Thursday, August 27, 2015

Katrina +10: how climate change deniers have it very wrong

Never too early for Science Friday.

Likewise, it's never too early to talk climate change. More like "too late" in our case.

This month, many will be marking the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans. We still call it "the storm," "the deluge," or just "Katrina," but that doesn't quite get at what actually happened. That region of the Gulf was hit by climate change. Pure and simple. Not convinced? Well keep watching, because we're likely to see many more hurricanes of that level occur. Ten times more likely, in fact.

That's right folks. Skip Disney for any kind of vision of the future. Just look at the 2005 footage of a drowned New Orleans to get a more accurate picture of what lies ahead of us. Temperatures are climbing, sea levels are rising and warming, and that's quite a concoction for future hurricanes. Warm air holds more moisture and therefore provides these storms with more energy and a higher sea level just provides that much more water to whip around.

Hell, we might find ourselves wishing for a storm more on Katrina's level.

But we're ready for it, right? At least New Orleans should be, shouldn't it? Well, an article appeared in Wired today proclaiming, "No one is ready for the next Katrina." This isn't just an issue for New Orleans. The United States is a coastal civilization as such is vulnerable to one of these storms, to say nothing of an average four foot rise in sea level. Tl;dr...if you live on a coast, this is going to be an issue for you.

It's no surprise we're not ready. In truth, we're not all that much further along in our attitudes towards climate change. Somehow, there's still a debate over it, even though 97% of climate scientists are in agreement: climate change is a reality and humans are causing it. Wait, just found this. Turns out that 97% figure is totally inaccurate just as the deniers insist. The number is actually 99.9%.

“It’s now a ruling paradigm, as much an accepted fact in climate science as plate tectonics is in geology and evolution is in biology,” said James Powell, director of the National Physical Sciences Consortium. “It’s 99.9% plus."

Powell arrived at this fact by going over more than 24,000 peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change. Of that number, only five papers denied its existence. What's more, papers written by deniers typically have one author attributed to them. The majority of the papers in the other massive pile have multiple authors, as many as five is not uncommon. Hence, why the percentage of consensus is 99.9.

And yet we still hear cries of "hoax!" and "conspiracy!" In the MSNBC video at the above link, Powell gave a response to those allegations that is both near and dear to my heart:

"Attend a faculty meeting," he said. "Try getting 99% of them to agree on anything."

I know it's a tired phrase, but the next megastorm really is a question of "when," not "if."

Normally, it takes a massive disaster for us to sit up and take notice. You would think that the deaths of thousands of people in 2005 would have jolted us into action to do something about the environment.

Oh wait, I was only half right. I guess it will take the deaths of thousands of white people.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Will robots take our jobs or just be know-it-alls?

We sure love our dystopias.

Look at our current popular culture. They're everywhere. Of particular concern, it would seem, are robots. I've seen any number of "Are robots going to take your job?" articles online in recent months. You can add last Wednesday night's Coast to Coast AM to that pile. The guest was Sir Charles Shults. No, not the guy who created Peanuts (although that would be quite the trick, and since it would involve a seance, not outside the realm of C2C. But I digress...) but a developer of aerospace defense systems and robotics.

He is also selling his book, A Fossil Hunter's Guide to Mars on his website. I present that without comment.

Anyway, Shults explained how many fear that robotics will eventually advance to the point where they will take over most available jobs (yes, almost any job). In time, they might take us over as well.  "If you build a machine that's smart enough to clean up after you, maybe it'll realize it doesn't want to do those jobs just as you don't," he said. "And if you have a machine that's perhaps smarter than a human being, how do you know whose interests it's acting in?"

Interesting point. How do you hem in a robot's self interest? Then again, what available methods are there for doing the same to a human?

Shults invoked the popular phrase "Pandora's Box" just as Musk and Hawking have. I don't disagree with that line of thinking. Developments such as cybernetics and robotics are very much like achieving knowledge of nuclear energy. Once it's discovered, it's out there. There's no "putting the genii back in the bottle" to use another tired analogy. I just fear that we are employing much like a "slippery slope" logical fallacy to new developments. An obvious tactic may be, just as Shults suggests, to test these robotic systems out in a "Sand Box," and evaluate how they interact with humans.

Machines that are smarter than us. This may indeed lead to the dawn of a dystopia but not for the reasons we fear. Not the "robot overlords" scenario or "they've taken all of our jobs" (we have always seemed to find new jobs for people) or finding they have absquatulated with our humanity, but rather I'm envisioning robot know-it-alls. They are omnipresent, in our homes and workplaces. They are there to serve but when we try to do something, they tell us we're doing it wrong. Perhaps more to the point, they would tell us to stop because they know how to do it better. It would be like "that one guy you know" who is in a constant race of one-upmanship with you. Yeah, we all have somebody like that, don't we? Anyway, such an existence would be unbearable for many reasons, not the least of which being I would feel lied to by Robotech.

I might be on to a science fiction story here...or at least part of one.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

David Lynch's "The Alphabet"

I have already established what a fan I am of Night Flight.

Thank God it lives on through the pure grace of the interwebs. I considered for a moment blogging about one of its recent articles profiling sex star Traci Lords and how New Wave Hookers changed porn forever. It was going to be undertaken with the same motivation as my "Page Three Girl" experiments: shamelessly drive more traffic to ESE. Fortunately, another Night Flight article caught my eye and I have decided to dedicate my time to it instead, thus sparing us all the skeevy (if fun) feeling of appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Fear not, prudes everywhere.  An article on David Lynch has come to the rescue. 

Just let those sentences sink in for a moment.

Lynch is one of my favorite film directors and like his other fans, I was quite happy to hear that he is returning to direct a re-boot of his phenomenal Twin Peaks for Showtime. There were a few hiccups in the process. Lynch left the production at one point but has sense returned to the helm, the miniseries expanding now from nine to 18 episodes. The downside being that Twin Peaks will not debut until 2017. In the meantime, Night Flight has taken a moment to examine the earliest entries in Lynch's portfolio.

He is best known for mindbending but groundbreaking films such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, all fun stuff if you really want to freak out the more mundane in your social circles. Before either of those, Lynch was of course a film and art student at the Pennsylvanian Academy of Fine Arts. It was during his time there that he shot his first live-action film, The Alphabet, which you can see a segment of at the above link.

The film stars Peggy Lynch, David Lynch's wife at the time. She sits before the camera and chants the letters of the alphabet to a series of images of horses. At the end she dies, hemorrhaging blood all over white bed sheets. Lynch also added in a distorted tape recording of his baby daughter crying for effect. What was the inspiration for this opus? Well, it is David Lynch and I caution you against questioning genius. Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it's not art or that the motives behind the piece are meant to be understood.

Pretentiousness aside, here's what Lynch said about it:

"Peggy’s niece was having a bad dream one night and was saying the alphabet in her sleep in a tormented way. So that’s sort of what started The Alphabet going. The rest of it was just subconscious."

Interestingly enough, we see the same sorts of themes, a crying baby, a woman at home, et. al. present in Eraserhead. The overlaying of other images upon a primary image is also something quintessentially Lynch, as beautifully seen in his directing of Duran Duran's "Unstaged" concert. Sure, many other Durannies scratched their head at the wallpapered images of spinning bicycle wheels, bouncing stuffed animals, and grilling hot dogs, but I rolled about with glee, holding my stomach and squealing, "Wonderful! Wonderful!"

All right, maybe I wasn't that undignified, but I certainly take delight in weirdness.

Twin Peaks can't get here soon enough for me.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Sustainable fusion may be near

Among other things, I wanted this blog to be a resource to science fiction writers like myself.

That's why I post odds and ends that I come across, news bits that catch my eye and that I hope can help bolster the "science" half of "science fiction." Alternative energy is certainly a major component of many such writings. To get anything from your hovercar to your mothership powered to do what it needs to do, you need power plant that's clean, compact, and efficient. Big bonuses would be if your power could be gained from a fuel that's very common, like water, and the byproducts of the burning would be totally eco-friendly. It would also be handy if the power plant device were on the small side so that it could be mobile, maybe just big enough to fit inside "the cargo hold of an airplane." Smaller than that would be even better, but hey, let's not get too crazy.

And when you write this and your agent/editor/teacher/workshop partner tells you that it's "unrealistic," tell them it may already be on its way. The famed Skunk Works at Lockheed has reported that it is close to an alternative energy device that will allow for a sustained nuclear fusion reaction to occur and match all of the benefits previously listed. Fusion is the most potent power source known. It powers the stars themselves, meaning it is (almost) limitless. Finding a way to create, sustain, and harness such power has been something of a holy grail for scientists and engineers, but work towards it has been intermittent. Ever since the Pons-Fleischmann debacle of 1989 where two researcher erroneously announced to the world that they had enacted "cold fusion," the whole thing began to seemed like a non-starter. It just wasn't practical.

That may no longer be the case.

Lockheed's Compact Fusion reactor "makes use of a magnetic bottle created by superconducting magnets to contain the temperatures that can reach hundreds of millions of degrees. This magnetic bottle can then release some of the heat so that it can be used for power generation." Fusion is brought about by mixing two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. Those isotopes can readily be extracted from water in a simple process of electrolysis. Lockheed asserts that a 100 MW system could run on less than 20 kg of fuel. Since it's a nuclear reaction, the Compact Fusion generator does produce radioactive waste. What sets this system apart from its fission reactor cousins is that this waste is then cycled back into the reactor for reuse.  

Clean, portable, unlimited energy. Almost sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Are you lachrymose with joy yet? Or if you're like David, you're already calling it a pipe dream. Maybe. It's also probably presumptuous to add in the descriptor "free" just yet as nothing really is. Even so, unlimited energy that is produced cheaply could not cost as much as other energy resources.

That probably scares an awful lot of powerful people.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

RIP Yvonne Craig

I wanted to take a moment to today to mark the passing of actress Yvonne Craig.

Most genre fans will know her best as Batgirl from the 1960s Batman TV series with Adam West. The show was heading into a decline before her arrival and the character of Batgirl was added to help bring in a little spark. That era of the series held several of its more ridiculous plotlines (even for Batman), but I didn't mind. I liked the addition of Batgirl because I'm one of those geeks who always liked stories with many heroes involved. It was fun to see Craig as Batgirl interact with the likes of Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin, and Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon, her father on the show.

Yvonne Craig also appeared in several other TV shows and movies. A notable appearance for science fiction fans was when she played Marta, a sexy Orion slave girl on the Star Trek episode, "Whom Gods Destroy."

Her legacy will live on. As Gail Simone, writer of several comics including Batgirl, stated: "Most of the joy in my current life can be traced back in some way to seeing Yvonne Craig be amazing as Batgirl, my first real life hero."

Here's a gem. This is a 1960s PSA for "equal pay" featuring the Batman cast. All except for Adam West, who declined to be part of the spot.

She was fun to watch. She will be missed. Already missed by many, no doubt.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Did feminizing help us evolve?

This is not meant as a political post.

It is about human evolution. It is also about transhumanism. Eventually.

But I am already steeling myself for the inevitable comments that I am trying to "pussify" America. Well, I can do little about such small-mindedness, so I press ahead anyway.

An article at Discover magazine asked why it took around 150,00 years for early homo sapiens to do "anything special" since we first evolved in Africa. The author couches this question in the context that at it is at 50,000 years ago that we see creativity arrive on the scene in the form of cave paintings. Turns out something physical was also going on with early humans at the same time. An analysis of fossils from that time period shows that the brow ridge of skulls became less prominent and facial features of males became more similar to those of females. This is termed craniofacial feminization. A possible explanation for this transformation may be lowering levels of testosterone.

This dip in testosterone levels, according to research cited in the article at any rate, would have logically meant that these early humans would have been less likely to react violently to things. In turn, this likewise means that humans began living in communities, living cooperatively, and adopting social graces. This domestication allowed for stability and therefore the growth of creativity and culture.

Comments on the article are predictable. Many saw it as "liberal nonsense," an attempt to beatify feminists, and "male bashing." That's funny. I don't really feel all that bashed by a study that says a rise of feminine abilities and traits helped bring about culture. Still, others warred on in the comments section, crying that testosterone keeps culture safe and that in the end, most women are drawn to men with greater testosterone in order to propagate the species so the research in the article is either misinterpreted, altogether incorrect, or both in this sense. I have no idea how it could be both, but no doubt someone will argue it.

This got me thinking about bigger things. What happens to gender in a posthuman society? What happens when transhumanism and cybernetics allow for one to transcend the confines of what is male and what is female? No doubt there will be throwbacks that hold on to it, but my hope is that conversations and thoughts such as those in the Discover article's comments section will be seen as even more idiotic than they already are. "There must be testosterone for how else will we fight wars? There must be estrogen for how else will we raise kids?" Transhumanism, carried to its logical zenith, would eliminate many such stereotypes as people could be whatever they wanted to be. Modified humans may lead to greater enlightenment as squabbling over the petty, basic needs demanded by biology will be rendered moot. One day perhaps our descendants will see the entire concept of "gender" as quaint and antiquated.

Could it be that we are on the cusp of another massive transition for humanity and culture? Similar to the one 50,000 years ago described in the article?

Damn I hope so.

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