April 18, 2017 in 3,198 words

Nuclear war has become thinkable again – we need a reminder of what it means

As Trump faces down North Korea, it’s alarming to think that most of the world’s nuclear warheads are now in the hands of men who are prepared to use them

‘This sudden mania for speaking of nuclear warfare, among men with untrammeled power, should be the No 1 item on the news.’

Last week, Donald Trump deployed his superweapon Moab, the “mother of all bombs” – 10 tonnes of high explosive detonated in mid-air in such a way as to kill, it is claimed, 94 Isis militants. The Russian media immediately reminded us that their own thermobaric bomb – the “father of all bombs” – was four times as powerful: “Kids, meet Daddy,” was how the Kremlin mouthpiece Russia Today put it. But these are child’s play compared with nuclear weapons. The generation waking up to today’s Daily Mail strapline – “World holds its breath” – may need reminding what a nuclear weapon does.

The one dropped on Hiroshima measured 15 kilotons; it destroyed everything within 200 yards and burned everybody within 2km. The warhead carried by a Trident missile delivers a reported 455 kilotons of explosive power. Drop one on Bristol and the fireball is 1km wide; third-degree burns affect everybody from Portishead to Keynesham, and everything in a line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash is contaminated with radiation. In this scenario, 169,000 people die immediately and 180,000 need emergency treatment. Given that there are only 101,000 beds in the entire English NHS, you can begin to imagine the apocalyptic scenes for those who survive. (>You can model your own scenario here.)

But a Trident missile carries up to eight of these warheads, and military planners might drop them in a pattern around one target, creating a firestorm along the lines that conventional Allied bombing created in Hamburg and Tokyo during the second world war.

I don’t wish to alarm you, but right now the majority of the world’s nuclear warheads are in the hands of men for whom the idea of using them is becoming thinkable.

For Kim Jong-un, it’s thinkable; for Vladimir Putin, it’s so thinkable that every major Russian wargame ends with a “nuclear de-escalation” phase: that is, drop one and offer peace. On 22 December last year, Trump and Putin announced, almost simultaneously, that they were going to expand their nuclear arsenals and update the technology.

One Jaw Dropping Poll Shows Why Speaker Paul Ryan Could Soon Be Out Of A Job

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is much less popular than other new Speakers. Only 29% approve of Paul Ryan, while 54% disapprove of the job he is doing according to a new Pew Research poll.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is much less popular than other new Speakers. Only 29% approve of Paul Ryan, while 54% disapprove of the job he is doing according to a new Pew Research poll.

A year and a half into the job he took over from former Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Ryan’s approval rating is lower than Boehner’s shortly after his term began (36%), according to the poll. It’s also lower than former Speaker Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s (35%) after her term began.

“About half of Republicans and Republican leaners (51%) say they approve of the job Ryan is doing, while 31% say they disapprove. A greater share of Republicans currently disapprove of the job Ryan is doing than disapproved of Boehner in 2011 (19%) or Gingrich in 1995 (23%).”

Democrats are also not impressed with Ryan. Seventy-five percent of Democrats disapprove of Ryan’s performance, while only 49% of Democrats disapproved of John Boehner in 2011.

The lesson for Speaker Ryan is that people aren’t stupid. Ryan thought he could BS people into giving up their own health care. The Speaker bought too much of his own Beltway hype. Nobody in the rest of the country was fooled by his health care plan, and now Democrats have been handed the perfect poster child in their campaign to take back the House in 2018.

“This is just the beginning”: Alt-right rejoices as violent protests rock Berkeley

Trump’s alt-right fans declare victory after another violent melee in the name of free speech

Multiple fights break out between Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters in Berkeley, California on April 15, 2017.

Berkeley, California, was the epicenter of the left-wing protest culture that dominated the news during the 1960s. More than 50 years later, the San Francisco has once again become a hub for demonstrators, this time of a much more violent variety. Over the weekend, hard-core supporters of President Donald Trump repeatedly clashed in the street with the leftist anarchists who call themselves “antifas,” an abbreviation for “anti-fascists.”

The clashes began in February after a mob of antifa activists showed up outside a scheduled event that was to feature former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos and began lighting objects on fire and attacking his supporters. The violent disruptions prompted the University of California to nix the speech. The cancellation of the event became national news after President Donald Trump weighed in on the controversy, casting the blame on the university but not the demonstrators:

Trump supporters further escalated the situation by scheduling a second rally for March 4, which featured more violence as members of the extreme alt-right movement began mingling with regular Republicans. After even bigger fights broke out at March 25 rallies in Southern California and in Philadelphia, far-right groups decided to descend upon Berkeley to “protect” Trump supporters.

“This is just the beginning,” wrote a member of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. “This is a sign that we have moved into a new era in the Nazification of America. Normie Trump supporters are becoming racially aware and Jew wise. They are willing to stick up for themselves side by side with Nazis without being adverse to violence.”

“Solar Ink” Spells More Bad News For Coal — From Trump Administration

The hits just keep on coming for the US coal industry, and they’re coming from the Trump Administration. Last week EPA chief Scott Pruitt traveled to a Pennsylvania mine to offer a show of support for coal, but meanwhile over in Colorado the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of Rick Perry’s Energy Department was touting a new breakthrough that could enable factories to churn out miles of low cost, high efficiency solar cells with the push of a button.


Thin Film Solar Cells Are Coming On Strong

Thin film solar cells are generally not as efficient as conventional silicon solar cells, but they do possess several key advantages that can counterbalance that shortcoming.

Thin film solar cells can be manufactured at high speed and at high volume, using roll-to-roll processes similar those used in industry for decades.

They are also relatively lightweight and flexible, which means they don’t have to be planted on a rooftop or stuck on a pole out in a field to be useful. Thin film solar cells can be integrated into building elements and moving vehicles, among many other applications.

The Perovskite Problem

To amp up the cost advantage of thin film, researchers have been checking out a class of low cost, synthetic crystalline material called perovskites.

Perovskites are based on the natural mineral perovskite. They burst on the scene just a few years ago when researchers discovered their solar-friendly properties. Since, then labs around the world have coaxed the efficiency level of perovskite solar cells up at an exponential rate.

A veggie burger that bleeds? Now the ‘clean meat’ revolution is cooking on gas

Plant-based products meant to resemble animal foods are becoming even more convincing and delicious – and lowering the barriers to a vegan lifestyle

Some of the most anticipated and iconic promises of the future have come up empty. There are no flying cars, interstellar teleporters, floating hoverboards, or fully functional, live-in robotic house cleaners. Not only have we not colonised Mars – we haven’t even set foot on it.

But if there is one bright spot, it’s that the future of food is on the verge of living up to its hype, and possibly even surpassing it. Plant-based products meant to resemble animal foods are becoming even more convincing and delicious. Though I personally like tofu and tempeh, no one would ever confuse those high-protein plant foods for meat. That’s why it was so impressive that when Whole Foods accidentally sold Beyond Meat’s plant-based “chick’n” as actual chicken in a salad a few years ago, no one seemed to notice. Last year, Impossible Foods debuted its veggie burger that bleeds – and they will be developing plant-based chicken, steak, seafood and dairy.

For me, the most exciting development so far is the prospect of replacing animal meat with affordable “clean meat” and other real animal products – which are being created through cell replication. Dutch scientist Mark Post and his team ushered in a new era with their televised taste testing of a petri-dish burger in 2013. The tasters agreed that the burger – which was basically all protein – could do with some fat. In addition to adding fat content, scientists are working on finding a viable growth medium that does not require the use of fetal bovine serum.

As some of these challenges are being tackled, we’re seeing significant progress. Clean beef, chicken, duck, egg whites, and dairy – products that do not require killing animals – are all in the works now. Memphis Meats’ taste-tested fried chicken was produced through cell replication in March, and Perfect Day is hoping to have their animal-free milk in shops by the end of this year.

A top Indian engineering school will now teach an 8,000-year-old architectural science

Back To The Roots

An 8,000-year-old body of knowledge is finding its way into the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kharagpur, the oldest of India’s elite engineering schools.

From August this year, architecture students at the institute, which counts Google’s Sunder Pichai among its alumni, will be taught vastu shashtra, the ancient Indian “science of architecture.”

Believed to have been developed between 6000 BC and 3000 BC, vastu shastra involves designing buildings by making the best possible use of the geography and location of the plot—including the influence of the sun’s light and heat, wind directions, the moon’s position, and the Earth’s magnetic fields. The architecture study is similar to the Chinese feng shui, essentially focussing on harmonising human life with its surroundings.

Many of India’s ancient temples and other structures have been built on the principles of vastu shastra and the architectural form traces its roots back to the Rig Veda, an ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns.

A London bar’s whisky cocktail comes with a VR headset and views of the Scottish Highlands

Proof Of Concept

The patrons of hotel bars usually know a thing or two about escapism. But the Lobby Bar at the One Aldwych luxury hotel in London earlier this month started offering their customers a chance to take their lust for elsewhere a step further through the latest item on its menu: a virtual-reality headset.

The video shows the making of one its new whisky cocktails, called the Origin, made with a 12-year-old Dalmore whisky. Viewers who put on the headset are treated to aerial, 3D footage of the northern reaches of the Scottish Highlands, where the Dalmore’s distillery is located, which ends on a bartender handing over a drink.

When the customer lifts their headset, the drink is served, IRL. It’s a little bit of theater that fits nicely into the hotel’s proximity to London’s West End.

Jürgen Schmidhuber on the robot future​: ‘They will pay as much attention to us as we do to ants’

The German computer scientist says artificial intelligence will surpass humans’ in 2050, enabling robots to have fun, fall in love – and colonise the galaxy

‘Very soon, the smartest and most important decision makers might not be human’ … Jürgen Schmidhuber.

In a soft-furnished studio space behind a warehouse in west Berlin, a group of international scientists are debating our robot future. An engineer from a major European carmaker is just finishing a cautiously optimistic progress report on self-driving vehicles. Increasingly, he explains, robot cars are learning to differentiate cars from more vulnerable moving objects such as pedestrians or cyclists. Some are already better than humans at telling apart different breeds of dog. “But of course,” he says, “these are small steps.”

Then a tall, athletic man with a light-grey three-piece suit and a greying goatee who has spent most of the morning playing with his smartphone strides to the podium, and suddenly baby steps become interstellar leaps. “Very soon, the smartest and most important decision makers might not be human,” he says, with the pitying smile of a parent explaining growing pains to a teenager. “We are on the verge not of another industrial revolution, but a new form of life, more like the big bang.”

Jürgen Schmidhuber has been described as the man the first self-aware robots will recognise as their papa. The 54-year-old German scientist may have developed the algorithms that allow us to speak to our computers or get our smartphones to translate Mandarin into English, but he isn’t very keen on the idea that robots of the future will exist primarily to serve humanity.

Instead, he believes machine intelligence will soon not just match that of humans, but outstrip it, designing and building heat-resistant robots that can get much closer to the sun’s energy sources than thin-skinned Homo sapiens, and eventually colonise asteroid belts across the Milky Way with self-replicating robot factories. And Schmidhuber is the person who is trying to build their brains.

God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism

After losing her faith, a former evangelical Christian felt adrift in the world. She then found solace in a radical technological philosophy – but its promises of immortality and spiritual transcendence soon seemed unsettlingly familiar

I first read Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. I was living alone in Chicago’s southern industrial sector and working nights as a cocktail waitress. I was not well. Beyond the people I worked with, I spoke to almost no one. I clocked out at three each morning, went to after-hours bars, and came home on the first train of the morning, my head pressed against the window so as to avoid the spectre of my reflection appearing and disappearing in the blackened glass.

At Bible school, I had studied a branch of theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth. We were told we were living in the “Dispensation of Grace”, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the “Millennial Kingdom”, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending towards a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves.

The Kurzweil book belonged to a bartender at the jazz club where I worked. He lent it to me a couple of weeks after I’d seen him reading it and asked him – more out of boredom than genuine curiosity – what it was about. I read the first pages on the train home from work, in the grey and ghostly hours before dawn.

“The 21st century will be different,” Kurzweil wrote. “The human species, along with the computational technology it created, will be able to solve age-old problems … and will be in a position to change the nature of mortality in a postbiological future.”

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Prepare to spend a while… It’s The Long Read.

Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin

Comedy and tragedy in an age of political chaos

Alec Baldwin collapses onto his dressing-room couch at Saturday Night Live like a man participating too enthusiastically in a trust fall. He is 58 years old. He has three children under 4. He has been dividing what’s left of his time between filming a movie with Emilio Estevez in Cincinnati and answering the call from NBC whenever it comes, which, because of his now-signature portrayal of Donald Trump, has been many weeks this season. His appearances gather eyes like car accidents; some clips have been watched on YouTube more than 20 million times. Those legions of viewers have formed a kind of makeshift resistance, a community of the gaslit, together feeling a little less crazy for knowing that at least Alec Baldwin can see what they are seeing. Turning the president into a running joke might prove the most consequential work of his career. It’s at least been the most consuming.

Baldwin has bags under his eyes, his normally enviable hair appears as though it’s been beaten flat with a tire iron, and he has two blood-red spots on the bridge of his nose. His whole body looks like it aches. He is keeping it going by alternating between a bottle of Diet Coke and some grainy concoction from Starbucks served in a bucket. This week he is hosting SNL for a record 17th time, expectations are soaring, and the pressure, like the workload, is telling on him like a terrible secret. It’s only Tuesday.

There is a knock at the door. It’s time for Baldwin to go to makeup. Among his many chores today, February 7, he has to pose for this week’s “bumpers,” the photos of the host that bookend SNL’s commercial breaks. His wife, Hilaria, is coming in later with their kids for what will be a lovely family portrait, but the first shot is of Baldwin as Hamlet, holding the skull of the ill-fated court jester Yorick, with Baldwin’s Trump wig on it. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.

Baldwin walks down the hall slowly, listing a little, as though he’s walking on a ship. When he reaches his destination—bright lights, mirrors, and a bunch of people who are really happy to see him—he straightens up and smiles, jolted to life by the affection. He climbs into a chair, and a woman surveys his hair for half a second before firing up her clippers. A makeup artist asks whether he can put cooling pads under Baldwin’s eyes, and Baldwin beckons him forward as if to say, “You think I’d rather look like this?”

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Could Trump possibly have been so foolish?

At the White House Easter Egg Roll, President Trump forgets how the national anthem works, and a Kellyanne Conway interview gets underscored by a fitting soundtrack.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.

To join the ranks of North Korea’s military it takes discipline, dedication, and some nifty dance moves. Stephen’s Monday monologue contains all three.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.

Max enjoying the sunshine and fresh air while he plays.

I see it!

Ed. More tomorrow… probably.