Revolution #2

“Words are flying out like endless rain into a paper cup,
They slither while, they pass, they slip away across the universe.”
(The Beatles, 1968)

I have had to deal with changes in my work due to computer advances all my life, it has left me somewhat skeptical of the future when someone says things are going to again change dramatically and soon. Just like the digital revolution changed my work in art and graphics, artificial intelligence is on the horizon and ready to once again change the way we work and live. Artificial intelligence (AI) will (and does) make machines (computers and robots) possible to learn from experience as they do ordinary tasks, adjust to new input and build on their experiences much like a human does. It makes them smarter and better able to do things faster and faster and to find new ways to do things based on data collected along the way.

“Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind,
possessing and caressing me.
Jai Guru De Va Om
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world.”

So what is AI actually going do to us? Consider something that can try a thousand solutions to a problem in a moment, pick the best way to do it and then go on to the next thing, remembering all of the wrong ways and then passing the information on to a newer and faster machine. A recent survey of AI experts predicted that AI will outperform humans in all tasks in just 45 years and could take over any job in the next century. Such as? Machines will exceed humans in language translation in five years, writing high school essays in eight, driving a truck in nine years and doing most retail service jobs by 2030. Another 15 years will find AI capable of writing a novel and working as surgeons. AI and AI enabled robots are expected to replace 800 million jobs globally by 2030.

So despite what the Beatles said, something is gonna change our world and soon. I am not sure how to feel about that. I have been a science fiction fan and futurist all my life and have welcomed most technical changes even though they have constantly forced me to learn new things from the time I graduated from college. So I predict more of the same for anyone alive today. I have always been fond of the Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” Interesting times are definitely coming. We have a tiger by the tail and the only way for us not to be eaten is to never let go. Machines can learn, but so can we. (Below, my first real computer in 1981)

First computer sml

Revolution #1

“You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world.
You tell me that it’s evolution,
Well, you know
We all want to change the world.”
(The Beatles, 1968)

When I graduated from college with my two art degrees in very traditional areas of the art world, I had no Idea that I was on the edge of major changes in how things would be done graphically. Soon after, when computers started showing up, people began talking about the digital revolution that was coming. I had no real idea at the time as to what that meant. Later I learned that art, photos, video, words and music could be reproduced electronically on the computer and that it could be processed, altered, copied endlessly, and mixed together in ways that no one had ever imagined before. Instead of drawing in pen and ink or pencil on a piece of paper, you would work on a computer screen and then change or add to it as you worked. Photo retouch became less of an art with paint and brush and more of moving a mouse around to adjust the image. Color could be added at a stroke without the labor of mixing and painting from tubes of medium. Photographs could be instantly developed straight from the camera and sized and then moved on to a page with words and art then pushed around in a way that you could see the results before it was printed out.

“You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan.
You ask me for a contribution,
Well, you know
We’re all doing what we can.”

Having started in graphics when it all began to change, it was fairly easy to keep up with the simple programs of the time. Everyone had solutions to the problems of producing newspapers, magazines and books and we all learned how to use them. On computer I could do three times as much work. Instead of having to draw things out in pen and ink, I could draw them on the screen. Instead of having to typeset the text and then cut it, wax it and paste it on a layout board over my drawing, I could do that digitally. Instead of having to cut overlays for grayscale or color I could indicate where it was to appear on the computer drawing just by clicking on it and then printing it out in one completed piece, and later copied to a layout program with a whole page at a time.

I have not touched pen and ink or cut an overlay for more then 30 years and I doubt if I would be any good at it if I were to try now. A lot was lost then and other things gained. So was it worth it, this digital revolution? I try to think of the computer as another tool like a pencil or a brush. One that I probably rely on too much these days when my hands are a little too stiff to do fine detail work with paint and brush. All in all, it is a lot cleaner without the paint and ink all over my hands and clothing. But wearing things like that, (photo below, at my first art job), it probably could only make them look better.

Michael hansen 75

It is already too late

With the modern industrial age, (beginning in 1850 or so), has come 150 years of an unprecedented economic boom that took us from coal and wood fired steam powered engines to coal, gas and oil electric generating plants that power everything we use to live our affluent, comfortable lives.

The bill for all of this modern comfort is now coming due. We continue to ignore the possibility that when the planet warms up too much, the consequences are going to be enormous and very dangerous. The current US military budget is a staggering $700 billion each year. We are going to need that and much more just to combat the negative climate effects that will begin to sweep our planet in as little as 30 years. And yet here we are, blissfully telling the rest of the world that we will do nothing to help and to mind their own bloody business. It is all one planet and we will have to cooperate at some point in the future, or all go down together. It is really simple math, add more CO2 to the atmosphere and we will trap more heat and get warmer. There is absolutely no way around it. If you add heat to water, even a little at a time, it will eventually boil. So what is not to understand? Our weather is heat and cold driven, warmer air at the equator rises and flows to colder areas of the planet. The rotation of Earth spins the air and it mixes and ripples across the surface in seasonal changes of warm and cold. Spring, summer, fall and winter, it is all easily understood. However, keep adding heat and you will disrupt the normal flow of things. When everything is heat and little cold then we will have bigger disruptions in the normal weather patterns, I don’t think that I have to belabor the point. Many people still think that there is some vast conspiracy that is ongoing to force us to use more efficient means of powering our lives. Solar, wind, water and other non-polluting sources are bad for us? Let’s break a few things down for ordinary people. Warmer and dryer climate will mean more wildfires, less forestland for people who simply enjoy being outdoors and less wildlife habitat for hunters to use. All the best areas will be bought up by the rich and restricted to the public. There will be less water for fishing and other water-based recreational activities. Less snow will restrict winter activities and make it more expensive to use what little is left for everyone else. We dump a lot of water on our lawns out here in the west to keep them green during the summer, what will happen when we need all the water for a larger population and for growing food?

I really hate to be the grumpy old man complaining about the kids on the lawn, but when there are no more lawns, and no more water, I won’t have to say much about it, will I? Actually, it is already too late to stop the beginning effects of all this, but not entirely too late to save us from a real and very unpleasant future. I will probably not be here in another 30 years, so why should I care? I simply do not want to be one of those people that everyone will talk about who could have done something and didn’t, I want to be known as someone who really cared about the future and the quality of our lives in it. (A part of an old painting of mine of a very dry planet).

Reading your writing

Writers have a love-hate relationship with their work, or so I have read. I do myself. One day I would love what I have written, and on another day I can’t believe that I ever thought I could actually consider myself an author. The first four years I began writing, I finished three rather long novels. Since then I have slowed down considerably. The problem was time. I used to write during my lunch hour at work every day, I got a lot done during those years. But, after me and 20 fellow workers were gotten rid of from where we were employed, I got out of the writing habit. I also took up other things that made it difficult to write, painting museum exhibits for one. And I got to thinking that my writing was garbage. Of course, I never had the time to actively promote my work and my first published novel suffered from that in particular, which fed my negative belief. So, after working at other things and hardly writing anything over the last three years, I thought I would revisit my first couple of novels and sit down and actually read them again. Three years is a pretty good chunk of time and I should be able to view my work with fairly fresh eyes. It has been interesting, I have been enjoying my work, I feel that the writing is not all that bad. I am only partway through the third novel but I feel that I am doing quite well now. Still, this is not a good test, a writer just simply cannot be dispassionate about his own work. I am actually enjoying the story and looking forward to the rest of it. So how does one evaluate his (or hers) own work honestly? The answer is that you can’t, your own ego is smashed together with your creative thought process and you are liar if you think you can be objective. At least I can’t be objective. Writing comes from various parts of your experiences, history, habits and concerns about the universe. It is based on people who you have known, how you have been treated by them and how you treat others. It can be influenced by what you like to eat, how you get excited by and react to a myriad of stimuli from books to movies and TV, plays and concerts or just the annoying fellow-worker who likes to hum stupid songs. It is part of your whole being and you cannot step outside that and look back in, unless you are a split personality. I suppose you just have to trust yourself and realize that not everyone is going to click with your point of view. Still it would be nice to sell a few books somewhere along the line outside of your own family. (My cover illustration and redesign for my first science fiction novel).

The Weather Forecast, Part 2

As a futurist and science fiction writer, I feel I have the imagination to take current trends and extend them 30 years or so into the future of climate change to say, 2050. This is what I see happening by then or even much earlier. The Earth has already heated up by 1.8 degrees above pre-industrial norms (1720 to 1800). By 2050 that could be 4.5 degrees due to increases in CO2 (carbon dioxide) to 500 PPM (parts per million) in the atmosphere. More heat will effect weather patterns and create an increase in stronger storms and hurricanes. Greater areas of drought in already dry climates and continued melting of glaciers and ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica, which will contribute to a rise in the levels of the oceans. So what does all of this mean to the average person?

  1. Gasoline powered cars will gradually disappear, though you will have an electric one. Long distance roads will be automated and personal control over your vehicle will be local only. All trucking and delivery services will be automated. Oil reserves will start to diminish by 2050 and oil is just too useful to burn up as gasoline, which produces all that heat-causing CO2 anyway.
  2. You will have your own personal home electrical generator or a solar rooftop to fill the power gap as renewable sources get up to speed in order to cut back on polluting and CO2 producing electrical generation plants.
  3. Material recycling will be mandatory as resources become scarcer and more expensive. You will have your own personal indoor garden as food growing areas become more prone to drought and disruption and in-home water recycling as fresh water resources become scarcer due to larger populations, greater usage for agriculture and less rainfall in many areas.
  4. Half of you will telecommute to your job. Less travel means less congestion and resource use. Moving nearly 100 million people around in this country every day to and from work is very polluting, costly and not entirely necessary.
  5. If you live on the coast, or the heat-prone southeast, or the drought-prone southwest, some of you will have to move. Sea level rise and stronger storm surges will force people away from the coast. Longer and more persistent heat waves and drought will force populations to more temperate regions of the country.
  6. Local global conflicts will become endless as higher temperatures will cause many already hot areas of the world to become basically unlivable. Mass migrations will create regional disruptions in resources, food and living space. Extremists will seize the opportunity to overthrow governments and cause chaos. The drought in Syria, which has lasted for 15 years, has caused civil war and great devastation to that country. Multiply that by 20 if the rest of the region becomes affected.
  7. Political gridlock will become entrenched as a shrinking white population driven by Christian Extremists and Ultra-Conservative Republicans seek to keep control of the U.S. for themselves. State governments will have to step up their efforts to get anything done to counteract climate change problems that the national government will continue to ignore.
  8. The ultra-rich, banks and corporations will tighten their grip on political and economic control of the country in order to insulate themselves from the disruptions that the rest of us will experience in a hotter, dryer and less certain climate future.

Of course it takes money to afford a new place to live, electric cars, generators and recyclers, so if you are not well off, the future is going to be pretty crappy for you. There will be many adjustments in the next 30 years driven by climate change, whether or not you want them or believe that it will happen. The trick is to be prepared and work to reduce the amount of CO2 you contribute to the planet. Temperatures are increasing globally, that is certain, ignore it at your own risk. (Below, an old painting of mine showing a dire future where we live under climate-controlled domes, or at least the people who can afford it.)

The Weather Forecast, Part 1

I am currently engaged in my yearly struggle to preserve the lawn around our house against the hot and dry climate of my western state. No one said that we should have lawns here in what is essentially a desert, but long-established custom and my homeowners association says that we must. Since our current president has pulled the U.S. out of any kind of commitment to work with the rest of the world on issues of climate, I feel that I must speak out. I am a firm believer in climate change, we are headed down a dark road that we cannot clearly see what is at the end, and this is very frightening to me. The climate has always changed on our planet, this is not disputed, what is in dispute, (and should not be), is that we are warming it up on an unprecedented scale.

Over the last 3 million years we have endured a series of ice ages, having just recovered from one, less then 12,000 years ago. At that time, levels of CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) in the atmosphere was 180 parts per million, (PPM), making it warm enough to begin melting the glaciers. Since then, a relatively stable warmer climate allowed humanity to begin farming, cutting down forests, burning fossil fuels and creating civilization, this pushed CO2 to a pre-industrial rate of 280 PPM. Currently with 7 billion people on the planet, we are using considerable amounts of fossil fuels to move people around in cars, planes and ships. We generate incredible levels of electricity to power our modern lives and that burns coal, oil and gas and it all creates more CO2. In 2014 we blew past 400 PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere. Today it is 408 PPM, and it will continue to climb. CO2 traps heat in our atmosphere and in the distant past this helped keep our planet from becoming a frozen ice-ball like some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. But too much of a good thing is very dangerous, and by 2050, CO2 levels may balloon to 500 PPM. So what? Higher levels of CO2 and warmer climates have increased plant life, longer growing seasons and more atmospheric water vapor and doesn’t CO2 get absorbed into the oceans and land? Well, yes, it does all that. But of course, there is a dark side to additional CO2 as well, which cannot be ignored or explained away. I find that it is just simple mathematics that we are dealing with here, add more CO2 and that will trap more heat in the atmosphere. The oceans, land and plants are reaching saturation points and there will be no place for additional CO2 to go. As a futurist and science fiction writer, in my next blog, I will explore what might possibly happen when the CO2 levels reach 500 PPM, around 2050, some 33 years from now.

When the Catholic Inquisition in 1633 threatened Galileo with prison and torture, he was forced to renounce his discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun, (contrary to religions teachings at the time). He is reputed to have muttered under his breath, “and yet it moves.” So go ahead and shout it as much as you want, “Climate change is a hoax!” I will continue to say, “and yet it is getting hotter.” (Below is a very old painting of mine. Dinosaurs are thought to have flourished under a very long period of stable climate on Earth).

Voyager

Having recently reached the age of 65 and Medicare, I sat down to figure out how far I have come. The Earth rotates at a certain speed every day, (actually faster at the equator). And the Earth moves at a certain speed around the sun and the sun moves at a certain speed through the galaxy. The galaxy rotates at a certain speed and moves in a certain direction and figuring in the expansion of the universe we can estimate that I am moving at a speed of 2,237,000 miles per hour. (I am thinking of installing a seat belt on my desk chair). That is pretty fast for an old guy like me.

So let us figure a little more. There are some 8,760 hours in a year, and naturally a leap year is a day longer at 8784 hours. If we add up all 65 years worth of time. that comes to 443,784 hours that I have lived. Okay, so now we can times the hours by the mileage and that comes out to 1,209,163,176,144 miles. I have traveled over a trillion miles by just sitting here on this planet. I don’t think I will even try to figure in the miles added by traveling in cars, trains, buses and airplanes or just walking.

Even with that large number of miles, it is still nothing as to how far light travels in one year. That distance is 5.878 trillion miles. So now we can see that the distance I have traveled in my lifetime is still barely over a fifth of a light year. The newly discovered planet in our closest star system, Alpha Centauri, is 24.94 trillion miles away. I guess I will not be going there anytime soon. I could have made it to the Oort Cloud, that vast conglomeration of icy and rocky objects orbiting the cold distances around our sun, leftovers from when the solar system was formed. But why bother. The real journey has been here on this planet and being barely aware of our travels through space. Still, it is good to keep track of these things, and actually, if you think about it, the frequent flyer miles points would be killer. (Below, an old illustration of mine showing some interstellar travel.)

Rob and Bjo

One of the great things about being a Star Trek fan is that you meet the very best people. Whether they are artists, writers, editors, actors or the rest, they have been by far the most intelligent set of people I have met in my lifetime. Bjo and John Trimble are prime examples of this. As science fiction fans from the beginnings of the 50’s, their accomplishments in fandom are legion. Bjo is noted especially for helping start a letter writing campaign that saved Star Trek from being canceled after the second season. The third season took the series into syndication and made it available to a wider audience and eventually rebirth as new movies and television series. I met Bjo at my first SF convention in Salt Lake and innocently asked her for an opinion on my early science fiction art. Bjo is a talented artist in her own right and proceeded to give me an unvarnished critique of my precious work. It is a tribute to my thick skin as an artist that I didn’t give up that day and decide to become a bank teller, but it was good for me to know where I stood and I learned much and was able to improve. Over the years we became pretty good friends and eventually close enough that they were comfortable with staying with us on their trips to visit relatives in Montana. When they visited they were kind enough to let us have some dinner parties where we would invite other friends, (and fans of Star Trek), to mingle one on one comfortably outside the hectic environments of conventions. One night Bjo complained that she was having difficulty with her laptop and our son, Rob, never one to be awestruck by famous people, proceeded to give her some assistance and advice on using the electronic beast. I had to smile, here it had come full-circle, Bjo instructing me in getting things done and now Rob, my son, instructing her in getting things done. Life is just too darn interesting when you mingle with Star Trek people. (Below, Rob and Bjo at the kitchen table.)

Star Trek

On the night of September 8, 1966, I eagerly turned on our recently purchased color TV, anxious to watch a new show. I had read about it in the TV Guide, which my parents subscribed to. Among the usual fall previews of sitcoms, cop shows and dramas, it highlighted what looked to be an interesting space adventure. Being a big fan of the then currently active American space program, it sounded like it might be fun and from the opening theme music to the conclusion of the hour-long show, I was hooked. It was, of course, Star Trek, and the first episode that was shown, was the ‘Man Trap.’ Here was a bunch of humans already exploring space, to heck with the space race to the moon, these people were out there now. I rarely missed an episode over the next three years and when the Apollo 1 fire killed the three astronauts on the launch pad and the space program ground to a halt for a year and a half, I had Star Trek to see me through. I found it ironic that the TV program ended a month before we actually landed on the moon for the first time. Sadly for me, I had bigger fish to fry as I started at Utah State University that fall. The American space program and Star Trek receded into the background as I struggled to learn all I could about being a commercial artist. After I graduated four years later and started my first job at the Hansen Planetarium I finally ran into my first real science fiction and Star Trek fans. It was a revelation to me, I never knew that such things even existed.

To say that Star Trek seriously impacted my life is an understatement. I would have never painted SF subjects, especially Trek. I did cartoon books, traveled to SF conventions all over the U.S. where I displayed and actually sold my art. I met incredibly talented artists and writers, editors, cartoonists and actors and a whole slew of fascinating people. I even started writing my own versions of exploring the universe in a series of novels. My mind was opened to the future possibilities of humanity, leaving our planet and exploring a vast and wondrous universe. I still believe in that future even though times lately have been a bit strained on our increasingly crowded planet. The desire to look ahead and imagine better things and then do them, is something that we will always need, Star Trek taught me that. (Below, me on the bridge of the Next Gen Enterprise, waiting to give the command to head out into space.)

The Carrington Event

On September 1 in 1859 something devastating occurred on our planet. A solar coronal mass ejection from the sun hit the Earth squarely in the teeth and created the largest geomagnetic storm on record. This event was named for a British scientist, Richard Carrington, who observed the flare beginning on the sun and then studied the world-wide after effects. Because of this gigantic solar flare, aurorae were seen around the world as far south as Cuba in the Caribbean Sea. The only electrical operations at the time were telegraph systems, which promptly failed and many reports of sparks and fire arcing from the circuits were recorded. The Aurorae continued for three days and were so bright that many people reported they could easily read a newspaper in the middle of the night. So, what would happen if a large flare hit us in these modern and technological times? In 1989 the Canadian province of Quebec was without power for a half a day after a smaller solar storm hit the Earth. In 2012 a solar storm at least as large as the 1859 event erupted on the sun, but the flare missed the planet. These days if we were hit again, all radio communications would fail and unprotected astronauts in the space station would be in danger. GPS systems, cell phones and all satellite communications would be affected. Most vulnerable would be power grids and the storm surge could blow out large electric transformers. These transformers are difficult to replace and could prolong the effects of such a storm for days and weeks. Imagine no electrical power to do anything, to heat and cool, to light and power stores and factories, no TV and radio and no connection through cell phones and the Internet. So, are we doomed? With adequate warning by sun monitoring satellites we have the ability to forecast dangerous solar storms. With an advance warning we could turn off electrical grids for the short time that the storm will be most powerful. Satellites could be put into a sleep mode until the danger has passed. While potentially catastrophic, we could survive a large solar flare like the one in 1859. Our sun is the source of light and heat for our planet; but we understand that it can get a little cranky once in a while. We just need to keep an eye on the sky for future danger. (Below, Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis.” Some speculate that Church took his inspiration from the Great Auroral Storm of 1859.)