Results for “space dangerous”
34 found

Privacy in Germany, it’s for banks too

Until now, Berlin has resisted the US-style publication of information about banks’ capital cushions because it feared the results could be manipulated, could send the wrong signals, and break German laws about commercial secrets.

The government’s U-turn is likely to rouse the anger of German banks, which have been in lock-step with Berlin so far in resisting the publication – and under German law they would have to approve any public use of their own data.

Deutsche Bank chief executive Josef Ackermann last week warned that publishing the results of stress tests would be “very, very dangerous” if there were no “backstop facilities” in place to allow stressed banks to draw on new capital.

The full story, which includes information on Spain, is here.  The last paragraph may sound slightly ridiculous to an American reader — why make such an admission of vulnerability?  Yet in Germany privacy norms and laws are quite strong and virtually everyone will grant you the right to assert privacy.  If you are waiting at an ATM, you had better stand very far back, behind the person at the machine, otherwise you will hear about it.  Everyone at the university keeps their office doors closed, although not for the American reason of avoiding students.  The goal is to have a closed door and a private space between you and the rest of the world.  German blog readers who see you in public will talk less to you than would American blog readers.  "Direct mail" is considered not only a nuisance, but also a privacy violation.  People work next to each other for twenty years, and it's still just "Frau Mueller," etc.

The end of insight?

The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, "So, where is everybody?". That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven’t we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi’s Paradox.

The paradox has become more ever more baffling. Over 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Paleontology shows that organic life evolved very quickly after earth’s surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life, evolution shows progressive trends towards larger bodies, brains, and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology reveals several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing. No radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.

So, it looks as if there are two possibilities. Perhaps our science over-estimates the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space-ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Perhaps extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Fermi’s Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.

I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi’s Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.

The fundamental problem is that any evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. We don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that tended to promote survival and luscious mates who tended to produce bright, healthy babies. Modern results: fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote our real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness — subjective cues of survival and reproduction, without the real-world effects. Fresh organic fruit juice costs so much more than nutrition-free soda. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends on TV. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity.

Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. The printing press is invented; people read more novels and have fewer kids; only a few curmudgeons lament this. The Xbox 360 is invented; people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: MP3, DVD, TiVo, XM radio, Verizon cellphones, Spice cable, EverQuest online, instant messaging, Ecstasy, BC Bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental, and social development (athletics, homework, dating) are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute — the MIT graduates apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.

Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — the top 10 patent-recipients are usually IBM, Matsushita, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Samsung, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sony — not Boeing, Toyota, or Wonderbra. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Freud’s pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. We narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than broad-casting messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species — to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.

Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Those who persist will evolve more self-control, conscientiousness, and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs, and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratification, child-rearing, and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the Religious Right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace Left.

My dangerous idea-within-an-idea is that this, too, is already happening. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and anti-consumerism activists, already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our Creative-Class dream-worlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the earth, as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve Contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox. They will toast each other not in a soft-porn Holodeck, but in a sacred nursery.

Why has transportation progressed so slowly, relative to expectations?

"What Bill Buckley once called the "hysteresis effect". When he was traveling around the world on the Concorde, some years back, he observed that–although long-haul transportation as such had gotten much faster in his lifetime–the total amount of time actually needed to get from point A to point B had not diminished proportionately, because of the increasing amount of distance (and therefore time) between the point of departure and the point of embarcation: that whereas when trains were the done thing, it took maybe 10-20 minutes to get from your front door to the station; with prop aircraft and downtown airports, maybe 30-40 minutes; with jet aircraft and "modern" air terminals, an hour or two; and that–speculatively–if there were ever hypersonic transports capable of going from Los Angeles to Tokyo in 45 minutes, it would take three to four hours at each end to travel to and from the spaceport…"

The Winners of the MR Challenge

As expected, President Bush’s plan for a moon base and eventual trip to Mars failed to ignite. MR readers have some better ideas.

Honorable mention goes to Roger Meiners for suggesting that a moon base is a good idea so long as Congress and the President must occupy it. Now I am inspired!

Third place goes to Chris Rasch for brain freezing. Chris Rasch writes “I believe that reversible cryopreservation of the human brain could be developed. Remarkable advances have already been made on a shoestring budget. Such a technology would allow people dying today to halt the dying process until technology can advance to the point that we can cure their disease or repair their injuries. I would wager that, for a mere billion dollars, which is far more than has probably been spent on cryobiology during the entire existence of the field, we could have effectively unbounded lifespans. We could then use those extra years to pursue all of the other goals that other submitters may send to you.”

Here is a good, short summary of cryonics and you can sign up to have you brain (or more) frozen here.

I like the cryonics idea and have thought seriously about signing up (believe it or not, one of my colleagues (not Tyler) has already done so). The reason the idea takes third place is that we don’t see a big private demand for cryonics and the public is more likely to think this idea crazy than inspiring.

Second place goes to Nick Shultz for suggesting that we “provide potable water for everyone on the planet.” A number of other ideas were also motivated by the goal of alleviating abject third-world poverty. I think these ideas are inspiring but am unsure whether we can deliver on them given that so many of the problems of the third world have to do with poor governance. My suggestion would be to work on something related but more under our own control. We could do far worse, for example, than following Bill Gates’s lead and put a billion or so into the Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

First place goes to David Wood and Robin Hanson both of whom suggested a space elevator. At first, the space elevator idea seems impossible, even absurd. The idea is to string a cable some 62,000 miles long from a spot on the equator up into outerspace. Wouldn’t it fall down? No, recall that a sateillite some 22,000 miles up is in geosynchronous orbit. The space elevator would extend enough past this point so that gravity at the lower end and centripetal acceleration at the far end would keep the cable under tension. Once the cable is strung, reaching outerspace is as simple as Jack climbing the beanstock.

The most difficult part of the space elevator is finding a material strong enough to carry a load yet light enough not to collapse under its own weight – a short time ago there was no such material but today it’s believed that carbon nanotubes could do the job (nano-technology more generally was another favourite of MR readers and this proposal would advance that cause.)

A space elevator is a game-changer because it dramatically lowers the cost of putting payloads into space. Moreover, once you have one elevator it becomes much easier to get a second. In contrast, rockets are always going to be expensive because you have to carry a lot of fuel just to lift the fuel and sitting on top of 4 million pounds of explosive is always going to be dangerous. The space elevator would provide a permanent access point to the stars and it can be had for less than 100 billion. Going up anyone?

More on the space elevator idea here and here.