You Want Science? I Got Yer Science Right Here!

At least some people are looking ahead, looking deep, and looking out to space. First, we get NASA:

NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

And then courtesy Yale astronomer Pieter van Dokkum:

A new study suggests that a specific kind of galaxy might hold 10 times more red dwarf stars than estimated. That would triple projections for the number of stars in the observable universe, with implications for explanations of how stars and galaxies form and evolve.

Life doesn’t require all six of the building blocks we thought. The very term ‘life’ takes on new meaning. And there might be three times as many star systems in the universe than we thought – and many times that of possible  life-supporting planets, with our now vastly expanded definition of life.

Science is pretty cool when we actually do it.

Two Steps Back

Do you get the feeling that we’re slowing down? I mean that in the entropic sense, that humanity may have gone as far as it can and is now contracting. Look at how far we’ve come since the year 1910 – two world wars and all the carnage and technological progress they produced, rocketry and space exploration (we put a man on the moon), the rise of computing, Moore’s Law, all the conveniences of modern life. And yet, where are the big breakthroughs?

John Horgan recently wrote in Scientific American about “scientific regress,” fields of science that are not just slowing down as a result of diminishing returns, but that are actually retreating from their own discoveries. Infectious disease is back, including some that were on the brink of eradication. The Concorde, fastest commercial jet in history, was entirely scrapped, and there are no plans to replace it. Even science itself has come under fire – evolution has shifted from common knowledge to a disputable “theory.”

Research and technologies without ‘practical’ application never get off the ground. Hence the hole in the ground that could have been America’s own Large Hadron Collider. Who knows what CERN’s will discover? Alexander Fleming was just studying some bacteria. He ‘invented’ penicillin. Or consider the Vela satellites used to detect nuclear explosions on Earth, which ended up discovering the existence of Gamma-ray bursts. Even the most mundane of new technologies can have serendipitous results, and that’s why continued innovation and discovery is so important. But we’ve stopped.

Even in terms of military procurement – and let’s not forget that ARPA and DARPA brought us the internet and the global positioning system – we’re taking steps backwards in the name of fiscal sanity. Not that balanced budgets are an ignoble pursuit, but we’re voluntarily ending production of the most advanced fighter in the world (the F-22) in favor of its slightly less capable cousin (the F-35). Production of the F-35 itself will be notably slashed. With Britain retiring the Harrier and the F-35B variant in jeopardy, the novel technology of VTOL aircraft may itself not be long for this world.

Meanwhile, the Russian-designed contemporary of the F-35, the Sukhoi Su-35, is making waves, with China about to become a major purchaser of the technology. It takes ages for a new system to come online – the Airbus A400M military transport just now making maiden flights has been in the works since 1982! And even the new weapons systems intended to create capabilities where there are none – the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle comes to mind – are being canceled.

We don’ produce anything any more. The picture of our economy, especially vis-a-vis China, is that of a junkyard. We have a resource economy now, where we ship raw materials out for “more skilled” hands to mold into a finished product. These products are things that just fuel our consumerism, a consumerism wherein we look forward to things breaking just so we can feel the rush of buying something new.

We put so little energy into real long-term thought. Everything we do as a society is all about the quick buck, the near-term gain, what we can see and hold and spend now. Politics continue to be an internal, mind-numbing struggle with no winners and no vision beyond the next election. And of course today’s politicians won’t be living with the consequences of their decisions (there’s still time to atone, though). As the Great Society gets rolled back, the New Deal is next. And what then, the gains of the Progressive Era?

It’s not like I don’t understand why – when you don’t even have a paycheck to look forward to in the next week, every day becomes its own micro-scale struggle just to get to the next one. But it’s not impossible to take care of today’s problems and plan for the future. I’ve previously called for stronger leadership, or a real public works plan, or maybe some British-style openness and transparency (and when the Brits are leading the way in those fields, you just know something’s gone horribly wrong somewhere). These things are not impossible. And they’re not too expensive. I don’t care how bad the deficit looks; no one cares (no, really, outside of a vocal few, it’s not the most pressing concern). It’s certainly a problem, but we have the chance to solve other problems while still looking to the future.

Things are expensive. But in the long long term, doing nothing and stagnating will be even more costly. We need to keep building, inventing, dreaming, knocking over test tubes accidentally, leaving petri dishes next to each other, and to stop arguing over today. Tomorrow is more important.

Think big. Think bold. But most importantly, think ahead.

On Value

Recent headlines like this:

And this:

And this:

Are enough to make you ask: why are we still pretending that these people produce anything of value whatsoever? That their hyper-inflated ‘MegaJob‘ salaries are anything close to realistic compensation? When will we publicly acknowledge that the vast majority of the American finance sector is completely full of shit and damages the reputation and capabilities of this country?

Manipulation of numbers produces nothing. It contributes nothing. If you want to do that, download R and make a graph. But don’t make $500,000 a year to do nothing.

Supposedly the recession is ‘over’ and we’re beginning to recover. But if ‘recovery’ means restoring the finance sector to its previous pedestal atop the grand pantheon of economic bullshit, then that kind of recovery leaves us worse off than we were before. Nothing has changed. It could take ten years to restore unemployment levels to what they were before the recession, and all the while new immigration will be rewriting the face of the country. Much as Elizabeth Warren tries (bless her heart) to change the culture of Wall Street, she is fighting a losing battle. Who would voluntarily surrender an obscene paycheck ‘for the good of the nation’?

We have never been particularly good as a country at rewarding the right kind of work – at paying firemen and manufacturers and miners and the other types of employees that produce something tangible. But the current state of inequality is mind-boggling. And for those like Matt Ridley, who would seek to lull us into a sense of complacency by comparing human life not to that of our parents, not to that of the last three decades, but to the entirety of human history, that’s not where we get out benchmarks for today. We misplaced our priorities a long time ago; are we ever going to find them?

Full Steam Ahead

Talk about setting your sights low. The current Amtrak plan for the Northeast Corridor calls for reducing travel times – over the next twenty years – by 4 minutes between Philadelphia and New York, and by 20 minutes between New York and Boston. As one professor says, “Amtrak’s new plan leaves you with a really good early-20th-century rail system.” It’s not speedy by any stretch of the imagination, and you save about 50 minutes over the regional trains for $80 more. Hell, this is how sorry the current state of high-speed rail funding in the Northeast is:

Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), top Republican on the Transportation Committee, criticized the administration for giving little of $8 billion in high-speed money to the Northeast.

“They practically ignored the region of the country where high-speed makes the most sense – the Northeast Corridor,” he said. The corridor received $485 million, or 6 percent, of the stimulus funding. [Emphasis mine].

However, because we are the world and we are the future, some students at UPenn’s School of Design have proposed a radical alternative: a true, dedicated high-speed system that would make the journey from Boston to Washington, D.C. just 3.5 hours. From Philadelphia to New York in 37 minutes. This is the direction we want to go. This is more than just lip service.

One of the more interesting aspects to the proposal is a new route for the Boston-New York stretch. Instead of the current shadowing of I-95, trains would follow the same highways that I take when I drive to New York, I-90 to I-91 to I-84 (though presumably these trains won’t take the Merritt Parkway). But then the route diverges sharply to the south and crosses underneath Long Island Sound in a tunnel before turning west again and continuing on to the city.

I love this for so many reasons. This is something we’ll actually use, putting people to work, and producing a end-result we can all be happy with and proud of. Most importantly, it’s big-picture thinking. It’s ambitious. It’s grandiose. And it’s entirely in keeping with the American way.

“We started with a different framework than Amtrak,” said Bryan Rodda, 26, one of the student authors. “Amtrak said, ‘What’s the best we can do to make sure it doesn’t fall apart?’ and then, ‘What is the best we can do with what we have to improve travel time?’

“We asked, ‘What can we do if we rejected the way it is now and do actual, true high-speed rail and get travel time below two hours?’ ”

The students proposed a remade Market East station to accommodate the high-speed train stop in Philadelphia, with another stop at Philadelphia International Airport.

They suggested keeping 30th Street Station for other train traffic and visualized a revitalized Market Street corridor between University City and Old City.

The students proposed that federal and state governments pay for the new high-speed rail line for the Northeast, along with private investors. They suggested money could be raised from gas taxes, interstate tolls, user fees, value-added taxes, and station-area sales taxes.

The economic benefits, the students concluded, would outstrip the costs by $70 billion.

Yes we can, pretty please?


Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), top Republican on the Transportation Committee, criticized the administration for giving little of $8 billion in high-speed money to the Northeast.

“They practically ignored the region of the country where high-speed makes the most sense – the Northeast Corridor,” he said. The corridor received $485 million, or 6 percent, of the stimulus funding.

The Anti-iPad

I’m not going to beat around the bush: I despise Apple in many ways, but the most damning has to be their insistence on making all new products a closed system, in which Apple has the ultimate control over what you buy, watch, read, listen to, and consume in general. If consumption is the lowest form of choice, then Apple has put further restrictions on that already crippled platform.

My words shouldn’t be the definitive take, though. Jack Shafer, Jim Stodgill, and Cory Doctorow basically say everything I’d like to. From Stodgill’s “The iPad Isn’t a Computer, It’s a Distribution Channel”:

In this context the iPad isn’t a computing device at all. Jobs is using his knack for design and user experience to build, not a better computer, but a better distribution channel. One that is controlled, constrained, and can re-take distribution as the point of monetization. You aren’t buying a computer when you buy an iPad, you are buying a 16GB Walmart store shelf that fits on your lap – complete with all the supplier beat downs, slotting fees, and exclusive deals that go with it – and Apple got you to pay for the building.

These are just some of the philosophical issues I have with the iPad – I won’t go into my more biased dislike of OSX (or its stripped-down variants).

I was pleased to come across this device, though:

Sporting XP Home and a full physical keyboard, the Asus EeeKeyboard is probably the most effective rebuttal to the iPad I’ve seen. And the best part is that it’s just as open a system as anything else running Windows is. Do with it what you want.

I’ve gotten into adopting the Doctorow mantra: close the back with screws not glue. Let us in.