Archive for July, 2019

Global cooling

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

In future news, this just in:

In 2040 global warming reaches the point of no return. Scientists realize that by the year 2100, the Earth will be uninhabitable to humans.

Fortunately, the invention in 2038 of the Zickbocker-Schlumbeck treatment offers a chance of survival. All around the world, in a rare example of full international cooperation, expectant mothers receive the treatment. The slim hope of saving humanity hangs in the balance.

Nine months later, the first thermihumans are born. They seem identical to their predecessors in every way, except for their preference for hot climates. Really hot climates. Also a great resistance to ultraviolet light and an aversion to lettuce.

To a thermihuman, any temperature below 80 degrees fahrenheit (about 27C) is unbearable. In contrast, a thermihuman finds 120 degrees fahrenheit (about 49C) to be rather pleasant.

Global warming continues unabated, yet the new generation thrives. By the time all of the Earth’s hydrocarbon based fossil fuels have been spent, the ozone layer is nearly gone. Thermihumans are in heaven.

But then, with no more hydrocarbon to burn, the planet gradually starts to cool down. Most people shrug it off, except for a few eccentrics who rant about “global cooling”.

Nobody believes them, until at last plummeting temperatures make the end seem inevitable. Wars start to break out around the planet.

A group of top scientists gathers. They cannot restore balance to the earth, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to give up.

At last a lone scientist comes up with a solution. “Why,” she asks, don’t we just engineer human beings that are resistant to cooler temperatures?”

Humanity is saved.

First person on the moon

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

In his speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy said:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation.

One thing that wouldn’t have been generally noticed then, given the state of our culture at the time, is how extremely gendered this was. The idea that the first person on the moon might be a woman was not even entertained as a possibility.

In my more optimistic moments, I like to think how the culture has advanced since then. After all, cultures are always shifting, ideally for the better.

By way of reference, Kennedy would not have said, in 1961, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a white man on the moon”. Yes, there was enormous prejudice against people of color back then, but that is quite different from a categorical denial of possibility.

I would like to think that if someone with JFK’s sense of vision were to make the same speech today, it might read something like this:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a person on the moon and returning that person safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to humankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the explorer who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one individual going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation.

50th Anniversary

Saturday, July 20th, 2019

When I was a kid, my brother and I both devoured science fiction paperbacks that our uncle Lou would bring us. Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury were the mainstays. Then when I got a little older I discovered LeGuin, James Tiptree Jr. and the more philosophical side of SciFi.

I can still remember my first time reading Bradbury’s R is for Rocket and S is for Space, and Heinlein’s The Menace from Earth and The Green Hills of Earth. And of course Asimov. The Foundation trilogy and all those robot stories filled my head with wonder.

So to me, amidst all the weird things that grownups were actually up to — fighting pointless wars, assassinating any inspiring leader with a dream, breaking into hotels to subvert democracy — one thing stood out. Grownups went to the moon and walked on it.

One day the TV was just showing space fantasies like Star Trek and Lost in Space. Then suddenly it was showing the real life version of the science fiction dreams of my childhood.

When I was a kid, real-life grownups were capable of levels of collective idiocy that no child can ever comprehend, and sadly, they still are. Yet for one day those grownups achieved a level of grace that allowed children around the world to believe that a better and nobler world is possible.

All these years later, I still believe it. Just maybe, I have that first footstep on the moon to thank.

Only one more day

Friday, July 19th, 2019

It’s weird to find yourself waiting for something for fifty years. On the other hand, it is perfectly understandable.

After all, if you wait for something for one hundred years, then you are very likely to be disappointed. Not because it won’t happen, but because the odds are that you aren’t going to be there to see it happen.

So perhaps you will excuse my excitement. There is now only one more day left until the big day!!! Isn’t it wonderful?

Hypothetical question

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

Given that our president’s grandfather emigrated to the U.S. by breaking the law, would it be reasonable at a Democratic rally for the crowd to start shouting “Send him back”?

And if they did that, suppose the Democratic candidate were to simply look on silently, allowing the chant to rise to a meme-creating crescendo.

And suppose the next day, when it was too late, the Democratic candidate were to finally disavow the “Send him back” chant, saying that the president should not have to answer to the unlawful way his grandfather came to our country.

Would we be ok with her doing that?

Human cuttlefish

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

I’ve been working recently with some colleagues who study the behavior of cuttlefish. As you may know, cuttlefish, like many cephalopods, can change their skin pattern dynamically, based on their environment.

Among other things, they can transform their appearance to look like a sandy sea-bottom, a clump of rocks, or various other natural backgrounds. This is a very effective form of camouflage. A cuttlefish can, amazingly, seem to simply vanish from one moment to the next.

In my mind, I contrast their symmetry between visual input and visual output with our own asymmetry in this regard. A human can hear sounds and also generate sounds, yet while we can see visual images, our body cannot spontaneously generate visual images in response.

Yet imagine we could. Suppose we were able to visually display our thoughts.

I am not talking about the use of external screens, but rather a built-in visual display, under direct control of our mind. How would such a capability change the human experience?

I suspect we would find our social interactions with each other altered in profound ways. It might be very difficult for us to truly understand what those social interactions would be like, but it sure is fun to try.

Tunesia

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

This evening I attended a VR/AR event in which I got to try various immersive experiences. One of them allowed its participants to experience a Tunisian Sufi ritual in VR.

There were only two of us, a colleague of myself and I, although the experience actually called for four participants. Since the creators had brought only two VR headsets to the event, the other two “participants” were actually simulations.

Afterward, when we had taken off our VR headsets, the creators asked us what we thought of it. I admit I was in a slightly altered state, having just experienced full immersion into Tunisian Sufi rituals.

“Well,” I said, “do you know what it’s called when you think you are in a ritual experience with many people, and somehow you forget that you’re actually in an experience with just the two of you?”

“No,” they answered. “What is it called?”

I had my answer ready. “It’s called,” I said, “Tunesia.”

The colleague I had just shared the VR experience then stared at me for a moment. “That,” she said, “was the biggest Dad joke ever.”

I felt rather proud.

:

Colorful blog post

Monday, July 15th, 2019

My post today for our Future Reality Lab was somewhat colorful. Even so, I was trying to be low key, while keeping everything in scale.

I think I may have succeeded in striking the right tone. You can read it and judge for yourself.

Thoughts on Bastille Day

Sunday, July 14th, 2019

It’s hard not to discuss politics on Bastille Day, but I will try to resist the urge. So today let’s just celebrate liberty, equality and fraternity.

I realize that these principles are, as Hamlet said, more honored in the breach than in the observance. Yet they are noble principles nonetheless.

Which is why I am glad that I live in a country where we accept somebody as an equal even if he comes from an immigrant family. Even if his grandfather got here by sneaking out of Germany to evade military service, then ran brothels here in the U.S. and was later banned permanently from his birth country for being a draft dodger.

I imagine a guy from that sort of family would be very ashamed of his dodgy immigrant heritage. Oh well, I guess he can always just go back to where he came from. :-)

The answer is 42

Saturday, July 13th, 2019

The question is: How many years between major electric power outages in Manhattan on July 13?

I suppose maybe you were expecting the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

I think the answer to that one is scheduled to arrive with the next major electric power outage in Manhattan. You just need to wait until July 13, 2061.