December 05, 2014

for cara . . .

Pope Francis fires 'Teutonic' head of his own private army, the Swiss Guard

ROME - He has dismissed and demoted cardinals, bishops and the Vatican secretary of state, and now Pope Francis's reformist zeal has claimed a new scalp – the head of his own private army, the Swiss Guard. VINCENZO PINTO / AFP / Getty Images The former Commandant of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, Daniel Rudolf Anrig (R)…

June 02, 2014

one for the road . . .

cousins . . .

Search for alien life could remain fruitless, study finds

By Akshat Rathi, The Conversation

Given that we are unlikely to be visiting an exoplanet any time soon, astronomers have been contemplating whether it might be possible to detect indications of simple life – a biosignature – from a distance. Many think that the strongest case for extraterrestrial life would be the discovery of oxygen and methane on the same body. They also think that the likelihood of finding such a biosignature is greatest on an Earth-like planet that is orbiting a sun-like star.

Astronomers who hope to search for these biosignatures in expolanets, however, may be in for a disappointment. New research finds that there is no way we can confirm that such a signature is actually the result of extraterrestrial life. The problem, it turns out, is that an exomoon’s atmosphere will be indistinguishable from the one of the planet it orbits.

Finding E.T.

Searching for extraterrestrial life is no easy feat. Astronomers have to first search for a star that has planets. Then they have to ensure that there is at least one planet that orbits this star in the habitable zone, which is a region around the star in which we might expect liquid water. Finally, they have to record the faint light that originated from the bright star and was reflected off the exoplanet after having passed through its atmosphere.

This faint light, even if only a handful of photons, when compared with light from the parent star is enough to give some indication of the chemicals in the atmosphere of this planet. Life as we know it creates two gases that wouldn’t naturally be present in an atmosphere at the same time – oxygen from photosynthesis and methane from microbes.

Both oxygen and methane can be created independently by non-living processes, so their individual presence is of little interest. What scientists are looking for is both of them in the atmosphere of a single body. If these reactive gases are not constantly replenished by living things, they will react with each other, creating carbon dioxide and water. As a result, we should not observe them in the same atmosphere without a large, living source.

False hopes

In the new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Hanno Rein at the University of Toronto and his colleagues wanted to know whether anything else could mimic this biosignature. While working through potential false positives, which are signals that would show signs of life but in reality there isn’t life, he found a big one: exomoons. Rein found that observers on Earth will not be able to tell whether the signs of methane and oxygen originate from a single celestial body, or come from two nearby worlds.

This could happen because, just as Earth has a moon, there is a chance that exoplanets will have exomoons. While we have yet to find an exomoon, looking at the various moons of our solar system’s planets suggests that exomoons ought to be plentiful. However, even if they are plentiful, chances are that exomoons will be difficult to spot.

If both these celestial bodies have an atmosphere and in their atmospheres the exoplanet has oxygen and the exomoon has methane (or vice-versa), then an observer on Earth will record an oxygen-methane biosignature. This might seems like evidence for life, whereas in reality both these gases are being produced by non-living processes on two separate celestial bodies. Since they can’t react with each other, they will be able to build up to high levels.

Futile technology

“Even if we somehow developed ways of finding exomoons, we won’t be able to tease out the difference between their atmospheres given the limited amount of light that reaches us,” Rein said. This fundamental limit on the light that reaches us is called photo noise.

Rein limited his analysis to biosignatures coming from Earth-like planets orbiting a sun-like star, which is the combination that astronomers are betting has the greatest chance of hosting life. The American space agency NASA recently announced that they had found such an Earth-sized planet less than 500 light years away, although the star it orbits isn’t sun-like.

While their analysis might seem quite restrictive and involves a number of assumptions, it does not really matter: interpretation of biosignatures needs to be flawless. According to David Cullen at the University of Cranfield, “This study seems to highlight a real issue that will needed to be considered, along with other issues, when interpreting biosignatures.”

Rein himself was surprised to find such a limitation. However, he sees the results of his work in positive light. “Finding such a limitation tells us what we should focus on in the future. Rather than a restricted search for Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars, we should broaden our search,” he said.

What this research shows is a need to move away from a highly focused search for extraterrestrial life that is currently in place. Rein points out that the chances of eliminating such false positive biosignatures increases as the star becomes dimmer or larger planets are considered. Perhaps alien life is not just unlike that on Earth, but it is also resides in a place that is unlike Earth.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

May 30, 2014

conversations . . .

The five biggest threats to human existence

By Anders Sandberg, University of Oxford

In the daily hubbub of current “crises” facing humanity, we forget about the many generations we hope are yet to come. Not those who will live 200 years from now, but 1,000 or 10,000 years from now. I use the word “hope” because we face risks, called existential risks, that threaten to wipe out humanity. These risks are not just for big disasters, but for the disasters that could end history.

Not everyone has ignored the long future though. Mystics like Nostradamus have regularly tried to calculate the end of the world. HG Wells tried to develop a science of forecasting and famously depicted the far future of humanity in his book The Time Machine. Other writers built other long-term futures to warn, amuse or speculate.

But had these pioneers or futurologists not thought about humanity’s future, it would not have changed the outcome. There wasn’t much that human beings in their place could have done to save us from an existential crisis or even cause one.

We are in a more privileged position today. Human activity has been steadily shaping the future of our planet. And even though we are far from controlling natural disasters, we are developing technologies that may help mitigate, or at least, deal with them.

Future imperfect

Yet, these risks remain understudied. There is a sense of powerlessness and fatalism about them. People have been talking apocalypses for millennia, but few have tried to prevent them. Humans are also bad at doing anything about problems that have not occurred yet (partially because of the availability heuristic – the tendency to overestimate the probability of events we know examples of, and underestimate events we cannot readily recall).

If humanity becomes extinct, at the very least the loss is equivalent to the loss of all living individuals and the frustration of their goals. But the loss would probably be far greater than that. Human extinction means the loss of meaning generated by past generations, the lives of all future generations (and there could be an astronomical number of future lives) and all the value they might have been able to create. If consciousness or intelligence are lost, it might mean that value itself becomes absent from the universe. This is a huge moral reason to work hard to prevent existential threats from becoming reality. And we must not fail even once in this pursuit.

With that in mind, I have selected what I consider the five biggest threats to humanity’s existence. But there are caveats that must be kept in mind, for this list is not final.

Over the past century we have discovered or created new existential risks – supervolcanoes were discovered in the early 1970s, and before the Manhattan project nuclear war was impossible – so we should expect others to appear. Also, some risks that look serious today might disappear as we learn more. The probabilities also change over time – sometimes because we are concerned about the risks and fix them.

Finally, just because something is possible and potentially hazardous, doesn’t mean it is worth worrying about. There are some risks we cannot do anything at all about, such as gamma ray bursts that result from the explosions of galaxies. But if we learn we can do something, the priorities change. For instance, with sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics, pestilence went from an act of God to bad public health.

1. Nuclear war

While only two nuclear weapons have been used in war so far – at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II – and nuclear stockpiles are down from their the peak they reached in the Cold War, it is a mistake to think that nuclear war is impossible. In fact, it might not be improbable.

The Cuban Missile crisis was very close to turning nuclear. If we assume one such event every 69 years and a one in three chance that it might go all the way to being nuclear war, the chance of such a catastrophe increases to about one in 200 per year.

Worse still, the Cuban Missile crisis was only the most well-known case. The history of Soviet-US nuclear deterrence is full of close calls and dangerous mistakes. The actual probability has changed depending on international tensions, but it seems implausible that the chances would be much lower than one in 1000 per year.

A full-scale nuclear war between major powers would kill hundreds of millions of people directly or through the near aftermath – an unimaginable disaster. But that is not enough to make it an existential risk.

Similarly the hazards of fallout are often exaggerated – potentially deadly locally, but globally a relatively limited problem. Cobalt bombs were proposed as a hypothetical doomsday weapon that would kill everybody with fallout, but are in practice hard and expensive to build. And they are physically just barely possible.

The real threat is nuclear winter – that is, soot lofted into the stratosphere causing a multi-year cooling and drying of the world. Modern climate simulations show that it could preclude agriculture across much of the world for years. If this scenario occurs billions would starve, leaving only scattered survivors that might be picked off by other threats such as disease. The main uncertainty is how the soot would behave: depending on the kind of soot the outcomes may be very different, and we currently have no good ways of estimating this.

2. Bioengineered pandemic

Natural pandemics have killed more people than wars. However, natural pandemics are unlikely to be existential threats: there are usually some people resistant to the pathogen, and the offspring of survivors would be more resistant. Evolution also does not favor parasites that wipe out their hosts, which is why syphilis went from a virulent killer to a chronic disease as it spread in Europe.

Unfortunately we can now make diseases nastier. One of the more famous examples is how the introduction of an extra gene in mousepox – the mouse version of smallpox – made it far more lethal and able to infect vaccinated individuals. Recent work on bird flu has demonstrated that the contagiousness of a disease can be deliberately boosted.

eneas, CC BY

Right now the risk of somebody deliberately releasing something devastating is low. But as biotechnology gets better and cheaper, more groups will be able to make diseases worse.

Most work on bioweapons have been done by governments looking for something controllable, because wiping out humanity is not militarily useful. But there are always some people who might want to do things because they can. Others have higher purposes. For instance, the Aum Shinrikyo cult tried to hasten the apocalypse using bioweapons beside their more successful nerve gas attack. Some people think the Earth would be better off without humans, and so on.

The number of fatalities from bioweapon and epidemic outbreaks attacks looks like it has a power-law distribution – most attacks have few victims, but a few kill many. Given current numbers the risk of a global pandemic from bioterrorism seems very small. But this is just bioterrorism: governments have killed far more people than terrorists with bioweapons (up to 400,000 may have died from the WWII Japanese biowar program). And as technology gets more powerful in the future nastier pathogens become easier to design.

3. Superintelligence

Intelligence is very powerful. A tiny increment in problem-solving ability and group coordination is why we left the other apes in the dust. Now their continued existence depends on human decisions, not what they do. Being smart is a real advantage for people and organisations, so there is much effort in figuring out ways of improving our individual and collective intelligence: from cognition-enhancing drugs to artificial-intelligence software.

The problem is that intelligent entities are good at achieving their goals, but if the goals are badly set they can use their power to cleverly achieve disastrous ends. There is no reason to think that intelligence itself will make something behave nice and morally. In fact, it is possible to prove that certain types of superintelligent systems would not obey moral rules even if they were true.

Even more worrying is that in trying to explain things to an artificial intelligence we run into profound practical and philosophical problems. Human values are diffuse, complex things that we are not good at expressing, and even if we could do that we might not understand all the implications of what we wish for.

shiborisan, CC BY-NC-ND

Software-based intelligence may very quickly go from below human to frighteningly powerful. The reason is that it may scale in different ways from biological intelligence: it can run faster on faster computers, parts can be distributed on more computers, different versions tested and updated on the fly, new algorithms incorporated that give a jump in performance.

It has been proposed that an “intelligence explosion” is possible when software becomes good enough at making better software. Should such a jump occur there would be a large difference in potential power between the smart system (or the people telling it what to do) and the rest of the world. This has clear potential for disaster if the goals are badly set.

The unusual thing about superintelligence is that we do not know if rapid and powerful intelligence explosions are possible: maybe our current civilisation as a whole is improving itself at the fastest possible rate. But there are good reasons to think that some technologies may speed things up far faster than current societies can handle. Similarly we do not have a good grip on just how dangerous different forms of superintelligence would be, or what mitigation strategies would actually work. It is very hard to reason about future technology we do not yet have, or intelligences greater than ourselves. Of the risks on this list, this is the one most likely to either be massive or just a mirage.

This is a surprisingly under-researched area. Even in the 50s and 60s when people were extremely confident that superintelligence could be achieved “within a generation”, they did not look much into safety issues. Maybe they did not take their predictions seriously, but more likely is that they just saw it as a remote future problem.

4. Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the control over matter with atomic or molecular precision. That is in itself not dangerous – instead, it would be very good news for most applications. The problem is that, like biotechnology, increasing power also increases the potential for abuses that are hard to defend against.

The big problem is not the infamous “grey goo” of self-replicating nanomachines eating everything. That would require clever design for this very purpose. It is tough to make a machine replicate: biology is much better at it, by default. Maybe some maniac would eventually succeed, but there are plenty of more low-hanging fruits on the destructive technology tree.

gi, CC BY-SA

The most obvious risk is that atomically precise manufacturing looks ideal for rapid, cheap manufacturing of things like weapons. In a world where any government could “print” large amounts of autonomous or semi-autonomous weapons (including facilities to make even more) arms races could become very fast – and hence unstable, since doing a first strike before the enemy gets a too large advantage might be tempting.

Weapons can also be small, precision things: a “smart poison” that acts like a nerve gas but seeks out victims, or ubiquitous “gnatbot” surveillance systems for keeping populations obedient seems entirely possible. Also, there might be ways of getting nuclear proliferation and climate engineering into the hands of anybody who wants it.

We cannot judge the likelihood of existential risk from future nanotechnology, but it looks like it could be potentially disruptive just because it can give us whatever we wish for.

5. Unknown unknowns

The most unsettling possibility is that there is something out there that is very deadly, and we have no clue about it.

The silence in the sky might be evidence for this. Is the absence of aliens due to that life or intelligence is extremely rare, or that intelligent life tends to get wiped out? If there is a future Great Filter, it must have been noticed by other civilisations too, and even that didn’t help.

angrytoast, CC BY-NC

Whatever the threat is, it would have to be something that is nearly unavoidable even when you know it is there, no matter who and what you are. We do not know about any such threats (none of the others on this list work like this), but they might exist.

Note that just because something is unknown it doesn’t mean we cannot reason about it. In a remarkable paper Max Tegmark and Nick Bostrom show that a certain set of risks must be less than one chance in a billion per year, based on the relative age of Earth.

You might wonder why climate change or meteor impacts have been left off this list. Climate change, no matter how scary, is unlikely to make the entire planet uninhabitable (but it could compound other threats if our defences to it break down). Meteors could certainly wipe us out, but we would have to be very unlucky. The average mammalian species survives for about a million years. Hence, the background natural extinction rate is roughly one in a million per year. This is much lower than the nuclear-war risk, which after 70 years is still the biggest threat to our continued existence.

The availability heuristic makes us overestimate risks that are often in the media, and discount unprecedented risks. If we want to be around in a million years we need to correct that.

The Conversation

Anders Sandberg works for the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

March 09, 2014

turning over a new leaf . . .

New Bionic Leaf Could Solve Solar Energy Storage Problem (via Clean Technica)

Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are developing a new bionic leaf that can convert energy from sunlight into an energy-dense fuel, imitating the photosynthetic process of plants. We’ve covered the artificial leaf concept before…

February 11, 2014

maybe second generation . . .

Astronomers from Australia National University discover oldest star yet found in our universe.
A team led by astronomers at The Australian National University has discovered the oldest known star in the Universe, which formed shortly after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

The discovery has allowed astronomers for the first time to study the chemistry of the first stars, giving scientists a clearer idea of what the Universe was like in its infancy.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to unambiguously say that we’ve found the chemical fingerprint of a first star,” said lead researcher, Dr Stefan Keller of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“This is one of the first steps in understanding what those first stars were like. What this star has enabled us to do is record the fingerprint of those first stars.”

The star was discovered using the ANU SkyMapper telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory, which is searching for ancient stars as it conducts a five-year project to produce the first digital map the southern sky.

The ancient star is around 6,000 light years from Earth, which Dr Keller says is relatively close in astronomical terms. It is one of the 60 million stars photographed by SkyMapper in its first year.

“The stars we are finding number one in a million,” says team member Professor Mike Bessell, who worked with Keller on the research.

“Finding such needles in a haystack is possible thanks to the ANU SkyMapper telescope that is unique in its ability to find stars with low iron from their colour.”

Dr Keller and Professor Bessell confirmed the discovery using the Magellan telescope in Chile.

The composition of the newly discovered star shows it formed in the wake of a primordial star, which had a mass 60 times that of our Sun.

“To make a star like our Sun, you take the basic ingredients of hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang and add an enormous amount of iron – the equivalent of about 1,000 times the Earth’s mass,” Dr Keller says.

“To make this ancient star, you need no more than an Australia-sized asteroid of iron and lots of carbon. It’s a very different recipe that tells us a lot about the nature of the first stars and how they died.”

Dr Keller says it was previously thought that primordial stars died in extremely violent explosions which polluted huge volumes of space with iron. But the ancient star shows signs of pollution with lighter elements such as carbon and magnesium, and no sign of pollution with iron.

“This indicates the primordial star’s supernova explosion was of surprisingly low energy. Although sufficient to disintegrate the primordial star, almost all of the heavy elements such as iron, were consumed by a black hole that formed at the heart of the explosion,” he says.

The result may resolve a long-standing discrepancy between observations and predictions of the Big Bang.

The discovery was published in the latest edition of the journal Nature.

"The surface of a star can tell you a quite a bit about what came before: The chemicals present on the surface are essentially the remnants of the previous star's explosion. Since the Big Bang, successive generations of stars have fused and spewed chemical elements into the universe, creating the building blocks for galaxies and planetary systems. Today, the youngest stars form from gas polluted with every element in the periodic table.

"To find the earliest generations of stars, scientists look for vanishingly small abundances of the first heavy elements created, such as iron. Stars with very low chemical abundances, they believe, may have formed in the earliest epoch of the universe, more than 13 billion years ago, when few elements had yet formed."

Read more at:

January 31, 2014

changes are coming . . .

USA Today joins the chorus . . Baby, it's cold outside, but globe is warming:
The climate trends are overwhelming. Earth had its fourth-warmest year on record in 2013, and all of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week.

It is true, as the skeptics like to point out, that long-term climate modeling remains an inexact science. Some environmentalists hurt their cause by leaping to blame every extreme weather event on global warming. And a changing climate produces winners as well as losers.

But climate scientists are 95% to 100% sure that human activity — emission of greenhouse gases — is the dominant cause of dramatic warming. That warming is already raising sea levels, acidifying oceans, melting glaciers and intensifying heat waves, downpours, droughts and wildfires. January's cold snap has caused plenty of misery. The damage will only be compounded if it becomes an excuse for yet another year of denial and delay in addressing climate dangers.

January 29, 2014

singing . . . singing . . .

There is a fine reprint article online from the July/August 1996 article in the UU World . . . Singing for humanity: The Pete Seeger saga
Oddly for someone so rebellious, Seeger got both his vocation and his politics from his father. Both his parents were professional musicians, and at 17 Pete accompanied his father on a field trip to collect traditional songs for a project of the Library of Congress. In 1940, at age 21, Seeger went to Washington to work for Alan Lomax, the project’s head and catalyst. There he befriended the legendary ballad-maker Woody Guthrie. Soon the two had left on a cross-country jaunt.

When Seeger and Guthrie hit the East Coast again, Lomax handed them a stack of protest songs he’d collected from farmers, miners, and textile workers and suggested the two work them into a book. Seeger transcribed words and melodies, while Guthrie wrote introductions. The book, titled Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, wasn’t published until 1967, but it shaped both Seeger’s music and the gathering American folk song revival. “Songs,” he said, “can penetrate hard shells, proliferate in prisons. If we bring life to them, they will bring life to us and our children. . . . Songs can help us explore our past and our present, and even speculate about our future.” If all this makes him sound like a Unitarian Universalist, well, so he is, though as a young man he had little use for organized religion, his father having been what Seeger now calls “a member of the Marxist church.”

January 24, 2014

thirsty? . . .

Dwarf planet Ceres in asteroid belt may contain more freshwater than Earth (via Raw Story )

Scientists have confirmed signs of water on the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. A team led by the European Space Agency detected water plumes spewing from two regions of the dwarf planet using the infrared Herschel Space…

January 22, 2014

January 16, 2014

Still Around

From Gene Everlasting, by Gene Logsdon:
I like a quote accredited to the late Terence McKenna, the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s views) researcher into psychedelic drugs. The Big Bang theory, as he described it, was “just the limit case for unlikelihood, that the universe would spring from nothing in a single instant for no reason… It is in fact no different from saying ‘and God said, let there be light’.  What these philosophers of science are saying is, give us one free miracle and… it will all unfold according to natural law… Well, I say to them, if science gets one free miracle, then everybody else gets one free miracle.”
I'm posting this, first, because Gene's a pretty cool ol' coot; but mostly to let my legion of friends and fans out there in 'netland know I ain't dead yet - though increasingly it's only by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin that that's so. I'd hoped to be burning this blog up by now with brilliant, insightful posts about this crazy, miserable, wondrous universe we find ourselves in. But it's taking me far, far longer than I'd have ever anticipated to assimilate the now-completed collection of material detritus of one life into the still-expanding collection of another.

And the reason for that is the ever-shrinking margin between a comfortable resting state and suffocation in terms of my pulmonary functionality. I endured a rather minor respiratory infection last week, during which time even a short 20-foot trip to the bathroom required a rest stop halfway through, and a 2-minute recovery period at its conclusion. Any other physical activity more strenuous than reaching for a coffee cup or keyboarding was out of the question. That seems to be passing now (knock on wood), and I hope I can start assimilating the detritus again very soon (big test tonight: I need desperately to do a couple of loads of laundry or risk being quarantined to my apartment as a public health risk). We'll see, eh?

The penultimate goal is to incorporate some better hardware into my little LAN and do clean installs of the software I use, all with a view toward being able to fully utilize and participate in this blog. (I'd much rather be out in the country somewhere helping somebody build something or grow something, but clearly that ain't happenin', not for the foreseeable future [but I got dreams and plans!]; so running my mouth is going to have to be all I can contribute for now.) When it'll come together I won't venture to say any more - but that's where I'm headed. There might well be another channel-marker post or two, like this one, before I get there. But I aim to build me a platform I can pitch my soapbox on and then commence haranguing all you Philistines with what you need to do to get your shit together, done in my own inimitable bitchy, arrogant style ...

Thank you for your kind attention.

January 07, 2014

something in the Paris air . . .

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition

“I love the night passionately. I love it as I love my country, or my mistress, with an instinctive, deep, and unshakeable love. I love it with all my senses: I love to see it, I love to breathe it in, I love to open my ears to its silence, I love my whole body to be caressed by its blackness. Skylarks sing in the sunshine, the blue sky, the warm air, in the fresh morning light. The owl flies by night, a dark shadow passing through the darkness; he hoots his sinister, quivering hoot, as though he delights in the intoxicating black immensity of space. ” ― Guy de Maupassant

January 04, 2014

big beef . . .

Siddhartha Mahanta over at Washington Monthly has written a piece that my rancher friends and veggie buds will find of interest . . . when a consumer buys beef, part of the cost is a federal tax . . . Beef. It doesn't need to be for dinner.
Independent ranchers and animal rights activists don’t agree about much, except that it’s time to stop using federal tax dollars to support the meat lobby.

. . .

Nearly 99 percent of all the beef tax dollars collected by the government, some $45 million a year, winds up in the hands of just one group, the NCBA, which relies overwhelmingly on this public money to support itself. Fewer and fewer actual “cattlemen” belong to the organization, while more and more complain that the NCBA presses for policies that undermine their own way of life and the public’s interest by favoring large packers and other corporate giants.
There's much more to the article . . .

January 03, 2014

   Jimmy Weber
Jan. 3, 1951 - Dec. 12, 2013

Thinkin' 'bout you, man ...
an' missin' you so much ...

 Peace be on you ...