Thursday, May 26, 2016

Sea level rise: it's inevitable

Flooding in Asuncion, Paraguay in December 2015. From The Atlantic.

Do you like to swim? Then climate change has good news for you.

Two weeks ago, I saw this article in Discover (telling myself "don't read the comments, don't read the comments.") It describes a record spike in Arctic ice melt observed on April 11th. Since that time, there has been "a second bout of unusual melting." Data provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center demonstrates that in both cases of melting, the thaw exceeded 10% of the ice sheet's area. In light of these events plus "unusual, persistent warmth and large-scale fracturing of sea ice," the lead scientist for the Center is quoted as saying: "The Arctic is going to go through hell this year. Both the sea ice and the Greenland surface melting."

This threw me back to a March article in The Atlantic: "Preparing for the Inevitable Sea-Level Rise." It's been happening, it's going to continue happening, what is left unknown is just how fast it's going to happen. Part of what is complicating that understanding is not knowing the exact rate of ice melt. Regional effects are even harder to predict. Scientists have approximated that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone could lead to a rise in global sea levels of 11 feet. Additionally troubling is the "two degree" concept. To understand this, we need to examine previous climate and geology. From the article:

"Looking back 120,000 years, the temperature was two to three degrees Celsius higher than today’s temperature—what scientists project climate change could bring within the next century. For example, in the interglacial age 120,000 years ago, temperatures were two to three degrees Celsius higher than they are today, and sea levels were three to nine meters higher. Scientists project that within the next century, climate change could bring current temperatures up to levels on par with this period."

This means interesting times for people who live in coastal areas like say, I don't know, Miami. New Orleans is already sinking but that's really nothing new.

One positive in all this may be that if we know it's going to happen we can take action. The article in The Atlantic describes how many initiatives are already underway. In strict terms of sea level rise, the argument over whether humans are causing it is nearly academic if the rise is indeed inevitable. We need to find solutions or start investing in inland properties. Maybe even rescue a few polar bears and penguins while we're at it.

Or maybe you can ease your conscience if you just keep repeating to yourself "we're not causing it."

For more information on sea level rise, please check out this presentation by PBS NOVA.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Did a UFO or SDI blow up a meteor? Go to Denny's to find out.

Photo from Express

Here is another one from Claire.

One morning last week, as I was barely out of my hypnagogic state, she contacted me about a few tabloid allegations. They go a little something like this. Hit it.

A webcam in Maine recorded what looks like a meteor falling from the sky. It is claimed that there is also the appearance of a second object entering the frame and intercepting the meteor, destroying it in a fireball. The American Meteor Society announced that there is indeed a second object on the webcam video, but it is nothing more than a smaller fragment of the meteor that had already broken off in the atmosphere.

What? That is so lame. No imagination at all and it's certainly not a very entertaining explanation. No, if you want that, you've got to go to the internet. There you will find the claims of the Space People True Believers who say the second object was a UFO. It destroyed the meteor and saved the east coast of the United States. After all, there are alien patrols who watch out for us as they know we are nowhere near technologically capable at this point of fending off a meteor strike.

I've read another slightly more plausible (that is if you still insist on doubting the factually accurate explanation from the American Meteor Society) but no less entertaining scenario. It states that a missile defense system, similar to what was proposed under the Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI or colloquially "Star Wars," blasted the meteor. That theory took me all the way back to someone I ran into in a Denny's late one night.

Because it's where I get all of my UFO and conspiracy information.

It was a few months after 9/11 and the people at my table were chugging coffee, smoking Marlboros, and fretting over chemical weapons. A young guy from another table overheard and jumped (literally) over to us. He claimed he was a Navy SEAL (brandishing his Navy keychain as if it were some sort of credential) and proceeded to school us about chemical weapons. All of it knowledge that he gained as a medic in the SEALs. "I've got enough medical gear in my trunk to keep someone alive until the ambulance arrives" he boasted. Made me wonder what he had in mind for the evening. Also he claimed to know that SDI is a reality and that there are particle beam weapons based in Alaska that are "70% effective."

I really didn't have any desire to call him on the flim-flam I was smelling. To tell you the truth, I was rather entertained by him as I usually am when I encounter these types. Great fodder for stories. Also, I didn't doubt his claims about SDI. The specifics maybe, but not the overall claim.

Stories like these proliferate because people see things in the sky and they don't know what they are. Watch the starry night sky sometime. You'll see something move high above where most planes fly. Probably a satellite. Could also be a drone conducting surveillance (an eerie feeling, eh?) Might be something else entirely, something we haven't been told about. Because there really are secrets. That's not paranoia or conspiracy talk. Several of our defense capabilities are being kept secret.

Because they have to be.

So while the webcam footage of the meteor is immanently explainable, I understand where the many of the other stories come from. They come from an awareness that things really are being kept from you, for good reasons, and the creepy sensation of the unknown that produces.

Well, that and from Denny's late at night.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Mead vs Jetsons in the city of the future

"The future ain't what it used to be."

At least I think that's the Yogi Berra quote. It was the upshot of an article over at The Atlantic. It basically looked at why we never got the future cities portrayed in The Jetsons. Now one point to make perfectly clear is that no rational person ever saw that cartoon as intending any real prescience. But it did give us a "cultural vision" of a sort, an ideal many hoped for at the time.

As the article points out though, the cartoon was not a complete miss. It somewhat predict our fast-paced, interconnected lives. Like the world of The Jetsons, we have moving walkways, mobile video screens, and interactive displays. So why didn't we get cool transportation like flying cars or hovering cities? Well for one thing, no one at the time realized how many people would be living in cities by now. It's estimated that over half of the world's population are urban dwellers. By 2050 that percentage will grow to 75%. This, as I'm sure you surmise, causes both strain and limitations upon infrastructure. 

If not The Jetsons, then who does render our new, "best guess" at the city of the future?

I vote for Syd Mead.

Mead is a concept artist who gave many famous films their signature look. Most notable among these for me is Blade Runner. He was once quoted as defining science fiction as "reality ahead of schedule." If we examine his art, I believe we can already see ourselves. If you'll indulge me however, I would go take a look at Mead's art vis-a-vis The Jetsons.

I'm aware this is something of a Bambi vs Godzilla proposition, but stay with me for a moment.

Look at the architecture, the stylization of the buildings. Even as the population of cities keep growing, the physical space of these will not. That means the only direction to go is up. Buildings will just get taller. You see that in Blade Runner. They also project a dirtier, less idealistic image than those in The Jetsons. I'll take the buildings from Blade Runner, thanks. Then again my worldview is rather Blade Runner on the whole. Further underscoring that view is the fact that in the film, the wealthy or 1%, live on the highest levels of the buildings, far above the working class and the poor. This might owe more inspiration to Fritz Lang's Metropolis but it doesn't matter. Both films are cool.

In terms of transportation, Syd Mead's designs give us the Spinner. The Jetdons had their flying car and Blade Runner had the Spinner, a more functional version of the former and rendered in brutalist sensibility. 

But could our Syd Mead-inspired cities have VertiPods

Now a few of you out there might be...concerned. There is after all a certain grittiness to the Blade Runner vision and devotees of The Jetsons might find it depressing.

Depressing? Hell, I'm already there.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Chilling societal predictions by J.G. Ballard

That J.G. Ballard knew something about society.

He was a writer. A rather prolific one at that. Numerous novels and short stories that could be termed "genre fiction," though his Empire of the Sun defies such classifications. Ballard's also being "rediscovered" as his novel The High Rise about "a brutalist block of flats in alternate-universe version of 1970s Britain" has been given a film adaptation. For me, Day of Creation is the goods, a story that combines environmental warnings with mind-bending considerations of reality.

In keeping with this resurgence of all things Ballard, Flavorwire published this list of 20 quotes from J.G. Ballard that should, if you have any sense of what's going on, strike a bit close to home. You can see them all at the link, but naturally I've plucked out a few of my favorites:

“Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.”

“Bourgeois life is crushing the imagination from this planet. In due course this will provoke a backlash, since the imagination can never be wholly repressed. A new surrealism will probably be born.”

“Everything’s designed to be bland, homogenised, user-friendly. As someone says in the book (and I’ve used it before, I know, but it’s a slogan I’m going to keep pushing) the totalitarian regimes of the future will be ingratiating, subservient. No longer will it be Orwell’s vision of a boot stamping on a human face. We’ll have something highly subservient and ingratiating, where the tyranny is imposed for our own good. We see it all the time.”

“The future is probably going to be something like Las Vegas.”

I have no doubt taken this blog perilously close to the edge of turning readers away with my incessant bemoaning of our gormless society. We don't like smart people. Many among us don't like to base decisions on scientific fact. Thinking is just too hard.

None of this was news to Ballard. He saw the end coming and as several of his novels suggest, we'd actually welcome it when it happened.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Number of confirmed exoplanets doubles

Credit: NASA

Big news from space was promised by NASA last week.

Naturally, this led to copious, even if misguided, speculation among Space People True Believers that disclosure was finally happening. What we actually got was rather significant in its own right. Researchers at NASA's Kepler mission announced the discovery of 1,200 exoplanets. This has come about due to new software that increases the ability to discern signal from noise in the massive amounts of Kepler data.

There's always the same question with these announcements: could any of these planets be habitable? Of course nothing is certain whatsoever, but a recent paper published in Astrophysical Journal estimates that given discoveries from Kepler and Earth-based astronomy, the number of Earth-like worlds may be around nine. Another article from 2013 estimates 8.8 billion habitable planets in this galaxy alone.

One interesting bit I gleaned from the initial article announcing the 1,200 is the methodology with Kepler. Kepler does best with short-period planets, meaning exoplanets that take a small period of time to transit their star. Makes sense. You're going to have more opportunities to catch the dimming of starlight with a short-period planet than you would another further out. For example, someone observing our solar system from the outside might more easily catch a glimpse of Venus or Mercury than say, Jupiter. Even though Jupiter is the largest of all the planets in our star system, it would cross the observer's field of vision far less frequently.

That might not be such a bad thing if someone's true interest is in habitable planets. Our outer planets are not, at least from what we know right now, habitable. For that, you need to get closer to the Sun and towards the much-discussed "Goldilocks zone." That is where you will find the only planet in our solar system with oceans of any kind, something that is necessary for life (again, as we understand it.) The fact that Earth is rarity even in its own solar system might be indicative that such warm worlds with large oceans are in fact rare pretty much everywhere.

What does this all mean? Well, sometimes I actually like to feel insignificant. In the tradition of Kafka, sometimes I want to shrink until I'm nothing and thereby render my problems the same size or me too small for them to find me. Realizing your place in a galaxy with over a thousand other the very bare minimum...and in a universe with who knows how many galaxies, that's good way to feel like a speck. So, putting it all in perspective, I'm just a speck. And so are you.

Not insulting. Just sayin'...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Give yourself a robot body at long distance

Virtual reality came up during a faculty seminar today.

A colleague lamented that there is now an online dating service for those wanting long distance relationships. By "long distance" I mean international. The relationship would take place entirely in virtual reality. "People can create perfect avatars, idealized versions of themselves or idealized to what the other person wants."

That might soon be taken to another level with robot bodies. That's the plan of tech mogul and early Google investor, Scott Hassan. His idea is to send your video image to a flatscreen monitor mounted on two legs ending in wheels. It's based on his video conferencing tool called Beam. It's basically like FaceTime or Skype but this added dimension allows the caller to not only be seen but to have a body with which to act out rudimentary functions. Edward Snowden used a similar system in one of his appearances.

Is it still an "appearance" if it's virtual? If it's your robot stand-in? All questions for the future.

Hassan certainly has a robotics pedigree. He developed the PR2 that has already cleaned dog waste from yards, poured both beer and lattes, and as I noticed last year, make pancakes.

The robot bodies, such as they are, are not capable of much right now. They move about on their wheels, following whomever you've called. They can interact with their environments on basic levels. But there is no reason why all of this can't or won't be advanced and enhanced in the coming years. Instead of a spindly, two leg structure we might soon have chiseled frames to hide our more embonpoint features.

Imagine it though. "Beaming yourself" into the robot body of your choosing. After all, if you have the opportunity to create a virtual relationship involving bodies to your own customization and without all the egregious hassle of real life, why not?

I'm sure others see things differently (those faculty members certainly do) but I wonder if the world's naysayers have had enough relationship pain to make a fully informed decision.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets