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Tuesday, 9 August 2011
John Brunner, Prophet? (updated)
Mood:  incredulous
Topic: musings

This is an update of an article I first wrote about science-fiction author and incidental futurist (he seems to been a futurist only to the degree required to write convincing science fiction) John Brunner around 2003 as an on-line footnote to a discussion in which I took part about the wikipedia.org article on Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar.  I first updated it for this blog in 2009, one year before the setting of Stand on Zanzibar. 

This is a good time to state flatly that this article's title "John Brunner, Prophet?" is a joke.  I am not really saying that John Brunner had prophetic power.  

The recent rash of gushing Internet articles about how Brunner presciently included a "president" whose last name was "Obomi" in Stand On Zanzibar is somewhere between an empty coincidence (the character "Zadkiel Obomi" was president of a country vaguely corresponding to the real-life Republic of Benin, not the United States of America) and just one more bit of idolatry of an American president - something John Brunner would have violently rejected in his own writings.

The update is simply changing the list to reflect what has happened at the date I am writing, April 1, 2013.  I anticipated the request of another Wikipedia editor that John Brunner's "hit/miss" record be considered in any look at the plot of Stand on Zanzibar several years ago, and I have tried to discuss Brunner's shortcomings as an accurate "prophet" while dealing with the things he got right.

One of the things in the news Brunner might be surprised about is the global recession brought about by the irresponsible spending and borrowing practices of several national governments, including that of the United States of America and several European nations.

Enjoy.

_____________________________________________________

I re-read the late John Brunner's science-fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar in 2003 and noticed that his record as a predictor is actually not bad. He wrote this novel in 1968, and apparently did a great deal of homework in the physical, biological and social sciences while writing - and it shows.

I took a few minutes then to draw up lists of things John Brunner predicted would happen in his novel by 2010.  I have been updating this list in the intervening 10 years; this is just the latest update, looking back from three years AFTER the date in which the novel is set. 

Predictions made by John Brunner in Stand on Zanzibar (1968, Ballantine, New York):


predictions which have been realized:

- widespread use of genetic engineering in consumer and industrial products - synthetic hormones such as insulin (once obtained from animal organs) and human growth hormone (originally made from human cadavers) are now produced by genetically altered bacteria.  Many genetically-engineered crop plants now incorporate natural pesticides or pest repellents to increase crop yields. 

This has led to a controversy Brunner did NOT anticipate - a worldwide reaction against "genetically modified organisms" in the human food chain (despite the fact that we have been modifying the genetic makeup of our food animals and plants by selective breeding for centuries).

I found it hilarious when one of Pope Benedict XVI's monsignors declared genetic engineering to be a "mortal sin, " for this man was obviously allergic to the cultural history of his own Church. 

In the mid-1800's Brother Gregor Mendel of the Augustinian order of friars in the Roman Catholic Church first demonstrated how to genetically engineer plants and animals in a truly systematic way, inventing the science of genetics by 1865. 

Several novel strains of plants exist bearing Mendel's name but more importantly, we have from him the Mendelian Laws of Inheritance which were the foundation of work in genetics until molecular biology came into existence as a result of the discovery of the structure of DNA. 

Since then, genetic engineering has saved countless lives as insulin, human growth hormone, and other molecules used to treat illness have been produced by altering a common bacterium found in the human gut - essentially allowing us to "brew" drugs once created by expensively and laboriously extracting them from human and animal tissues.  

(Coincidentally, the ability to "brew" human growth hormone saved hundreds of lives from a deadly, incurable disease transmitted by the hormone when it was extracted from the pituitary glands of dead humans, some of whom unknowingly carried the prion which causes Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease.  As it stands, almost a hundred pathologically short people and other users of the "old" human growth hormone have died of CJD.) 

As a sufferer of a very rare cancer of the nerves and endocrine tissues, I owe my own life to genetic engineering - the synthetic peptide somatostatin which has extended my life far beyond the average for those of us whose cancers have spread from the initial tumor is a direct product of genetic engineering processes.

So, the Roman Catholic Church can either boast of Mendel's work - it should, for it supported Brother Gregor through decades of patient experimentation - or condemn genetic engineering; it can't do both and still claim (as Joseph Ratzinger, the last Pope Benedict did) that "logic is at the seat of its deliberations."

- extensive mapping of the human genome -the entire human genome sequence was mapped in the 1990s - it fits inside a 10 gigabyte space on a hard drive or an iPod (where one head of the Human Genome Initiative kept his copy), but the functions of individual genes in that sequence are still being discovered, just as is happening in the book.

- use of genetic engineering techniques to confer un-natural colors to mammals - glow-in-the-dark mice in real life; in the book, it was red, purple and green dogs, among other things.

- use of commercial airliners for commuting to and from work and for very short tourist excursions (for example, an increasing number of tourists from all over the world fly into New Orleans just for the day, or for a day and a night, to take part in the city-wide Mardi Gras party).

- widespread use of international satellite television networks for news and entertainment - CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC, Sky News, al-Jazeera and Reuters in real life; Engrelay Satelserv and Reuters VideoAsia in the book. 

- “designer” (illicit) drugs with chemical structure and/or pharmaceutical properties unknown at the time the book was written - There are several chemicals of the phenethylamine group called empathogenic drugs, almost all of them either derivatives or chemical relatives of the amphetamines and a drug called MDMA.  

While the amphetamines and MDMA were known when Brunner wrote Stand on Zanzibar, these new drugs were developed in attempts to evade laws against illicit use of the existing drugs.  Some of the newer empathogenic drugs have properties which were not known when Stand on Zanzibar was written.

Several chemicals which target the same receptors in the brain as marijuana were marketed in the past couple of years and sold freely at convenience stores until state and Federal laws were enacted to outlaw their sale and possession; none of these drugs existed when Stand on Zanzibar was written, either, and their effects differ in several ways to those of marijuana.  

We're seeing a ridiculous amount of time, effort and money spent to outlaw otherwise innocuous chemicals for the offense of making people feel good - one of them, a cannabinoid developed by Hebrew University in Jerusalem, even has potential as an effective treatment for Alzheimer's Disease, but the War on Feeling Good has placed it on the infamous Schedule One of the US Controlled Substances List, when the molecule which it mimics, delta-tetrahydrocannabinol (d-THC) is now relatively legal on Schedule Two.  It's time to get Big Government out of our heads, and its head out of its ass.

The schizophrenic "semilegal" status of marijuana, legal in a growing number of US states, technically illegal at the Federal level, but with the Federal government lacking the money to even slow down traffic in marijuana nationwide was one thing John Brunner got absolutely right. 

- reversion of Indonesia (referred to as “Yatakang” in the book) to right-wing or centrist government - at the time Brunner began his book, Indonesia was leftist and had previously sought to overturn governments in neighboring Malaya and Brunei; by the date of publication, Suharto had deposed the previous leftist autocrat Sukarno in a right-wing coup that had to be the inspiration for the right-wing insurgency under Jogajong in Stand on Zanzibar's "Yatakang."

- supercomputers so densely constructed as to require cooling by liquid helium - the supercomputer in Stand on Zanzibar was called "Shalmaneser" and similar (but smaller) supercomputers had other Old Testament names; in real life, most real super-computers requiring super-cooling are products of various companies founded by Seymour Cray, and referred to as "Crays," used for cracking military and civilian codes and mapping ocean bottoms or predicting weather; some are very useful in designing new drugs and predicting their activity in human beings.  

New architectures for supercomputers are being developed continually; mathematician brothers David and Gregory Chudnovsky built a series of supercomputers from networked personal computers to calculate the value of pi to huge numbers of digits; later, these computers were also used to design investment strategies for Wall Street bankers and correct digital copies of the "Hunt of the Unicorn" tapestries; the US Government has commissioned the Chudnovskys to design a computer with an expanded version of their architecture called the C64 for secret work.

- widespread online access to reference information - with much less effort than we used to get this information at libraries or from encyclopedias at home, students, researchers and the merely curious can turn on a computer and get answers on anything from trivia to very detailed physical and biological questions from a variety of competing sources.

- widespread change of sexual and family relationship norms and mores in industrialized societies - same-sex marriages, "intentional families" and polyamorous relationships. 

- local restaurants which accept orders through the telephone/computer network and deliver to your home - anything from pizza to a variety of different ethnic foods, some not available to Americans at the time Brunner wrote Stand on Zanzibar, such as Vietnamese or Ethiopian cuisine, can be ordered from local restaurants over the Internet. 

- China eclipsing Russia as a strategic military threat to the United States of America - a feat partly accomplished by the availability of cheap, massive computer power and the ability of a few Chinese professionals to steal gigabytes of secret codes for design of nuclear weapons simply by stealing small hard drives, static RAM "thumb drives" which are actually smaller than the human thumb, or other digital storage media, and availability of huge capital for expansion of the Chinese armed forces as their industries came to dominate world markets for manufactured goods.

- widespread adoption of military weapons and tactics (e.g., “SWAT” teams) by local police forces to deal with riots and other forms of violent public disorder - this has come to include formerly secret and intensely expensive "drone" spy aircraft for taking overhead photographs, now being sold to local police departments and the center of a burning controversy over whether people have a right to expect their travels in public to be private; the other side of the issue is that several abductions of children and women could have been solved very quickly if overhead photography of the crime scene been available; lives of the victims might have been saved if photos of the abduction in progress been taken.

- multinational corporations with resources exceeding those of many small nations - Google and Microsoft, at present.

I had General Motors in this list, but it's clear that "Government Motors" only figures as a multinational if the Obama administration is standing by to steal from other people who manage their money responsibly and give their money to companies whose main function has become to pay very generous welfare benefits to the membership of the United Auto Workers union.  

Some of those workers are paid by a contractor of GM's to play Monopoly on the California assembly line where the huge batteries for the hybrid power system of the Chevrolet Volt are made - since 25,000 Chevy Volts sit unsold, they don't have anything else to do.

______________________________________________________

- organized bands of terrorist saboteurs outside combat zones - killing civilians seems to be the major activity of HAMAS, several independent Islamist terror gangs, and Al-Qaeda.

- acts of mass destruction - terrorism - committed as political or religious protest (see above);

- widespread commission of mass murder by irrational individuals

Examples of these three predictions coming to pass in real life - the terrorist attacks on:

September 11th, 2001 (New York City and Washington DC, USA),

July 7th, 2005 (London, UK),

April 19th, 1995 (Oklahoma City, USA),

July 22nd, 2011 (Oslo and Utøya, Norway) terrorist attacks,

and the March 20, 1995 release of the lethal military nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway system by Aum Shinrikyo cultists.

______________________________________________________

- widespread dissemination of formulas for explosives, poisons, incendiaries, fully-automatic weapons and other means of mass destruction by pamphlet, circular, magazine and online information services - perhaps the most extreme example of this might be Howard Morland's publication in The Progressive magazine of basic design concepts for the secondary or fusion stage of thermonuclear weapons, which may have contributed at least to fusion-boosting of the Indian, Pakistani and North Korean nuclear arsenals, but the idea goes back toThe Anarchist's Cookbook (compiled by its author as a resource for anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War) and reprints of the US Army's three-volume Improvised Munitions Handbook, (compiled by the Army as a resource for special forces troops engaged in or expected to engage in the sort of warfare the author of the other book detested). 

That this is a significant development can be deduced by Aum Shinrikyo's synthesis of the lethal military nerve agent  sarin and other military poisons and biological weapons for terrorist use, multiple lslamist terror groups having the formula for the obscure explosive TATP (which can be made from materials available at beauty salons), and Al-Qaeda in Yemen's manufacture of the explosive PETN.  There's obviouly a lot of note-sharing in the terrorist community.

- widespread online access to literature - Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) is a collection of books in the public domain, free over the Internet to anyone who wants to read it; for literature still protected by copyright, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and other huge booksellers offer the ability to Internet users to purchase and read virtually ANY published work instantly.  

JSTOR.org offers access to millions of published academic papers for a modest fee, and free under some cases (I use it as a private researcher and have had access to papers on obscure topics such as Hisperic Latin without paying a cent).  

Most academic and scientific journals are available over the Internet now; it's a rare paper on a topic of any importance that requires a visit to the library these days.

- widespread online access to pornography - However you choose to define pornography, it and the Internet were almost joined at the hip, even before the Internet was made available to non-university customers (graduate assistants seemed to have an insatiable appetite for viewing nude bodies in sexual congress, judging from the number of university Internet accounts hosting sexually explicit images).

- economic and political integration of Europe as a "super state" - still on-going - European military commands are still predominantly national with coordination by NATO and other European groups which govern military activity, while fiscal policy for the continent is anything but unitary; national governments on the Mediterranean rim of Europe, Ireland, Iceland, and elsewhere have systematically over-spent and caused drains on the financial system of the rest of the European Community, while countries like Slovenia with responsible fiscal policies and formerly sound economies are now floundering in depression as markets for their products (cars and trucks in Slovenia's case) disappear.

- screening potential parents for genetically transmissible diseases or defects - increasingly routine, especially when a family history suggests a heritable genetic defect may exist.

- majority rule in South Africa - politicians with the ruling white minority party in South Africa arranged to release African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela to broker majority rule with as little violence as reasonably could have been expected under any circumstances, arranging beforehand to dismantle the country's secret nuclear arsenal.

- hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell technology usable in automobiles - however, we don't have the cheap electricity from fusion power plants that would make hydrogen a cheap and attractive fuel here in the United States.  The Shell Oil company is selling hydrogen for automotive use in Iceland, where a great supply of geothermal power is used to make cheap electricity, and hydrogen can be made on the spot with this electricity.  Since nuclear fusion-generated electricity may be a reality here in the United States as early as 2020, commonly available hydrogen-fueled automobiles may be closer than we think. 

- military side arms which can fire very small missiles with explosive warheads - the US Army’s XM25 "Punisher" 25mm Counter Defilade Target Engagement System in real life, the “kazow” in Stand on Zanzibar.

- a technology for mining some metals from the bottom of the sea which has problems with profitability - four years after Stand on Zanzibar was published, undersea metal nodule mining would be the cover activity for the CIA-financed retrieval of a sunken Soviet missile submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

- territorial expansion of China into the Western Pacific - in real life, this is evidenced by the construction of military bases by China in the disputed Spratly and Paracel island chains, the establishment of a Chinese county government on one of the Spratly Islands and the dispute between Japan and China over control of the Senkaku Island chain; China also props the government of North Korea up as cat's paw and stalking horse, in an obvious quest to ease the United States of America out of the Western Pacific.

- widespread use of atomic clock standards in clocks and watches - atomic clocks throughout the world broadcast time signals that are used to automatically set watches, clocks and computers to the correct time.

- legalization/”decriminaliztion” of marijuana and other psychedelic drugs - it's a fact for marijuana when a medical condition can be identified that can respond to the drug in Colorado and California states in the United States of America, Colorado and Washington states have legalized possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use, while Portugal has gone over to treating drug abuse as a public health problem and not a criminal offense.

- a subculture of people who commit sabotage of public transportation, water mains, other parts of the “infrastructure” as a hobby. - Apart from hacking of computers that control industrial and medical equipment and banking transactions - such as the "Stuxnet" computer virus that was used to destroy parts of the Iranian nuclear program by (allegedly) the USA and Israel, this is a very poorly publicized problem, but "recreational sabotage" has occurred for decades - one example being the unbolting of plates joining Southern Pacific rails near Palo Verde, Arizona in 1995, causing derailment of an Amtrak passenger train, one death and injury to 78 people.


Predictions from Stand on Zanzibar which were not yet realized by 2010:

-eugenic legislation to coercively prevent birth of children with genetically transmitted or somatic defects, including state-mandated sterilization and abortion. 

 widespread legalization/”decriminaliztion” of marijuana and other psychedelic drugs - statist interference with the individual's right to alter his or her own consciousness (an "unenumerated right" none the less guaranteed by the Tenth Amendment) is the one thing the two major political parties can agree on in Congress, but the states of Colorado and Washington have very recently legalized the sale and possession of marijuana despite Federal bans on the sale and possession of marijuana throughout the United States of America.  

The conflict between those states and the Federal government will probably happen in the courts; but if the Obama administration is as ham-handed in trying to enforce the Federal government's laws against marijuana as it is in enforcing gun control and outlawing religious display in the US military (where servicemen and servicewomen who openly share their faith in their off hours or even read the Rosary in public are subject to court-martial), armed conflict between the Federal government and state and local governments is not impossible.

- self-aware computer(s) - although it's anticipated that by 2020 we'll see roughly the same neural net complexity in electronic computers that exists in the human brain, allowing for heuristic programming that could equal or exceed the ability of the human brain to do what the mind does now.

- widespread use of hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell technology in automobiles - it's really cheaper at present to plug a gasoline/electric hybrid or pure electric car into the wall at night when the car's used in town; over longer distances, the jury's out on whether hydrogen offers any cost advantages over even $4/gallon gasoline.  Electricity will get cheaper as new technologies for generating it appear.

- commercial power generation by nuclear fusion  -  In what may be the single most useful "stimulus" package from the Obama administration, the US Navy and US Department of Energy are funding development of a highly novel way to generate power by nuclear fusion.  Half of an $8 million grant for this research has been spent and the research is reportedly proceeding in a research facility in San Diego, California on schedule.    

Compare this with perhaps $18 billion spent on other approaches to thermonuclear fusion as a way to make electricity by the US Department of Energy and its institutional predecessor, the US Atomic Energy Commission and another 10 billion euros by the European fusion research community over a period of sixty years. In this time, very few time targets have been met on the research, most recently, a nuclear fusion reactor known as ITER is being built with partial funding by the US in France, a reactor still plagued by missed targets for progress and cost overruns, and slated to cost 15 billion euros.

A perspective: former US Atomic Energy Commission physicist, the late Dr. Robert W. Bussard demonstrated that electrostatic inertial confinement fusion at room temperature could produce more power - in the form of electricity - than was used to initiate the fusion reaction, and could do so without creating troublesome neutron radiation.  

Neutrons are the rays that make the tons of radioactive waste from present-day nuclear reactors; the fusion reactors on which Big Government has spent $18 billion to date would ALSO make dense fluxes of neutrons and thus tons of nuclear waste.

Dr. Bussard's test reactor was small enough to sit on a desktop.  The proposed proof of concept reactor would be four meters across, and weigh perhaps 18 tons, which makes it the smallest (and probably cheapest) proposed fusion power reactor ever. 

 As designed it would be (theoretically) capable of generating a billion watts of electrical power, which would make it as powerful as a standard-sized commercial fission nuclear reactor.  Theoretically (again), the power of these reactors increases not linearly, but asymptotically with size - an eight-meter wide Bussard Polywell reactor should produce 128 gigawatts of power, making it more powerful than any electrical generating device known to man.

While it's encouraging that stimulus funds are being used to develop a technology that could massively improve the quality of life for all Americans in a very short period of time, why are we, in fiscally tight times, still spending billions trying to get the old "Tokamak" thermonuclear fusion technology to work after half a century of failure after failure?

Thermonuclear fusion power is a "promising" technology because it's been promising results for fifty years and failing to deliver all that time.

- inhabited bases for scientific research on the Moon - there's no REAL reason to do this when computer-controlled lunar and Mars probes can do the same science much more cheaply and safely.   Projects like mining helium-3 - a fusion power fuel - from lunar rock are useful mainly to create a rationale for manned lunar exploration.  Nuclear fusion can proceed quite well from the electrostatic inertial confinement fusion of boron-11 (80% of natural boron is boron-11, very cheap and here on Earth) with much less equipment than would be needed to "burn" helium-3.  Spending the money on the boron-11 - proton reactor would cost millions; helium-3 from the Moon would cost billions.

- orbital weapons platforms - none are in operation as far as we know, but Iran has just orbited a satellite, and it can just as easily orbit a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) - essentially, one or more H-bombs in orbit waiting for a radio command to fall on a target.  The Russians are infamous for breaking more arms limitations treaties than they honor, so they may have an orbital weapons platform as well.

- rapid transit by electrically accelerated trains in evacuated tunnels;

- “pocket nukes” using less stable fissile materials than do standard nuclear weapons.

- outlawing of tobacco altogether in the US and other developed nations.

- Puerto Rico requesting and being granted US statehood.

- request for and granting of US statehood to the  Phillippine Islands.

- outbreak of open hostilities between the US and the People’s Republic of China in the Pacific.

- covering of Manhattan Island and environs ("Greater New York") by a large, single geodesic dome. 

- elimination of internal-combustion engines and most personally-owned vehicles nationwide in US.

 

Predictions from Stand on Zanzibar unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future:

-eugenic legislation to coercively prevent birth of children with genetically transmitted or somatic defects, including state-mandated sterilization and abortion (issue: the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution forbids interference with a citizen's person to this degree; the Roe v. Wade decision could be interpreted as reinforcing a woman's right to bear a genetically-challenged child).

- rapid transit by electrically accelerated trains in evacuated tunnels - issue: excavating tunnels long enough to provide long-haul transportation across the United States would probably require the use of many directional noncontaminating nuclear explosives (see John McPhee's The Curve of Binding Energy).  Apart from that, the costs for metal for accelerator coils and power handling, together with the continuing power demand for vacuum pumps to keep the tunnels in vacuum make it questionable that there is any cost advantage to this mode of transportation. 

Maglevs are still more boondoggle than practical in the United States; doubtless in John Brunner's native Britain the situation is different, if only because the distance between Land's End on the southern tip of Great Britain and John O'Groats on its northern edge is shorter than the length of many American states, and the towns connected by Interstate highways in the US are already connected by railroad rights-of-way in the UK.).

- “pocket nukes” using less stable fissile materials than do standard nuclear weapons - issue: anything much more fissile than plutonium will have problems of radiotoxicity from either neutron flux or gamma radiation either directly or from daughter products. 

Californium-252, for example, was proposed for the pocket nuke fissile by Herman Kahn in On Thermonuclear War but in reality proved a non-starter - I've seen a californium-252 neutron source (nothing even close to a bare crit for an explosion) being moved from its dedicated semi into the Louisiana State University Nuclear Science Center - the evolution involved about eight or ten people pushing the 55-gallon drum in which a source the size of a nine-millimeter pistol cartridge was moved with very long poles to where an overhead crane could be attached to it for transfer into a dedicated very large pool of water. 

Anything fissile enough to sustain a nuclear detonation from a projectile small enough to be launched from a sidearm would have similar radiological properties (if you're interested, the smallest nuclear warhead I know about is the W54, one version of which, the Mk54 "Davy Crockett," could be fired from a special recoilless rifle mounted on the back of a Jeep or on a tripod - it weighed 76 pounds.  It had a yield selectable between 10 and 20 tons of TNT).  

Jokingly known to US soldiers in Europe as "the nuclear hand grenade," the W54 was so powerful that special care had to be taken to avoid killing the crew that launched it with nuclear weapons effects. 

- Puerto Rico requesting and being granted US statehood - issue: the status quo of Puerto Rico - a Commonwealth with no representation in Congress, hence no liability for Federal income tax, yet which receives a LOT of Federal funding for its government operations has been affirmed through several elections and referenda. 

I personally don't see any reason for either Puerto Riquennos or Congress to pursue a change in status toward statehood.  We own that dirt and can legally defend it.  That's all we care about.

- request for and granting of US statehood to the Phillippine Islands - issue: absolutely no support in Congress for the inclusion of a "state" with several million intensely nationalistic potential welfare recipients and other folks eligible for extensive Federal subsidies and earned income credits, and several armed insurrectionist groups, at least one of which is an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

As it is, we might lose Hawaii, Texas and Alaska sometime this century.  There are strong secession movements in each of those states, and petitions for secession from all 50 states in the White House Web site (a new development during the presidency of Barack Obama).

The most realistic candidates for addition to the Union have always been the western provinces of Canada - you hear talk among industrialists and other magnates in those areas from time to time about secession from Canada if Quebec seceded, and some sort of approach to Washington. 

Much would depend on (a) Washington unsnarling its present addiction to deficit spending and partisan bickering and (b) a dramatic political catastrophe in Canada which is unlikely to occur as long as Quebec enjoys its current special status as a Francophone enclave.  So far, this has sated the appetite of Quebecois for secession, but if (say) Montreal were found to be floating on huge deposits of oil, all bets are off. 

- covering of Manhattan Island and environs ("Greater New York") by a large, single geodesic dome - issue: WHY?  There's no overpowering social or economic good in such a structure, and the cost would be immense, both of initial construction and upkeep. There are also the issues of ventilation and damage to the dome by snowload (something which takes out the roof of a large building in northern parts of the US with regularity.

- elimination of internal-combustion engines and most personally-owned vehicles nationwide in US - issue: the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution assures that citizens have the right to be secure in their property; in practice, this has resulted in several legally proscribed items such as machine guns remaining in private hands when they were owned by an individual before they were outlawed.  This is called "grandfathering."

Cheap electricity (perhaps from the US Navy's Polywell nuclear fusion power plant design) could make enough hydrogen available nationwide to keep individually-owned motor cars a decent economic possibility for the 21st century. Conversion of older cars to operate on hydrogen is not difficult or particularly expensive.  So fuel cells or even internal combustion of hydrogen are still in the future as strong possibilities.

Another often-heard argument against privately-owned automobiles is that driving skills aren't what they need to be in the populace.  Google took care of that problem - they've been successfully testing self-driven cars for years now.  

The only real obstacle to self-driven cars now is the moderate expense of installing the necessary hardware.  That'd be cheaper on new cars than retrofitting existing cars, but this is more of a political issue than an economic one.  The Democratic Party's pet union, the Teamsters, is bound to object strongly to the elimination of millions of their members' jobs by Google's self-driving technology.

This list is not exhaustive or definitive by any means, just a way of starting a discussion and honoring the memory of John Brunner; whether one agreed with his politics or not (I didn't, particularly), his contribution to futurism and science fiction is undoubted.


Posted by V.P. Frickey at 5:13 PM EDT
Updated: Friday, 3 May 2013 2:57 PM EDT
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Friday, 10 December 2010
Freeman Dyson on the relative value of error and vagueness

"...it is better to be wrong than to be vague."

- Freeman Dyson, The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, 1999

On the surface, this seems to contradict the blog entry below, quoting Richard Feynman on the value of doubt. 

There's a great point here, though.  Without a firm, logical stance from which to proceed with reason and research, there's no real way to do science.  Even if your starting point is wrong and you know it to be wrong, you can still observe the world around you, reason logically, and get to the truth.

But if your starting point is vaguely defined, you don't know where you're starting from.   No matter how valid your observations are, you don't know what you're comparing them to, exactly.

Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman are closer than they appear to be.  Feynman was openly critical many times of the social sciences because to him, they abused the language of science to describe processes which have not been investigated with the necessary rigor - to Feynman, they were irretrievably vague.  He would have been happier if the social scientists had proceeded as the physical scientists had - with a rigor and with easily reproducible experiments. 

Feynman cites the example of a behaviorist named Young who was studying the behavior of rats in mazes - the rats would always head for a certain door in a maze where food had once been, regardless of whether the food they were seeking was moved around.   The doors of the maze were uniform in size and appearance; he changed the lighting, the odor of the food the rats were seeking, made the texture of each door identical - the rats always went for the same door.  Eventually he found the rats could tell by the sound their paws made on the floor what door they were near.  He put the maze on sand and was finally able to train the rats to go to the door he wanted them to go to.  

Feynman noted that this experiment isn't referred to in later studies; it was more about sources of experimental error than about rats, and subsequent researchers kept on running rats through corridors and mazes without studying this experiment.  This, Feynman said, was characteristic of what he called "cargo cult science," science which wasn't careful to rule out all potential sources of error.

Young was doing real science and no one else in his field was interested.  He started off wrong, but not vague, and actually found out where he was wrong and succeeded in real scientific terms. 

It is better to be wrong than vague. 


Posted by V.P. Frickey at 3:26 AM EST
Updated: Monday, 13 December 2010 3:34 PM EST
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Richard Feynman on The Value of Doubt

"The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think.

When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt.

We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.

Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true.

Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure.

I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained."


Richard Feynman. "The Value of Science," address to the National Academy of Sciences (Autumn 1955)

Doubt isn't just important, it's crucial

Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, describes how doubt allows science to proceed; old paradigms of how the world works are continually being challenged by new observations which contradict them.  New theories are formulated which support new ways of looking at the world.  If newer observations at a later date call these new theories into question, then hopefully careful work and reasoning will either affirm or contradict the theory - and the process starts over. 

It's neither a neat nor an easy process - Einstein was bitterly criticized by people who believed in a linear, Newtonian universe; in turn, he was critical of probabilistic quantum mechanics - but by 1964, the very quantum entanglement that Einstein (in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox) thought pointed to a crucial flaw in probabilistic quantum mechanics was shown by John Bell to be experimentally provable; now we can not only demonstrate quantum entanglement but apply it to cryptography. 

If our scientists were happy to accept certainty, and refuse to doubt, we'd still be dealing with Newtonian physics.  Nuclear physics, electronics, molecular biology as we know them wouldn't exist.   We owe modern civilization to doubt. 

 

 


Posted by V.P. Frickey at 3:10 AM EST
Updated: Monday, 13 December 2010 3:00 PM EST
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Monday, 6 December 2010
Mind at Play

Mind at Play was the title of a book by Stephen Gaskin, who founded the rather metastatic commune known as "The Farm," which was quirky even for a commune in the 1970s. 

The book was nothing special, really; I reviewed it for the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate back when my "day job" was with the Louisiana State Capitol Police.  Gaskin did what he set out to do, explain his philosophy and describe what he and the others in the Farm were up to, and on that level his book succeeded. 

(Perhaps my mildly sour attitude toward Stephen Gaskin and his works is partly informed by the fact that a girl with whom I'd been infatuated early in my college career went off to join his commune, which meant she was no longer available to me.  So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut said.)

But I loved the title of that book.  Mind at play.  What a concept.

That's why I love the Internet, computers, and electronics in general.  Since I was a kid, I loved the idea of telephones, radio and television - that property of being able to be here and there at the same time.  It's almost preternatural to be able to be remotely present, when you think about it, and our entire technological base moves us in that direction.  Increasingly, many of us are here and there at the same time.  Our minds are, to an extent, now free to roam at will.

I'm in the kitchen of my son's home in south Louisiana, about forty miles west of New Orleans.  At the same time, I am even now updating a blog which (I hope) friends from all over the world will read, because it's linked to posts of mine in Wikipedia, some of my other online work, the Clarion West Writers Workshop (with whom I have no formal relationship as yet, but I'm hoping), and other places.

(I really revived this blog after a long gestation because it's a clean slate on which I can write.  My first post was an appreciation of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar as a work of futurism, so it was a good place to start talking about science, science fiction, and other things about which I'm at least mildly passionate.)

Earlier, I checked my bank balance back in Denver, where I live; checked my Email; downloaded directions to my sister's place a hundred miles or so away so I can visit some of my siblings later today, and have had the novel (to me) experience of watching movies over my son's video game console through Netflix. 

Among other things, I renewed my acquaintance last night with the original BBC television version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I maintain still is head and shoulders better than the Hollywood version.  (Who the hell decided that Mos Def was a good cast for Ford Prefect, anyway?)

Of course, the Internet can be used for evil as well, as my grandson showed me by introducing me to the animated series based on Spaceballs.  No technology has just one moral side.  Sometimes our minds can wind up in strange places, indeed.


Posted by V.P. Frickey at 7:42 AM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 9 August 2011 8:21 PM EDT
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The Pursuit of Happiness

Each of us seeks God, or fulfillment, or happiness – or even just life – in our own way.  The challenge in life is for us as people not to become impatient with each other in how we do this.  This is what we call “love,” accommodating each other in our search to be more whole.   The extent to which we do this is the extent to which we succeed as friends, as lovers, as spouses, as parents and children – as people.

 As a people, ultimately, for America was founded partly on the idea that we should allow each other to pursue happiness as much as we can. 

Thomas Jefferson may have been a flawed man in a flawed time (as are we all), but his genius, his contribution to human culture was the recognition that as people, perhaps our greatest contribution to each other is to allow each other to pursue happiness.   That he put this in the seminal document of the history of the United States of America has been our great good luck.

The Pursuit of Happiness is referred to only in the Declaration of Independence.  It is not part of the Constitution, and perhaps it doesn’t belong in our binding law, but as a moral obligation of each American to each other American.  If we can’t remember that our forefathers, those men who stumbled their way to create a great nation, intended for us not to bind each other in straightjackets of our own fears and weaknesses, but to free each other and ourselves to be great and happy – then that is when we stop being who we started to be on July 4th, 1776.  And that would be a shame.


Posted by V.P. Frickey at 7:19 AM EST
Updated: Friday, 10 December 2010 3:20 AM EST
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Wednesday, 24 November 2010
We could have fusion power pretty quickly - if we ask for the right sort.

We could be as little as five years away from clean, cheap fusion power.  All we'd have to do is stop funding the wrong sort of fusion reactor, and try building one that works.

Fusion, if you need a refresher, is one of two nuclear reactions that can give us energy.

Nuclear fission, the reaction we now use in nuclear power plants, splits the center (or "nucleus") of a heavy atom like uranium, thorium or plutonium into smaller atoms to release energy in the form of heat and radiation.  We also use fission in nuclear weapons.

Nuclear fusion is a reaction in which light atoms like hydrogen, lithium, boron or helium are fused together into larger atoms, which also releases energy and radiation.  Nuclear fusion is used along with fission in some nuclear weapons (usually the ones called "hydrogen bombs").

Nuclear fusion is harder to make happen outside of a hydrogen bomb.  So far, fusion reactors are great, huge things that consume more power than they make because trying to make thermonuclear fusion happen in a confined space requires heavy hydrogen isotopes (a mixture of deuterium and tritium) to be bombarded with intense beams of energy. 

The elusive goal of thermonuclear fusion research is to get more energy from the fusion reaction than you have to pump into the fuel to cause the reaction to happen.  By contrast, the very first fission nuclear reactor (under the west stands at Amos Alonzo Stagg Field at the University of Chicago in 1942) made more energy than it consumed (essentially none) from the beginning.

And because the hydrogen-helium fusion reaction emits neutrons, thermonuclear fusion reactors large and powerful enough to make electrical power will create large amounts of nuclear waste as parts of the reactor have to be removed and replaced as the cloud of neutrons makes them radioactive, and eventually, structurally weak.  Neutron embrittlement of steel will be one of the besetting problems of the type of fusion reactor that we've been trying to get to work so far. 

But there are different ways to make this reaction happen that haven't really been explored with the money and energy that have gone into the big-iron thermonuclear reactors built so far, such as the monstrous ITER reactor under construction in France (with American help in funding and design). 

Possibly the most promising one - one which its developers say could be producing power in as little as three to five years - is the Bussard Polywell fusion reactor.

The late Dr. Robert Bussard, the father of the concept of the "interstellar ramscoop," was one of the major exponents of the inertial confinement fusion (ICF) concept.

Not many years ago, Dr. Bussard presented a talk at Google entitled "Should Google go Nuclear?" (amid rumors that Sergei Brin and some of the other investors in Google were thinking about funding him):

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1996321846673788606

For those who, like me, like written presentations of technical data better, there's a written transcript:

http://askmar.com/ConferenceNotes/Should%20Google%20Go%20Nuclear.pdf

and a Web page on the progress made by Dr. Bussard's group:

http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/01/bussards-inertial-electrostatic.html

ICF doesn't have to emit or use neutrons - the boron-11 (80% of natural boron is boron-11) + proton (ionized hydrogen) inertial confinement reaction emits no neutrons and it emits charged particles that can be captured in the magnetically-active inertial confinement grid to produce electrical current directly. 

Boron-11 + proton  -->  several Helium  nuclei + a lot of energy which is captured when the Helium nuclei hit the containment grid after the reaction

Producing electrical current in the reactor is something no other reactor design, fusion or fission, does.  It's brilliant - it has far fewer systems and parts than other reactor designs.  Instead of a huge concrete reactor dome next to a large concrete building holding the generators and water pumps and auxiliary diesel generators, a Bussard Polywell fusion power reactor would sit in a single building, about a story or two tall.   The transformers would be the same, because electrical power is electrical power.

What's better is that the power wasted when a nuclear reactor or an oil or coal furnace heats water into steam to spin electrical generators, then pumps the water from the cooled steam back into the reactor is not wasted in this design.  Much more of the energy made by the Bussard Polywell design goes out of the reactor as electricity.

Finally, and best of all - no meltdowns.  When a Polywell fusion reactor breaks, it just stops.  No explosions, no radioactivity, no muss, and no fuss.

Calculations indicate that a full-scale Polywell IEC reactor could produce as much as 128 gigawatts of power.  Normal fission reactors and oil and coal power plants top out at 1 - 2 gigawatts. 

And Polywell fusion reactors are much, much cheaper to build per unit of energy generated than current nuclear reactors - which, since nuclear power is already the cheapest sort of power to make (except possibly hydroelectricity, which in most countries requires the flooding of vast tracts of land to create the needed reservoirs of water behind power dams), would make them the cheapest power plants per unit of energy to make anywhere.

The projected cost to build the first power-generating Polywell IEC reactor is about $200 million, with a generating capacity of a gigawatt.  The reactor would be 4 meters (about 4.3 yards or 13 feet) across and weigh 14 tons.  You could install one inside a medium-sized freighter.

http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/01/bussards-inertial-electrostatic.html

By comparison, it costs between $2,000 million ($2 billion) and $3,800 million ($3.8 billion) dollars to build modern fission power plants for a generating capacity of 1.05 and 1.15 gigawatts.

http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2007/01/17/18348080.php

So electricity made by Polywell fusion plants could cost up to nineteen times less than electricity generated by existing nuclear plants.  And if the boron-11 + proton reaction can be made to work in large Polywell reactors, this would be CLEAN nuclear power, with no neutrons and very little, perhaps no radioactive waste.

Say that three-fourths of your utility bill is related to power generation costs and fuel, and your power is all made by nuclear power plants (both very conservative assumptions favoring present-day utilities).  If you pay 12 cents/kilowatt-hour for power, 9 cents of that may be traceable to power plant operations and fuel. 

Replace the current power plant with a Polywell fusion power plant, and this part of your electricity rate drops to 0.47 cent.  Your overall power rate becomes 3.47 cents instead of 12 cents.  You get to spend 8.5 cents per kilowatt-hour you use on other things, assuming your power use remains the same.  Your power bill drops by 71 percent.

If you, for the sake of argument, use 2,000 kilowatt-hours of power a month, your power bill is 240 dollars a month if you pay 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.  Drop that rate to 4.8 cents and your bill drops to $69.40.

Interestingly, power output in Polywell reactors varies exponentially with physical size.

Double that hypothetical 4-meter Polywell reactor in size and you get a reactor theoretically capable of generating 128 gigawatts!

I don't know how much that 8-meter Polywell reactor would cost to build, but even if it cost a billion dollars, the part of your electricity bill traceable to power plant construction and operation would be reduced up to 128 times.

Using that analysis of mine again, this part of your present 12 cents per kilowatt-hour electrical power rate falls to 0.07 cents.  Your rate could drop to 3.07 cents per kilowatt-hour. 

Say again that you use two thousand kilowatt-hours a month.  At 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, now you pay $240 a month for power.  At 3.07 cents per kilowatt-hour, that bill is now $61.40 most of it payroll, debt service, maintenance of the power distribution grid, etc.  The power generation cost (assuming a 128 gigawatt power plant) for 2000 kilowatt-hours would be $1.40.

Since nuclear power right now is twice as cheap as coal power and many times cheaper than oil, even cheaper still than natural gas, the cost advantage of Polywell fusion power over fossil power is even greater.

Why aren't we spending even a fraction of the money ($18 billion, to date) we have spent and are spending to help build unpromising fusion technology such as the big-iron, barely break-even, not commercially useful ITER reactor in France to develop Polywell fusion reactors, instead?

Good question.  DefenseNews.com thought so, too.  Their take on why the US Government is still funding yesterday's thermonuclear fusion program rather than jumping on today's technology is in this document: Why the U.S. Isn’t Funding A Promising Energy Technology


Posted by V.P. Frickey at 9:56 PM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 9 August 2011 8:33 PM EDT
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Sunday, 21 November 2010
Context May Not Be Everything, But It's a Lot
Topic: musings

CCCP.  The first thing we get from Google on a search of that sequence of letters now is "Combined Community Codec Pack," but even the proprietors of that Web site know that the letters were once dark and evil magic to many of us not citizens of the Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, - in English, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as Russia and its satrapies were known from 1918 to 1991. The software firm now pulls on the iconography of that political entity to amuse themselves and their customers.

The next two entries in the Google search and the fifth also refer to the Combined Community Codec PackThe fourth points to the Wikipedia entry for the Soviet Union, and in Wikipedia, "CCCP" will direct you either to that page or to a disambiguation page where you can choose to remember that those four letters mean something entirely different in the Cyrillic alphabet given to the Slavs by Saints Cyril and Methodius than they do in our Roman alphabet.

Some of us, when we think of "CCCP," imagine it stenciled on the side of an intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at our homeland, a cargo of nuclear or biological destruction in its nose cone, or on the side of a  tank blowing some hapless Czech or Hungarian off of the roof of a building, next to the Communist hammer and sickle.  Others see a benign movement away from pogroms, the knout, and Tsarist absolutism in Russia, the idealism of the October Revolution, and the energetic technological might of the Soviet Union's postwar years.  Each of us has his or her own narrative on the Soviet Union.

Later generations, those of us born after 1991, may now regard a similar shape to the hammer and sickle with apprehension and even anger; the sickle, divested of its handle and the intersecting hammer, is the Crescent of Islam.  On September 11th, 2001 that shape became in some minds a new dark and distrusted sigil. 

Others choose to see a culture in which care for the poor is an pillar of the dominant religion, the bright culture of the Baghdad Caliphate that gave us modern medicine, universities and graduate education as we now know them, and which (through a man we know as Avicenna and others know as ibn Sina) restored lost knowledge from ancient Greece and Rome to Europe and helped spark the Renaissance.

Context may not be everything, but it's sure powerful.


Posted by V.P. Frickey at 3:18 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 24 November 2010 11:54 PM EST
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Tuesday, 8 September 2009
John Brunner, prophet?

I was re-reading the late John Brunner's science-fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar today and noticed that his record as a predictor is actually not bad. He wrote this novel in 1968, and apparently did a great deal of homework in the physical, biological and social sciences while writing - and it shows.

I took a few minutes to draw up lists of things John Brunner predicted would happen in his novel by 2010:

predictions made by John Brunner in Stand on Zanzibar (1968, Ballantine, New York):


predictions which have been realized:
- widespread use of genetic engineering in consumer and industrial products;
- extensive mapping of the human genome;
- use of genetic engineering techniques to confer un-natural colors to mammals (glow-in-the-dark mice in real life; in the book, it was red, purple and green dogs, among other things);
- use of commercial airliners for commuting to and from work;
- widespread use of international satellite television networks for news and entertainment (CNN, Sky News, al-Jazeera in real life; Engrelay Satelserv and Reuters VideoAsia in the book);
- “designer” (illicit) drugs with chemical structure and pharmaceutical properties unknown at the time the book was written;
- reversion of Indonesia (referred to as “Yatakang” in the book) to right-wing or centrist government;
- supercomputers so densely constructed as to require cooling by liquid helium (Crays in real life, Shalmaneser in the book);
- widespread online access to reference information from home and libraries through the telephone network;
- widespread change of sexual and family relationship norms and mores in industrialized societies;
- local restaurants which accept orders through the telephone/computer network and deliver to your home;
- China eclipsing Russia as a military threat to the United States;
- widespread adoption of military weapons and tactics (“SWAT” teams) by local police forces to deal with riots and other forms of violent public disorder;
- multinational corporations with resources exceeding those of many small nations;
- widespread commission of mass murder for little or no discernible motive by irrational individuals;
- widespread dissemination of formulas for explosives, poisons, incendiaries and other means of mass destruction by pamphlet, circular, magazine and online information services;
- widespread online access to literature;
- widespread online access to pornography;
- acts of mass destruction - terrorism - committed as political or religious protest;
- presence on American soil of organized bands of terrorist saboteurs;
- economic and political integration of Europe as a "super state";
- screening potential parents for genetically transmissible diseases or defects;
- majority rule in South Africa;
- hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell technology usable in automobiles;
- military side arms which can fire very small missiles with explosive warheads (the US Army’s XM25 25mm Counter Defilade Target Engagement System in real life, the “kazow” in the book);
- a technology for mining some metals from the bottom of the sea which has problems with profitability;
- territorial expansion of China into the Western Pacific (in real life, this is evidenced by the construction of military bases by China in the disputed Spratly and Paracel island chains, the establishment of a Chinese county government on one of the Spratly Islands and the dispute between Japan and China over control of the Senkaku Island chain);
- widespread use of atomic clock standards in clocks and watches;

predictions from Stand on Zanzibar which have not yet been realized (the book’s set in 2010, so there are a few months left... ):
-eugenic legislation to coercively prevent birth of children with genetically transmitted or somatic defects, including state-mandated sterilization and abortion;
- widespread legalization/”decriminaliztion” of marijuana and other psychedelic drugs;
- self-aware computer(s);
- a subculture of people who commit sabotage of public transportation, water mains, other parts of the “infrastructure” as a hobby;
- widespread use of hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell technology in automobiles;
- commercial power generation by nuclear fusion
- inhabited bases for scientific research on the Moon
- orbital weapons platforms (as far as we know);
- rapid transit by electrically accelerated trains in evacuated tunnels;
- “pocket nukes” using less stable fissile materials than do standard nuclear weapons;
- outlawing of tobacco altogether in the US and other industrialized nations;
- Puerto Rico requesting and being granted US statehood;
- request for and granting of US statehood to the Sulu archipelago in the Phillippine Islands;
- outbreak of open hostilities between the US and the People’s Republic of China in the Pacific;
- covering of Manhattan Island and environs ("Greater New York") by a large, single geodesic dome;
- elimination of internal-combustion engines and most personally-owned vehicles nationwide in US.

predictions from Stand on Zanzibar unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future:
-eugenic legislation to coercively prevent birth of children with genetically transmitted or somatic defects, including state-mandated sterilization and abortion (issue: the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution forbids interference with a citizen's person to this degree; the Roe v. Wade decision could be interpreted as reinforcing a woman's right to bear a genetically-challenged child);
- rapid transit by electrically accelerated trains in evacuated tunnels (issue: excavating tunnels long enough to provide long-haul transportation across the United States would probably require the use of many directional noncontaminating nuclear explosives (see John McPhee's The Curve of Binding Energy).  Apart from that, the metal for accelerator coils and power handling, together with the continuing power demand for vacuum pumps to keep the tunnels in vacuum make it questionable that there is any cost advantage to this mode of transportation.  Maglevs are still more boondoggle than practical in the United States; doubtless in John Brunner's native Britain the situation is different, if only because the distance between Land's End and John O'Groats is shorter than the length of many American states.);
- “pocket nukes” using less stable fissile materials than do standard nuclear weapons (anything much more fissile than plutonium will have problems of radiotoxicity from either neutron flux or gamma radiation either directly or from daughter products.  Californium-252, for example, was proposed for the pocket nuke fissile by Herman Kahn in On Thermonuclear War but in reality proved a non-starter - I've seen a californium-252 neutron source (nothing even close to a bare crit for an explosion) being moved from its dedicated semi into the Louisiana State University Nuclear Science Center - the evolution involved about eight or ten people pushing the 55-gallon drum in which a source the size of a nine-millimeter pistol cartridge was moved with very long poles to where an overhead crane could be attached to it for transfer into a dedicated very large pool of water.  Anything fissile enough to sustain a nuclear detonation from a projectile launched from a sidearm would have similar radiological properties);
- Puerto Rico requesting and being granted US statehood (issue: the status quo of Puerto Rico - a Commonwealth with no representation in Congress, hence no liability for Federal income tax, yet which receives a LOT of Federal funding for its government operations has been affirmed through several elections and referenda.  I personally don't see any reason for either Puerto Riquennos or Congress to pursue a change in status toward statehood.  We own that dirt and can legally defend it.  That's all we care about.);
- request for by and granting of US statehood to the Sulu archipelago in the Phillippine Islands (issue: absolutely no support in Congress for the inclusion of a "state" with several million intensely nationalistic potential welfare recipients and other folks eligible for extensive Federal subsidies and earned income credits, and several armed insurrectionist groups, at least one of which is an Al-Qaeda affiliate. As it is, we might lose Hawaii, Texas and Alaska sometime this century.  There are strong secession movements in each of those states.);
- covering of Manhattan Island and environs ("Greater New York") by a large, single geodesic dome (issue: WHY?  There's no overpowering social or economic good in such a structure, and the cost would be immense, both of initial construction and upkeep. There's also the issue of ventilation.);
- elimination of internal-combustion engines and most personally-owned vehicles nationwide in US.  (issue: the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution assures that citizens have the right to be secure in their property; in practice, this has resulted in several legally proscribed items such as machine guns remaining in private hands when they were owned by an individual before they were outlawed.  This is called "grandfathering").


This list is not exhaustive or definitive by any means, just a way of starting a discussion and honoring the memory of John Brunner; whether one agreed with his politics or not (I didn't, particularly), his contribution to futurism and science fiction is undoubted.


Posted by V.P. Frickey at 9:55 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 1 December 2010 11:20 PM EST
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