Monthly Archives: August 2011

Albedo 0.39

On average, the earth reflects 39% of incoming energy back into space. To use jargon for no reason other than that I like Vangelis, it has an albedo of 0.39.

Solar farms are springing up around us, incentivised by high feed-in tariffs offered so generously by the UK taxpayer.

I used to be in favour of solar farms but stressed that these should never be built in the UK, but instead in the Sahara desert or somewhere at least a bit sunny. If today’s technology doesn’t allow reasonable cable losses, then we should be waiting till we have super-cables, since there has never been any hurry, even if all the panic about CO2 levels had been correct.

A while back, I had to admit that I was maybe wrong about African solar farms. Having read the book Freakonomics, the authors point out that although solar panels look like a very green solution at first glance, they only produce a small amount of electricity (20% is considered very good for efficiency) but they are also very dark, so absorb a lot more incoming solar energy than the surface did before they were there. For a rooftop, which may have been tiled beforehand, I guess it comes down to the colour and age of the tiles. For a green field in the countryside, not only does it use up land that might have been pretty or arable, it also makes it darker. And for a desert, the change is quite marked. So it isn’t as green as it first appears.

The authors received immediate criticism because they didn’t explicitly compare the waste heat inevitable from alternative production for the same electricity, nor observe that the extra albedo of the panels would vanish once they were removed, but the key point remains true. The accounting for other means of production of the same energy, and comparisons of the overall life-cycle carbon reductions or increases are highly complex functions of the geography and climate at the location of the panel. It is a messy area full or arguments in each direction, as anything to do with climate always is. But, a solar panelled area usually will cause more of the incoming energy to be absorbed, that energy will still enter the earth’s system, and will still cause warming. Albedo might return to normal once the panel is removed, but the accumulated extra heat over its lifetime won’t vanish.

If the doom-mongers were right and warming were a really serious immediate threat and threatened to flip some environmental triggers, then we really should have been avoiding increasing it, even by solar. It would surely be far better to spend the same cash to improve energy efficiency and insulation, both of which would reduce warming, or spend it on extra research, or reducing methane…. And if the feed-in tariffs being offered to solar farmers had been offered to householders to insulate, I am sure most of us would much rather rent out our lofts for extra insulating than have ugly panels attached to the outside or pay a landowner to ruin the countryside. And if we all did that, we’d very soon realise we are all just using our own taxes to pay each other. This policy stinks.

Fortunately, it is a bit irrelevant now we know that warming isn’t as big a problem as the doom-mongers threatened. But yet another case where environmental policy seems a bit daft.

Face recognition – dangerous stuff?

There are a fair few blogs elsewhere on the potential dangers in face recognition, but here is another one to read.

Several months ago, it was rumoured that Google would add it to their search. Immediately people started to see dangers in it and the potential damage to privacy too. I tend to agree, it is a very dangerous technology. Google decided in the end not to, not yet anyway, but as Google said, even if they are good enough not to introduce it, someone else eventually would, and they were right. Since then, Facebook have been meddling with it, and apparently showed enormous irresponsibility by introducing it without warning users, and without automatically disabling the feature in privacy settings by default. The reaction should have been obvious before they did so, and they were justifiably widely condemned. Keeping it only accessible to ‘friends’ offers little protection, most of us don’t know half our Facebook ‘friends’ anyway. It is just easier to accept friendship than suffer the social embarrassment of admitting you have no idea who that  person is you might or might not have met yesterday. Facebook knows that very well.

Soon, you will be able to use face recognition software to find out who someone is just by pointing your phone camera at them. A quick play on an app and you will also know who they work for, where they live, their contact details, what dating sites they may be on, what they say on their blogs and tweets and even casual comments in forums, whether they are free or in a relationship, how good they are at games, and so on. Face recognition will help link together a great many sites that can’t easily be linked purely via text searches.

Other software may allow it to take account of ageing, so that you could scan in an old photo and check out historic contacts.

I think in many cases, it will be harmless fun, and may make it slightly easier to tag photos on friends on facebook, but the dangers are very high. We can be fairly certain that school-kids would immediately try to track down their teachers to find embarrassing pics they would prefer to keep hidden. We can be fairly sure that people will use it to try to identify people coming into their area, matching them with pictures from previous sex offences, or indeed any other bad behaviour, whether the associated people were found guilty or not. I also have no doubt it will bring an end to many a relationship when people see compromising pics of their partners.

And it won’t be 100% accurate, so a great many people who look a bit like someone who might have been guilty will also get tarnished.  Mis-identification will be as big a problem as correct identification. My photo appears a lot on Google. I haven’t been involved in anything especially embarrassing or naughty. But I have no idea how many people out there have who might look a bit like me, and with whom I might be confused. Some of the photos out already there confuse me with Ian Pearson the ex-government minister even though we look nothing like each other. Proof enough that we can’t assume it will be correct.

It is bad enough being confused with a Labour minister, I certainly don’t want confused with a paedophile or shoplifter or mugger, and for all I know there may well be some that look a bit like me. And even from a marketing perspective, having adverts targeted at me based on my own profile is bad enough, getting ones that are really intended for someone else will be worse still.

I would love to balance this piece as I usually do with enthusiasm for the massive benefits, showing that technology will make our lives better. In this case, the benefits I can think of are all relatively small, and associated with finding criminals or tracking benefits cheats. But they already have enough sense to wear masks  and in any case, heading down that road is far too 1984ish for my taste.

Climate change – don’t panic, it was the Sun after all

Image courtesy of CERN,

Pictured: Jasper Kirkby with his CLOUD chamber

Links to original sources announcing results:

CERN Press release

letter to Nature:

Congratulations to Jasper Kirkby and his team at CERN. A great day for science I think. The long-awaited results from Kirkby’s CLOUD experiment have come out, and say pretty much what he thought they would regarding the potential for cosmic rays to cause cloud seeding, but with more questions coming out, as they should when science has been done properly. The experiment also showed that the combinations of gases expected to be causing clouds at low atmosphere can’t, not even with cosmic ray help. So another science hurdle has fallen. We know a bit more about our world, but we also know a little more about what we don’t know. So now they have more questions to answer, and no doubt answering those will reveal yet more questions.

This stands in stark contrast to those who use the phrase ‘the science is now settled’. It wasn’t, still isn’t, and it won’t be any time soon. Physics is far from finished, so is chemistry and biology and every other branch of science.

The results of this experiment are politically very important. Governments, especially our own in the UK, have already sunk vast amounts of taxpayer cash into programmes based on the idea that humans are the main cause of global warming, now renamed as climate change, since the warming stopped in 1998. Carbon dioxide is known to be a greenhouse gas, with higher concentrations of it in the atmosphere leading to more of the sun’s heat being trapped. No-one disputes that, but heavily in dispute was how much of the climate change we see was due to human-generated CO2, how much from natural CO2 generation, and more importantly, from non-CO2-related causes, such as black carbon, CFCs, cosmic rays, sunspots, volcanoes, natural ocean cycles and so on. The list of contributors is long.

Kirkby showed several years ago that there was a high historic correlation between solar activity such as sunspots, incoming cosmic radiation flux and temperature here on earth. Long before people made any impact, climate was varying all the time, in high correlation with incoming radiation, and of course it still is. Any human contribution is on top of that natural source. Many climate scientists have steadfastly refused to accept this as a significant potential cause of warming, and so didn’t include sunspot activity cycles in their models. Some of the worse ones appear to have manipulated data to try to erase evidence of the effect. Arguments raged about sources of warming, whether, it was the sun, natural ocean cycles, or man-made CO2.

Climate science had become highly polarised, with a small group of scientists who huddled in the corner insisting that they are the only true climate scientists,and managed to gain control over official channels of climate science. Everyone else was pushed outside, denied any significant voice in climate journals because they are not one of the true believers, and somehow weren’t a ‘proper climate scientist’. But fortunately science doesn’t work like that for any length of time. True science always ends up winning. Political spin can only be sustained for so long.

The CLOUD experiment set out to answer the main question, the denial of which was the main pillar of the climate science AGW religion. Could cosmic rays be a significant factor in cloud formation? If the answer was no, then the CO2 advocates would be able to push their CO2-centric view much more strongly, since the cosmic ray effect was one of the main pillars of the opposing view. And of course if the answer is yes, then the climate models will need a great deal of change before they can be considered representative of the real world, as the sceptics had argued all along.

None of this suggests that CO2 doesn’t matter. What it does say with certainty is that CO2 is far less significant than had been stated by climate scientists, and by deduction, we need to worry far less about its increasing. Fantastic news. We will not be doomed by CO2 production after all. The changes in climate that we have seen are probably mainly down to solar activity after all, and we can’t do much about that except learn to live with what it throws at us.

Other research recently also backs up that view. More radiation escapes into space from the atmosphere than previously thought. Black carbon is a bigger factor than thought. The CO2 gearing is lower than thought. Soil chemistry is poorly understood. Ocean currents and cycles need a lot more study. Now we also know that some of the assumed chemistry in the lower atmosphere is wrong too.

Kirkby and his team have done a great job of pushing science forward in spite of significant adversity from political interference and the influence of corrupted science elsewhere.

Corruption never disappears overnight. The momentum of the CO2-centric view is enormous, and mere truth will only slow it down gradually. But truth is persistent. If we fight it, it won’t go away. The earth, and all the rest of the universe, cares nothing for political views or corruption. Physics is just there, and all we can do is work out how it works. As Star Trek’s Scotty famously observed ‘ye cannay change the laws of physics captain’.

What we should do as fast as we can is to stop throwing taxpayer money down the drain on account of disproven theories, and immediately to change any government policy based on carbon reduction.

As for science, we should accept the results from CERN, and their Danish adversaries in the spring, and move on. We should force those climate models with any significant influence to be changed to include the proven results of the studies of the last few years, to change their parameters and equations accordingly, and to model the whole system as far as science permits, not just those bits they are fond of.

If we understand out environment better, we can protect it better, and protect out own interests better too. Bad science leads always to bad policy. Only by pursuing the truth can we prosper in the long term. A few careers and bad apples might suffer, but the rest of us will be far better off.

I find this personally very reassuring. I have struggled for several years trying to understand climate science a bit, following the arguments on both sides, trying desperately to sort out what is obviously spin and lies from what seems to be good science – on both sides. My brain isn’t big enough, and I forget stuff quickly, so can’t really keep track of it. But over time, I was moving further and further from sitting on the fence, as it became obvious that most of the deviousness seemed to be on the CO2 driven side. The maximum contribution that CO2 could be making to climate change has gradually reduced as study after study suggested other factors that must account for at least some of the change. I don’t think I am really in any position to list the current percentage contributions from all the factors, but I reckon that CO2 accounts for maybe 10% of the change, maximum 15% now. But that is just a guess.

The big factor missing in my own belief set was the importance of cosmic radiation. I watched Kirkby’s lecture some years back and I found it convincing, but we have to do the science, and until we have, it is only guesswork. Now, he has. We have the result.

I no longer believe that CO2 is a major factor in climate change. I have been a sceptic for a good while, while trying hard to retain balance while waiting for Kirkby to finish. I am now very happy that his case is proven that it is the sun and not CO2 that causes most of our climate change. CO2 is at most a minor contributor and we can sleep easy while continuing to produce more of it. How much more before we can start worrying we need to look at further, but any reason for panic has gone.

Interesting additional blog commentary:

Science teaching

If I have learned anything over my years of lecturing it is that teachers don’t like being told they are doing it wrong. And certainly not when they know you are right. Google’s chief is making headlines today doing just that, Good luck to him, he is saying what a lot of us have before, but he might just have the clout to have an effect.

However, I suspect he is probably too late. Even if notice is taken, by the time the school system changes and universities rippled through the new students resulting from it, the world will have moved on a lot, and much new science and technology will be done by smart machines. I’m afraid that he is right, but the damage is already done, and it is just too late to recover now, unless AI moves on slower than expected.

Apple’s Future

So Steve has left. Good luck to him, and I wish him a very happy retirement. I have owned an Apple every day since 1981 when I started work. I even used one until about 2 years ago when I finally decided that PCs had reached a usability level I could tolerate and the frustrations of using my Mac with Microsoft’s software finally got too much. It lives now as a guest room machine.

Apple has given us much, and in the last decade has pushed technology towards a point where all IT engineers knew it was going, but other manufacturers resisted until Apple forced them to play catch-up. It isn’t ideas Apple do, it is making them work adequately and prettily. They make technology meet us half way instead of forcing us to read manuals.

Concept-wise, there really is nothing new about the ipad. The staff on Star Trek walked round with such things decades earlier and even outside scifi, every half decent IT engineer since 1990 expected wafer thin, flexible, coffee table tablets to be one of the steps towards the eventual future (of full direct brain link, via the intermediate stage of thought recognition and direct retinal projection) – and even the ipad falls short of that still. It is still too fat, heavy, power hungry, delicate and slippery, but it is heading the right way. The iphone did much the same with mobile phones, even that copying much the same that approach that Magic Cap offered in the early 1990s. We all knew phones would go that way, it was only ever a matter of time, but Apple were the one to break down the door. What Apple have done is to make these ideas work and work well. They made them pretty and easy to use, getting all the stuff out of the way that you don’t really need. So, three cheers to Apple, and to Steve Jobs who offered the guidance. I don’t envy the chap having to fill his shoes.

But the last week or two have shown that Apple is showing interest in The Dark Side. Getting the new Samsung pad banned in Germany is not fair play. The ipad is pretty, but I repeat, it wasn’t a new idea. Apple did a lot for us, but they didn’t come up with the idea of an intuitive lightweight hand-held general purpose pad. Indeed, the future path towards the full direct brain link is already mapped out very well, and there will be precious few new ideas along the way to getting there other than clever ways of implementing stuff.

In patent speak, there is considerable prior art for the ipad, even if Roddenberry and his associates hadn’t come up with it for Star Trek. And in the context of everything else going on in the IT world, the pad design and technology needs would by now be blindingly obvious to anyone working in IT. Monopolies of the obvious should not be protected by courts. If Apple accomplish a particularly brilliant pad by using some clever and genuinely novel technology inside the box, then they should be able to protect that, but trying to get other pads banned because they also look like everyone’s view of what a pad should look like is just holding technology back by making unjust claims of ownership on ideas held by everyone.

If Apple use legal muscle to try to hold back technology or design that is obvious to anyone with a three figure IQ, they will certainly lose my admiration.

Jobs has gone. He did a good job but has left just as his company arrived at a fork in the road. Apple has to choose which path to take under its new leader. Either it can continue to smash down the doors and lead the industry through, and keep our respect and admiration, or it can try to use courts to close the doors behind it. If it does that, it will quickly lose the value Jobs built up. Hover your mouse pointer over the Sell button for the next few days. They will be critical.

The joys of electronic self-publishing

As I hope many of you will know by now, I recently e-published my latest book. You’d enjoy it, so buy a copy:

You don’t even need a Kindle now, you can download kindle software free for PCs or for iphones or ipads. But I discovered this afternoon that a lot of people don’t know that, which obviously affects the potential market. Anyway, to the point, how is it going after the first week, and what have I learned already by doing so?

I used the Kindle Direct self publish route. I have done 3 previous books via publishers but although the people I worked with were very nice and competent, the production timescales are just too long and in IT, half the stuff is history by the time it comes out. And the royalty deal is favourable too, so it looked a great idea. It is early days, and I am not panicking yet, but sales have been lower than expected so I did some research.

One of the big problems that I hadn’t realised was the sheer volume of competition now. Last time I published a book, in 2002, there were about 50,000 new books a year, but I sold over 10,000 copies of mine in hardback before we went to paperback and then the publisher evaporated (now a collector item). Now there are apparently 3.5 Million new books per year, and what surprised me even more was that most are computer generated, using software that automatically compiles free stuff into books or uses cheaply bought content (you can buy existing articles for net to nothing, and even commission new work by bright people for as little as $6 per 1000 words). Some automatic book production packages are sold with claims that you can make 5 or 6 new books a day! Mine took months, some people take years.

Those figures are hard to compete with. Vast quantity, a lot of which is low quality computer generated. But a lot of high quality stuff too. I am not the only person with a ‘proper; book that has discovered the new route, there are a lot of us.

So, a wake-up call for me in terms of book writing. But I will still do more, because writing a book forces me at least to organise my ideas, resolve contradictions and discrepancies that may have crept into my thinking, fill in gaps and explore new ground. So even if I don’t sell any, it is still productive in other ways.

I look in the high street and see book shops really struggling to survive, , but not all book buying has gone onto the net. A lot is in the supermarket and that will manage to compete much better against on-line purchasing than high street bookshops. The economics of supermarket books though are quite different. They can only stock a few hundred titles, presumably the very best sellers. If only a few hundred books are bought and sold by supermarket chains, then we will see vast concentration of revenue in both distribution and publishing, and there is little incentive for them to use a wide range of new authors, quite the reverse. Best selling authors will capture an even higher share. By contrast, on-line book selling can support millions of books easily, so in one way it is a level playing field, but authors compete to get any attention and it then comes down to marketing budgets and brand awareness, so a few well known authors will account for a large proportion of on-line sales, with the rest spread very thinly across a vast army of also rans.

A buyer is likely to search first by author name, and only use subject area or keywords if they don’t know a particular favourite in that area. Subject is fine if your book has a single subject, but many cover lots of areas. And you have to choose two main areas to file it under, which is awful enough for a futures book, but especially so since ‘futures’ isn’t one of the options.

Publicity is getting harder too. The ads market is supersaturated now. Most of us get thousands of tweets and status updates and other stuff from thousands of contacts every day, so getting someone even to see an ad is hard, getting them to take time to click on it when they have so many others on the screen is even harder, and even then there is only a small chance of a sale. Having tweeted it and Facebooked it and Linked-Ined it and blogged it a few times, and even advertised it on 3 radio stations, I have sold to less than 1% of my followers, even less to casual observers. That tells me a lot. Either I need different friends (only kidding, honest), or attention is really hard to get now. Or maybe the book just sounds dull, who knows?

It is easy to get loads of reciprocative following of course, but I don’t see the point of that, I can’t even keep up with the tweets of the 100 or so that I do follow. And if I cant read even those, how would anyone notice me if I am one of 15,000 people they follow. These same problems are shared by many of the ‘community’ on the e-publishing forums. But I guess it is the same ultimately as any other channel. There are millions of blogs, but the few I read are also read by loads of others. They are superstars. There are superstar authors, singers, and artists of all kinds. And the rest of us fight over the scraps.

I should know that before I started. I have been lecturing about the increasing concentration of power in the elite for years. The gap is widening every year. Even if you are good enough to squeeze into the top 1%, you share that status with 70 million other people. More than half are online. And if there are 1000 fields to specialise in, that narrows the top 1% competition in your field down to 35,000. Those are tough odds! I guess I am lucky as a futurist to be in a much smaller field, but there is still plenty of high quality competition. It was never going to be easy.

So, initial conclusions: bad ones first

A: Social networking only works weakly as a sales tool. Getting attention needs more than just followers and subscribers, something has to grab their attention more effectively from the vast pile of other stuff also competing for it.

B: Pay-per-click ads costs a fortune, 50p per click-through with no guarantee of a sale, an enormous proportion of the profits from an ebook.

C: Converting to paper is tedious and frustrating. Microsoft have crippled their word processing by trying to make it look pretty instead of easy to use.

D: The market is not mature yet. A lot of people are unaware of alternatives to investing in a Kindle.

E: There is a vast amount of competition, some good, and a lot bad.

F: In this transition phase for book publishing, the old forces still hold power – the big publishers, wholesale distributors and the big bookshops. Meanwhile the new ones are even more polarised if anything because in a vast sea of content, brands and name familiarity are even more important.

but most important of all I think, in spite of some frustration, the joys far outweigh the problems:

A: most of all, writing helps clarify your mind, debug and organise your thoughts, and refine other, so you become more expert in your own field. Even become a bit wiser.

B: By writing, you discover what you know, and what you don’t, and get a well motivated opportunity to fill in important gaps. Humbling but exhilarating.

C: Even if sales are low, it is nice knowing that you have something there that will survive after you die. And you have written proof later when you say ‘I told you so’. And you can put the book on your CV. And a million other little things that all add up.

D: with e-publishing, you can get a book together far faster than doing it by conventional publishing. And you have more control over the content. And you don’t have to worry so much about length.

E: self publishing avoids a great deal of stress in some areas that compensate well for the extra stresses it also causes. I know there are lots of things yet to do to get more sales, just takes time.

F: I may make it later in paper form, via Createspace perhaps, or even use a more conventional route, I haven’t decided yet. I’d really rather use my time to write another one. But it is a relatively easy if tedious option.

On balance, and I think I share this with most other self-publishers, I am a bit frustrated at a slow start but still very happy and eager to get on with the next one, while pushing a few more buttons to get this one flying. Doing it myself is harder than I thought, but also more fun than I thought. I’d recommend it to anyone.

New book on the future of everyday life: You Tomorrow

My brand new book is called You Tomorrow, and now is available at . It is all about the future. I started by collecting a lot of the ideas from my blogs and papers over the last few years, but found loads of gaps and filled them in, updated and rewrote a lot of stuff, sorted it, and finally was happy with a contents list for 2 books. Then I started writing them. The one that I just released is about everyday life and for ordinary people in ordinary language and is called You Tomorrow. My next one is for business and will be a full PEEST analysis – politics, economy, environment, society and technology, and is a bit like a long overdue update of Business 2010. If it gets too big, I may split off the technology and environment bits into a third book. It will be much more jargonny, if that’s an acceptable word, but still aimed at intelligent people from pretty much any discipline so will explain terms where I think they need it.

Meanwhile, buy this book about your own normal everyday life. I made it cheap enough to be a casual purchase and easy enough reading for bedtime or the beach. It is £5.74 inc tax and delivery in the UK. It is approximately 86,500 words.

It looks at how technology will change the ways we make kids, the life stages they will go through, from pre-design to electronic immortality. Then it looks at just about every aspect of everyday life, then the ways careers will change, then the sort of stuff we own, and finally the nature of our surroundings, real and virtual. Although aimed at pretty much anyone, it is I think still a useful guide for anyone in strategy or planning.

It is only available so far as an e-book, and a few comments here and there are UK-specific. But USA and German versions will come soon, and if it sells well, I will also issue it on paper, though at a higher price.

I hope you enjoy reading it, while I get on with the next one.