The Five Biggest Threats to Human Existence

July 27th, 2015

I seem to be in an apocalyptic mood recently – maybe it’s because I’m about half way though Neal Stephenson’s excellent Seveneves.  Anyway, here’s another article describing different ways that the human race could be wiped out. Oddly, it doesn’t list climate change; although that might not be a threat to the human race per se, it certainly is a threat to civilization in the long term.

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.

Some common sense on the coming ice age

July 26th, 2015

There’s been quite a  bit of press about a recent study that predicts a “decline in solar activity” starting around 2030. Unfortunately, most of what you’ve probably read about it is wrong, as this article points out. The decline is in the number of sunspots, not solar output, and the effect on climate is likely to be small. What we have here is a giant failure to communicate.

This month there’s been a hoopla about a mini ice age, and unfortunately it tells us more about failures of science communication than the climate. Such failures can maintain the illusion of doubt and uncertainty, even when there’s a scientific consensus that the world is warming.

The story starts benignly with a peer-reviewed paper and a presentation in early July by Professor Valentina Zharkova, from Northumbria University, at Britain’s National Astronomy Meeting.

The paper presents a model for the sun’s magnetic field and sunspots, which predicts a 60% fall in sunspot numbers when extrapolated to the 2030s. Crucially, the paper makes no mention of climate.

The first failure of science communication is present in the Royal Astronomical Society press release from July 9. It says that “solar activity will fall by 60 per cent during the 2030s” without clarifying that this “solar activity” refers to a fall in the number of sunspots, not a dramatic fall in the life-sustaining light emitted by the sun.

The press release also omits crucial details. It does say that the drop in sunspots may resemble the Maunder minimum, a 17th century lull in solar activity, and includes a link to the Wikipedia article on the subject. The press release also notes that the Maunder minimum coincided with a mini ice age.

But that mini ice age began before the Maunder minimum and may have had multiple causes, including volcanism.

Crucially, the press release doesn’t say what the implications of a future Maunder minimum are for climate.

28 Animes to Watch If You’ve Never Seen Anime

July 26th, 2015

I first encountered anime back in the mid-1980s when I moved to Toronto and fell in with the local SF fan community, many of whom were big-time anime fans. At that time, about the only way you could find it was to trade video cassettes with people in Japan, who were happy to exchange cassettes full of anime for cassettes full of North American shows. Now, of course, it’s much easier to find, especially if you don’t limit yourself to the mainstream services like Netflix.

BuzzFeed has put together a list of 28 anime shows to watch if you’ve never seen any anime. It’s pretty hard to imagine anybody these days who hasn’t seen at least some anime, even if it’s in the form of movies like Pacific Rim that have incorprated elements of anime into mainstream culture. Of the 28 shows in the Buzzfeed list, I’ve seen about half a dozen, with my favourites being Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell. The list is annotated and includes a “great if you like” line that helps to select shows based on genres you might like.  Now pardon me while I try to find Outlaw Star and Last Exile.

James Hansen’s scary paper

July 25th, 2015

So James Hansen is stirring the pot again. His latest paper suggests that even a 2C warming may cause much higher sea level rise than predicted by the IPCC. This is not good news for anyone, especially those living in coastal regions. The Washington Post article has a link to the full paper, if you want to read it.

It has been widely discussed — but not yet peer reviewed. Now, though, you can at least read it for yourself and see what you think.

A lengthy, ambitious, and already contested paper by longtime NASA climate scientist James Hansen and 16 colleagues appeared online Thursday in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussion, an open-access journal published by the European Geosciences Union. The paper, entitled “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 ◦C global warming is highly dangerous” is now open for comment — peer review in this journal happens in public.

What’s wrong with San Francisco?

July 23rd, 2015

I’ve always had a soft spot for San Francisco – the city that generated much of the music that I grew up with. I’ve only been able to visit there once, and enjoyed seeing the city that I’d only read about. But the city is changing, and not for the better, as this article points out.

I moved to San Francisco for its radical politics. Lots of people did, for generations. Maybe it was like moving to Los Angeles if you wanted to be a movie star: If you wanted to be part of the grand project of reconstructing the American Left in the petri dish of a single city, San Francisco beckoned.

The quirky, counter-cultural San Francisco so many of us fell in love with is almost gone now, destroyed by high housing costs. We’ve lost not only the politics, but all kinds of cultural experimentation that just doesn’t thrive in places that are expensive.

We are watching the old San Francisco slip away before our eyes. Every time a housing unit becomes vacant, it goes on the market at a price so high that no organizer, writer, teacher, activist or artist could dream of affording it. Trying things that don’t have monetary potential just isn’t possible anymore.

Probable cause for SpaceX launch failure found

July 20th, 2015

Update: Here’s a video that has a good explanation of what happened.

In a press conference today, Elon Musk announced that the probable cause of last month’s SpaceX launch failure was a 2-foot long metal strut holding a pressurized helium tank. The failure of the strut would have caused the helium tank to rupture the second stage oxygen tank, dooming the flight. Musk espects that flights should resume in a few months.

Musk pointed out that it’s the first rocket failure in seven years for his company, which had 500 people then and 4,000 now. Most employees had only seen success — until June 28 — which means they might not have feared failure quite as much, he said.

Musk said before every launch, he sends out a companywide email encouraging workers to let him know if there is any possible reason for delaying the flight. He realizes some thought he was being paranoid.

“But I think now everyone at the company appreciates just how difficult it is to get rockets to orbit successfully,” he said, “and I think we’ll be stronger for it.”