Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Science and Technology #2

I don’t know whether I should buy a cheap normal laptop and run Ubuntu on it or buy a Mac. I think there is a lot of merit in Macs, but there are also several annoying things (like compatibility) that still need to be dealt with.

I don’t think I have quite enough money to fully enjoy the benefits of technology today, hopefully as technology becomes cheaper and better (c.f. Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns) I’ll reach reach a point where a totally immersive and covergent noosphere will enable me to have access to all the information in the world.

I imagine that this will happen several decades before it becomes viable to download skillsets (software programs that run on your PC and edit your neural structure through your personal nanoware so that you “learn” and “remember” skills without having to go through the tedious process of altering your brain manually.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Things We Need to Do

Following is a list of things that need to be dealt with (these are essentially engineering and scientific problems, political problems will need to be dealt with in the shorter term):

Mature nanotechnology: as demonstrated by the RepRap, it is becoming clear that nanotechnology (coupled with another technology, see below) will sort out quite a few of our problems). Once material wealth can be “made” by a machine that itself only requires energy and raw mass (the most advanced post-nanotech replicators will presumably need only energy) then a significant proportion of the iniquities in life will be resolved and done away with.

Fusion: in order to supply a crowded planet with sufficient energy whilst maintaining the integrity of the biosphere for future generations (and for ourselves, see below) it is necessary to create an elegant fusion reactor that produces significantly more energy than it consumes. This will remove any further material iniquity. We will have energy “too cheap to meter”, and the means of production will be owned by anyone and everyone. I suspect this will result in a sort of libertarianism.

Gerontology: the Great Aubrey de Gray believes that if we approach the problem of aging as a purely engineering problem we can overcome it and achieve “engineered negligible senescence”. This is a worthy cause, and will help to remove another great source of iniquity, that which is bestowed by an essentially hostile universe.

Transhumanism: is, as far as I can see, the only contemporary philosophy that has it right with regard to science and technology and adopts the most progressive, mature, and pragmatic attitude towards the potential and the peril of emerging biotechnology and AI. Democratic transhumanism (combining as it does elements of liberal democracy, humanism, and transhumanism) is an ideology that I can believe in and respect. Transhumanism also aims to remove the last of the great iniquities – with material wealth, wealth of resources and so forth dismissed – we would be left with only the basic lack of equality bestowed by our genes and bodies. And then hopefully all the problems would be solved.

The Space Movement: we need to have a (and preferably more than one) functioning self-contained extraterrestrial biosphere, capable of supporting a breeding population of human beings and other animals. My favourite for this one would be an asteroid (e.g. Ceres) hollowed out, a la the Thistledown and inhabited by humans in centrifuges. I hope that some new technology will emerge to allow us to build materials with sufficient tensile strength to overcome the strain of rotating fast enough to produce 9.8 m/s of accelerating centripetal force.

The Ridiculously Huge Telescope: the barriers to understanding currently stand at the limits of the very small and very large. To ensure our survival we need to fully understand our universe. That means we need to see further and in greater detail than before. To do this we need to build a telescope with a baseline as large as the solar system

The Ridiculously Huge Particle Accelerator: we need to see what the fundamental stuff of the universe is. Once we’ve done that we can start really sorting stuff out. To do this we should build a particle accelerator as large as the solar system.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sentimental Ostriches

There is a pernicious body of opinion gaining ground among those that care that the solution to our supposed demise in teenage civility, in the form of yobs, chavs, and ASBO-culture, would be a return to the Good Old Days of the fifties, before wishy-washy lefty liberals were allowes to crawl all over our education system

A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that a return to the "house system" in state schools would help combat alienation of youth. The IPPR also suggests that paramilitary organisations like the scouts should be encouraged.

There's a head teacher campaigning for the re-introduction of the fountain pen as the usual means of writing in schools as a means of improving literacy.

Naturally I disagree with this sort of sentimentalism. As to the fountain pen initiative, I'm sure the head in question had the best of motives, but are we really so ridiculously up ourselves that we can't realise that literacy has a lot more to do with how students are taught, rather than what they are taught to write with?

As to the IPPR report - I find it depressing that researchers can so readily accept that A: education was better in the 1950s and B: encouraging vague sentimentalism will not lead to confusion over the key issue of education.

A cursory glance of this weblog will show you that my standards of literacy are not top-notch, but I doubt that being able to write pretty, copperplate, longhand will improve my typing skillz. One of the major means of mass-communication that students will have to deal with as adults will be that of email and - as anyone who uses both keyboards and pens - I can tell you that the two are so different that it makes little difference what you learn to write in longhand script, you will still cut corners and use txt and other wonderful embellishments to the written language.

Besides, one of the funniest books I've ever read was Molesworth by Geoffrey Williams. It satirises the prose of a fifties schoolboy, complete with divine illustrations by the great Ronald Searle. Anyway, it just goes to show that every generation decries the state of the preceding generation.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

How the Mind Works

Steven Pinker has written an excellent book here. I don’t properly understand the subtleties of his argument but he seems to be saying that a large part of who we are is inherent in our genes.

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings in the controversy such a position seems to conjure up. There is a strong body of intellectual opinion that has always decried any such argument as fascistic and racist (because it is said to suggest that people might actually be inferior (for a largely arbitrary value of superiority) by virtue of their genetics.

Pinker also notes that as our understanding of how the mind functions increases we will inevitably be slicing away at any concept of free will. Rationally speaking, there is no supernatural homunculus sitting in a Cartesian theatre in our pineal gland. Therefore our behaviour, what we would consider to be the product of free will and consciousness, is simply the result of chaotic interactions between the outside world and various areas of our brain.

Pinker himself offers a solution to these moral conundrum: view the scientific debate, in which human beings are mechanical objects, and the moral debate, in which all humans are afforded equal rights under the law, as two separate arenas of debate.

I agree with this: all men may not be created equal by virtue of their talents, skin colour, gender, financial security, and upbringing. But everyone is considered an equal and rational freely determined being under the law.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

It's All Just Meat

When faced with the breadth and majesty of books like The Singularity is Near, Engines of Creation and Hacking Matter it is difficult not to feel inspired and optimistic about the future. There is a particular brand of techno-progressive idealogue who can weave images in the mind as effectively as any of the technologies they predict.

There is a problem. Ray Kurzweil calls it "the argument from incredulity". The picture of a plentiful future peopled by synthetic superhumans is so compelling it registers on our internal TGTBTM (Too Good To Be True Meter) as a being unreasonably optimistic.

Most rational people who don't live within the bleeding edge of pattern-recognition technologies simply refuse to accept that the clanking, smoking, bad-for-the-environment hulks of machined metal that are what most people still associate with the word "machine" could ever turn into anything as sublimely effective and versatile as a human being.

It is interesting to look back at how technological changes have been predicted to occur and how they actually did occur. Take the widely-predicted advent of powered flight in the late Victorian era. We see those wonderfully fanciful drawings of individuals flitting around in one-man ornithopters. The artist that comes to mind is Heath Robinson, although his were probably actually drawn in the early twentieth century.

One of the great fears of the Victorians, as exemplified by the writing of H.G. Wells, was the concept of "war in the air" (the other great fear being that of the advent of powered cavalry). That WITA became a terrible reality through the Blitz of London within the lifetimes of many of those already adults during the Victorian era suggests that our current fears of GM viruses, dangerous artificial intelligences and rampant nanotechnology scenarios may not be as far-fetched as we could imagine.

I disagree with Kurzweil's sweeping "law of accelerating returns". The most compelling point he makes in support of this is that over the lifetime of the universe, complexity has tended to increase in a manner which strongly resembles an exponential graph.

However when we get down to the nitty-gritty level of technological development over the years and decades of a human lifetime "progress" (an amorphous term in this debate) seems to happen in fits and starts, and is strongly influenced by political and economic factors.

That a young (perhaps 20 year-old) Victorian in 1900 growing up in a world without heavier than air flight could live to see the Apollo and the Moon landings (Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) springs to mind) is an extraordinary thing.

Another point to consider before dismissing Kurzweil entirely is the nature of technological change. The counterpart of the technology of aircraft in the early twentieth century is the development of computers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Computers tend to affect things in ways that were difficult to comprehend beforehand. Highly efficient information management and versatile and decentralised communication generate a lot of side-effects that would not be immediately obvious to someone who was not aware of computers.

Spime and conversion and the gradual move from centralised manufacturing towards decentralised CAD/CAM machines will allow the effects of abundant, effective computing to move from the world of pure information to the real world the rest of us inhabit.

At the moment our world is still very much run by meat. Humans are required for their versatility and imagination, if for little else. I think that of all Ray Kurzweil's predictions, the most likely to turn out to be correct is his belief that there will be a strong convergence between human and machine intelligence with the result of an (even more) profound change in the way the world works.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Future of Business

With all this talk of of global warming it is becoming painfully clear that something must be done.

Fortunately someone is doing something. After suffering years of disappointment with electric cars someone has finally developed something intriguing. The EEStor is a ceramic battery that promises a lot: "A four-passenger sedan will drive like a Ferrari."

Kudos to these pioneering entrepeneurs. There's something wonderfully wholesome about the concept of the electric car - I hope to own one myself one day.

I'm interested to see what the percentages of biofuel (alcohols and other vegetable-derived fluids), hyrogen fuel cell or "electric battery" cars will be in the future. In Brazil, there is such a thing as a "tribrid" car. Maybe that is what we'll end up with.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Reading List #1

This is the list of books that I need to read:

  • Hacking Matter - Wil McCarthy
  • Collapse - Jared Diamond
  • How to Get Rich - Felix Dennis
  • Hughes - Richard Hack
  • Freakonomics - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
  • Hyperspace - Michio Kaku
  • Galactic North - Alastair Reynolds
  • The Man's Book - Thomas Fink
  • The Honorable Schoolboy - John le Carre
  • Distraction - Bruce Sterling
  • Imagining the Tenth Dimension - Rob Bryantan

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A New Wikipedia?

Another new free online encyclopaedia has been announced today: Citizendium. I don't quite understand the relationship between this new venture and the Digital Universe, also created by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger. According to the FAQ at the "Citizendium" website the Citizendium project is entirely independant of the Digital Universe project.

As somebody comments on the Citizendium talk page at Wikipedia it will be interesting to see whether there will be any possible conflict of interest for Sanger. Which of the two institutions should he devote most time to?

Anyway, something that strikes a balance between the egalitarian and comprehensive Wikipedia and the reliable and credible Britannica will be brilliant. I look forward to downloading it onto a PDA...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Science and Technology #1

Bruce Sterling is a very fine science-fiction writer. He is also a very distinguished individual in the field of design, particularly pertaining to environmental design and "green" technologies, being the central figure of the Viridian Design Movement.

Another area in which Sterling has been an active commentator is that of "spime". This is one of those ideas that, when you first hear it, you dismiss as being so blindingly obvious that no-one should deserve recognition for it's "invention".

However after reading about it a little, then going away and reading about it some more, I gradually came to realise that spime as a concept is not a vague neologism but a very relevent modern-day topic, and an inevitable product of the convergence of information technology and the material world.

Consider the fact that today, most products (like toys, electrical goods, cars, computer-components, peripherals, buildings, pharaceutical plants...) are designed in software on a computer. They will then probably be instantiated by machines.

Once they have been completed, transported from the factory and sold to the consumer, and used by the consumer they may well be recycled. And hopefully one day all items will be recycled.

However this raises an interesting question: exactly where does the "object" (whatever it may be) come into existence? Is it when it is put together on the assembly line? Is it when it is first created in the virtual environment of the CAD software?

The fact is that the "object", as an abstraction, can be said to have existed from the moment it is concieved in VR. As technology advances, it will become cheaper and cheaper to manufacture computer chips (or their technological descendants) and cheaper to build them into objects as a matter of course.

These chips will have memory, processing capability, sensory capability and an awareness of where they are in space and time, and what they are. The blueprint for these chips will exist along with the object they are embedded within in the virtual CAD environment.

When it is time for the object to be recycled the chips will guide the object to its final destination (imagine a sandwich-wrapper lying on a pavement saying "please deposit me in the jive-coded waste receptacle...").

Once the object is recycled there will remain a complete record of the objects life. Where and when it was designed, who by, where it was manufactured, where it was taken, where it was used, who by, what for, and finally where it has been recycled.

This sounds very Orwellian, especially when you consider that factories in the future may be very compact and verstatile, and capable of manufacturing objects from the atoms upward. This will mean that potentially the food we eat, and even our bodies can be tagged, recorded and monitored at an incredible level of detail.

Who controls spimes, and who has access to the information, will be a key topic of political debate in the future, and the near future. Of Sterling's six facets of spime several already have representative technologies. The six are:

1) Small, inexpensive means of remotely and uniquely indentifying something over a distance (e.g. radio frequency identification).

2) A mechanism to precisely locate something on Earth (e.g. a global positioning system).

3) A way to effectively mine the large quantities of data produced by these systems (e.g. modern web search engines).

4) Tools to virtually construct any object in a virtual environment (e.g. AutoCAD, and various molecular-modelling programs).

5) Ways to rapidly prototype virtual objects into physical objects (there are various "3D printers", but we're not yet very near the garage-level universal assembler)

6) Cheap and effective recycling.

The potential good for this kind of convergence is huge. However there are numerous potential pitfalls and problems. I look forward to exploring these in thought, and maybe later in the real world.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Absolute Friends

Recently I read Absolute Friends by ace spy-novelist and former spy John le Carre. The style of writing is incredibly readable, like warm apple juice it flows liquid and amber off the page and into your mind.

The anger and sense of betrayal the writer displays towards the British authorities for colluding with the Americans over the Iraq War is tangible.

Considering this lead me to analyse my own position regarding the US of A. I agree that the idea of American liberal democracy is compelling and I support it entirely, but the reality of present day America is rather different.

Hypocrisy is perhaps the greatest of the great media-oriented political crimes of our age. To preach against something and then do that thing yourself is seen as being qualitatively worse than simply doing the thing in the first place.

It irritates me that when a politician is caught committing political incorrectness, they are attacked more for their perceived earlier "holier than thou" stance than for whatever thoughtcrime they are meant to have committed. I suspect that this is a punishment by the mass media, which sees itself as the sole rightful arbiter of what is worthy and what is wrong.

That said there is something deeply sickening about a certain frame of mind that seem to be prevalant in America today. By far the biggest beneficiary of direct aid from the federal government are the large public limited companies.

These corporations present a fatuous image of what used to be called "The American Dream" in which these vast, monolithic, hierarchical, and deeply entrenched organisations play the card of righteous independence from government whenever they are demanded to reign in on issues like making vehicles that are more fuel-efficient, or when the American government threatens to cut subsidies that have prevented poverty-stricken African farmers from selling their crops.

In political discourse policies and political parties are generally defined along a rather strange spectrum. Fascists at one end, Stalinists at the other. I believe that this spectrum is obsolete. When the common man is being ground underfoot by authority, he doesn't care if the authority is a corporation, private company, government, state, or religion. We should define things in terms of what they are, not what they say they are.

Birmingham University

Sorry about failing to write anything for a long time. There is a really rather bad reason for this, which I'd rather not go into at the moment.

Anyway. Several days ago I went to Birmingham University. It was quite good. I thought it was very warm and inviting, clearly well-equiped in my chosen subject (chemical engineering) and generally rather good.

It would be singularly inapropriate of me to make any further statements regarding anything else about this institution, the teaching quality is deemed excellent by the most recent reviewers. The research quality is also considered to be very high.

It is on my shortlist of six institutions as stipulated by UCAS, along with: Imperial College London, University College London, Manchester University, Nottingham University and Sheffield University.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


After thinking about Ray Kurzweil’s ideas, and reading Permutation City Greg Egan I’m coming to the conclusion that – from a theological standpoint – what is key to who we are as people is indeed the pattern rather than the material.

The pattern has nothing to do with the soul (if such a thing exists, which I doubt, and as such is essentially irrelevent) as the pattern it is not necessarily immortal. It needs a substrate in which to exist, and most substrates are finite (with the exception of the pocket universe Egan explores in PS).

The idea of a “gradual submersion” into a cybernetic substrate is one I’m very comfortable with (the idea of an abrupt “ending” of one pattern and the beginning of another on a different substrate, though consistent with my belief in the importance of the pattern, goes against my instincts. These are flawed, of course, but are nevertheless part of who I am).

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Permutation City and the New Mind

Permutation City is extraordinary. Egan never relies on techno-babble BS to create convincing worlds. All his alternate realities are rooted in a totally feasible (sounding) model of real-world physics. He doesn’t rely on magic or demons to make things work. Because of my studies of physics and maths I actually understand enough for it to be engaging, though the fact that Egan is such a good writer means even if I hadn’t studied these subjects I’d still enjoy the story. I’m still a little confused about something to do with layers of reality used in the book. But as the whole story deals – very skillfully and insightfully – with the nature of virtual reality and the virtual mind, it is not surprising that there are some weird cogito ergo sum moments and a lot of Cartesian uncertainty.

The likes of Stross and MacLeod often use backups and “digital people” as plot devices and characters, but Egan really gets into the concept: discussing the identity and self-perception of the virtual humans, and how they all relate to virtual minds in virtual realities. As always Egan’s view of the future is highly realistic. A key part of the plot involves the fact that “copies” of humans can only “run” at 1/19th the rate of normal flesh-and-blood human beings. This turns the usual belief that virtual human minds will run faster than normal humans on its head, and makes for some interesting observations.

There is also the usual philosophical debate: if someone is an indentical virtual copy of someone else are they that person? From my Kurzweil-oriented point of view, I believe that what is key in this situation is the pattern of information. From the millisecond the copy and the original data construct (say: a flesh and blood human) diverge then they become two different people. What is key is the pattern of data, not the substrate in which that data (or information) exists, hence a digital person, a virtual person, an “analogue” F&B person, or a person that is described by the actions of a weak Turing-complete system (i.e. a machine or computer that can perform any computational task).

Terry Pratchett explores these ideas in The Fifth Elephant. At the end of the book Sam Vimes is presented with an axe by the dwarf King. The dwarf observes that if Vimes’ ancestors were to replace the blade, and then their ancestors were to replace the handle – then could it be said to be the same axe?

It is a widely-believed fact that every atom in the human body is replaced every seven years, and the atoms of the material we think of as being most intimately “us” – the brain, CNS, nerves etc – are replaced every few months. This demonstrates that it is not the lumpen matter that matters when it comes to defining a person (without unnecessarily invoking supernatural irrelevences like the “soul”, or weird quantum “stuff” a la Roger Penrose). It also demonstrates that people are dynamic: I wasn’t the same person I was a few seconds ago. I’m not the same person I’ll be in a year.

I feel I can be forgiven for being squeamish: when the technology to upload your brain or a part of your brain into software (and run it at = to or > baseline speeds) becomes available I would rather tip-toe into the swimming pool, rather than dive in all at once.

By this I mean I would choose to model a small area of my brain, then devise an item of hardware that can respond in exactly the same way to stimuli as the area I have scanned does. The item would contain a computer running a simulation of the area of the brain it is designed to replace, and sufficient hardware to interact with the surrounding areas of the brain in the same manner as the original area.

This “hardware” is likely to require extremel complex devices. I don’t know enough neurobiology to be specific, though I imagine that simulating hormones, neurons, and the intricacies of the human brain are likely to be difficult. From this point of view it would be much easier to simply render the entire structure in virtual reality. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about the interface problem.

Over time I would gradually “build up” the area of my brain running in synthetic substrates, until the whole thing is wholly synthetic. Assuming, of course, that such a state does not compromise my health, mental or otherwise. The likely benefits: including the ability to “learn” new skills by reinforcing the appropriate mental pathways and speeding up my perception of time will hopefully, eventually outweigh the possibly downsides.


My visit to UCL went well. I saw the Jeremy Bentham auto-icon. He seemed like a stand up guy, and the whole place seemed fairly good. It's definitely in my top three unis.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Girl with a One Track Mind

As I mentioned before, whilst camping in Wales I read several Guardians. In one of them there was an interview with “Abby Lee”, the pseudonym of a woman whose name I can’t remember.

Anyway, for the last two years she has been writing a sex blog. Recently she had it published as a book, and she was also “outed” by The Telegraph. She seems an interesting person, and considers herself a socialist.

Today in The Week I read an article that claimed that George W Bush’s Republicans had lost the approval of the South Park Republicans. As much as I like South Park, and agree with their general sentiment, I disagree with the specific “…I hate conservatives, but I really hate fucking liberals…” where their general sentiment is the idea that you’re either a bible-bashing redneck or a self-righteous liberal activist like Michael Moore. I feel sympathy with my fellow disaffected youth across the pond, but why don’t the Americans realise that everything that underpins America is liberal.

For Americans it seems that “liberal” has become synonymous with soft, self-serving (in the sense of personal image, rather than the financial selfishness of conservatives), smug, celebrity driven causes. In some cases it seems that “liberal” is almost seen as being …shudder… socialist!

I know there are probably millions of USAmericans that are liberal and also aware that Michael Moore is the worst sort of propagandist (the ones we all feel we have to agree with anyway), but my overwhelming impression of America is of blindingly stupid (and inevitably old and decrepit) politicians, largely ignorant masses, a healthcare system like something out of the 19th century, and of course George W Bush.

OK. Here’s the problem. Every day people go out into the world in whatever country they live in and try to earn enough money to pay the bills, feed the kids, and maybe generate a little surplus for enjoying the finer things in life. However if we’re going to do this effectively we need to compartmentalise our lives a little. Those of us who read newspapers regularly, watch TV, read blogs, and generally try and retain a feel for the world around us have to build walls between “real life” and “news life” in order to function.

By this I mean that if we were to suddenly realise exactly how lucky we are, and also realise the the existence of and the depth of the suffering and hard work of people in other countries are required to undergo to ensure we have eight different types of coffee to choose from, or innumerate plastic toys shoved into our semi-recycled child's portion meals we know damn well we shouldn't be buying but feel oddly compelled to anyway.

I don't know what we'd do if the repressed masses abroad decided they'd had enough of selfish fiscal policies and corporate-based economic repression, but I doubt it would be very pleasant for us.

Stereotypes are a neat way of compressing all the information that streams into our consciousness (or would if we paid any attention to it) into a nice, clear little labels that mean we can get on with the business of living without having to worry. This kind of mental compartmentalisation is quite important, but can be a problem as well.

The problem is stereotypes are such a damn-fine brain tool that we’re always a little reluctant to give them up.

Somewhat tortuously, this brings me back to Abby Lee. For me, the key flaw in socialism is that is replaces economic tyranny (e.g. the wage slave or the inhabitants of 19th century workhouses) with a different type of control (as in Stalinist Russia or North Korea). I think key to any reasonable socialist state is democracy which, for some reason, always seems to be lacking in radically socialist (i.e. communist) countries.

I would probably describe my own political position as secular, humanist, liberal-socialist democratic. In terms of the less-than-perfect "political spectrum" I'd say I was ever so slightly left of centre.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Tired of Life

I'm going down to London on Wednesday for a tour of UCL campus and general U of L Open Day infodumping event. Incidentally, Senate House, the central office for the Federal University of London was the home of the Ministry of (for?) Information during WWII.

It was here that George Orwell worked as a humble clerk before writing 1984, in which "The Ministiry of Truth" plays a major role as the workplace of the protagonist. Senate House contains the office that was the inspiration for the infamous "Room 101" and features as the HQ of the Ministry of Truth in the film of the book.

Friday, September 08, 2006


Sometimes I feel angry about the stupidity of our politicians and our foreign policy. I also feel angry at the stupidity and casual cruelty that seems so common in world affairs, and the general lack of any kind of meaningful liberal resistance to the tabloid-promoted moral hysteria that seems so pernicious at the moment. Nothing is quite as distasteful as reaidng some of the frenzied red-top headlines that preach for a justice that any decent person will leave in the middle ages.

Another cause for alarm is the simultaneously disquieting and ineffective initiatives of our government when it comes to combating terrorism. TJ is going to die in a mangled auto or a hospital bed: I’m not going to die in a terrorist attack. I will probably be affronted or annoyed at some point by the measures put in place to combat terrorism, but apart from the harm from that, I am statistically more likely to suffer by having myself and several members of my family killed or maimed by a freak lightening storm than I am by a terrorist outrage.

When it comes to terrorism, the objective of the terrorists is very clear. Terror. Now the fact that 52 people died on the 7th of July last year in London is shocking, awful, and horrifying. But it doesn’t exactly have me quaking in my shoes, largely because of the aforesaid improbability that the terrorists will actually get me, but also because I know that the correct response to such a (literally) self-destructive ideology is quiet pity and positive action.

What I mean by positive action is this: stop invading other countries. Apologise for the immense harms rendered on the Arabic world by Western Powers collectively, and by the British specifically (witness the “Great Game of the 19th century, and most of the 20th century). Dissacociate ourselves from TGWoT, admitting that it is essentially an excuse to wail on whoever the hell we feel like (if you’re Russian, the Chechens, if you’re Turkish, the Kurds, if you’re Israeli, the Palestinians, if you’re Indian, the Tamil Tigers…). And generally try to behave as a responsible, progressive, liberal and democratic nation should.

This is not capitulating to the terrorists. Capitulating to the terrorists would involve acting like they want us to act: big and bad and evil. We could do this by invading a bunch of other nations, or locking up a bunch of innocent people, or clamping down on our own freedoms and exposing the hypocrisy at the core of corrupt Western society. Oh wait...

Friday, August 18, 2006


Contrary to my personal predictions, I got ABBB in AS English, chemistry, maths and physics. I'm very pleased with this. The universities I am considering applying for are UCL, Bath, Manchester and Birmingham (possibly Leeds, Bristol, Sheffield, Edinburgh, York...) and these unis have AAB/ABB/BBB as their "typical grade offering". I reckon if I retake two of physics, chemistry or maths (probably maths and chemistry) then I'll be able to up the B-grades to A-grades and go on to get (at least) three B-grades for A2.

Like I said before, when I go to university I'd like to do chemical engineering or biotechnology or computer science or something. I don't have much idea to be honest, but chemical engineering is certainly near the top of my list.

The car I'm going to buy has to have a little work done on it (windscreen wipers, new tyres), but I should have acquired it before I go back to school in September. I have a driving lesson this Sunday and work tomorrow. I've got to spend a lot of the next two weeks working on chemistry coursework.

I'm going to go to the University of London Open Day on the 12th or 13th of September, and I'm also going to Manchester on the 4th.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Little about Me

Hi. There are a couple of things I need to say. The first is that I don't yet have a MySpace. Undoubtedly it will just be a matter of time, the reason I don't yet have a MySpace is that I doubt I'd have very much to say about myself. Fortunately from what I've read MySpace makes it very easy to appear interesting enough to promote casual voyeurism - what can you really tell about someone if they prefer Coke to Pepsi (everyone prefers Coke to Pepsi).

The second thing: I should let you, the reader, in on a little about myself. I'm 17 years old. This isn't a particularly difficult age, 6 was harder, as was 13. 17 is mainly annoying as you have undergone several years of adult fairs and child-only savings and still don't have any of the benefits of being an adult. I'm referring of course to intoxication, but enough of that.

I guess the most important thing, from the POV of a web-user reading this, is what my interests are, and what my politics are.

I'm interested in quite a lot of things, but I have little in the way of hobbies. I do pretty much all the things people my age are supposed to do. That said, I'm interested in technology, both electronic gadgets and the vast concept of technology. I'm interested in memes (I mentioned them in an earlier post), I'm interested in philosophy (mostly Descartes at the moment) and engineering, I'm interested in the future, I read a lot of science fiction. I enjoy schoolwork, I draw cartoons, I write quite a lot. I wish I understood things more. Like how computers work, and how communications networks work. I would like to write a book (I'm not too fussed over what sort - maybe a graphic novel).

Careerwise I expect I'll go to university, study chemical engineering, I might become a chemical engineer or I might do a post-graduate degree in CS and then try to get a job as an investment analyst. Then maybe I'll set up a business. I'd like to have lots of different jobs and careers over the course of my lifetime.

I'd like to paint, draw, and write as well. I want to constantly learn new things and to learn to do new things. This is part of the reason I quite enjoy school.

Politics. Rearrange any of the following words in any order, and -ic and -ist where appropriate: democratic, liberal, humanist, secular, materialistic, transhumanist. I agree with the democratic transhumanists on almost all important political issues. I also agree with them as to what issues are important.

Here are some books I'm reading at the moment: The Kite Runner, Engines of Creation by Kim Eric Drexler, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (I read this a while ago and I am currently rereading it), various books by Gore Vidal and JG Ballard and Noam Chomsky and Charles Stross and John Le Carre and whole load of other authors. Cutest of all: Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony. I love Eoin Colfer's writing style, and the characters he has created are brilliant. I also like Terry Pratchett, Bruce Sterling, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter. No woman! Well I have a couple of (presumably) female SF authors lined up to read but I can't remember their names.

I'd like to meet pretty much everyone on the planet (as long as we were introduced to each other at a suitable venue for a conversation - not a torture chamber). Specifically I'd like to meet all the people I mention above, George Soros, Fidel Castro (does he speak English?), Felix Dennis, Ray Kurzweil, James Harris Simons, Craig Newmark, Marilyn Vous Savant, Greg Egan, Cory Doctorow, Ken MacLod, Terry Pratchett, Charles Stross, Bruce Sterling, Gary Kremin, Abby Lee, Germaine Greer (I want to see if she's like she is on TV), Hilary Clinton, Al Gore, all the nation-bosses and HoS in all the world.

I'm buying a car in a few days and I'm currently learning to drive (I mean - I'm currently taking lessons, I'm not writing this during a lesson).

My AS-level results come out tomorrow. I expect I will get BCCD in the subjects I'm taking. These are English language, chemistry, maths and physics.

Hey - I had quite a lot to say about myself anyway! I'll check in tomorrow to let you know how my results went.

The War of the World

I just finished watching The War of the World. It was an interesting documentary and the parallels the historian Niall Ferguson draws between the anarchist-terrorists assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand near the beginning of the C20th and the Muslim-terrorists attack on the World Trade Centre in America are intriguing.

Sorry if I misinterpret it, but his thesis lacks something. What I think he basically said was that:

“…the C20th was one of total war; it was the time when falling empires were brought into conflict with emerging empire-states. Global capitalism at the start of the century, with enormous movements of goods and peoples around the world under the supervision of the global empires, was curtailed by conflicts that were brought about partly because foreign minorities became so integrated into society (so says Ferguson – I think this sounds too similar to the “justification” of the Holocaust by Nazis, i.e. “the Jews are racially inferior and have wormed their way into every part of our society, so they must be cleansed”. Genocide seems to be something people do, and it is a compulsion that continues. Exactly why it occurs is a question for social anthropologists, sociologists and social-psychologists, and I feel deserves a little more attention than was given by Ferguson). Ferguson claims the most major events of the 20th century did not surround “the victory of the West” in WW1&2 and the Cold War, but were in the “triumph of the East”. From the Russo-Japanese war (a fascinating story BTW) in 1904 to the recent rise of the totalitarian/capitalist China, and the constant stream of young Muslim immigrants into an aging Europe). He also mentions that in order to defeat the monstrous war machine of Hitler’s Reich the Allies had to adopt the same gut-hating and no-holds-barred mentality of their enemies…”

OK. Personally I found Ferguson’s programming style a little too tortuous. I felt he should have stuck to the topic a little more closely and tried to get his point across more clearly (from the above you can see that I haven’t quite got it – I’d check his website for more info).

OK. This is how I see the history of the Twentieth Century. For thousands of years humankind warred amongst itself. War, like genocide, seems to be part of the much celebrated “human-condition”. It is something we do. Possibly because its fun, possibly because life has always been a zero-sum game, or maybe there’s a cross-wire in our evolutionary makeup.

For most of human history there have been barbarians. I don’t just mean people who don’t live in cities. I mean people who had no concept of the rights of man, and who did not know of the value of liberal democracy (something I believe in). These barbarians include the Romans, and the British. Back when we had an empire and a concept of divine right or manifest destiny to rule the world, our guys on the frontier had very little scruples when it came to strapping the Pathans to a cannon and giving Johnny Foreigner a taste of British [school firewall].

I mentioned the cannon. This is important. Technology amplifies our actions. Advanced, industrial technology mixed with collapsing empires and emerging empire states makes for baaad voodoo at the dawn of the C20th. I think looking at population-movements and macroeconomics ignores the greatest lesson of the C20th. At the start we had machine guns and kites. Now we have ICBMs tipped with thermonuclear warheads capable of devastating an area the size of Israel. The Cold War didn’t get hot because the major players knew that any direct combat would be insane. Failing to blow up the world has got to be one of the greatest human achievements of all time, especially considering our trigger-happy ancestry.

The C20th was when the barbarians met heavy industry. WW1 was so shocking because before war had been something that happened a long way away (from the British perspective) and was rifles vs. pointy leaves. War between industrialised nations never reached a level of “total war”, where the entire economy is forced over the producing the means to destroy the enemy, and where the objective becomes to destroy the enemy, as opposed to warding them off or suppressing them.

My point (made with even less clarity than Ferguson’s) is that Ferguson didn’t recognise the role that advanced technology played in the twentieth century. Here’s what Ferguson says on the matter:

Progress, people and weapons

Why? What made the 20th century, and particularly the 50 years from 1904 until 1953, so bloody? That this era was exceptionally violent may seem paradoxical. After all, the 100 years after 1900 was a time of unparalleled progress: by the end, thanks to myriad technological advances and improvements in knowledge, human beings on average lived longer and better lives than at any time in history.

To explain the extraordinary violence of the century, it is not enough simply to say that there were more people living closer together, or more destructive weapons. No doubt it was easier to perpetrate mass murder by dropping high explosives on crowded cities than it had once been to put dispersed rural populations to the sword. But if those were sufficient explanations, the end of the century would have been more violent than the beginning and the middle.

In the 1990s, the world’s population for the first time exceeded six billion, more than three times what it had been when the First World War broke out. But there was actually a marked decline in the amount of armed conflict in the last decade of the century. The highest recorded rates of military mobilisation and mortality in relation to total population were clearly in the first half of the century, during and immediately after the world wars. Moreover, weaponry today is clearly much more destructive than it was in 1900. But some of the worst violence of the century was perpetrated with the crudest of weapons: rifles, axes, knives and machetes (most obviously in Central Africa in the 1990s, but also in Cambodia in the 1970s).

I don’t agree with Ferguson’s assertion that the nature of the graph of the number of people you can kill to the number of people you do kill is not linear for any other reason than mutually assured destruction.

But I digress. My basic point is that the idea of genocide is not new. Genghis Khan killed millions. The Romans succeeded in wiping out an entire civilization (one up on the Nazis) – the Dacians. Someone’s written a gruesome account of what the Roman’s did to the Dacians on a big rock in Rome – Trajan’s Column.

Human nature is said to be the one constant in all of history. If this is so (the transhumans think that this might change Any Day Now) then you can’t really explain the C 20th in anything other than advances in technology amplifying tendencies that have always been there. Even the greater transport, globalisation and integration of different races ultimately comes back to the impact of advances in technology.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Nuclear Power and Techno-Progressive Ideology

I think I ought to clarify my position regarding “ideologies”. As I’ve said many times before I personally subscribe to a liberal philosophy, with progressive, democratic, semi-libertarian (in that I’m for civil liberties but not entirely against the existence of the state), transhumanist, humanist, secular, techno-progressive, enlightened, and utilitarian ideology with simple-man’s karma (a la My Name is Earl), common-sense, good humour, and the meme of enlightened self-interest thrown in for good measure. However. I do not believe that ideology should get in the way of politics. The best sort of politician in my opinion is one who will judge all cases on their particular merits (in the context of legislation) and make a decision based on their personal feelings and rational conclusions.

The problem (at least in the past) was that politicians and statesmen would make decisions on purely ideological grounds regardless of the fact that ideology had no place in the debate. But that’s the problem with ideology; it seeps insidiously into every corner of life until it utterly consumes you in every conceivable way.

Let’s take the example of nuclear power. There is currently a debate (well no, actually, TB has decided [somewhat pre-emptively] that new nuclear reactors Are A Good Thing) as to whether a new generation of nuclear reactors should be built in this country to help us reach our climate-change-stopping targets.

As I mentioned before, as a techno-progressive, you’d expect me to be enthusiastic over a renewal of interest in nuclear fission generation, but from a purely economic viewpoint, the numbers just don’t make sense: you build a nuclear reactor, plus infrastructure, and you have to spend in the region of two billion pounds. To build a hi-tech, high temperature, coal-fired energy-generator would require only about 200 million pounds. So what about the greenhouse gases? Well, if we just pump the CO2 underground (carbon sequestration) then we won’t have to worry about the carbon emissions. And in the case of nuclear we’ll still end up with waste (although there are methods to speed up the half life of by-products, rendering them safer much sooner than before, and the possibility of using thorium as a fuel, these still have the drawback of having to store and process waste and the infrastructure being more expensive) and nuclear remains an order of magnitude more expensive.

My point about ideology is that I shouldn’t let my techno-progressive ideology blind me to the fact that in our particular case, on the British Isles, we have huge reserves of coal remaining and the space (for example in the former gas and oil deposits under the North Sea) for carbon sequestration, and as such it would be foolish to go blundering into a nuclear quagmire. Another point worth mentioning is that nuclear is not renewable. We’ll run out of uranium some day, just as we’re running out of fossil fuels, and all our energy-plans will be stop-gap solutions until we develop miraculous solar power or fusion reactors. Another point worth concentrating on is saving energy, and generally being more efficient in our use of energy.

Being techno-progressive doesn’t mean advocating generation after generation of fuel-hungry, juice-guzzling gadgets, it means finding a subtler and more practical solution to a problem and not simply denying “technology” and declaring “technology” to be the cause of all our problems.]

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Careers and Sterling

Sorry I’ve been absent for so long, nine days, in fact. But in those nine days sixty three thousand people have died of AIDS, I have revised fifty pages-worth of maths textbook, read more pages of text than your average medieval scholar would have done in a decade, suffered from an overreaction on the part of my body towards a totally harmless tree pollen, discovered a competition that offers a top cash prize of £750 that is about writing about the future of technology of all things, decided I love the music of “Alabama 3”, I watched the sublime "The Godfather", I bought a copy of Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives and considered that a masters in chemical engineering, followed by a post-graduate course in nanotechnology from UCL (or Cambridge [a man can dream...] or Manchester) would be quite an acceptable decision careerwise, and have fallen in love with the new MacBook. I want one. It is perfection – and it can run Windows! Now the last bastion of my resistance to buying a Mac is finally crumbling! I can have all the benefits, and not have to worry about compatibility issues.

Anyway I’ve just popped in to apologise for not updating my blog (who the hell am I apologising to?)and also that I’ve found a number of interesting articles by Bruce Sterling (whose "Schismatrix Plus" I need to read). Here is a typically interesting excerpt:

So where are the human limits? What are we supposed to do with these peculiar twin minorities: the tiny minority who can program from the silicon up and who genuinely understand computation, and the other cyber-dyslexic community who won't have any truck with computers under any circumstances? If I were a eugenicist, I would suggest that maybe we ought to interbreed these populations for the safety of the rest of society. But that's just a conceit.

More practically, I would suggest instead that the problem itself is a phantom problem. Human intellectual limits, although very much there, don't really matter all that much. There are, what, 5.7 billion people on the planet right now? Let's assume that one percent of the population can really hack. One percent of that figure would be 57 million people. This is a huge pool of creative talent, it must be as big as the entire population of Europe at the height of the Renaissance. If we can't coax a few decent multimedia programs out of that group, I would suggest that perhaps the fault lies elsewhere.

And if that makes the market smaller, so what? We can just do what Microsoft does. Instead of selling an easy workable program to a vast popular audience of 20 million people, we can sell a difficult, treacherous program to an elite audience of two million people, only we'll sell them the very same program ten times over in different upgrades.

I have often heard people in computing fretting over the purported fact that their mental inferiors can't keep up with the deep technical skills needed for computation. It's odd that I've never heard this said about television (except for VCRs, that is). I've only rarely heard it said about automobiles. Most of us can't fix or understand our televisions, and we can't fix or understand our automobiles either, but this vast ignorance about television and automobiles doesn't seem to bother anybody. We'll let most anybody get behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle which can travel a hundred miles an hour and kill a dozen people in the blink of an eye. We never demand that they learn anything about the chemistry of oil refining, or about internal combustion. We just let 'em drive the car, and if they're no good at it and kill somebody, well, that's just tough luck!

I think it might be possible to design a computer that's as easy to drive as an automobile. Where you just rent one and sit in the seat and turn the key and get going, without getting enmeshed in the barbed wire of extensions and shells and bell-and-whistle hotkeys and all the rest of it.

I think the extremes of complexity in the human computer interface may be a passing phase. You shouldn't have to become a portly UNIX freak in order to manage a computer. I suspect, in fact, that it ought to be possible to design computers simple enough for animals to use. After all, do you really need a cellphone? Your cat, that's who needs a cellphone. Who knows where your cat is right now, anyway? Your cat needs a beeper. We already have gophers and lynxes on the Internet; on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog; is there any real technical reason why can't I put my dog on the Internet? I suspect this might be genuinely possible.

I suspect the ultimate Internet link is going to look and act a lot like a make-up case. You won't see any command-line prompts when you use it. It will be a social device, a social-relations technology just like a make-up case is. When you pull it out of your purse and open it and talk face to face to your friends on the other side of the planet, you will feel just about the same kind of glamorous intimate pleasure you feel when you are pulling out and using your compact mirror. The engineers will no longer be in control. Or at least, the engineers won't be trying to one-up one another by building and selling each other macho power-user desktop dragsters full of smoke and burnt rubber and oil fumes.

These words were spoken in October 1994 at the American Center for Design “Living Surfaces” Conference, San Francisco. It is extraordinarily prescient in what (as I read it) it says about intuitive graphical user interfaces and the move towards usability.

It also touches on a pet peeve of mine: people today are perfectly capable of operating cellphones, PCs, MacBooks etc without actually having the faintest idea of how the device they are using actually works. I can’t program “from the silicon up”, but I have no problem using a PC. My last rambling rant on this topic had me move from finding this state of affairs reprehensible to finding it a monument to humanities’ interdependency. Still, I think people should try to be slightly more technically oriented. Maybe we should all try and be like shands (plural shandi? – go look it up: reference to Strata by Terry Pratchett, one of his less critically acclaimed but nevertheless superb books) who simultaneously have several different professions. Below is a list of different profession-collections:

• Chemical engineer, meat animal herder, lift-attendant and bounty hunter.
• Solid state electrician, graphic-novelist, taxi-driver and cartwheel artizan.
• Film critic, private detective, cat burglar and insurance broker.
• Pharmacist, software technician and priest.
• Religious scholar, pro boxer, lithographer and architect.

It is clear that many people living today will live much longer than you (for the purposes of this conversation, you are “Joe Everyman”) might expect, and might retrain and follow a dozen totally different career paths over your active life, constantly hoping for the event-horizon of retirement to suck you down into the placid singularity of a halting state.
Speaking of which, I bought The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, I hope it is as good as his other books.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Ultimate Gadget

For some time now I’ve been ruminating on “the ultimate gadget” (that’s right, you heard me – ruminating). The problem is that every time I pursue this train of thought I commit singularity and have to reboot. The thought process generally goes something like: “foldable, hi-definition, 3D electronic paper with eVisors and a neural interface…!!! Then singularity hits and a mere pre-transcendence homo sapien such as myself cannot know wot of the wonders available to the vast and cool and unsympathetic posthuman intellects of the beyond…
So in an attempt to create a useful thought experiment, here are some guidelines:

• All the technology used in the gadget should be feasible by the standards of 2006.
• By “gadget”, I mean a handheld device. Clearly cybernetic cyborg-implants are disallowed by the first point, and anything I can’t carry around in a jeans pocket is also out.

The gadget would be the form factor of an Orange SPV M5000 except it wouldn’t have the annoying asymmetry of the aforesaid device, and it should be slightly longer and thinner, more like that of the Sony Ericsson P910. The dimensions would probably be about 12 x 7 x 1.5 cm. In this aspect the gadget would resemble a mini-laptop/tablet, with the screen and a compact, QWERTY keyboard available on the interior of the clamshell. However the screen should be touch-sensitive when the device is in “PDA mode/camera mode”. The supplied stylus should of course have a little cap under which lurks a black ball point.

The gadget would have a camera similar to that of the imminent Sony Ericsson K790i. 3.2 MP, a substantial lens, autofocus, macro modes, and a xenon bulb for flash photography. The flashlight should also have a lower power setting which allows it to be used as a torch (a very useful feature of the K750i). There would of course be a cover to protect the lens – and the cover should not cover the flash. The gadget would have a smaller camera inside the clamshell for video conferencing. It is worth pointing out that beyond about 4 megapixels other factors start to affect the quality of the photographs you take much more than the number of pixels. I think building an optical zoom into the device is reasonable. The camera and cover should be flush to the surface of the back of the device, and be of a similar consistency material-wise so that it is not irritating or uncomfortable to hold.
The gadget would come with a full suite of entirely open-source, free and tech-hippy-friendly software including all the office basics, games, a web browser, basic photo and picture editors, sound recorders, media playing software etc…
Speakers and microphone (both for mobile-phone capability and note taking) would have to be included, of course. External function buttons could include pause/play, stop, back-forward buttons, a camera button and a voice record button, as well as the all important “hold” slider switch.

Connectivity options would include: a USB/Firewire data cable (presumably bundled in the box) a standard audio jack for speakers and earphones, an IRDA port located near the top end of the device (this would mainly be for use as a remote control for TVs, VCRs, DVD players, PVRs etc), Bluetooth, wireless a/b/g, EDGE, GSM, UMTS etc. The device should be able to function as a removable USB pen-drive with the cable. Included in the box should be adapters that allow the device to communicate with phone outlets and LAN cables.
One feature I’d like to include (but sadly cannot for feasibilities sake) and would like to see on mobile devices generally is a cross-spectrum sensor that allows the device to communicate in huge numbers of different ways across all conceivable areas of the electromagnetic spectrum. Updates and information about protocols could be downloaded and put in place through software mechanisms. This is a bit like black box technology, where you simply have a lump of stuff that does something depending on what you do to it. I suspect that this is one technology that will emerge from widespread nanotechnology and the invention of computronium, but I should really leave it out of this experiment as such a device isn’t quite here yet. For an example of the sort of universal gadgetry I mean read the sublime Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code by Eoin Colfer.

Processing power and RAM should be sufficient to play games to a standard similar to that of, oh, say an old Gameboy Advance, after all, if you could play PSP games with PDAs there would be no need for a device designed specifically for gaming – right?.
The device should come with a hard disk of a type similar to that found in the current generation of iPods. Flash memory is still at the 2-4 GB stage, and I’d use flash over a vulnerable hard disk any day, but the disk would of course be cushioned, buffered and have a facility similar to those of Powerbooks, whereby an on-board motion sensor removes the stylus from the hard disk when a sudden motion is detected. The top-end iPods currently have 60 GB hard disks, so I’ll go for one of those.

Among the many ebooks that should be included with the device include a static version of Wikipedia, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, The CIA World Factbook, IMDB Movie Database, US Army Survival Manual, The Bible, Koran, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, the Encyclopedia of Mythology, Foldoc Dictionary of Computing, Buddhist Dictionary, BBC Health Medical Notes, and How Stuff Works (all currently available for Palm, Windows handheld and Symbian users in TomeRaider format – now you know why I need the 60 GB hard drive).

It would be nice to be able to receive TV on a mobile device (in a ho-hum, should be done sort of way) and to be able to view all the freeview digital channels and record them and transfer them to a PC.

Thinking about it, I have absolutely no preference as to size and form. Something like the P series from Sony Ericsson or the old Nokia we-swear-its-not-a-brick would be fine, although the Orange SPV M5000 is almost perfect.

If you happen to be sitting in the park and an idea for an absolutely killer SF short about cyborgised spiders infiltrating an extreme-extropian libertarian enclave in a decrepit habitat in orbit around Pluto and you just have to write it down, fast, ’cause the words are right there in your head… Then an external keyboard would be good, something like those supplied by Palm and Nokia, amongst others. Ideally the keyboard would be foldable and not much larger than the device itself, so that you could whip one out of one interior jacket pocket and the other out of another interior jacket pocket.

GPS navigation facilities are obviously a must-have, and while we're talking about satellites and whatnot, why not have a satellite phone built in as well?

There is no doubt that such a device is entirely feasible with today’s technology, but usually when you try to put too much functionality into a device it becomes a jack of all trades and a master of none. I think (hope) that my perfect gadget (or something very like it) will be on the market before 2010, and shortly after that there will be all the eVisors and singularity-gifted consumer goods a presingularity liberal capitalist could wish for.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


In English today we discussed ICT and Language, and the point that we are all interdependent when it comes to technology came up. Even someone who knows how to program a computer doesn’t necessarily know how the PC actually works. Computer technology and its close affiliate, information technology, have spawned a whole raft of ideas and concepts that would be unfamiliar to anyone from before about the 1920s and with the rapid development in these fields techniques and concepts can rapidly become irrelevant and whole new problems can crop up overnight (being flippant here, but you know what I mean).

I’m prepared to bet £300 that if you took any group of 100 people from a progressive Western democracy, dumped them on a completely untamed and uncivilized planet (as they do in Strata) with only the most basic tools (i.e. axe, hammer, shears – this is cheating a bit anyway) most of them would be dead within a month, and those that survive would probably not continue to do so for very long (however in Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross the posthuman AI-run-amok deposits people on barely terraformed planets with cornucopia engines and suchlike).

The point is that you can’t sit down in a jungle and make a 3 GHz Intel Celeron processor chip using “the knowledge of the woods” or some garbage. Every achievement in every field of human endeavour is the top of a massive, broad pyramid of ideas based on things like subsistence agriculture.

In his recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail and Succeed Jared Diamond (such a brilliant name!) discusses how social trends during times of economic success affect the rise and fall of civilizations (there’s a whole lot more as well, and it looks to be a fascinating book…). It is a point of considerable debate in some quarters as to exactly how durable and resilient our society actually is.

What we can justifiably assume from human nature is that when things are going well people will tend to assume they will stay that way forever. Do I need to back this assertion up? Probably, but I can’t be bothered. Look at the .com bubble. Look at the whole stock market for Chrissakes. People expect things to stay pretty much the same as they always have done, and act surprised when things change. As Ray Kurzweil explains in The Singularity is Near people have difficulty absorbing trends that take more than five years or so to become apparent because our resolution of events tends towards the second – minute – hour level, with perhaps the top end of perception being in the region of a year (speculation, people, speculation). is a blog and website that advocates democratic transhumanism. Go see them for their explanation for what a transhumanist is, what a democratic transhumanist is, and what a libertarian humanist (or extropian) is. The origins of the extropian movement are complex (i.e. I can’t be bothered to describe it in detail and would rather make a crass generalisation from limited knowledge, which is much more fun than being professionally journalistic ;-)). As far as I can work out a sentiment among Americans, represented by the ideals of libertarianism, which advocates limiting of the control of the state over the individual, rampant free-market capitalism, a night watch state, and the abolition of hierarchy, collided with the creation of the Internet and simultaneous progress in fields like AI, biotechnology (e.g. the Human Genome Project), and the imminent arrival of nanotechnology.

Libertarians who lived in the time of Thomas Carlyle were allowed to run rampant in Britain between about 1830 and 1860, and the night watch state that was instituted for much of that time simply didn’t work. Free markets were revealed to be just as capable of crushing people underfoot as dictatorships and kingdoms. The wealthy couldn’t be relied upon to be charitable enough to help those unable to help themselves and the interdependence of people is society was revealed: no one could pull anywhere unless they pulled together. As a result of the backlash against this state of affairs you get Karl Marx, Engels, socialism and a fifty year-war that almost destroyed the planet. However social reforms like the NHS in Britain, universal suffrage, and the New Plan in the US resulted in the wonderfully progressive, generally cheerful and happy-go-lucky tradition of liberal democracy that we (i.e. someone who owns or has access to a PC, Internet connection, is housed, and has time to spare to read weblogs (OK: that’s someone in one of the aforementioned progressive liberal democracies – or China…)) enjoy living with today.

Many libertarians, however, felt that all this social reform meant that more and more power was being taken back by the state (e.g. ID cards, control orders, evil instruments of the unholy like mobile telephone masts and speed cameras etc) and sometimes expressed themselves rather badly.

The problem was the libertarian system had been shown not to work. People needed the state for things like welfare, healthcare, education, crime fighting, and defence. Advances in technology seemed to offer a solution though: if you can develop an anti-aging technology it would remove much of the need for a public healthcare organisation in a stroke (lol) and with viable nanotechnology-based “autodocs” we could…

And on and on and on… The point is that extropians imagine that “magic technology” can cure all of society’s ills (including, apparently the need for a state). I don’t buy this personally. It’s a utopian dream for sure, and maybe one day we could all live long, happy and fulfilling lives by virtue of our wondrous sufficiently advanced technology. But first: who makes the nanotech? Second: who makes the AI? Third: What about commons? Fourth: Anarchy doesn’t work sunshine (we had anarchy way back in 4000 BC, and now we don’t – I wonder why?).

You could argue that the last two solve themselves: commons are replaced by magic technology, real estate by constant expansion out into space by home-grown diamond starships, courts and justice systems can by bought and sold (mmm really?) and anyway we’ll-all-be-uplifted-superintelligences-living-in-a-computer-so-we-won’t-disagree-
about-anything-anyway (more cynical noises – we’ll leave out the posthumans ’cause lets face it: we don’t know nuffink about ’em).

The point is that although technology can empower the individual (I’m writing a blog her after all…), it can’t (yet) solve every damn problem we have. I think we still need a democratic state structure (possibly modelled on the Swiss version of nearly direct democracy, rather than our own FPTP representative version – direct democracy is an interesting topic and one that could be pursued on a much larger basis now communications technology and connectivity are such as they are in the developed world).

If the admirable aims of transhumanists are to be realised I think it will only be through cooperation and integration into a broader, global, society. I don’t mean globalisation; I mean something more like this. The fact is that even if I had a PhD in “the application of artificial stem cells using Darwinian algorithms to solve problems in a surgical context” I would probably not be able to design the chips the computer that ran the algorithm or have enough expertise in polymer creation to make the fabric of the swivel chair I used at my work station, or know how to hunt a seal for that matter.

Twenty odd years ago a certain British politician was purported to have said that there “is no such thing as society”, and today we are still living with the consequences of her philosophy. Technology can’t replace society as technology is society, and society is people. Ergo, technology is people.

Society is as much a technology as anything else, as is any structure of the mind, like language, which helped our genetic ancestors get to our level of intelligence. Evolution is a dynamic process, after all, even if it is way out of our aforementioned perception of change, and it would seem that the advent of tool-use, language and fire all contributed to us. As we continue this ongoing process it accelerates as we adopt more and more effective methods to amplify our actions and our ideas. Thinkers like Ray Kurzweil reckon that once we’ve got this AI thing cracked then the next stage of the evolution of intelligence will be attached to the increasingly increasing rate of improvement in ordered information (as in: information with a purpose, the better the order, the better it can fulfil its purpose, which can be sentient, intelligent life).

It is frightening to consider how helpless I would be as an individual in an unknown and hostile environment, having to fend for myself against nature and all her ills. But fortunately for me I live within a web of devices, both large and small, tangible and intangible, that ensure I am well fed, looked after, educated and reasonably happy. The transhumanists are right: technology will allow us to transcend the poorer aspects of our nature and become better than we are, we know this because to a large extent it already has.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Second Person Narratives

At the moment I’m writing an essay entitled Language and Occupation as part of a dry-run for my AS level revision (translation: I was looking for somewhere to start revising English, which is impossible, so I defaulted to doing my homework…) and just before I got to the interesting bit about J.L Austin’s speech acts I got bored and wandered off into blogland.

Charles Stross’ latest piece clubbed me over the eyes – he was talking about something that was very close to the rambling discussion of speech acts I was trying to bolt together. He discusses how the first, second and third tenses are used (or aren’t used) in fiction. Generally we use the third tense (he/she/it) when writing about something. If you take it that reading is the closest thing to telepathy we’ve managed to develop: Stross describes the third person version of telepathy as

…an omniscient telepathy cam weaving among the actors like an attention-deficient mosquito, landing to suck a moment's thought here then buzzing across the room to slurp a transient meme there…

Generally speaking the use of the second person is rarely used in fiction (one exception that comes to mind because I reread it recently is Strata by Terry Pratchett. In Strata Pratchett uses second person imperatives “Consider Kin Arad, now inspecting outline designs for the TY-archipelago…”). Stross proposes to do just that though. He explores what the concept of blogging may have meant for someone ten or more years ago:

Obviously, you know what it feels like to read a blog. But cast your mind back in time ten years —, no, make that fifteen — to a time before you encountered the net and before blogs had been invented. Try to imagine yourself as an aspiring SF writer who's read about this internet thingy, and about some experimental hypertext tools (from Xanadu and Hypercard to Hyper-G by way of Gopherspace and WAIS, with a side-order of this funny compromise thing some guy with a double-barreled name is tinkering with at CERN). As this aspiring SF writer, you've decided to write a novel set in 2006, a novel in which this internet thingy your tech-head friends keep gassing about in the pub is everywhere. And you start trying to work out just what that might mean. You've heard about email, and that intuitively makes sense. You've possibly heard of AOL or CompuServe or CIX and, if you move in academic circles, of USENET, and the idea of a bunch of people talking on a multi-user bulletin board isn't that strange. And there'll be some kind of easy-to-use hypertext system that lets ordinary folks add data to it.

But what are the ordinary folks going to add to this hypothetical global hypertext thing? What are they going to talk about? How are they going to use it and what's it going to feel like?

Asking these questions, your traditional, instinctive, bad-SF approach is to explain everything in nauseating detail: "Johnny sat down at the HyperTerminal and typed in his password. The computer verified his identity and let him in, throwing up a picture of the InterWeb. Johnny thought for a moment: where do I want to go today? The answer was obvious. Like all other communications media, the InterWeb had only really taken off once it was adopted by the porn industry as a replacement for Betamax tapes; now, finding anything useful in it was like walking down a strip mall full of flashing red neon signs and questionable window displays. But Johnny wanted to research his dissertation topic. So he typed in the address locator of Google, a popular information clearinghouse that scanned the rest of the InterWeb daily and indexed it, allowing keyword searches." (And so on.)

A more sophisticated approach that increasingly became the norm in more literary SF over the past couple of decades is to show. "Johnny picked up his laptop and logged on. Windows opened on its desktop, pop-up ads flashing garish offers of hardcore p=orn at him. Annoyed, he brought up a browser and headed to a search site to continue researching his dissertation." This mode is a whole lot less clunky, but it's got a crippling handicap: the author has to make the leap from technical description ("typing his password into the HyperTerminal's keyboard") to action ("he logged in") in a manner that is comprehensible to the reader. Because, let's face it, if you've never seen a computer the second version of this story is a whole lot less accessible than the first. Early SF was seen by its authors and their self-ghettoized readers as a didactic, educational medium exposing them to new ideas about technology and the way we might live. You could show the first version to a 1930s reader and they'd be able to follow the plot: the second remix is incomprehensible, because the referents for the action simply aren't there ("laptop", "logged on", "browser", "search site").

Sorry for piling that down there but it is an excellent comment on how SF tends to be written, especially the long, protracted infodumps that are necessary to introduce the ignorant reader to a new concept.

One of the best authors I know when it comes to not making this mistake is Ken MacLeod. In his early books (Stone Canal and The Star Fraction from the Fall Revolution sequence) MacLeod casually drops references to both advanced technology, and references to events that have taken place in real history – the result is a book which merits rereading after a couple of months or several hours of googling and Wikipedia exploring, but its density and originality are extraordinary.

Well I gotta get back to my essay. Such is life.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Comparing Wikipedia to the Encyclopadia Britannica and other much more established works, as well as other online encyclopaedias (encyclopaediae?) seems to be in vogue at the moment, with reviews and articles in Focus Magazine, The Guardian, The Gadget Show, and The Register.

Speaking as a student and a regular user of Wikipedia I can name three qualities that make it extremely worthwhile compared to other publications:

It is free.

It is detailed.

It is comprehensive and massive.

Although there have been many criticisms of the project, and recently a number of important people have left the organisation, I haven’t seen much evidence of the graffito and vandalism that has earned Wikipedia criticism. I can only assume that this is because of the tireless efforts of many nameless volunteers who constantly monitor and repair such instances.

I do sometimes come across labels like “The Neutrality of this Article is Disputed”, which is quite reassuring: usually authoritative publications will not concede any bias or possibility of prejudice on the part of their writers, and it is refreshing to find a source that admits its own flaws.

However like all utopian dreams there are generally quite a few blemishes when the project is put into practice. It is sad that people are vandalising and abusing Wikipedia. Jason Scott explains why Wikipedia has started to judder recently here at

Fortunately although Wikipedia may be consigned to some kind of back-seat, there is a future for the model: Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has set up The Digital Universe:

"What makes people enthusiastic about contributing to Wikipedia is not that anyone can participate, it's that it's easy for the people who do to participate, and that they get instant feedback from in the community," he says. "Those features that make Wikipedia compelling can be replicated in a system that is managed by experts. The whole idea is to teach experts the Wikipedia magic."

His conception seems to be pretty close to an ideal for an online encyclopaedia, carrying forward the best aspects of Wikipedia but putting it into the hands of people “qualified” to do the job. It seems a bit sad that the anarchic nature of Wikipedia hasn’t played out as well as it might have done, and all because of the most irritating and immature elements of society (e.g. Radio One…), but I’m reassured that there will be a replacement if Wikipedia does go the way of the dodo, which it might still manage to avoid.