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.