Saturday, September 16, 2017

Perspectives from Science Fiction: Hugos and other marvels

Best of the year in science fiction & fantasy: Congratulations to the many fine winners of the 2017 Hugo Award -- especially N. K. Jemison for best novel (The Obelisk Gate), sequel to her award-winning novel The Fifth Season, Seanan McGuire for best novella (Every Heart a Doorway), Ursula Vernon for best novelette (The Tomato Thief), Amal El-Mohtar for best short story (Seasons of Glass and Iron). 

Let’s settle one thing: I defend an author's right to win a best novel Hugo for a sequel to a novel that won a Hugo! Um... I'd be a hypocrite to do otherwise! ;-) 

Oh and also, let’s celebrate that science fiction has always – and yes always, ever since it was founded by our revered grandmother of SF, Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley) – been the genre of literature most welcoming to bold ideas about human and non-human diversity, and brashly exploratory authors. Yes, SF was always “better than its times” when it came to such things, though every decade deserved the reproof of later decades, for its own myopic misdeeds. Leaving our self-critical movement always looking for the next cause for self-improvement!

So what are we doing now, that will cause later generations of brave questioners and boundary-pushers to reprove? What terrible habit will reformers tell us to break next, when we get the upper hand on racism, sexism and cultural conformity? I think I know what it will be! (Hint: what is the most harmful and nasty thing that even good people now routinely do to each other, with barely a thought to fairness or consequences? And I include people as good as you envision yourself to be. Discuss in comments, below.)

Still, let's get back to the latest generation of marvelous new authors. Two impressive ones to watch, in my opinion?  

Ada Palmer, author of the dense and intellectually rich thought experiments Too Like The Lightning and its sequel Seven Surrenders And Sue Burke, who impressed me with her novel Semiosis, a less-dense and quicker-moving, episodic tale about humans colonizing a planet and awakening dormant super-intelligent plant life.

== SF'nal methods applied! ==

Prototyping a better tomorrow: An extensive article by Kevin Bankston on “science fiction prototyping” reveals how many companies, NGOs and agencies are now building up their suites of consultants who are expert at crafting SF “what-if” scenarios. Examples include the 64 writers and creators assembled by the XPrize Foundation.

For example, Bankston writes, “Mozilla commissioned stories from big-name writers like Cory Doctorow, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Daniel Suarez for its conference on the future of the open internet, while the Data and Society Research Institute similarly used science fiction as a scenarios tool for driving a conference discussion, which ultimately led to a published set of four stories about the future of A.I. and automation. 

A new online community and content portal called Scout is explicitly focused on using science fiction to understand the present and plan for tomorrow. Ari popper's endeavor SciFutures contracts with companies to build imaginative scenarios, on-demand. And Future Tense on Slate is publishing original science fiction by Emily St. John Mandel and Paulo Bacigalupi "accompanied by expert commentary to help readers grapple with new technologies.”

Another good example that's available for free download: Stories in the Stratosphere, a collection of near-future stories collected ASU: Center for Science and Imagination, edited by Ed Finn – with stories by Karl Schroeder, Brenda Cooper, plus one I collaborated on with Tobias Buckell. “Each story presents a snapshot of a possible future where the stratosphere is a key space for solving problems, exploring opportunities or playing out conflicts unfolding on the Earth’s surface.” It was sponsored by one of the new strato-balloon companies - World View - founded by Pluto pioneer Alan Stern.

== The harder, bigger questions ==

Is it possible to portray a human civilization that is post-singularity?  Of course it’s easy, if the advanced machines are malevolent toward our descendants, who scramble for survival like rats underfoot, as portrayed in Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center series and many works of cyberpunk. Assume all that and the plot-peril comes easily. The story almost writes itself. (See this secret decrypted.) 

But what if the coming singularity goes better than expected? Might we find the wondrously desired “soft landing” when humanity and our creations learn to prosper together? Iain Banks - in his Culture Novels - proposed that bio-humans and their civilization would be cherished, guided and cared-for by super-AI minds — machines of loving grace — who thereupon incorporate the best of us into their matrices, in order to “stay human-based.” They also find important work for those men and women who feel ambitious, adventurous and creative.

And yes, it’s much harder to portray a positive post-singularity humanity. How do you depict descendants who happen also to be (in effect) omniscient gods?  I made my own efforts to take on this challenge in tales like “Stones of Significance” and "Reality Check." But how much easier (and lazier) it is to throw your characters into hardscrabble peril, dodging the stomping heels of meanie skynets and terminators?

Still, you can find positive post-singularity stories in the oddest places. By Cordwainer Smith, for example, or Philip José Farmer, or Roger Zelazny… 

... and by my former teacher, Ursula LeGuin, who presents us with a future humanity that has the leisure and instrumentalities and passion to study the languages of animals — even ants — for the sake of vastly expanded empathy and art. 
Go read “The Author of the Acacia Seeds And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics,” (from Le Guin's collection, The Compass Rose) and tell me how the trio of little vignettes can be set anywhere/when other than in a fine posterity that’s spectacularly wealthier and also richer in “otherness” than even our own. These are tasty little tales, in their own right.  But it is the author’s implicit confidence in humanity that I find most endearing… that we will keep expanding our circles of inclusion and eagerly spending our new plenty on frenetically, eagerly getting to know.

Ah, but will there be others to know, as we embark on a perilous journey into the Anthropocene, a new geological era — crafted (for worse (or better) by man — we know we’re causing a wave of extinctions that will certainly match that of the late Pleistocene, and conceivably the dire one at the end of the Cretaceous? There are even those speaking of Permian levels of annihilation, in which case you can be sure that humanity will end amid the rubble and heat and poisoned atmosphere, the effluents of our woefully incomplete sapience.

In both Earth and Existence I took a balanced view, that we still have a chance to steer this vessel. After all, suppose you had been around in the 1980s and were asked to bet on the number of surviving whale species, in 2017. Who would have wagered that all of them would still be around, and rising in numbers?

As a 50 year Sierra Club and Greenpeace member, I know we must agitate and spread awareness of the dark potential costs of human negligence. I am beating drums and knocking heads!  And yet…

…and yet, as Captain Kirk said, there remain “possibilities.”  

Hence see this book Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction - on “The sixth mass genesis? New species are coming into existence faster than ever thanks to humans.”  And yes, there is a danger that this argument may be misused by the enemies of the Earth, of civilization and of our children.  Those rationalizing haters of science and responsibility abound.

And yet… for those of you who can nurse complex thoughts and nuance, there is grist here for some pondering.

== News and Updates == 

In Seat 14C: The XPrize Foundation – in collaboration with ANA Airlines – has issued on online anthology based on a fun conceit.  A dozen top science fiction authors were asked to write stories about passengers aboard ANA flight 008, landing in San Francisco of the year 2037, two decades later than they expected to arrive.  Stories by Kevin Anderson, James Morrow, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Gregory Benford, Bruce Sterling and many other luminaries. Way-fun stuff.  Not much consistency except… here’s your monthly dose of optimism!

Speaking of XPrize… they FB-posted a well-produced video of me explaining the concept of the self-preventing prophecy, and how we gird ourselves through science fiction to face tomorrow's perils. 

While we're at it, here are more Ted-style talks about our future!

(1) The “Neo” Project aims to create a vividly beautiful film, combining science and art with optimism. They feature my blather about peering into the future. Vivid imagery and remarkable sound editing.

(2) Video of my talk on the future of A.I. to a packed house at IBM's World of Watson congress in Las Vegas, October 2016. A punchy tour of big perspectives on Intelligence, as well as both artificial and human augmentation.

(3) At the Smithsonian - "Will we diversify into many types of humanity?"

Okay, I'm almost done with this Science Fiction roundup... but hold on...

Last chance to get The Practice Effect on Kindle for only $1.99!

== Alternate Worlds Abound! ==

HBO’s new parallel world sci fi show called “Confederate” seems a timely, provocative riff on our re-ignited American Civil War.  “The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the Southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”  I'll comment more on this, later. But note that I have long said we're in phase 8 of the American Civil War...

... and so here's your costume for Halloween. I mean it. Demand may exceed supply, so act now!

Another alternate history drama series, which has been in the works at Amazon for over a year, also paints a reality where southern states have left the Union but takes a very different approach. Titled Black America, the drama hails from top feature producer Will Packer (Ride Along, Think Like A Man franchises, Straight Outta Compton) and Peabody-winning The Boondocks creator and Black Jesus co-creator Aaron McGruder. It envisions an alternate history where newly freed African Americans have secured the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama post-Reconstruction as reparations for slavery, and with that land, the freedom to shape their own destiny. The sovereign nation they formed, New Colonia, has had a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with its looming “Big Neighbor,” both ally and foe, the United States.

And finally.... Aw… RIP Gonzilla! 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The likelihood of war

While nature flails at us - from hurricanes and quakes to solar flares - we all know that  we're in far greater danger from ourselves. (And, of course, we humans are responsible for some of nature's fury, too.)  So I feel compelled to use this soapbox yet again, drawing attention,  to the increasing likelihood of manmade hell, unleashed by an unbalanced leadership caste.

Elsewhere I discuss the deep-underlying syndrome of Republican Bipolar Disease -- generally a depressive determination to block every negotiation, obstruct all deliberation, ensure gridlock and castrate the mature, pragmatic society that the Greatest Generation built. For 20 of the last 22 years we've seen the laziest and least productive Congresses in history, holding fewer days in session, hearings or bills, while breaking records for fund-raisers. Indeed, Donald Trump himself - desperate for an accomplishment - has been attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose sole priority since 1995, along with Dennis (friend-to-boys) Hastert and Rupert (employer of perverts) Murdoch, has been to prevent the functioning of politics as a problem solving tool in the United States of America. In response, McConnell blames Trump's political inexperience that led to him setting "excessive expectations." 

Unintentionally, this reveals a clash of syndromes. While Donald Trump is in a perpetual state of narcissistic mania along with the alt-right media that support him, for most Republican voters and politicians the normal condition is a glowering stew of indolent depressive torpor. 

These lengthy depressive phases are crippling. But far worse are the inevitable-recurring manic phases, when Republicans turn their suddenly frenetic eyes to war.

== It's off to War we go ==

While the actual President of the United States of America spouts purple threats that exactly mirror those of Kim Jong Un, we tend to forget that there's a much more plausible way that war may come. 

Any attack on North Korea will be so precipitate and escalate so quickly that the likely consequences should daunt even a narcissist-solipsist. Even if every single nuke and missile is taken out -- and remember the N-Koreans have been digging, like mad, for 60 years -- there are still something like 10,000 artillery tubes in sunken, reverse slope revetments aimed straight at Seoul.  With or without nukes, the entire city will be crushed or in flames, within minutes of any order from Pyongyang.
Now mind you, there is a potential upside here. China has chortled and enjoyed its position in all this for a long time, knowing that the U.S. can't do much about it. But When Trump makes noises just like Kim, the subtext is: "Hey, I'm just crazy enough to do this!"

No, this is not the conflict that "Trump wingman" Steve Bannon and his ilk have been itching for. Elsewhere I’ve described how an unholy alliance is conspiring together to push for a hot war between the U.S. and Iran

Consider history. Republican presidents always seek a foreign crisis to distract from domestic troubles. And boy, does Donald Trump need a big distraction. The Saudis - who co-own the GOP - want Tomahawks pouring into Persia, as do the less-smart folks in Israel. Steve Bannon and the American Dominionists view this as their beloved, biblically-ordained crisis. 

The Iranian Mullahs themselves would love such a limited "war," giving them an excuse to crush their own fast-rising, educated and moderate citizenry, while knowing that Russia will step in to prevent any real (as opposed to symbolic) damage from U.S. strikes. Of course the biggest winner would be Vladimir Putin; getting Iran as a Russian dependency has been a dream going back to the Czars. Oh, and the Saudis and Russians would get higher oil prices. A win-win-win-win for the anti-democratic cabal.

The search for pretexts is in full swing. The Trump administration is demanding access to Iran's military bases, which satellite and radiation and traffic surveillance show zero sign of being involved in Uranium enrichment. (Can anyone spell "nonexistent WMDs?")  No sovereign power will let a likely adversary onto its bases without strong cause. But all Trump needs, to satisfy his core supporters... and Vladimir... is the sound of a saber rattling. And the mullahs, wanting the same outcome, are sure to supply just enough insults to ensure the desired outcome around Christmas or a bit after -- several hundred Tomahawk missiles going pippety-poppety, with lots of flash and little real effect.  Except to raise oil prices and give Putin his chance to "protect" the Iranian people.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed this scenario. Read here how a combination of Trump Administration adults — Mattis, McMaster, Tillerson, Kelly and the Joint Chiefs have managed — so far — to thwart a U.S.-Iran conflict.

Notice that it is our senior military officers who are foremost in striving to prevent war. Ditzty-romantic lefties who rave obsolete warnings about the “military industrial complex” miss the point. That’s not where today's war profiteers reside. Boeing and Lockheed benefit by building and upgrading deterrents. They don't benefit much, or at all, when the machinery is actually used. Indeed, money flows away from investment in new systems to logistics and support of casualties. It's Bush-Cheney family logistics-companies like Haliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater who raked in billions from the Iraq Wars, via secret, no-bid “emergency” contracts. But even they know the American people have no stomach for another ground war.

The American left needs to get over their reflex loathing of crewcuts. The women and men of the Officer Corps may be our salvation, when Washington has been seized by cranky-confederate toddlers.

On a related topic: I am no fan of Kentucky GOP Senator Rand Paul, but his recent efforts to get Congress to rescind the 2001 and 2002 War Powers acts deserve praise.  Joining him were Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who said it was "way past time" for a vote. (Note that Flake has been a top hate target of Donald Trump, lately.) 

Congress should never give the President such a blank check, to throw us into endless wars at the stroke of a pen. But the danger of reckless abuse is now far greater than ever, with that cranky toddler-in-chief in the Oval Office. Alas, the effort to rescind and replace this carte blanche license-to-attack-anybody in our name failed.

(To be clear: while this vote was not along party lines, blame clearly falls that way. Former President Barack Obama sent Congress a proposed a reduction in his own blanket war powers, in 2015, though neither the GOP controlled Senate nor the House voted on the measure.)

== Glancing back at Korea ==

In the Washington Post, David Von Drehle writes: regardless of what foreign leaders may think about Trump and his reckless rhetoric, the United States has its own track record in the Asian Pacific. While North Korea has necrotized under the Chinese protectorate, South Korea has flourished beyond any reasonable expectation. The contrast between Eastern and Western influence is as stark at the 38th Parallel as it was at the Berlin Wall, and countries pursuing their own interests will have no trouble choosing sides.”

It’s a very cogent and perceptive piece that you should read.

== Reiterating the point ==

This excellent reporting explores the three former officers Trump calls "my generals" -- Mattis, Kelly and McMaster -- who by any measure are the adults in this administration. Yes, they were from the moderate right wing of the US Military Officer Corps, politically.  But every sign (e.g their erudition, education, science friendliness and fact-using careers) suggests that the USMOC is our best hope for sanity to kick in, when it's needed most.

There are moderate and even liberal wings to the USMOC, though I expect that few are Bernie Bros. No matter. That is where I've long said the Democrats should recruit.  Not just candidates for swing congressional districts, but as many as 5000 retired officers to run in every deep-red state assembly district.

 And you can do your part, by pondering... "do I know such a retired officer I can arm-twist into serving, yet again?"

== Always do the opposite == 

There’s zero science behind the administration’s effort to dump the higher gas mileage rules called CAFÉ standards. Even the auto industry’s opposition to CAFÉ is tepid. The standards save consumers tens of billions at the pump, cleaned the air, and propelled American cars to the highest levels of quality we’ve ever seen.  Today’s vehicles are packed with spectacular amenities and comforts, are more efficient and last many years longer (saving additional tens of billions for consumers.) There are no reasons to do this except…

Except the one that motivates Donald Trump above anything else, other than narcissism. And that is reversing anything done by Barack Obama. European leaders even made a game of it!  They found that they could sway DT in one direction or another, dependent on their answers to just one question: “Did Obama favor this?” They found that Trump’s reflex was perfect. Always do the opposite.

He has succeeded in one way.  According to Gallup's historical data, the 44th president's approval rating stood at 56 percent this week in Obama's first term, while just 37 percent disapproved—in other words, almost exactly Trump's approval ratings, but reversed.

==  Take on the cult ==

The Climate Denialism Cult is not only stupid and treasonous, it hasn't worked well. Solar power has grown by 100 fold in the last 13 years, Ramez Naam says. It’s averaged around 35 to 40 percent annual growth over the last 20 years. Wind was a footnote in the energy mix 10 years ago, he says. Today, it makes 6% of all electricity in the US. In the sunniest parts of the world, unsubsidized solar is becoming the cheapest form of energy. Lately a deal in Dubai was signed for 2.4 cents a kWh—less than half US natural gas prices and lower than natural gas in the Middle East or Africa. See what my friend and colleague Ramez has to say about this. 

Storage and batteries are still key to making all this work with resilience and reliability, and they are often pointed to as the sticking point. The sun doesn’t always shine, even in sunny places. And for less-than-sunny places and at night, batteries are the vital link, storing away sunlight for later use.

But batteries, Naam says, are also improving faster than you might expect. “Over a 15-year slice of time, the energy capacity of lithium-ion batteries tripled, and the energy cost per unit of energy you could store, dropped by a factor of 10,” he says. And there are a number of other more “exotic” battery technologies on the horizon.

(Side note: a “vaccine” against climate denialism?  No joke.)  

To be clear: 

(1) I do not diss climate SKEPTICS who challenge this or that part of the problem. My friend Freeman Dyson drew undeserved ire for poking at a number of studies and "premature conclusions" for technical or procedural or logical faults, as did Berkeley Prof. Richard Muller. I defended them, because science thrives on adversarial accountability. Despite Fox-slander that scientists are conformist lemmings, most are among the most competitive humans our species ever produced.  

What these genuine skeptics have done is carefully distinguish themselves from the denialist cult's insanity, saying many of the things that I recommend hereIf YOU want to claim you are a genuine "skeptic" - not a cultist - then you need to read that piece and ask yourself some questions.

(2) Notably, genuine skeptics do not move their goalposts! Muller laid down a set of falsification tests that were clear and achievable.  Later, when those test goals were achieved, he proved his honesty by announcing: "Okay, I am now convinced that human-generated effluents are changing the climate in dangerous ways."

(3) Denialist Cultists do none of those things.  They see nothing hypocritical about spending one decade screaming "there's no warming! We're heading for an ice age! Glaciers are increasing!" Then the next jeering "there's been no net-overall warming since 1997!" using as their baseline the then-hottest year in human history. (Some of the worst are still spewing that outright, bald-faced lie, despite the fact that each of the last 5 years was hotter than all previous ones.)

Then it shifted to "All right, it's warming. But humans can't be causing it!" Only - despite efforts to sabotage satellites, fire scientists, slash research and ordeing NASA and NOAA to look away, counter-proof towered into a mountain, and so...

... and so now GOP senators are seriously pushing the line that human-generated Climate Change is real and huge... but a gooood thing! 

Often the same imbeciles and/or shills will bounce around among these varied incantation-riffs and back, in the same day. Occasionally the same speech. Now why would they do that?

Simple. They are not about the facts or science, they are about policy. Specifically, preventing science from affecting national policy. That is why Newt Gingrich banished the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). It's why Trump has appointed no science advisor and almost zeroed out the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)... and why Ryan and McConnell have their sights on the Congressional Budget Office. 

If facts are allowed to affect policy, then the interests of the GOP's owner-oligarchy will be threatened. And hence we understand the underlying reason for the Fox-Limbaugh-Jones-Breitbart campaign to turn the ire of ill-educated white males away from their class enemies and real oppressors, over to hating "smartypants." All the folks who know stuff. All of them. It worked when a million confederate white males marched to die for their oppression plantation lords. It seems to be working now.

But then:

 (4) they didn't count on real America fighting back. Along with the world, innovating and sending the price of sustainables plummeting. A little help from Clinton and Obama went a long way, giving solar, wind etc a momentum that's now unstoppable, offering real hope of saving the world... and now the Kochs' sunk costs in coal mines are vanishing, as if in smoke.

== The war on fact is a war on you ==

"In the battle between facts and fake news, facts are at a disadvantage. Researchers have found that facts alone rarely dislodge misperceptions, and in some cases even strengthen mistaken beliefs.” 

But there is hope. Research suggests that strategic inoculation with tools of critical thinking  could create a level of “herd immunity” and undercut the overall effects of fake news. When about 100 study participants were presented with the misinformation alone, their views did further polarize along political lines. But when another group of participants were first warned about a general strategy used in misinformation campaigns the polarizing effect of the misinformation was completely neutralized.

Read about the methods, because you — yes I mean you — are an important agent in this struggle to retain a scientific or at least rational civilization.

And be prepared to hold on tightly, as the Idiocrats try to foment war.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Resilience Technology Part II: Simple measures to thwart possible collapse

Soon I will post about the passing of my colleague, science fiction author and unique American Jerry Pournelle. And of course much of what I post about today will be altered after we see what is wrought by Hurricanes Irma, José and Katia.  But this series conclusion is already prepared.

And it is about preparedness.

== What holds us back ==

There have been nasty pundits contrasting Houston’s recent experience with that of New Orleans during Katrina, snidely implying that some difference in civic character was responsible -- with possible racist implications. These nasty ingrates, of course, are ignoring the fact that a goodly part of the Cajun Navy – heroically swooping in to rescue Houstonians -- came from NOLA and surroundings, in all races and colors. 

Was the difference one of better preparation? For all their mighty virtues, Texans blatantly do not elect politicians who believe in foresight, preparation, planning, or even sapience. Houston's famous hatred of zoning and building codes blatantly contributed to tens of billions in damage that we'll all be paying for.

But in fact, we now know what may have made the biggest difference between Katrina and Harvey.

It seems that breakdown of the cell phone system was a chief factor that exacerbated every problem during the Katrina Crisis, crippling citizens of New Orleans from organizing themselves or collaborating with first responders. In contrast, partly due to post Katrina efforts by Verizon, AT&T and the others, cell systems in Houston proved more robust, serving people in many districts when they needed it most. And yes, this was also a matter of pure luck. 

Which brings up a pet peeve. For this entire century (so far) – and then some – I’ve said we could double North America’s resilience with one, simple reform…  demanding that phone-makers and cell providers give every unit the capability to pass along text messages peer-to-peer.

One anecdote from the Fukushima Disaster tells of a woman who was trapped and later found dead of dehydration in a basement. On her phone were dozens of outgoing texts. People had been walking and driving by for days, but the cell towers were down. If their phones all had a backup peer-to-peer texting capability, those messages would packet-hop until they reached a cell tower; then they go out to the world.

== Peer-to-peer text-passing. Small step; huge implications ==

The capability is inherent to “packet switching,” the underlying tech of the Internet, and hence we have known how to do this for 50 years. In fact, those clever tech innovators at Qualcomm have already incorporated this basic capability into their chips!  Qualcomm’s Matt Grob told me that P2P modes:

1.) Are now standardized (published in the 3gpp cellular standards.)

2.) They have done extensive tests/trials with partners – “it works great!”

3.) P2P capability has been developed to commercial trial grade.

Matt avows that much further work would be needed for AT&T phones to share texts with Verizon phones. But even if you were limited to one company, this could be a life-saver. Suppose you were a Verizon subscriber in an afflicted area, your send help texts could hop from one Verizon phone to the next until someone reached a working cell tower, at which point all the texts stored on her phone would leap forth across the planet.

Two important considerations:

FIRST - If we were to do this, we would gain unbelievable robustness. Take an extreme case: a hypothetical disaster that took down nearly all cell towers across the continent. Set up a few repeaters across the Great Plains and the Rockies, and Peer-to-Peer text passing (P2PTP) could give us a crude telegraphy system – just via texts hopping from phone to phone all the way from Atlantic to Pacific, uniting the country during any level of emergency. P2P telegrams. The Greatest Generation did pretty well with less.

== Well then, why the heck not? ==

It sounds blatantly simple even obvious. And yet, all calls for implementation of this emergency utility have been met with skepticism or opposition from the likes of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and even some device makers. All know what Qualcomm’s chips are capable of. And not one of them will turn the service on – not for the profit-potential or for the common good.

This article talks about their myopic obstinacy… and hopes that Hurricane Harvey might budge such unimaginative and unpatriotic fools. Though in fact, the report is about a much more timid thing that response agencies have asked for -- simple enhancement of the one-way alert system. We shouldn’t be satisfied with such measly steps; that is nowhere near enough.

In truth, there is no good reason for cell-co executives to fight against backup P2P texting! They could program their phones no to do this, if they detect a cell tower! Moreover, each AT&T and Verizon phone could be programmed to report such text-passings and bill the sender a small surcharge! (Giving small rewards to those who pass messages along.) The only net effect would be to gain a small revenue stream from dark zones that their current towers do not reach!

And yes, before many of you chime in, there are attempts to set up grid or mesh networks using Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth or other ways to get around the problem.  Here’s a walkie talkie app.  

Then there’s the Serval Network

… and Fire Chat. 

Jott’s AirChat feature allows users to send data and texts without a connection to the Internet, using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios within 100-feet of each other. 

More recent: with the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, a free app called Zello WalkieTalkie that lets your phone communicate as a two-way radio so long as you have a network or Wi-Fi connection, has shot to the top of Apple’s App Store, making it the go-to service for rescue workers in the Houston area, seeing as many as 7,000 new registrations per minute.

And people have written in to me with many others. (Feel free to offer more, below. under comments.) So sure, the super-skilled and savvy can already go P2P… and that barely begins to enhance our overall robustness. Not when they are limited to one user in ten thousand, and to places with easy-access WiFi.

No, Hurricane Harvey has made it clear. We need to start putting the screws on your favorite people, the cell phone providers. They could turn on this capability tomorrow! (Well, in maybe 6 months.) And they would gain business, not lose it!  That is, if they have technical brains higher than a cryptobiotic tardigrade.

And if the next disaster brings major losses of life and property -- losses that might have been avoided with a simple, robust comm system? Then it is time to bring out the lawyers. I mean it. Some law firm should start preparing this case, in advance, that a life-saving backup service was available the whole time, and that refusal to turn it on was tantamount to negligent manslaughter. They can pounce and then get 40% of billions.

== Coda ==

It looked like sci fi when a Hollywood film portrayed three hurricanes at a time in the Caribbean area.  Now see a picture of reality

All across Red America, folks tune into the Weather Channel. They make plans based on advanced satellites and storm models, peering days ahead with breathtaking accuracy.  The meteorologists who do this - having transformed the old, pathetic 4-hour "weather report" of my youth into forecasts that are now useful up to TEN days...  these geniuses are very well paid by a wide variety of eager customers from governments to insurance companies to shippers, agriculture, industry... and they have no need for piddling "climate grants."

And yet, lo and behold, all of them - every last one of them - will tell you human generated climate change is real and a danger to your children. The same gas-dynamics modeling equations that they use to track hurricane paths also feed into longer term models that fit global warming exactly. The same equations. They understand and use them. Fox News screeching shills do not. So, where do you get your science?

Dear Texans and Floridians, you have our prayers and comradeship. The nation stands with you.  You show fantastic resilience and courage. But you elect the worst politicians on the planet. Lying, thieving scoundrels who have betrayed you and our country, and your children in every conceivable way. As the media that you watch and listen to has betrayed you, by urging you to hate every fact-using profession. Their incantations are lies and the shiny "squirrel!" distractions they wave in front of you are beneath contempt.

The Republican party has sabotaged and slashed many of the satellites and instruments we need, in order to understand these things. They forbid state officials from looking at changes or preparing for them. They forbid NASA and other experts from even looking downward at the Earth! They scream slogans to over-rule evidence. They lie : "There's been no warming!" and lie and lie and outright pants-on-fire lie to you... and then they get YOU to repeat such outright, insane, dumbass lies.

Please, when the mud is cleared away and the tax dollars that we send to you are spent and when you get some breathing room, consider taking a community college class in some of this stuff? An online course? (See "Hurricanes: a Science Primer.") Visit the nearest university and wander the halls asking people who actually know something about what's actually going on? Ask your smartass niece or nephew. You'll find that fact-people aren't demons or commies! 

 And if you refuse to do any of these things, can we ask at least that you stop pretending you know stuff, just because Hannity croons it at you? American conservatism use to have intellects like Goldwater and Buckley and 40% of U.S. scientists.  (It's now 3% and plummeting.) 

American conservatism does NOT have to be lobotomized and self-destructively stupid. Your movement has been hijacked by monsters - you've been talked into electing them in great, howling packs. 

We're not asking you to become lefty flakes! Or even moderate liberals. We're asking you to take your movement back from lying shills and then bring a rational, science-friendly American conservatism to the bargaining table. 

We'll negotiate, I promise.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Super hurricanes and solar storms and EMP… lessons about resilient tech (Part I)

We’ll get to the solar storm alert and its implications, in a minute. But first… the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey tears open our hearts in empathy for our fellow humans and citizens in Texas. (See a list of ways you can help.)

It also forces us to think about bigger scales – like what will it take for civilization to endure and thrive, amid an onrushing future filled with shocks? Harvey is, after all, the third “500 year event” to strike Texas in the last three years, and the tenth in a decade. Confronted with this “coincidence,” the state’s director of emergency planning – a confirmed climate denialist – snarked that “anyone can toss ten heads in a row.

Sure, but I invite you to go without eating till you manage it. Better yet, go win ten 1:500 quick-pick tickets in a row. Do that and someone’s gonna check into your cousin working at the Lottery. (See an earlier posting of a chapter from my 1989 novel EARTH, portraying a future (2038) Houston persevering after hurricane flooding.) 

Of course climate change doesn’t explain everything.  It blatantly increases the frequency and severity of bad news – like Hurricane Irma, a category 5 and bearing down on Florida, just a week after Harvey. (Irma is the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, and two more storms are forming, as we speak.) But some nasty events were going to happen, anyway.  

Separately, the topic that should be foremost is getting ready for when – inevitably – the sky will fall or the earth will shift, beneath our feet.

California's past and coming superstorm: This article reminds us, for example, of great floods that struck California in 1862, swamping the entire Central Valley and crushing towns all across the west.  Nor was this the worst that nature can bring. “Scientists looking at the thickness of sediment layers collected offshore in the Santa Barbara and San Francisco Bay areas have found geologic evidence of megastorms that occurred in the years 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, and 1605, coinciding with climatological events that were happening elsewhere in the world.”

The core issue is: shouldn’t we be preparing better? Especially since climate change is actually real?

== Cyclones only begin our list of perils ==

Likewise, we’ve had other natural catastrophes on our minds -- and variable levels of sagacious preparation. Does it surprise you that, in what can safely be called opposite-to-wise governance, the Trump Administration has been yanking support from both earthquake and tsunami-warning systems?

Few prophesied dangers raise hand-wringing as much as civilization-wide disruption by an Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP. After all, what do you figure Kim Jong Un imagines he might accomplish with the one or two bombs he might get through to North America? Even landing one amid a city would be little more than another disaster to overcome, with a resilient and mighty nation swooping in to help the afflicted, rebuilding and mourning with one hand… while stomping him flat with the other. Kim knows this…

…but he might convince himself that one nuke exploded high over our continent could neutralize all our satellites and throw America back to a pre-electronics stone age. 

(In which case, we should ask ourselves: “which power would benefit most from a no-America vacuum? And might this explain why Pyongyang’s technicians have grown so ‘capable,’ all of a sudden?” I know one sentence that could - possibly - get that major power to back down.)

Okay, set aside the threat that a single, North Korean nuke might cause, popping an EMP over North America. What about natural versions of the same calamity, courtesy of our sun? Speaking to you as the discoverer of the Great Solar Flare of 1972 – (I was the duty observer at the Big Bear Observatory that summer, when it burst) – let me tell you them things can be fierce! The resulting Coronal Mass Ejection can be rough, especially when a CME happens to flow right at our planet. As seems likely this week, according to NOAA!

The effects can be beautiful, when our protective magnetosphere channels solar particles from a small-to-moderate CME away from temperate climes and toward the magnetic poles, charging atmospheric gases to glow in gaudy aurorae. (Any high-rollers out there; I’ll be guiding an arctic aurora expedition, next March.) And to be clear so there’s no cause for immediate panic; this week’s event isn’t likely to do much more than make a show for people north of Chicago. But when a big CME strikes us head-on, the effects can be much more serious.

We’ve has ‘sunspot’ disruptions of our communications within living memory, but nothing like the Carrington Event of 1859, that fried telegraph systems around the world. And tree ring analysis suggests that another solar event may have made the 1859 one look tame by comparison, several thousand years before written records. Almost annually, for decades, I have urged various defense agencies to pay more attention to our civilization’s vulnerability to a deliberate or natural EMP.

EMP/CME impact on our electricity grid has long been foreseen - and more of a risk than nuclear war or an asteroid strike. See James Cameron’s Dark Angel post EMP apocalypse TV show. Now The Economist is highlighting it. My own tech sense is that a higher fraction of our tools would survive or reboot. But we’re fools not to be spending 20x as much on this. 

Without any doubt, human activity – e.g. climate change or enemy action -- is making our dangers far more serious. But even without deliberate meddling, this kind of thing is going to happen! We’d best spend time, energy and money making sure that we’re robust.  

Hence, I urge you all, as individuals to give some thought to your family’s emergency plans and supplies.  And look into getting trained for CERT – your local Community Emergency Response Team – which does civil defense prep in your area.

And reiterating -- for decades I have hectored (by invitation) members of our Protector Caste at the Pentagon, CIA, OSTP, ODNI, DTRA and many other alphabet agencies, that they cannot carry this burden alone.

As revealed by the heroic neighborliness of the “Cajun Navy,” it’s clear that the Cincinnatus tradition of America can still rely on a resilient citizenry! In fact, on 9/11, every single good and useful thing that was accomplished that day – including fighting back against the hijackers of flight UA93 – was done by average folks, empowered by … cell phones.  (See Rebeccas Solnit’s book: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.) 

So that’s what I'll talk about next, in Part 2.