Thursday, April 24, 2014

Denialism watch

Recommended reading: "What's the liberal equivalent of climate denial?," by Ezra Klein. A lot of material there for anyone who found interesting my writings on science attitudes across the political spectrum, such as here and here. It seems to me that some of the quick answers that have been given to that question actually confirm the point that there isn't an important policy issue on which the Democratic Party has been beholden to an ideological position that's clearly at odds with the scientific mainstream. That may happen in the future, though, when geoengineering is at issue.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Good WSJ acquisition

Christopher Mims, colleague and friend from Scientific American days, is heading to the Wall Street Journal as technology columnist (and leaving his previous job at Quartz, which is available). I am sure he will be excellent in that role. I recommend following his lively Twitter feed as well.

Arbitrary action

I learned about the arbitrariness of affirmative action over 30 years ago, when an affluent friend of mine in Puerto Rico told me that he would be getting preferential treatment in college admissions. David Frum makes the point at greater length in The Atlantic, "Why Affirmative Action No Longer Works." Excerpt:
I once worked alongside a woman whose mother was a Cuban of partly African descent and whose father was Irish via Australia. Her first name was Latino, her last name was purest Hibernian. Preference? No preference? What about the children of an Anglo-Canadian multimillionaire and an African-American mother, to mention another prominent example? Preference? No preference? 
Both Puerto Rico and the Philippines were conquered and colonized by the United States. Yet migrants from the one commonwealth and their descendants receive legal preferences; migrants from the other do not.
Me: I'm sure that my friend, now a lawyer in Puerto Rico, would've done fine in any case.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How not to defend GOP environmental policies

I came across this Jonah Goldberg column "Obama's Keystone Pipeline Trap" via Kevin Drum. Before going on, let me point out that I am not convinced there's a compelling environmental case for stopping the Keystone pipeline; rather, it seems to me that environmental groups engage in symbolic politics by making this pipeline a target and a proxy for climate change. And on fracking, I incline to the view that, with proper regulation, natural gas can provide environmental and economic benefits.

Still, similar to Drum, I am unfavorably struck by Goldberg's line: "Contrary to what you may have heard, GOP politicians still care about the environment, but they take their cues from public opinion, not from the green lobby." Better, by far, to take your cues from science and cost-benefit analysis. By the way, hasn't going against public opinion once in a while (even standing athwart history yelling Stop, when no one is inclined to do so) been a conservative thing in the past?

And then there's this from Goldberg:
Important work is being done on serious problems, such as ocean acidification, overfishing, elephant and rhino poaching and loss of habitat. None of these issues get a fraction of the coverage they deserve. That's because many environmental reporters think their beat begins and ends with climate change.
Me: I've made a case that Republicans should devote more effort to protecting rhinos, and I think Goldberg is right that those are all serious issues. But if he's implying that the GOP is currently doing a lot of the "important work" on them, I'd like to see the basis for that claim. Moreover, in pressing for a focus on "loss of habitat" (presumably he means of numerous species, not just the elephants and rhinos) Goldberg is raising an issue that is exacerbated by climate change, and in bringing up "ocean acidification" he is raising an issue that is intimately connected to climate change (and indeed often presented as a subset of climate change problems).

Goldberg's column is one of those arguments that's really a gift to those on the other side. Expect green groups to cite it in their fundraising letters.

Transcendence and indifference

Based on the negative reviews, I suspect I'm not going to see Transcendence until it's available on pay-per-view. And based on its bad box office, I wonder if public interest (whether hopes or fears) in Singularity/transhumanism-type stuff is considerably lower than people who focus on this sort of thing (as I sometimes do) tend to assume. It could just be that this is such a bad movie that people are turned off, but if people really cared about the subject, they might show up anyway. The recent Pew polling results I mentioned recently also suggest that a more-than-human future isn't something for which many people are striving, and perhaps that's because they're not giving it a lot of thought.

Also, to follow up: My review of the Vicious Brothers' Extraterrestrial bucks a trend of negative takes on that film. (Come to think of it, I shouldn't assume Transcendence is terrible without having seen it.)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Review: Vicious Brothers' Extraterrestrial

At the suggestion of blogging colleague Dan Summer, he and I attended the Tribeca Film Festival's world premiere of Extraterrestrial, directed by Colin Minihan and written and edited by the Vicious Brothers. I did not have high expectations for this film, and prepared myself for a possible mocking laughfest similar to some previous experiences I have had. As it turned out, Extraterrestrial is excellent.

As it also turned out, when the movie ended and the lights came on, the Vicious Brothers had been sitting behind me and Dan during the screening, so I'm glad I didn't laugh through the whole thing. Which is not to say there's no humor in it--there's quite a bit, and it's cleverly laced into a drama that is at times rather intense.

The film makes use of a cliched situation--young people in a cabin in the woods facing danger--to explore the cliches of the UFO/alien abduction subculture that grew to such prominence in the 1990s. Even though I've been writing about space since the early 1990s, I always found that alien subculture a bit of a bore, even as I took derisive note of it from time to time. But this movie, by examining what it might be like if this mythology were based on truth, shows some things not previously shown or well-imagined in film (including a certain probe's eye view that received considerable audience notice).

Beautiful actress Britanny Allen, also present at the screening, was excellent as April, the protagonist who receives her boyfriend's marriage proposal shortly before the aliens descend. I asked the filmmakers in the Q and A afterwards if they had considered an alternative, more aggressive, scenario that I had imagined for April's response to the aliens, and in fact they had but the creative process and their budget limitations had dictated otherwise.

Besides being excellent entertainment, this film is a reminder of something I have noted before: "If intelligent extraterrestrials are detected, then being a spacefaring civilization will place us in a stronger position to deal with them, whether cooperatively or not."

Friday, April 18, 2014

Some downsides of living forever

The Weekly Standard has a thoughtful piece by a writer named James C. Banks on James Barrat's Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. I generally agree with the review, and had some similar responses in my own review. Banks also makes some interesting points about Kurzweillian Singularity thinking here:
Nonetheless, if Barrat does not always make a convincing case, his predictions are preferable to those of some of the techno-utopians he interviews. If there is anything more disturbing than the prospect of being destroyed by a self-replicating computer that feeds itself by harvesting carbon, it is the visions of people like Ray Kurzweil, a man who “plans to fend off death” through dieting and exercise “until technology finds a cure he’s certain will come.” 
Immortality has long been a pursuit of the “transhumanist” movement, but there is nothing immortal about the sort of goal that Kurzweil is setting for humanity. It may be nonagenarian, and it may hold the promise of indefinite, if not eternal, life. But in the transhumanist world that Kurzweil and others dream of, we would still be fed with the same food, killed by the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, and warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer. 
In such a world—a world in which people may have the ability to live forever but are not guaranteed to do so—would anyone muster the courage to set foot outside his front door? Would people still desire to raise children if they had no intention of leaving any legacy to them? Or would we become a society of old minds trapped in young bodies with the desire to achieve no more wisdom than will preserve our bodies for another year? 
Me: Those seem like plausible enough worries, and surely there will be some kind of unpalatable consequences and tradeoffs if the Kurzweillian vision ever becomes realized. I wonder, though: If we're really taking the idea of people uploading their minds seriously, doesn't that suggest there'd be backup copies? Maybe the problem is not that long-lived people would be super-cautious but rather that they'd be wildly incautious, because if they get hit by a driverless truck or whatever, they could always just revert back to the version of themselves they saved a little earlier this morning.

Similarly, how much would they care about killing someone else? (Would it be OK if that person has backups? Would it be a greater crime to kill someone with a huge lifespan ahead of him/her/it than to kill an old-fashioned person who's only got a few decades more at best anyway?) In any case, the outlook of people who aren't expecting to die for a long, long time if ever, would be very different from that of people today, in ways that aren't necessarily conducive to better behavior while one is around.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Brain implant dating scene

I recently expressed some skepticism about a Wall Street Journal op-ed touting brain implants. Here was part of what the authors, scientists Gary Marcus and Christof Koch, asserted in their conclusion:
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.
Me: Some new survey data suggests that "contest for ... mates" part may get pretty complicated. Pew Research has a fascinating look at "U.S. Views on Technology and the Future," which shows an eclectic mix of optimism and pessimism regarding various futuristic technologies. (Interestingly, expectations that there will be colonies on other planets in the next 50 years are fairly low, but I wonder if the results would've been notably higher if the question had included "or on the moon.") As for implants, here's from Pew:
Men and women ... diverge substantially in their attitudes toward ubiquitous wearable or implantable computing devices. Men are evenly split on whether this would be a good thing: 44% feel that it would be a change for the better and 46% a change for the worse. But women overwhelmingly feel (by a 59%–29% margin) that the widespread use of these devices would be a negative development.
Me: On another question, having specifically to do with brain implants, there was a generally negative response, though Pew there doesn't give the breakdown of male/female:
... significant majorities say that they are not interested in getting a brain implant to improve their memory or mental capacity (26% would, 72% would not) or in eating meat that was grown in a lab (just 20% would like to do this).
Me: I'm surprised by the latter, seeing nothing inherently wrong with lab-grown meat (indeed, it has the potential to alleviate a great deal of animal suffering). As for the brain implants, based on the data above, I'd advise caution on using your (possibly hackable) cerebral electrode as a way of attracting the ladies, though I do note that one artist did sketch out a contrary scenario some years ago.

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

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. UPDATE: My review.

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 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].