Fantastic News!


Those clever science-types have done something wonderful: they’ve found a planet that orbits Proxima Centauri.

This is a very important bit of news. Proxima Centauri is the start closest to us other than our own. It’s a mere 4.3 light years away, which means that anyone there who is watching Earth TV is experiencing the glory of the 2012 presidential election.

800px-Mitt_Romney_by_Gage_Skidmore_7

Sorry, guys.

Further good news is that this planet is within the habitable zone; the zone within a star’s area that might potentially have the right levels of everything for life as we understand it to exist. It’s also a reasonably small, rocky planet.

So we have a planet that’s basically within our backyard, that’s within the habitable zone, that’s fairly close to the size of Earth, and is made of rock, instead of, say, gas.

I’m ready. Let’s go!

Ok, so it’s a 40,000 year trip using current technology. The key here is to build new technology. Let’s see if we can get this down to 40 or 50 years. I’m sure we can manage it if we throw enough money, and Elon Musk, at it!

The Coming (Permanent) Economic Collapse


The economy is going to collapse and never recover. What will take its place is something almost entirely inconceivable by modern standards, and yet it’s something that a good number of us will likely live to see.

So that’s just a bit alarmist.

Ok, let me back up a few paces.

First off, let’s assume that sometime in the next forty or fifty years, we develop clean, inexpensive energy. Like so cheap that it’s really pointless to charge anyone more than a pittance for it. This could take the form of, say, fusion generators or something similar. Something that is very efficient and very cheap. This will happen eventually, the only question is when. Once that happens, the stage is set for the economy to go bye-bye because of another interesting technological development.

Have you heard about nanotechnology? I’m sure you have. At its most basic, nanotech is the manipulation of atoms and molecules. This by necessity happens on a very small (nano) scale. Among other things, it lets you move around atoms, molecules, and possibly even sub-atomic particles. A few moments thinking will reveal that this enables us to quite literally turn lead into gold simply by making a few adjustments at the atomic level. Indeed, this is already possible, and can provide you with gold provided that a: you don’t mind paying several times the amount of money for the gold you’ll get, and b: you don’t mind that gold being highly radioactive. Also, it’s got an insanely short half-life, so you’d best spend it quickly.

But this shows that the basic premise of turning one element into another is possible. If we can do that, then surely we can rearrange molecules to change from one thing to another, right? Take some basic material and turn it into something else, like for example turning molecules of sugar into molecules of water by adding and removing the necessary elements.

If you can do that, then you’re on the path to, say, turn a pile of dirt into steak. Or turn some rocks into silk. Or, indeed, turn lead into gold and have it be stable.

I’m not going to pretend that this will be easy, won’t consume tons of money, or is going to happen tomorrow. But it seems likely that it will at some point happen in a cost-efficient way. Once that occurs, game over for the economy. Why?

Because as soon as you have one machine that can, with reasonable energy use, turn a clod of dirt into anything else, you’ve utterly destroyed the agricultural, manufacturing, and financial industries. If I can turn dirt into dinner, what do I need to go to the grocery store for? If I can transform another pile of dirt into a new tablet PC, what do I need to buy one for? If I can transform a third pile of dirt into blocks of gold, then doesn’t the financial system lose all meaning?

This happens as soon as you have one machine that can do this, because that machine will presumably be able to replicate itself. I’m sure there would be all sorts of safeguards and regulations against using them to do that, but I’m equally sure that people will find a way around those. I can promise you that within only a few months, maybe two years, of someone inventing a machine that can do this, it’ll be basically everywhere, especially if it coincides with cheap energy.

Now if all this sounds familiar, it’s because there’s a certain sci-fi franchise out there that has done much to popularize the concept.

TNG_head

In Star Trek, especially from TNG onward, they had something called replicators. These used very localized versions of transporter technology to create various items from base materials (maybe. It might have also been a direct conversion of energy to matter). This was used for food, drinks, toys, whatever.

Replicated_martini

The result of this, and the very cheaply-produced energy that the Federation has, was that no one had to work anymore, and that money didn’t exist. Oh, you’d have some people who worked because they enjoyed their jobs (most of Starfleet, the Picard family with their vineyard, Sisko’s dad with his restaurant), but no one worked because they’d starve if they didn’t. The concept was pretty much alien to the people of the Federation, as was the concept of money, especially to humans. Jake Sisko was often genuinely baffled by the idea of money when he and Nog discussed it, and he’s not the only one. It’s clearly and repeatedly established that the Federation doesn’t have or use money (caveat: there was mention of “credits” in TOS, but that might have simply been something Federation personnel were given to use in places outside the Federation’s economic zone).

The Federation is what’s called a “post-scarcity economy“. This means just what it seems it would; production of the basics for survival is so incredibly cheap that it’s basically free, therefore no one does without. This sort of economy is inevitable once you have something like replicators with energy production so cheap as to be basically free.

Also, the Federation is, as a result, basically a Communist utopia in the proper, Marxian sense, but that’s a discussion for another time.

I think we an all agree that life in the Federation is basically pretty super, and that it’s a great goal to aim for. The tough part is what’s going to happen in the early years when we first have this sort of technology come into our lives; namely the permanent collapse of our economy as it currently exists.

Time for one of my thought experiments!

It’s 2059, five years after the first of these “replicators” winds up appearing. Within a few months, most everyone had one. Layoffs began very quickly, as industry after industry realized they couldn’t sell anything. Oh, a handful continued to exist, because there will always be snobs who want to say, “This food I’m serving you was actually grown! And that chair? Someone built that thing!”, but for the most part, no one was making anything physical anymore. The agricultural industry shrunk to a small group of hobby farms serving the vanity crowd I mentioned above, and the banking industry almost completely vanished. Why wouldn’t it? Nothing physical has any value anymore, and even if people have money, what are they going to spend it on?

Rapidly, people wind up being homeless. No job means you can’t pay your rent. Of course, your landlord also now can’t afford to do anything with their property, and possibly won’t even be able to pay their property taxes, so that’s a thing. This leads to a bizarre situation where people have no homes, but they have their replicators, or access to someone else’s, so they’re sleeping on the streets, but doing so in silk-lined sleeping bags, on top of comfortable air mattresses, and eating steak at every meal.

Now five years after this began, unemployment is well over 80%, with the only real jobs being those in the entertainment and information sectors (people do still want art, sports, and the like, after all). At this point…

At this point…what? I genuinely have no idea what happens next. I know that at some point in this scenario, we basically end up with something akin to the living standard the people of the Federation have, but what happens to get us to that place? There’s massive unemployment, huge numbers of homeless people, and the government hasn’t even got the money to step in and help. So what gets done?

I have no idea, but I do know that in 2059, I’ll only be 87, and with technology moving as it has been, there’s a good chance I’ll be alive at this point. I hope I am, and I hope we do get technology like this. The transition from what we have now to what things will be like after this technology is going to be terrifying, exciting, fascinating, and in the end, the best thing that’s ever happened to our species.

Are GMO’s Safe?


Once again, the answer is, in general, yes.

That’s a good article, and I highly recommend reading it. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the following food crops are genetically modified from their wild cousins:

Potatoes
Corn
Tomatoes
Wheat
Rice
Strawberries
Cabbage
Broccoli
Barely
Raspberries
Blackberries
Logan berries
Garlic
Green peppers
Red peppers
Pepper
Coffee
Chocolate

And…you know what? Every single domesticated food crop we eat is genetically distinct from its wild cousin. We began modifying DNA the moment we invented agriculture, which was about 10,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. This applies to animals as well as plants, and if you doubt me, try to make a pet of a wolf rather than a beagle.

We really need to grow the fuck up. Simply because something has had its DNA tinkered with in a lab does not make it any worse (or better), than something that had its DNA tinkered with slowly over the course of decades/centuries.

We have nine billion people to feed. We can all make snarky little comments about how there should be fewer people, but unless you’re willing to eat a bullet, you can shut the fuck up, and just eat some GMO food instead. It really can save humanity.

Reality Cares Not for Your Opinions


So this guy has reached the opinion that global warming is no big deal. He’s a Nobel prize winning scientist, and so therefore his opinion really matters, yes?

Eh.

First off, his field is physics, not climatology. If he was speaking out against vaccines his opinion would carry about the same weight that it does here.

Second, fine. This one scientist doesn’t think much of global warming. Ok. On the other hand, 97% of other scientists do. So we can have him and two other scientists on one side, while 97 others are saying that, yes, it’s totally a real problem.

Science isn’t based off opinions, it’s based off verifiable, repeatable evidence. It doesn’t matter what this guy personally believes. The evidence is against him, and that’s all that counts.

The Coming End of Work


So first, take a look at this video. Yeah, it’s a bit long, but it’s fascinating.

So basically human work is largely going to be a thing of the past very soon. Like within my lifetime. As the video asks, what do we do then? What do we do once a huge portion of our population is unemployable through no fault of their own? In the past, we’ve gone with options like retaining, but what if those options no longer exist?

It is a sobering question, and I have no easy answers. I suppose we can rely on government to provide welfare for those in need. Of course, that gets expensive quick, and without a large tax base, I don’t know where the money comes from. But there would have to be at least some money in the economy, or the various companies that use robots wouldn’t be selling anything or providing any services.

I don’t know. I’ll have to spend some time thinking about this. It is going to be a very real problem very soon, and so we’d all best do some thinking and maybe come up with a solution.

All About the Hyperloop


So Elon Musk has announced basic plans to try and make what he’s calling a hyperloop. Basically it would be an enclosed, high-speed transit system designed to get people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about a half hour or so. It’s an interesting concept, and one that I can almost guarantee will never actually happen.

First off, California is already planning a high-speed rail line that will do the same basic thing in about two-and-a-half hours. It isn’t nearly as fast, true, but it does have the advantage of being proven technology.

Second, we lack the ambition to experiment in this country. I’m sure Musk and pals will create a test track and they’ll have all sorts of fun playing around on it, but I strongly, strongly doubt the funds necessary to build something this risky on a large scale just won’t happen. All you need ot do is look at the Solyndra “controversy” to know how jumpy people are about experimental technologies.

Now that’s not saying that I think it’s a bad idea, though it does sound lack the number of people per hour would be very low. I do like the concept overall, and I’d like to see it come to pass, but I just ain’t holding my breath on this one.

Why I Don’t Fear the Future


Because it has innovations like this in it.

It’s a very interesting concept. Yes, only half an hour of light is kind of a pain, but it’s a start. If they get it to be a bit more efficient and a tiny bit cheaper, I think they’re really onto something. It will also have the advantage of working in places where solar can’t, and I could see it being very portable for people who are camping or the like.