Monday, March 26, 2007


Citizendium has been released in an experimental "beta" version. It will complement the original Wikipedia and the Digital Universe. Citizendium's language reflects the slightly more formal and less anarchic design of the encyclopedia as opposed to Wikipedia, with non-anonymous expert "constables" guiding and advising on the content of articles.

The aim of the project is impressive in scope, from Citizendium:

"As to quality, our goal is to capture humanity's multivarious understanding of reality, and thereby to paint a maximally broad and detailed portrait of our universe as accurately as we understand it. An indispensible means to this end is the involvement of many experts who will help guide and, ultimately, approve many of our articles. We expect our approved articles to be, in the long run, as authoritative, error-free, and well-written as encyclopedia articles can be expected to be."

This puts me in mind of the "library" in Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which I am currently rereading. I think that this is a great step forward, and it will be reassuring to know that there is greater reliability in an online encyclopedia.

Friday, March 23, 2007

More Good News

One of the possible downsides of hydrogen fuel cells being used in cars is the expense of the platinum catalysts used in many cells. This story from (my main source of news on this sort of thing) seems to suggest that there are cheaper alternatives.

Micro-electro-mechanical-devices are one of those amazing ideas that makes your mind expand when you consider all the possible applications and ways they could change our lives. Progress is being made in this area as well.

One of the many exciting possibilities of molecular nanotechnology is the suggestion that molecules could be "put together" instead of formed through the normal methods of making useful chemicals. This research from the University of Illinois offers the first glimmerings of this capability using "mechanophores", or mechanically active molecules.


With my growing interest in politics and economics I have been reading quite a lot about the various different ideologies and methods people have developed to perform the functions that the social sciences of economics and politics describe, namely:

  1. The distribution and use of resources.
  2. The way groups of people make decisions.

One of the irritating deficiencies of our current system is that all the people who become powerful in government do so for many reasons, but the common denominator out of all of these people is their desire to be powerful. This makes them singularly unsuited to exercise power.

If they (the politicians) are to function as we (the mass of people that makes up the electorate) want them to then they need to conceal, to a certain extent, their own desires and ambitions from us. Therefore they need to lie in order to be elected. I understand that James Buchanan wrote about this idea.

So in a sense it is our fault. We expect our elected representatives to have high moral standards, to the point of being Saints, and yet at the same time our system is such that you can only achieve high office through a certain amount of “politicking”. Playing the Game. Climbing the Greasy Pole.

There is also this terrible muddling of ideology and politics. Certainly people, and politicians, should have ideals. Politicians need to have a basic set of ideals that are common to all people. Things like Murdering is Bad, Stealing is Bad, and so forth.

We expect our politicians to be simultaneously pragmatic and idealistic. But it is not basic idealism, involving belief in something like human beings being essentially good (or essentially predictable), or morality, or the dream of a world where the largest number of people are as happy as possible (and the smallest number of people are as unhappy as possible), it is a complicated sort of idealism concerning things like economic policy (something best left up to experts), or environmentalism, or even religion.

Hypocrisy is now seen as being a cardinal sin. But wouldn’t things be better if politicians didn’t have to be hypocrites? Wouldn’t it be better if they stated exactly and precisely why they were doing everything i.e.

“It is correct that I am doing this so that people will re-elect me, and so I’ll be remembered as a good politician when I have retired, but I am mainly doing this because of the following detailed and carefully argued series of reasons, annotated to indicate the credible sources for all the statements I make. I concede there are some reasons why people might believe that this policy is not the best it can be, the reasons that I disagree with these people in my belief that this policy is the best it can be are also detailed in my series of reasons.”

I would clearly be a very poor politician, at least from the point of view of public speaking.

We also need a more scientific approach to government. Politicians need to be able to say: “Well we tried this policy and it hasn’t worked, so I’m going to try something else.” For some reason journalists deride this as “flip-flopping”. But it is just good sense. If City Academies don’t work then stop creating City Academies and close the ones that are open. If creating a system of targets doesn’t work find some other way of running the system (fortunately the government does seem to be doing something like this in education).

I hope that empirical methods are used a lot in government, and I concede that our state functions very well, with blunders and problems highlighted by the media to the extent that people get the impression that the state is constantly on the verge of collapse, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

One of the reasons politicians do what they do is that they will often have invested in a particular policy in order to get elected. They are then expected to enact that policy. In order to be elected politicians need to come up with interesting and revolutionary ideas even if, once they are in power, they realise the policies may no longer be entirely appropriate.

Ways of getting politicians to behave better include placing limits on the number of terms that an MP or Minister can serve, then they will be able to concentrate on their legacy (e.g. stopping global warming) as opposed to their re-election prospects (which might be damaged by taxing SUVs and Land Rovers). We should also stop treating them as if they should be saints and start treating them as professionals who have a job to do. Monitor, comment and criticise what they do. Monitor and comment on what they say but don’t judge them as if we expect them to be Great Leaders.

A democracy doesn't really benefit from invested large amounts of power in a single, charismatic individual. We need to concentrate on policies that demonstrably work without making Bad Things Happen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Microscopic Alphabet Soup

This is a wonderfully whimsical way of demonstrating technology at work on the microscopic scale. From

"We have made fluorescent lithographic particles, we have made complex three-dimensional shapes and, as shown by UCLA postdoctoral fellow Kun Zhao, we can assemble these particles, for example, in a lock-and-key relationship," said Mason, whose research is at the intersection of chemistry, physics, engineering and biology. "We can mass-produce complex parts having different controlled shapes at a scale much smaller than scientists have been able to produce previously. We have a high degree of control over the parts that we make and are on the verge of making functional devices in solution. We may later be able to configure the parts into more complex and useful assemblies."

Amazing stuff: and with such enormous potential.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

An Unapologetic Rant

Warning: the following rant was written down more out of self-indulgent narcissism (something my generation knows quite a lot about, apparently…) than for any more constructive purpose. If you experience passionate rage when faced with such things then I suggest you look away before reading the end of this paragraph, like, now!

Wow, thank goodness we got rid of that lot. Now on to the rant:

If asked to define the zeitgeist of the early C21, in the UK, in one word, I would probably reply: “nostalgia”. There are those cheap, bloated (but nevertheless compulsive) nostalgiathons of the “100 Best…” genre. The “new” music scene is dominated by derivative indie, soft-rock, brain-candy pop music, and a raft of remixes and re-releases. There doesn’t seem to be any “new” music. There is nothing heard on Radio 1 nowadays (with the possible exception of Chris Moyles) that would shock or alienate my parents or their peers, as their parents were by their choice of music, much of which remains popular with my peers.

Mainstream interest in movies has devolved to the one-shot blockbuster/DVD release in two months paradigm. There are films with genuine merit being produced, even for mainstream audiences, and doubtless there is also a vast sea of independent and alternative films being created, but this creativity does not filter into the wider market.

Maybe it is that the current generation of media bosses is dominated by tie-died hippies and dissolute baby-boomers, maybe it is that decades of “progress” seem to have resulted in unhappiness, alienation, social problems, and all the horrific absurdities of global politics. Maybe we are being cynically manipulated by millennialist, antihuman evildoers into thinking that the world is shortly to end and that we must all repent for our Sins of Profligacy, Gluttony, Lust, Envy, Sloth etc. Maybe the fact that there are more baby-boomers than there are of us (generations X-Y) and they have so much more wealth accounts for the obsession with the past.

Or it could be that as far as most of humanity is concerned it is Business as Usual, bearing in mind that a third of humanity has no access to electricity and as such Business as Usual is a nasty and brutish mode of existence.

That Something Needs to be Done to solve the problems of the world is well known. Exactly what is to be done is to continue as we are. By this I mean continue pressing the environment and ethical living as important issues, and actually acting on our own rhetoric. Losing jets is going to be hard. Also losing your own car is going to be hard. But these things will probably be necessary. I’m not sure if removing our ridiculous prohibition (in the West generally, and in the UK and the USA especially) on dangerous drugs will be painful, so much as unnecessarily difficult.

The Internet, the source of a great deal of “new” art (or a lot of derivative remixes created by American teenagers with a Mac and too much free time, or British teenagers with a mobile and too much free time, and then put on YouTube) remains important, and has lead to enormous change already.

Virtual-space design will become important. A story out today says that the value of the current crop of virtual worlds is already at around £511 million.

But the logical next step for the global network is to decentralise further, to the extent that it becomes impossible to censor or control the internetwork. This next step will certainly involve mesh networking technologies, and wireless ad-hoc networks. These offer the possibility of another paradigm (my sincerest apologies for using the word “paradigm” twice in the same article): an even freer and more controversial one than today’s Internet.

As an aside, I have been watching Adam Curtis’ wonderful programme The Trap – What Happened to our Dream of Freedom, which (ironically – considering the root of this post) makes excellent use of stock footage to create atmosphere and emphasis. It tackles an interesting and complex subject – a real-life gritty SF novel in which the mindless pursuit of targets is produced by a mathematical genius as the optimum way of creating spontaneous order in a society, only for everyone to find that it doesn’t work quite as well as they would like to think…

The kind of self-directing, decentralised mechanisms of the free market are powerful tools for resource allocation, but like all tools are not much good without a sentient and intelligent entity to wield them. As George W said in one of his more lucid moments, a dictatorship really would be a lot easier. Even evolution, often held up as an example of this sort of “invisible hand” effect in practice, is not that good at finding optimum scenarios (in my last post I commented on the eating-hole/breathing-hole combination, that is not to mention the reproductive-hole/waste-disposal-hole combination… […maybe having fewer holes is a survival trait…?]), and as Curtis comments in the programme, the selfish gene concept isn’t the whole story.

I think the lesson of game theory is that you should never underestimate the complexity of a system, use a scientific method, and always take into account that you might be dead wrong.

The key point is that we are not going to do anything useful by obsessing about the past. An awareness of genuine historical situations is always useful (in fact, essential), but the trivial and sentimental attitude towards the past that seems to pervade at the moment does little to prepare us for the future.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

Practical and constructive solutions as to what to do about global warming are much more welcome than demands to stop using electricity, cars, jets, plastic, or transported food.

It irritates me that this article from Yahoo! News describes these ideas as crazy. If it can be done, and if it works, and if it doesn't cause enormous horrible side-effects then it is worth considering.

My favourite idea in this world-engineering vein has been the "gigantic space mirror". It seems wonderfully hubris, but more importantly would give us an excuse to get into space.

Once we have a toehold in space we can begin real space development, construction of a space elevator, self-sufficient space habitat, start mining the asteroids, dismantle Mercury to build a Dyson swarm, and build floating cities in Venus' atmosphere - all the usual things.

Because if it's not the nuclear bombs, or the global warming, or the plagues, or the asteroid impacts, or the earthquakes, or the gamma-ray bursts, it will be something else that gets us. Existential threats surround us, and their prevalence may account for the Fermi paradox.

We need to use the vast resource of oil we are fortunate enough to have to bootstrap ourselves to the next level of technology. Molecular nanotechnology offers enormous potential because it involves manipulating matter at the most fundamental level. If developed to its fullest extend, along with genetic-algorithm-based design software and other things we haven't even thought of yet, it would also create a self-sustaining, self-operating, self-designing, and highly durable "technosphere" independent of the need for human intervention or maintenance.

Why would such a thing be desirable? There is a sort of paranoia about handing too much control over to artificial machines. I believe this is rooted mostly in our knowledge that machines are unreliable in all but the most routine of circumstances, and sometimes they break down. This is why jet-aircraft still have pilots, and trams still have drivers.

But if artificial machinery becomes more like naturally-evolved machinery it would become at least as durable as we and our biosphere are (...if not more so, because it would be less restricted in terms of its use of materials, and it could apply sentience to the problem of design, eliminating flaws like the combining of the breathing-hole and the eating-hole in land dwelling vertebrates...) and these objections to handing control to artificial machines would be irrelevant.

The argument that suggests that "the evil computer will take over the world" is an interesting one. I believe that if we are ever to create an AI that will equal or exceed human "intelligence" (however we quantify such a thing) its mind will need a model of the world at least as good as ours, a model of all the most complex things in that world (including humans) as good as ours, and it would need a model of itself at least as good as ours.

Such a thing would undoubtedly be sentient, as it would be able to view and map its internal processes as well as (and probably much better than) we can. In fact, it would be very close to being a human mind.

Such a mind would be in pretty much the same position as the rest of us as regards taking over the world, but it is worth pointing out that if we imagine this future to be as democratic as the present. Given space, and full human rights, and citizenship of a state, there is no reason why an AI/upload/virtual person couldn't create enough independent copies of itself to affect the outcome of elections.

But such an AI would go beyond human. Part of the power of software programs is they can rapidly modify themselves to suit the job they are doing. Imagine if you could increase your level of curiosity over the tedious report you have to write for work, or become more logical for a maths exam, or develop hand-eye coordination for a badminton match.

So I imagine that the first "true AI" will simply be incredibly accurate models of human beings running on a computational substrate. In this case it won't be a matter of "handing over control to the machines" as it will be simply giving control to those in the best position to use it (I'm assuming human beings running on this substrate will experience time at the same speed or greater than human beings - but I suspect that we will be able to develop computers powerful enough).

Once we have a durable technosphere then, for the first time ever, everything that really matters in this world will not be stuck within three pounds of goo, protected by a thin layer of bone from all the nastiness of the universe.

Or so the transhumanists would have us believe...

Anyway. Realistically, we need to conserve our oil resources, keep our industrial infrastructure, gain a substantial hold in space (including Earth orbit, the Lagrangian points, the Moon, the asteroids, Mars, and Jupiter), develop the third world, and conserve the beauty that can be seen in our only example of a functioning biosphere. That means (for the time being) nuclear power, unless someone comes up with a decent fusion-power-generator.

And a giant-space-mirror would also be pretty cool.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

More on Global Warming

Another point worth making about the global warming debate is this: if history, both human and geological, has taught us anything it is that the climate changes all the time. To say that the climate is "changing" is like saying... the weather is changing. Weather changes on a daily basis. The global climate changes on a timescale of decades, centuries and millennia.

Consider this: suppose we had discovered that CO2 emissions due to human industrial activity were causing a greenhouse effect that was causing the global temperature to rise. Suppose then everyone said: well OK, so what do we do now? The people from developing countries would say: "Well we want to develop into healthy, liberal, progressive, democratic, industrial countries like the UK and Sweden and Germany - you guys had the huge advantage of massive natural resources and not having to worry about CO2 emissions when you had your enlightenment/industrial revolution phase - we need to produce CO2 to develop!"

To which the developed nations will reply: "Well I guess we need to ration oil and so forth so that developing countries will have a share as they industrialise, but the problem is that it is sub-Saharan Africa that will suffer most if global temperatures rise! Perhaps we shouldn't let the Africans develop! For their own good!"

A bit of a catch 22. Made worse by the fact that oil is a finite resource.

It is worth pointing out that at the root of all this is people. It is people that matter. The Earth is a ball of iron and rock floating through space, it doesn't need us. The global ecology is more resilient and diverse than anything ever created by humans, it doesn't need us.

It is sad that the most interesting (to us) and wonderful (to us) creatures are likely to suffer from climate-change-induced Gaian down-sizing. I think that we should certainly try to store as much of the genetic diversity of our planet before it disappears as we can, particularly if it is disappearing due to human activity (regardless of greenhouse-gas produced by humans causing climate change).

However there are fragile, frail human beings living in circumstances that we in the developed states would hate to live in. These people want desperately to be like us and live longer, happier, and have more fun.

We need to sweep away all the politics and Green pseudo-morality and decide how we will get out of this catch 22 and improve the standards of living and fend off the most horrible things there are: death, disease, poverty and war.

This article from The Guardian irritates me because it doesn't address the points I mention. It also rather blithely dismisses the arguments offered in TGGWS out of hand. This strikes me as rather lazy, after all if CO2 emissions rise and fall after changes in temperatures, which could actually be caused by solar activity, via the mechanism of the oceans drawing in CO2 when they are cold and emitting CO2 when they are hot (or was that the other way around?), then it is certainly worth commenting on.

The global warming cause has been hijacked by those who believe in a rather puritan two-legs-bad, four-legs-and-trees-good version of environmentalism. It is all rather worrying.

Global Warming

Following Thursday's The Great Global Warming Swindle on C4, I thought quite a lot about the affect of global warming on my life. I realised that for me, global warming exists as a leaden fact of existence. I feel vaguely guilty when I find the door left open, the car engine running when queuing at the traffic lights, or see the accusatory red standby light, even in other people's homes.

I heard an interesting programme on radio 4 a few weeks ago, that discussed global warming from a sociological and moral standpoint. It seems that every thousand years a kind of millennialist miserabilism overcomes humanity. Factions rise that claim that Bad Things Will Happen if people don't Change Their Ways For The Better.

Themes common to the religiously-inspired sandwich-board-wearing apocalypsists of history and today's current breed of Green pro-environment doom-mongers include a penchant for attacking the status-quo, those in authority and simultaneously asserting that things will only get better if we all individually pitch in and become more morally righteous.

As Martin Durkin's documentary washed over me I went through various stages:

  1. Immediate denial before I even saw the documentary.
  2. Realisation that denying something can be true before hearing the arguments to support it is highly questionable at best, and similar to those die-hard, pro-ignorance groups I've always disliked at worst.
  3. As I watched the documentary and noted the arguments I experienced a slight (and doubtless intentional) lifting of the spirit at the thought of a future that did not include human-derived global warming.
  4. This was closely followed by concern that this would cause ordinary people (like myself, but not as much) to excuse their lazy and selfish dismissal of a real problem.
  5. Temporary outrage at the super-scripting of the "2" in CO2 emissions in the charmingly retro-fifties explanatory diagrams.
  6. Quiet pondering.
I agree with Durkin that global warming has become far too politicised, whilst I also realise that in order for action to be taken (if necessary) the issue needs to be politicised.

The argument that the reason for the seeming growth in support of the human-derived-CO2-global-warming theory amongst scientists is simply because in order to get funding scientists tend to spin their research in order to plug it into the Hot Topic is an interesting one.

A thing that surprises me about scientific endeavour is how much we don't know. The weather is supposed to be immensely chaotic and complex. There might be room for errors.

Most usefully the programme reminded me of the need to retain debate and cool-headedness even in the face of going against common opinion.

As a techno-progressive sort of person I know that I desperately want to be told that the increase in temperatures is not directly or substantially due to the industrial actions of the human species, and I know I might be biased towards the sort of arguments Durkin uses, but I'm still confident that the solutions to most of the problems we are facing (as well as peak oil) is to advance technology, and be proactive.

More interesting is the response to Durkin's documentary amongst the press. Sp!ked-online managed, in their own inimical way, to align themselves with my feelings on the matter (follow the Sp!ked link to see what other people have been saying as well).

Another good point is that between 1945 and 1975 the global temperature dropped rather a lot. This lead people to believe that a new ice-age was coming and that London would be crushed by glaciers. Interesting stuff.

At the moment my feelings are summed up rather neatly by this cartoon from the excellent Anyway I have no doubt I will continue to obsessively turn out all standby appliances in the house, annoy others by unplugging charging mobile phones, fidget when the bus I'm on is in a traffic jam, and feel guilty every time I eat beef (I'll also continue to turn off electrical socket switches that aren't in use - but I doubt that will have any effect whatsoever).

Friday, March 02, 2007

More Goodness from the Edge Question

Months after it was first published I am still digesting the content of the essays in's question of 2007. If there is a single document I would advise everyone to read on the Internet it would be this.

One of Jaron Lanier's comments concerns the ability of the human mind to learn to control bodies that are very different from the ones we currently wear. This idea is called homuncular flexibility. From

Some of the most interesting data from VR research thus far involve Homuncular Flexibility. It turns out that the human brain can learn to control radically different bodies with remarkable ease. That means that people might eventually learn to spontaneously change what's going on in a virtual world by becoming parts of it.

This may result in scenarios similar to those described in Greg Bear's sublime
Eon, in which posthumans communicate using an elaborate set of VR "picts" to supplement traditional, linear speech.

More information on Jaron Lanier's ideas of homuncular flexibility can be found here in last years question (What's your Dangerous Idea?).

Stewart Brand and Nuclear Power

It is wonderful to see someone talking sense about nuclear power, and someone as potentially influential and credible as Stewart Brand. From the New York Times:

“There were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power, but now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective,” he says. “Sure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you don’t know where it is and you don’t know what it’s doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybody’s atmosphere.”

He also goes on to comment on something that I've always felt was a great problem with the environmentalist group:

Mr. Brand predicts that his heresies will become accepted in the next decade as the scientific minority in the environmental movement persuades the romantic majority. He still considers himself a member of both factions, just as in the days of the Merry Pranksters, but he’s been shifting toward the minority.

“My trend has been toward more rational and less romantic as the decades go by,” he says. “I keep seeing the harm done by religious romanticism, the terrible conservatism of romanticism, the ingrained pessimism of romanticism. It builds in a certain immunity to the scientific frame of mind.”

The Earth is a finite resource, but as things are at the moment we can't remove our cities without displacing billions of people. We can't uproot our infrastructure without loss of life and loss of quality of life.

Putting a vague abstract of an untainted Earth before the health, wellbeing and happiness of everyone already living on Earth has been a problem for the environmentalists. It may even have contributed to the length of time it took for politicians and businesspeople to treat the environment as a serious issue.

That's not to belittle the tremendous strides the environmentalist-faction have managed to accomplish over the past several decades, but it is only by embracing technologies like nuclear power, genetic engineering and cheap manufacturing that we will be able to solve our current problems of global warming.