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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Journalism award news

Some good news: I've won a 2014 Excellence in Financial Journalism Award from the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants (NYSSCPA) for my March 2013 article Research magazine article "Who's Kidding Whom?" Here's how it's cited by NYSSCPA:
Trade Press Category – Opinion: Kenneth Silber, Research, for “Who’s Kidding Whom?” a piece that focused on the risks of financial advisors "living in a bubble" and filtering out adverse information about public opinion and the political climate.
Here's the column, and here's NYSSCPA's announcement. I'm looking forward to the award luncheon on May 1. I won this award once before, and the competition to get it is always formidable.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Futurology skepticism

At New Statesman, Bryan Appleyard has a caustic and wide-ranging piece "Why futurologists are always wrong – and why we should be sceptical of techno-utopians." Part of it is about Michio Kaku's book, subject of an unsuccessful review copy request by me recently, but there are also excursions involving Ray Kurzweil, Paul Ehrlich, TED talks, and free will. Much of it is funny, including the picture.

Posting may be light in the very near term but there's live streaming of a SpaceX rocket launch (3:45 4:58 PM ET today) on NASA TV via Space.com.


Live streaming video by Ustream

Friday, April 11, 2014

Transcendence 25-30 years away?

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie Transcendence, when I have a chance, but I wonder about the neuroscientists who are reportedly telling actor Paul Bettany that the ability to upload your mind into a computer will occur in 25 or 30 years--enabling immortality. They're all saying this? How many are they? If they're right, I suppose it would be a huge investment opportunity if one could get in early on whatever companies these neuroscientists are involved with. Or maybe the real money is in companies that design patches to get your mind back after it's been stolen by a future generation of the Heartbleed bug. As I suggested recently with brain implants, thinking about how technology works and doesn't work now should inspire some caution about promises of transcending the human condition a few decades from now.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Rebooting Galactica

I'm a bit sorry to hear this:
Battlestar Galactica Is Getting Rebooted As A Movie Franchise 
Universal has put the long-rumored Battlestar Galactica movie on the fast track. Variety says the movie will be a "a complete reimagining of the story," which will be written by Transcendence screenwriter Jack Paglen.
Me: I was a big fan of the reimagined TV show for a few years, but then it went into the sort of decline that indicated the writers were making it up as they went along. The finale, in which (SPOILER) the humans give up technology to break the historical cycle of robot uprisings, wasn't very convincing. That a onetime spacefaring civilization would now go without plumbing and electricity was hard to believe, but even harder was that there seemed to be no dissent against this collective decision. One thing that had always struck me as plausible in the series was that people always disagreed--that there was no unanimity as to what course of action to take, even (or especially) when survival was at stake.

So, having found the TV show ultimately disappointing, I'm not particularly eager to see a movie (series?). Why not come up with something new, rather than "reimagining" repeatedly? Or better yet, if 70s remakes are de rigeur, why has no one come up with a reimagining of this?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Film note: Extraterrestrial

I and a good friend of this blog will be at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month to see Extraterrestrial. Here's a description:
In the Vicious Brothers’ gripping sci-fi horror film, a group’s getaway into the woods dissolves into a full-throttle fight for their lives when unwelcome aliens invade. Five college friends escape to a cabin for the weekend, unaware that the town has experienced as rash of seemingly random disappearances and animal attacks. Blinded by their revelry, they accidentally trespass on a neighbor’s property, only to find themelves face to face with a conspiracy-spouting Vietnam vet and a flickering object that seems to crash-land in the woods nearby. Curious, they set out to investigate. But as they reach the crash, they spot mysterious footprints heading away from the scene and straight towards them. 
With the same heart-pumping storytelling that pervaded their debut, Grave Encounters, the duo’s latest thriller is a terrifying fight for survival between us and the unknown. 
-Mallory Lance
Me: This film could provide a resolution to Fermi's Paradox. I plan to report back after viewing.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Oceanic thoughts about Enceladus

Signs of a subsurface ocean have been found on Saturn's moon Enceladus. That makes it a prime target for future exploration, up there with Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Titan. But money is tight as far as exploration of the outer solar system goes. I've been writing about that for many years ("Deep Space, Nein!?"; one of the best headlines I never wrote; thanks Nick Schulz). A few years ago I wrote about ambitious Europa exploration plans that subsequently were scrapped in favor of more modest possible missions.

The outer solar system has vast untold and untapped potential for exploration and exploitation (in a good sense of the term). But unfortunately its impingement on public consciousness is pretty minuscule, which shapes and is reflected in the limited budgets allocated for finding out what's out there.

There was an interesting piece yesterday by Richard Fernandez at PJ Media called "No Country for Young Men," complaining about the lack of youthful, forward-looking priorities in America today. I disagreed with a lot of the piece (protecting the environment is such a priority, contrary to his picture of it as something old people care about). But Fernandez has a point when he says:
The big giveaway is we as a civilization don’t want to go to the planets any more, because the old don’t want to go anywhere. Imagine clambering into spaceships! The very idea gives us the shivers. Only the young and immortal travel to places where they may never be able to get Ibuprofen.
Me: It's probably a long time before anybody takes an in-person trip to Enceladus, but it would be a good thing if younger people today were to dream about that, or know that Enceladus evidently has a subsurface ocean and get caught up in the romantic scientific dream of finding life elsewhere--or heck, even know that Enceladus exists.

When the Voyager probes passed Jupiter in the late 70s, Carl Sagan exulted that Jupiter was now "a place" not just a point of light in the sky. The same would've been true of Saturn as the probes passed by it in the 80s. Sadly, we've lost some of that sense of the outer solar system as having real places that matter to us. But I hope that at least a few young people are aware of this latest Enceladus discovery and eager to know more about what's under that ice.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

NASA's Russian suspension

Space fallout from the Ukraine crisis: NASA is suspending most of its collaboration with the Russian government. From The Verge:
Citing Russia’s ongoing violations of Ukraine’s sovereign and territorial integrity, NASA told its officials today that the agency is suspending all contact with Russian government representatives. In an internal NASA memorandum obtained by The Verge, the agency said that the suspension includes travel to Russia, teleconferences, and visits by Russian government officials to NASA facilities. NASA is even suspending the exchange of emails with Russian officials.
One NASA scientist had a complaint:
"NASA's goals aren't political," said a NASA scientist who spoke to The Verge on condition of anonymity. "This is one of the first major actions I have heard of from the US government and it is to stop science and technology collaboration... You're telling me there is nothing better?"
My comment: "NASA's goals aren't political" is a factually and historically incorrect statement. A great deal of NASA activity has been highly political, driven first by the Cold War priority of beating the Russians and then by the (perceived as less urgent) post-Cold War priority of cooperating with the Russians. Now that we're in the post-post-Cold War era, finding some leverage against the Putin regime strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing for the space agency to do. If this gives the U.S. some momentum in developing its own near-Earth capabilities, that's even better.

Anatoly Zak, Russian emigre and space maven and my friend from long-ago Space.com days, wrote in early March about space as a bargaining chip for the U.S., contending plausibly that in the long run "Russia needs NASA more than NASA needs Russia." Now that proposition is starting to be put to the test.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Data journalism, rich suburbs and a complex NJ district

Some interesting thoughts from Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times on data journalism, a field about which I'd made some preliminary notes recently. Anyone getting into journalism now should heed his warning about what's less likely to be tolerated as much going forward: "Journalism is one of the few professions that not only tolerates general innumeracy but celebrates it. I still hear journalists who are proud of it, even celebrating that they can’t do math, even though programming is about logic."

Also of interest, this piece at FiveThirtyEight: "Rich Suburbs Can’t Save Democrats This November," by David Wasserman, which assembles data suggesting that affluent "Super-ZIPs" are not the reliable Democratic votes they seemed to be in Virginia.

Maybe so, but I see that my own district, NJ-05 represented by Scott Garrett, is high on a list there of "Top 22 GOP House Districts Ranked by Median Household Income, 2012" and the districts being Republican strongholds is explained by Wasserman thus: "Why are they so secure? For the most part, these Super Zip Republicans are pro-business members who de-emphasize wedge social issues and biographically fit their districts well."

There's surely some truth to that in NJ-05 but there's good reason to think it's not the whole story. (Which of course may be true of many data journalism stories; there's a flood of data and anything a journalist culls together will necessarily be selective.) Look at a map showing the very irregular shape of the district. For Garrett, the district having less affluent, rural or semirural, mostly non-commuter areas in the western part of New Jersey is also a key factor in his support. I've stated in the past that Garrett's incendiary role in the debt ceiling standoff might cause him to lose some support in affluent Bergen County--but even if so, that would be less likely to weaken him among the non-Wall Streeters further west. In any case, his reelection prospects are bolstered by more than just "rich suburbs."

As a further cautionary point, I note that you get different numbers and rankings when you look at income figures for the towns in my district of New Jersey. Franklin Lakes, for instance, outranks Wyckoff in income here but not when you plug the towns in here. It all depends where the data come from, and the data are always changing. Good advice to consumers of data journalism is not to be dismissive of the data, but remember it's a snapshot and may not precisely match the questions it is being pulled together (on deadline) to address.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Misc. links

I'm anticipating a busy week that may not include much (more) blogging. Some things to keep an eye on (assuming you have interests similar to mine):

-- The IPCC's assessment of climate change effects. Bad Astronomy has a roundup here. Some coverage here. Reading the original reports is always a good idea for those with time and patience.

-- Antisatellite weaponry has been getting more powerful.

-- Whether we live in a multiverse continues to stir up controversy. I knew it would when I saw the initial reactions to the gravity waves findings.

-- "Scientists find a way to read minds." File this under stories to look into further before accepting the headlines at face value.

Earth and Human Achievement Hours

I was unaware of these competing events until after the fact: Earth Hour on Saturday night was the World Wildlife Fund's attempt to get people to turn out their lights to symbolize their commitment to environmentalism. Human Achievement Hour (HAH!) was the Competitive Enterprise Institute's attempt to get people to keep the lights on for that same time to indicate their commitment to "human achievement" (everything from domesticating fire to going to the moon if their video is to be believed). Well, I'm not a particular fan of either of these symbolic hours, but one that's advising people to keep lights on that they might otherwise turn off is a particularly sorry exercise in hubris and wastefulness. The good news is that most people celebrated that hour as Ignore What Think Tanks and Advocacy Groups Say Hour.

"Tea Party libertarianism" in France

This item at Instapundit caught my eye: "CHANGE: Tea-party libertarianism sweeps … France?" Clicking through, I came to an item at Hotair, which in turn was an excerpt of a piece by Robert Zaretsky at Foreign Policy: "Je T'Aime, Ron Paul," subtitled "A wave of Tea Party libertarianism is sweeping France and upending Europe’s socialist stronghold." And, finally getting to the substance of it, I read the article and learned that this "wave of Tea Party libertarianism" is actually the hard-line anti-immigration policies of France's Front National (FN) and how these have influenced the mainstream right in that country.

A few years ago, I wrote an article called "How Did Libertarians Lose Their Way?" in which I lamented various trends within current-day libertarianism. One of these was the turn toward anti-immigration and anti-trade positions hard to reconcile with high-blown rhetoric about letting people live and trade as they want. I suggested that Ron Paul, Rand Paul and the Tea Party had a lot to do with injecting into libertarianism that crabbed, wary-of-the-world outlook. (Mind you, I am not an open-borders absolutist as some libertarians have been or, in a few academic/think tank circles, still are.)

Now it seems the transformation is complete. "Tea Party libertarianism" is, apparently by growing consensus, not just inclusive of but pretty much defined by a hard-line anti-immigration stance. Maybe Walter Russell Mead wasn't quite right when he asserted that the Tea Party is (contrary to what left-wing Europeans assume) very different from hard-right nationalist movements in Europe. Maybe it's not that different. In any case, libertarians at Cato or Reason or wherever some different vision of libertarianism is supposedly being upheld, ought to be extremely worried right now about what's happened to their ideological moniker.

UPDATE 10:13AM: I do notice, and take it as good news, that Instapundit commentors are not enamored of the Tea Party/National Front comparison.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mapping my connections

Microsoft has a thing called EntityCube that draws connections among people or things online. Here's how it maps out "Kenneth Silber":

Click to enlarge.

Some of these connections are considerably more substantial than others, and I had to click on the link to Tabin to even remember when my name and his ever appeared side-by-side. It's also not clear to me why various other people to whom I've had online connections didn't show up (or were bumped by these or however it works). But it's interesting. The original chart with links is here [UPDATE: link fixed].

Friday, March 28, 2014

Computers and Go [updated]

Recommended read: "The Electronic Holy War," about computers and the game of Go, by Patrick House at The New Yorker, noticed via Marginal Revolution. Is the difficulty computers have had in playing Go a sign that the "Our Final Invention" thesis is overwrought? Or is the improvement computers have recently shown at the game (some wins against top players when the computers are given a handicap) a data point in favor of that particular doomsday fear? Unlike with chess, I have no experience with Go, and one question I'd like to know more about is how significant are these handicaps that were given. Another thing that interests me, as a copy editor, is why Go is capitalized.

UPDATE: I don't know if any of the people involved in computer Go are also involved in machine ethics but this piece is interesting in any case: "Why Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics Can't Protect Us."

UPDATE 3/29: A very interesting piece: "The Singularity Is Further Than It Appears," by Ramez Naan. Makes multiple worthwhile arguments to that effect, and here's one that deserves more notice than it tends to get (emphasis in original):
And, indeed, should Intel, or Google, or some other organization succeed in building a smarter-than-human AI, it won't immediately be smarter than the entire set of humans and computers that built it, particularly when you consider all the contributors to the hardware it runs on, the advances in photolighography techniques and metallurgy required to get there, and so on. Those efforts have taken tens of thousands of minds, if not hundreds of thousands. The first smarter-than-human AI won't come close to equaling them. And so, the first smarter-than-human mind won't take over the world. But it may find itself with good job offers to join one of those organizations.
Me: Decades ago, I read Steven Rose's book The Conscious Brain, which had an emphasis on the idea of consciousness as being in important ways a social phenomenon. This reflected Rose's affinity for Marxism, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. A lot of thinking about AI, including alarmism about it, fails to recognize that how smart an individual entity becomes isn't the whole story.

A data point on explanatory journalism

In theory, I should love the emerging push for "explanatory journalism" and "data journalism" (whether those two things are distinct, overlapping or synonymous is something that may yet be further explained with data). I'm a journalist who likes data, who recently took Edward Tufte's information-presentation course, and who has placed a growing premium on empiricism over ideology in recent years.

Looking at FiveThirtyEight, I find the biggest problem is it's not as interesting as all the buzz and criticism around it would make you think it should be. Now, I recognize that I'm but a single data point, and that these are early days yet for data/explanatory journalism with FiveThirtyEight having just started publishing while Vox and the Upshot are still in the works or offering small previews. But still there are risks in the I'm-smart-and-will-explain-the-world-to-you approach. One is that it might come across as condescending (well, as my description suggests). Another is that it might be boring, in the same way that working on your taxes is boring or counting bristles* on your toothbrush is boring.

We'll see. But I can say that if someone were to do journalism on an ambitious scale that sorts out fact and plausible estimate from misinformation, speculation and hype on subjects such as the recent "NASA doomsday report" or whether the recent gravity wave data really mean there's a multiverse with "multiple copies of you," there could be a market for it. Doing that is not just a question of crunching numbers, and I'm not convinced detached neutrality is necessarily its only or best mode. Knowing and acknowledging your biases has much to be said for it, as well.

* - corrected from "thistles." What was I thinking?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Space solar power, Navy edition

I noticed this a few days ago: "The Navy's Plan to Beam Down Energy from Orbiting Solar Panels." I've been reading and writing about space solar power for a solid 20 years now--ever since I was reporting an article for Insight magazine on commercializing space and happened to interview Peter Glaser, visionary of the idea. At first, I wasn't sure he wasn't pulling my leg or perhaps crazy as he spoke about beaming solar power down from orbit. Further research confirmed this is a serious idea, albeit a technically and economically challenging one. Here are some pieces and posts I've written involving the subject over the years. I recommend keeping an eye on space solar power--as something that might become important to the world environment and economy--and as one of the various areas in which current categories of left and right might blur or swap as advanced technologies become feasible. I could imagine a pro-solar right and anti-solar left a couple of decades from now, as this technology's military relevance and sheer bigness makes it a progressive bugaboo. Or maybe conservative talk radio will be warning that the government is building a capacity to incinerate its opponents from orbit.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Eternal punishment update

This Aeon interview with philosopher Rebecca Roache on the (future) possibility and ethics of extending prisoners' lifespans so they can be punished more has gotten some attention (I was one who tweeted it) and some controversy. I think one statement by Roache that should have gotten more critical scrutiny is this (in response to a question on whether Hitler deserved eternal punishment):
Roache: It’s tough to say. If you start out with the premise that a punishment should be proportional to the crime, it’s difficult to think of a crime that could justify eternal imprisonment. You could imagine giving Hitler one term of life imprisonment for every person killed in the Second World War. That would make for quite a long sentence, but it would still be finite. The endangerment of mankind as a whole might qualify as a sufficiently serious crime to warrant it. As you know, a great deal of the research we do here at the Oxford Martin School concerns existential risk. Suppose there was some physics experiment that stood a decent chance of generating a black hole that could destroy the planet and all future generations. If someone deliberately set up an experiment like that, I could see that being the kind of supercrime that would justify an eternal sentence.
Me: I think human reason and wisdom are insufficient to justify any confidence — whatsoever — that we should, if we could, hand out a sentence of eternal suffering on anybody. Moreover, her hypothetical case — "a physics experiment that stood a decent chance of generating a black hole that could destroy the planet and all future generations" — is a further blow to the idea that such a punishment might be justified. Consider that there already have been dubious claims about physics experiments having the potential to destroy the universe. What exactly would constitute the "decent chance" required for some particle experiment to be labeled a "supercrime" and, given that even physicists often disagree about wildly speculative possibilities, whom would we entrust to sign off on the eternal damnation sentence?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

David Frum's new gig

I'm glad to see my friend and sometime colleague David Frum returning to full-time and high-profile journalism as senior editor at The Atlantic. Here's a New York Times piece on the move, which mentions: "Between 2009 and 2012, he edited a group blog, FrumForum.com, dedicated to the reform and renewal of political conservatism." Let me say that participating in that project was one of the most rewarding (if not remunerative) experiences I've had in journalism. I'm sure David's work at The Atlantic will be probing, hard-hitting, worldly, clear-eyed, creative and prone to annoy a lot of people for good reasons. It's amusing to see some of the comments, at The Atlantic and elsewhere, dreading the appointment of such a "conservative" writer and seeming to have no clue about any of that "reform and renewal" stuff (also often blaming him for the Iraq War, as if he were, say, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden).

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The crazy coverage of a supposed NASA doomsday study [updated]

I find humor in certain odd phenomena. One such is the spread around the world of wildly hype-ridden coverage of a study showing that civilization is heading for an "irreversible collapse." The study reportedly got some funding from NASA, so headlines emphasize that or sometimes transform it into NASA saying that civilization is about to collapse. Amazingly, even the National Journal went this route: "Here's How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse."

Where's the study itself? A pre-publication version was posted at http://www.atmos.umd.edu/~ekalnay/pubs/handy-paper-for-submission-2.pdf where I looked at it briefly, but now I'm getting that as a broken link (because of too much traffic or has it been taken down?); other than that, I suppose you'll have to wait for an upcoming issue of Ecological Economics, where it has reportedly been accepted for publication.

The essence of the research it seems is four equations, including a model of "elites" and "commoners" as predators and prey. For more, see this David Appell post. Does the study offer any valuable insights? Who knows (at least for now, given that it seemingly cannot be accessed)? But one thing that's clear is that weighing its credibility was not a big factor in its rapid dissemination. Another is that it found resonance on many points of the ideological spectrum. And here's a bit of equally clueless backlash: "NASA Goes from 'Muslim Outreach' to Leftwing Activism."

UPDATE 3/20, 12:10pm: And here's the (or a version of the) pre-publication paper (PDF): "A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction." As for the NASA role, it says "This work was partially funded through NASA/GSFC grant NNX12AD03A, known as 'Collaborative Earth System Science Research Between NASA/GSFC and UMCP.'" Searching for info on that grant, one gets the following (though no breakout as to how much of the total went to this particular paper):

Researcher: Antonio Busalacchi Grant Sponsor: NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center 
Amount: $334,835 in additional funding, bringing the total award to $9,344,034
Grant Study: "Collaborative Earth System Science Research between NASA/GSFC and UMCP"

Me: I will (at least for now) suspend judgment on the paper and the merits of NASA funding it, though those both are interesting topics. The thing that strikes me most so far is not the putative threat to civilization but the crazy media coverage. In a roundabout way the paper has made its point: A society this receptive to half-baked information may indeed be more fragile than has been recognized.

UPDATE 3/20, 12:33pm: OK, I've read it, which didn't take long. This is, as Appell wrote, a "toy model." That is, it's an extremely simplified approach that abstracts away, among other things, any government policies, the existence of different regions, differences in types of natural resources, most socioeconomic distinctions (there are just "commoners" and "elites," and the elites keep on consuming while the commoners sink into famine). I hope that NASA did not spend much money on this, and if it did, the awful "How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse" media coverage begins to seem like a fitting punishment.

UPDATE 3/21: NASA's statement, released yesterday, referring to a version of the paper with a different title than the one I mentioned:

NASA Statement on Sustainability Study

The following is a statement from NASA regarding erroneous media reports crediting the agency with an academic paper on population and societal impacts.
"A soon-to-be published research paper 'Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies' by University of Maryland researchers Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay, and University of Minnesota’s Jorge Rivas was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity.
"As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions."

UPDATE 3/22: About time to put this sordid tale from the Age of Misinformation behind us, but first a final pair of links. One is intelligent: "NASA Doesn't Think the World Is Ending and Journalists Should Stop Implying That." The other is, well, the final punchline, and includes this gem: "One would think that a scientific paper predicting the imminent end of civilization, backed by the imprimatur of no less an authority than NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, would generate considerable interest, not to mention news coverage. Oddly, though, it hasn’t, at least not in North America."

Monday, March 17, 2014

Gravitational wave implications [updated]

A major physics discovery was announced this morning: a distinctive pattern in the cosmic microwave background suggesting gravitational waves that emerged from cosmic inflation--an extremely fast expansion of space in the very early universe. Here's the lead from Sciam's piece "Gravity Waves from Big Bang Detected":
Physicists have found a long-predicted twist in light from the Big Bang that represents the first image of ripples in the universe called gravitational waves, researchers announced today. The finding is direct proof of the theory of inflation, the idea that the universe expanded extremely quickly in the first fraction of a second after it was born. What’s more, the signal is coming through much more strongly than expected, ruling out a large class of inflation models and potentially pointing the way toward new theories of physics, experts say.
And here's from physicist Max Tegmark's gloss on it in the Huffington Post, "Good Morning, Inflation! Hello, Multiverse!":
Today is a great day for most scientists except multiverse skeptics -- at least in this particular universe. Alex Vilenkin, Andrei Linde, Alan Guth and others have shown that inflation generically predicts a space that is not merely large but infinite, teeming with duplicate copies of our civilization living out countless variations of our lives far far away. Now it's harder for skeptics to dismiss this by saying "inflation is just a theory": first they need to come up with another compelling explanation for BICEP2's gravitational waves. Today is also disappointing for the ekpyrotic/cyclic models that had emerged as the most popular alternative to inflation: they are ruled out by BICEP2's gravitational wave detection.
I hope subsequent coverage will provide more clarity as to how we get from A to B: what is the precise chain of logic--and assumptions--that leads from these gravity waves to "duplicate copies of our civilization living out countless variations of our lives far far away"? A trouble with much physics popularization, often by physicists, is the willingness to make such leaps with little reference to any details that might introduce some (boring?) uncertainty.

UPDATE 3/18: Recommended reading (from before the BICEP2 announcement but relevant to this post): "When does multiverse speculation cross into fantasy?" Also: Peter Woit in the Wall Street Journal, with bonus mention of Giordano Bruno; and at his own blog. One thing I'm not sure about is whether Tegmark's confident post of yesterday refers to a Level I or Level II multiverse, or both. Also recommended, while I'm on this subject: John Horgan's "Why I Still Doubt Inflation, in Spite of Gravitational Wave Findings" and his older "Is speculation in multiverses as immoral as speculation in subprime mortgages?"

One more UPDATE 3/18: Rod Dreher, proving that you can look at the cosmological data and see whatever you want to see. He does at least put a light touch on it in his update. For the record, I don't see how evidence for inflation provides any support for theism (if one already thinks the Big Bang supports theism, then inflation adds nothing to that). I do agree with Dreher that Paul Davies has written a lot of interesting and worthwhile material on cosmology and related topics.

Final UPDATE 3/18: Something for those who really want to delve into Tegmark duplicates.

OK, really final UPDATE 3/19: I've discovered to my surprise and his credit that Tegmark posted a Sciam blog post some weeks ago sketching out his assumptions and where they could be wrong. He sticks closely to physics/cosmology, which is understandable, but I'd add that further assumptions that he doesn't address could also upset his duplicate civilizations applecart. Those assumptions include: the origin of life as an event with a finite, if small, probability of occurring under the laws of physics (as I understand it, it could have zero probability and still occur given infinite opportunities to do so, but would occur a finite number of times); human consciousness being something with a finite, if huge, number of possible states, contrary to paper linked in update just above; universes not ever causally interacting in any way that throws off the endless replication; and super-intelligence not ever arising anywhere in the infinite multiverse in such a way as to substantially change the super-big picture.

Brain implant questions

In the Wall Street Journal, psychologist Gary Marcus and neuroscientist Christof Koch offer a fairly upbeat take on "The Future of Brain Implants" that enhance memory, intelligence and more. They conclude:
Will these devices make our society as a whole happier, more peaceful and more productive? What kind of world might they create?
It's impossible to predict. But, then again, it is not the business of the future to be predictable or sugarcoated. As President Ronald Reagan once put it, "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave."
The augmented among us—those who are willing to avail themselves of the benefits of brain prosthetics and to live with the attendant risks—will outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict. These differences will challenge society in new ways—and open up possibilities that we can scarcely imagine.
Me: Some things people might want to consider before they get the electrodes:

Can these things be taken out (and their effects reversed)? Does the person getting them have a legal right to such removal? Does the person have a legal right to decline them? Will parents be getting them for their children on a basis of implied consent? Will employers be able to discriminate on the basis of presence or absence of implants? Will frequent upgrades be needed to keep the implants on the cutting edge or even just in working order? Will these upgrades occur automatically? Will the NSA have a backdoor into the workings of the equipment? Will hackers be able to access this technology (and if not, what technology is stopping them)? Will either licit or illicit controllers be able to turn a person with implants into an unwitting or unwilling robot or zombie?

Living "with the attendant risks" could mean quite a lot. Also, I wonder how left and right will divide, or get reshuffled, as this technology matures. Free implants for all? Stop hindering the augmented with taxes and regulations that were intended for lesser humans anyway? Interesting times.