reach. For example, if I do in fact drive over to the gym today, I will vastly increase the likelihood that Iíll bench press 400 pounds. If I stay at the office or go straight home, Iím a lot less likely to do it. Some very unlikely possibilitiesóhaving a weight bench installed at the office or homeówould have to be realized in order for that to happen.

Persistence works hand-in-hand with the ability to redefine possibilities in making a particular future happen. Each time we fail to bring that future about, we have to assess the possibilities that weíve redefined and draw a line from where we are now to the desired outcome.

Posted by Phil at 06:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 04, 2003

Future Roundup 10/04/03

Here's the full list of this week's predictions for the future. It was a busy week. Hat tips to FastForward Posse members Mike Sargent, Robert Hinkley, and Chris Hall for helping us to look ahead.

In the Future...

...structural engineers will solve the Pigeon Dropping Problem.

...custom jobs, with plenty of chrome on the outside and shag carpet on the inside, will be favored over simple restorations.

...all will be assimilated.

...spammers will highjack the shirt you're wearing to sell viagra and penis-enlargement treatments.

...rocket parts will come from the JC Whitney catalog.

...those suffering from computer viruses will be told to stay in bed.

...we'll get a message from beings in a parallel universe and it will be, like, really heavy.

...everyone's PC will have a part-time job.

...rent control will be universal.

...bomb squads will employ a wide range of mammals alongside the traditional canine.

That does it for this week. Until next time, we'll see you in the future.

Posted by Phil at 10:40 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

I Wonder if Bart Simpson Ever Did This One?

I like to think I'm the kind of guy who can admit it when he makes a mistake. So, Karl, I hope you're reading this.

  1. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  2. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  3. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  4. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  5. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  6. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  7. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  8. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  9. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  10. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  11. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  12. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  13. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  14. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  15. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  16. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  17. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  18. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  19. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  20. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  21. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  22. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  23. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  24. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  25. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  26. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  27. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  28. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  29. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  30. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  31. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  32. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  33. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  34. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  35. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  36. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  37. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  38. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  39. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  40. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  41. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  42. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  43. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  44. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  45. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  46. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  47. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  48. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  49. I will not call a protozoa a virus.
  50. I will not call a protozoa a virus.

There. I feel better. Can I go home now?

Posted by Phil at 08:15 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 03, 2003

ITF #60

In the Future...

...bomb squads will employ a wide range of mammals alongside the traditional canine.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 01:24 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Looking for Planets and Life

There's an interesting article on WiredNews on the search for planets outside the solar system, particularly those that might have life. Quoting a senior NASA scientist:

Our current method does best at finding big planets close to stars, but with every year it's like a curtain is being pulled back from that stage, and we'll see smaller planets further out... We may find a dozen or two dozen Earth-sized planets in the next eight years or so.

I was interested to read the estimate that 25% of may have planets. Some estimates go as high as 100%. Using the lower estimate, there may be as many as 100 billion solar systems like ours in the galaxy and 10 trillion in the universe.

Seems like there ought to be a few others with life, maybe one or two with the technology. I wonder if any of them have flying cars?

Posted by Phil at 01:16 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

ITF #59

In the Future...

...rent control will be universal.

Futurist: Posse member Chris Hall

Posted by Phil at 01:15 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 02, 2003

What Kind of Thinker Are You?

Take the test and find out.

Turns out that I'm an Intrapersonal Thinker, like Grahame Greene, Gandhi, and Sigmund Freud. I wouldn't have picked that one for myself if I were just browsing the list.

That list of career choices is pretty eclectic. Drama Therapist? Let me get my wife on the phone.

"Hello, sweetheart? I've got great news. I've just decided on a new career!"

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 08:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #58

In the Future...

...everyone's PC will have a part-time job.

Futurist: Posse member Chris Hall

Posted by Phil at 06:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Fast Talkers, Fast Listeners

The New York Times reports that time-compressed audio is making it possible to listen to an hour's worth of speaking in 30 minutes or so (depending on how fast you like to go.) The real surprise, here, is that listening comprehension seems to go up with the increase in speed:

Perhaps even more significant, the technology may have benefits beyond saving time and money. "People who are listening at accelerated speeds learn just as much, and there's some evidence they may learn even a bit more," said Kevin Harrigan, an associate professor at the Center for Learning and Teaching Through Technology of the University of Waterloo in Canada. The consensus is that the extra brainpower needed to follow speedy speech enhances comprehension. "If you're listening at accelerated speeds," said Joel Galbraith, a researcher in Penn State's instructional systems program, "it forces you to not do anything else, so you're more focused on it."

And this is interesting:

Synthesized accelerated has many other devotees. "When I listen to the newspaper, I tend to go as high as 650" words per minute, said Gregory Rosmaita, a Web designer based in Jersey City. Because Mr. Rosmaita is blind, his interface with computers is audio-based, in the form of a synthesized voice that reads text aloud. He prefers British English to American in this regard. "With the more clipped British speech," he said, "I can increase the rate even faster."

He said he had become so accustomed to accelerated speech that normal rates could sound unnatural. "It's actually difficult to comprehend the speech when it becomes that slow," he said. "It's sort of like watching a marquee scrolling one letter at a time rather than one word at a time."

We don't have to have wires plugged into the backs of our necks in order for technology to change us. Here's a guy who has grown so accustomed to getting his audio information in fastforward mode that he has a hard time processing it at standard speed. He's been machine augmented; it's now difficult for him to function in the strictly human world.

I wonder if this is the beginning of a trend. There's never been any question that we can think faster than we can talk or write. If we can bridge that gap on the receiving end, isn't it just a matter of time before we figure out a way to bridge it on the sending end? I love my IBM ViaVoice dictation interface. Using it certainly saves time over typing. But how much more quickly could I write if I didn't have to vocalize at all?

A number of years ago I read a book on composition called Writing is a Mode of Thinking. That may soon be true in a much more literal sense than the author intended.

via KurzweilAI.net

Posted by Phil at 06:56 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #57

In the Future...

...we'll get a message from beings in a parallel universe and it will be, like, really heavy.

Futurist: Posse member Mike Sargent

Posted by Phil at 06:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Best of Speaking of the Future

Hey, if NBC can run a show called "the Best of Chris Katan" the week before the season premier of Saturday Night Live, I can definitely get away with this.

I've been Speaking of the Future with some of the most fascinating people in the world for two months now. Here are a few highlights from those discussions.

Aubrey de Grey

What's your response to those who claim that finding a cure for aging is in some way irresponsible or immoral? A number of years ago, the former governor of my home state of Colorado, a fellow by the name of Dick Lamm, made a speech that was to haunt the remainder of his political career. In it, he told his audience that "We have a duty to die" in order to get out of the way, make room for the coming generations, not use more than our share of resources, and so forth. He was talking primarily about heroic lifesaving efforts such as keeping an individual who has had a massive stroke on life support, spending resources and effort on prolonging their life even when there is little or no chance of recovery. His words were widely misquoted as "You have a duty to die," and he became something of a pariah, especially among seniors who didn't take kindly to being told that they should drop dead for the benefit of the kids. But I wonder if there isn't a notion of a "duty to die" lurking in the background of various green movements or in the sustainable growth meme.

I think there probably is, yes. But the deeper question is, why do people find that sort of thinking attractive? I think the only reason is denial: people know they can't escape aging, so they find ways to convince themselves that it's okay not to escape it. When people cease to "know" that aging is inevitable, this whole way of thinking will vanish overnight. As for my response to such people, well, my favorite one is to ask exactly what age the person thinks is the optimal life expectancy for humans, and why that age is better than ten years longer. I've never heard good replies to that one. A similar question is whether the person approves or disapproves of research to delay the age at which people get heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's etc. When they realize that therapies which do that will also, inexorably, extend lifespan, they have to propose that there's some age of onset of those diseases beyond which it ceases to be a good idea to delay them further.

Alex Lightman

So when do you think the big bang will get here?

We are living in the big bang right now. 1.3 billion mobile phone users and 660 million Internet users, vs. 750 million cars, trucks and buses. The digital big bang is the most important experience of this era in human history, though it will take a future Alvin Toffler or Edward Gibbons to point it out in manner that most educated people will understand. Only, by then, the definition of 'educated person' will have gone from millions of people to billions of people! What a fun, complex world that will be to live in.

Robert Zubrin

How about permanent settlement elsewhere in the solar system? And where you think that would be?

Well, you could establish a settlement on the Moon, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as self-sufficient as one on Mars.

Because of the lack of resources there?

Yes. And then similarly in the near asteroids, and eventually the main-belt asteroids. Mars is not the final destination, but it is the direction. It's where we establish our first new branch of humanity in space as a space-faring species. And if we do it, that in itself will develop our capabilities. The first people that go to Mars are going to go in chemically propelled spacecraft. They're going to make the passage in cramped and uncomfortable quarters. The grandchildren of the first Martian immigrants will find it difficult to credit the story that their grandparents tell about how long it took. Because they'll be traveling in fusion-powered spacecraft which can do it in three weeks in great comfort.

Once there is a branch of human civilization on Mars, we have the incentive to develop more of the technologies that will allow us to make the transit routine. Columbus fared the Atlantic in ships that even a generation later no one would have attempted to the Atlantic in. Because until there was transatlantic transportation, there was no need to develop transatlantic-capable ships. But after Columbus came a trans-oceanic civilization and your three-masted sailing ships, your clipper ships, your steamers, your ocean liners, your Boeing 747’s all followed in turn. But the same technology that makes the transfer to Mars routine, will also make it possible for more daring people to take much greater steps. If you can get to Mars in three weeks, you can get to the Moons of Saturn in a few months. Perhaps even attempt interstellar voyages within a few decades.


The present is the future relative to the past. What's the best thing about living in the future?

I like chatting with people online.

What's the biggest disappointment?

I do not know what biggest disappointment is. Alright. What drugs do you take?

Michael Anissimov

While Aubrey de Grey talks about adding a few centuries to his life so that he can get caught up on his reading, enjoy more time with his loved ones, and perhaps get in a few more games of Othello, Eliezer Yudkowsky is busy working out an advanced Theory of Fun that will allow us to find pleasure in a life that spans millions or possibly even billions of years. What is your take on the question of whether boredom will eventually kick in if we live indefinitely? Is there an escape clause somewhere in your organization’s repudiation of involuntary death?

Given complete control over the structure and function of our own minds, I can easily imagine a scenario where boredom gets wiped out, never to return again. The question is whether this would be the “philosophically acceptable” thing to do or not. In “Singularity Fun Theory”, Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that “Fun Space” probably increases exponentially with a linear increase in intelligence, and I’d tend to agree. So we wouldn’t have to turn ourselves into excited freaks in order to have an unlimited amount of fun. Superintelligence, nanotechnology, and uploading should produce enough interesting experiences to keep many of us enjoying ourselves forever, and there are probably millions or billions of new technologies and experiences in store for us once we acquire the intelligence to invent and implement them. It’s hard for us to say anything really specific about the nature of these technologies at the moment – that would be sort of like a fish in the Cambrian era trying to predict what human beings would do for fun. One thing is for sure; we’re eventually going to need to become more than human in order to enjoy all that reality has to offer.

Phil Bowermaster

If someone visited you from the future, what would you want them to say was the best thing you did to affect their lives, what was the worst thing and what would they wish you had done?

That’s a tough one. I think I would want them to say that the best thing that I’ve done is to imagine a bright future, share that vision with others, and try to make it happen. The worst thing is that I’ve waited so long before seriously trying to do it. I can’t say what they would wish I had done. One of the great tricks to life is trying to figure out what you’re doing now that later you’ll wish you hadn’t done, what you’re not doing that you’ll wish you had done, and what you’re doing that you’ll wish you had done differently. I haven’t entirely mastered this trick, but I’m working on it.


Over the next few weeks, we'll be publishing (among others) interviews with the John Smart of the Institute for Accelerating Change, filmmaker Nina Paley, and Foresight Institute president Christine Peterson. So stay tuned.

Posted by Phil at 05:46 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 01, 2003

Cat Scat Fever

I meant to link to this yesterday, but ran out of time. Randall Parker has the lowdown on a virus that people contract from their cats, and which has behavior-modifying properties. T. gondii originally evolved as virus infecting rats, to the benefit of felines:

The minds of infected rats are subtly altered so that they become less able to avoid getting captured and eaten by cats. Cat feces that are eaten by rats serve as a way to spread the disease to rats that the cats can then eventually capture and eat.

Randall concludes:

Women who want to have children should probably give away Fluffy to post-menopausal women who show signs of already being promiscuous.

But what about the threat to Western Civilization? Cats are making our women less trusthworthy and more superficial while they are making men look scruffy loners who are unwilling to follow rules. If some terrorist group was releasing pathogens that had this effect we'd be hunting them down and killing them without mercy (assuming the FBI and CIA could find them - the anthrax mail case may never be solved). But since kitties are fluffy, make cute purring sounds, and occasionally rub up against people's legs they are considered adorable by many. This leaves them free to operate in plain sight to undermine Western Civilization while every single one of them affects an air of total indifference and disinterest.

Well, now hold on a minute, here. What exactly does this thing do to people again? It makes men "scruffy loners" and it makes women more "easy going" and "warmhearted." They get more interested in their appearance, have more friends, and are more likely to fool around.

Randall, my friend, I don't think you're going to find too many guys willing to join you in the fight against this thing.

Posted by Phil at 04:50 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

NASA's Birthday

Rand Simberg celebrates NASA's 45th birthday with a recap of the agency's successes and an assessment of its ongoing problems. He concludes with some food for thought:

It's often noted that insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over, and expecting to get different results. By that definition, our current space policy continues to be insane.

For humans, with modern nutrition and medicine, age forty-five is now considered, at least in the west, to be the prime of life. But for government bureaucracies, it can be an age that's over the hill and down the other side, perhaps deep in their dotage. This is particularly the case when the political circumstances that brought about their creation disappeared years, if not decades ago.

While euthanasia remains a controversial topic for humans, it shouldn't be off the table for an agency that may have lived long past its usefullness. But abandoning a flawed governmental approach need not mean an abandoning of the high frontier. In fact, it may be a necessary first step.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Chris Hall (you'll have to scroll down; permalinks don't seem to be working) has a somewhat different take on how NASA should be assessed.

Posted by Phil at 04:28 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Summary for September

I don't know why I even keep that Site Meter link on my sidebar. If the statisitics provided by my hosting service are accurate, SiteMeter is way, way off base.

I mean, look at this:

I was hoping we would have 12,000 unique visitors in September and we had almost 13,500. We should have our 25,000th unique visitor sometime over the next few days. But according to SiteMeter, we've had fewer than 8,000 visits.

According to official SiteMeter rankings, The Speculist is ranked in the mid-400's out of a list of more than 1300 blogs. That's not bad. I'm in the upper third or at least comfortably in the upper half. Now, if SiteMeter is accurate for everybody else and only wrong for me (granted, that's unlikely) my daily average for September of 652 means I should be ranked somewhere right around 100, which would be pretty sweet. Does anybody have any idea what the deal is with SiteMeter? Do you have to have one of those paid accounts in order to get accurate stats?

Anyway, thanks to all of you who paid us a visit in September, and please come back often.

Posted by Phil at 10:46 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #56

In the Future...

...those suffering from computer viruses will be told to stay in bed.

Futurist: Posse member Chris Hall

Posted by Phil at 10:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #55

In the Future...

...rocket parts will come from the JC Whitney catalog.

Futurist: Posse member Mike Sargent

Posted by Phil at 09:52 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Strange Coincidence...

... or spooky harmonic convergence? We just published ITF #54, and now Dodgeblogium is hosting the Carnival of the Vanities #54.

Car 54, where are you?

Where indeed?

Posted by Phil at 06:09 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack