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What do you no longer believe? What do you now believe?
Alex Steffen, 11 Jan 08

John Brockman has a new question: What have you changed your mind about? Why?

Here are some interesting answers:

LAURENCE C. SMITH
Professor of Geography, UCLA

[The Impossibility of] Rapid climate change

The year 2007 marked three memorable events in climate science: Release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR4); a decade of drought in the American West and the arrival of severe drought in the American Southeast; and the disappearance of nearly half of the polar sea-ice floating over the Arctic Ocean. The IPCC report (a three-volume, three-thousand page synthesis of current scientific knowledge written for policymakers) and the American droughts merely hardened my conviction that anthropogenic climate warming is real and just getting going — a view shared, in the case of the IPCC, a few weeks ago by the Nobel Foundation. The sea-ice collapse, however, changed my mind that it will be decades before we see the real impacts of the warming. I now believe they will happen much sooner.

Let's put the 2007 sea-ice year into context. In the 1970's, when NASA first began mapping sea ice from microwave satellites, its annual minimum extent (in September, at summer's end) hovered close to 8 million square kilometers, about the area of the conterminous United States minus Ohio. In September 2007 it dropped abruptly to 4.3 million square kilometers, the area of the conterminous United State minus Ohio and all the other twenty-four states east of the Mississippi, as well as North Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Iowa. Canada's Northwest Passage was freed of ice for the first time in human memory. From Bering Strait where the U.S. and Russia brush lips, open blue water stretched almost to the North Pole.

What makes the 2007 sea-ice collapse so unnerving is that it happened too soon. The ensemble averages of our most sophisticated climate model predictions, put forth in the IPCC AR4 report and various other model intercomparison studies, don't predict a downwards lurch of that magnitude for another fifty years. Even the aggressive models -the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) CCSM3 and the Centre National de Recherches Meteorologiques (CNRM) CM3 simulations, for example — must whittle ice until 2035 or later before the 2007 conditions can be replicated. Put simply, the models are too slow to match reality. Geophysicists, accustomed to non-linearities and hard to impress after a decade of 'unprecedented' events, are stunned by the totter: Apparently, the climate system can move even faster than we thought. This has decidedly recalibrated scientist's attitudes — including my own — to the possibility that even the direst IPCC scenario predictions for the end of this century — 10 to 24 inch higher global sea levels, for example — may be prudish.

What does all this say to us about the future? The first is that rapid climate change — a nonlinearity that occurs when a climate forcing reaches a threshold beyond which little additional forcing is needed to trigger a large impact — is a distinct threat not well captured in our current generation of computer models. This situation will doubtless improve — as the underlying physics of the 2007 ice event and others such as the American Southeast drought are dissected, understood, and codified — but in the meantime, policymakers must work from the IPCC blueprint which seems almost staid after the events of this summer and fall. The second is that it now seems probable that the northern hemisphere will lose its ice lid far sooner than we ever thought possible. Over the past three years experts have shifted from 2050, to 2035, to 2013 as plausible dates for an ice-free Arctic Ocean — estimates at first guided by models then revised by reality.

The broader significance of vanishing sea ice extends far beyond suffering polar bears, new shipping routes, or even development of vast Arctic energy reserves. It is absolutely unequivocal that the disappearance of summer sea ice — regardless of exactly which year it arrives — will profoundly alter the northern hemisphere climate, particularly through amplified winter warming of at least twice the global average rate. Its further impacts on the world's precipitation and pressure systems are under study but are likely significant. Effects both positive and negative, from reduced heating oil consumption to outbreaks of fire and disease, will propagate far southward into the United States, Canada, Russia and Scandinavia. Scientists have expected such things in eventuality — but in 2007 we learned they may already be upon us.

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ROGER C. SCHANK
Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Engines for Education Inc.; Author, Making Minds Less Well Educated than Our Own

AI?

When reporters interviewed me in the 70's and 80's about the possibilities for Artificial Intelligence I would always say that we would have machines that are as smart as we are within my lifetime. It seemed a safe answer since no one could ever tell me I was wrong. But I no longer believe that will happen. One reason is that I am a lot older and we are barely closer to creating smart machines.

I have not soured on AI. I still believe that we can create very intelligent machines. But I no longer believe that those machines will be like us. Perhaps it was the movies that led us to believe that we would have intelligent robots as companions. (I was certainly influenced early on by 2001.) Certainly most AI researchers believed that creating machines that were our intellectual equals or better was a real possibility. Early AI workers sought out intelligent behaviors to focus on, like chess or problem solving, and tried to build machines that could equal human beings in those same endeavors. While this was an understandable approach it was, in retrospect, wrong-headed. Chess playing is not really a typical intelligent human activity. Only some of us are good at it, and it seems to entail a level of cognitive processing that while impressive seems quite at odds with what makes humans smart. Chess players are methodical planners. Human beings are not.

Humans are constantly learning. We spend years learning some seemingly simple stuff. Every new experience changes what we know and how we see the world. Getting reminded of our pervious experiences helps us process new experiences better than we did the time before. Doing that depends upon an unconscious indexing method that all people learn to do without quite realizing they are learning it. We spend twenty years (or more) learning how to speak properly and learning how to make good decisions and establish good relationships. But we tend to not know what we know. We can speak properly without knowing how we do it. We don't know how we comprehend. We just do.

All this poses a problem for AI. How can we imitate what humans are doing when humans don't know what they are doing when they do it? This conundrum led to a major failure in AI, expert systems, that relied upon rules that were supposed to characterize expert knowledge. But, the major characteristic of experts is that they get faster when they know more, while more rules made systems slower. The idea that rules were not at the center of intelligent systems meant that the flaw was relying upon specific consciously stated knowledge instead of trying to figure out what people meant when they said they just knew it when they saw it, or they had a gut feeling.

People give reasons for their behaviors but they are typically figuring that stuff out after the fact. We reason non-consciously and explain rationally later. Humans dream. There obviously is some important utility in dreaming. Even if we don't understand precisely what the consequences of dreaming are, it is safe to assume that it is an important part of our unconscious reasoning process that drives our decision making. So, an intelligent machine would have to dream because it needed to, and would have to have intuitions that proved to be good insights, and it would have to have a set of driving goals that made it see the world in a way that a different entity with different goals would not. In other words it would need a personality, and not one that was artificially installed but one that came with the territory of what is was about as an intelligent entity.

What AI can and should build are intelligent special purpose entities. (We can call them Specialized Intelligences or SI's.) Smart computers will indeed be created. But they will arrive in the form of SI's, ones that make lousy companions but know every shipping accident that ever happened and why (the shipping industry's SI) or as an expert on sales (a business world SI.) The sales SI, because sales is all it ever thought about, would be able to recite every interesting sales story that had ever happened and the lessons to be learned from it. For some salesman about to call on a customer for example, this SI would be quite fascinating. We can expect a foreign policy SI that helps future presidents learn about the past in a timely fashion and helps them make decisions because it knows every decision the government has ever made and has cleverly indexed them so as to be able to apply what it knows to current situations.

So AI in the traditional sense, will not happen in my lifetime nor in my grandson's lifetime. Perhaps a new kind of machine intelligence will one day evolve and be smarter than us, but we are a really long way from that.

----------------

OLIVER MORTON
Chief News and Features Editor, Nature; Author, Mapping Mars

Human Spaceflight

I have, falteringly and with various intermediary about-faces and caveats, changed my mind about human spaceflight. I am of the generation to have had its childhood imagination stoked by the sight of Apollo missions on the television — I can't put hand on heart and say I remember the Eagle landing, but I remember the sights of the moon relayed to our homes. I was fascinated by space and only through that, by way of the science fiction that a fascination with space inexorably led to, by science. And astronauts were what space was about.

I was not, as I grew older, uncritical of human spaceflight — I remember my anger at the Challenger explosion, my sense that if people were going to die, it should be for something grander than just another shuttle mission. But I was still struck by its romance, and by the way its romance touched some of the unlikeliest people. By all logic The Economist should have been, when I worked there, highly dubious about the aspirations of human spaceflight, as it is today. But the then editor would hear not a word against the undertaking, at least not against its principle. With some relief at this I became while the magazine's science editor a sort of critical apologist — critical of the human space programme there actually was, but sensitive to the possibility that a better space programme was possible.

I bought into, at least at some level, the argument that a joint US-Russian programme offered advantages in terms of aerospace employment in the former USSR. I bought into the argument that continuity of effort was needed — that so much would be lost if a programme was dismantled it might not be possible to reassemble it. I bought into the crucial safety-net argument — that it would not be possible to cancel the US programme anyway, so strong were the interests of the military industrial complex and so broad, if shallow, the support of the public. (Like the Powder River, a mile wide, an inch deep and rolling uphill all the way from Texas.) And I could see science it would offer that was unavailable by any other means.

Now, though, I can no longer find much to respect in those arguments. US Russian cooperation seems to have bought little benefit. The idea of continuous effort seems at best unproven — and indeed perhaps worth checking. Leaving a technology fallow for a few decades and coming back with new people, tools and mindsets is not such a bad idea. And at least one serious presidential candidate is talking about actually freezing the American programme, cancelling the shuttle without in the short term developing its successor. Whether Obama will get elected or be willing or able to carry through the idea remains to be seen — but if politicians are talking like this the "it will never happen so why worry" argument becomes far more suspect.

And the crucial idea (crucial to me) that human exploration of Mars might answer great questions about life in the universe no longer seems as plausible or as likely to pay off in my lifetime as once it did. I increasingly think that life in a Martian deep biosphere if there is any, will be related to earth life and teach us relatively little that's new. At the same time it will be fiendishly hard to reach without contamination. Mars continues to fascinate me — but it has ever less need of a putative future human presence in order to do so.

My excitement at the idea of life in the universe — excitement undoubtedly spurred by Apollo and the works of Clarke, Heinlein and Roddenberry that followed on from it in my education — is now more engaged with exoplanets, to which human spaceflight is entirely irrelevant (though post-human spaceflight may be a different kettle of lobsters). If we want to understand the depth of the various relations between life and planets, which is what I want to understand, it is by studying other planets with vibrant biospheres, as well as this one, that we will do so. A world with a spartan $100 billion moonbase but no ability to measure spectra and lightcurves from earthlike planets around distant stars is not the world for me.

In general, I try to avoid arguing from my own interests. But in this case it seems to me that all the other arguments against human spaceflight are so strong that to be against it merely meant realising that an atavistic part of me had failed to understand what those interests are. I'm interested in how life works on astronomical scales, and that interest has nothing to do, in the short term, with human spaceflight. And I see no reason beyond my own interests to suggest that it is something worth spending so much money on. It does not make the world a better place in any objective way that can be measured, or in any subjective way that compels respect.

It is possibly also the case that seeing human spaceflight reduced to a matter of suborbital hops for the rich, or even low earth orbit hotels, has hardened my heart further against it. I hope this is not a manifestation of the politics of envy, though I fear that in part it could be.

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CAROLYN PORCO
Planetary Scientist; Cassini Imaging Science Team Leader; Director CICLOPS, Boulder CO; Adjunct Professor, University of Colorado

I've changed my mind about the manner in which our future on this planet might evolve.

I used to think that the power of science to dissect, inform, illuminate and clarify, its venerable record in improving the human condition, and its role in enabling the technological progress of the modern world were all so glaringly obvious that no one could reasonably question its hallowed position in human culture as the pre-eminent device for separating truth from falsehood.

I used to think that the edifice of knowledge constructed from thousands of years of scientific thought by various cultures all over the globe, and in particular the insights earned over the last 400 years from modern scientific methods, were so universally revered that we could feel comfortably assured of having permanently left our philistine days behind us.

And while I've always appreciated the need for care and perseverance in guiding public evaluation of the complexities of scientific discourse and its findings, I never expected that we would, at this stage in our development, have to justify and defend the scientific process itself.

Yet, that appears to be the case today. And now, I'm no longer sure that scientific inquiry and the cultural value it places on verifiable truth can survive without constant protection, and its ebb and flow over the course of human history affirms this. We have been beset in the past by dark ages, when scientific truths and the ideas that logically spring from them were systematically destroyed or made otherwise unavailable, when the practitioners of science were discredited, imprisoned, and even murdered. Periods of human enlightenment have been the exception throughout time, not the rule, and our language has acknowledged this: 'Two steps forward, one step back' neatly outlines the nonmonotonic stagger inherent in any reading of human history.

And, if we're not mindful, we could stagger again. When the truth becomes problematic, when intellectual honesty clashes with political expediency, when voices of reason are silenced to mere whisper, when fear alloys with ignorance to promote might over intelligence, integrity, and wisdom, the very practice of science can find itself imperiled. At that point, can darkness be far behind?

To avoid so dangerous a tipping point requires us, first and foremost, to recognize the distasteful possibility that it could happen again, at any time. I now suspect the danger will be forever present, the need for vigilance forever great.

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NICHOLAS CARR
Author, The Big Switch

The Radiant and Infectious Web

In January of 2007, China's president, Hu Jintao, gave a speech before a group of Communist Party officials. His subject was the Internet. "Strengthening network culture construction and management," he assured the assembled bureaucrats, "will help extend the battlefront of propaganda and ideological work. It is good for increasing the radiant power and infectiousness of socialist spiritual growth."

If I had read those words a few years earlier, they would have struck me as ludicrous. It seemed so obvious that the Internet stood in opposition to the kind of centralized power symbolized by China's regime. A vast array of autonomous nodes, not just decentralized but centerless, the Net was a technology of personal liberation, a force for freedom.

I now see that I was naive. Like many others, I mistakenly interpreted a technical structure as a metaphor for human liberty. In recent years, we have seen clear signs that while the Net may be a decentralized communications system, its technical and commercial workings actually promote the centralization of power and control. Look, for instance, at the growing concentration of web traffic. During the five years from 2002 through 2006, the number of Internet sites nearly doubled, yet the concentration of traffic at the ten most popular sites nonetheless grew substantially, from 31% to 40% of all page views, according to the research firm Compete.

Or look at how Google continues to expand its hegemony over web searching. In March 2006, the company's search engine was used to process a whopping 58% of all searches in the United States, according to Hitwise. By November 2007, the figure had increased yet again, to 65%. The results of searches are also becoming more, not less, homogeneous. Do a search for any common subject, and you're almost guaranteed to find Wikipedia at or near the top of the list of results.

It's not hard to understand how the Net promotes centralization. For one thing, its prevailing navigational aids, such as search engine algorithms, form feedback loops. By directing people to the most popular sites, they make those sites even more popular. On the web as elsewhere, people stream down the paths of least resistance.

The predominant means of making money on the Net — collecting small sums from small transactions — also promotes centralization. It is only by aggregating vast quantities of content, data, and traffic that businesses can turn large profits. That's why companies like Microsoft and Google have been so aggressive in buying up smaller web properties. Google, which has been acquiring companies at the rate of about one a week, has disclosed that its ultimate goal is to "store 100% of user data."

As the dominant web companies grow, they are able to gain ever larger economies of scale through massive capital investments in the "server farms" that store and process online data. That, too, promotes consolidation and centralization. Executives of Yahoo and Sun Microsystems have recently predicted that control over the net's computing infrastructure will ultimately lie in the hands of five or six organizations.

To what end will the web giants deploy their power? They will, of course, seek to further their own commercial or political interests by monitoring, analyzing, and manipulating the behavior of "users." The connection of previously untethered computers into a single programmable system has created "a new apparatus of control," to quote NYU's Andrew Galloway. Even though the Internet has no center, technically speaking, control can be wielded, through software code, from anywhere. What's different, in comparison to the physical world, is that acts of control are more difficult to detect.

So it's not Hu Jintao who is deluded in believing that the net might serve as a powerful tool for central control. It is those who assume otherwise. I used to count myself among them. But I've changed my mind.

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TIM O'REILLY
Founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc.

In November 2002, Clay Shirky organized a "social software summit," based on the premise that we were entering a "golden age of social software... greatly extending the ability of groups to self-organize."

I was skeptical of the term "social software" at the time. The explicit social software of the day, applications like friendster and meetup, were interesting, but didn't seem likely to be the seed of the next big Silicon Valley revolution.

I preferred to focus instead on the related ideas that I eventually formulated as "Web 2.0," namely that the internet is displacing Microsoft Windows as the dominant software development platform, and that the competitive edge on that platform comes from aggregating the collective intelligence of everyone who uses the platform. The common thread that linked Google's PageRank, ebay's marketplace, Amazon's user reviews, Wikipedia's user-generated encyclopedia, and CraigsList's self-service classified advertising seemed too broad a phenomenon to be successfully captured by the term "social software." (This is also my complaint about the term "user generated content.") By framing the phenomenon too narrowly, you can exclude the exemplars that help to understand its true nature. I was looking for a bigger metaphor, one that would tie together everything from open source software to the rise of web applications.

You wouldn't think to describe Google as social software, yet Google's search results are profoundly shaped by its collective interactions with its users: every time someone makes a link on the web, Google follows that link to find the new site. It weights the value of the link based on a kind of implicit social graph (a link from site A is more authoritative than one from site B, based in part on the size and quality of the network that in turn references either A or B). When someone makes a search, they also benefit from the data Google has mined from the choices millions of other people have made when following links provided as the result of previous searches.

You wouldn't describe ebay or Craigslist or Wikipedia as social software either, yet each of them is the product of a passionate community, without which none of those sites would exist, and from which they draw their strength, like Antaeus touching mother earth. Photo sharing site Flickr or bookmark sharing site del.icio.us (both now owned by Yahoo!) also exploit the power of an internet community to build a collective work that is more valuable than could be provided by an individual contributor. But again, the social aspect is implicit — harnessed and applied, but never the featured act.

Now, five years after Clay's social software summit, Facebook, an application that explicitly explores the notion of the social network, has captured the imagination of those looking for the next internet frontier. I find myself ruefully remembering my skeptical comments to Clay after the summit, and wondering if he's saying "I told you so."

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's young founder and CEO, woke up the industry when he began speaking of "the social graph" — that's computer-science-speak for the mathematical structure that maps the relationships between people participating in Facebook — as the core of his platform. There is real power in thinking of today's leading internet applications explicitly as social software.

Mark's insight that the opportunity is not just about building a "social networking site" but rather building a platform based on the social graph itself provides a lens through which to re-think countless other applications. Products like xobni (inbox spelled backwards) and MarkLogic's MarkMail explore the social graph hidden in our email communications; Google and Yahoo! have both announced projects around this same idea. Google also acquired Jaiku, a pioneer in building a social-graph enabled address book for the phone.

This is not to say that the idea of the social graph as the next big thing invalidates the other insights I was working with. Instead, it clarifies and expands them:

* Massive collections of data and the software that manipulates those collections, not software alone, are the heart of the next generation of applications.
* The social graph is only one instance of a class of data structure that will prove increasingly important as we build applications powered by data at internet scale. You can think of the mapping of people, businesses, and events to places as the "location graph", or the relationship of search queries to results and advertisements as the "question-answer graph."
* The graph exists outside of any particular application; multiple applications may explore and expose parts of it, gradually building a model of relationships that exist in the real world.
* As these various data graphs become the indispensable foundation of the next generation "internet operating system," we face one of two outcomes: either the data will be shared by interoperable applications, or the company that first gets to a critical mass of useful data will become the supplier to other applications, and ultimately the master of that domain.

So have I really changed my mind? As you can see, I'm incorporating "social software" into my own ongoing explanations of the future of computer applications.

It's curious to look back at the notes from that first Social Software summit. Many core insights are there, but the details are all wrong. Many of the projects and companies mentioned have disappeared, while the ideas have moved beyond that small group of 30 or so people, and in the process have become clearer and more focused, imperceptibly shifting from what we thought then to what we think now.

Both Clay, who thought then that "social software" was a meaningful metaphor and I, who found it less useful then than I do today, have changed our minds. A concept is a frame, an organizing principle, a tool that helps us see. It seems to me that we all change our minds every day through the accretion of new facts, new ideas, new circumstances. We constantly retell the story of the past as seen through the lens of the present, and only sometimes are the changes profound enough to require a complete repudiation of what went before.

Ideas themselves are perhaps the ultimate social software, evolving via the conversations we have with each other, the artifacts we create, and the stories we tell to explain them.

Yes, if facts change our mind, that's science. But when ideas change our minds, we see those facts afresh, and that's history, culture, science, and philosophy all in one.

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J. CRAIG VENTER
Human Genome Decoder; Director, The J. Craig Venter Institute; Author, A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life.

The importance of doing something now about the environment.

Like many or perhaps most I wanted to believe that our oceans and atmosphere were basically unlimited sinks with an endless capacity to absorb the waste products of human existence. I wanted to believe that solving the carbon fuel problem was for future generations and that the big concern was the limited supply of oil not the rate of adding carbon to the atmosphere. The data is irrefutable--carbon dioxide concentrations have been steadily increasing in our atmosphere as a result of human activity since the earliest measurements began. We know that on the order of 4.1 billion tons of carbon are being added to and staying in our atmosphere each year. We know that burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the principal contributors to the increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere. Eleven of the last twelve years rank among the warmest years since 1850. While no one knows for certain the consequences of this continuing unchecked warming, some have argued it could result in catastrophic changes, such as the disruption of the Gulf Steam which keeps the UK out of the ice age or even the possibility of the Greenland ice sheet sliding into the Atlantic Ocean. Whether or not these devastating changes occur, we are conducting a dangerous experiment with our planet. One we need to stop.

The developed world including the United States, England and Europe contribute disproportionately to the environmental carbon, but the developing world is rapidly catching up. As the world population increases from 6.5 billion people to 9 billion over the next 45 years and countries like India and China continue to industrialize, some estimates indicate that we will be adding over 20 billion tons of carbon a year to the atmosphere. Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes to the global climate that could be more extreme than those observed to date. This means we can expect more climate change; more ice cap melts, rising sea levels, warmer oceans and therefore greater storms, as well as more droughts and floods, all which compromise food and fresh water production.

It required close to 100,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion people on Earth in 1804. In 1960 the world population passed 3 billion and now we are likely to go from 6.5 billion to 9 billion over the next 45 years. I was born in 1946 when there were only about 2.4 billion of us on the planet, today there are almost three people for each one of us in 1946 and there will soon be four.
Our planet is in crisis, and we need to mobilize all of our intellectual forces to save it. One solution could lie in building a scientifically literate society in order to survive. There are those who like to believe that the future of life on Earth will continue as it has in the past, but unfortunately for humanity, the natural world around us does not care what we believe. But believing that we can do something to change our situation using our knowledge can very much affect the environment in which we live.

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OBERT PROVINE
Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter

In Praise of Fishing Expeditions

Mentors, paper referees and grant reviewers have warned me on occasion about scientific "fishing expeditions," the conduct of empirical research that does not test a specific hypothesis or is not guided by theory. Such "blind empiricism" was said to be unscientific, to waste time and produce useless data. Although I have never been completely convinced of the hazards of fishing, I now reject them outright, with a few reservations.

I'm not advocating the collection of random facts, but the use of broad-based descriptive studies to learn what to study and how to study it. Those who fish learn where the fish are, their species, number and habits. Without the guidance of preliminary descriptive studies, hypothesis testing can be inefficient and misguided. Hypothesis testing is a powerful means of rejecting error — of trimming the dead limbs from the scientific tree — but it does not generate hypotheses or signify which are worthy of test. I'll provide two examples from my experience.

In graduate school, I became intrigued with neuroembryology and wanted to introduce it to developmental psychology, a discipline that essentially starts at birth. My dissertation was a fishing expedition that described embryonic behavior and its neurophysiological mechanism. I was exploring uncharted waters and sought advice by observing the ultimate expert, the embryo. In this and related work, I discovered that prenatal movement is the product of seizure-like discharges in the spinal cord (not the brain), that the spinal discharges occurred spontaneously (not a response to sensory stimuli), that the function of movement was to sculpt joints (not to shape postnatal behavior such walking), and to regulate the number of motorneurons. Remarkable!

But decades later, this and similar work is largely unknown to developmental psychologists who have no category for it. The traditional psychological specialties of perception, learning, memory, motivation and the like, are not relevant during most of the prenatal period. The finding that embryos are profoundly unpsychological beings guided by unique developmental priorities and processes is not appreciated by theory-driven developmental psychologists. When the fishing expedition indicates that there is no appropriate spot in the scientific filing cabinet, it may be time to add another drawer.

Years later and unrepentant, I embarked on a new fishing expedition, this time in pursuit of the human universal of laughter — what it is, when we do it, and what it means. In the spirit of my embryonic research, I wanted the expert to define my agenda—a laughing person. Explorations about research funding with administrators at a federal agency were unpromising. One linguist patiently explained that my project "had no obvious implications for any of the major theoretical issues in linguistics." Another, a speech scientist, noted that "laughter isn't speech, and therefore had no relevance to my agency's mission."

Ultimately, this atheoretical and largely descriptive work provided many surprises and counterintuitive findings. For example, laughter, like crying, is not consciously controlled, contrary to literature suggesting that we speak ha-ha as we would choose a word in speech. Most laughter is not a response to humor. Laughter and speech are controlled by different brain mechanisms, with speech dominating laughter. Contagious laughter is the product of neurologically programmed social behavior. Contrasts between chimpanzee and human laughter reveal why chimpanzees can't talk (inadequate breath control), and the evolutionary event necessary for the selection for human speech (bipedality).

Whether embryonic behavior or laughter, fishing expeditions guided me down the appropriate empirical path, provided unanticipated insights, and prevented flights of theoretical fancy. Contrary to lifelong advice, when planning a new research project, I always start by going fishing.

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And this from Brian Eno:

I no longer wanted to see radical change dictated from the top — even if that top claimed to be the bottom, the 'voice of the people'. I lost faith in the idea that there were quick solutions, that everyone would simultaneously see the light and things would suddenly flip over into a wonderful new reality. I started to believe it was always going to be slow, messy, compromised, unglamorous, bureaucratic, endlessly negotiated — or else extremely dangerous, chaotic and capricious. In fact I've lost faith in the idea of ideological politics altogether: I want instead to see politics as the articulation and management of a changing society in a changing world, trying to do a half-decent job for as many people as possible, trying to set things up a little better for the future.

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Comments

Change

I used to believe that fundamental change is possible. I no longer believe that is so. Any real change will be co-opted by the existing powers for their own uses, any truly revolutionary aspects of change will be killed in the cradle.

My experiences in the 1970s solar boom taught me part of this lesson: when fundamental change gets too close to upsetting power, power will quash it. My experiences in the Net boom of the 1990s taught me another part of this lesson: fundamental change can be frozen by money. The rate of innovation that we saw before the Web and the Net became commercialized were orders of magnitude faster than the rate of change occurring now. The fact is investment dollars have to be amortized and that slows innovation.

It may be seen as being cynical about the possibilities but to me it is only being realistic. These are observations based upon experience.

If you want to initiate real change, work from the underground. Only when you've changed things at the foundation should you look for funding and publicity. Endeavor to create change that is a fait accompli before power can notice it.

I do not know if that is even possible.


Posted by: gmoke on 13 Jan 08

Dear Friends,


Although I did not expect to see change in my lifetime, for the first time there appears evidence that necessary behavior change by the membership of the human species is in the offing.


Of course, yes, definitely yes, the family of humanity can save what is precious if humankind chooses to do what is clearly within its power: save itself, other creatures and Earth from itself.

Humanity could soon be confronted with a huge challenge that takes its astounding shape from continuously skyrocketing absolute global human population numbers as well as from unbridled economic globalization and unrestrained per-capita consumption of limited resources by the human species.

Perhaps it will become dangerous to life as know it on Earth for the human community much longer to pursue the prized "business as usual" course of the predominant culture: overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation because, when these distinctly human activities are taken together, an overpowering force of nature exists that could become unsustainable on the relatively small, evident finite, noticeably frangible planet God blesses us to inhabit and steward, and surely not to overwhelm.

Always, with thanks,

Steve

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001
http://sustainabilitysoutheast.org/


Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on 15 Jan 08

What's the point of saving the planet if we don't move into space exploration and beyond? The Moon'll continue to get further away from the Earth - changing the way the tides work and therefore the weather and what life is possible, the Sun'll continue to heat up having the same kinds of effects - and eventually burn out to red giant - but apparently not before the Andromeda galaxy collides with this galaxy.

When people say "long term" what exactly do they mean? For me, it's means - as long as there's a universe out there. Indefinitely. The above things would have Earth-destroying effects sooner than the amount of time there's been life on Earth.


Posted by: zupakomputer on 20 Jan 08

New evidence for the likelihood of rapid climate change in our near future, placed in pointed context by Professor LAURENCE C. SMITH above, warns of nonlinearity in climate responses to increasing human emissions of unburied carbon because it exceeds the projections of current computer models. The recent polar events that led Smith to change his mind call for comparison with findings from studies of paleoclimate and paleo-oceanography, since past planetary conditions may bracket the likeliest future changes better than models now do.

Those findings could indicate several kiloyears of polar melting at an average sea rise rate between 1.6 and 3 meters per century, occasionally with drops and lags but also with surges exceeding 5 meters per century. Understanding prospective consequences of such duration and scope is difficult. Whether we can still avoid those consequences or not, I propose that people collaborate to map them out in a science fictional geochronology, just to get some handle on what they might mean.


Posted by: Meltwater on 20 Jan 08

If one was to stand on a pier and push by yourself, with all your might, against the hull of a great ocean liner, eventually you would notice it beginning to move and then suddenly it would be moving as much as you wanted to push it. It would then take as long as it took to move it, to stop it, by pushing from the other side. But it wouldn't stop moving until you pushed against it enough to overcome the inherent momentum that you had built up in it in the first place. That is what climate change is.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution we as a community of nations have pushed the climate into an inherent momentum against which we must, as a community of nations, push like blazes in the other direction.
It is not impossible and in fact it is quantifiable and with the numbers of humanity present today, as opposed to those present when the process was begun, It really shouldn't be percieved as insurrmountable. It took quite a few generations to get us into the current situation and it may take quite a few to get us out of it, but it is not impossible. It just needs us to all get behind the push in what ever way we can.
zupakomputer, I have to say that your option of abandoning the Earth is not only nonsensical since we as a species are of the Earth and not of the Moon, no disrespect to the Moon.
It is THE grand cop-out of the modern era to think that just because we have been negligent in our stewardship of the Earth, that we should compound the failure by abandoning it and all and any attempts to rectify the problems for which only we can be held accountable. Our survival and indeed the survival of all species that exist today DOES NOT HAVE A BANKRUPTCY OPTION. we can not just walk away and start again on the moon or anywhere else for that matter. The notion that we can entrust the future of humanity to an elected Adam and Eve who just pisses off and to hell with everyone else is really just a total failure of nerve on the part of completely selfish and infantile patriarchs who imagine only their own progeny boarding some ludicrously expensive gas guzzler on a jouney that is destined to go f'ing nowhere.
For everyones, sake get off that trip, come home, and start pushing against the tide of climate change instead. In your own way, that is all you have to do.


Posted by: simon seasons on 24 Jan 08

If one was to stand on a pier and push by yourself, with all your might, against the hull of a great ocean liner, eventually you would notice it beginning to move and then suddenly it would be moving as much as you wanted to push it. It would then take as long as it took to move it, to stop it, by pushing from the other side. But it wouldn't stop moving until you pushed against it enough to overcome the inherent momentum that you had built up in it in the first place. That is what climate change is.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution we as a community of nations have pushed the climate into an inherent momentum against which we must, as a community of nations, push like blazes in the other direction.
It is not impossible and in fact it is quantifiable and with the numbers of humanity present today, as opposed to those present when the process was begun, It really shouldn't be percieved as insurrmountable. It took quite a few generations to get us into the current situation and it may take quite a few to get us out of it, but it is not impossible. It just needs us to all get behind the push in what ever way we can.
zupakomputer, I have to say that your option of abandoning the Earth is not only nonsensical since we as a species are of the Earth and not of the Moon, no disrespect to the Moon.
It is THE grand cop-out of the modern era to think that just because we have been negligent in our stewardship of the Earth, that we should compound the failure by abandoning it and all and any attempts to rectify the problems for which only we can be held accountable. Our survival and indeed the survival of all species that exist today DOES NOT HAVE A BANKRUPTCY OPTION. we can not just walk away and start again on the moon or anywhere else for that matter. The notion that we can entrust the future of humanity to an elected Adam and Eve who just pisses off and to hell with everyone else is really just a total failure of nerve on the part of completely selfish and infantile patriarchs who imagine only their own progeny boarding some ludicrously expensive gas guzzler on a jouney that is destined to go f'ing nowhere.
For everyones sake, get off that trip, come home, and start pushing against the tide of climate change instead. In your own way, that is all you have to do.


Posted by: simon seasons on 24 Jan 08



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