Monday, February 26, 2007

Edge Prospect

Listening to Andrew Marr's Start the Week on Radio 4 this morning I heard discussion of Prospect Magazine's recent "Big Question" survey of intellectuals and thinkers. From Prospect's website:

"Left and right defined the 20th century. What's next? The pessimism of their responses is striking: almost nobody expects the world to get better in the coming decades, and many think it will get worse."

Aside from the fact that I don't really understand the cause of pessimism amongst intellectuals, this is an interesting question, so I'll have a hash at it myself.

I would say that the 20th century was defined in terms of a continuing transition from barbarism to civilization. The corrections being made to our behaviour as individuals and as a larger social group can be characterised in two ways:

  • The extent to which objects can be considered private property, with anarcho-capitalists at one end (in such a society everything and anyone could be owned), and anarcho-socialists at the other (in such a society everything would be held as commons).
  • The extent to which the state controls the affairs of individuals, including the level of taxes and laws.
So that has defined what they mean by left and right. I think the 21st century will see these themes continue in a slightly modified fashion. I think one of the biggest issues of the coming century will be that of the freedom of personal augmentation and alteration. This will probably come to mirror the right/left aspect of the 20th century. There will be discussion over the issue of whether or not implants can be considered "part" of a person, whether uploads of people can inherit their original's property, as well as arguments over AI.

As to Muslim extremism and other forms of religious extremism I have a couple of things to say:

  • It remains doubtful if, in the grand scheme of things, the current movement towards fundamentalism will arrive at much. It would be wonderful if a great wave of fundamentalist Muslim intellectuals could create a democratic-faith-government in the Middle East, but this probably won't happen with ourselves and the USA stirring the melting pot.
  • It is worth remembering the anarchist movement of a century ago. They terrified the establishment, however their greatest mark on history was initiating the First World War through the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This was huge, of course, but all anyone really remembers about the anarchists who assassinated him are vague bits of unrealistic dogma. So, these small, sad, groups of people who were attacking what they saw as an unfair global hegemony, who were not afraid of sacrificing themselves in the process, but nevertheless (completely unintentionally) started a global conflict between far greater powers. Sound familiar?
Over the 18th and 19th centuries human civilization went through enormous economic and social change. Liberalism was invented, the concept of the free market was, the idea of individual liberties was invented. These developments were a correction against things like slavery, tyranny, monarchs, and empires.

Liberalism and the free market were not universally good things though. The laissez-faire attitudes prevalent in Britain between about 1830 and 1860 were shocking in the mistreatment of workers. In the same ways that new concepts were invented during the Age of Enlightenment to correct for the problems of the Dark Ages, things like socialism were invented during the 19th century and developed into the 20th century. These ideas include that of state education, state-funded welfare, the NHS, and communism. These developments were a correction against things like mistreatment of workers by factory-owners, people living in poor conditions, poverty, epidemics due to poor drainage and water supply etc.

The sine-wave of Confucius' "pendulum of history" swings back and forth as ever. However in decreasing amplitudes. The 20th century was characterised by the sudden and shocking discovery that it is not quite as fun to go out and attack your enemies if you're both armed with machine guns.

Communism was pretty unpleasant. American-style free market capitalism is alright as long as you're on top of the pile (the same is true of Communism though). The best place to live in the world today (at least as defined bywishy -washy European pinko liberals) is Scandinavia. There there is a mix of capitalist systems coupled with massive government spending.

I believe that if there is ever to be a great, global system of governance it will follow the Scandinavian model. There will be those who have a predilection for competition and seek to succeed. That is well and good and healthy. There will be those who would rather live off their government-paid-for birthrights, and that is alright too.

As manufacturing costs decrease, and as more and more of industry becomes automated, we will have surplus wealthy in abundance.

At this point an environmentalist will say: "but hang on, our industry is what has caused global warming! We can't continue consuming as we are, because the planet can't support us without environmental collapse, either through global warming or one or two of any number of factors that limit the extent to which we can live."

Richard Branson was recently criticised on Alternet for his presumption in assuming that there can be a technological "quick fix" to global warming. The argument that his x-prize-style contest will lull the public into a false sense of security is laughable. Liberals orcontrarians will never be taken seriously if they insist on treating the vast bulk of the public like complete idiots. Branson is doing his own thing, and instead of being a disgusting capitalist, he is doing something constructive and helpful.

I believe that we can streamline and improve our manufacturing, transport, communication, housing, and power-generating infrastructure to the extent that we can all live as environmentally-neutral individuals. As much as I'd love to slap a command-economy oneveryone via my new global government I know this is impractical and probably not even that effective a solution to out current problem.

Emergent order theories, and the invisible hand of the market, are powerful tools in effective resource allocation. However a tool is useless without someone to use it. We need a powerful external body to correct for problems in the free market, like a state.

Everything needs to be aware of individual people, so there need to be checks and balances. In the case of states, these are in the form of democratic votes, in the case of companies, these are in the form of consumer's cash.

Public-limited-companies and limited-companies generally need to stop thinking of state-imposed controls on pollution as state-imposed controls and more as facts of life. Like gravity. You can't be allowed to make money by flying people on planes without wings (even though it would reduce the cost of manufacture) and you can't be allowed to make money by dumping tonnes of dangerous carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (even though it is very profitable). In the first case because the laws of gravity won't allow it, and in the second case because of the guidelines of respect towards others, if these need to be enforced by a state, then so be it.

Wow. Anyway. What I meant to do was bring in a contrast between the Prospect survey and's Big Question, which was most recently "what am I optimistic about?" I advise everyone to read and contrast the two texts.

I am optimistic that we will be able to live in a responsible, respectful, way. The best way of accomplishing my desired liberal-quasi-capitalist-anarcho-socialist-secular-humanist-techno-progressive-global society is to carry on as we are. Pushing harder to reduce waste, increase efficiency of transport and industry and invent new technologies to solve the problems.

Transhumanism offers an opportunity to solve these sorts of problems from the bottom (individual humans) up. However I see no reason why we can't accomplish what we need to accomplish on our own.

As was commented on Start the Week. All the indices of deaths due to conflicts, poverty, malnutrition, are looking good. People tend to be pessimistic when things are uncertain. I look forward to the future.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Moment of Introversion

Of the many seemingly minor things that irritate me out of all proportion to their actual value as irritants, the one that I would have to rank just above mis-typing the word "definitely" as "defiantly" and just under The Daily Mail is the existence of pretentious, self-involved blogs that go on about the readers and their own problems at length and don't ever talk about anything more interesting (like space-habitats).

Bearing this in mind, I apologise for the following posting.

I have recently been applying to university. In the UK (where I live) this involves filling out an online form with the University Careers and Admissions Service (UCAS) with six choices for what degree to do and where to do it. After attending interviews (sometimes) or visits (sometimes) at the unis you have chosen you are given an offer (or not, but I wouldn't know about that... [sorry, sorry...]) and you then have to choose from your offers which one you most want to accept, and one insurance offer.

Generally speaking you put the offers for higher grades as your main offer (assuming you actually want to go to that university) and put a university that offers you a lower grade in your insurance place.

Currently I am deciding whether or not to put Imperial College (AAA) as my first choice or Manchester University (AAB) as my first choice. It is an interesting and not unpleasant problem with which to find oneself.

Nevertheless it is a problem. If anyone actually reads this blog but doesn't comment then I invite you to come forward and state your opinion. It is very rare that I find myself with a dilemma of this sort, and slightly disconcerting, any constructive advice would be most welcome.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Making Electricity

I glanced at this story (my inner pedant requires that I point out that the title "New Energy Source? ... " is inaccurate as what it describes is in fact only a potentially more efficient method of transferring energy - this seems to have produced some confusion in the comments section of the story) a few days ago and didn't think much of it, but it just occurred to me that a practical development of this technology would be pretty revolutionary (except it is relevant because it is precisely, literally, not revolutionary [pardon the godawful pun]).

To summarise: some researchers at the University of California have worked out how to get the Seebeck effect to work in organic molecules. Organic molecules are much cheaper than elements like bismuth and tellerium, which have been the traditional materials used in thermoelectric converters. This raises the possibility of increasing the efficiency of power stations all over. I suppose it could also be relevant to Oceanic Thermal Energy Conversion.

Most electrical power stations in the world are glorified steam engines mated with something that vaguely resembles Pacinotti's dynamo. Heat is produced, either by burning something or sticking a load of uranium in a box and poking it with sticks, this heat melts water, producing steam, the expansion of which turns the rotors of the dynamo, generating voltage.

There's an episode of Futurama where Planet Express HQ suffers a power outage. Professor Farnsworth's response is an indignant "What do you mean no power! We're living in the future!" This is one of those lines that seems silly when you first hear it but becomes amusing much, much later, like when you're reading

Can you imagine the Death Star, Hot Needle of Inquiry, Problem Child or any of our favourite SF spacecraft/BDOs lugging around honking great big magnets to generate electricity?

The point I'm hovering around is that the future is solid-state, at least as far as the naked eye is concerned. Moving components for anything that doesn't need to move (i.e. where the object of energy expenditure is to move something e.g. in transport) is inefficient, and mechanical motion should be restricted to the smallest possible scale (i.e. molecular nanotechnology). BAM call me on that if there is some problem with this reasoning.

Majumdar, who is also a faculty scientist in materials science at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said the field of organic thermoelectricity could open doors to a new, inexpensive source of energy. "The use of inexpensive organic molecules and metal nanoparticles offers the promise of low-cost, plastic-like power generators and refrigerators," he said.

In other words an alternative to the centralised, centrally controlled, and heavy-duty infrastructure we currently rely upon for electrical power. It's already happening with communications (although the Internet is no MANET yet, but one day...), and could happen with power generation with this and distributed generation technologies.

I apologise for over-hyping and ver-speculating about a seemingly minor, but potentially remarkable, breakthrough, but all this talk of throwing off the shackles of the state and living in self-dependent bliss brings out the crazy, survivalist, white-trash, libertarian, moisture-farmer in me (the one who gets Spider Jerusalem [adjective] all over the inner pedant).

Converting heat directly into electricity would make electricity-generation much more effective and efficient. It makes sense.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Bionic Eyes and Strange Skies

The bionic eyes in the news reminded me of Dan Sylveste's (from Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds). Hopefully they won't have all the neat gadgets Sylveste built into them.

I wonder at what point technologies like this will offer benefits to those that use them over those that don't. Maybe in fifty years there will be people who choose to replace their natural retinas with artificial ones that can wirelessly communicate with any of the millions of microscopic cameras that will saturate our environment at that time.

Some of my favourite futuristic images from the olden-days have been put in the public domain! Whee! These are beautiful images. Donald Davis was commissioned to paint these by NASA in thr 1970s.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A Hydrogen Economy

One of the problems with the idea of a hydrogen economy as an alternative to an oil economy is that the comparison implies that hydrogen will take the place of oil. This is not true: most of the hydrogen on Earth is already oxidised and as such requires more energy to liberate than could be gleaned from hydrogen as a primary power source.

Putting aside nuclear fusion (not because it is totally unfeasible or anything, just that there is no guarantee of a workable solution soon enough to solve our impending global warming and peak oil difficulties, either from ITER or various other interested parties in aneutronic fusion).

But if you're talking about hydrogen as an alternative to gasoline in cars then hydrogen is a bit of a roundabout way of doing things. Hydrogen fuel cell cars would function in a similar way to electric cars. A report from Ulf Bossel (organiser of the European Fuel Cell Forum and general fuel-cell bod) last December points out some of the problems with hydrogen in this context. Another criticism of GWB's presidential initiative comes from Robert Zubrin's book The New Atlantis.

So far my favourite option for the automobile of the future is the ultra-capacitor. This way electricity from the mains (generated by nuclear power and space-based solar-power-beaming stations) could be used to "fuel" autos. The most compelling (i.e. the only one I've come across) of these schemes is EEStor Company of Cedar Park Texas. I think that right now we should concentrate on electric-petrol hybrids and then, depending on how soon ultra-capacitors can be made to work, gradually migrate to an electric-based transport paradigm (Eeew, sorry, but I just had to use paradigm - it's the RIGHT WORD damnit!).

Transport accounts for around 10 % of European carbon dioxide emissions. Removing our requirement for petroleum to fuel cars would be a big step in the right direction, even if it only means the problem of energy production is elsewhere.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Science and Technology #3

In The End of Oil by Paul Roberts, the author comments that you can classify civilizations in terms of how much energy they command. This is a similar idea to the Kardashev Scale, albeit somewhat scaled down.

We have been very fortunate as a civilisation so far in that our energy is relatively easy to extract, oil is an extraordinary useful commodity, and can be used for many things other than energy production. I was recently told about this scheme of carbon capture and storage, in which carbon dioxide is removed from the plant when the fossil fuel is burnt and piped back to the oil well. The gas is pumped underground and helps free up the 30 % of oil that is uneconomical to extract otherwise. The elegance of the system is very appealing.

Another interesting piece of scitech news is this story about Einstein Bose Condensates.

This slowly-moving clump was composed entirely of sodium atoms, effectively turning light into matter.

This is a fascinating prospect. Who knows what practical applications could be found for Einstein Bose Condensates?

In case you're still feeling blas
é about the progress being made in various fields of human endeavour: consider this article exploring all the things we don't already know from Wired Magazine.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Age of Information

It is an interesting irony that we who live in "the information age" can only ever hope to read a tiny fraction of all the information that is available to us.

Two hundred years ago a reasonably well-educated and well-off individual could expect to be able to read a significant fraction of all that had ever been written. Today the sheer volume of data that is pouring into humanity's collective knowledge-base means that most (in fact, all) of us can never know all there is to know.

But what if we didn't even aspire to the lofty goal of omniscience? What if we just wanted to be reasonably well-informed about events in a number of spheres that are of interest to us? From this point of view I feel both guilty and spoilt. I have neither the time nor the inclination to read kilobytes of text every day, by necessity I have to rely on many of the same crutches, composites and digests as everyone else.

I usually manage to read about two full-newspapers every week. These are usually The Guardian, The Independent, or The Times (and occasionally the business section of The Daily Telegraph). Call that forty articles a week of an average of one thousand words each. Forty thousand words! Additionally to this I browse Boing Boing, Slate, AlterNet, CybDem, Charles Stross' blog, Sp!ked and any interesting articles I find linked to these.

I think I read about eighty thousand words of new text (that which I haven't read before) every week, and this is just to keep up with the news.

One of the long term goals of transhumanism should be to develop an interface between our minds and external events. We already have one of these, of course, but a a human sensorium is limited to what it has evolved specifically to accomplish: survival.

In order to flourish in a posthuman world we will have to find a way of conveying large quantities of information in a meaningful way without damaging or irritating ourselves.

I love graphs. I love diagrams. A picture is said to speak a thousand words, and I found my understanding of linear maths was greatly enhanced once I'd worked out the relationship between the graphs and the functions.

More than graphs, I love new ways of understanding something. An insight into political thought can be found at the Political Compass, for interesting ways of viewing data look at this site and this site. One displays a variety of information displays, the other shows the network of relationships between philosophers on Wikipedia.

An interesting recent development in this area is this fascinating project, where the essential characteristics of things like golf-club swings or running-styles, things that are difficult to express in words or diagrams, are rendered into sound. From

" Using a complex formula that involved hooking professional golfers up to sensors, Berger set to vowel sounds -- ah, eh and oo -- the velocity of the club head and the relative rotation of the shoulders with respect to the hips. Amateur golfers, attached to a computer, can get instant auditory feedback on their swings with vowel sounds and can make adjustments until it "sounds just right." "

This reminds me of the control-system of a spacecraft in Shismatrix by Bruce Sterling, where the internal sensory grid of the spacecraft is attached to a music synthesiser. The crew become so attuned to the natural rhythm of the ship that they can immediately tell when something is wrong.

The downsides to modern communications technology are well thrashed out - particularly in this old article about the perils of not-quite-getting-the-whole-transhumanism thing.

The kind of technique being implemented by Professor Berger has enormous potential for education. I imagine there will be tremendous developments in the future as we discover the precise relationships between our brains and how we learn. We will be able to alter our educational methods to suit individuals, so everyone will be able to learn more easily.