The rise of telepathic rats

Gee Brain, whadda ya wanna
do tonight?

Same thing we do every night, Pinky…try to take over the world!

In a move that will excite science fiction enthusiasts and send sufferers of musophobia screaming for the hills, researchers at Duke University have taken the first steps toward bringing brain-to-brain communication into reality by electronically connecting rats’ brains.

I, for one, welcome our new rodent overlords.

Here’s what happened: two rats had their brains wired up with electrodes. One of them was shown a signal to push a particular lever to receive a reward. Then, the brain waves from this rat were transmitted to the second rat in a separate cage, and even without the original signal the second rat immediately knew the correct lever to push to get the reward. The “receiver” rat got this test right a monstrous 85% of the time, and it didn’t matter if it was in the same lab or thousands of miles away! For more of the specific details, I recommend reading the article in Popular Mechanics.

The implications of this are mind-blowing, and the stuff of much exploration by sci-fi writers like Arthur C. Clarke and others over the years. It’s little wonder, since humans have understood for some time the electrical similarities between brains and computers…so why not introduce computers to help amplify and transmit brain signals? In Clarke’s book Childhood’s End, a generation of telepathic children think and act as one all-knowing organism. If that concept isn’t strange enough for you, imagine these scenarios:

  • Memories are recorded and sold as consumer products, like in the movie Strange Days
  • Humanity becomes universally empathic because we’re constantly seeing the world from other people’s perspectives
  • Police officers interrogate criminals from inside their own minds
  • Instant learning, a la The Matrix

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Why no climate talks?

I wanted to talk for just a second about why there haven’t been any climate talks posted in the last few months. After all, I’ve had the time, and I’ve mostly had the opportunity (though a few rejections did bum me out).

Really what I’ve been lacking is certainty of purpose, because the script for the talk has been in a state of flux. I wrote the original script about a year ago, but in the last couple of months it’s morphed to be less about what climate change is and more about what it means. When this transition is complete the talk is going to be a lot more personal and as a result (I hope) a lot more impactful.

emotionThe talk is also getting a lot more pessimistic, though not in terms of the power of science, compassion, and human ingenuity to pull us out of this mess. The pessimism stems from recent climate disasters and economic turmoil — and manifests in presenting things getting much worse much sooner than previously predicted. “Climate Talk 2.0″ is hardly even about the climate at all anymore, it’s more about economic collapse and understanding exponential growth. It’s about fear for the future, and love for my family.

And when I say that there haven’t been any climate talks for a while, that’s not entirely true…I’ve been giving them here or there, I just haven’t been filming them. As things get more personal, more about the here and now, it’s taking me some time to adjust to the idea of sharing those personal moments with the world. But we’ll get there. I’ll have another climate talk (recorded back in April) up next week, and “Climate Talk 2.0″ videos will follow soon after. Thanks for sticking with me.

The economy isn’t coming back

Presently Americans wait with bated breath, watching sales numbers and unemployment statistics, grasping for signs that an economic recovery is underway. We search for signals that indicate we’re growing, that there will be a job for everyone who wants one, and that the United States will resume the prosperity and standing in the world it once had.

We wait in vain.

Sometimes it takes a cartoon character to show the absurdity of our global economic system
(click to play video)

The economy isn’t coming back. On the contrary, it’s a patched-together mess on its way to the crapper. Though the Obama administration might crow about a tepid recovery, even today’s insufficient economy is itself a lie, propped up by governments printing money to buy their own bonds and simulate growth. The Dow ascends to ever more lofty heights, and yet few believe it’s tied to improving conditions for regular people. China, the economic engine of the world, is now slowing precipitously, and experiencing serious market declines and confidence problems. Europe is an economic mess, and when the EU eventually implodes (it really is a when and not an if), it will send shocks through the rest of our globalized world.

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The high price of materialism

ishop

Descartes might have figured this out if he had access to monogrammed bath towels

A war on climate change is a war on materialism, plain and simple. The carbon pollution spewing out of our power plants and tail pipes is a natural byproduct of the monstrous engine of economic growth we have built, an engine that exists solely to satisfy the demand our materialism creates. Indeed this demand is so great that if everyone in the world lived like Americans, we’d need 4 whole Earths worth of stuff to satisfy it. Yet despite the absurdity in that statement, that’s exactly what’s happening as other nations race to emulate our lifestyle of ravenous consumerism. Therefore taming this beast is absolutely crucial in the fight against climate change.

And yet, it’s sometimes difficult to even see consumption as the problem, since in the moment buying things feels so good! It doesn’t help that everywhere we look there’s advertising, that siren song of consumption, reinforcing our baser instincts. We see these messages of Eat! Buy! Consume!  on television, on websites, public bathrooms and even our children’s schools. It is baked in to the very fabric of our society, so much so that we hardly notice it any more. Beyond mere purchases, this drumbeat of materialism also influences the way we organize our lives. We make fundamental life decisions about where we live, where we work, what we do, and how we raise our children, all to maximize income so we can buy more stuff — because that’s what our culture teaches us to value.

The following video (5:37 long), for which this post is named, does a brilliant job of explaining all of this with visual flair:

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The speech he should have given

Uh oh, jacket coming off. Shit just got real.

Uh oh, jacket coming off. Shit just got real.

Yesterday afternoon Barack Obama gave his first major climate address to the nation. While many environmentalists jumped for joy, I found myself singularly unimpressed — the speech lacked any real sense of urgency, mired in the same plodding, informative language that convinces few of the seriousness of the problem, much less compels them to act. So I decided to write him the speech he should have given. Enjoy.

Ladies and gentlemen, members of Congress, my fellow Americans…

We are at war.

Now I speak not of our fledgling war on obesity, in which my beautiful wife Michelle and legislators across this great nation seek to instill better eating habits in America’s youth. Nor do I speak of our failed War on Drugs, now in its 42nd year and costing billions of dollars to treat sick people like criminals without bringing us any closer to a solution. And no I’m not talking about the War on Terrorism, the pursuit of which has seen us sacrifice thousands of American lives and many of the morals and civil liberties we hold most dear.

The war I speak of is bigger than all of these combined. This war already costs the world trillions of dollars every year, and threatens to wipe out every last human being on Earth. Our enemy in this war is ruthless, showing no remorse as it poisons our air, razes our crops, and destroys our cities. Our enemy is also cunning, as it disguises its attacks, seeds chaos around the globe and makes us turn on one another. Above all, our foe is deadly: every year it claims 400,000 lives, including 1000 children each day. 1000 children a day…think about that. Our enemy inflicts all of this damage, and yet collectively we can barely utter its name.

That changes today.

Here, on the world stage, I declare to the American people that we are indeed under attack, and we will not sit by while our very existence is threatened. The real enemy at the gates — the one that threatens all life on planet Earth — is climate change.

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The answer to climate change

When I give these climate talks, by the end people are typically agitated and full of questions. “What technology is going to fix this?” “How are we ever get people to agree on a solution?” “I’m just one person, what could I possibly do that would make an impact?”

My answers often catch people a little off guard: I try to instill that more important than any technical fix is a cultural change, a shift in awareness and social values from which all other solutions will flow. When enough minds change, either through insight (yay, science!) or pain of loss (boo, natural disasters), the plan will become clear. Naturally, people hate that answer! We all hope for simple solutions to our problems…buy something, recycle something, pass a law and be done. Hearing that there’s a huge problem with no simple fix drives people nuts.

Well for those people, watch the video below and take heart! It outlines the best plan I’ve seen to address climate change, hands down. Its steps are concrete and achievable, its approach is ripe for magnification by the power of the internet, and it puts everything in its appropriate social and cultural context along the way. It’s equal parts technical fix and social revolution all wrapped in a stunning visual package (the animations were all crowd-sourced). I have plenty more to say on this great work, but for now just watch the video and we can talk afterwards.

While climate change is certainly a fact of the physical world, at its core it’s a social problem, born of our cultural emphasis on consumerism and growth. And social problems need social solutions.

Take for comparison the social problems in the United States surrounding Jim Crow and racial inequality in the 20th century. Some might say that the “fix” for racial inequality was the Civil Rights Act of 1968, but by 1968 the heavy fighting was largely over. Certainly the legislation cemented victory and codified the new values the nation was slowly internalizing. But the real “fix” was all the activity leading up to 1968 — the social movement that drove debate and protest to change our collective consciousness. The solution was born out of loose collaboration between many diverse constituencies (unions, women’s groups, housing advocates, Latinos, etc.) organizing around a common idea: equality.

Coalition Of The Willing uses that same approach, which is a big part of why I found it so inspiring. The “answer” to climate change isn’t closing coal plants, taxing carbon emissions, or funding rapid development of renewable energy. Those are of course all wonderful things to pursue, but the real answer to climate change, like any other social problem, is the organization of people around a new idea. The video conveys that idea beautifully, lays out the moral foundation for our struggle, and provides the concrete steps needed to build an organization for change.

In truth I should be pissed that this video exists, since it basically takes most of my own ideas and does them better. The concept of the Science Pope is, after all, the blending of scientific truth and widespread cultural awareness all aided by the internet. But I don’t feel usurped, I feel validated, inspired, and full of fresh hope.

Just Let Go

Ours is a world of increasing control…over our environment, our citizens, and the very building blocks of life. Culturally we learn to think of control as a good thing, yet I put to you it is exactly this pursuit of control that creates most of the worlds systemic problems, climate change included. That means at its root, climate change isn’t a technological or economic problem, it’s a problem of cultural philosophy.

Let me begin with a story.

I'm in the back right, looking ghoulish.

SAIL graduation class picture
(click to enlarge)

A few weeks ago I had my final class of SAIL, or Somerville Academy for Innovative Leadership (which you’ll recall I wrote a little bit about here). Near the end of the day we engaged in a very interesting exercise that began with our teacher Hugh O’Doherty asking the 22 people in class stand in a circle. He then described the game: as a group we were to count to 22, but each person could only speak a single number. There were no assigned numbers and no signaling allowed to assist in coordination. The trickiest bit was that if two people spoke at the same time, Hugh would shut us down and make us start over.

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[ YOUR TITLE HERE ]

may-the-source-be-with-youI probably should have written about this sooner, but science-pope.com is Open Source. I’ve been offering it up to friends and family for a few months, and you might have seen the spectacular Daniel McClure who wrote a piece called Beyond the Blue Bin a while back. The Science Pope experiment was always meant to be to be an exercise in community building and participation, so it’s high time it got announced as such to the larger community. It only makes sense, since we’re all in this together.

Here’s what Open Source means to me:

  • If you want to write an article for science-pope.com, I’ll post it with minimal (or more likely zero) editing. It doesn’t have to be about climate change, it can be about anything even vaguely related to sustainability, economics, culture, the internet, cool technology, energy, social movements, or what you had for breakfast.
  • If you want to post links or stories to the Science Pope Facebook page, you can.
  • If you want to design a better look for the website or the Facebook page, you can.
  • If you want to code a cleaner Wordpress theme or Plugin integration scheme for the site you can and should, because good lord I need help.

The Open Source model is the way of the future, and it works really well…after all what would Wikipedia or YouTube be without the contributions of their users? The reason it works is that when users feel they have ownership in something, they’re more likely to care for it and work to make it better. This in turn improves content, which draws in more users, who themselves improve content, and so on. It’s your classic positive feedback cycle.

So consider this your declaration of ownership. The site is yours now: go forth and contribute.

(click to watch)
If you want a brief introduction to Open Source culture, check out this cute video