Friday, October 31, 2014

SpaceShipTwo implications

The crash of SpaceShipTwo in a test flight reminds me of these words a few years ago from Paul Spudis:
But what will happen to a commercial space tourism market after the first fatal accident? New Space advocates often tout their indifference to danger, but such bravado is neither a common nor wise attitude in today’s lawsuit-happy society (not to mention, the inevitable loss of confidence from a limited customer base). My opinion is that after the first major accident with loss of life, a nascent space tourism industry will become immersed in an avalanche of litigation and will probably fully or partly collapse under the ensuing financial burden. We are no longer the barnstorming America of the 1920’s and spaceflight is much more difficult than aviation.
Me: And this tragic failure of a suborbital test flight, of course, occurs even before commercial space tourism has really gotten anywhere. That industry has been slower to emerge than many expected a decade ago, and this sure isn't going to speed it up.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Paying for immortality

My latest at Research magazine involves how long people will live in 2030 and how long their money will last. I interview Joel Garreau about his four scenarios for longevity. Excerpt:
Small Change. In this scenario, technological advances have only modestly altered current trends in lifespans and health outcomes. Leading-edge baby boomers alive in 2030 are octogenarians and often infirm. Their kids who are in their 40s can expect to live into their 80s but face a familiar decades-long decline in health. Medical costs continue to skyrocket. According to Garreau, this is “the official Washington future regarding aging—the one many policymakers expect.” 
Drooling on Their Shoes. In 2030, under this scenario, technological advances have increased lifespans while doing far less to improve health in later life. Octogenarian boomers face decades of frailty and dementia; suicide rates among the aged have jumped. Health care costs are even more burdensome than in Small Change, increasing budget turmoil and intergenerational tension. 
Live Long and Prosper. Information technology has revolutionized health care while reducing its costs, in this 2030 scenario. Octogenarians remain active, thanks partly to what Garreau calls “Google Medicine,” a toaster-sized home appliance that analyzes spit samples to detect health changes. The first person who will live robustly to 150 is entering adulthood. Hospitals have become primarily for the less affluent, and tech-driven obsolescence threatens many health care institutions. 
Immortality. In his last scenario, Garreau raised the possibility of lifespans of indefinite duration. “Immortality is not as crazy as it sounds,” he wrote. Sufficient tech advances could boost life expectancy by one year each year, and “you have something that looks like immortality for some people.” Boomer octogenarians in 2030 have “too many hard miles on their chassis” to fully benefit, but younger people may have trouble imagining the onetime prevalence of sickness and death.
Whole thing here. My review of Garreau's Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human is here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Superintelligence, simulations, etc.

There's an interesting review of Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies at the website of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, by piero scaruffi (whose name appears in lower case). I haven't read Bostrom's book, though I have been keeping tabs on the subject (see here and here) and found scaruffi's skeptical take on the dangers of AI intriguing. I then went to scaruffi's own site, and from now I will no longer worry, as I sometimes have, that my own blog incorporates an unduly broad range of interests; it's nothing compared to scaruffi, and I say that respectfully.

On another Bostrom-related note, I was a bit disappointed by Seth Shostak's piece "Is Life an Illusion?" which is an uncritical take on Bostrom's ideas about living in a simulation. I would've expected Shostak, who's spent decades contemplating probabilities involving alien life, to have something more sophisticated to say about efforts to calculate whether we are characters in a computer game. Years ago, I expressed some reasons for skepticism about that subject, which strike me as still making sense. (I don't, however, claim to be up to date on the technical debate over the simulation argument, and I see that Bostrom in 2011 co-wrote a "patch" for his original case.)

UPDATE: "Elon Musk: Robots Could Delete Humans Like Spam." Strikes me as not a compelling analogy, given how difficult it is to get rid of spam.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Cosmic books

Current reading: The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities, by Caleb Scharf. So far it's quite interesting, and I have high expectations based on Scharf's work that I've read previously.

I also recently ordered and received Lee Billings' Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, something I ought to have done a year ago and was reminded to do now by Billings' winning of a 2014 AIP Science Communications Award.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Clinton history travels

Here are my son DeWitt and my wife Brooke at Fort Montgomery, in upstate new York, today, watching a reenactment of the battle where their direct ancestor James Clinton and his brother George Clinton fought against their distant relative Henry Clinton. Grant Miller, manager of the Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, is narrating the action.

Fort Montgomery 10-5-14
And back in August we visited the Syracuse area, where I continued my Erie Canal book research. Dan Ward, curator at the Erie Canal Museum, showed us around the museum as well as Camillus Erie Canal Park, which has impressive remnants of Clinton's Ditch as well as the Enlarged Canal. We also made a preliminary visit to the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum.

DeWitt Clinton portrayal at Erie Canal Museum

Sign at Camillus Park
1842 Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, restored in Camillus Park
Dry dock at Chittenango

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Climate-related readings

Recommended: a Bloomberg View series of editorials on carbon taxes, summarized here: "Doubt Climate Change? Then Support Carbon Taxes." Also recommended: "How to love uncertainty in climate science," by Tamsin Edwards, a particle physicist turned climate scientist. And: "The Left vs. the Climate," by Will Boisvert, at The Breakthrough (published by the Breakthrough Institute). Also see: "The Musk Family Plan for Transforming the World's Energy," by Christopher Mims at WSJ.

We're in the early stages of the long-term climate politics turnaround I predicted some months ago. That's when the technological and market-oriented measures that would actually reduce climate risks become anathematized by the left as too large-scale and industrial, and are picked up--albeit all too hesitantly and reluctantly--by the right; I began scribbling out how an astute GOP politician might talk about all this a few years ago at the often-ahead-of-its-time FrumForum.

NJ Senate race revisited

Some time ago, I mentioned Jeffrey's Bell's emergence as GOP Senate candidate in New Jersey, expressing approval of his credentials as policy wonk but wariness of his apparent intention to advocate a gold standard and make it the centerpiece of his campaign.

He has indeed done so, as evidenced by this WSJ piece, "Jeff Bell Takes on Cory Booker and the Fed." If we were living in a time of high and rising inflation, such as the 1970s, I could understand the focus on extremely tight money and how to impose a straitjacket that could keep policy tight. Given that this bears no resemblance to the current situation, I can only see it as an example of a time warp in the thinking of some conservatives and free-market types. However, I take issue with Cory Booker's riposte that Bell "wants to take us back to the '70s," when as the same article points out the last vestige of the gold standard was abandoned in 1971.