Episode 89 - So long, and thanks for all the fish


So long, and thanks for all the fish. Yes, dear listeners, I have decided that its time for the podcast to come to an end. Fear not, the 88 episodes plus extras will remain online and be archived. I’ll also post a link for you to download all the shows in one batch if you want to save and share them. I will also be keeping the website online for as long as I can, and I intend to continue to share my thoughts and essays in blog form. The thinking and writing is both more fun and easier for me than the rest of what goes into a podcast, so I will not be going away entirely. I really wanted to make it to 100 shows, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in my almost 42 years, I know when my heart’s not in it and I should step away. It would be a disservice to you dear listeners to slog on for the sake of a three digit number.

In part, I need a break. Mostly from social media, but in general as well. I want to be away from organized anything. No groups larger than two. I am not nearly as strong as many of the people I admire, and I am very sensitive to the hate and vitriol and plain stupidity so present now everywhere online. I know it’s not all that way, but I am worn down and those messages penetrate what little mental armor I have left. I’ve always been sensitive to the mood and feelings of my surroundings, so really, Twitter is a bad place for me, even if I try to shut out the noise. And I cannot express enough my admiration to the people who’ve done this kind of thing for many more years than I have.

When I started this podcast I had several goals in mind. For one, I wanted to learn more about the fascinating topics of science and futurism that I’ve always been interested in, but only knew at mostly a surface level. I also wanted to try, in my own small way, to foster more long-term thinking. And, I wanted to offer something with a hopeful and engaged tone to offset some of the junk and bad news we seem to always be surrounded with.

I want to thank the many people I was able to interview for the podcast. They brought their experience and expertise to you, and all of them were excited and hopeful for the future. Especially Astronaut Abby. It would be a thrill to bring back the show for one episode when she finally lands on Mars. It was a pleasure to talk to so many people on such a variety of topics. From bitcoin to generation ships, nanotech to farming, you heard it here. A special thanks to author AC Hachem. My first interview on the show, and a recurring guest, AC brought some fun to an otherwise serious show.

The world is always in transition, but as I’ve spoken about before, it seems we are on the edge of something different. I think we are already in a phase of our civilization where the rate of change is outpacing our ability to deal with it. As Alvin Toffler surmised over 40 years ago, more and more of us are dealing with future shock. Because of this change and complexity some people are lashing out. I do hope though that we are able to push through to the other side of these problems, rather than circle back to a more comfortable but less equal, less fair, and less progressive future. It wasn’t so long ago that imagining walking on another planet was fiction or madness. As our civilization crests each hill to see what’s on the other side, I believe we could be about ready to step into something truly remarkable. If we can avoid self destruction.

Oddly, even though I tried to present hopeful messages, and so many of the people I had the privilege to interview offered hope, I hold none for myself. I still thrill at the possibilities of the future, and on my good days people like Astronaut Abby, Dr. Kevin Folta, Holly Griffith, and AC Hachem show me that one can find purpose and joy in helping humanity take the many small steps necessary to achieve the future we dream of. But somehow I was born depressed, and in addition to dealing from time to time with actual depression, I also tend to view the world from a hope for the best-expect the worst viewpoint. Don’t let any of my attitude rub off on you. I really think I will spend some time contemplating why I’ve come to the end of the show run and feel this way, exactly the opposite of that particular goal. But, if I have inspired you to look hopefully to the future, and been able to offer you resources and people to watch for in this quest, then I have succeeded and that is good enough for me.

While I’m gone, there are some sources of info and entertainment you should check out. There will be links in the show notes.
Nanofleche.com (AC) for your sci-fi pop culture needs
The Skeptic’s Guide To The Universe
The Geologic Podcast
The Long Now foundation - seminars, web talks, podcasts
Planetary Radio podcast
Talking Biotech
50 things that made the modern world
Review The Future

And there are also many sci-fi audio podcasts for thought provoking entertainment like Clarksworld Magazine, Escape Pod, and Starship Sofa. There are also many websites and publications out there like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Science mag), Longnow Foundation, Futurism, Singularity Hub, and foundations named for visionaries like Gene Roddenberry and Arthur C. Clarke.

I didn’t list any history resources, but I think in your quest to keep learning, studying history is essential, and often overlooked. The books, podcasts, and websites are out there. While dreaming of the future, be sure you don’t neglect the past. It is quite possible that lessons from that past can inform your path forward. As the very least it might prevent you from unnecessarily reinventing the wheel.

Thanks to Skeptoid, AstronomyCast, The Geologic Podcast, and the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. These 4 were probably the first podcasts I ever listened to and they have been an inspiration in my desire to produce my own podcast. I also now have an even greater appreciation for what it takes to produce a podcast, especially with these shows running now over 500 episodes.

The final thing on my mind before I sign off is this: I am officially declaring public support for the secession of the West coast from the rest of the United States. This is another thought that developed for me that took me by surprise, and I fully admit it runs contrary to my desire for hopeful messages and bridge building.

Of course I have no idea how this might happen. There is no legal way to even try to make this happen, not at least within our current constitutional structure. But over the course of the podcast and over the past few years of politics in this country I now believe that some differences are intractable and we are wasting time trying to find middle ground where there is none. There is a streak of rampant anti-science and anti-intellectual thinking in this country. This isn’t really new, but we have come to the point where this lack of logic and reason has taken over the government, and the infection comes from both the right and the left. We’ve had laws, in some cases for over 150 years, and yet we have not changed our culture. And lest you think I’m seeking out some liberal hippy utopia, think again. I wish for a rational state, with policies based on reason and logic, and with a genuine acceptance for scientific consensus, not just acceptance of the things you already wish to be true. In many cases I disagree with both the right and the left. Science is not perfect, but it is always refining, growing, adapting, and I think the mindset of a scientist offers the best way forward in the long run.

On the left, the side I’m politically closer to, get your heads screwed on straight. Whatever you “feel” is true does not make it true. If you accept climate change, you must accept that vaccines are effective and that GMOs are safe. Stop blundering about looking for easy and perfect answers for everything and stop falling for every single bullcrap scam that comes along. Raw water? BS that might kill you. Salt lamps? BS that emits a pleasant glow and nothing more. Chocolate is the octave of the sun! Stop, my head is going to explode! This is one of my biggest concerns should the West coast ever actually secede. This part of the country is also ground zero for all the non-scientific woo in the world. At best you waste your money. At worst you might die, or harm someone else unnecessarily.

On the right, I am calling out evangelical Christians. I’ve generally stayed away from religion on the show, but not now. There is a large group of people in this country who will do anything to enact a theocracy based on the Old Testament. They do not follow the teachings of Jesus. They seem narrowly focused on hating the LGBTQ community and would like nothing more than to return to a time when white men controlled everything and women shut up and made babies. It’s really very backwards and despicable. I’m also calling out conservatives who claim some sort of libertarian attitude. Maybe in a perfect world libertarianism could work. But our country is too large for such an “everyone for themselves” approach. Yes, one could certainly argue that corporations run our government already, but in a libertarian world the power would go not to the states and local governments, but wholly to those corporations, because for at least several decades now we have had a government driven by money, not by voters. Pollution does not stop at state borders. The economy is global whether you like it or not. Imperfect as it is, we need a strong central government. Conservative political parties have also become a haven for racists and neo-Nazis. This should be very concerning to everyone. It’s beyond time for these attitudes to die out.

And on whatever side people like flat earthers and chemtrail believers think they are, stop it. I can’t take any more. You are an extreme example of people beyond desperate for easy answers who want to blame someone else for whatever your problem is, and your groups are also often infected with bigots and racists. There aren’t any easy answers, life is complicated, and it’s time for humanity to grow up. I would like to think there is a way to include everyone, to reach everyone, but my cynical side says some people should just be left behind.

I don’t know if these regressive attitudes are fading away, and the internet is just amplifying the fewer and fewer people who still think blacks should go back to Africa or gays should be put to death. I hope these ideas are not spreading anew. I do know in many of the measurable ways, the world is actually getting better. The statistics will show you this, but it’s hard to see when you’re living in it day to day. The constant barrage of news and information might make you think otherwise, but things are actually getting better in measurable ways. However I am an introvert, and fairly sensitive to the noise around me. This world, especially the United States, has no place for introverts. The internet is deafening noise machine and I have to get away for a while.

Thank you for listening, thank you for your support. Do check on the blog or twitter from time to time, I intend to keep writing. Be better today than you were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you were today.

Episode 88 - The State Of Things

Just some thoughts this week on the current state of the world and the changes underway. Full transcript for this one below.

The world is always in transition, but it really feels different at this moment in time, doesn’t it? Are we finally shaking off the last gasp of the old ways? Are we on the verge of actually becoming more than the animals that we pretend we are not? Or are there cracks in the facade of civilization, and we are about to crumble back to the stone age?

Whether we are ready or not, there are other drastic changes coming, are we prepared? Though I write this from an American perspective, I also think we all need to consider how we apply social and technological equality throughout the world. We are not many peoples of many nations, we are one planet of humans, possibly the only sentient species in the entire universe. We shame ourselves by not living up to the implications of that thought.

Through all the shows I’ve done and all the angles I’ve looked at, I truly believe that capitalism as we know it is unsustainable. In my high school economics studies the law of supply and demand was one of the paramount guides of how economies work. But that only works when there is scarcity, and for the most part there is none now. We have as much of everything as we could want. Whether you can afford to buy it is another matter, but we aren’t running out of washing machines or basketballs. Two thirds of the American economy is consumer spending. We make stuff so we can get paid and then we go buy stuff so someone can get paid to buy stuff. How can this be sustainable or even sensible? Am I supposed to feel guilty that I have a 12 year old car and no plans to buy one anytime soon? Am I harming the economy by trying to save money and by buying less stuff?

There are slight hints this is shifting. I read more often about people buying used things, upcycling, and of course Ebay and Craigslist have been thriving for some time as resale marketplaces. And I have recently read about a growing number of people who are more interested in paying for experiences than in paying for things. While this still has an impact on the economy, it’s not the same as chain of materials and processes that exist in traditional manufacturing.

Ever since the first industrial revolution we’ve made more stuff with less man-hours of labor. In previous eras jobs that were disrupted by technology were generally replaced by new ones. But the full potential of AI and robots is different. We face a possibility that rather than create enough new jobs, there simply are no jobs. Sure, some new ones, but not nearly enough to offset potentially millions of displaced workers. How does capitalism work when you’re not paying employees?

From time to time I also like to consider the social and societal aspects of futurism, something I think is often overlooked in favor of the shiny technology. Recent events appear right now to be a rather large upheaval. I do believe, and hope, that the MeToo movement bringing light to systemic sexual harassment and abuse throughout our culture is a movement that will finally break the intentional and unintentional patriarchal tendencies we have. It’s one thing to change laws, it’s another to change culture. I began this essay long before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the days since that event, the young people directly affected have risen up and made themselves heard. Perhaps another cultural change. We have a system in which decisions made by old white men affect us, perhaps for decades longer than these men will live. One may plant trees under which you don’t plan to sit, but it seems wrong to be digging graves for someone other than yourself.

Another cultural aspect at the forefront now is the widespread racism and bigotry that the election of Donald Trump has brought to light. Whether or not Trump and his White House believe any of this is not my point. His election has enabled anyone (particularly less educated white males) with a grievance against any other group to shout their discontent from the rooftops. I’m sorry, but there is no such thing as white culture, not in the way these people think they are under attack. If you want to celebrate whatever part of Europe you came from that’s fine, but your need to celebrate white supremacy is based on false assumptions and has no place in the world.

On the other hand, I’m disappointed in the total lack of civility from everyone, even people I might agree with. Maybe it’s not a majority of people, but it’s the people on social media making the most noise. There is far too much outright hate. Liberals think conservatives are evil racist dickbags and they should all die. Conservatives think liberals are all evil communist SJWs who want to ban all guns and they should all die. It’s too much, it’s gone too far, and honestly, if I had a magic wand that could erase the internet, I just might. I am not sure that the good outweighs the bad at this point.

As somewhat an aside, I’m also disturbed by the horrid state of spelling and grammar online. Language can certainly change over time, but our ability to communicate with any civility online, where we already lack a face to face human connection, is further hampered by a lack of clarity from poorly written words.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to fight back politically and then sweep this all back under the rug. We had a civil war over 150 years ago, and Civil Rights laws on the books for several generations now, but that didn’t wipe out racism. It’s been almost a hundred years since women gained the right to vote and yet they are still not treated as equals and are still treated as property by some people. I’m not sure a hundred generations would be enough for these baseless beliefs to die off on their own. If the country swings back the other way politically but we don’t get at the root cause, we are just going to have to deal with this all over again in 20 years.

This is a hard point for me to figure out. We want equality and freedom, but some views are no longer welcome in our civilization. Thoughtcrime isn’t a real thing, we can’t punish people legally for thoughts. We can shun them, but that doesn’t prevent them from passing their views to new generations or from convincing others to share their opinions. How do we have freedom and equality while eliminating biases that are detrimental to the good of the whole? Can we have both individuality and total equality alongside some method which we use to eliminate detrimental views? Can we actively do that without becoming the monsters we fear, or must we continue trying to live up to our ideals as individuals, be good examples, and hope for the best.

Most generations have had their interesting times that they live in. Perhaps we’ve all been complacent too long. In my lifetime the gay rights fight and the fight over reproductive rights have the been largest social struggles. But I don’t think either one rose to the same level of national consciousness as the civil rights movement of the 60s. Maybe it’s apples and oranges. Or maybe now, after trying to push gently and take small steps, the dam is ready to burst.

I have some hope that we’re seeing a new kind of change. I feel like the next best step for humanity will have to be something totally new. Biologically we might still be homo sapiens, but culturally we will be very different. For as many small steps on a long road we’ve taken, it’s still built on 10,000 years of what we used to be. I feel like we need a true, fresh break with the past, maybe even something sudden and drastic. It may be painful, but maybe we can end the two steps forward, one step back march of progress. It would be nice if we could stop being men and women, gay or straight, black, white, brown. If we could stop being jocks, band geeks, and nerds. Stop being Americans, Chinese, Kenyan, or Peruvian. Stop being whatever flavor of religion or non-religion we’ve picked. Can we stop all of that and just be human?

Episode 26 - Essay on the Universe No. 1

This week we contemplate the universe from quarks to galaxies and everything in between.

Also, better photosynthesis and maybe Pluto has a slushy ocean.

Better Photosynthesis

(University of Illinois)

Pluto might have an ocean


Essay on the Universe No. 1

The full text of the show is below. It's lightly edited so I make no guarantees that the spelling and grammar are all spot on, or that what's written is exactly what came out of my mouth.


If things that blow your mind also grab your attention and make your mind wander you might not want to drive or operate heavy machinery during this segment.

Quarks and electrons are the smallest known things. They may be made of things even smaller, like quantum strings, but we don’t know yet. Some experimental data shows Quarks to have, at the smallest, a radius of .43x10^-16 cm. That’s 2000 times smaller than a proton, which is 40 times smaller than the radius if a DNA double helix, which is itself a million times smaller than a grain of sand.

Within the human body there are about 37 trillion cells. Almost every one of those cells contains the DNA blueprint to make more humans. I am one of over 7 billion humans, and one of many billions of living things on the earth. All those living things exist on a tiny fraction of the surface of the earth, with has a diameter of over 12,000km, a surface area of over 500 million square km and a volume of 1.08x10^12 cubic km. The Earth is about 150 million km from the sun, one of 8 planets, many dwarf planets, and countless asteroids and comets. The sun’s diameter is 109 times that of earth, and 1.3 million Earths would fit inside the sun. Some of the largest stars we know of would extend out to the orbit of Jupiter, 778.5 million km from the sun. A star like that exploded to make all of us. The Oort cloud, a suspected collection of mostly comets, a loosely bound last stop from our own solar system, the very limits of our sun’s gravitational influence, is so far away it could take light from our sun 3 years to reach it. A light year is a measure of distance. One light year is 9.46 trillion km. Our Milky Way Galaxy is 100-180 ly across. There are between 100 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy. The Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy, a satellite galaxy to our milky way is 70,000 ly away. Our nearest large galaxy neighbor, Andromeda, is 2.5 million ly away, is about 220 ly across, and contains perhaps as many as 1 trillion stars.

There are perhaps 500 billion galaxies in the known universe. Each of them containing billions to trillions of stars. The more we look, the more we find planets around other suns. There may be billions, hundreds of billions of planets in each galaxy. The visible universe is estimated to be 93 billion light years in diameter. Even if life is rare, with such large number there could be thousands, tens of thousands of planets in each galaxy with life. And if there is life, there is a chance for intelligence. If there is intelligence there is a chance for curiosity and exploration. If there is curiosity there is a chance for understanding. 500 billion galaxies, even with one intelligent species in each is a lot of life looking out on the universe trying to make sense of it all. Somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy right now Grubniya Plogrubenhut is recording her Lkritcast about the latest in Planet Wibnik’s technology for her listeners. But that’s not all. It’s actually possible that there are an infinite number of universes, an endless list of possibilities made manifest, where everything that could happen does. In some universe somewhere, I am president of the United States. In another, I died when I was 4 years old.

And yet, all of that, all of those billions and trillions, from tiny quarks to massive galaxies and everything in between account for only 4% of the stuff we can see in the universe. 96% of the universe is stuff we can’t see, can’t interact with. Dark Energy and Dark Matter are hypothesized explanations for observations made about the universe that don’t match up with what the math tells us. The way gravity works, the speed of stars orbiting their galactic centers and the speed at which the universe is expanding are examples of observations that didn’t work out with the math we had when we thought what we could see was all there is. For the math to work out, 96% of the universe is stuff we can’t yet detect, let alone understand. Maybe these hypotheses will be proved wrong, since these gravity problems were first observed in the 1960s by Vera Rubin, we haven’t figured out a way to test this. A newer hypothesis suggests that we don’t have gravity quite right, that it’s an emergent phenomenon, not a fundamental force, and a new theory of gravity dispels the need for dark matter. That’s a topic for another day, but either way, there is very very little stuff out there in all that vastness. Matter isn’t really solid, molecules are mostly empty space held together by the strong nuclear force and electromagnetism, and the universe is mostly stuff we can’t see. All those atoms, all those cells, all those people and planets and stars by the billions and trillions, a whole lot of something made of nothing, floating thought a lot more nothing.

But wait, there’s more. It is possible that all of this is a computer simulation. It’s a suggestion that cropped up again a few months ago but originates, I think, in 2003. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum made the argument that perhaps a very advanced civilization could run simulations of their ancestors with enormous computing power. As silly as it sounds, it can’t be dismissed out of hand, although it lies is a question realm of something that may be impossible to test. Like knowing if there are other universes from within the only one we know, how can we find out if we are a program from within the program? There are actually ways in which observations we make might provide evidence (primarily in “program shortcuts” that clearly violate our understanding of physics). Frankly this crazy idea is more testable than string theory right now. Ultimately, it doesn’t change the fact that the world is what it is and we should continue living our lives.

One universe of many, only universe, computer program. One of many sentient life forms, or solitary stowaways on the only lifeboat in all the universes, we owe it to ourselves and all future generations to be better, learn, explore, survive, thrive, and share with all. You, and I, and all of us, are here, now, only for a short time, and we’ve evolved the curiosity to wonder, the intellect to understand, the will to find significance in our own insignificance, and the heart to love our lives, our planet, and our fellow travelers in the universe.
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