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Member since: Wed Oct 13, 2004, 05:42 PM
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I have some problems with the idea of 'uploading' my 'consciousness' into a computer.....

Start with Douglas Hofstadter's deconstruction of the Star Trek Transporter: His analysis of the transporter is, that it essentially destroys the person who steps into one end and builds a duplicate at the other end. That person thinks he is the original, he has all the original's memories.

But, to carry the thought experiment a step further: Imagine a transporter that doesn't destroy the original; but still transmits the information to build a duplicate. Now you have two people, each of whom believes he is the original.

Hofstadter's premise is that, in the first example, the person being 'transported' dies. Assume you're the person in the transporter beam: the lights go out, your experience ends. Another person starts living who thinks he's you; but, that's literally cold comfort, since you, the experienced you, no longer exists.

I used this analogy to argue against the idea of uploading at a function for the Foresight Institute, which was originally formed for discussion Eric Drexler's ideas on nanotechnology. I argued with a group of 'singulatarians' who very much into the idea. I used Hofstadter's analogy of the transporter to explain that, as far as I can see: If I upload my memories into a computer, that just creates a virtual model of me. If the process destroys the original, then the lights go out for me, fade to black, I'm dead. If the process doesn't destroy the original, then the original 'me' is still 'me,' no matter what the 'other guy' thinks.

To quote Robert A. Heinlein: "I know who I am; but, who are all you zombies?"

As for the idea of a singularity, count me among the skeptics. There are a number of other people skeptical of the idea, including my favorite science fiction writer: Kim Stanley Robinson. In an interview with Wired magazine, Robinson took on the idea of the singularity, among other possibilities for the future:

Robinson: I think it’s a misunderstanding of the brain and of computers, in effect. We are underestimating how complex the brain is and how little we understand it, and we’re overestimating how much computers might have a will or intention. I think the intention will always stay with us, and the machines will be search engines and adding machines — enormously powerful and fast binary, digital things — but they’re not going to do the singularity as I understand it, this notion that machines will take off on their own and leave us behind.

I think it’s some of this what I call MIT-style public relations “futurology,” which is just lame science fiction, where people are asserting that it’s really going to come true. And as a science fiction writer, I find that a little bit offensive, because nobody knows what’s really going to come true, and people who declare it is are instantly putting themselves in the fraud category. They’re claiming more than they can.

Now, to come back to the singularity, I think what’s useful in it is the idea of it as a metaphor; it’s a science fiction metaphor, and even if it will never come true in a literal sense, it might be a good way of talking about the way things feel already. So that I’ve been saying, “Yeah, the singularity, if it ever is going to happen, it actually happened back in 2008, with the financial crash.” Because what happened there, nobody quite understands, and it was a really super-complex system that involves computers, algorithms, laws, habits and traditions, and all of them combined on a global financial system that no one person understood or controlled. So that’s almost like the singularity. Our financial system has actually blown up in our face, and none of us understand it, and yet it does control the world.

If you read much Kim Stanley Robinson, you'll soon see that social justice, as well as ecological themes are major themes in his work. This continues in his latest work 2312, set in a future where human beings are spread across the solar system. The economic system for the autonomous space colonies is called The Mondragon Accord:

Wired: You call this system “the Mondragon Accord.” Is that based on something real?

Robinson: Yes, in the Basque part of Spain there’s a town called Mondragon that runs as a system of nested co-ops — including the bank, which is simply a credit union owned by everybody. So it’s a town of only 50 to 100,000 and they’re all Basques — more or less — and they don’t intend to leave the city, so there are reasons why capitalist economists want to say that it can’t possibly work for all the rest of us, but I’m not so sure. And what I wanted to do is scale it up, and show a Mondragon-style system working amongst all the space colonies in one giant collective of cooperatives.

Read the rest of the interview here: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2012/06/geeks-guide-kim-stanley-robinson/all/

50 Years of NASA's budget vs. 1 year of Pentagon spending

From The Sagan Series Facebook page

Can Elon Musk and SpaceX change the rocket equation and make spaceflight routine?

From the Smithsonian Institute's Air & Space mag online: Is SpaceX changing the rocket equation?

The saga of entrepreneur Elon Musk's attempt to bring down the cost of putting stuff into space actually started with his long-term ambition: Making human beings a multi-planet species. Musk wanted to put a small greenhouse with some seeds and plant-food gel on the surface of Mars. He found contractors who would build a lander for a reasonable cost; but, the cost of launching it to the red planet was prohibitive, whether he was talking to US rocket companies or the Russians.

So, in 2002: "....... enlisting a handful of veteran space engineers, Musk formed Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, with two staggeringly ambitious goals: To make spaceflight routine and affordable, and to make humans a multi-planet species." The key to all this is holding down the cost of launches:

But what really sets SpaceX apart, and has made it a magnet for controversy, are its prices: As advertised on the company’s Web site, a Falcon 9 launch costs an average of $57 million, which works out to less than $2,500 per pound to orbit. That’s significantly less than what other U.S. launch companies typically charge, and even the manufacturer of China’s low-cost Long March rocket (which the U.S. has banned importing) says it cannot beat SpaceX’s pricing. By 2014, the company’s next rocket, the Falcon Heavy, aims to lower the cost to $1,000 per pound. And Musk insists that’s just the beginning. “Our performance will increase and our prices will decline over time,” he writes on SpaceX’s Web site, “as is the case with every other technology.”

Bringing down the cost required a departure from the usual big aerospace way of doing things:

......prices are expected to rise significantly in the next few years, according to defense department officials. Why? Musk says a lot of the answer is in the government’s traditional “cost-plus” contracting system, which ensures that manufacturers make a profit even if they exceed their advertised prices. “If you were sitting at an executive meeting at Boeing and Lockheed and you came up with some brilliant idea to reduce the cost of Atlas or Delta, you’d be fired,” he says. “Because you’ve got to go report to your shareholders why you made less money. So their incentive is to maximize the cost of a vehicle, right up to the threshold of cancellation.”

SpaceX's design philosophy emphasized both innovation and simplicity in design, like the decision to use the same low-cost Merlin engines in all stages of their vehicles. Another secret is an organizational style at odds with traditional aerospace:

But as for SpaceX’s organizational style, it’s Silicon Valley, not NASA, that had the most influence. In Hawthorne, where everyone including Musk works in cubicles instead of offices to encourage communication, the buzzwords of the business culture—lean manufacturing, vertical integration, flat management—are real and fundamental. Says former SpaceX business development director Max Vozoff, “This really is the greatest innovation of SpaceX: It’s bringing the standard practices of every other industry to space.” Having almost all of SpaceX’s engineers under one roof means the process of designing, testing, and improving is greatly streamlined. One NASA manager who visited SpaceX quips that when there is a new problem to solve, “it looks like a flash mob” in the hallway.

I got a look inside the traditional NASA/big aerospace way of doing things on a field trip to the Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, AL during an International Space Development Conference back in the 90s. One of our guides talked about problems with getting International Space Station contractors together for a meeting. You see, to build support for the ISS, congressional supporters had to provide contracts, and therefore jobs, in the home districts of as many supporters as possible. Which meant that NASA had to rent a large auditorium or even a stadium, for a meeting of contractors.

Add in the fact that decisions on design were often made to provide contracts to companies with powerful supporters in Congress, rather than for engineering reasons. Why do you think solid rockets were chosen for the space shuttle boosters despite their safety hazards? Some NASA engineers resigned when they learned that solids were to be used on a crew-carrying vehicle. Read Richard Feynman's comments in the appendix of the Rogers Commission on the Challenger Disaster, especially the paragraphs on solid rockets. Supporters of the solid-fuel rocket company Morton-Thiokol (now ATK Launch System Group) were able to influence NASA to use solids in return for their support for the space shuttle, which was in danger of cancellation several times during the 1970s.

Morton-Thiokol/ATK's supporters were able to successfully resist attempts to replace the SRB's with liquid-fuel boosters after the Challenger tragedy. That same group of powerful congressmen are the major reason that every launcher concept proposed by NASA has used or even been based on a variant of the shuttle's SRB's. That includes the cancelled Ares rocket based on a 'single-stick' version of the shuttle SRB's. A number of aerospace commentators have said that, if the Ares was carrying a crewed Orion space capsule, the crew would have little chance of survival, even with an Apollo-style launch escape system.

All the above, and more, are why a number of space program supporters, including progressives like myself, were happy when President Obama decided to rely on private launch companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation for International Space Station resupply. I would also like to see SpaceX and Orbital Sciences be allowed to bid on contracts for launchers and capsules for future deep-space missions to the lunar L2 point, asteroids and eventually Mars.

NASA does many things very well, as demonstrated by the Curiosity rover mission to Mars, the Kepler planet-finding space telescope and other missions; but, in developing vehicles it's been handicapped by having to work with big aerospace as well as being micro-managed by Congress.

For more information, go to SpaceX's webpage and its Facebook page.

BTW this post is partly in response to a (hopefully) friendly debate with DU colleague Bananas on why I don't support the proposed Space Launch System, and why I'm a supporter of SpaceX's Falcon 9 Heavy. SpaceX has proposed follow-on heavy-lift launchers in the Saturn V class.

Also BTW, we may not necessarily need Saturn-class heavy lift to do manned deep space exploration; but, that's another post.

The generals were obviously trying to provoke the Soviets into a massive retaliation!

This idea of "a survivable nuclear war" has been a recurring theme since the 50s; it arose again during the Reagan / Bush I years, and I think, in a more subtle form in the Project for a New American Century document.

Along with that has been the continuing drive to gain a First Strike Capability by American hawks, always fed by the story that the Soviets were about to gain First Strike capability. One of the leaders of this was Gen. Danny Graham, member of the Team B project in the 70s and 80s. General Daniel O.Graham was also the driving force behind Strategic Defense ('Star Wars'), which still survives as Ballistic Missile Defense.

Graham and company attempted to sell this to the American public as an alternative to the McNamara's Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine. Admittedly, it was a seductive argument to the generations that had lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation for decades. To the Soviets, and to a lot of people in this country, it looked more like an attempt to gain First Strike capability over the Soviet Union.

A backstory of this was Danny Graham's attempt to co-opt the popular pro-space movement built up around the work of Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill of Princeton University. Dr. O'Neill's book: The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space inspired the formation of a popular movement to settle the solar system. I was a member of the largest of the L-5 Society, the largest organization inspired by Gerry O'Neill's work.

Graham began co-opting Dr. O'Neill's work by naming his SDI organization High Frontier Inc.; and naming his book High Frontier.

I was one of the people writing to Graham to complain of the use of a title which had already become synonymous with Gerard K. O'Neill's space settlement concepts.. Graham's reply was that, "A book title cannot be copyrighted" (True!). Somehow, in the process, I ended up buying a copy of Graham's book and video (I did say his argument was seductive!).

A pro-Graham, pro-SDI faction led by science fiction writer, essayist and conservative activist Jerry Pournelle took over leadership of the L-5 Society, attempting to turn it into a vehicle to promote Strategic Defense. L-5 lost a major portion of its membership in the debate that followed. The greatly diminished organization merged with Wernher Von Braun's National Space Institute to form the National Space Society.

The L-5 Society had a local chapter network that was international in scope. The National Space Society soon became the PR arm of the Aerospace Industries Association. Local chapters were allowed; but their voices were muted.

This post got away from me; I really just intended to point out Gen. Graham's role in maintaining the Cold War at a high level, with a constant attempt to build a First Strike capability, which led to his advocacy of Strategic Defense. His destruction of the peaceful, pro-space movement is a subtext to this.

Someday, I need to work up a more coherent post on this. If I could ever discipline myself, it should be a book on the tension between space for peace and space for military conquest.

I still believe that settlement of space is necessary to the long-term survival of the human race.

"The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space--each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision." ---XKCD

Shades of the 'National Aerospace Plane'

Older DUers who were following aerospace news back in the 1980s may remember all the hype about the National Aerospace Plane, (NASP).

This project came out of the ultra-top-secret DARPA 'Copper Canyon' study. President Ronald Reagan announced the NASP program in his 1986 State of the Union Address; it was sold to the American public as the prototype for an "Orient Express" that could reach Tokyo in two hours and, as a single-stage-to-orbit replacement for the Space Shuttle.

A lot of people in the pro-space movement, including the National Space Society (of which I was a member) bought into the hype. Others were not so easily convinced: An aerospace craft that could reach near-orbital speeds (Mach 20-25) in the atmosphere would undergo incredible heating (1800-3000 deg F). Insulating tile like those on the shuttle only work when the heat load is relatively brief; insulation only slows the progress of heat to the aerospace craft's skin. In prolonged hypersonic flight, the problem would be heat soak; heat would have time to reach the skin of the craft. So, an active cooling system would be needed, along with a new generation of refractory (heat-heat) resistant materials. An active cooling system would probably be one that passed fuel (liquid hydrogen in most designs) under the skin to carry away heat.

An active cooling system would add weight to the vehicle. There was also the issue that scramjet engines, ramjets that can operate at hypersonic speeds, don't even begin to work until they're moving at about Mach 6 or greater. That meant the NASP would have to have two or three propulsion systems: One for takeoff to about Mach 3, another to work in the realm from Mach 3 to Mach 6, and the scramjet from Mach 6 upward. I might add that air-breathing engines are heavier than rockets.

The weight of the active cooling systems and the multiple propulsion systems would largely negate the advantage that airbreather systems seemed to promise.

The National Aerospace Plane project was finally terminated in 1993. A few years later, in 1996, aerospace writer G. Harry Stine announced that the National Aerospace Plane project had been a cover for a military project to develop hypersonic flight! Nothing ever flew except unmanned test vehicles, like the Waverider.

So we lost a number of years when we could have been working on a practical successor to the Space Shuttle, probably a two-stage, completely reusable vehicle.

As for hypersonic flight becoming commercially feasible in any foreseeable future, I would point to the Anglo-French Concorde. Between its first flight in 1976 and its retirement in 2003, the Concorde was a consistent money loser; it was only flown by airlines like British Airways and Air France that were subsidized by their respective governments. Even the British and France haven't been tempted to invest in a Concorde II (The US supersonic transport program was wisely terminated early in the 1970s).

The reasons for the Concorde's lack of commercial success and the reason hypersonic flight isn't likely to be commercially viable, are two fold: 1) Cost of fuel, or the laws of economics meet the laws of aerodynamics. Somewhere around Mach 1.8, the energy needed to overcome drag starts increasing rapidly. 2) Cost of maintenance: Airlines prefer a robust vehicle that doesn't break the bank in terms of maintenance labor or material cost. Supersonic and hypersonic aircraft would require exotic, expensive materials and many more man-hours of maintenance by highly skilled workers.

The reasons given above are largely the reason modern aircraft don't fly appreciably faster than the original Boeing 707 in the late 50s. Most of the design studies conducted by NASA and big aerospace are aimed at reducing fuel consumption, not achieving supersonic or hypersonic speeds.

Dork Tower comic comments on Curiosity and media coverage

Insightful? I'd say so!

Edited to add: I got the link to this toon from Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog. Dork Tower is a British web comic for geeks. Yes, they do have geeks in the UK, just like us Yanks!

The speech from the right has become 'ELIMINATIONIST'

Wikipedia's definition of eliminationism:

Eliminationism is the belief that one's political opponents are "a cancer on the body politic that must be excised — either by separation from the public at large, through censorship or by outright extermination — in order to protect the purity of the nation".

The term was coined by American political scientist Daniel Goldhagen in his 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners in which he posits that ordinary Germans not only knew about, but also supported, the Holocaust because of a unique and virulent "eliminationist antisemitism" in the German identity, which had developed in the preceding centuries.

Goldhagen maintains that eliminationism has been the cause of every mass killing in the 20th and 21st centuries.

AlterNet contributor David Sirota commented on the eliminationism inherent in Glenn Beck's vile rhetoric: Glenn Beck Finally Admitted His Great Desire: To 'Eradicate' Progressives:

To wild applause, he labeled this alleged tumor of "community" the supposedly evil "progressivism" -- and he told disciples to "eradicate it" from the nation.

The lesson was eminently clear, coming in no less than the keynote address to one of America's most important political conventions. Beck taught us that a once-principled conservative movement of reasoned activists has turned into a mob -- one that does not engage in civilized battles of ideas. Instead, these torch-carriers, gun-brandishers and tea partiers follow an anti-government terrorist attack by cheering a demagogue's demand for the physical annihilation of those with whom he disagrees -- namely anyone, but particularly progressives, who value "community."

Author David Niewert has blogged on the subject at Crooks and Liars, among other places. He's also the author of: Eliminationism: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.

From a review:

The Eliminationists describes the malignant influence of right-wing hate talk on the American conservative movement. Tracing much of this vitriol to the dank corners of the para-fascist right, award-winning reporter David Neiwert documents persistent ideas and rhetoric that champion the elimination of opposition groups. As a result of this hateful discourse, Neiwert argues, the broader conservative movement has metastasized into something not truly conservative, but decidedly right-wing and potentially dangerous.

By tapping into the eliminationism latent in the American psyche, the mainstream conservative movement has emboldened groups that have inhabited the fringes of the far right for decades. With the Obama victory, their voices may once again raise the specter of deadly domestic terrorism that characterized the far Right in the 1990s. How well Americans face this challenge will depend on how strongly we repudiate the politics of hate and repair the damage it has wrought.

Is OWS making billionaires paranoid?

Are they making them paranoid enough? There's an interesting posting in NYmag: The Other Barbarians at the Gate with an interview with real-estate mogul Jeff Greene. Greene seems to think his billionaire neighbors should be paranoid:

It’s strange to imagine someone like Greene, who counts Mike Tyson as a close friend, and who has a streak that caused the L.A. party girls to refer to him as “Mean Jeff Greene,” feeling vulnerable. It’s hard to think of any superrich person as vulnerable, just as it’s hard to think that a bear with outstretched claws and giant teeth is more afraid than you are. But over the past few months, it’s become clear that rich people are very, very afraid. Sometimes it feels like this was the main accomplishment of Occupy Wall Street: a whole lot of tightened sphincters. It’s not a stretch to say many residents of Park Avenue harbor vivid fears of a populist revolt like the one seen in The Dark Knight Rises, in which they cower miserably under their sideboards while ragged hordes plunder the silver.

“This is my fear, and it’s a real, legitimate fear,” Greene says, revving up the engine. “You have this huge, huge class of people who are impoverished. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we will build a class of poor people that will take over this country, and the country will not look like what it does today. It will be a different economy, rights, all that stuff will be different.”

More often than not, fears like these manifest as loathing for the current administration, as evidenced by the recent wave of Romney fund-raisers in the Hamptons. “Obama wants to take my money and give it to do-nothing animals,” one matron blurted at a recent party at the Pierre for Dick Morris’s Screwed!, the latest entry into a growing pile of socioeconomic snuff porn geared toward this audience.

I love that line about "socioeconomic snuff porn!"

Greene, a registered Democrat, isn’t buying this school of thought. “It is kind of a problem in America that so many Americans believe if they elect a different president, everything is going to be fine. This whole idea of American exceptionalism, that we’re the greatest, when people don’t have health insurance, don’t have housing,” he says, swinging past the guesthouse, which has 360-degree views of the bay, and the staff house, which does not. “There are all these people in this country who are just not participating in the American Dream at all,” he says. This makes him uncomfortable, not least because they might try to take a piece of his. “Right now, for some bizarre reason, a lot of these people are supporting Republicans who want to cut taxes on the wealthy,” he says. “At some point, if we keep doing this, their numbers are going to keep swelling, it won’t be an Obama or a Romney. It will be a ­Hollande. A Chávez.”

This reminds me of an excerpt from an old history text on the young nation of America's response to the French Revolution: The author spoke of aristocrats in the US "fingering their white throats" while reading news from France. Yeah, I went to college a long time ago, and they were allowed to print things like this.

Read the rest of the article at: http://nymag.com/news/business/themoney/jeff-greene-2012-8/

The increase in life expectancy in the US has just about flattened out!

In some low-income areas of the US the trend is actually negative! In much of the rest of the US, it was only from 0 to 2.5 years increase in the 20 years from 1987 to 2007.

Fifty Shades of Capitalism: Pain and Bondage in the American Workplace

AlterNet author Lynn Parramore is using the blockbuster BDSM fantasy blockbuster: Fifty Shades of Grey as a model for a discussion of the reality of capitalism in the 21st Century].

If the ghost of Ayn Rand were to suddenly manifest in your local bookstore, the Dominatrix of Capitalism would certainly get a thrill thumbing through the pages of E.L. James’ blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey.

Great opening paragraph, picturing the bitch-goddess of the Free Market as a dominatrix. Maybe that gives us a window into the fantasy world of some of Rand's followers, like Paul Ryan. Ms. Parramore gives a brief synopsis of the novel, then launches into the essentially sadistic nature of 'late-stage capitalism:'

This has been coming for some time. Ever since the Reagan era, from the factory to the office tower, the American workplace has been morphing for many into a tightly-managed torture chamber of exploitation and domination. Bosses strut about making stupid commands. Employees trapped by ridiculous bureaucratic procedures censor themselves for fear of getting a pink slip. Inefficiencies are everywhere. Bad management and draconian policies prop up the system of command and control where the boss is God and the workers are so many expendable units in the great capitalist machine. The iron handmaidens of high unemployment and economic inequality keep the show going.

Parramore blames the free-market economists still dominating the Ivy Leagues schools, the "Very Serious People," as Paul Krugman labels them. These Very Serious People have loads of statistical models replete with charts and graphs; but no mention of the effect their policies are having on workers. There are exceptions:

Michael Perelman, one of a small group of heretical economists that questions this anti-human regime, draws attention to the neglect, abuse and domination of workers in his aptly named book, The Invisible Handcuffs: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers. He reveals that instead of a system of fair exchanges, we have “one in which the interests of employees and employers are sharply at odds.” This creates conditions of festering conflict and employers who have to take ever-stronger measures to exert control. Hostility among workers thrives, which results in more punishment. Respect, the free flow of information, inclusive decision-making – all the things that would make for a productive work environment -- fly out the window. The word of the manager is the law, and endless time and energy is expended rationalizing its essential goodness.


Naked domination was not always the law of the land. In the early 1960s, when unions were stronger and the New Deal’s commitment to full employment still meant something, a worker subjected to abuse could bargain with his employer or simply walk. Not so today. The high unemployment sustained by the Federal Reserve’s corporate-focused obsession with “fighting inflation” (code for "keeping down wages" works out well for the sado-capitalist. The unrelenting attack on government blocks large-scale public works programs that might rebalance the scale by putting people back on the job. The assault on collective bargaining robs the worker of any recourse to unfair conditions. Meanwhile, the tsunami of money in politics drowns the democratic system of rule by the people. And the redistribution of wealth toward the top ensures that most of us are scrapping too hard for our daily bread to fight for anything better. The corporate media cheer.

Partners engage in bondage / discipline play willingly for mutual pleasure; workers submit to their 'invisible handcuffs' only because a decade or more of recessions followed by 'jobless recoveries' has left them with few alternatives. However, a growing undercurrent of rage permeates the American workplace. Ms. Parramore uses the popularity of revenge films like Nine to Five and Horrible Bosses as examples of how close this rage is to the surface.

Fifty Shades of Capitalism: Pain and Bondage in the American Workplace is part of a new AlterNet series: "Capitalism Unmasked," in the AlterNet Economy section.
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