I just finished A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, and it was the most enjoyable book I have read in the last couple years. I’m not going to spoil the plot, but like all Vernor Vinge books it has layers upon layers with themes such as civilizations rising and falling, technological progress (and sometimes regression) with its opportunities and dangers, interactions between civilizations at different levels of technology, and at similar levels of technology but with different cultures and values. The plot unfolds over long periods of time while the characters are very real, accessible, and human, even if not all of them are actually human.
Most frightening stories of 2017:
- January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
- February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
- March: La Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
- April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
- May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
- June: The Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
- July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
- August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
- September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
- October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
- November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
- December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.
Most hopeful stories of 2017:
- January: The theory of island biodiversity gives us some clues on how to maximize the biodiversity that a given amount of natural land can support.
- February: You can take a class on how to not be fooled by the news.
- March: A new political survey says there is a chance that a majority of Americans are not bat-shit crazy. Which suggests they might not be too serious about Steve Bannon, who believes in some bat-shit crazy stuff. There are a number of apps and guides out there to help sane people pester our elected representatives when they fail to represent our interests.
- April: The value added tax is a boring but good idea. Why can’t the U.S. have nice things? Oh, right…
- May: Buzz Aldrin and NASA have plans for Mars colonization around the 2030s. Stephen Hawking thinks this is a good idea to hedge our bets against bad things that might happen here on Earth.
- June: On the education front: Finland achieves some of the world’s best educational outcomes with a lot of playtime and not a lot of homework. Musical training early in life is good for your brain later in life, even if you don’t continue it. There are lots of free philosophy and ethics courses online.
- July: A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
- August: The Aichi Biodiversity Targets are some very specific numerical targets that have incorporated in the 2015 Sustainable Goals.
- September: Utility-scale solar energy cost dropped 30% in one year.
- October: Supersonic (civilian) travel is almost back.
- November: Donald Trump does not appear to be trying to destroy the Federal Reserve.
- December: Macroeconomic modeling is improving. So, just to pick a random example, it might be possible to predict the effects on a change in tax policy on the economy. Now all we need is politicians who are responsive to logic and evidence, and we could accomplish something. At least a few economists think the imperfect tax plan the U.S. Congress just passed might actually stimulate business capital investment enough to move the dial on productivity. The deliberate defunding of health care included in the bill is going to hurt people, but maybe not all that dramatically.
Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:
- January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
- February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very close. Tiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
- March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
- April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
- May: The sex robots are here.
- June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
- July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
- August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
- September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
- October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
- November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
- December: Microsoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.
I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:
Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.
Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.
Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.
Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.
Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.
Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.
But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!
The “liquid metal” from Terminator 2 is finally here, although it is not trying to kill us (yet). Still, if they start making autonomous drones out of this stuff…
“If you look at conventional aircraft technology, you have so many moving parts,” says Othmane Benafan, an engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Those moving parts are essential—they are how pilots steer, reduce turbulence, take off, land, and basically do everything else besides glide aimlessly. But the actuators, cables, motors, lubricant, hydraulic gear, and other bits needed move those parts around take up weight and space—precious resources on any aircraft.
The alternative is to move those wing parts using shapeshifting metals. Or, as they’re known to engineers, shape memory alloys. “Parts made from shape memory alloys are typically 10 to 20 percent the size and weight of a conventional part,” says Jim Mabe, a shape memory alloy guru at Boeing. For an industry that spent $133 billion on fuel last year, anything smaller and lighter is exciting news.
Shape memory alloys are essentially reversible Shrinky Dinks. When heated to certain temperatures, they shrink, twist, and bend. Cool them off, and they return to their original shape. Hot, cold, hot—shape memory alloys can cycle back and forth millions of times without wearing out. All you need is the ability to generate heat or pull it from some other, already spicy hot part of the plane, like the engine.
Russian cosmonauts are claiming they have found bacteria on the outside of the International Space Station that have to have come from space. At least, they didn’t get on the ISS until the ISS was in space, meaning they already had to be there. Reading between the lines, that doesn’t mean the bacteria didn’t make their way from Earth to space at some point in the past, before the ISS was launched.
I wonder if harmless bacteria could go into space, mutate into something dangerous, then make their way back to Earth on a returning spacecraft. Has that story ever been done?
But The Andromeda Strain had a lame ending, as I recall.
This is a bit late for Halloween, but here is a free Spotify playlist of H.P. Lovecraft stories.
The Intercept has reviews of a few new books in which the United States breaks up.
“Tropic of Kansas” takes place in a United States, in which “whole counties depopulated by disappearing futures” have tried, with limited success, to institute “autonomy and local control of land and law.” A federal recolonization, equally unsuccessful, has left pockets of quasi-autonomous territories contested by various for-profit revolutionaries; feral, unofficially deputized militias; and the occasional U.S. government incursion. The result is the titular space — it’s not “a specific place you could draw on a map, and Kansas wasn’t really even a part of it” — where violence is endemic. Militias confiscate guns. An insurgent is hung from a bridge, “naked and carved with a warning that looked like a corporate logo.” It is into this zone that Sig, a young man orphaned by the militarized police state, is deported by self-amused Mounties…
“AMERICAN WAR,” SIMILARLY composed before Trump’s America was imminent, sees the Second American Civil War kick off in 2074 over the South’s refusal to adhere to the Sustainable Future Act, which outlaws the use of fossil fuels. Following the molding of Southern resistance fighter Sarat Chestnut, “American War” reads less Cassandra than “Tropic.” Instead, El Akkad recreates in the U.S. the societal fracturing it has inaugurated in the Middle East. Children are radicalized by the loss of home, refugee internment, and massacre…
The Neo-Reactionary movement — think the theory bro version of the “alt-right” — sees an endgame in “Patchwork,” which was dreamed up by Mencius Moldbug, the pen name Curtis Yarvin, who reportedly watched election results at the home of sometime Donald Trump adviser Peter Thiel. “Patchwork” consists of a neo-feudal “global spiderweb of tens, even hundreds, of thousands of sovereign and independent mini-countries, each governed by its own joint-stock corporation without regard to the residents’ opinions.”
It also mentions two older books – Ecotopia, which I have read, and The Turner Diaries, which I do not plan to read. Finally, it mentions Adam Rothstein’s “Cascadian Drone Ballads”, about which I am confused whether they are stories, songs, both, or neither, and where and how one would get them. Adam Rothstein appears to be an interesting character, some kind of cross between an author and artist who just does his own thing. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, there does not appear to be a Wikipedia page about him.
It’s hard for me to imagine an actual war between the states. I can imagine a scenario where a federal government starved of tax revenue and regulatory power gradually lets states drift off in their own directions until it is unclear whether they have a coherent foreign policy, and perhaps start checking papers at the border. Ironically, rather than the EU gradually turning into something like the United States as Churchill envisioned, this would mean the U.S. gradually turning into something like the EU (while the EU might be drifting back into something more like its 19th century predecessor.)
By the way, what’s a “theory bro”? Are those the dudes who sit around in bars talking about theories instead of sports and women?
Blade Runner 2049 is getting an 88% “Guaranteed Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I was somewhat of a gamer before I had children. That was then, this is now. Maybe when they are safely off to college. I don’t know how fun I would find this game, but the interesting thing is that the universe itself is procedurally generated, which means generated by the computer using a set of rules, rather than designed by the programmers. This means it can be enormous and you can just wander around in it as long as you want.
I just finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and found it to be the best book I have read in awhile. It fits the themes of this blog, but I really don’t want to say too much more about it up front, because it employs some really interesting story telling techniques that I think are much more interesting to discover as you go along than to know about up front. So I don’t recommend reading a review or even description of the book, just read the book itself.
Most frightening stories:
- A misapplied equation might have crashed the world financial system in 2007.
- Shell was well aware of climate change science in 1991, and made a movie to educate the public about it. But nothing was done.
- The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
Most hopeful stories:
- There are ideas for better traffic lights.
- Tesla’s market share eclipsed Ford’s. Mercedes is promising self-driving taxis within three years. I put these in the win column because creative destruction of the automobile industry status quo is long overdue. In other creative destruction news, e-commerce is starting to eat the bricks-and-mortar retail industry alive, possibly because people are realizing they can buy stuff and have time left over for things other than sitting in their cars on the way to and from stores.
- The value added tax is a boring but good idea. Why can’t the U.S. have nice things? Oh, right…
Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:
- I first heard of David Fleming, who wrote a “dictionary” that provides “deft and original analysis of how our present market-based economy is destroying the very foundations―ecological, economic, and cultural― on which it depends, and his core focus: a compelling, grounded vision for a cohesive society that might weather the consequences.”
- Judges are relying on algorithms to inform probation, parole, and sentencing decisions.
- I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.