Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Curse of Bad Governance Hangs Over Earth Like a Shroud

Australia's Finance News Network recently interviewed Jim Rogers by teleconference from his home in Singapore. Rogers' insights into the sad underpinnings of the ongoing global economic crisis are useful for anyone who is making short, medium, and long-term plans.

First Rogers explains his pessimistic outlook for the US and Europe, then he moves to Asia:

Lelde Smits: You say Asia will suffer, do you see signs this suffering has already begun?

Jim Rogers: Oh of course it has. If you look at China, China’s already got problems they have inflation. They’re doing their best to calm things down in China, wisely in my view, and then China’s been hit of course with the slowdown in America and Europe. So no, everybody in Asia is slowing down.

Lelde Smits: And what about Chinese property prices. The latest government data from 70 Chinese cities shows the average price of Chinese property has fallen for the second straight month. Do you believe Chinese property is in a bubble and are we witnessing the bust?

Jim Rogers: Some parts of the Chinese real estate market have been in a bubble. Certainly urban coastal real estate in China was in a bubble - that bubble has popped. How far down it has to go, I don’t have a clue. Probably a lot further because usually when bubbles pop, a lot of people get hurt. But it’s not like in the US where in the US, people are buying four or five houses with no job, no down-payment. You know, and then the banks were taking the mortgages and jigging them up even more. China didn’t have that kind of problem. You’re going to see real estate developers go bankrupt in China - no question about that. But it’s not going to be the end of the Chinese economy as it was in the US, the UK, Spain and a few other places.

Lelde Smits: OK Jim, so we’ve spoken about US and European debt, and a potential Chinese slowdown. How do you see global markets reacting in 2012?

Jim Rogers: Well I’m not optimistic for the most part about stock markets. I don’t own many stocks anywhere in the world. The only offset of the caveat for me is the fact that there is an election in the US, in Spain – sorry in France, a few other places. So whenever there are elections coming governments spend, spend, spend they throw money out the window to buy votes. So some people are going to be much better off in 2012. Is it enough to offset the world’s problems? I don’t think so, except in some sectors which will benefit.

So for myself, I’m short stocks around the world, I’m short American technology stocks, I’m short emerging market stocks and I’m short European stocks.

Lelde Smits: And what else are you buying Jim and why?

Jim Rogers: Well I own commodities, because if the world economy gets better Lelde, then commodities will do well because of the shortages. The lucky countries will continue to be lucky for a while. I own some currencies, which I mentioned, I’m worried about currency markets. I’m short stocks. I mentioned the things I’m short. So I anticipate problems in stock markets. If the world economy doesn’t get better, you’re not going to make money in stocks. But then central banks will print more money and when they print money Lelde, the thing to do is to own real assets. _FNN

Rogers can afford to live almost anywhere on the planet, and he has chosen Singapore. He states that his reason for choosing that location is so that his children can learn to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese, away from a polluted environment such as one might find in Beijing or Shanghai.

I suspect that Rogers is not being entirely truthful here, since he does not want to earn the enmity of the CCP government in China. Nevertheless, a person tends to vote with his feet and with his bank balances, and Rogers is likely to be particularly honest in those cases.

The western nations which comprise modern western civilisation continue to innovate in the scientific and technological areas. This innovation is dependent upon the underlying financial productivity of these nations.

In other words, the scientific and technological promise of the future is warring against the political realities of today, in order to come to reality. Keep that in mind when making your plans. And always watch what the "smart money" is doing.

All governments are corrupt, all ideologies are false, and everything you think you know just ain't so. Other than that, the way ahead is relatively straightforward.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Novel Approach to Architecture Without an Architect: How to Seed the Universe in Preparation for the Human Epoch

The initial key to a successful out-migration of humans into the solar system and the larger universe, is to develop the ability to prepare the ground ahead of human colonists. When human settlers arrive on Luna, Mars, Titan, and other potential colonies, they should find working habitats and vital infrastructure waiting for them.

Here are a few basic ideas on complex systems and autopoetic self-organisation which will likely form the foundation for more advanced techniques of seeding complex systems in hostile environments. The slides come from Rene Doursat, who lectures at Ecole Polytechnique and specialises in complex systems and morphogenetic engineering.
Complex systems and networks possess some interesting properties which distinguish them from most human-made systems and networks. It is the goal of morphogenetic engineers such as Rene Doursat, to learn to incorporate many of the more desirable properties of complex systems into systems which could be co-created by humans.
Complex systems can arise on multiple levels, all the way from subatomic particles up to the very universe itself. These systems tend to be decentralised, emerging from a more disordered substrate by the means of self-organising principles.
The individual agents vary between complex systems, depending upon the level on which they operate. Low level complex systems can act as agents themselves, of higher level complex systems.
Complex systems can display an intricate and highly functional architecture -- without having had the "benefit" of an intelligent architect. This self-organising architecture of complex systems acts as an inspiration for possible architectures of future complex systems which might be evolved and co-created for use by humans.

Such novel complex systems could serve to allow the survival and prospering of humans in locations which would ordinarily not support such complex animals which evolved in a much more suitable location (Earth) for their needs. In other words, the "seeds" of human-enabling complex systems could be delivered to hostile -- but strategically important -- locations, where they will proceed to build human-friendly micro-environments, habitats, and infrastructures.
Such intricate yet robust systems would necessarily need to be evolved and grown in a self-organised fashion, using the materials on hand. And yet these "system seeds" must be designed to serve their specialised function.

Naturally, there is the opposite approach which must be considered: A re-designed human animal more suited for the hostile environments likely to be met in space and on other space bodies.

Rene Doursat has looked at biological design (PDF) in ways which might be applied to such a project, in the future.

Such concepts can be applied to biological bodies AND biological brains, as well. In fact, the functioning of the human brain itself is a good example of decentralisation, emergence, and self-organisation -- a prototypical complex network.

So while human designs up until now have tended to possess rather simple and straightforward architectures, at the same time humans are capable of comprehending the nature of complex, evolved systems. The idea of incorporating the properties of complex systems into human designs is not so far-fetched, perhaps in part because of the way our brains work.

The understanding and harnessing of complex systems to human purposes, is a grand project. It is worth spending a good deal of time on, in the future.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Los Alamos Scientists Mimic Neuron Function to Help Computers to See More Clearly

The brain has an uncanny ability to detect and identify certain things, even if they’re barely visible. Now the challenge is to get computers to do the same thing. And programming the computer to process the information laterally, like the brain does, might be a step in the right direction.

...“This model is biologically inspired and relies on leveraging lateral connections between neurons in the same layer of a model of the human visual system,” said Vadas Gintautas of Chatham University in Pittsburgh and formerly a researcher at Los Alamos.

Neuroscientists have characterized neurons in the primate visual cortex that appear to underlie object recognition, noted senior author Garrett Kenyon of Los Alamos. “These neurons, located in the inferotemporal cortex, can be strongly activated when particular objects are visible, regardless of how far away the objects are or how the objects are posed, a phenomenon referred to as viewpoint invariance.” _HPCwire
The scientists want to create computer models of human vision that are capable of picking out complex objects from a cluttered visual field, and do it as well as humans -- except faster.
To quantify the temporal dynamics underlying visual processing, we performed speed-of-sight psychophysical experiments that required subjects to detect closed contours (amoebas) spanning a range of shapes, sizes and positions, whose smoothness could be adjusted parametrically by varying the number of radial frequencies (with randomly chosen amplitudes). To better approximate natural viewing conditions, in which target objects usually appear against noisy backgrounds and both foreground and background objects consist of similar low-level visual features, our amoeba/no-amoeba task required amoeba targets to be distinguished from locally indistinguishable open contour fragments (clutter). For amoeba targets consisting of only a few radial frequencies (), human subjects were able to perform at close to accuracy after seeing target/distractor image pairs for less than 200 ms, consistent with a number of studies showing that the recognition of unambiguous targets typically requires 150-250 ms to reach asymptotic performance [22], [23], [35], here likely aided by the high intrinsic saliency of closed shapes relative to open shapes [7]. Because mean inter-saccade intervals are also in the range of 250 ms [34], speed-of-sight studies indicate that unambiguous targets in most natural images can be recognized in a single glance. Similarly, we found that closed contours of low to moderate complexity readily “pop out” against background clutter, implying that such radial frequency patterns are processed in parallel, presumably by intrinsic cortical circuitry optimized for automatically extracting smooth, closed contours. As saccadic eye movements were unlikely to play a significant role for such brief presentations, it is unclear to what extent attentional mechanisms are relevant to the speed-of-sight amoeba/no-amoeba task.

Our results further indicate that subjects perform no better than chance at SOAs shorter than approximately 20 ms. _PLoS
The PLos link above allows access to the entire study.

These findings provide additional insight into the unconscious nature of neural processing, previously touched on in the previous posting here.

Researchers are attempting to take these profound insights and use them for devising computer models which simulate various unconscious brain functions. It will not be an easy task, but by approaching the problem in a system by system manner, limited success is quite possible within a reasonable time frame.

If computers ever learn to "see" and distinguish objects within complex and dynamically changing fields, as well or better than humans, there will be a number of profitable applications waiting.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Ascendancy of the Unconscious Mind

Scientists are beginning to zero in on the different types of unconscious brain activity which underlie and inform ordinary conscious awareness. From mathematics to music to visual awareness to moods, our unconscious minds form the foundation and framework for whatever our conscious minds choose to build.

We have looked at Daniel Kahneman's theories of the fast mind (intuitive, automatic, unconscious) and the slow mind (conscious, deliberative) and discovered that although we cannot live without our fast intuitive minds, we cannot altogether trust them either. Regardless, since we are stuck with this mode of cognition, we had best set about understanding it as well as we can.
Today the domain of the unconscious—described more generally in the realm of cognitive neuroscience as any processing that does not give rise to conscious awareness—is routinely studied in hundreds of laboratories using objective psychophysical techniques amenable to statistical analysis. Let me tell you about two experiments that reveal some of the capabilities of the unconscious mind. Both depend on “masking,” as it is called in the jargon, or hiding things from view. Subjects look but don’t see.

Unconscious Arithmetic
The first experiment is a collaboration among Filip Van Opstal of Ghent University in Belgium, Floris P. de Lange of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and Stanislas Dehaene of the Coll├Ęge de France in Paris. Dehaene, director of the INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, is best known for his investigations of the brain mechanisms underlying counting and numbers. Here he explored the extent to which a simple sum or an average can be computed outside the pale of consciousness. Adding 7, 3, 5 and 8 is widely assumed to be a quintessential serial process that requires consciousness. Van Opstal and his colleagues proved the opposite in an indirect but clever and powerful way...

...What’s Wrong with this Picture?
Liad Mudrik and Dominique Lamy of Tel Aviv University and Assaf Breska and Leon Y. Deouell of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem set out to test the extent to which the unconscious can integrate all the information in any one picture into a unified and coherent visual experience. Giulio Tononi and I had proposed in the last Consciousness Redux column [September/October 2011] that the ability to rapidly integrate all the disparate elements within a scene and place them into context is one of the hallmarks of consciousness.

The Israeli researchers used “continuous flash suppression,” a powerful masking technique, to render images invisible. A series of rapidly changing, randomly colored patterns was flashed into one eye while a photograph of a person carrying out some task was slowly faded into the other eye. For a few seconds, the picture is completely invisible, and the subject can see only the colored shapes. Because the images become progressively stronger, eventually they will break through, and the subject will see them. It is like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility fading with time and revealing what is underneath... _More at SciAm
The above short SciAm description of the two lines of research, should serve as a teaser for those interested in how the brain works. Here is more information from researchers themselves:

Von Opstal et al Rapid Parallel Semantic Processing of Numbers Without Awareness (Abs)

Full PDF article Von Opstal, Dehaene, De Lange

Integration Without Awareness: Expanding the Limits of Unconscious Processing (PDF) Mudrik, Lamy, et al

More publications from Lamy's lab

George Alvarez: Representing Multiple Objects as an Ensemble Enhances Visual Cognition (PDF) How unconscious ensemble coding helps us effortlessly keep track of multiple objects.

It is only by understanding both our strengths and our weaknesses that we can plot our path through life's challenges and obstacles. In many ways, our intuitive and automatic unconscious minds are both a strength and a weakness.

Certainly if we do not put in the effort to understand our own minds, eventually someone else will. And they are not as likely to have our best interests at heart.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Accelerating Convergence of Hand-Held Technologies


We are accustomed to using our hand held devices for media play, reading, web search and email, telephoning, as still and video cameras, playing games, etc. But hand held electronics devices can provide a wide range of functions that are more serious. The oscilloscope device pictured above is a serious instrument useful for both hobbyists and researchers. Hand held iOS devices can also be used as scientific microscopes, EEG imaging devices, neurofeedback devices, and for a wide range of other instrumentation uses.
Let me start out by stating that this doesn’t actually compare to the high-end models as far as sampling and bandwidth. You won’t use the iMSO-104 for extremely high-speed, GHz-frequency signal applications. Honestly, for home maker use, I don’t see this being an issue for a long time. Oscium provided a scope for my review and before it even arrived I thought of my list of features to look for and try out. So what were some of the things that I was looking for in using the scope? First, being based on an iOS device, I was looking for a simple and navigable interface. Check. The scope plots zoom just as you would expect with the common iOS finger pinches and spreads. The traces are easy to drag up and down as you would expect as are the measurement cursors. Measurement cursors! That was another item! In the video linked above, Collin shows how you can make measurements on an old CRT scope using the time per division and volts per division selection and visual cues. On some of the digital scopes I have used, you could bring up a cursor that would give you the time or voltage between the points. This scope includes those cursors and if you know what I am talking about it is just as easy to use and intuitive as you think. If you don’t: trust me, it is very intuitive.

The Oscium scope can also do all of those things you would expect from any scope: triggering, running measurements, the ability to freeze the display, screen shot, data capture, e-mail, and configuration saving. The unit supports a single analog probe and four digital probes, all included in the kit. You can run all five inputs at one time or select any combination to show. _Wired
The imagination is the limiting factor, as for most human activities. What is the app for that?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Daniel Kahneman's Hard-Won Insights on Thinking

Daniel Kahneman is a retired psychologist in his late 70's, who as a boy was forced to hide out in a chicken coop to survive Hitler, and who grew up to win the Nobel Prize in economics. His latest book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," was meant as something of a parting shot to the world, from a man who has experienced the best and the worst of it, and through it all had come to understand his species better than most. And still, understanding himself will always be beyond him.

This is not a book review -- there are dozens available on the web that focus on various aspects of Kahneman's book. It is not a summary of the book -- Google Books' preview of Thinking, Fast and Slow is your best bet for that. This is a short look at the key idea that apparently summarises Kahneman's thinking and life's work, and what that idea means for modern, between-level humans and their quest to find themselves, find the truth, and have it all.

Regular readers of Al Fin will have seen Kahneman's basic idea in various forms: The human brain does most of its work unconsciously and automatically. It requires work to maintain the focus and attention of the conscious mind to learn something new, but once it is learned it tends to revert to the automaticity of the subconscious. In other words, we are capable of conscious, deliberate, and painstakingly logical thought. But usually we flow with the river of unconsciousness, automatically.

Kahneman's claim to fame -- which helped him win his Nobel prize -- is to expose how error-prone our intuitive and automatic thinking is, and why. He exposed this perilously "false intuition" in a number of different areas of "expertise." The reason a psychologist won a Nobel Prize in economics, for example, is because Kahneman and Tversky revealed the "illusion of expertise and certainty" utilised by experts when making economic and investing decisions. But the delusion is operative in every area of human action.

The reason human intuition can go so badly wrong despite the strong certainty felt by the individual, is that the intuition uses a faulty source of information, according to Kahneman. The intuition relies upon "whatever comes to mind most easily," or whatever is salient in memory. For those who are consumers of the mass media, the most salient thing in memory is whatever the masters of the media decide to put on the menu. For those who are card carrying members of one devout orthodoxy or another, the salient thing is whatever they are soaking their minds in. Singers in echo choirs are particularly prone to the tyranny of the salient idea, which is reinforced with every chorus that is sung.

You may be thinking that Kahneman is warning against self-delusion, telling you to be careful not to fall into thinking traps or bogs of false belief. No. He is telling you that you cannot help but fall into the traps, bogs, and quagmires -- it is in your nature, and mine. And he does a better job of explaining why that is the case than most anyone else could do, in everyday language.

If you absorb the basic idea, and carry it far enough forward, it will be easy to understand why all ideology is false. It will also be easy to understand why you can never find yourself -- and what the very idea of finding yourself has in common with catching your own shadow when the light is constantly changing directions and intensity.

Previously published at Al Fin blog

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

When Will We Develop a Human Superbrain?

Pharmacological enhancers of cognition promise a bright new future for humankind: more focus, more willpower, and better memory, with applications ranging from education to military combat. Underlying such promises is a linear, more-is-better vision of cognition that makes intuitive sense. This vision is at odds, however, with our understanding of cognition’s evolutionary origins. The mind has evolved under various constraints and consequently represents a delicate balance among these constraints. Evidence of the trade-offs that have shaped cognition include (a) inverted U-shaped performance curves commonly found in response to pharmacological interventions and (b) unintended side effects of enhancement on other traits. Taking an evolutionary perspective, we frame the above two sets of findings in terms of within-task (exemplified by optimal-control problems) and between-task (associated with a gain/loss asymmetry) trade-offs, respectively. With this framework, psychological science can provide much-needed guidance to enhancement development, a field that still lacks a theoretical foundation. _Thomas Hills
The above is the abstract from a recent paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, titled: Why Aren’t We Smarter Already: Evolutionary Trade-Offs and Cognitive Enhancements. The authors suggest that we are not likely to develop enhanced intelligence for humans anytime soon, for a variety of reasons. More:
Just as there are evolutionary tradeoffs for physical traits, Hills says, there are tradeoffs for intelligence. A baby’s brain size is thought to be limited by, among other things, the size of the mother’s pelvis; bigger brains could mean more deaths in childbirth, and the pelvis can’t change substantially without changing the way we stand and walk.

Drugs like Ritalin and amphetamines help people pay better attention. But they often only help people with lower baseline abilities; people who don’t have trouble paying attention in the first place can actually perform worse when they take attention-enhancing drugs. That suggests there is some kind of upper limit to how much people can or should pay attention. “This makes sense if you think about a focused task like driving,” Hills says, “where you have to pay attention, but to the right things—which may be changing all the time. If your attention is focused on a shiny billboard or changing the channel on the radio, you’re going to have problems.”

It may seem like a good thing to have a better memory, but people with excessively vivid memories have a difficult life. “Memory is a double-edged sword,” Hills says. In post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, a person can’t stop remembering some awful episode. “If something bad happens, you want to be able to forget it, to move on.”

Even increasing general intelligence can cause problems. Hills and Hertwig cite a study of Ashkenazi Jews, who have an average IQ much higher than the general European population. This is apparently because of evolutionary selection for intelligence in the last 2,000 years. But, at the same time, Ashkenazi Jews have been plagued by inherited diseases like Tay-Sachs disease that affect the nervous system. It may be that the increase in brain power has caused an increase in disease.

Given all of these tradeoffs that emerge when you make people better at thinking, Hills says, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a supermind. “If you have a specific task that requires more memory or more speed or more accuracy or whatever, then you could potentially take an enhancer that increases your capacity for that task,” he says. “But it would be wrong to think that this is going to improve your abilities all across the board.” _MedXpress
Very disappointing, if true. But is it possible that the authors overlooked something? After all, a few million years ago, chimpanzee psychologists and philosophers must have been thinking and saying much the same about the prospects for superior chimp brains, yes?

But in fact, a chimpanzee superbrain did develop, which we call the "human brain."
Despite the minute genetic differences between human brains and their primate relatives, Homo sapiens cognitive ability is significantly more advanced, enabling us to “make complicated tools, come up with complicated culture and colonize the world,” said lead author Mehmet Somel, a postdoc studying human evolutionary genomics at the University of California, Berkeley. Because humans spend more than a decade developing into adults and learning, far more than the two or three years of chimpanzee adolescence, researchers have long suspected that developmental genes are involved in human brain evolution. “And the idea that brain gene expression profiles might be different between species was proposed 40 years ago,” Somel added. _Scientist
We are just beginning to learn the genetic and epigenetic specifics which led to the divergence of the human brain from the brain of the common ape ancestor. Fascinating changes in the details of gene expression in the brain created a whole new level of cognitive functioning. There is no reason to doubt that similar genetic and epigenetic changes could lead to even newer and higher levels of cognition.

The human brain has borrowed various hacks and kludges from brain and nerve evolution all the way back down the evolutionary tree. Some of these hacks and kludges are potentially limiting in terms of other, concurrent hacks and kludges that might otherwise be utilised. But there are potential hacks and kludges which might replace the limiting hacks, and some of these potential hacks might very well allow an entire train of further, enhancing hacks to follow.

That is a possibility that most mainstream psychologists and philosophers fail to understand -- generally because they have adopted groupthink as their modus operandi. This is a common failure of academics from the inbred world of the university culture. Perhaps that is why so many of the world-changing visionaries and billionaires of our day have been high school and college dropouts. They escaped before their brains could be gelded.

There are a number of ways in which we might approach the human superbrain. Simple pharmacologic cognitive enhancers, such as stimulants, are not likely to provide the broad spectrum enhancement we will need. But there are a number of prosthetic enhancements for the human brain which would give us near quasi-superbrain status, over time. Certainly the things that humans can do when empowered by modern computing and telecommunications tools would astound most humans of past eras.

But what we really want, are superbrains that continue working even if the power goes out or the batteries run down. For that, we will need genetic and epigenetic change. So how can we go about inducing these genetic changes without running into the problems that so many highly intelligent persons and breeding groups have run into?

That will be a topic of future articles.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Understanding Network Threat to Industrial Infrastructures

SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) generally refers to industrial control systems (ICS): computer systems that monitor and control industrial, infrastructure, or facility-based processes, as described below:
Industrial processes include those of manufacturing, production, power generation, fabrication, and refining, and may run in continuous, batch, repetitive, or discrete modes.
Infrastructure processes may be public or private, and include water treatment and distribution, wastewater collection and treatment, oil and gas pipelines, electrical power transmission and distribution, wind farms, civil defense siren systems, and large communication systems.
Facility processes occur both in public facilities and private ones, including buildings, airports, ships, and space stations. They monitor and control HVAC, access, and energy consumption. _Wikipedia SCADA

SCADA YouTube Tutorial

SCADA systems control large sections of modern industrial infrastructures, and are often connected to the public internet. This makes them susceptible to hackers, some of whom would like nothing better than to hold a city or a corporation hostage, via its water or power supply etc. Even worse, in case of international hostilities, a foreign powers may threaten an opponent's vital infrastructure as a routine part of negotiations over trade treaties, economic pacts, or cooperation agreements.
A SCADA sends instructions to shopfloor machines like pumps, valves, robot arms and motors. But such systems have moved from communicating over closed networks to a far cheaper conduit: the public internet. This can give hackers a way in. Eric Luiijf of TNO Defence and his colleagues found a litany of insecure "architectural errors" in the waterworks' SCADA networks (International Journal of Critical Infrastructure Protection, DOI: 10.1016/j.ijcip.2011.08.002).

Some firms did not separate their office and SCADA networks, allowing office hardware failures, virus infections and even high data traffic to potentially "bring down all SCADA operations". While remote internet access to SCADAs is supposed to be possible only with strict security controls, the researchers found this was often not the case. And some water firms allowed third party contract engineers to connect laptops to their SCADA network with no proof they were running up-to-date antivirus software.

This was compounded by news of the hack at the Texas water plant, where on 20 November a hacker named "prof" gained access to the plant's systems using a three-character default password on an internet-accessed SCADA made by Siemens of Germany. "No damage was done to any machinery; I don't really like mindless vandalism. It's stupid and silly. On the other hand, so is connecting your SCADA machinery to the internet," he wrote on the Pastebin website.

One of PRECYSE's main approaches to securing systems will be "whitelisting", a way of ensuring only authorised users obtain access. This is the opposite of the approach used by antivirus software. "Instead of hunting for malicious code, as in an antivirus blacklist, this only lets the known good guys connect," says security engineer Sakir Sezer at Queens University Belfast in the UK. Unusual behaviour - such as attempting to extract the control codes used to drive equipment - would also mean access is blocked. Deep-packet inspection, normally used to spot copyrighted material on the net, could be harnessed to ensure no attack code is injected.

But it won't be easy. "The biggest risk we face is that of denying the legitimate user access to their SCADA because something in the security setup has changed," says Sezer. "You don't want to create a denial of service attack against yourself."

The systems have other enemies, too. The Stuxnet worm, which attacked Siemens SCADAs in Iran's uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz, wrecked 400 machines. Duqu, a relative of Stuxnet spread in Word files, is currently probing SCADA networks seeking out control instructions.

The battle for the safety of our utilities has only just begun. _NewScientist
The stealthier that a hacker can be when infiltrating an industrial or civic infrastructure, the more deniable is the attack.

Smart industries and cities will begin designing redundant backup systems. They will also look into economical and reliable ways of taking their vital infrastructures off the public networks. Unfortunately, we are entering the age of the Idiocracy, when political correctness, affirmative action, and a faux egalitarianism are all more important than a secure foundation for building a better future.

In other words, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Importance of a Citizenry Possessing Practical Skills

For decades, the emphasis in US secondary education has been to prepare every student for college. As a result, dropout rates have soared, too many incapable HS graduates are attending college (and dropping out with huge debts), and vocational and technical skills have languished and US industry has found it difficult to field a skilled workforce.
The National Association of Manufacturers found that 81 percent of the manufacturing companies surveyed reported that they were facing a moderate to severe shortage of qualified workers; 53 percent of manufacturers reported that at least 10 percent of their total positions where unfilled simply because they were unable to find people with the skills to do the jobs. Part of the story was the general tightness in the labor market around 2005. Fully 39 percent of the companies were having trouble hiring enough unskilled workers. But the real problem was finding skilled tradesmen—electricians, glaziers, cement masons, sheet-metal workers, and the like. Of the manufacturers surveyed, 90 percent reported that they could not find enough skilled workers to fill their needs.

The trend is seen throughout the skilled trades. Case in point: welding. A study by the American Welding Society and the Edison Welding Institute reports that in 2000, there were 594,000 welders working in America. By 2005, that number had dropped to 576,000. By 2009, according to the Department of Labor, the number was 358,000. The average age of a welder today is in the mid-50s. In 2006, 50,000 welders retired, but fewer than 25,000 new welders entered the field. Those trends have continued diverging, resulting in a current shortage of almost 200,000 welders.

A big part of the problem—as the case of welders shows—is simple demographics. Baby Boomers are heading into retirement. By 2020, the number of people over 55 will increase by 73 percent, while the number of younger workers will increase by only 25 percent. This squeeze will leave America with a shortfall of 10 million skilled workers by 2012. And the squeeze only gets tighter. Some 70 million Baby Boomers will exit the labor force over the next 18 years, but only 40 million workers will enter it.

Another aspect of the problem is educational. Vocational education, once a staple of American secondary schools, seems to have undergone a general decline for decades. Take the state of California, for example. Prior to 1980, nearly every public high school in the state offered a comprehensive industrial arts program. By the late 1990s, according to the California Industrial and Technology Education Association, 75 percent of these programs were gone. What happened? As guidance counselors and administrators focused relentlessly on college admissions, the industrial arts became an afterthought. When shop class teachers retired, they were never replaced. Once the teachers were gone, the specialized classrooms were converted to weight training rooms, study halls, or computer labs. _Much more at Philanthropy

Intel's Andy Grove has some very strong feelings about this topic as well, and aims to do something about it:
Can you tell me about your efforts to make vocational or school-to-career education more available and more attractive?
MR. GROVE: We fund scholarships for students at community colleges and in other vocational programs. The value of the scholarships ranges from $500 to $5,000 per year, depending on the type of training and needs of the student. The people for whom we provide support are not those who intend to transfer to four-year universities. Rather, we are funding scholarships for those students who intend to enter a career immediately upon completion of their studies. Our program has changed over time but we have been giving these kinds of scholarships for more than a decade, and have typically given more than 100 scholarships per year. _Andy Grove Interview
Not as much as is needed, but it helps.

This profile of a 2 year vocational boarding school in Pennsylvania gives an idea of how dedicated some remarkable men are to the concept of American vocational training.

A society must have an ample complement of persons with practical and technical skills, or it will slowly collapse from neglect of its infrastructure. This is what has happened to some extent, in many otherwise affluent (or formerly affluent) parts of the US. Shortsighted planners, educators, politicians, and bureaucrats have shortchanged practical training in exchange for more politically correct funding policies which pleased more feminised political power groups.

While vocational programs are primarily oriented toward men -- who are the ones primarily interested in vocational skills -- the political power structure has become far more oriented toward the needs of women, at the expense of men. And so society as a whole tends to suffer from the neglect of a key part of its essential human infrastructure. And the repercussions reverberate throughout society.

More on this topic later.

We Are Marching to Utopia! A Holiday Encore

...optimists and idealists -- with their ignorance about the truths of human nature and human society, and their naive hopes about what can be changed -- have wrought havoc for centuries....instead of utopian efforts to reform human society or human nature, we [should] focus on the only reform that we can truly master -- the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts. _OUP Review of "Uses of Pessimism"
Sure as I know anything, I know this - they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. _Captain Malcolm Reynolds
There is something deep in human nature which has resisted change -- despite the best efforts of crusaders, utopians, religionists, and wishful thinkers -- for many [tens of?] thousands of years. After countless failures to reform the human spirit, most utopians are unfazed. If they can only grab enough power and control over how resources are distributed, they are sure that they can bring perfection to the land, under their own benevolent leadership. "The land will heal, the sea levels will begin to subside, and every man will say to every other man, you are my brother." And so on.

Philosopher Roger Scruton -- author of The Uses of Pessimism -- takes a somewhat more reluctant view:
The belief that humanity makes moral progress depends upon a wilful ignorance of history. It also depends upon a wilful ignorance of oneself – a refusal to recognise the extent to which selfishness and calculation reside in the heart even of our most generous emotions, awaiting their chance. Those who invest their hopes in the moral improvement of humankind are therefore in a precarious position: at any moment the veil of illusion might be swept away, revealing the bare truth of the human condition. Either they defend themselves against this possibility with artful intellectual ploys, or they give way, in the moment of truth, to a paroxysm of disappointment and misanthropy. Both of these do violence to our nature. The first condemns us to the life of unreason; the second to the life of contempt.

...In order to see human beings as they are, therefore, and to school oneself in the art of loving them, it is necessary to apply a dose of pessimism to all one’s plans and aspirations. _GloomMerchant
In another piece, Scruton presents a paradoxical recommendation for how to teach children to think for themselves, logically and clearly:
...children are drawn to magic...they spontaneously animate their world with spirits and spells...they find relief and excitement in stories in which the heroes can summon supernatural forces to their aid and vanquish untold enemies – these facts reflect layers of deep settlement in the human psyche. But they also remind us that, in the life of the child, belief and imagination are not to be clearly distinguished, and that both serve other functions than the pursuit of truth.

...humanists should wake up to this point, and be careful when they seek to deprive their children of enchantment, or to replace their spontaneous fantasies with the cold hard facts of empirical science. It could well be that religion is a better discipline than pop science, when it comes to shaping the rational intellect, and that [we can offer our] children more in the way of a solid foundation, by anchoring their imagination in sacred stories and religious doctrines, than they are likely to be offered by those “Darwinian fairy tales’” as David Stove has called them, which have gained such currency in the wake of Dawkins and Hitchens.

In response to a child’s metaphysical curiosity grown-ups can say that everything has a scientific explanation. But they will know that this is a lie. The proposition that everything has a scientific explanation does not have a scientific explanation – it describes an amazing fact about our universe, a point where reasoning falls silent. There are many such points, as anyone who has children knows: why is there anything? Why should I be good? What existed before the Big Bang? What is consciousness? You can wrestle with these questions through philosophy, but science won’t answer them.

Children have an inkling of this. They also recognise that behind these questions lies a huge void – an emptiness which must be filled with love and reassurance, if their existence is not to seem like an accident. _Art_of_Certainty
Utopians try so hard to purge their children's minds of falsehood and "error", to create the perfect children of rational thought, capable of seeing through all the corrupt fables of the past. Except...children will be who they will be. You cannot make boys into girls or girls into boys without destroying who they are. And you cannot make humans into angels without ruining the essence of what they are. And still the utopians continue to try -- until they finally throw their hands up in complete exasperation at and condemnation of the utter evil of those who do not think along the same lines as themselves, the utopians.
The disgusted dismissal of homo rapiens and all his works that we find spelled out by John Gray in Straw Dogs is not a form of pessimism. It is an attempt to dismiss humanity entirely, as a kind of plague on the face of the earth. That kind of misanthropic nihilism is of no use to us. It removes the ground from all our values, and puts nothing in their place. _GloomMerchant
At that point, they often begin to plot and fantasize the great dieoff, to cleanse the otherwise pristine Earth of the incorrigible human demons who infest the lands and oceans. Fortunately, utopians are as incompetent in planning the great dieoff as they are in most other aspects of their lives.

The point is not to resist all change or improvement of humans. But any lasting change for the better is likely to happen from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Nothing illustrates the different approaches to a better world than the contrast between the French and American revolutions of the late 19th century.
The primary difference in causes that led to the American Revolution and the French Revolution was based in the world view of the innate goodness or innate evil of man. _Hyperhistory
Not all utopians believe in the innate goodness of men -- sometimes they only believe in the innate perfectibility of men. But utopias born of such ideas all come to a bitter end.

Every child has to learn to think for himself, from the beginning. But he must have a beginning from which to start.
The need for foundations is quite clearly an adaptation, and these foundations must provide the promise of protection and love, if they are to fit the new organism for its brief time in the world. If that is so, you are not going to eliminate the need for faith: the best you can do is to withhold all objects of faith, so that a child goes hungry into the life to which he or she is destined. More often than not, a humanist education will leave a child exposed to massive and mind-clogging superstitions of the Harry Potter and Star Wars kind. But these superstitions contain far less in the way of insight than is contained in the first chapter of Genesis.

Religious stories are also the result of natural selection – though selection at another level: they have come down to us because they have fulfilled a moral need. They have survived refutation because they contain, beneath their superficial falsehood, the moral truths that people need, when they must order their lives by good examples. _The Art of Certainty
This is true not only of religious stories, but of all the mythology and lasting moral fables from antiquity. Children must have some kind of foundation that transcends deductive logic, because that is how minds begin. Then, later, when they choose to either reshape or reaffirm their beliefs, they will have a sense of having decided for themselves, and feel stronger for it.

Yes, humans can make choices that make them better. Improved nutrition of mother and child can make humans stronger, smarter, taller, and sometimes capable of clearer thought. But a power structure that attempts to legislate morality, to engineer the moral and ideological purity of the human souls of its citizens -- that power structure is morally bankrupt, and deserves to die quickly. If it is allowed to continue, its leaders will eventually decide that the recalcitrant citizens do not deserve the benefit of the leaders' great wisdom. Then, beware.

This question has been acquiring an ever greater urgency over the past century -- even longer. It is now coming to a head in the demographic and economic crises of many of the world's most advanced nations. A culture that has rested on its own laurels, that has comforted itself with mental images of its own progressive improvement, is soon to be reawakened to a coarse and unruly history.

Originally published at Al Fin blog. Subsequently posted here at Al Fin the Next Level on 16 July 2010, it is being re-published here in honour of the coming 2011 - 2012 holiday season in the hopes that readers will face the future with an optimism built upon a solid foundation of gritty realism and competent preparation.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Spy: Surveillance Scales to Miniature

The new generation of spies tend to be on the small side. Some of the new, advanced mobile "bugging" devices actually are bugs: insect cyborgs to be more precise.

Professor Khalil Najafi, the chair of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka are finding ways to harvest energy from insects, and take the utility of the miniature cyborgs to the next level.

"Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack," Najafi said. "We could then send these 'bugged' bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go." _SD
These tiny, stealthy spies can retrieve information from places you would never dream of sending one of your human agents. And the process of miniaturisation has just begun.
Image Source
Above you see a type of wasp known as the "fairy fly." It is smaller than an amoeba, and roughly the size of a paramecium. Imagine such a mini-wasp outfitted with a full kit of spy equipment. Where could such a tiny spy not go?

Well, of course your cyborg insects would be vulnerable to insecticide. Which is one reason why you would want to pursue research into non-cyborg miniature spy machines. But evolution has a long head-start on artificial nano-machine makers. There is a great deal which we must learn before we are able to mimic living miniature machines in terms of functionality.

The new generation of miniature machine makers will have to learn from nature, rather than to attempt the enterprise from scratch. Even Eric Drexler has been forced to move away from his early "diamondoid architecture" in pursuit of more proven nano-machine materials.

As for the concept of nano-spies, expect it to take off. Literally. An upcoming 2012 space mission aims to launch 4 nano-satellites. And that is only the beginning.

Expect invisible spies to surround you wherever you go -- whether at sea, on land, in space, or underground. Some living, some pure machine, some half machine and half animal. It is a new era, in which it becomes more difficult to remain invisible.

Consider your counter-measures. And consider stocking up on insecticides and advanced insect repellants. Your privacy may depend upon it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Wilderness Videos of Two of the Last Rough Men

Dick Proenneke http://www.talkingcircletv.com/flash/videos/DickProenecke.swf (via Evenfall Woodworks)

Dick Proenneke learned many practical skills during his childhood in Idaho, his time in the Navy, his schooling as a diesel mechanic, his work on a sheep ranch in Oregon, and his life as a skilled mechanic and salmon fisherman in Kodiak and King Salmon, Alaska. He put those practical skills to good use in the 30 years he lived alone in the Twin Lakes, Alaska, wilderness.

Dick Proenneke Alone in the Wilderness

Dick Proenneke Alone in the Wilderness Part II

Dick Proenneke The Frozen North

This video documents a week in the life of Heimo and Edna Korth. Heimo Korth is "The Final Frontiersman." He and his wife Edna are the last legal full time residents of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They move between three cabins every year, so as not to deplete the game as they trap and hunt for a living. (more here)

It is interesting to draw parallels between the lives of Richard Proenneke and Heimo Korth. Both moved far away from civilisation, deep into the Alaskan Wilderness. Both men thrived in the wild, despite the many hardships and challenges.

While Proenneke chose the solitary life, and Korth chose to raise a family in the far North, both men chose to challenge themselves to the utmost.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Coevolution of Species: Microbes and Vertebrates (Including Humans)

...in the June 13, 1997, issue of Science [a report] by Frederico J. Gueiros-Filho and Stephen M. Beverley of Harvard describes the "Trans-kingdom Transposition" of a gene-size piece of DNA known as a transposable element (19). The particular transposable element they studied, called mariner, has already been found in planaria, nematodes, centipedes, many insects, and humans (20). Until recently, transposable elements were considered to be functionless, or "junk DNA." But John McDonald, a professor in the department of genetics at the University of Georgia, concludes, "It now appears that at least some transposable elements may be essential to the organisms in which they reside. Even more interesting is the growing likelihood that transposable elements have played an essential role in the evolution of higher organisms, including humans" (21).

... viruses could easily provide a way for new genes never before encountered by a species to become part of its genome. That viruses install new genes into their hosts is not speculative — it is a well known fact. That transferred genes are important in evolution is becoming well established. _Panspermia

Bacteria and parasites also play roles in evolution and speciation. This trans-species gene transfer phenomenon is easiest to see in bacteria :: bacteriophage interations, but has also been seen in vertebrates, with evidence of having occurred in humans.

Such evolutionary interactions between humans and microbes is not likely to have ended. The particularly high infection and infestation rates in tropical parts of the globe suggest that intense evolutionary pressures are being applied. The extremely high STD infection rates among particular population groups suggests that the interaction between genes, behaviour, and evolution is more complex than generally admitted.

Each individual human is actually a vast interacting colony of microbial and microscopic creatures. We have only barely begun to understand all the gene transfers and transformations which are occurring continuously.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fusion Energy: The Big and the Small

The general principle behind fusion is relatively simple. If you can fuse together lightweight atoms, you can create a heavier atom plus lots of energy. The trick becomes that in order for the atoms to fuse together, enough energy needs to be provided to heat atoms into the range of 150 million degrees (Celsius). _Thomasnet

Los Alamos National Lab

The current approaches to large scale fusion power have not been successful. Neither the large tokamak approach -- magnetically confined plasmas -- nor the laser inertial confinement approach as practised by Lawrence Livermore Lab, have provided significant returns for all the money that has been spent on them.

That is why the Los Alamos National Labs are trying a different approach, magnetised target fusion:
“We built a plasma injector, and they built a can-crusher, and you put the plasma into that aluminum canister, and then you crush the aluminum can, with the huge current produced by the capacitor bank,” Wurden began.

“”You put 11 million amps of current, and that produces a big magnetic field on the outside; that crushes the can very smoothly and uniformly.

“We put a magnetic field inside the can, we then inject the plasma from the magnetic field into the can; if the plasma’s in there and you do it right; we crush it by a factor of 10.”

Wurden then explained how the process works further.

“If you take a can from 10 centimeters in diameter to 1 centimeter of diameter; when you change the area by a factor of 100, the magnetic field in the can gets 100 times stronger than it was. This gives you a magnetic field of 5 million Gauss; and we have that plasma supported by this incredibly large magnetic field.

“We can hold the plasma together for 1/millionth of a second, at this incredible density and incredible temperature; we take the energy of motion in the can.
We’ve merged the technology of crushing a can, fast and smooth, with the plasma injector we have.”

Wurden, who has been working on fusion since 1977, said that the Magnetized Target Fusion approach is something in between the strictly magnetic fields approach, and the inertial compression approach used at the Livermore Lab in California. _Thomasnet
More from Los Alamos Labs:
MTF is intermediate between magnetic confinement and inertial confinement fusion (ICF) in time and density scales. In contrast to direct, hydrodynamic compression of initially ambient-temperature fuel (e.g., ICF), MTF involves two steps: (1) formation of a warm (e.g., 100 eV), magnetized (e.g., 100 kG), wall-confined "target" plasma prior to implosion; (2) subsequent quasi-adiabatic compression by an imploding pusher, such as a magnetically driven imploding liner. In many ways, MTF can be considered a marriage between the traditional magnetic and inertial confinement approaches, which potentially eliminates some of the pitfalls of either. In particular, MTF requires simpler, smaller, and considerably less expensive systems than either magnetic confinement or inertial confinement ("laser") fusion. The instabilities which plague traditional approaches to fusion are potentially mitigated in MTF due to wall confinement, shockless acceleration and relatively low velocity (e.g 1 cm/m sec) of the pusher, and low required convergence ratios (e.g., 10:1). Similar to inertial confinement fusion (ICF), MTF relies on an implosion to compress a DT fuel to ignition conditions. Yet, also similar to magnetic fusion energy (MFE), MTF relies on a magnetic field to reduce the thermal diffusion of energy to the walls of a chamber. _LANL MTF
The LANL article goes on to describe the benefits obtained from their "hybrid" approach to fusion. But even with all the benefits of MTF, the researchers do not actually expect to achieve reliable fusion for at least 50 years.

That is where small fusion approaches come in: By trying so many different things, there is always the chance that one of the small fusion startups might create a winning technology. Here is a picture gallery of small fusion startups, borrowed from Al Fin Energy blog:
Bussard IEC Fusion

Bussard inertial electrostatic confinement fusion (EMC2 Fusion) involves an electrostatic plasma confinement to achieve fusion. The history and development of the concept is explained in a video reached via the link above. The Bussard IEC has been financed almost entirely by the US Navy. EMC2 is based near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Dense Plasma Focus Fusion

Lawrenceville Plasma Physics is based in New Jersey. The dense plasma focus approach uses a special pulsing "spark plug" to ionise a gas, and to form a plasmoid "pinch," with the emission of high energy photons, ions, and fusion neutrons.

Hyper V Technologies utilises a spherical array of mini railguns to accelerate plasma beams into a central target of deuterium or deuterium-tritium, to achieve fusion (hopefully).

TriAlpha is an Irvine, California venture, which has been fairly successful in the venture capital game. TriAlpha is a bit secretive with non-investors, but you can read their patent for yourselves. The concept seems to involve the highly sophisticated evolution from an earlier colliding beam fusion approach.
General Fusion

General Fusion is a small startup headquartered near Vancouver, BC. The compression of plasma to achieve fusion is accomplished by a coordinated spherical plasma compression, using pneumatics and advanced switching.

Helion Energy is located in Redmond, Washington. It is based on a principle of "colliding plasmas," and like all the rest of the small fusion approaches, it is a long shot.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Brave New World of Unlimited Food and Fuels c/o Craig Venter

Microbes will be the (human) food- and fuel-makers of the future, if J. Craig Venter has his way. The man responsible for one of the original sequences of the human genome as well as the team that brought you the first living cell running on human-made DNA now hopes to harness algae to make everything humanity needs. All it takes is a little genomic engineering.

"Nothing new has to be invented. We just have to combine [genes] in a way that nature has not done before. We're speeding up evolution by billions of years," Venter told an energy conference on October 18 at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. "It's hard to imagine a part of humanity not substantially impacted." _SciAm

La Jolla Algal Growth Facility Synthetic Genomics

Craig Venter wants to tweak algae and other microbes, so that humans can get most of their food, fuel, chemicals, plastics, medicines, and other high value items from microbial production. It is a matter of understanding the language of biology to a depth never before mastered. It is a difficult goal. But the payoff is almost inconceivably large.
Given algae's multibillion-year track record with photosynthesis and genetic experimentation Agradis's purpose is to turn that genetic cornucopia into improvements in agricultural crops, whether corn or canola—as well as use algae as a model for testing various new genetic combinations. A similar partnership between Monsanto and algae company Sapphire Energy will "use our algae platform that we developed to mine for genes that can transfer into their core agricultural products," explained Tim Zenk, Sapphire's vice president for corporate affairs in a prior interview with Scientific American. "When you do genetic screening in algae, you get hundreds of millions of traits in the screen and that accelerates the chances of finding something that can be transferred."

If that's not enough, Venter sees a role for synthetic biology in food beyond crops and livestock—specifically the growing hunger for meat around the world. "It takes 10 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, 15 liters of water to get one kilogram of beef, and those cows produce a lot of methane," another potent greenhouse gas, Venter observed. "Why not get rid of the cows?" The replacement: meat grown in a test tube from microbes thanks to synthetic biology.

...look at the potential output from algae, and it's one to two orders of magnitude better than the best agricultural system. If we were trying to make liquid transportation fuels to replace all transportation fuels in the U.S. and you try and do that from corn it would take a facility three times the size of the continental U.S. If you try to do it from algae, it's a facility roughly the size of the state of Maryland. One is doable and the other's just absurd, but we don't have an algae lobby.

...We need three major ingredients: CO2, sunlight and seawater, aside from having the facility and refinery to convert all those things. We're looking at sites around the world that have the major ingredients. It helps if it's near a major refinery because that limits shipping distances. Moving billions of gallons of hydrocarbons around is expensive. But refineries are also a good source of concentrated CO2.

It's the integration of the entire process. [Synthetic Genomics] is not trying to become a fuel company. You won't see SGI gas stations out there, we're leaving that to ExxonMobil. We will help them shift the source of hydrocarbons to material recycled from CO2. _SciAm

Venter takes the "food vs. fuels" debate and turns it on its head: Why not make both, using the same type of platform?

A scientist at the University of Maastricht is not waiting for Venter's breakthroughs before beginning to grow meat in the lab. Mark Post is a vascular biologist at the university, who is in the process of growing multiple thin slices of meat which he plans to glue together with fatty substance. Such an approach would allow for a wide variety of programmed nutritional content -- perhaps food that is personalised to one's needs.
'Cultured meat' begins with stem cells harvested from slaughterhouse leftovers.

Dr Post nurtures the cells with a liquid feed containing sugars, protein building-blocks, fats, minerals and other nutrients.

So far he has produced strips of meat 2.5cm long. Like muscle, these need to be exercised to grow - by stretching them repeatedly between Velcro tabs.

"The first one will be a proof of concept, just to show it's possible," he said.

Dr Post argues that an alternative to livestock farming is needed to satisfy the world's growing hunger for meat.

Animals need to be fed 100g of vegetable protein to make 15g of muscle.

"Current livestock meat production is just not sustainable. Not from an ecological point of view, and neither from a volume point of view.

"Right now we are using more than 50% of all our agricultural land for livestock." _Sky.news

Most journalists, energy analysts, policy makers, and academics have no concept of the biological potential of the planet Earth. Having fed their intuitions and imaginations on a steady diet of scarcity, they are at a loss in the larger world of actual possibilities.

But don't let the shortcomings of your overlords and masters in the media, government, and academia keep you from understanding the world as it is and as it could be. There is a whole new level of thought and existence coming. We simply need to survive until it gets here.

In the meantime: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Adapted from an Al Fin blog article.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

News From the World of Nuclear Fusion

A major upgrade to the DIII-D tokamak fusion reactor operated by General Atomics in San Diego will enable it to develop fusion plasmas that can burn indefinitely. Researchers installed a movable, 30-ton particle-beam heating system that drives electric current over a broad cross section of the magnetically confined plasma inside the reactor's vacuum vessel. Precise aiming of this beamline allows scientists to vary the spatial distribution of the plasma current to maintain optimal conditions for sustaining the high temperature plasmas needed for fusion energy production. _Eurekalert

Image Credit

Physicists in San Diego have removed a stumbling block to sustained plasma fusion in tokamak reactors. This development should allow plasma fusion specialists to move ahead in their quest for essentially infinite energy.
The so-called "H-mode" where turbulence ceases and a tokamak becomes much more efficient was discovered as long ago as the 1980s, but working out how to make it happen - and keep happening, sometimes a tokamak will flick in and out of H-mode hundreds of times a second - has been difficult.

... The problem was that, until work began in San Diego, nobody really understood how and when turbulence ceased as surface flow built up. But Dr Lothar Schmitz and his crew are pleased to report that their method of using microwave radar guns - not dissimilar to police speed guns aimed into the torus using focusing mirrors - has given them a good handle on what's going on.

"We found that the turbulent eddies on the surface of the plasma produced surface flows that eventually grow large enough to shred the eddies, turning off the turbulence," says Schmitz. "Much like the population of predators and prey find a balance in the wild, we find that the plasma flow and the plasma turbulence reach an equilibrium in the tokamak plasma." _Register

Alan Boyle provides a nice overview on the state of the art of various approaches to fusion, including laser ignition, magnetic confinement, and assorted other types

Brian Westenhaus looks at news from the Bussard IEC fusion front

Gamma ray laser fusion technology has even been novelised recently by a Los Alamos scientist

Ecatnews.net covers the unpredicatble developments in "cold fusion" or LENR -- low energy nuclear reactions

And Brian Wang's Nextbigfuture provides nice overall coverage of most large energy topics

The field of fusion is long past due for significant breakthroughs. When they begin coming, they may arrive too quickly to assimilate at once.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What Would the Emergence of A New Human Species Look Like?

What if a new species of human emerged, with larger brains and higher neuron counts than the average human possesses? Would this new species have an advantage over regular homo sapiens sapiens? It depends upon whether the excess neurons were well integrated with the rest of the brain, and added additional functionality or thinking power. For this exercise you are encouraged to suspend judgment, and assume semi-whimsicality.

Consider a modern day example of a group of people with brains of higher neuron count:
The brains of boys with autism were heavier and contained two-thirds more neurons than similarly aged males without the disorder, according to a new, post-mortem analysis.

The study, while small, suggests that brain overgrowth may be occurring in the womb, according to the findings published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers examined the brains of seven autistic boys, age two to 16, most of which died from drowning. The 16-year-old's cause of death was undetermined and one eight-year-old died of muscle cancer.

When they compared them to a control group of six boys without autism who died in accidents, they found that the brains of autistic boys had 67% more neurons in the prefrontal cortex and were nearly 18% heavier than normal brain weight for age. _Cosmos
In conditions such as autism, the extra brain neurons do not typically provide a competitive advantage, and may represent a malfunctioning "pruning" mechanism of excess neurons sometime after birth.

Consider homo neandertalis, otherwise known as the neanderthal: At birth, the brains of neanderthals were of comparable size as the brains of modern humans. But by adulthood, the brains of neanderthals were larger.

Consider that new anthropological data places modern humans in Europe at a much earlier time than previously believed, allowing roughly 15,000 years of coexistence between homo sapiens sapiens and homo neandertalis in Europe. Over that time period, mating between sapiens and neandertal becomes somewhat likely.

Scientists believe that sapiens and neandertal did indeed interbreed. They further believe that neandertal dna persists in all modern humans except Africans. And these neandertal genes may even play an important role in sapiens' immune systems.

But what else are these neandertal genes doing? In fact, human genetics is still at such an infantile stage that geneticists have very little idea what effect neandertal genes have on the modern human phenotype. Could some rare neandertal genetic or epigenetic sequences play a role in the postnatal neuronal pruning of human brains? Could autistic brains with higher neuron counts indicate the influence of neandertal "gene ghosts" influencing the bodies of modern human children?

Or are these larger brains in some autistic children a sign of a new species trying to emerge?

If there is no advantage to the trait, it is not likely to go anywhere, evolutionarily speaking. But if the excess neurons were able to somehow integrate and add functionality and power to the brains of these autistics, an advantage might well exist in a modern society where food is plentiful and meeting mental challenges were more important to fitness than meeting physical challenges.

Am I Sirius? No, Sirius is a star, and I am but a mere human, and a whimsical one at that. The idea is to allow your mind to make associations, both narrow and wide. They can always be pruned down later. Unless, of course, your brain is autistic.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Farming the Desert: Pulling Water from the Air via Airdrop


Australian Ed Linacre has devised a way of farming the drylands down under. He calls his device the "Airdrop," and it has won him a James Dyson Award. He has installed the first device in his mother's backyard.
Airdrop consists of a mast-like tube with a wind-powered turbine that sucks air down into a coiled metal pipe. The air descends under the earth and cools until it hits 100% humidity and the water starts to drip out. Linacre installed one in his mother’s back yard in Australia and it pulled out a liter of water in a day.

The units also have storage tanks, from where they pump out the water into underground irrigation systems.

The units are small, can be self installed and are easy to repair while still in the ground. Linacre sees farmers installing fleets of them in fields, where they could sit and water the plants with no human help. The pumps are even solar-powered, a great idea in deserts. _Wired
With efficient mass production, such units should prove relatively inexpensive. The concept is simple, but it isn't yet clear where the best niches for the device might be.

The more humidity in the air, the more moisture that can be condensed out. But the greatest need for such devices would seem to be in dry, low humidity areas, without economical irrigation. There are large areas of arid land globally which are relatively close to large bodies of water. Such places tend to experience regular moist sea breezes or fogs, suggesting that Linacre's device might work efficiently there.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Evolving New Species of Humans

...one of [Enriquez'] most revolutionary ideas, which he discuses in the book New Human Species, is the expected evolution of a new hominid species in near future. The homo evolutis, which he said he speculates will be the most adapted hominid, endowed with tremendous mental capabilities, he said, “Twenty thousand species have gone around and become extinct,” Enriquez said. “I believe that we’re going to move into a homo evolutis, and our grandchildren will begin to live it.”

What will set apart this hominid from us, he said, is what he labeled “the ultimate reboot.”

“This hominid could take direct control of his species, this species and other species, and that of course, would be the ultimate reboot,” he said. _globalist
Evolution of Man

Juan Enriquez is an author visionary of life technologies, and a venture capitalist. He founded Harvard Business School's Life Sciences Project, and has worked with Craig Venter on a number of projects. So when Juan Enriquez says that humans are evolving a new species, he is likely to have good reason for saying so.
What does it take to make a new species?

We're beginning to see that it's an accumulation of small changes. Scientists have recently been able to compare the genomes of Neandertals and modern humans, which reveals just a .004 percent difference. Most of those changes lie in genes involved in sperm, testes, smell, and skin.

Engineering microbes alone might speciate us. When you apply sequencing technology to the microbes inhabiting the human body, it turns out to be fascinating. All of us are symbionts; we have 1,000 times more microbial cells in our bodies than human cells. You couldn't possible digest or live without the microbial cells inside your stomach. Some people have microbes that are better at absorbing calories. Diabetics have a slightly sweeter skin, which changes the microbial fauna and makes it harder for them to cauterize wounds

One concern about human enhancement is that only some people will have access, creating an even greater economic divide. Do you think this will be the case?

In the industrial revolution, it took a lifetime to build enough industry to double the wealth of a country. In the knowledge revolution, you can build billion-dollar companies with 20 people very quickly. The implication is that you can double the wealth of a country very quickly. In Korea in 1975, people had one-fifth of the income of Mexicans, and today they have five times more. Even the poorest places can generate wealth quickly. You see this in Bangalore, China. On the flip side, you can also become irrelevant very quickly.

Scientists are on the verge of sequencing 10,000 human genomes. You point out this might highlight significant variation among our species, and that this requires some ethical consideration. Why?

The issue of [genetic variation] is a really uncomfortable question, one that for good reason, we have been avoiding since the 1930s and '40s. A lot of the research behind the eugenics movement came out of elite universities in the U.S. It was disastrously misapplied. But you do have to ask, if there are fundamental differences in species like dogs and horses and birds, is it true that there are no significant differences between humans? We are going to have an answer to that question very quickly. If we do, we need to think through an ethical, moral framework to think about questions that go way beyond science. _TechnologyReview_Juan Enriquez

The video above gives you an idea of how Enriquez expresses his ideas to the public, and reveals some of the things that he thinks about.

His ideas about the evolution of a new human species -- and the great need for humans to face the important genetic differences between different populations of humans -- sets him apart from ivory tower academics, politicians, and media skanks. In his day job, he has to think clearly and make good decisions -- unlike academics, politicians, and journalists, who rarely have to pay for their own mistaken thought processes.

When a venture capitalist makes decisions involving large sums of money, he cannot afford to wallow in political correctness, affirmative action, groupthink, or other modern dysfunctional aberrations of thought. He must be honest with himself and with his backers. In this case, it is likely that Enriquez is being honest with the public, based upon his intimate association with advanced biotechnological projects.

But something that not even Enriquez may be willing to say publicly, is that not all humans population groups will evolve in what is seen as a favourable direction. New genes are evolving and affecting the human brain, but not all population groups are sharing equally in the benefits of these changes.

The evolutionary history of Ashkenazi Jews is a useful, small-scale illustration of what is happening. These Jews of European descent possess the highest average IQ of any distinct population group known. This difference can be seen in terms of accomplishment at the highest levels of science, math, and other areas of scholarship and life achievement. This group has paid a price for this advantage, in terms of inherited disease. But for the group as a whole, the tradeoff appears to have been worth it.

As humans get better at tweaking the genome and epigenome, they should learn better how to acquire more of the advantages of superior adaptation without too many of the disadvantages. Then slowly, but surely, perhaps over dozens, or even hundreds of years, new human species will diverge from older human species.

To many people, this idea of diverging coexisting human species is a new one. To others, not so much. Anyone who has deliberated over the difference between the accomplishments of Australian aboriginals and the descendants of the English transportees to Australia, must have considered the possibility of divergent evolution.

As Enriquez points out, it is critical for humans at this juncture in time to be honest about our broad genetic heritage -- and what this breadth means in terms of aptitudes and behaviours. And what it means for our future selves.

Previously published on Al Fin blog and subsequently published at Al Fin Potpourri