Sunday, August 24, 2014

Citizen Power - Part I: using our cell cameras for safety and freedom

If you push long and hard enough for something that is logical and needed, a time may come when it finally happens! At which point – pretty often – you may have no idea whether your efforts made a difference. Perhaps other, influential people saw the same facts and drew similar, logical conclusions! Here is my own latest example:

“Qualcomm and other wireless companies have been working on a new cellular standard—a set of technical procedures that ensures devices can “talk” to one another—that will keep the lines open if the network fails. The Proximity Services, or so-called LTE Direct, standard will be approved by the end of the year.”

This technology, which would allow our pocket radios to pass along at-minimum basic text messages, on a peer-to-peer basis (P2P), even when the cell system is down, would seem to be the obvious backup mode that we all might rely upon, in emergencies. Indeed, failure of cell service badly exacerbated the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and Tsunami Fukushima. I have been hectoring folks about this since 1995, when I started writing The Transparent Society, and in annual speeches/consultations with various agencies and companies, back east, ever since.

ua93-terror Indeed, it was access to communications that enabled New Yorkers to show the incredible citizen resilience that Rebecca Solnit portrays so well in her book A Paradise Made in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Communications enabled the brave passengers of flight UA 93 to “win” the War on Terror, the very day that it began.

A few years after brainstorming with some engineers at Qualcomm, I learned that company was charging ahead with LTE direct, installing it in their chip sets, whether or not AT&T and Verizon decided to activate it. In emergencies, phones that use it will be able to connect directly with one another over the same frequency as 4G LTE transmissions. Users will be able to call other users or first responders within about 500 meters. If the target is not nearby, the system can relay a message through multiple phones until it reaches its destination.

When it is fully operational, the benefits will become apparent. A more robust, resilient and agile civilization will be more ready for anything that might come.

== Phones and Protest ==

Last year, largely unheralded by media, saw the most important civil liberties decision in thirty years, when the courts and the Obama Administration separately declared it to be “settled law” that citizens have a right to record their interactions with police, in public places. There will be tussles over the details for years, as discussed here. And here.

EFF-CELL-PHONE-GUIDE-PROTESTThose tussles could be hazardous! The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a guide to using cell phones if you are going to a protest or other zone of potentially tense interaction with police.

Good, practical advice. I have long urge folks to join EFF as one of their dozen or so "proxy power associations." I do not always agree with them! But that doesn't matter as much as ensuring that they -- and the ACLU, etc -- remain out there and untrammeled.

For more on your right and duty to join orgs that give your voice see: Proxy Power...

== What worries me most? ==

There are moves afoot to require that cell phone manufacturers include "kill switches" so that phones can be remotely turned off. Ostensibly, this aims to enable you to render your stolen phone useless to any thieves, thus securing your private data and eliminating much of the incentive to steal phones, in the first place.  

Behind the scenes, however, are Security Concerns, e.g. that cell phones make excellent remote triggers for terror bombs.  Or that terrorists can use phones to coordinate an attack in real time. In both cases - and some other hypotheticals I am not at liberty to divulge - the State will be better able to serve and protect us, if it can shut down  service in an area....

...and if that does not give you a creepy feeling, there is something wrong with you.  As legitimate as that necessity might seem, it is countered by our own need and right to stay connected, during a crisis, and to use our tools to perform citizen-level accountability!

In fact, it is easy to imagine a negotiated solution... a win-win that could help the Protector Caste without leaving us citizens reduced to impotence, to the level of bleating sheep, bereft of tools exactly when we need them most. I have long pointed out that access to communications was the trait them empowered New Yorkers and the brave volunteers on flight UA93, in contrast to the disastrous consequences of communications breakdown, after Katrina and Fukushima.

 Certainly the cell-phone's camera functions... and the ability to upload images to safety at trusted cloud sites... should be safeguarded from any and all kill switches. (Indeed, these are things you don't mind a thief doing, with your stolen phone!  You might get it back!)

Or else (and I recommend this highly) you should go all retro.  Buy and maintain several cheap, old fashioned digital cameras.  Keep them around.  Just in case.

Forever.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Next Technologies!

To conclude my recent spate of science and technology roundups, I'll do one a final sweep of S&T news...
INFRASTRUCTURE
Let's start with a fascinating rumination on future Infrastructure… major projects -- such as Tube Transportation networks and atmospheric water harvesters -- that might consume (and be well-worth) hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, and returning far, far more in benefits. Take a look at this article 2050 and the Future of Infrastructure by futurist Thomas Frey...though he left out half a dozen that I mention in EARTH, alone!  

An article - The Trouble with High-Speed Trains - covers the challenges facing high-velocity maglevs -- as well as Elon Musk's Hyperloop.

NEXT-TECH.JPLooking ahead: Five “next” technologies. For example: DARPA researchers have fabricated a prototype with three gyroscopes, three accelerometers and a highly accurate master clock on a chip that fits easily on the face of a penny.

Now, a new catalytic system for converting carbon dioxide (CO2) to methanol — a key commodity used to create a wide range of industrial chemicals and fuels. You still need a source of hydrogen, so energy must be put in, upstream, by splitting water… another area of developing research. Along those same lines, researchers at Brown University use copper foam to turn CO2 into useful chemicals -- including chemicals currently made from fossil fuels.

A new transparent sheet can harvest solar energy -- mounted on windows -- without blocking the view.

Researchers at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology, and Pennsylvania State University have developed a 3D printing process that transitions from one metal or alloy to another in a single object.

Now here is a cool innovation… literally! A doorless refrigerator that saves energy and reduces food spoilage.


== Ah… more singularity stuff ==

An excellent background article on Programmable Matter, this piece nevertheless commits the typical flaw of ignoring the role that excellent hard science fiction has played in enhancing, exploring and drawing attention to a potentially groundbreaking field.

Hacking-matterIn this case, I highly recommend the works of my colleague Wil McCarthy, such as Hacking Matter: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages and the Infinite Weightlessness of Programmable Atoms.

Google Glass hack allows brain wave control. An EEG headset can be used to measure when certain parts of the brain show a greater level of activity. Within Google Glass's "screen" - a small window that appears in the corner of the wearer's right eye - a white horizontal line is shown. As a user concentrates, the white line rises up the screen. Once it reaches the top, a picture is taken using Glass's inbuilt camera. So much for the claim that people will always be warned by: "OK Glass, take a picture" - or by seeing the user tapping and swiping on the side of the device. But seriously, you expected that to last? This is the future.

Can we create Dyson spheres?


A tech forecast of mine from 20 years ago is coming true today at MIT… a needle table that responds to the user’s motions and emulates him/her in moving objects around.  We aren’t yet at the exercise floor I portrayed in my short story, “NatuLife.” But clearly it is coming.

Smart roofs to help NYC Cops fight crime, via ShotSpotter sensors. Now keep the cops professional by watching them.

Microsoft Research introduced “Project Adam” AI machine-learning object recognition software at its 2014 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. The goal of Project Adam is to enable software to visually recognize any object .

A California startup is developing flexible, rechargeable batteries that can be printed cheaply on commonly used industrial screen printers.

== Programming and SciFi ==

Regarding a longstanding complaint over a lack of reliable-easy access to entry-level (and universal) programming languages… from my famous “Why Can't Johnny Code?” essay… the makers of Scratch have now come up with Scratch Jr, aiming it squarely at kids in the 5-7 year old range. Interesting.

Sci-Fi-novels-science.jpgAnd finally… here are Ten Sci Fi Novels that will make you more passionate about science! Glad to be included -- with my novel, The Practice Effect.

Pessimists are fools.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Asteroids, Super space drives, and Io volcanoes!

Here goes one of our occasional space and astronomy roundups!

First some personal science news. I will be speaking about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) twice, early in 2015. (1) at the conference of the AAPT - the American Association of Physics Teachers, January 4 - 6, 2015, in San Diego...

... then (2) I'll be the "con" arguer in a debate over "messaging to aliens" at the American Association for the Advancement of Science - AAAS Annual Meeting - the greatest scientific conclave on the planet, from 12 - 16 February 2015, in San Jose, CA.

And now... cool stuff!

== Are we a target? ==

... or rather... really hot stuff! Did you hear that a solar storm spewed forth a major spray of energetic, charged particles that passed very close to the Earth, a while back? Read up on the 1859 Carrington Event that fried telegraph systems -- if it struck today, our electronics-dependent civilization could suffer real damage. Contemplate that... then consider this. There may have been a truly monumental coronal mass ejection around the year 775 that hit the Earth with a strength that was about 20 times the 1859 Carrington Event.


And yes, the solution is to get out there!  Members of Congress introduced a bill to protect property rights for commercial exploitation of asteroids. The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), is called the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act. Alas, during our current civil war, there is no chance of an actual political process in the USA.  But when this phase ends, as it must, the bill will be ready for action by a restored, scientific and forward-looking nation.

IMPOSSIBLE-SPACE-DRIVEHave you heard stories about this supposed reactionless drive, “unveiled” at a NASA conference in Ohio? I've put in a query to Geoff Landis - NASA scientist and renowned SciFi author, who promised to watch developments and give us the straight dope... or poop.   To be clear, there are some places where we already can do a version of this -- turn solar energy directly into motion, without using reaction mass or rocketry -- e.g. by applying electrodynamic tethers to leverage against the Earth's magnetic field...

…but only where there is an electron rich zone like the Van Allen belts to close the circuit loop. Interestingly, electomagnetic tethers work in exactly the realm you must climb through before deploying a solar sail. (See this process illustrated in both my short story “Tank Farm Dyamo” and in the first chapter of EXISTENCE, which I read aloud for you, here.)

Meanwhile. NASA released high-quality footage of their experiment in near-space in June, deploying the agency’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) and experimental parachute systems that will be helpful in maneuvers and landings near planets, like Mars. Way cool footage!

ioOh but we really need to get out there! Dig this — “Within a two-week period in August 2013, astronomers observed three massive volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Io. The grand finale was an eruption they say was one of the brightest volcanic eruptions ever observed in our solar system. These astronomers are speculating that these eruptions on Io – which can send material hundreds of miles above the little moon’s surface – might be much more common than they previously thought."

We should have a satellite observatory in-residence above Jupiter, permanently.

Meanwhile, researchers have found a microbial menagerie that thrives in tiny water worlds floating in oily tar pits ... perhaps a model for life on Titan?

== And yet more from space! ==

From beyond the solar system: Cosmic grains returned by the Stardust mission predate the solar system -- and may be our first samples of interstellar dust. This is amazing.  And crowd-sourced amateur science played a role!

Are many asteroids “rubble piles” held together by molecular forces, in addition to very weak gravity?  It seems that is the case for near Earth crosser 1950 DA… and the implications — for resource-mining as well as countering potentially dangerous ones — are very complicated.  It is a good thing we are forging forward to find out.  Alas, the Space.com reporter might need to get straight the meanings of “centripetal” vs “centrifugal.”

Under ideal conditions, the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be able to detect two kinds of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmospheres of alien worlds, if atmospheric levels were 10 times those on Earth. In other words, if aliens are self-destructive fools, we might catch them during the brief window of time. But only if it is orbiting a very dim star.


UNIVERSE-BUBBLEIs the Universe a Bubble? If two pocket “universes” make physical contact, there are several possibilities. M-brane theorists think the collision would release so much energy that the resulting bang would wipe out any galaxy-style realms that existed before. 

On the other hand, researchers at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, think the interaction could be mild and show up in the maps we are now making of the microwave background. “We start with a multiverse that has two bubbles in it, we collide the bubbles on a computer to figure out what happens, and then we stick a virtual observer in various places and ask what that observer would see from there."

explore-multiverse-discussion.jpgWant more about the multiverse? See Exploring the Multiverse -- a talk given by astrophysicists Brian Keating (UCSD) and Andrew Friedman (MIT)... and me....  We covered the ELEVEN different ways (that we have thought-of, so far) that this cosmos we observe may be just one of many! The event took place at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD on July 29. 

Here's a photo from our panel discussion: Brian Keating on the left, Andrew Friedman in the middle, me on the right:



== Space is also for dreams ==


Finally... do you miss the "final frontier"? The notion of a hopeful future of unbounded possibilities? Do you like well done sci fi and drama and neat effects... in a terrific Kickstarter-level production? Have a look at the 20 minute "Prelude to Axanar."  All of it aimed at a high quality, semi-pro indie Star Trek film.

You have to hand it to Paramount Pictures.  They figured out that you don't have to be jerks about policing a copyrighted franchise. Start Trek has always had a close and friendly relationship with its fans and Paramount has kept a very loose and tolerant attitude toward "unofficial" productions, many of which have been well-written and entertaining... and which ultimately kept Paramount's valued core healthy.  A true win-win.

But Axanar looks likely to be something special. This is Star Trek at its best. The danger and tension and action... mixed with joy and optimism that you get nowhere else, these days. This is worth your support.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

More Science: Microbes, Pathogens & Parasites

Time for another science roundup... this time -- biology!

==  Toxins, Viruses and Parasites ==

By some estimates, your body houses ten times more bacteria than cells with your DNA.  But that is only the start of our humiliation! DNA surveys now suggest that humans have thousands of viral species in and on us. Most of them likely coexist within our gut in peace and harmony. This notion - of relatively harmless viruses that therefore have escaped notice by science - has been around a while. It features prominently in my short story “The Giving Plague.

AfterManyThe importance of the micro-biome - the vast array of symbiotic bacteria living in human bodies, especially the gut, was portrayed vividly in a 1930s novel by Aldous Huxley -- After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. But only now are we truly dialing into the importance of what Huxley then called “intestinal flora.” Now read how scientists are at last uncovering hints of huge communities of viruses that lurk below our notice, possibly affecting our health. These gut bacteria may even influence our food choices -- getting us to eat what they want. We have a lot to learn.

Seems that that engineered probiotic bacteria (“friendly” bacteria like those in yogurt) in the gut produce a therapeutic compound that inhibits weight gain, insulin resistance, and other adverse effects of a high-fat diet in mice. “Of course it’s hard to speculate from mouse to human.”   In fact, we are finding ever more longevity-related mouse results that have no bearing on humans! Still…


(BTW Huxley's novel is very good, if perhaps placid-paced by modern tastes. And it turns out on the last page to have been science fiction, all along!  In any event, it should be required reading for singularity-immortality guys and gals.)

Our Microbiome may be looking out for itself. Both Greg Bear and I have been talking about this for a long time… Greg in great detail in transfixing novels. Is your micro-biome affecting your behavior… for its own self-interest? We know that the paramecium Toxoplasma may be altering the personalities of perhaps half a billion people. 

In our guts, bacteria make some of the same chemicals that our neurons use to communicate with one another, such as dopamine and serotonin. And the microbes can deliver these neurological molecules to the dense web of nerve endings that line the gastrointestinal tract. 
A number of recent studies have shown that gut bacteria can use these signals to alter the biochemistry of the brain. Compared with ordinary mice, those raised free of germs behave differently in a number of ways. They are more anxious, for example, and have impaired memory.

Gut bacteria may also play a role in autism: research suggests that restoring microbial balance could alleviate some of the behavioral symptoms of autism.

Funny how we're on a roll about symbiosis between micro-organisms and macro-fauna today. It's all interconnected. As Greg Bear shows in Vitals, Kim Stanley Robinson showed in the Mars series, and I discussed in Earth (especially) and in Brightness Reef.

You can have  your personal microbiota tested at companies such as uBiome. 

== More biology! ==

Virus-Toxin-ParasiteSpeaking of strange interactions between the micro and macro... Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a single-celled parasite that has infested many modern human societies that keep cats, and as many as 60 million americans. Its subtle effects may include warping personality! (And sometimes physical illness.) Now some researchers claim that TG may be a good model for stimulating the immune system against cancer. Okay. But don’t go rushing to sniff your cat’s litter box. As I said, TG may be doing humanity vast harm by affecting our personalities, exacerbating our rising inability to negotiate and solve problems.  In any event, we see no correlation between TG sufferers and reduced cancer levels. Still, maybe there’s a usable connection. Let's hope this pans out. Go science.

Other researchers have found that a modified version of a toxic bacterium may help shrink cancerous tumors.

More on microbes, pathogens and parasites: Eight diseases to watch out for at the beach.

And while we're on the subject... Creepy slideshow: World's worst parasitic worms.

And in Wired: How Life made the leap from single-celled to multi-celled organisms.

Then there's... Shocking” news about electric eels and other voltage producing fish: "They're using the same genetic tools to build their electric organs in each lineage independently.”

==Planetary Ecosystems==

Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees. And sure, there’s a chilling aspect — which the Greenpeace site very cleverly conveys with this creepy satire, reminding us that cautionary criticism is the only way to expose possible errors….

Still, those who deride any and all forms of technological remediation as inherently bad, e.g. that it might reduce the imperative to save real bees, have got something wrong with their perception of human nature. It is possible to move forward in many directions, at once, toward the goal of saving the world -- as it was both consciousness raising and high technology that enabled us to save the whales. 

And yes, while top priority goes to reducing our impact-damage and preserving the natural ways. (I am taking part. Having provided bee swarms with makeshift shelters in the past, up on a nearby hill… I’ve now set up a real hive box… why not?) Still, our worst problem is single-minded monomaniac prescribers, who declare that there is only one, zero-sum, answer to anything. We need to move on all fronts, at once.


amphibians-extinctionYou will spend some time exploring this interesting — and disturbing — graphic: A Disappearing Planet, charting genuses and species bordering on extinction. Amphibians are in real trouble. Heck we all are. Though there's still hope.

Can we stop a killer fungus killing off amphibians?

Do offshore wind farms create fecund artificial reefs? Seals who cluster and forage seem to think so.

Remain agile.  Let's learn to be good planetary managers.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Our next big crisis...Would you believe phosphorus?

== The crisis you never heard of... unless... ==

 An inspiring TED talk attempts to bring to world attention a coming “phosphorus crisis” — the rapid depletion of this elemental resource that is vital to life — a crisis that I revealed to many of you in EXISTENCE

phosphorus-crisisThis TED talk: A Simple Solution to the Coming Phosphorus Crisis -- by biologist Mohamed Hijri (in French but with excellent sub-titles) not only clearly elucidates the problem, but also puts forward one element of a solution that could save several billion lives, when the phosphorus deposits dry up. 


== Biology R-us ==

Commencing a bio-science miscellany-fest...

biology-r-usIt seems brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence.

You've heard about this second hand... now the science of how the adolescent brain differs and grows. This fascinating article, Dude Where's My Frontal Cortex, by Robert Sapolsky, tracks the last part of us to mature -- the prefrontal lobes responsible for planning and impulse control. A thorough, insightful, compassionate and well-written piece, with insight into the delayed development of the teenage brain.

Earth, by David BrinAlso, it seems that the model of “competitive neuron development” that I wrote about in EARTH (1989) is now viewed as standard biological fact. Astrocytes — a type of glial cell traditionally thought to provide more of a support role in the brain are now seen as critical for some forms of memory, such as object recognition. Terrence Sejnowski, head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute, has led this effort. Without astrocyte-driven “gamma waves” mice were unable to recognize that objects are novel in their environment. Even more interesting are the techniques that the Salk folks use to subtly turn these activities on and off, in the brain.


No worries? Fish seem to flourish on anti-anxiety drugs being flushed down to our oceans.

By analyzing the brainwaves of just 16 individuals as they watched mainstream television content, researchers were able to accurately predict the preferences of large TV audiences. 


And straight from the pages of sci fi...

Scientists discover that plants may have their own language at a genetic level that allows parasitic plants to communicate with and hack into the plants that they're invading before sucking them dry. (As you saw depicted in Brightness Reef!) Researchers find that there is an exchange of messenger RNA, sending messages from the parasite to the host -- this may reprogram the host, lowering its defenses.


==Tech Diagnostic Tools for Health==

Google and Novartis announced that they’re teaming up to develop smart contact lenses that monitor glucose levels and automatically adjust their focus -- changing shape depending where the user is looking.

Such “prototype lenses contains a device about the size of a speck of glitter that measures glucose in tears. A wireless antenna then transmits the measurements to an external device. It’s designed to ease the burden of diabetics who otherwise have to prick their fingers to test their blood sugar levels.”

Also possible: Such smart lenses may be used for targeted drug delivery, to enhance night vision, as well as glaucoma testing, and later -- full immersion VR/AR.

Researchers find that tracking involuntary eye movement may provide a reliable diagnostic tool for ADHD -- as well as for monitoring the effectiveness of drugs used to treat ADHD.

How wearable cameras can help those with Alzheimer's: The wearable camera is being touted as the latest must-have accessory for social-media obsessives, but is a real boon for helping people with serious medical conditions recall important events in their lives. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ways to make civilization robust

resilienceThe resilience of our entire civilization is increasingly reliant on a fragile network of cell phone towers, which are the first things to fail in any crisis, e.g. a hurricane or other natural disaster… or else deliberate (e.g. EMP or hacker) sabotage.

I have been nagging about this for almost two decades. My recommendation — offered to national and corporate leaders since 1995? That our pocket phones should have a backup communication mode that is peer-to-peer, that could pass messages from phone to phone through any afflicted area until they reach a zone with cell service, at which point the messages would spill into the continental network.

This would be frightfully easy to accomplish, especially for simple text messages. In fact, the technology has been incorporated in Qualcomm’s latest chip sets. Though the major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc — have all refused to activate it. This despite the fact that they would be perfectly free to bill for any P2P-passed messages -- that's easy. For years I asked national officials to require this backup, as a matter of overall robustness and public safety. Access to working phones made the biggest difference between two disasters... 9/11 - "the Day of the Citizen," when average folks were able to self-organize and step up - vs the calamitous collapse of civilization during and after Hurricane Katrina.

P2PNow comes terrific news. “Qualcomm and other wireless companies have been working on a new cellular standard—a set of technical procedures that ensures devices can “talk” to one another—that will keep the lines open if the network fails. The Proximity Services, or so-called LTE Direct, standard will be approved by the end of the year.”

I am tempted to proclaim that “nagging eventually pays off!” But of course, there are lots of smart people out there who could see the same things that I did. When I gave a talk at Qualcomm about similar ideas, some years ago, I described how simple it would be to do this with packets, like text messages. The next time I spoke to some of their managers, I was stunned to learn they had not only made great strides in Peer to Peer, but were proposing a version that could even do P2P for real-time voice communication! Now that’s some ingenuity. That’s some company.

== Hey, you, get offa that cloud ==

cloud-dataOh, but trends are far worse on the business side of the Internet. Any company (or person) who tries to be “efficient” by entrusting crown jewel data to the Cloud has got to be crazy. Take this from Mark Anderson, one of the smartest tech-industry pundits:

“There are two chilling trends in Internet security that were underlined this week with the announcement by Hold Security of a Russian crime ring taking around 1.2 billion user names and password combinations from perhaps 420,000 different hacked websites. The first is a ramping of theft success on all scores, from personal IDs to nations stealing crown jewel intellectual property, which simply can no longer be tolerated if innovation and commerce are to continue. 

“The second is a massive movement to cloud computing, driven by financial requirements rather than security requirements, at a time when our internal sources indicate that clouds have already been hacked.”

This is related to a another point I’ve made since 1995… and in The Transparent Society… that everything leaks, sooner or later. And we are better off making ourselves and our systems robust, able to shrug off and adapt to this inevitability, than whining and thrashing about, expecting the next “security” measure to work, at last.

It is disparities in transparency that threaten the health of freedom, markets, science and civilization.

Remember this.  Most villains (just like vampires) are fatally allergic to light.  Hence, the trick will be to expose them to it!  Lots of it. The solution is not to cower in the few remaining shadows hoping for concealment.  They are better at that, than you and I are.

villains-light
== Transparency-related news ==

Here’s an algorithm that could use Facebook Likes alone to reliably determine six million users’ private traits like their sexual orientation, IQ, religious beliefs, life satisfaction, and personality traits—even when the Likes seemingly had nothing to do with the traits in question. Do not get outraged. This is absolutely inevitable! What you can do is shift your passion over to sousveillance.

DRONES-SURVEILLANCEAnother insightful article explores the many potential advantages, when civilians become empowered to fly their own drones. The ability to independently verify events, ensure accountability for public officials and police, provide situational awareness, deliver or fetch important items…. Yes there will be privacy concerns. But how better to catch that neighborhood voyeur than with a drone of your own, so that you can track the peeping tom and tell his mom!

And in the category of how do you plan to stop this? “By 2010, license-plate scanners had become standard equipment for most urban repo firms, and the number of plates stored in national databases was growing by tens of millions a month. ... The richer the data gets, the easier it is to make predictions about a driver’s home address, workplace, gym, or favorite restaurant. Digital Recognition Network (DRN) has one of the largest plate-capture databases in the country, with a fleet of more than 2,000 affiliated trucks and upwards of 1.8 billion scans.”

omniveillanceAnswer: Any attempt to repress this - or face recognition - will only ensure that elites still have this power — governments, corporations, criminals — but such laws will make sure you and I have no access.   They will become gods and we will be permanent peasants. If this is inevitable, then let us all see. And then let’s learn - because of that light - to leave each other alone.

Oh, but then… artists are putting into practice my point about rendering surveillance visible to the rest of us. Some very interesting… and pointedly clever… innovations.

And finally, here’s something that’s simultaneously funny and deeply, deeply offensive. But also a clever way for a company to make its point... and that means it is likely they were all actors, after all, invalidating the whole thing. All told, a clever META view of where we are heading in the VR/AR holodeck world. Faked nuclear war….

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Rep-coins, Legos, humor... and fear of "14"!

For your weekend pleasure... a light potpourri of tasty items.  For you smartypants types, that is.

hieroglyphFor starters: Do you like great science fiction anthologies?  Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Smarter Tomorrow is out at last, with stories gathered by Neal Stephenson, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. Project Hieroglyph is the keystone to a joint project to bright science fiction out of its current funk... the lazy obsession with doom, dystopia and nostalgia... and make it once again something that encouraged us all to feel that we can overcome.

Along similar lines... offering hopeful sci fi to youths... While books like The Hunger Games and Divergent have brought a whole new generation of young readers to science fiction, there’s not a lot of short, accessible stories for middle grade readers (usually considered ages 9-12). The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide is meant to fill that gap. Their Kickstarter is currently live — and the anthology may have a story from Nancy Kress!  Oh, also one of my best ones, ever.

== An alternative to both Bicoin and fiat money ==

DIGITAL-CURRENCY-REPUTATIONDigital Currency Based on a Person's Reputation - J. Chris Anderson wants to create a new kind of digital coin that could replace government “fiat” money or nerd-crypto money like Bitcoin, by going to the most human fundamental — reputation.

I admit, I’ve toyed with that concept for a very long time. In both fiction and some of my patents, I have suggested ways that reputation management might move up from the stone and middle ages. In this case, Anderson’s Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order. And each unit of currency created using Document Coin could have different values in different situations. “‘For example, the coin my disco singer friend created and gave me at my barbeque might be what gets me past the rope at the club,’ Anderson says. A coin minted by tech pundit Tim O’Reilly might be highly prized in Silicon Valley circles, but of little interest to musicians. ‘It’s a bit like a combination of a social network with baseball trading.’”

Indeed, very interesting.  The article is rather vague on many points.  It appears as if the coin is based on only upon the original issuers reputation but --like a gold-backed currency -- something of real value.  The issuer's promise to let you into the club, for example. Or my promise to name a character after you in a book.

great-explosionThis makes the coin like an "ob" or an "obligation" from an Eric Frank Russell novel, in which person A owes person B a favor, but person B owes person C, so B hands the "ob" over to C and now person A must help C in some way.  If the coin system were truly massive, some farmer who is paid with a pile of these Ob-Reputation coins would let his computer find the folks out there who most want to be named in my book and who most want to attend a gig at the club, and the obs would finally come around, full circle and be paid in something tangible (or in fiat-money).

With sufficiently smart web computing, such a system might work, if the reputation mediation were VERY good so that I could issue naming rights as currency to pay any debt, even my gas bill, because the gas company would know that the circle will eventually close.

If it is something being tried in reality... that is the stuff of a sci fi era.

On the other hand… this may be the dawning of the Age of….

The DEA is now asking the Food and Drug Administration to remove marijuana from its list of the most dangerous and harmful drugs. And early tentative outcomes from Colorado’s legalization of MJ seem positive. An important trend, which is happening (so far) only in Blue States. The greatest benefit of all will be the undermining of the prohibition-driven underground economy in illegal cannabis. We need to get the same effect - though more carefully and with calibrated innovations - to wipe out illicit markets for other, far worse drugs. (See one reason: Pablo Escobar’s hippos are now running wild in Colombia.)

While any tapering of the insane Drug War is welcome, this glowing article may be overlooking the one problem that I forecast long ago. There is one unambiguously well-proved harmful effect of marijuana. It should be on our minds and on our lips, when we talk to our kids. Except in very controlled moderation… it is an antidote to ambition. In excess, it is harmful! Moreover... um... what was I saying again?  Pass those cookies over here.

== Fun Cinema ==

Lego-movieI liked the LEGO Movie. It seemed time to finally see it, since our son now works (for the summer) at Legoland. Many rave about the snappy dialogue, which I found amusing and above average… though not epochal. The visuals were cool and cute, of course, and the story diverting enough to hold onto all ages.

As many of you know, my own little obsession, in critically appraising cinema, has to do with whether the drama is tritely simplistic or somewhat original… e.g. featuring a villain whose motives are at least contextually understandable… or whether the story is just one more “idiot plot” - based on the tedious assumption that civilization is futile and our fellow citizens are sheep. Refreshingly, the LEGO Movie starts with the notion that - despite problems like excess conformity, and villainous conformity-promoters - people and society aren’t hopeless.

SOA-ROCYes, yes, the “be original” and “be suspicious of authority” (SoA) and “rejection of conformity” (RoC) messages are pretty darn common in mass media — so common that most of you probably never notice them and think you invented SoA, instead of growing up steeped in SoA and pro-eccentricity memes. Still, to see the Lego Company mock their own Instruction Manual Culture, in praise of free-form creativity, was kinda cool. And I always get a kick out of it when - as happens in every Spiderman flick - average citizens take on a vital and major plot-role in saving the day.

Just remember — everything is awesome!

== Items! ==

1. “An interesting development in the chess world of recent years is that human-computer teams, in which a grandmaster is aided by a program, have tended to be stronger than either humans or computers playing alone.”  -- Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan?

changing-culture-map
2. See Humanity's cultural spread, illustrated in video mapping births and deaths, over centuries.

3. This is fun: Supernatural collective nouns: a clamor of clones, a clangor of robots, a yard-sale of androids...the Borg.

5. Hilariously well-done urban rebel-art pasted into select spots on the London Underground. I am stodgy enough to dislike a few of these handsomely official-looking signs… those that might confuse a rider and make her miss a stop. But the rest are marvelous. Punishable, of course. But guerrilla art is about willingness to pay for it.

== on target humor ==

HADramamine — the miracle drug we all need! See why.

For insight into the science of humor, see HA! The Science of Why We Laugh and Why? by Scott Weems.

Okay, maybe its a guy thing... and these fellows had too much time on their hands.  But I'm proud of em!

Funny! What if movies had been made earlier, with different stars? Movies Reimagined for another time and place: Volume 1. If you enjoy that, try Volume 2 and Volume 3.

Assholes: The Theory: Philosopher (not-proctologist) Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole. “James proposes a theory of assholes (a person is an asshole when his sense of entitlement makes him immune to complaints from other people) that explains not only why assholes are a vital part of human society, but also how to recognize them and coexist with them.”

==The Fourteenth Year==

FEAR-FOUR Michael Nelson - one of the unsung heroes of our Internet Age - wrote to me with a story that riff’d off my article about the “Fourteenth Year”… my assertion that the last several centuries began exhibiting their true themes on 14 years after their calendar beginnings.

Said Mike: “I was talking to a Chinese-American woman. She asked, "Why is the world falling apart?" I said, "1914, 1814, 1714 etc." She told me that makes a lot of since to her. Apparently, to the Chinese, the number 14 is considered at least as unlucky as 13 is in Western cultures. In Chinese, the word for "fourteen" sound like the phrase "sure dead." Some Chinese buildings don't have a 14th floor, or fourth floors, for that matter.”

It’s called tetraphobia. And it shows that some take seriously my assertion that all changes with the 14th year.

But it can still be good changes! That was my point in The Postman.  


Whatever hits us, react with resilience!  Resourcefulness, agility and determination to work together, as citizens of the greatest experiment in history. Remember this, whether that glow on the horizon is a sunset... or a dawn.