Friday, December 28, 2007

Watch this Space...

At some time in the future I'll be writing a review of The Meaning of the 21st Century by James Martin.

In it he mentions "the tragedy of the commons" and how companies should factor in the cost to society and cost to the environment of their activities, as well as more familiar expenditures.

These ideas are similar to those explored by Genichi Taguchi in the eponymous Taguchi method of industrial design.

Just thinking aloud. Read and prosper.



Because I have new years resolutions to draft I want to get all the bile out of the way as quickly as possible so that I can enter 2008 a clean vessel ready to be filled with another year's worth of anger, fear, depression, hatred and smug vindictiveness.

Here is an essay that, even though I don't live in the USA, has inspired me to new levels of self-righteous arrogance. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is such a joy.

Here is a HowTo at Vice magazine that is so un-PC I could weep. Bravo.

And Charles Stross has written a wonderful Christmas wishlist. I'd add one of these neat-o Soviet supersonics as well.

And to round off: we need nukes! Nuclear power is brilliant! Long live Monty Burns! Hooray for the atom!

Monday, December 24, 2007


I was in the Manchester Museum recently (it is rather good), and I saw a rather splendid display of bows and arrows. These were in many different styles and from many different cultures. There were little interactive displays that told you how the bows were made. An awful lot of effort and craft goes into what I had always assumed was a simple piece of wood.

Thinking about this as I struggled to operate my rapidly aging Sony Ericsson K750i it occurred to me that nowadays that level of development is rarely reached. Innovation and evolution happen so quickly that there is no point in refining a particular device. Hence mobile phones and mp3 players are rather unpleasant and tacky. Good design does crop up occasionally but the general rate of development is such that avenues of design are left unexplored and concepts are left incomplete.

Putting aside speculative discussion of a spike or singularity in the near future I sometimes wonder what “technology” and devices will really be like in, say, a thousand years time. What will human beings look like and how will they move around? In what manner will they reach orbit? Will they even bother?

In the realm of the state change seems constant and always disruptive. The pointless and dangerous desire to collate and store information is partly simply due to the technology being available to do it. This leads to accidents.

I feel privileged to live in this time of change but I do sometimes wonder if humanity will ever achieve an equilibrium with its environment. 99% of human history consists of people living in hunter-gatherer style societies. The current "singularity" we're living through will presumably result in either out destruction or in some new equilibrium. I wonder what it will look like.

Friday, December 21, 2007

An Observation

Why is it that marketeers seem to think that people really use their laptops in grassy parks?

In every university prospectus on the "online" page there will be a picture of an attractive student sitting in a park using an Apple MacBook Pro.

For some reason these people also frequently barefoot.

Why would anyone be using the web in the middle of a public park without any shoes?


  1. You'd get mugged.
  2. Students that can afford MacBook Pros can also afford appropriate footwear.
  3. Most grassy parks are not the sort of places you want to walk about barefoot in.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

American Gangster

I went to see American Gangster. It was rather good. I made the – not original – observation that the only ethnic group not heavily represented in organised crime in the USA are the WASPs. This is because they got in early and legalised all their rackets. Hence instead of drug smuggling, gun running and racketeering you have General Tobacco, Boeing and the World Bank.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Happy Birthday Arthur C Clarke

Happy birthday Arthur C Clarke!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Stephen Fry

Every so often I come across some piece of writing, drawing, idea, or scientific theory that is so goddamn good that it depresses me that I will probably never be able to create something half as good.

I've been re-watching the first season of The West Wing recently. I've also been attempting The Guardian cryptic crossword. I've also been catching up on Stephen Fry's blog. All these things are wonderful. Two of them are guaranteed to make you feel warm and fuzzy and smart. The crossword is a bit of a downer until you get a word and then you feel on top of the world.

Fry's blog is actually "a joy to read." The simple act of reading it makes you happy. I've been linklogging everything he's written because it is of such superlative quality.

This blessay is especially brilliant: Fry summarises the positions of the three broad attitudes towards global warming and why (in game theory terms, considering what it is at stake...) it is most correct to adopt an attitude that holds that CO2 emission should be reduced.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Problem...

I just thought of something: when you say "Christian" or "Catholic" or "Muslim" you immediately think of someone who has adopted a particular set of ideas and beliefs. These beliefs will generally include:
  1. A belief in God, and a belief in some kind of personal relationship with God
  2. A belief that the world is the way it is because of God's will
  3. A particular moral code and lifestyle
When you say "atheist" the first two are essentially the opposite:

  1. There is no God
  2. The world is the way it is for reasons other than God or the supernatural
Number 3. is absent. There is no immediate identification with any kind of moral or ethical code in atheism.

I appreciate that Dawkins, Hitchens et al are approaching the problem from the front end - attempting to persuade those who have settled into lazy agnosticism to actually express their atheism openly.

Morality is ultimately a creation of people - not God - and as such atheists should be clear that whilst they reject God, irrationality, and the power structures these things support they are in fact advocating morality more strongly than religionists.

Atheists strip away the fretwork and tinsel of religious ceremony and expose the uncomfortable truths that we are all profoundly alone (in the sense that there is no omnipotent divine being) and our only comfort is in each other and as such we should support and respect each other as best we can.

Atheists should be clear that morality is everything. There is no cosmic scorecard, only the people who surround us, how they judge us and how we judge ourselves.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Hydrogen Hoax

In Robert Zubrin's latest book Energy Victory he argues that liberal, wealthy countries should wean themselves off oil as a prime mover because OPEC and most specifically the House of Saud funds Muslim terrorism and radicalises moderate Muslims.

The money to fund this radicalism comes from oil revenues that come from us in Europe, North America, and Asia. This money is then used to radicalise the Muslims amongst us.

Also, because OPEC sets the price of oil over what the free market would set it at, OPEC prevents developing countries from accessing the cheap energy they need to develop.

A line quoted in this article on Zubrin's book at The Register concerns the "hydrogen economy" - something I've always felt was a canard:

"It’s all pure bunk. To get serious about energy policy, America needs to abandon, once and for all, the false promise of the hydrogen age... Hydrogen, therefore, is not a source of energy. It simply is a carrier of energy... an extremely poor one."

It's nice to have my own opinions vindicated by people who know what they're talking about.

Friday, November 23, 2007


I initially felt more contemptuous of the media than of the government following the loss of those data disks. Rationally I realised the seriousness of the problem, but after I checked my bank balance and it became clear that there has been no widespread identity theft I realised that the media has been turning this into a story of government incompetence when it is really a matter of state incompetence generally.

So some fool messed up somewhere. This sort of thing happens all the time in big organisations.

[And why is Alastair Darling being criticised over Northern Rock? He couldn't nationalise it earlier and he made the right choice in securing people's savings. The fact that it will now cost the electorate is irrelevant. This is why I could never be an elected politician: I despise the electorate. All those whiny, self-involved bloggers and commentators with their precious and ill-concieved opinions. Ugh. (And yes, I am referring to myself as well as everyone else...)]

When will people learn that the government has a very small ability to actually affect people's lives and that this is something we should be thankful for? The state has a much greater direct impact on our lives and the state will always be big and monolithic and dysfunctional (even when it's trying to be hip and efficient by outsourcing non-core tasks to the public sector).

"Datagate" just goes to show that the state should stick to its core tasks of welfare, healthcare, defence, justice, and money supply. Trying to analyse and micromanage every aspect of the lives of every citizen only leads to a greater possibility of these sorts of mistakes happening.

Also: why isn't Gordon Brown concentrating on his vision of equality of opportunity for everyone? Why isn't he pushing this forward at every opportunity and making it clear to everyone that this is what he stands for?

Unavoidable errors can be forgiven if politicians can provide a moral story and justification for their continued stay in power. I don't particularly object to the state losing the data disks as no harm was done and as long as they ensure it won't happen again.

However the lack of an inspirational narrative from Gordon Brown on the environment, equality of opportunity and social cohesion means that all that will ever stand out about this government will be its mistakes and blunders.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

George Monbiot

Global warming is a problem that needs solving. Polly Toynbee's fellow Guardian columnist George Monbiot is infuriatingly demanding when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions.

"A 90% emissions cut by 2030" is one of Monbiot's stated goals. Although this is technically feasible, it almost certainly won't happen.

The problem is energy. If you list, as Richard E. Smalley does in his Terawatt Challenge, the biggest issues facing humanity over the next 100 years you would probably get something like this:

1. Energy
2. Water
3. Food
4. Environment
5. Poverty
6. Terrorism and war
7. Disease
8. Education
9. Democracy
10. Population

A moment's consideration reveals that energy is fundamental to all of the problems after energy, with the possible exception of terrorism, war, and democracy - but there is no denying that the politics of energy have an enormous effect on war and terrorism. With enough energy you can accomplish anything.

As of this moment there is a vast chunk of humanity (>4 billion) with access to considerably less energy than I do. This is unfair, of course, and in order to promote increased living standards we need to find energy for all the people who don't have enough.

Monbiot's argument in Heat is that we in the UK are currently using "too much" energy. This is inaccurate. We are using precisely the amount of energy we choose to consume. We are however emitting too much carbon dioxide.

In order to stop the twin catastrophes of global warming and global poverty we need more energy and less CO2 emissions. This will be difficult and will require many of the solutions already suggested: increased efficiency, nuclear power, sequestration, and lifestyle alterations.


For several months now I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what about Polly Toynbee's attitude towards high-pay for bankers and CEOs I find so distasteful.

Her argument is that it is morally incorrect for footballers, directors, and bankers to be paid quantities of money so much greater than other people, whilst these "other people" include many who experience poverty.

Daniel Finkelstein wrote in a recent article:

"...what all these people have missed is that wages are not a statement about status or a measurement of moral worth. They are a price for a service..."

He makes the point that if you personally disapprove of how much someone is paid then you do not pay for their services.

In the case of footballers' salaries you do this by not purchasing Sky, watching ITV, attending matches or buying club merchandise.

In other words the market, through the invisible hands of supply and demand, will decide the salary of each person based on the demand for the services that person can provide.

Toynbee would rejoin that markets are prone to failures and that the massive bonuses for company directors are an example of this. The directors can influence how large their salaries are and each year the amounts paid increase, as the directors decide they'd like more and more money for their troubles.

In the case of large public companies shareholders would presumably take action against any directors that paid themselves too much. It is the shareholder's prerogative to ensure the director is providing a good service for a fair price.

I prefer the materialistic logic behind Finkelstein's argument to the self-righteous moralising behind Toynbee's.

The problem with Toynbee's arguments is that her methods and goals always seem to require greater state-intervention. I don't believe "the free market" is any better than the state at deciding who gets paid what, but I respect the point that things are the way they are because our current system sort-of-works.

And our economy is still growing and the world is becoming a more pleasant place to live.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Bit of Fry and Hari

Today my topic is one of problems. Problems are often defined as particular questions or sets of options. In the case of immigration the problem is usually phrased:

"How can we reduce or control immigration so that it becomes a positive force within our society rather than a negative force?"

And, as always, the way the problem is phrased begs the question: "Is immigration a negative force right now?"


I don't really care about immigration. It's a Daily Mail issue and has been parsed entirely in terms of being something negative, despite the obvious fact that with an aging population it is entirely necessary that we import cheap, youthful labour to care for our elderly.

Many of the great debates in life, the universe and everything devolve to questions that are misapplied. When I say I don't care about debating about God or poetry or global warming or the the ethics of scientific research (empiricism and the scientific method in the real sense of the concept is/should be gloriously free of these considerations, that it clearly isn't is regrettable) I don't mean I don't care. I mean I don't care about the issue as it is usually expressed because I feel it has been misrepresented.

Take transhumanism and the closely related issue of AI. Putting aside the vast technical and scientific barriers to both, the debate is often put in terms of "should we pursue this line of research?" This is a ridiculously stupid question to ask. The appropriate response is:

We are already pursuing this research in a form you don't yet recognise as transhumanist research and AI research.

Even more succinctly, and with regard to transhumanism you could say:

We are already transhumans and could well be considered posthumans.

Consider: prior to the industrial revolution humans were essentially bright apes and they (or other organisms) provided the majority of the energy required to run civilization. We are approaching a period in human development where manual labour might well become obsolete. The key lies in the control mechanisms.

It is still massively cheaper to employ Chinese humans to make most things than to develop and manufacture a robot capable of doing the same job.

Similarly with construction: the problem here requires a robot capable of navigating a building site, following vague instructions, applying "common sense" to problems, drinking tea and reading The Sun: all of which are as yet beyond the capabilities of even the most complex (or simple-minded, in the latter case) non-biological machines.

The point is that I wear glasses and wear clothes and take drugs and read books and use a pocket calculator and function much better, and am much happier, than I would be if I did not do these things.

Scientists of many different disciplines have made it their business to model parts of the human brain and the neural structures of other animals and have been doing so for decades.

Meanwhile genetic engineering continues apace. If you're smart enough to identify the red lines that mark any particular area of research as being dangerous then you're probably smart enough to cope with the outcomes. If you can't identify the red lines then we're probably fucked anyway.

Fukyama's argument boils down to the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is flawed for all the reasons discussed by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near, so I won't bother going into it.

Johann Hari's recent article touches on a subject dear to my heart: transhumanism. As a devoted absorber of the teachings of More, Kurzweil, et al, I am always happy to see reference to this interesting ideology in the national press.

( an aside, and due to the purchase of T-shirts and prints by myself and many others the sublime Dresden Codak is to be published weekly!)

Apart from a reference in New Scientist a few years ago and a few "eccentric American" stories in The Guardian and other newspapers this is the first serious reference to transhumanism I've seen in the Dead Tree Press. Doubtless more will emerge over time and it will begin to gain credence (or at least name-recognition, which is all you seem to need these days c.f. Boris Johnson) amongst the general populace.

Hari also makes an excellent point regarding the criticism of transhumanism by Francis Fukyama. The debate has been warped to fit the extremes. Either we ban all research that might lead to the creation of a separate posthuman species or we actively pursue such research to the end of creating such a species.

As Hari points out, bickering over creating new species of human is pointless and stupid. Evolution only seems static to us because it works on such a long timescale (but not unthinkably long - only about 40 000 years separate us from prehuman hominids).

I think, like Hari, it is much more sensible to concentrate on the possibilities to create smarter, faster, stronger, healthier, more long-lived people.

The Gattaca issue, that maybe one day humanity might be divided between haves and have-nots, between the rich and the poor, between the upgraded and the legacy, between the Eloi and the Morlocks is also silly.

Human beings have always suffered inequality of health and ability due to inequality of wealth. The key to liberal democracy lies in all individuals being equal under the law (the problem of defining individals, particularly with regard to posthumans, is an issue for another day).

The issue for transhumanism is how to provide people with better lives and greater powers of self-expression and more opportunity for happiness. The issue is not the creation of a new species, although this might be a means to the end of creating more opportunity for happiness.

As always the problem is not as it is phrased, it is something altogether different. In the case of Stephen Fry's recent blog posting (which The Guardian has taken on as a series of articles) the issue as it is often phrased is "do you prefer looks/form to functionality?" in the context of consumer electronics.

Of course, as Fry points out, when it comes to a device you use every day form is very much tied up with functionality. For me beauty in consumer electronics stems from design, and design is also a key component of usability and hence functionality.

If a house is a "machine for living in" then that house should look aesthetically pleasing or it is not fulfilling it's function.

Anyone who claims that those who reject the existence of God are "close minded" is treading on thin ice. The debate should be not be: "does God exist?" The debate should be: "how did the universe begin?"

There are, I assert, ways of finding out if God exists. If God exists then presumably those who pray to God for help will achieve statistically higher in their endeavours than those who don't pray.

If there was a correlation between frequency of prayer ("faith" is difficult to measure) and say, salary, then you could begin to build a hypothesis for the existence of something that could be called God.

I'd be interested to see if any such research has been done and what the result was. I suspect as I am not aware of any such research then the results (if any) did not suggest God exists, as I'm certain the various Churches would be trumpeting it to the heavens.

Of course prayer is there as a comforter. I, as a secular humanist, choose to reject it as a piece of mental transhumanism that is not self-contained enough to be safe.

Faith in God or manifest destiny is too powerful and dangerous. Singularitarianism and transhumanism is as open to corruption as any ideology but, like liberalism, the fundamental precepts of the transhumanist meme are overwhelmingly positive.

Any corruption of liberalism would cease to be usefully described as such. So with transhumanism. Then it devolves to word games and Orwellian propaganda.

I feel it is much better to form a core of easily expressible beliefs and live by them. In the case of humanism this is all there is and I am alone.

This sucks. I'd like to do something to make this last longer and something to make me less lonely.

So transhumanism is the next logical step after humanism.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


Since indulging in the web 2.0 goodness of del.ici.ous I have had less cause to blog. Suffice to say that little has caught my fancy recently.

My first six weeks at university (of Manchester) have been enjoyable and uneventful. I'm back home for reading week and have another four weeks at uni after this before Christmas.

Life is good.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

North, South, Britishness and Class

Class is everywhere in Britain. Middle class people seem obsessed by it and often write insightful articles about the attitudes of the middle class (guilt and fear) and (presumably from observation through a powerful telescope) the attitudes of the working class/poor people.

Class is one of those issues I feel very strongly about but have absolutely no idea what I feel. Is it a problem, or is it part of our national identity and therefore something to be celebrated? Is it right or wrong? Should we be proud of and identify with our fated caste?

Recently there has been much discussion over some research from Sheffield University over the "new North-South divide." This fits in with discussion of class: as with class, most of the debate centres around the stereotypes: the comfortable, Daily Mail-reading, wine drinking suburbanite southerner and the poor, flat-cap wearing, beer-swilling, urban (or rural?) Northerner.

Recently I was in Lancaster (in the North) and saw a poster advertising a particular brand of chewing gum. The tagline was: "softer than a shandy-drinking southerner". The advert was remarkably fit for purpose. It also occurred to me that the advertiser had done an excellent job plugging into (presumably) local feelings of identifying with "the North."

I also wondered what the distribution for this poster could be expected to be. I was surprised when, after taking the train from Lancaster to Birmingham, I saw the same advert in Birmingham.

So if Sheffield University thinks the North-South divide runs between Bristol and the Humber Estuary, where do Cadbury Schweppes think it is, based on the distribution of their inspired advertising campaign.

Disclosure: I am a major shareholder in Cadbury Schweppes. No, just kidding! I don't even like chewing gum that much.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mechanism Design

There is a fascinating article over at Reason Online about the theory of "mechanism design" and how it won Leonid Hurwicz, Eric Maskin, and Roger Myerson the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Mechanism design is the study of how to create institutions that produce desirable outcomes whilst respecting privacy of the individuals the institution interacts with, and respecting the fact that individuals are self interested.

The "institution" in this context is taken as a simple mechanism that takes input from "agents" or individuals and produces some output.

This is very relevant to the UK today. Our current government has adopted a fairly authoritarian attitude towards the public. ID cards, DNA databases, and increased surveillance (2) are all aspects of this tendency towards advocating control and authority.

I don't have particularly strong feelings on any of these issues. I doubt very much whether any ID card biometric databases would be competently administered.

However I think it is worth studying how institutions (like the state) behave.

According to the article on Reason Online, it is fairly difficult to "design" such mechanisms from the ground up. The free market functions, but is prone to failures and interference. States function, but are also prone to failures and also tend to extend the influence of the state.

I am interested to see if any of these economic theories are ever applied in real life. Presumably one day we will stumble across an optimum method for dealing with scarcity (but, I suspect, not before scarcity itself has been reduced somewhat by technological factors), a sort of Economics 2.0.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bjorn Lomborg

I've just been reading a profile of Bjorn Lomborg on the Times Online. Lomborg has recently published a book: Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. Lomborg (there is a o with a cross through it in the vowel of his first name) seems to be talking a lot of sense: he accepts that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity but rejects the belief that we should place "stopping global warming" at the top of our list of priorities, because:

A: No one is actually really doing anything to stop global warming. If we are serious about reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and methane then we would immediately take certain steps. This simply isn't happening on the scale required to make a difference. Ergo, if no one really intends to do anything then there's no point doing anything, as the consequences of a full-blown global warming event will be equally devastating as a minor full-blown global warming event (i.e. one where we try to reduce our emissions somewhat).

B: There are much bigger problems in the world that we can see are causing suffering right now and that can be clearly and conclusively linked to various factors: the spread of AIDS in the African continent, the decreasing availability of crude oil and natural gas, wars in Iraq and elsewhere. All these are more immediately important than anthropogenic global warming and the problems are on a scale that makes it more plausible that we might be able to do something about them.

Lomborg suggests an annual $25 billion fund to study global warming. He also suggests that the problem can be solved through technological means.

As is observed in the profile the biggest criticism that can be levied against Lomborg is that of techno-utopianism. That he rejects what many environmentalists believe is the only workable solution to anthropogenic global warming: a harsh and sustained lessening of human ambition in terms of our industry and some elements of our standard of living.

Another criticism is that he underestimates the impact of global warming. I find it irritating when environmentalist charities publish images of natural disasters as "evidence of global warming" - as if natural disasters haven't always happened, and often aren't connected with the atmosphere (c.f. the Boxing Day Tsunami, the Majil Earthquake of 1990, the Landers Earthquake etc), or as if "climate change" hasn't occurred in the past. I suspect we'll never be able to accurately quantify the "impact" of climate change, but we've come up with some reasonable predictions of the impact and how the problem should be dealt with.

However the basic question is this: "Is there something humanity can do right now to prevent enormous and avoidable suffering in the future without unacceptable sacrifice now?"

I count creating an international superstate powerful enough to override the will of all other authorities in the pursuit of a reduction in emissions as an unacceptable sacrifice. I also count any reduction of development and industrialisation (if these are what is takes to improve the standard of living) in developing countries as an unacceptable sacrifice.

Another of my hang-ups concerning environmentalism is the refusal to discuss cost-benefit in terms of climate change. Environmentalists tend to view the Earth (a lump of iron and silicates with a thin outer layer of volatiles and light elements) as some king of spiritual being or godlike entity that must be worshiped. There hasn't been any mainstream discussion of benefit along the lines suggested by Freeman Dyson in this recent article at

Consider the following two scenarios:

1. Sub-Saharan Africa is given a certain number of carbon credits. The constituent countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are each encouraged (by the USA, EU and China) to sell these credits to multinational corporations (based in the USA, EU and China) and also directly to the USA, EU and China.

The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa do this, and get a lot of money, which is spent on aid but cannot be spent on industrialisation, as the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are now required to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide. As a result there is some improvement but on the whole living standards remain behind those of the USA, EU and China.

Over the next century a series of environmental and ecological disasters that are strongly linked to anthropogenic global warming (largely caused by the emissions of the USA, EU and China) wracks Sub-Saharan Africa, millions die or are displaced. The EU struggles to cope with the influx of refugees. There is a humanitarian crisis of a scale unseen in human history.

2. Sub-Saharan Africa is given a certain number of carbon credits. The constituent countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are each encouraged (by the USA, EU and China) to sell these credits to multinational corporations (based in the USA, EU and China) and also directly to the USA, EU and China.

The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa do not do this, and begin the long and sometimes painful process of industrialisation. As a result there is a constant and sustainable improvement in living standards until Sub-Saharan Africa has parity with those of the USA, EU and China.

Over the next century a series of environmental and ecological disasters that are strongly linked to anthropogenic global warming wracks Sub-Saharan Africa, there is enormous suffering, but the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are now rich and developed enough to take it on the chin. They invest in flood defences, irrigation, advanced farming methods, nuclear power, air conditioning, and continue to thrive and prosper despite the changing climate.

This is based on the assumption that little positive action is taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, and that the West represses industrialisation in developing countries.

I agree with Lomborg in his rejection of the idea that we should scale back human ambition in the face of global warming and climate change. I don't see why we should stand for it. I'm also increasingly uneasy about the lack of positive action being taken.

I feel if the nation states of the world feel that it is necessary to scale back industry, commerce, transport, and generally dismantle the machinery of globalisation (I have no clue as to whether globalisation is a good thing or not, let me finish, don't bug me...) then they should do it. I suspect this would be a Bad Idea, but I would be hard pressed to prevent them from doing so if they wished.

On the other hand if they're not going to do anything serious then they should stop wasting time and money on point-scoring commentary and pointless prevarication. I gather from what Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth et al are saying that action needs to take place now and it needs to be widespread and drastic. Anything less won't help, so why bother?

It's a bit of a Catch 22 situation in this respect: we can choose to promote technological and industrial development or we can choose to scale back industrialisation and the use of technology. In the first case we are better prepared to deal with climate change, in the second we're hoping it won't happen.

In conclusion I would say that I agree with Lomborg's arguments (as they have been reported, I haven't read his book) but suspect that he might perhaps be underestimating the scale of the problem, but I do believe it isn't beyond human ingenuity to come to an acceptable compromise between our ambitions and our prosperity or successfully deal with the consequences of inaction.

Note: I don't actually believe carbon trading is pointless (though it is potentially controversial) but I'll leave it in because I like the alliteration.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Strider Robot

I love how elegantly designed this three-legged robot is. With regards to a War of the World's full-sized model, the pilot would have to be suspended in a gyroscope within the body. The gyroscope would keep the pilot steady as the mechanism moved.

As to the application suggested in the video: this puts me in mind of Minority Report, and the scene where tiny three-legged robots are released into a building by policemen to identify every individual's (John Anderton/Cruise hides in an ice-filled bathtub to disguise his heat-signature from the IR-sensitive robots) iris.

One more step towards the Panopticon State.

Stephen Fry is Blogging

...and his blog is excellent. Superbly well-written, rather like the text-based equivalent of an episode of The West Wing. You feel you could lose yourself in the words even if they contained nothing of interest (and the articles are fascinating). Fry's posts have so far covered consumer electronics (yay!) and an in-depth analysis of the fame phenomenon, so they are fascinating in and of themselves as well as being brilliantly written.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Toynbee vs. Inequality

Hari has always impressed me with his insightful articles on a wide range of topics, and his ability to come to reasonable conclusions. I’ve always felt the social-democratic commentator Polly Toynbee concentrates too much on top-down methods of “solving” inequality.

7 out of Toynbee’s most recent 32 articles revolve around criticising the extremely wealthy for avoiding taxes, or the government for allowing the extremely wealthy to avoid taxes, or simply stating that executive pay is too large, the workers in the City are paid to much and it is disgraceful that the UK has become a tax haven.

She is right to say these things but I can’t help feeling that there are much bigger and more immediately practical issues to concentrate on, like the state of the bottom ten percent in terms of income, or the environment, or education. I suspect Toynbee has been suffering just as much as the rest of the upper middle classes when it comes to the recent influx of HNWIs and UHNWIs. My feeling is that there will always be rich people for whom the rules are slightly different, and I suspect that on balance these rich people are virtue-neutral, if not a slightly positive influences on our society. I think the biggest problem is that for anyone north of Slough, the problem is not extreme wealth (as it is in London) but extreme poverty, and Toynbee has found herself too far south of the border.

She should be concentrating her considerable talents as a polemicist on discussing ways for reducing poverty, not whining about the extremes of wealth that some enjoy. Obsessing over wealth makes her position unattractive to those she is trying to persuade (it reeks of the politics of envy) and alienates her from her natural supporters - the poor and the needy, for whom the world of non-doms, hedgies, private-equity barons and billionaire oligarchs remains frustratingly distant and inconsequential.


The eminently sensible Johann Hari has written an article on geoengineering. Geo-engineering is essentially the deliberate modification of Earth’s environment on a large scale to suit human needs and promote habitability. This concept has always remained anathema to most Deep Greens (environmentalists who would go as far as to say that human populations need to be reduced in order to combat the damage we’re doing to the environment) and even fairly moderate environmentalists.

Arguments against such an endeavour from the point of hubris fall because we’ve already had a huge effect on our environment and planetary atmosphere, albeit unintentionally. The landscape of Britain is essentially manmade (and very nice it is too).

The most appropriate argument against geoengineering, as pointed out by Hari, is that we have no way of predicting the consequences of any of the things we do to the atmosphere. We’re not even sure at the moment how increased levels of carbon dioxide will effect the weather. We can say “there will be warming” but we can’t say when and where and how large the effect will be. Changes in salt levels in the Atlantic may cause the Gulf Stream to shut down, stopping the current of warm water that has kept Northern Europe warm and habitable for most of the last few centuries.

I think geoengineering, as with that other controversial and much-criticised practice, genetic engineering, are worth looking into but large steps towards a workable project should only be made once we have more understanding of the systems involved.

Transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil argue that as our knowledge of how our bodies and brains function is increasing in a manner similar to an exponential curve, it may be sooner rather than later that we can alter ourselves significantly. I imagine that the same trend is applicable to our study of how the climate functions.

However I agree with Hari that we are not yet ready for serious geoengineering and should concentrate on reducing our output of greenhouse gases.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Self Help

There is an interesting article in Wired here about Self-Help Guru David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” technique to enhance personal productivity.

Despite being a Self-Help Guru Allen is apparently a boring, analytical person – he has even been accused of “going overboard with elaborate schemes.” The big problem with Self-Help from my point of view is that is relies too much on inspirational-sounding but meaningless catchphrases and the charisma of the Guru and not enough on the application of methodical methods to help people in their daily lives. Allen seems to have spotted this problem, and exploited the gap in the market.

The basic rules are:

1. Collect and describe all the stuff [anything we want or need to do]. Everything must be inventoried without distinction or prejudice. Errands, emails, a problem with a friend: It all must be noted for processing. Small objects, such as an invitation or a receipt, go into a pile. Everything else can be represented with a few words on a piece of paper ("find keys," "change jobs"). Once the stuff is collected, processing begins. Anything that requires two minutes or less is handled on the spot. The remainder is governed by the second rule.

2. All stuff must be handled in a precise way. Allen offers dozens of clever tricks for classifying, labeling, and retrieving stuff. Expert users of GTD never leave old emails cluttering their inbox, for instance. Nor do they have to rifle through a bunch of paper to see if there's anything crucial they've left undone. Emails to be answered are in a separate folder from emails that merely have to be read; there's a file for every colleague and friend; stuff that must be done has been identified and placed on one of several kinds of to-do lists. Allen calls his to-do lists next-action lists, which are subject to the third rule.

  1. Items on next-action lists should be described as concretely as possible. Breaking down stuff into physical actions, Allen says, is the key to getting things done.

This puts me in mind of an excerpt from The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett. The protagonist, Masklin, has the task of dragging a rat across two fields. This is an impossible task for a twelve centimetre-high Nome (what – you didn’t know he was a Nome? Go read the books, they’re brilliant…), so he applies implacable Nome logic to the problem, from Truckers by Terry Pratchett:

“The way to deal with an impossible task was to chop it down into a number of merely very difficult tasks, and break each one of them into a group of horribly hard tasks, and each one of them into tricky jobs, and each one of them... {and so on}”

The key to happiness in to define the problems you have, write them down, and deal immediately with those that can be dealt with immediately. Then proceed to the other problems, break them down into a series of actions, whilst retaining the ultimate goal.

I have to say that for a *ahem* Self-Help Guru, Allen speaks a lot of sense.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Who Rules the World

There is an interesting debate going on at Comment is Free about who really controls the world in the 21st century.

The best answer on this page is Brian Eno's sensible comment that no one can really be said to rule the world, but rather that what happens is the result of the ecosystem of competing interests, including states, corporations, charities, media groups, individuals and other social and economic factors.

One of the more ridiculous answers is that of the admirable Camila Batmanghelidjh. She talks about viral psychological momentum (cultural or social movements?), but her use of obscure vocabulary damages whatever point she's trying to get across by rendering it unintelligible.

The other responses range from moronic paranoia ("...greedy, aggressive and ruthless neocon businessman..." - Nitin Sawhney) to the usual "guilty liberal" self-flagellation ("...We still rule the world and we're screwing it up..." - Sam Duckworth).

I wouldn't normally comment on this sort of thing as I feel I'm not qualified to do so. However I suspect that anyone who claims to know the answer is also unqualified. Eno makes the most sense by pointing out that the question begs the question: "does anyone rule the world?" The answer is no, of course, but people always seem to want to believe in some malevolent conspiracy.

The truth is that you should never attribute to evil what can just as reasonably be attributed to incompetence.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Game Theory and Northern Rock

There is a fascinating article over at Slate Magazine at the moment that places the recent crisis of confidence over Northern Rock in the context of game theory.

The article refers to a classic game theory problem of hunting stag versus hunting rabbits. Although half a stag is worth more than a brace of rabbits, hunting stag requires you to cooperate with another hunter, so the outcome relies on your trust in the skill and intention of another hunter. Hunting rabbits carries no such risk.

The people withdrawing from Norther Rock were hunting rabbits. They knew that there wouldn't be a big problem if no one chose to withdraw their savings from Northern Rock, but as everyone did (or rather the impression was given that everyone was) they were compelled to withdraw themselves, exacerbating the problem.

The key point the article makes is that the main difference between rich countries and poor countries boils down to the confidence people have in "the system." In the reliability of the state, the law, and the money.

So much that I take for granted is based on promises made by various organisations. I know my money will be safe and available for conversion into material assets because a company (my bank) tells me that this is so. I know that I am safe from foreign invasion because the state tells me this is so. I know the state will not harm me because the state says this is so. I know this post is available to millions, should they seek it, because Google says this is so. I know my computer is secure and functions satisfactorily because Microsoft says that this is so. I know that when I queue up behind someone I will be served immediately after them, I know this because social convention says it is so.

No one is an island. States and companies are superhumans in their sheer capability. I don't think ideological anarchists stand a chance of living in a world where their ideals are realised. We are all interdependent. It's like that Bob Dylan song: sooner or later you gotta serve somebody.

This is all fairly depressing. But at the same time it is fairly comforting. I am always going to be part of something, whether I like it or not.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Poetry and Morality

There is a bit of poetry quoted in The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod called The Bells of Hell:

The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you and not for me;

For me the angels sing-a-ling-a-ling

Death has no threats for me.

Oh death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling

Oh grave, thy victory?

The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you and not for me.

- Anonymous, from Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918

I really like this poem. It is simultaneously suggestive of the transhumanist desire to enable individual humans to live forever and of the bravery of the morally correct (i.e. those who apply the ethic of reciprocity to every aspect of their lives) in the face of death. For such a cheerfully pessimistic poem (my favourite attitude, aside from melancholic optimism…) it does carry a darker message as to the motives of those who would destroy themselves to harm and kill others.

The hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre might as well have been chanting this as they directed the aircraft towards their targets.

This raises a deeper moral question: is it right to kill as a soldier if you believe your enemy is evil? This poem highlights one of the biggest and most insidious problems of a deep faith in an afterlife – it reduces the morality of our actions here and now to a question: what would God have me do?

My belief at the moment is that the real world is far too messy and random and chaotic for us to ascribe an absolute morality to everything in every situation. We should just ascribe the ethic of reciprocity to as many situations as possible, promote pluralism in our discussion of morality, continue to discuss morality, and try to do the best we can.

Truck Love

It often seems like the trade-offs we'll have to make to reduce carbon dioxide output promise a hair-shirt existence of low-acceleration cars, more public transport, less international flights, and fewer articles of ultra-consumerist potlatch.

It is therefore fortunate that steps are being taken to achieve what we want in more environmentally friendly ways. This series of images from the Hybrid Truck Users forum at Wired are part of this trend towards maintaining our ridiculous capitalist system whilst reducing our carbon dioxide emissions.

Also I really want an E-One Command Centre. I don't know what I'd use it for, but it's important to know what you want, as well as what you need.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Science Writing

A wonderful and award-winning essay here summarises something I think can't be said often enough: science is not opposed to religion.

Putting science in opposition to religion is a mistake only someone who doesn't understand science would make. Science isn't about facts written down in textbooks. Religion is about facts written down in textbooks.

Science is a process, a machine of thought cobbled together to help us better understand the universe. Science is about basing your beliefs, and hence your actions and morality, on observable evidence.

David Hume understood this, and he also understood that there are no absolute truths. Everything we believe is ultimately based on what our own flawed perceptions tell us.


Dan Hardie has written an excellent article on the perceived liberal bias within the BBC. The article is long by blogging standards but makes many excellent points very well.

One of these is that the British Conservative Party is ideologically dead in the water. With Labour impinging on social justice and immigration there doesn't seem to be anywhere left for the Conservatives to go.

Hardie points out that there is a logical fallacy at the heart of conservatism (the ideology the Conservative Party are meant to represent in British politics).

Small-c conservatism is often held in opposition to liberalism, at least in the minds of those who consider themselves small-c conservatives.

But in reality "economic liberalism" is promoted by the pro-free-market Tories. At the same time the Conservatives stand opposed to an increasingly authoritarian Labour but they still fail to embrace "social liberalism."

We all live in a pluralistic liberal democracy, so technically we're all in favour of liberalism, except those who aren't, of course.

The basic point when talking about liberalism is that you need to define what it is you're talking about, ideally by proposing actual legislation instead of blathering about a political ideology that had meant so many things to so many people that it is essentially meaningless.

"Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives."

- John Stuart Mill.

The "default position" of Middle England (swing voters that politicians have to appear to care about in order to win elections) is conservatism. But this isn't being represented by the Conservative Party.

What is needed is a genuine opposition. This genuine opposition would be libertarian. It would be pro-free-market, anti-prohibition (i.e. requiring the legalisation of all recreational drugs), pro-immigration, pro-civil liberties, and would seek to lower taxes and reduce the impact of the state on the lives of individuals.

The sad thing is all these things would be rejected by the mediocre, Daily Mail-reading, Alan Titchmarsh-loving, grumpy, hypocritical, consumerist, tax-hating, wilfully ignorant, God-fearing but faithless, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-intellectual, closet-racist, cowardly, overweight and pessimistic Middle Englanders.

Another quote, slightly mangled:

"Your guilty conscious may force you to vote for liberals, but secretly you want a cold-hearted conservative to lower taxes, brutalise criminals, and rule you like a king..."

For all that Middle England may claim to despise higher taxes and increasing incursions on civil liberties in reality what every tabloid-reading hypocrite really wants is a Big ol' Nanny State to look after him.

Sorry for such a badly written essay, but hate is unhealthy if it is bottled up inside. I thought it would be better if I dealt with it by writing my rants down instead of subjecting them to those that don't deserve it.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Well, I'm at Manchester University. I will probably be blogging much less frequently over the next few months, as I settle in and get to grips with the subject (chemical engineering).

Friday, September 14, 2007

More on the Singularity

For some time now I've been trying to write a thoughtful article on the Technological Singularity. In true blogger style I've decided that rather than expend my energies on creating my own article, I will find someone else's and link to it.

The writer is Ronald Bailey from Reason Online, the online wing of a reasonably popular (by UK standards) libertarian magazine, and he is reporting on the recent Singularity Summit.

Bailey does a good job of summarising the basic ideas surrounding the Technological Singularity. He quotes one of the attendees of the conference: Eliezer Yudkowsky, cofounder of the Singularity Institute:

"...the Event Horizon school is just one of the three main schools of thought about the Singularity. The other two are the Accelerationist and the Intelligence Explosion schools..."

My summary of these groups is as follows:

Event Horizon: once an intelligence is developed that is "greater" (dismiss for a moment the difficulty in quantifying intelligence) than ours we, by our very nature, will be unable to predict what will happen.

Accelerationist: advances in computer hardware (c.f. Moore's Law) will continue to accelerate, along with our understanding of our own biology and our ability (via genetic engineering, implants, bioengineering etc) to alter our own biology. This means that within a few decades we will merge with our technology and become the greater intelligence. Suggested by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near.

Intelligence Explosion (not a bomb at Thames House, the other kind of intelligence): technology arises from the application of intelligence to problems. When technology is applied to our own apparent lack of intelligence, we will get marginally better intelligence which will result in marginally better technology which will produce even better intelligence. A feed-back loop will be created, with "intelligence" increasing with each iteration. Suggested by I.J. Good in a New Scientist article.

The three concepts feed into one another and don't necessarily cancel each other out.

I suspect that the world sketched out by Kurzweil is not impossible, but the timeframe seems implausible. There is no reason why matter shouldn't be able to support beings that are more durable than we are, longer lived, faster at learning, with better memories, and that experience the world more slowly and deeply (i.e. each second for them would offer what would amount to a week's worth of thinking time to us).

However the current state of our ability to control matter, though significant, doesn't seem to offer the possibility of superhumans within, as Kurzweil suggests, 50 years.

If silicon-based computer chips are currently undergoing exponential increases in the transistor per centimetre counts then it doesn't necessarily entail similar progress in another area like brain-scanning.

Kurzweil does a good job of pointing out exponential trends similar to Moore's Law in The Singularity is Near, for example the Human Genome Project (page 510 of the USA Penguin hardback copy I have), and the resolution of non-invasive brain scanning (page 159).

My basic problem with Kurzweil's book is my incredulity: the book is compelling whilst you read it, but once you're back in the real world you simply can't imagine a "singularity" of any flavour occurring.

Which, ahem, is pretty much the definition of the event horizon style singularity.


So I suppose I'll just have to wait and see, like everyone else...

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Aaron Diaz's sublime webcomic Dresden Codak continues, with the most recent installment including an essay that harpoons the critics of transhumanism with spears of satire.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hydrogen Production

Interesting article here at PhysOrg, entitled "Engineers perfecting hydrogen-generating technology". Judging from the article, an alloy of aluminium and gallium (which is conveniently produced as a byproduct of aluminium production) could potentially be used to convert water into hydrogen, whilst oxygen bonds with the aluminium to form alumina, which can be recycled back into aluminium.

When water is added to the alloy, the aluminum splits water by attracting oxygen, liberating hydrogen in the process. The Purdue researchers are developing a method to create particles of the alloy that could be placed in a tank to react with water and produce hydrogen on demand.

From the article:

"The gallium is a critical component because it hinders the formation of an aluminum oxide skin normally created on aluminum's surface after bonding with oxygen, a process called oxidation. This skin usually acts as a barrier and prevents oxygen from reacting with aluminum. Reducing the skin's protective properties allows the reaction to continue until all of the aluminum is used to generate hydrogen, said Jerry Woodall, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue who invented the process.

I wish they made an effort to give more context to these articles: it would help if someone who knew more about this sort of thing were to draw up a "score sheet" showing the relative energy-densities, cost, benefits and problems with each of the various auto-powering technologies.

Lots more quotations:

"The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of developing alternative fuels that possess a "hydrogen mass density" of 6 percent by the year 2010 and 9 percent by 2015. The percent mass density of hydrogen is the mass of hydrogen contained in the fuel divided by the total mass of the fuel multiplied by 100. Assuming 50 percent of the water produced as waste is recovered and cycled back into the reaction, the new 80-20 alloy has a hydrogen mass density greater than 6 percent, which meets the DOE's 2010 goal.

Aluminum is refined from the raw mineral bauxite, which also contains gallium. Producing aluminum from bauxite results in waste gallium.

"This technology is feasible for commercial use," Woodall said. "The waste alumina can be
recycled back into aluminum, and low-cost gallium is available as a waste product from
companies that produce aluminum from the raw mineral bauxite. Enough aluminum exists in the United States to produce 100 trillion kilowatt hours of energy. That's enough energy to meet all the U.S. electric needs for 35 years. If impure gallium can be made for less than $10 a pound and used in an onboard system, there are enough known gallium reserves to run 1 billion cars.""

One of the problems with the predicted hydrogen economy is the difficulty of transporting and storing hydrogen safely and efficiently. Because this aluminium/gallium alloy can be transported as easily as oil: ""Particles made with this 80-20 alloy have good stability in dry air and react rapidly with water to form hydrogen.""

Another interesting idea is the possibility of converting conventional internal-combustion engines into hydrogen burning engines.

It also has obvious applications for boats: you wouldn't have to haul the raw water around with you.

The Purdue researchers had thought that making the process competitive with conventional energy sources would require that the alumina be recycled back into aluminum using a dedicated infrastructure, such as a nuclear power plant or wind generators. However, the researchers now know that recycling the alumina would cost far less than they originally estimated, using standard processing already available.

"Since standard industrial technology could be used to recycle our nearly pure alumina back to aluminum at 20 cents per pound, this technology would be competitive with gasoline," Woodall said. "Using aluminum, it would cost $70 at wholesale prices to take a 350-mile trip with a mid-size car equipped with a standard internal combustion engine. That compares with $66 for gasoline at $3.30 per gallon. If we used a 50 percent efficient fuel cell, taking the same trip using aluminum would cost $28.""

So the energy is generated somewhere, and "stored" in the aluminium/gallium alloy, which would produce hydrogen when needed, which could be used to power an engine.

This solves the problem of safely and efficiently storing and transporting hydrogen. For automobiles it does mean you'd have to lug around water and metal. 6 % hydrogen mass density doesn't seem like much to me, but it'll be interesting to see how this does genuinely compare with petrol.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Antique Tech at the Science Museum

The BBC have a little gallery of stuff from one of the Science Museum's warehouses. The gallery reads like a list of cool antique technology, including a de Havilland Comet (IMO the greatest aeroplane design ever), an assortment of analogue computers, ERNIE, a Unimate, hovercraft, aqua-cars...

Hyperventilating aside, I hope the Science Museum get their Lottery grant, as it would be lovely to be able to see all this stuff in person.

Science and Technology #5

Almost every day I come across something that reminds me that I am living in what Bruce Sterling from the 1980s would consider to be a distant and exotic future. This screed is intended to address some of the areas in which the future is now, but just not evenly distributed.

A common research theme in robotics at the moment is the creation of small, flying devices that imitate biological life. A prime example is this ingenious robotic insect being developed at Harvard University.

A related area of research is the creation of software that models a planned robotic swallow. This article seems to indicate that two cameras mounted on the wings would allows the planned robot to be piloted remotely (read Sterling's Heavy Weather for a reference to a similar remote-controlled surveillance ornithopter).

I should also mention how impressive the work of Robert Wood and his team at Harvard actually is - they have essentially had to develop the process for manufacturing the device from scratch, from Technology Review:

"Using laser micromachining, researchers cut thin sheets of carbon fiber into two-dimensional patterns that are accurate to a couple of micrometers. Sheets of polymer are cut using the same process. By carefully arranging the sheets of carbon fiber and polymer, the researchers are able to create functional parts."

Both the robotic insect and the robotic swallow have in common an aim to observe discretely. It is reasonable to expect the technology in the labs now to be on the battlefield within two decades. Once mature it would then seep into the wider market. Then we would have our participatory panopticon, and there would be very little anyone could do about it.

I expect that if and when I reach my 50th birthday privacy will probably be a luxury, and one that most people can't afford. Widespread and ubiquitous observation from various sources will result in everything that ever happens being observed and recorded. I can even begin to empathise with the generation for which this will be normal, and loss of privacy will be seen as just another (minor) personal sacrifice to the comforts offered by states and other authorities.

Once this information is recorded we can assume that it will be stored in a large, communal location, like a virtual library of all types of media.

Just such a construct is already in development. This story describes the Open Library. Although at present the central goal is to create a virtual card catalogue, rather than record all the information in all the books ever written, let alone all information.

It will be interesting to watch which of the various similar services is most generally used, out of Good Book Search, the Open Library, or Project Gutenburg.

There is currently something unsatisfying about the provision for ebooks generally. They seem to be occupying the same technological cul-de-sac as videophones and flying cars. A mixture of consumer disinterest and technical difficulties (exacerbated in the case of ebooks by the usual tiresome issues of copyright and content control).

Charles Stross wrote a thorough analysis of what was wrong with the electronic book industry a few months ago, and (now that I check his blog) has also written an update concerning an experiment whereby The Atrocity Archives (which is very good - like Len Deighton with computers, magic, demons and Nazis [at least more Nazis than in most Deighton books, see SS-GB for the exception]) will be available in ebook format for £3.00, less than half the price for the wood-pulp version.

I feel that it will only be the development of true epaper that will allow the development of cheap ebooks and ebook technology. News of developments in the area of ePaper is common (1, 2, 3, 4). But what I want is something functionally equivalent to real wood-pulp, only with memory storing and wiping capabilities. I'd like it to have the same feel and texture as normal paper.

I can already see that this is a pretty tall order from a technical perspective. Apart from wanting to avoid the standard plasticky feel of most displays and touch-screens, I associate electrical technology with a different sort of entertainment to printed books. In as much as a technology can be perfected, books are perfect. Electrical and mechanical technology still has a wide space to grow and occupy before it becomes ideal.

However, it is entirely possible that all this research into epaper will be superseded by HUD displays - rendering all energy-intensive and space-intensive visual displays obsolete. I suspect that books as a cultural artifact will remain with us for a long time though.

Monday, August 20, 2007


The excellent online news magazine The First Post has published a right-on article on climate change and the attitudes of environmentalists, the article is brisk and to the point: if we are to deal with climate change we must adopt the attitudes of wartime, from TFP:

"...if they [environmentalists] really are sincere about acting on global warming, they must follow the example of wartime scientists, and give politicians solutions, not problems.

They must drop the notion that a perfect answer exists out there somewhere - if only enough time was spent dreaming it up. For example, no-one thinks nuclear power is the perfect solution to energy generation – but it beats the hell out of letting the lights go out.

There must also be an acceptance that there's neither the time nor resources to tackle every aspect of climate change. And that means drawing up invidious priority lists and building coalitions of the willing to tackle them. Self-indulgent campaigns aimed at making us all feel guilty – about, say, using cheap air travel, which is of trivial importance for climate change – are no way to do either."

(my bold print - I agree with that assessment of nuclear power entirely)

The miserabilist, holier-than-thou, and puritan-sounding PR of climate change activists hurts their campaign more than any amount of opposition from big business, like BAA. To quote some of the protesters (via Johann Hari's report in The Independent):

"Do you know the connection between your flight and the hurricanes and the floods and the droughts we are seeing intensify across the world? Do you care?" and "We are on a trajectory towards the extinction of life on earth. In the main, people have done this unwittingly, so it can be excused. But now we know what we are doing, and it cannot be excused."

I agree entirely with the sentiment of the people at the Camp for Climate Action: but I suspect that if the problem of climate change is to be solved it will require a certain amount of deviousness, compromise, sacrifice and propaganda.

SF-writer Karl Schroeder echoes some of these anti-progressive sentiments in an article on the WorldChanging blog. He posits the challenge facing us in terms of an opportunity to colonise Earth "as though it were a planet with no ecosystem resources to exploit".

Scientist and futurist Freeman Dyson (he of Dyson Swarm fame) also has something to say at about climate change, how we could repair the damage caused by global warming, and why "global warming" is a ridiculous oversimplification of something we're nowhere near understanding, from the article:

The biosphere is the most complicated of all the things we humans have to deal with. The science of planetary ecology is still young and undeveloped. It is not surprising that honest and well-informed experts can disagree about facts. But beyond the disagreement about facts, there is another deeper disagreement about values. The disagreement about values may be described in an over-simplified way as a disagreement between naturalists and humanists. Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil. Changing nature’s desert, either the Sahara desert or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tunafish may flourish, is likewise evil. Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will only bring trouble.

The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge. Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms. The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity. The humanist ethic accepts our responsibility to guide the evolution of the planet."

Dyson has a lot to say: he also comments on the necessity of heretics when it comes to scientific debate - people need to keep asking questions and keep being sceptical.

Again the emphasis is on the challenge and the opportunity for expansion, rather than emphasising the negative aspects of our response to climate change.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


I consider myself a liberal.

I do not consider myself left wing.

I don't actually think the old left/right way of looking at political beliefs works very well. However I do recognise what "left wing" means as opposed to "right wing".

The left worships the collective. The left promotes greater state control. The left believes higher taxes should pay to support the poor and ill and the education of all children. The left thinks the USA is an imperial power determined to achieve total hegemony over the peoples of Earth. The left believes crime is a symptom of poverty, and that personal wealth is largely down to luck. The left believe any problem can be solved by state spending. The left believes multiculturalism will lead to social cohesion. The left don't like nuclear power. The left want to protect the environment. The left constantly tries to reduce personal liberties, except when it comes to murdering foetuses.

The right worships the individual. The right promotes less state control. The right believes taxes should be lowered and state spending reduced. The right support personal responsibility and harsh punishment for criminals. The right believes personal wealth is the reward for working hard. The right believe any problem can be solved by the free market. The right think immigrants steal jobs. The right don't like wind turbines. The right wants to protect the countryside. The right constantly tries to increase personal liberties, except when it comes to women's sexual organs.

...Which is nonsense of course. None of these issues are about right or wrong, they're about finding the right balance, and being moderate in all things (including advocating moderation).

I feel like I've arrived late to some petty argument that has reached the stage where people have started shouting at each other.

The waters of the debate have been muddied by too much ideological nonsense. The only worthwhile way of thinking about politics is by returning to some fairly basic philosophical principles: utilitarianism (it is morally right to try to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, given that happiness is good [see below]), the ethic of reciprocity (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the meme of enlightened self-interest, and the belief that happiness is good.

Then look at problems and propose solutions. Test the solutions. Find out what works and what doesn't.

There are various valid reasons why this approach isn't widely advertised by politicians. I can't think of what they are, but I suspect it has something to do with people not voting for politicians who propose to treat people like lab rats.

(The people at the Camp for Climate Action are not right wing or left wing. Reports by Johann Hari and George Monbiot indicate diversity amongst the protesters: anarchists and statists sharing a common goal. It is mentioned in several reports that there are many people with qualifications in scientific disciplines.)

So what does it really mean when I say I'm a liberal? It means I believe in the freedom of the individual, that we should find the correct balance between the power of the state and the power of the market, that we should all work to make ourselves happier and help each other to make each other happy, that we should treat each other in a way that we'd be happy being treated ourselves.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Cyborg Eye Implant

I have a particular interest in the progress of potential artificial eyes or eye-implants. It is wonderful to see that progress is being made.

The device that is the subject of the article linked to above will be a little weird:

"Once implanted, the device protrudes 0.1 to 0.5 millimeter beyond the surface of the pupil but does not touch the corneal endothelium, a layer of cells lining the back of the cornea."

The article suggests that it will be largely invisible to observers. I wonder at what point someone will develop an artificial implant for the eye that improves the eye in some way - and how it will be adopted.

As an aside it's worth pointing out that all things considered, the planet is far richer for the continued success and wellbeing of the United States of America. If China is the workshop of the world, then the USA is the ideas factory of the world.

This mini-eye-telescope-implant device was designed and built in the USA and most of the world's drugs and medical advances also originate from that country.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The New Solipsism

The Simulation Argument is the most recent form of old solipsistic arguments.

George Dvorsky puts forward "the dark side" of the Simulation Argument, basically that the Creator/Maintainer beings are at best ambivalent towards the plight of humanity - they don't care if we blow ourselves up or torture each other or die in hideous agony.

If we're not in a simulation then it means that it is much harder than we presume to create simulated intelligence - an assumption that runs counter to My First Millennialist Cult: Singularitarianism.

I've always seen it from a glass half full perspective anyway. We're not in Hell, and things are getting better. This suggests that the Game has rules and that ambivalence on the part of the Creator/Maintainer beings is something to be thankful for (paradise precludes free will [which probably doesn't exist anyway] as in Genesis, so I'd rather live with my quasi-free will than without even the illusion of independence). It also raises the possibility of an afterlife. This would be good.

And like all solipsistic arguments, there's not much we can do about it anyway.

If we aren't in a simulation then Everything is As It Seems. In this case rational arguments for a singularity event remain as strong as ever they were.

I suspect an argument against both the Fermi Paradox and the Simulation Argument would begin with the fallacy of taking one example, assuming that the example is representative with no additional information, and then asserting generalities based on only one piece of data (our existence).

Things are almost always more complex and weirder than at first they seem - I suspect that if we do find out the basics of our universe then we will be surprised.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Manchester University

Just a personal note: I have been given an unconditional offer to study chemical engineering with business management at Manchester University.

This is excellent news for me. I have various other posts to write up (the hiatus was because I was on holiday for a week) and will put them up over the next few days.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Gripping Hand

Kudos to the devlopers of the new bionic hand that will soon be available on the NHS.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


I know shamefully little about China. This short slideshow/documentary shows just how irrelevant what goes on here in the UK actually is (see also these pictures from Wired).

The UK, along with most of the rest of Western Europe, has become a dormitory nation: a place for people to live their lives. I love life in the UK, and there are few other places I'd rather live.

That said: we in Western Europe do not build, we do not create. The great success story in Britain in recent years has been the finance industry, and even that seems to be largely foreign-owned.

I am not so parochial that I do not value the knowledge economy, but I believe in the dependency principle: don’t allow yourself to lose control of the fundamentals. We still have a decent handle on agriculture, but our energy-security is starting to look a bit wobbly. I still think we need to invest in nuclear power – like the Chinese.


I watched Garden State today. I agree with this guy, Zach Braff is completely underrated. It is an extremely good movie: very good indeed. Armed with only my AS-level in English language, I would say the essential theme is that of alienation, and of finding where you can be happy (“alienation” is a good word when dealing with arty subjects, another good word is “juxtaposition”). Analysis of the meaning of the film aside, the soundtrack was excellent, the acting was low-key (and excellent), and it was generally very good.

I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It was OK. It occurred to me that HP is the seminal cultural event of our generation. That and The Simpsons, the movie of which I have yet to see. In 30 years time comedians as-yet-unknown will pontificate on their experience of “growing up with Harry Potter” on a nostalgia-based programme-equivalent on an as-yet-uncreated media – probably hosted by Jimmy Carr.

I’ve been exploring the world of online webcomics. There are many, and many are surprisingly good. I may have already mentioned Questionable Content. There is also the superlative xkcd, Shortpacked, and a recent find: Dresden Codak.

The artwork and content of Dresden Codak is sublime. The creator occupies a similar headspace to myself: a strong regard for philosophy, singularitarianism, secular humanism, transhumanism, the epistemology of technology, technology in and of itself, and a mild interest in Jungian psychology, especially the Myers-Briggs personality test (I may have mentioned I persistently score INTJ, not that I think it's not a load of rubbish...). The artwork is whimsical and the draughtsmanship is excellent. The storylines are engaging and the characters are great. I look forward to the next instalment.

It is seeing things like this that make me want to forget about university, buy a tablet, Photoshop software, and just make cartoons for the rest of my life. But that's what mid-life crises are for...