Life on Europa

A trio of skilled researchers have suggested that DNA-based life has been found on Jupiter’s moon Europa. “We can only conclude that based on this preliminary subjective data that some type of biological activity is at play on Europa.” ADDED: Ironically, another discovery of possible life on Saturn’s moon Titan was released just hours ago at New  


Last night we watched a movie called “21” – about a group of MIT math students who made a fortune in Las Vegas by “counting cards” at the Blackjack tables. The movie was so-so, but one scene reminded me of an old mathematical nemesis — the Monty Hall problem. In the scene, a math professor (Kevin Spacey) tells the student there is a car behind one of the three chalkboards, 1, 2, or 3. He asks the student to guess which chalkboard hides the car. Student picks board #1. At this point, professor reveals that behind door #3 there is no car. So now we know that the car is behind either board #1 or board #2. Professor then asks student if he wants to change his guess. Student says “yes” and changes his guess to board #2, telling professor “I have a 66% chance behind board #2, but only a 33% chance behind board #1.” This is unintuitive to me. When one choice becomes eliminated, my intuition tells me that the probability of the car behind either remaining door is 50:50, regardless if I had previously made a choice, or not. So I created a test with my son. We did 40 trials. He guessed 1 of the 3 options, then randomly said “keep” or “change” without even knowing the choice I had eliminated. Indeed, when he changed his original choice, he was right roughly 2/3 of the time. When he did not change his choice, he was right only 1/3 of the time. (for those still puzzled, a good analysis can be found here). Does this reveal a larger metaphor? More times in life than I care to admit, I have found myself holding on to a form of certainty that was later found to be totally unfounded. Even when presented with unassailable evidence, we often refuse to acknowledge the clarity set before us – favoring deeply ingrained “religious” certainties. And some of you are still saying “no, there are two remaining doors – it’s plainly obvious to anyone that the odds are  

The Spell

A new study shows that the areas of the brain responsible for skepticism and vigilance become less active when under the spell of a charismatic person or group.  Effectively, the part of the brain most important in identifying psychological or religious manipulation can shut down just when it is most needed.  Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Danish researchers scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians. Only in the devout volunteers did the brain activity monitored by the researchers change in response to the prayers. Parts of the pre-frontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and skepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were effectively deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience). Personally, I’m thrilled to see basic science like this used to better understand human motivations, though a 40-person sampling is near insignificant. Would like to see more experiments of this type spanning the effects of true believers in religion, politics, environmental, corporatism, even the hard sciences. This experiment suggests to me that a healthy mind is always seeking a generative, dynamic balance between skepticism and confidence, always open to new information (both cognitive and meta-cognitive) that might inform and change one’s perceptions. Brings to mind Peter’s documentary on the Iraq war in which he says, “You see what you want to see. You see it the way you want to see it. You see what you can bear to  

The Internet of Living Things

Some people I know have started a unique university just down the street from where we lived and worked in the 1980’s in Mountain View, California. Instead of a multi-year curriculum, the Singularity University condenses today’s most important leading edge technologies and futures research into a 10-week intensive that accepts no more than 80 students. The classes are taught (from 7AM to 11PM) by some of the world’s leading thinkers and do-ers in their respective disciplines. Futures Studies & Forecasting Policy, Law & Ethics Finance & Entrepreneurship Networks & Computing Systems Biotechnology & Bioinformatics Nanotechnology Medicine, Neuroscience & Human Enhancement AI & Robotics Energy & Ecological Systems Space & Physical Sciences A few weeks ago at TED, the Singularity University threw a party where I met up with some of my friends, and met others involved with the new venture. The most memorable (and lengthy!) conversation I had that evening was with Singularity’s professor of synthetic biology, Andrew Hessel. I was impressed with both his formidable knowledge of genetics and bio-engineering, and his ability to see the merging of new bio-technologies from a futurist’s perspective. Andrew is clearly one of the planet’s leading thinkers on our bio-genetic future. So I was pleased to stumble upon Andrew’s recent lecture at MOMO Amsterdam just a few weeks ago. The lecture is called The Internet of Living Things and in 45 minutes presents a bird’s eye view of today’s most important developments in bio-genetic engineering and futures research. I encourage you to watch  

Six Simple Ideas

A nice little pitch-placed montage of pop scientists singing the praises of objectivity. I resonate with this thread. Science is a kind of poetry of shared reality. As Dawkins chirps, “science replaces private prejudices with publicly verifiable evidence.” World religion is fragmented into hundreds, perhaps thousands, of competing frameworks, with no central mediating idea. And while science can boast of central unifying tenets, it cannot address the depths of the human heart, the human spirit, the reality of hope (see Havel quote prior post). Maybe someday it will, but for now most of us embrace metaphysical metaphor to help make sense of mystery, death, and self. It is here: where objectivity meets mystery — where science meets spirituality — that our most important conversations are taking place. The world of religion can learn much from the scientific method, yet religion persists in trying to jam its clumsy superstitions into elegant, well-establish meta-patterns. Conversely, science, in its assumption that it can eventually objectify all reality, misses the fact that it hasn’t. Science would be well-served by integrating an engaged, conversational respect for the views of transcendence that currently fuel many of the planet’s greatest hopes and dreams. I’ve encountered a number of scientists who, while remaining atheistic or agnostic, have developed a healthy posture towards spirituality. Fact is, most scientists do maintain a sense of spirituality and/or faith. It’s a serious problem that the 5% militant extremes (on both sides) are often seen as the norm. As I mentioned here some years ago, physicist, astronomer, and atheist Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) weighed in on the war between science and religion. He warns fellow scientists that they are becoming “as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations.” Gleiser admits that science cannot offer the humanly essential qualities of hope, peace, charity, and spirit. He concludes, “It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the need people have for spirituality… either science will teach us humility and respect for life or we will exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.” My public journal (aka blog) exists, in part, because of my desire to see greater consilience between science/technology and faith/spirituality. Numerous science/spirit resources can be found in the sidebar. What’s needed in today’s rapidly connecting global culture, especially religious culture, is a way towards understanding the nature of unhealthy bias – how it clouds our thinking. Philosopher/scientist Massimo Pigliucci (NYU) offers six simple ideas that can help us overcome this “meta-bias” — our “not wanting to be wrong.” – Divorce your belief from your self – Think of disagreements as collaborative, not adversarial – Visualize being wrong – Take the long view – Congratulate yourself on being objective, not on being right – If you can’t overcome your competitive instinct, re-direct it Until we “become fine with being wrong” we will continue to harbor survival techniques which force us to hold on to irrational meta-biases. I journal this more as a reminder to myself than anyone  

Favorite TED Talks 2010

Great to see Bill Gates taking global energy seriously. In fact, he publicly stated from the TED stage last week what I’ve been saying since 2003:  energy is this century’s greatest structural issue. Fellow TED’ster Richard Branson went public this week with a similar clarion call. Worldchanging founder Alex Steffan, whom I spoke with at length, calls this “the most important climate speech of the year.” Sir Ken Robinson defined once again the highest art of public speaking. TED curator, Chris Anderson, noted after Ken’s talk that he may be the only person who can break all the TEDTalk rules – and we love him for it. Robinson focused on why education needs to change from an industrial model to an agricultural model. I think the same can be said of religion. Echoes of Wendell Berry. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot took us through a stunning visualization of design simplicity, in the form of fractals. I had a chance to spend some time with Benoit at TED, discussing emergence theory in light of fractal geometry and the Mandelbrot set. The music at TED this year was stunning: David Byrne (who also gave a TEDTalk), Thomas Dolby, and Natalie Merchant melted us with a brand new suite of songs based on romantic poets from the last 100 years. Cheryl Crow showed up, but probably shouldn’t have. Not much there musically. Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and family, and other musicians were soaking up the TED experience, but not there to perform. Oh, and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro captivated everyone. I’ve never heard a uke played with such subtlety – a true master of the instrument. I understand he gave impromptu concerts back in the lobby of the TED hotel. Anyone who takes the stage at TED is unpaid, including the invited musicians. Drawing from the field of Behavioral Economics, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman presented what amounted to an intellectual foundation for our activist social-media site Dan asks, “when we return from a vacation, do the memories we bring back have intrinsic value?” Compathos (still in beta) seeks to realign the concept of “vacation” as a proactive event in which we aid or assist our destination with skills we possess (medical, engineering, skilled labor, crafts, etc..) and in doing so, we become deeply changed – bringing back to our own communities a new perspective, a new heart, and transformed motivations – far more than a traditional vacation memory. Sam Harris gave a surprisingly engaging talk. Rather than rehashing his views on atheism, Harris focused on finding an objective framework for morality and ethics. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke, who said “one of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.” Kevin Bales presented a detailed, moving account of global slavery. It’s Kevin’s academic work that gave us the estimate of 27 million slaves worldwide. His work in slavery has effectively paved the way for most of today’s anti-slave efforts. I was honored to have lunch with Kevin after TED ended on Saturday – what a truly amazing man. Game designer Jane McGonigal sees video gaming as a core solution to many of today’s social problems. Don’t laugh – her TEDTalk is a must-watch. Brilliant. Cell biologist Mark Roth is onto something big. He’s discovered a way to put biological systems into suspended animation. Using his techniques, people who would otherwise die from serious trauma on the battlefield, in car accidents, etc.. can be placed into suspension (heart and breathing stopped – effectively dead) for hours without tissue damage while they are transported to a trauma center. Jaw dropping. Entertainer Sarah Silverman reminded me of those shallow and bawdy Las Vegas night club comedians from my parent’s era (Redd Foxx, etc..). With kids sharing the live TED experience both in Long Beach and virtual associates worldwide, this was not a wise choice. Live and learn. But many of the best talks were those that happened between sessions, in the halls, in the social spaces, at the lunches, and dinners, and parties, and spontaneous gatherings that define the TED experience. To elaborate on all the amazing, emotive, high-energy, a-ha! conversations I had this year might sound like name-dropping, so I’ll spare you the details. I go to TED to get energized, inspired, challenged, and awestruck by and with amazing people doing amazing things. I spend a week of my life here to renew a sense of childlike wonder and remind myself that I’m not crazy – that there are others who dare to dream big. ADDED:  Eighteen-year TED veteran Jack Meyers captures the scope and nuance of a TED Conference in his Huffington Post essay ADDED: Scoble’s excellent summary of attending TED ADDED: Overview of Bill Gates’ energy talk, at  

Life on the Virtual Frontier

New Frontline documentary by Douglass Rushkoff on the benefits and dangers of connective technologies. About 80 min and well worth your time. I especially like Sherry Turkle’s interviews. Sherry is among the world’s foremost experts on human-machine interface, with 30 years as MIT professor. Sherry and I were on panels together at Renaissance in Charleston last month – we had some really great conversations.  

Wired to Contribute

Israeli orchestral conductor Itay Talgam tells the story of Italy’s La Scala opera, a 700-person creative community who felt smothered by artistic director Ricardo Muti’s strong top-down leadership style. In a letter to Muti, the community complained “you are not letting us develop as musicians. You are using us as instruments, not as partners. We need a leader who leads without controlling us.” Creatives are wired to contribute. Creatives aspire to have their voices play a constructive role in community formation and direction, including (especially) religious community. Great orchestra conductors become conduits for this individual creativity to flourish. An intentional virtual network is like a well-led orchestra with every player listening carefully to the ensemble while contributing their individual part. Religious / clergy-based leadership (or, for that matter, any vertical leadership model) can often behave like an overbearing conductor, not partnering with the orchestra but managing and controlling the musical conversation. Talgam concludes, “The worst damage I can inflict on my orchestra is to give them a clear instruction, for it prevents the sectional ensembles from listening to each other.” The Internet is not simply an incremental enhancement to inherited forms of community. It is — like La Scala’s creative community — a confrontation, a protest, a demand, an awakening. Global networking facilitates an entirely new form of engaged people. When a radical new technology appears, things that were previously impossible start occurring (Jenkins, Kelly, Shirky, etc.). If enough of those impossible things happen with increasing frequency — as is happening today with the meteoric rise of human connectivity — the change becomes a revolution. The global-virtual community is listening to each other “moving their focus away from the podium, the institution, the isolated expert — towards a harmonious collective of the  

Electric VTOL

This has got to be one of the coolest inventions I’ve seen in a while. A personal VTOL craft that runs on lightweight electric motors. It looks like a Puffin when it lands! Said to be super quiet, this NASA carbon fiber design weighs in, with batteries, at just over 300 pounds. Top speed 480 kph with a 300km range on a single charge (est 2017). And since it’s not an air breathing machine, it has effectively unlimited ceiling (with internal oxygen for pilot). This aircraft can lift a person with just 60 engine horsepower. Wow. And electric motors are between 10X and 20X more reliable than internal combustion  

Playing to a Legacy

Renny Gleeson shares, …[those who] survive and prosper recognize that rejecting the technosphere or attempting to dam it will simply reroute its flow to more viable channels – and their only chance to lead is having those channels pumping through their doors. Innovation and capital will go where opportunity exists. I was at the Seattle “Museum of Flight”, and a particular plaque caught my attention in the ‘space’ display wing. In the ‘history of rocketry’ section, a note mentioned that two thirds of Nazi Germany’s physicists and half its physical chemists fled the Nazi’s ethnic and political policies – fueling Western leaps that resulted in the Atom bomb and (eventually, once the Peenemunde scientists were added to the mix) space travel. They played to a legacy, and sacrificed their future. Government restriction will drive innovation – at home, to circumvent such restriction, and abroad through migration of human capital and resources. Survival is based on the answer to a simple question: do you drive innovation, or do you drive it