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Friday, 10 December 2010
Freeman Dyson on the relative value of error and vagueness

" 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):

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

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

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.

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.

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. 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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