Something for the weekend #21

A round-up of the week’s causes for optimism, discussions of optimism/pessimism gap, and debunkings of pessimism, as noticed in the media.

* “NASA’s New Nuclear Reactor for Future Space Missions”. NASA has tested a new type of ‘Kilopower’ nuclear reactor in the Nevada desert. The reactor is intended to power human colonies on the Moon and the Mars for more than a decade. The tests prove that the reactor will not melt even after failure during operation.

* “Small-town American newspapers are surprisingly resilient”. In American terms, a ‘small town’ means a place with 100,000 people or less. The sort of place where both readers and advertisers will rally round their local newspaper.

* “Public EV charging points on UK lamp posts”. Public open-access electric vehicle (EV) charging points have been launched in the UK. They’re fitted into street lamp-posts.

* “Hypergrowth and The Law of Startup Physics”. “I started noticing patterns in [business] startups — which I’ve validated with executives and VCs over the years — that how companies scale and break matches military groupings. So, the most efficient group in the military is a group of three, then a group of eight, and then three groups of eight, so 24.”

How is this relevant to optimism? It’s another example of our newly applying certain time-tested ‘rules of organisation’ to traditional activities, which is just as important as discovering new drugs or energy sources.

* Development + Cooperation reviews Hans Rosling’s new book on world mega-trends: “Why things are better than people in rich countries think”.

* Here’s one I missed, a 2017 Futerra briefing-paper for Vodaphone. “An Insights Report On Optimism” (October 2017). Ten key trends, in a brief summary PDF.

* “Technological Progress Freed Children from Hard Labor” “It’s summertime and across the United States, children are away from school. … Washing machines and tractors have accomplished more than just cleaning clothes and ploughing fields. They also freed America’s children [from the farms] to receive an education.”

* “U.S. Hispanic Unemployment Reaches All-time Record Low”, as the Trump economy continues to build.

* The Economist on a major priorities-tallying project in India ($). Over three days an Expert Panel, including Nobel laureate Prof. Finn Kydland and Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, produced over 1,000 pages of new thinking and quantification on various spending priorities. The panel then presented a prioritized list of 77 interventions for development and growth in Haryana, a state that abuts the national capital of Delhi. Lomborg’s personal newsletter especially highlighted that… “Two education interventions are among the top-ten priorities chosen by the Eminent Panel: teaching children in groups at the right level, and computer-assisted learning.”

* The Royal Observatory in Greenwich ceased night-sky observations in 1957 due to the air pollution then prevalent in London. But the famous Observatory is now re-starting observations with a newly installed cutting-edge telescope.

* Visits to city parks and green spaces in England were up by 25 per cent in 2016, compared to 2010, new research by Natural England has revealed. And that was despite a string of relatively poor summers. One imagines that the near-perfect spring and summer of 2018 have sent the stats leaping up even further.

* The pleasantly warm and rain-less summer in the British Isles is revealing abundant new archaeological sites, in combination with newly-affordable HD photography drones. As grass turns yellow, marks from ancient sites show up on the parched grass and in field crops. New finds include a huge new Neolithic henge near the famous Newgrange in Ireland

* And finally, in a dry summer, The grass really is is ‘greener on the other side’.


Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment

“Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment”, Science, 29th June 2018. (Free abstract, free methods and data, article $ paywalled).

If something is commonly encountered, then we tend to narrow our criteria for judging its presence. If that same something then becomes rarer, but we ‘think’ it should still be encountered, then we will tend to widen our criteria for judging its presence. It then follows that, as the world makes extraordinary progress on many fronts, the criteria for judging what is ‘good news’ shrinks and the criteria for ‘bad news’ expands.

The paper has polished writing and stimulating ideas, but crumbles when one looks at the supplementary material on its sample-sizes and methods. As usual, a so-called ‘scientific’ study in Psychology is found to rest on ridiculously tiny sample-sizes drawn from adolescents wholly unrepresentative of the general population. In this case, “Participants were 22 students at Harvard University” in the first study, rising to just over 40 students in one of the later sub-studies. Such studies may say something about sleep-deprived, malnourished, hungover and hormone-addled adolescents, who are drawn from a particular economic and high-IQ niche and embedded in a particularly stimulating institution. They say little about the general population. I had heard that Psychology was supposed to be reforming its methodologies after its various existential crises, but no… here we see Science and Harvard waving through a ‘business as usual’ study as if nothing had changed.

That said, there could be some worthwhile extrapolation made from this study to journalists as-a-class, and thus it seems worth noting. Because journalists and their individual perceptions and jaundiced views, as well the deeper structures-of-feeling embedded in news-room workflows, are important to consider in understanding why we are constantly subjected to daily tidal-waves of ‘bad news’.

Something for the weekend #20

My round-up of the week’s causes for optimism, discussions of optimism/pessimism gap, and debunkings of pessimism, as noticed in the media. We’re in the ‘silly season’ for news, so there’s not as much around to find as otherwise.

* “Gallup poll: 55 Percent of U.S. Adults Say ‘Country’s Best Days Are Ahead of Us'”.

* website on “Boeing’s Hypersonic Vision: A Sleek Passenger Plane That Can Hit Mach 5”.

* India’s The Hindu newspaper muses on “What we’ll do in the future” if we work hard enough to ensure plenty and reliable automation. “As we inch closer to a world of plenty, the value of curation increases many-fold.”

* “Associations of intelligence across the life course with optimism and pessimism in older age”, a new academic journal article in public open access. A large Scottish cohort was studied. Translating from psychology-speak, the key finding seems to boil down to: if you were an intelligent kid, and then remain intelligent into your 80s and 90s, then you’re more likely to have lower levels of pessimism in old age than otherwise. That seems fairly obvious, but I guess it’s nice to have it nailed down.

* Forbes asks “What Ever Happened To Peak Oil?”. (Not a direct link to Forbes, as they seem to have problems with UK and EU visitors).

* A new Royal Society study debunks the happy-clappy optimism around open-plan offices. “Impact of Open Offices on Collaboration”. “Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases [in ‘open’ offices], with an associated increase in electronic interaction [The ‘open’ space triggered] a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email.”

* The EU has voted to reject automated ‘copyright filters’ for the Internet, by a vote of 318 to 278. But the unworkable ‘magical thinking’ on this issue is now set to return for a second-round try at becoming law, in September.

* “Montana tribes push state to restore wild bison herd”. “Montana’s tribal nations will no longer wait for state officials to decide whether bison will be allowed to roam free somewhere on public land, even though the state acknowledges the need for action. If the state can’t establish a wild bison herd, individual tribes will restore herds on their reservations.”

* AllAfrica reports that “Gorilla Population in Africa Rises”. “The population of mountain gorillas, which survive on the forest-cloaked volcanoes of central Africa, has increased by a quarter to over 1,000 individuals since 2010, wildlife authorities said.”


New website:

A new website, “” aims to imagine the world 250 years after the world’s first manned spaceflight, and to do so with a meta-cultural / space-philosophy angle. It’s rather an empty ‘coming soon!’ site at present, but there’s a podcast with the founders in which they explain the site’s aims.

In the podcast they address the potential problem of a site with an open ethos becoming a grouch-fest for grumpy space nerds (e.g.: ‘we hate Elon Musk’s flange-widgets and they will dooom the new space race!’ etc.), or being hijacked by a whiny politically-correct leftist flame-war (e.g: ‘noooo, you can’t say ‘space race’ because it’s symbolic of of of… evil racist patriarchal oppression!’ etc.).

One of the most interesting elements (not yet on the site, seemingly) is the “new lexicon of space philosophy” now being developed by one of the site’s founders, Frank White. Such as…

* Homo Spaciens is a radically different kind of human being, one highly adapted to living in the conditions of space and poorly adapted to living on planets.

* An Overview System is a pattern of organized self-awareness in which the whole is perceived as the context of all the parts within it. An overview system can exist at any level within the universe, from a planet to a solar system to a galaxy and beyond.

* Solarius is a solar overview system manifesting as a solar civilization with a presence throughout the solar system, and based on awareness of the solar system as a whole.

* Technos is the worldwide technology system, or technosystem, consisting of satellites, networks, computers, tablets, smartphones, robots, androids, and other interconnected electronic entities.

Homo Spaciens is a bit clunky. Homo Solarius would be more mellifluous on the tongue.

Something for the weekend #19

A round-up of the week’s causes for optimism, discussions of optimism/pessimism gap, and debunkings of pessimism, as noticed in the media. We’re entering the ‘silly season’ for news, so this week there’s not as much around to find as otherwise.

* “Urban ‘forests’ can store almost as much carbon as tropical rainforests”. Mathias Disney, a Remote Sensing specialist in London, used UK Environment Agency LIDAR data to quantify “85,000 trees across Camden”, London. He found absorption… “rising to 380 t/ha in spots such as Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery – that’s equivalent to values seen in temperate and tropical rainforests”.

* The Power Line podcast #72: Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist). The 30-minute Ridley section is from 5:00 mins to 36:00 mins. (Direct .MP3 link via Podtrac). “Our conversation ranges from explaining why the left is so wedded to apocalypticism, what’s the latest on climate change research that you’re not hearing about from the mainstream media, and the latest things happening in domestic oil and gas production.”

* How technology is changing Ukrainian agriculture for better. From bread-basket, to socialist basket-case, and back to bread-basket again.

* Buzz Aldrin: How we can make Mars missions a reality.

* “Millennials have newfound optimism about the economy since Trump took office”, commenting on a Gallup sentiment survey about job prospects.

* Microsoft data centre placed on seabed, off Orkney coast. It’s self-powering via tidal turbines, and naturally cooled by the same tidal flows. The data centre should be able to operate… “untouched for up to five years”.

* Researchers locate world’s first known manta ray nursery.

Picture: Giant oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris) by Elias Levy.

Something for the weekend #18

A round-up of the week’s causes for optimism, discussions of the optimism/pessimism gap, and debunkings of pessimism, which I’ve noticed in the media:

* “Optimism and prosperity at levels not seen since the 1990s”. “After the flurry of amazing recent economic news, MAGA might well stand for ‘Make America Grow Again’. […] second quarter national growth at an astounding 4.7 percent. […] an incredible 2 million Americans have stopped receiving food stamps”.

* President Trump has announced the creation of a new branch of the U.S. military: the U.S. Space Force. Also, Defense One has details of the behind-the-scenes grumpy noises and hemming-and-hawing from other branches of the military, who fear budgets being trimmed to pay for the new branch.

* “Mike Pence Convinces USAID To Provide $100 Million To Help Christians and Yazidis in Iraq”. For those outside the USA, who maybe don’t know USAID from Kool-Aid, it’s the U.S. Agency for International Development.

* “Can Heterodoxy Save the Academy?” asks Quillette. Heterodox Academy is a loose movement in favour of free speech and intellectual diversity on campus, and has been tootling around for a while now. But they had a new leader in the spring, and they’ve just had their one-day inaugural conference.

* Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) in the House of Lords, speaking good sense on bee populations. He’s just created a huge new 50-acre bee meadow on his farm in the north of England.

* The St. Louis Jewish Light, on Pinker and more, “A dose of reality for the pessimists among us”. (May require a VPN to reach, for those in the UK and Europe).

* “Facebook Groups to test a subscription-based model”. Interesting, and potentially good news for highly-curated “news you can use” Group owners. Though $4.99 a month is too high, and they need to ditch the offputting marketeery ‘.99 cents’. The floor needs to be ‘$2.50 a month, paid monthly via PayPal, cancel at any time’. That’s because most people are going to want to subscribe to maybe three groups, and not have the sub go over $10 a month total (inc. sales tax).