Guest host Sean Cole talks to military defense specialist John Arquilla, who says the U.S. government should hire hackers - instead of prosecuting them.
Tagged with “book” (83)
Characters on Star Trek suffer frequent misadventures on the holodeck, a room that creates advanced holograms indistinguishable from reality. But now theoretical physicists such as Brian Greene, host of the recent PBS special The Fabric of the Cosmos, are starting to wonder if every object in the universe isn’t some sort of hologram. Greene talks physics and science fiction in this week’s episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
A History of the World in Maps - Late Night Live - ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Throughout history, maps have always been as much about their creators and their worldviews as about reproducing an accurate replica of the world. Early maps were also about the unknown and how to display the borders of the known world. Monsters in illustration were often used to represent what lay beyond the edge of the world, and cartographers competed to create the best and scariest monsters on their creations.
Professor and BBC documentary presenter Jeremy Brotton has produced a study of the cultural values embodied in maps and collected them in a book called A History of the World in Twelve Maps.
In The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity, mathematician Steven Strogatz provides an entertaining refresher course in math, starting with the most elementary ideas, such as counting, and finishing with mind-bending theories of infinity—including the idea that some infinities can be bigger than others.
Jim al-Khalili talks to Steven Pinker, a scientist who’s not afraid of controversy. From verbs to violence, many say his popular science books are mind-changing. He explains why toddlers say “holded” not held and “digged” rather than dug; how children’s personalities are shaped largely by their genes and why, he believes the recent rioters had plenty of self-esteem.
Sophisticated societies from time to time collapse utterly, often leaving traces of a civilization that was at a proud peak just before the fall. Other societies facing the same dangers figure out how to adapt around them, recover, and go on to further centuries of success. Tonight the author of Collapse examines the differences between them…
To an overflow house (our apologies to those who couldn’t make it in!), Jared Diamond articulately spelled out how his best-selling book, Collapse, took shape.
At first it was going to be a book of 18 chapters chronicling 18 collapses of once-powerful societies— the Mayans with the most advanced culture in the Americas, the Anasazi who built six-story skyscrapers at Chaco, the Norse who occupied Greenland for 500 years. But he wanted to contrast those with success stories like Tokugawa-era Japan, which wholly reversed its lethal deforestation, and Iceland, which learned to finesse a highly fragile and subtle environment.
Diamond also wanted to study modern situations with clear connections to the ancient collapses. Rwanda losing millions in warfare caused by ecological overpressure. China— “because of its size, China’s problems are the world’s problems.” Australia, with its ambitions to overcome a horrible environmental history. And Diamond’s beloved Montana, so seemingly pristine, so self-endangered on multiple fronts.
He elaborated a bit on his book’s account of the Easter Island collapse, where a society that could build 80-ton statues 33 feet high and drag them 12 miles, and who could navigate the Pacific Ocean to and from the most remote islands in the world, could also cut down their rich rain forest and doom themselves utterly. With no trees left for fishing canoes, the Easter Islanders turned to devouring each other. The appropriate insult to madden a member of a rival clan was, “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth!” The population fell by 90% in a few years, and neither the society nor the island ecology have recovered in the 300 years since.
Diamond reported that his students at UCLA tried to imagine how the guy who cut down the LAST tree in 1680 justified his actions. What did he say? Their candidate quotes: “Fear not. Our advancing technology will solve this problem.” “This is MY tree, MY property! I can do what I want with it.” “Your environmentalist concerns are exaggerated. We need more research.” “Just have faith. God will provide.”
The question everyone asks, Diamond said, is, How can people be so dumb? It’s a crucial question, with a complex answer. He said that sometimes it’s a failure to perceive a problem, especially if it comes on very slowly, like climate change. Often it’s a matter of conflicting interests with no resolution at a higher level than the interests— warring clans, greedy industries. Or there may be a failure to examine and understand the past.
Overall, it’s a failure to think long term. That itself has many causes. One common one is that elites become insulated from the consequences of their actions. Thus the Mayan kings could ignore the soil erosion that was destroying their crops. Thus the American wealthy these days can enjoy private security, private education, and private retirement money. Thus America itself can act like a gated community in relation to the rest of the world, imagining that events in remote Somalia or Afghanistan have nothing to do with us. Isolation, Diamond declared, is never a solution to long-term problems.
I’ll add two items to what Diamond said in his talk. One good sharp question came from Mark Hertzgaard, who asked the speaker if he agreed “with Stewart Brand’s view that the threat of climate change justifies adopting more nuclear power.” To my surprise, Diamond said that he was persuaded by last year’s “Bipartisan Strategy to Meet America’s Energy Challenges” to treat nuclear as one important way to reduce the production of greenhouse gases. (In the commission’s report, the environmentalist co-chair John Holdren wrote: “”Given the risks from climate change and the challenges that face all of the low-carbon and no-carbon supply options, it would be imprudent in the extreme not to try to keep the nuclear option open.”)
While I was driving Jared Diamond back to the El Drisco hotel, we got talking about how to separate the good actors from the bad actors among corporations. He said that third-party validation was absolutely essential. For instance, he studied the exemplary environmental behavior of Chevron in Papua New Guinea and reported on it in “Discover” magazine. As a result of that favorable report, validated by the World Wildlife Fund (where Diamond is a director), Chevron was able to land an immensely valuable contract with Norway, who was demanding environmentally responsible behavior from any oil company it would deal with.
The new term taken seriously in oil and mining corporations, Diamond said, is “social license to operate.” A company must earn that from the public in order to stay in business.
And we the public must do our vigilant part so that “social license” means something.
One reason lots of people don’t want to think long term these days is because technology keeps accelerating so rapidly, we assume the world will become unrecognizable in a few years and then move on to unimaginable. Long-term thinking must be either impossible or irrelevant.
The commonest shorthand term for the runaway acceleration of technology is “the Singularity”—a concept introduced by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge in 1984. The term has been enthusiastically embraced by technology historians, futurists, extropians, and various trans-humanists and post-humanists, who have generated variants such as “the techno-rapture,” “the Spike,” etc.
It takes a science fiction writer to critique a science fiction idea.
Along with being one of America’s leading science fiction writers and technology journalists, Bruce Sterling is a celebrated speaker armed with lethal wit. His books include The Zenith Angle (just out), Hacker Crackdown, Holy Fire, Distraction, Mirrorshades (cyberpunk compendium), Schismatrix, The Difference Engine (with William Gibson), Tomorrow Now, and Islands in the Net.
The Seminar About Long-term Thinking on June 10-11 was Bruce Sterling examining “The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole.” He treated the subject of hyper-acceleration of technology as a genuine threat worth alleviating and as a fond fantasy worth cruel dismemberment.
Stewart Brand, author of Whole Earth Discipline and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, is working on a new project to bring back extinct animals. From the passenger pigeon to the wooly mammoth, Brand explains why and how the project, "Revive and Restore," plans to bring back some extinct species.
On Start the Week Andrew Marr looks into the digital future. Nick Harkaway dismisses fears of a digital dystopia in which distracted people, caught between the real world and the screen world, are under constant surveillance. He believes we need to engage with the computers we have created, and shape our own destiny. Simon Ings is the editor of a new digital magazine, Arc, which uses science fiction to explore and explain what the future might hold for society. While Anab Jain’s design company uses scenarios and prototypes to probe emerging technologies and ideas, from headsets to help the blind to see, to everyday objects with their very own internet connection. And Charles Arthur investigates the battle for dominance of the internet with Apple, Google and Microsoft struggling to stay on top, and asks what that means for the rest of us.
Start The Week sets the cultural agenda for the week ahead, with high-profile guests discussing the ideas behind their work in the fields of art, literature, film, science, history, society and politics.
“About 74,000 years ago,” Lynas began, “a volcanic event nearly wiped out humanity. We were down to just a thousand or so embattled breeding pairs. We’ve made a bit of a comeback since then. We’re over seven billion strong. In half a million years we’ve gone from prodding anthills with sticks to building a worldwide digital communications network. Well done! But… there’s a small problem. In doing this we’ve had to capture between a quarter and a third of the entire photosynthetic production of the planet. We’ve raised the temperature of the Earth system, reduced the alkalinity of the oceans, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, changed the reflectivity of the planet, hugely affected the distribution of freshwater, and killed off many of the species that share the planet with us. Welcome to the Anthropocene, our very uniquely human geological era.”
Some of those global alterations made by humans may be approaching tipping points—-thresholds—-that could destabilize the whole Earth system. Drawing on a landmark paper in Nature in 2009 (“A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” by Johan Rockström et al.) Lynas outlined the nine boundaries we should stay within, starting with three we’ve already crossed. 1. Loss of biodiversity reduces every form of ecological resilience. The boundary is 10 species going extinct per million per year. Currently we lose over 100 species per million per year. 2. Global warming is the most overwhelming boundary. Long-term stability requires 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; we’re currently at 391 ppm and rising fast. “The entire human economy must become carbon neutral by 2050 and carbon negative thereafter.” 3. Nitrogen pollution. With the invention a century ago of the Haber-Bosch process for creating nitrogen fertilizer, we doubled the terrestrial nitrogen cycle. We need to reduce the amount of atmospheric nitrogen we fix per year to 35 million tons; we’re currently at 121 million tons.
Other quantifiable boundaries have yet to be exceeded, but we’re close. 4. Land use. Every bit of natural landscape lost threatens ecosystem services like clean water and air and atmospheric carbon balance. “Already 85% of the Earth’s ice-free land is fragmented or substantially affected by human activity.” The danger point is 15% of land being used for row crops; we’re currently at 12%. 5. Fresh water scarcity. Increasing droughts from global warming will make the problem ever worse. In the world’s rivers, “the blue arteries of the living planet,” there are 800,000 dams with two new large ones built every day. The numeric limit is thought to be 4,000 cubic kilometers of runoff water consumed per year; the current number is 2,600. 6. Ocean acidification from excess atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasingly lethal to ocean life such as coral reefs. The measure here is “aragonite saturation level.” Before the industrial revolution it was 3.44; the limit is 2.75; we’re already down to 2.90. 7. The ozone layer protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation. One man (Thomas Midgley) invented the chlorofluorocarbon coolant that rapidly reduced stratospheric ozone, and one remarkable agreement (Montreal Protocol, 1987) cut back on CFCs and began restoring the ozone layer. (In Dobson units the limit is 276; before Midgley it was 290; we’re now back up to 283.)
Two boundaries are so far unquantifiable. 8. Chemical pollution. Rachel Carson was right. Human toxics are showing up everywhere and causing harm. Coal-fired power plants are one of the worst offenders in this category. (Lynas added that nuclear waste belongs in this category but “the supposedly unsolved problem of nuclear waste hasn’t so far harmed a single living thing.” 9. Atmospheric aerosols—-airborne dust and smoke. It kills hundreds of thousands of people annually, the soot causes ice to melt faster, and everyone wants to get rid of it. But one beneficial effect it has is cooling, so Lynas proposes “we could move this pollution from the troposphere where people have to breathe it up to the stratosphere where it can still cool the Earth and no one has to breathe it. That’s called geoengineering.”
Lynas proposed that the goal for the future should be to get the whole world out of poverty by 2050 while staying within the planetary boundaries. Among the solutions he proposed are: clean cookstoves for the poor (they cause 1.6 million deaths a year); better GM crops for nitrogen efficiency and concentrated land use; integral fast reactors which run on nuclear waste (a recent calculation shows the UK could get 500 years of clean energy from its present waste, and the resulting IFR waste is a problem for 300 years, not for thousands of years); international treaties, which are crucial for dealing with global problems; carbon capture (everything from clean coal to biochar); and ongoing “dematerialization,” doing ever more with ever less, including more intense farming on less land. “Peak consumption,” Lynas noted, has already arrived in much of the developed world.
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