A Plethora of Links to End 2014

2014 is just about gone, and for the large part, I say: Good riddance. In many ways, 2014 was an awful year for civil liberties, freedom, and for people in general. Yet on the other hand, there are some positive things to report.

One of my 2015 resolutions is to stop posting so much political stuff. I know, I know – I say this almost every month, and yet it never happens. I'm going to try, though, this year, especially since I'm making the effort to make some resolutions. (I'm even going to print them out and put them up on my wall in my bedroom and in my office.) So in honor of that, I wanted to post some last political and semi-political links before the year ended, links that have been sitting on my mind:


2014 was a really rotten year for privacy, civil liberties, and in particular for public-police relations. For a long time I thought of writing up a list of all the issues of police overreach and brutality, but I don't have to. Radley Balko, one of the best journalists on the planet, rounded up 2014's civil liberties violations as a "Let me give some predictions for 2015" post. It's chilling to think that, in the nation that is supposedly the leader of the free world, we have so many horrible things going on – most, but not all, being conducted by state and local governments.

I mean, seizing someone's assets, then charging them with a crime, so they can't pay for their own defense? Arresting parents for letting their kids play without supervision? Claiming that your SWAT team is a private corporation and is thus immune to open records laws? Push for extrajudicial tribunals for people who may or may not commit crimes against a certain class of individuals, tribunals where "innocent until proven guilty" and the rule of law are thrown out the airlock? Punishing people who haven't been convicted of a crime?

These are not the signs of a healthy liberal democracy, they're the signs of a damaged one that needs repair, fast.

One story in particular has stood out to me. As many have defended the police in the recent incidents and stories, one thing they may have failed to notice is that even black police officers feel threatened by the "boys in blue". I think once cops are fearful of other cops, then we have indisputable proof that there is a serious problem. And yet people still ignore it. Read the link above for a maddening, frustrating look at what is wrong with policing today. (That one really grinds my gourd, because I think it will be ignored by most.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, in 2014 progressives became nattering nabobs of negativity – or, in other words, conservatives. reason magazine highlights how 2014 heralded the return of "Neo-Victorianism", and I'm thankful that Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote that article because I've been struggling to find the right word for this new trend. It's the trend of using coercion and bullying to enforce a set of social norms, mostly deployed by feminists, it seems. The four major areas are increasing art censorship, a hysteria over sex-trafficking (that trampled over individual rights while simultaneously punishing sex workers, many of whom don't think they're victims and like their jobs, thank you very much), a dragging out of hate speech to absurd lengths that means you shouldn't say anything that could potentially offend anyone at any time, and a trend of treating women as dainty little flowers that need to be coddled and protected rather than being allowed to develop into strong and independent individuals.

It's all rather sickening. It too, is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

And let's not get me started on the various abuses by the NSA. Let's just not go there for once.

The Good

There are, however, some great things to look forward to in 2015 that continue from 2014.

The first is in terms of war and crime. Steven Pinker, a wonderful academic, details in a great article for Slate that planet Earth is actually becoming a very peaceful world. I found the article particularly interesting for the following tidbit:

But the red curve in the graph shows a recent development that is less benign: The number of wars jumped from four in 2010—the lowest total since the end of World War II—to seven in 2013. These wars were fought in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Syria. Conflict data for 2014 will not be available until next year, but we already know that four new wars broke out in the past 12 months, for a total of 11. The jump from 2010 to 2014, the steepest since the end of the Cold War, has brought us to the highest number of wars since 2000.
The 2010–2014 upsurge is circumscribed in a second way. In seven of the 11 wars that flared during this period, radical Islamist groups were one of the warring parties: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Gaza, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. (Indeed, absent the Islamist conflicts, there would have been no increase in wars in the last few years, with just two in 2013 and three in 2014.) This reflects a broader trend.

That "broader trend" being religious hostilities, with "all but two of these countries" having those hostilities being "associated with extremist Islamist groups." I always find myself on a narrow tightrope when it comes to Islamism; on the one hand, I always find conservatives are far too hostile and kneejerk when they want to just fight Muslims and bomb them; on the other hand, I think that many libertarians and leftists slide Islam's problems under the rug and prefer not to notice. Don't kid yourselves, guys: although Christianity has issues, it has largely been tamed and neutered by modernity. Islam hasn't. And Islam has got loads of problems.

But even despite that, the world is far more peaceful than the news reports make it out to be. Outside of the Middle East, we have the conflict in Ukraine – and that has basically been frozen. The drop in oil prices has crushed the Russian economy, so I don't know if Putin will continue to help his "allies" in Donetsk and Lugansk. There are conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, but to be honest I know very little about them.

Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson in The Spectator (UK) reports on how we're winning the war on disease. In 1990, diseases claimed roughly 37,500 years of life per 100,000 people; now they claim only about 26,000 (judging by my eyes on that chart.) Starvation has dropped by over ten percentage points. Infant mortality has plummeted. These are all extremely good news to hear.

The last one is a story on upcoming disruptive technologies, many of which are going to build on 2014 discoveries. I post this one because I have a bit of a quibble with the author, Vivek Wadhwa. Although I think most of his points are relatively sound, inasmuch as I, not being an expert in these areas, could judge them, his section on energy has problems. First, he leads off by saying that fracking is a harmful technology – newsflash, it isn't. Second, he says that solar power will hit grid parity by 2020, which I think is unlikely considering how expensive solar power is. (Seriously, the people I know who study energy saw a similar story by Wadwha and they claimed it hurt their brains.) Third, Wadwha claims that if we have unlimited energy,

we can have unlimited clean water, because we can simply boil as much ocean water as we want. We can afford to grow food locally in vertical farms. This can be 100 percent organic, because we won’t need insecticides in the sealed farm buildings. Imagine also being able to 3D print meat and not having to slaughter animals. This will transform and disrupt agriculture and the entire food-production industry.

Wadwha might be right about unlimited energy and unlimited clean water, but even if he is, the rest doesn't follow. Water isn't the only resource. Why would we grow food locally? It's not necessarily more efficient than growing food on larger farms elsewhere. Secondly, what about the time involved? When Wadwha says "locally," I see the localist woo argument about people growing food in their backyards. But that takes time, and who wants to waste time growing your own food when you can buy it at the store and instead spend your time going to sports events, watching TV, writing blog posts, or going on romantic getaways? Wadwha ignores that, and it hurts, both his piece and my head.

I'm also a little miffed he didn't mentioned Lockheed Martin's new fusion reactor project (more on that later), but I totally agree with him on synthetic meat – which I think will be a huge advance – and he makes good points about 3D printing, finance, and healthcare. In all areas, we're talking about some radical decentralization.

The Awesome

Okay, the last bit. The really cool stuff.

Scientists did some really cool things in 2014. I mean, some really scifi things. Quantum teleportation for instaneous communication, blood based nanites to repair your body, 3D food printers, hoverboards – 2014 was a really cool year for tech.

Meanwhile, the one news item that really made me jump was Lockheed Martin's announcement that in five years they'll have a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor. There are a lot of questions and criticisms of this, with many having doubts – but if anyone is going to deliver a power source that is clean and nearly limitless, it's going to be Lockheed Martin. And I hope it turns out correct, because I think that:

  1. It would provide enough energy to avoid the coming energy shortfalls as our iCivilization keeps getting bigger
  2. It would go a long way towards making climate change a nonissue
  3. It would go a long way towards getting the US out of the Middle East as we wouldn't have to worry about the oil reserves there
  4. It would weaken OPEC, Venezuela, and Russia (yes that's a cheap geopolitical shot but I think it's valid)
  5. A fusion rocket could get us from Earth to Mars in 30 days rather than six months
  6. It could power the warp drive that NASA is working on
  7. As energy is one of the largest input costs, this could make everything cheaper across the board by a considerable factor
  8. Bonus – Gundams.

I'm really hoping that 2015 will turn out to be even cooler.

And finally, for one last speculative item, there's a guy in Nebraska building a warp drive in his garage. Okay, okay, it's pretty far out there, man, but when you read stuff like this:

He turns around and points to the back of his garage door, where a red laser — beamed at the weight and reflected back against the door to demonstrate the movement happening in the case — drifts from its original spot. Slowly, in incremental amounts, the weight is drawn toward the V-shape motor.

You gotta wonder.

I’m With Elon: Let’s Colonize Mars

So Elon Musk wants to screw Earth and colonize Mars. Excellent, I completely agree. Let’s get started.

The interview Musk gave to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine is fantastic. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a forceful advocacy for space colonization, which is refreshing. It seems like the cause of space has languished over the past couple of decades while people want to focus on more down to Earth matters. I think they’re forgetting that many of our down to Earth matters could probably be solved by going outward and exploring new frontiers – and settling them!

My reasons are different than Musk’s, are, though. Musk seems to be afraid that, since we haven’t discovered any interstellar aliens in our searches of the night sky, something bad must have happened to all of them:

Musk has a more sinister theory [to the Fermi Paradox, basically –Jeremy]. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’

Personally, I’m more in favor of the Great Filter being life itself. Wait But Why has a great blog post on the Fermi Paradox and all of its implications, and count me as a guy who thinks that life is much harder to happen than Ross Anderson seems to think (going off what he writes in Aeon; it might be he’s just summarizing what others think and that’s not his own opinion.) I don’t look at this as a bad thing; instead, we now have the entire cosmos open to ourselves. We are the Ancients, the Precursors, the Progenitors of life in a barren and empty universe.

But not if we screw it up before we get out there.

I’m not talking about the existential fears that most people talk about. I’m not worried about nuclear war or plague or global warming killing us. To be sure, we have some problems for this century: we need to stamp out religious and ideological extremism that leads to violence; find new and renewable sources of energy to keep powering our civilization; and maybe not build artificial superintelligences in our basements. But I think these (well, to one extent or another) are all manageable. The problem I fear is one of philosophy, political science, and sociology. We need space colonization to overcome the dimming of the (classical) liberal vision.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long, long time. Well, over a year, to be more exact, but it’s been fluttering in my head for longer. The problem is that I’m finding it very hard to put it into words why we must colonize Mars – and the rest of space – to preserve classical liberalism and by extension civilization, freedom, and all those good things.

I look at the growth of government over the past century and I see it as expansion turning inwards. There is less for us to go out and explore, now. We no longer have a frontier, a Wild West where the government’s arm is distant and individuals rely on themselves. It seems very romantic, because it is very romantic – and of course, there were problems. Colonization uprooted and destroyed indigenous cultures all over the world, caused pain and suffering by bringing diseases, bloodshed, and slavery. The Wild West was not as dangerous as the Western movie genre made it out to be, but there was racism, crime, and an eye for an eye mentality in some parts. My point, being, though, was that as there was a frontier, there was an argument for freedom. Government could not expand inwards on people because there was somewhere to expand outwards.

But then the 20th century came. By now, there was nowhere left to expand to. The only uncolonized parts of our world are the Artic, the Antartic, and the bottom of the oceans – the first two being extremely inhospitable and undesirable, the latter uninhabitable until somebody decides to invent SeaQuest in the real world. (Get on that, Musk.) Now, the expanding mass of government ran up against a solid wall, and as it hit this wall it folded back in on itself and expanded back towards its center. Now it was expanding on top of itself, layering itself upon itself, burying beneath itself the seeds of liberalism and freedom. Where else could it go now but onto its own people?

We lost the frontier. On top of that, we continued to multiply. I hate thinking in this manner, but the law of supply and demand comes back to haunt me. We have all these people now, and we keeping having more, and I wonder, as supply goes up, does demand go down? It used to be you could know everyone in your community. Now, do we just look at others as statistics? Not even fully autonomous human beings? Do we think everyone around us is a p-zombie? It seems very crass on one hand – how can we apply supply and demand to people – and yet very conservative on the other – here I am talking about community and how the modern era has increased the distance between us and yadda yadda yadda. Not being that sort of conservative – or really, any conservative at all – it’s hard for me to put this into words.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to. From China, we have a couple of videos and stories of how low human life is valued:

Then there was the toddler who was run over by two vehicles and ignored by scores of passersby before finally receiving help. Again, this is from China.

These are just the two things that come to the top of my mind. I don’t know if it’s because there are a lot of people in China, if there’s something deeper in Chinese culture, or if these are really bad examples. But that is what I think of when I see rising population. Is this something we can overcome? Is it bound to happen?

Then there is the issue of running out of work for people. I know many scoff at the idea, but there is some concern of “technological unemployment”. My friend Travis Thornton has blogged about this subject before. Now personally I am all in favor of a post-scarcity economy, and I think it’s absolutely delightful that we’re heading towards one…but are we going to need a new thing to give us meaning? Why can’t that thing be a settled, terraformed Mars?

The moon terraformed, covered in blue seas, green forests, and whispy white clouds.
I have to admit, a terraformed Luna would look cool.
TerraformedMoonFromEarth“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I realize these thoughts are not entirely coherent or cogent. Like I said, I’m having difficulty putting what I’m thinking and feeling into words. That’s why I’m doing this blog post, to solicit feedback and comments and see if I’m on the right track. But essentially, what I see is that, to preserve classical liberalism, individual freedom, and a culture of the same, we need to start colonizing planets. We need to go with Musk and start doing this right now. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Mars. We should also colonize the Moon (though terraforming it would be a waste of time I think, since it doesn’t have enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, unless you paraterraform), and we should probably also build O’Neill and McKendree Cylinders. Eventually, we might even terraform Venus, build Banks Orbitals and a Ringworld (okay, fine, we can have one Halo off in the corner for all the first person shooter types) and then from there…

The galaxy will be our oyster.

But not if we get stuck here. It’s not the asteroids that will kill us, or the threat of alien invasion, or potential nuclear war or grey goo or artificial superintelligence. If anything does us in, it will be the banal overlayering of bureaucratic, authoritarian government, run by busybodies and people of little vision. Humanity needs a new frontier, and there are many out there: uninhabited, barren, lifeless, ready for us to come. We need that frontier to rekindle our spirit of freedom, and get us moving again. Take the germ of liberalism, and spread it across the stars.

That’s my vision for the future. And that means I’m right there with Elon Musk. Let’s go to Mars.

The Real Reason for Space Colonization: Spreading Liberty

Rand Simberg nails it:

“And one of the reasons that we need to get into space as soon as possible is not (as I naively thought over thirty years ago, when I first got interested in this) because we are running out of earthly resources, but because we need a new frontier into which to expand human freedom, lest that, the most vital resource, be lost on humanity’s birth world.”

We need to go out into space not just for resources and science, which are both important, but most importantly so that we can keep liberty alive. Because looking around today on Planet Earth, while I have hope for the future, it’s not doing so well. I earnestly believe, though, that if we establish a colony on Mars (and do it properly), the situation of living on another planet will naturally lead to a libertarian (or left-libertarian) society. You’ll have to pull your own weight, as there really won’t be any welfare to rely on. And you’ll have to let people live their own lives to a great extent, because you A) won’t have that policing bureaucracy to do it and B) most people who go to live far away are going to do so because the folks back home are too prying.

Anyways, I’ve always thought that a Martian colony would be pretty libertarian by necessity. Maybe I’m wrong.

Read Simberg here: http://www.transterrestrial.com/?p=45312

For rent: Kennedy Space Center

For rent: Kennedy Space Center facilities, launch pads – Science Fair: Science and Space News – USATODAY.com.

For once, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

Straight off the bat, this could be a huge moneymaking opportunity for NASA. Start-up costs are a major consideration in any endeavor, and building the proper launch facilities is quite expensive, I’d imagine. But renting out the KSC from NASA, well, I dunno how much NASA would charge, but it would have to be cheaper than building your launch facilities from scratch, and they’re probably better than most commercial launch sites, at least if you’re intending to send up manned spacecraft (that aren’t Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne.)

But secondly, this could also help re-ignite the drive to space. Since the 70’s we’ve been languishing in the space exploration department thanks to politics, which have bogged down any sort of continuation into the final frontier, while not really opening up the field to private organizations that are actually interested in it. See, this is the major problem with putting anything under the thumb of government: the politicians are only going to follow the majority of the public, that 51% (or less, in some cases) of voters that will put them in office, which means that if the majority of the public loses interest in space, we’re not going to do anything with it; and the minority who are interested can’t do anything about it because they would have to go through an indifferent, disinterested government. At least let them use their own resources–waste them, even–on getting into space, but let them do it. What harm could come of it? In fact, their purchasing of materials and labor would probably have given the economy a boost.

But, even if we’re a few decades late on this front, better late than never. I’m quite sure all the “private” spaceflight for the next 20 years will be some sort of public-private partnership, which I am told is the “worst of both worlds,” but I feel it must be better than having a fully public program. At least we’ll be getting people up there, and onto more than just the ISS. Who knows, maybe…the Moon? Mars? Or even the stars? (Okay, I did that just to make a rhyme.)

The Red Planet, ready for its close-up.
We need to get our redstone from somewhere.

I’m going to get lumped with other sci-fi writers out there for saying this, but so be it: it’s vital we get back into space. The last space race was a huge technological leap forward for our entire planet, and with what we have now, think of what could happen if we go to another one. Teflon is so 1980s; tomorrow we’ll have transparisteel! But not only that, there’s also the environment to consider. I’m not exactly the biggest greenie weenie out there, but I still care about Mother Earth, and its clear that we’re poisoning her, no doubt about it. We’re also running low on natural resources, at least those we need to sustain our global society, so we need to start looking for other places to get resources from.

And finally there’s the whole issue of just having an offworld colony as a “backup.” I don’t really think we’re going to have a mass extinction event in the next 100 years, but even so, there’s no harm in having an offworld colony. It might actually be good, stimulating trade, and most importantly, a sense of adventure that I feel has not been nourished very well for the past generation; sure, we feel it, but the only time it gets satiated is in a movie theater or playing a video game. No, I’m talking about really taking care of it. Then there’s the political possibilities; the last time we had a major colonization effort in the “New World,” there was a revolution and the establishment of the first modern representative democracy, with limited government and checks and balances. If we start colonizing Mars–or just space in general if we want to go the orbital habitat route, although that’s more effort-intensive–who knows what sort of political and societal revolutions we’ll engender. It could be the spark to re-ignite a stagnate global civilization. But we won’t know if we don’t go out there.

I look upon this with great interest and great hope. I’m sure something will get botched up, it always does, but hopefully there will be more good than bad coming out of this.