Monthly Archives: December 2015

On the shoulders of giants: Oriel College and Rhodes

First, an extract from a blog ages ago, in italics if you want to skip it:

As a response to people demanding ‘climate compensation’, one of the chapters in my book Total Sustainability was called  ‘the rich world owes no compensation to the poor world’. The world only has the technological capability to support a population over seven billion because of the activities of our ancestors. Without the industrial revolution, the energy it used, the pollution it generated, the CO2 it led to, very many of those alive today would not be. We owe no apology for that. It is only through that historic activity that we are where we are, with the technology that allows poor countries to develop. Developing countries are developing in a world that already has high CO2 levels and is still largely economically and technologically locked into CO2-intensive energy production. That is simply the price humanity overall has paid to get where we are. When a developing country builds a new power station or a road or a telecomms network, it uses today’s technology, not 16th century technology – the century where modern science and technology arguably really started. Without the rich world having used all that energy with its associated environmental impact, they’d have to use 16th century technology. There would be no rich world to sell to, and no means to develop. Developing is a far faster and easier process today than it was when we did it.

Our ancestors in the rich world had to suffer the pain hundreds of years ago – they were the giants on whose shoulders we now stand. It was mostly our ancestors in the rich world whose ingenuity and effort, whose blood, sweat and tears paid for a world that can support seven billion people. It was mostly they who invented and developed the electricity, telecoms, the web, pharmaceuticals and biotech, genetically superior crops, advanced manufacturing and farming technology that make it possible. That all cost environmental impacts as part of the price. The whole of humanity has benefitted from that investment, not just rich countries, and if any compensation or apology were due to the rest of the world for it, then it has already been paid many times over in lives saved and lives enabled, economic aid already enabled by that wealth, and the vastly better financial and economic well-being for the future developing world that resulted from that investment. The developing world is developing later, but that is not the fault of our ancestors for making our investment earlier.

Amount of compensation owed: zero. Amount we should give for other reasons: as much as we can reasonably afford. Let’s give through compassion and generosity and feeling of common humanity, because we can and because we want to, not because we are being forced.

I want to add to this today because I am increasingly angered by the morons in university student unions at various universities closing down freedom of speech, their university staff who allow that to happen, and now others – students and cowardly staff – at Oriel College in Oxford who want to remove statues of historic figures (Cecil Rhodes in this case) because their lives and values don’t measure up to today’s political correctness.

My argument is identical to the one I used above, and other people are commenting similarly. Those students show enormous egos that are matched only by their stupidity, arrogance, immaturity and lack of insight. They would not have any of the enormous privileges they enjoy today without the contributions of those who went before them and every student capable of reaching Oxford standards should understand that well, long before they reach university age. That they don’t casts doubt on the health of Oriel’s entrance standards.

Many of the giants who created the layers of foundations of today’s culture had personality traits or did things that are not admirable by today’s standards, but were it not for their efforts and contributions to make the world we all enjoy today, we would not be able to sit and reflect on them. Rhodes had many faults, but he would not have a statue to honor him were it not for a previous generation recognizing and admiring his contribution to the culture of the time. He acted at the time, within the culture of the time, within the views of the time and those honoring him had every right to do so by the standards of their time. Students of today seem to think they have reached some all-time pinnacle of cultural superiority, and it isn’t clear why.  That is unsavory enough, but do they think also they created that from a vacuum? They should consider that it may well be their generation with its misplaced and unearned arrogance upon whom history will pour scorn. Through their efforts to undermine freedom of speech and rewrite history, they show that they certainly do not measure up to even the most basic standards of their immediate ancestors who earned the right to freedom, having properly understood its value. As others have observed today, their actions are not very different from ISIS destroying ancient temples. Although their actions differ in degree, perhaps the mindsets are not so different – fanatical self-belief, undeserved and unearned conviction of their own moral superiority to everyone else, while everyone else see them for what they are, mindless thugs.

2016 – The Bright Side

Having just blogged about some of the bad scenarios for next year (scenarios are just  explorations of things that might or could happen, not things that actually will, those are called predictions), Len Rosen’s comment stimulated me to balance it with a nicer look at next year. Some great things will happen, even ignoring the various product release announcements for new gadgets. Happiness lies deeper than the display size on a tablet. Here are some positive scenarios. They might not happen, but they might.

1 Middle East sorts itself out.

The new alliance formed by Saudi Arabia turns out to be a turning point. Rising Islamophobia caused by Islamist around the world has sharpened the view of ISIS and the trouble in Syria with its global consequences for Islam and even potentially for world peace. The understanding that it could get even worse, but that Western powers can’t fix trouble in Muslim lands due to fears of backlash, the whole of the Middle East starts to understand that they need to sort out their tribal and religious differences to achieve regional peace and for the benefit of Muslims everywhere. Proper discussions are arranged, and with the knowledge that a positive outcome must be achieved, success means a strong alliance of almost all regional powers, with ISIS and other extremist groups ostracized, then a common army organised to tackle and defeat them.

2 Quantum computation and AI starts to prove useful in new drug design

Google’s wealth and effort with its quantum computers and AI, coupled to IBM’s Watson, Facebook, Apple and Samsung’s AI efforts, and Elon Musk’s new investment in open-AI drive a positive feedback loop in computing. With massive returns on the horizon by making people’s lives easier, and with ever-present fears of Terminator in the background, the primary focus is to demonstrate what it could mean for mankind. Consequently, huge effort and investment is focused on creating new drugs to cure cancer, aids and find generic replacements for antibiotics. Any one of these would be a major success for humanity.

3 Major breakthrough in graphene production

Graphene is still the new wonder-material. We can’t make it in large quantities cheaply yet, but already the range of potential uses already proven for it is vast. If a breakthrough brings production cost down by an order of magnitude or two then many of those uses will be achievable. We will be able to deliver clean and safe water to everyone, we’ll have super-strong materials, ultra-fast electronics, active skin, better drug delivery systems, floating pods, super-capacitors that charge instantly as electric cars drive over a charging unit on the road surface, making batteries unnecessary. Even linear induction motor mats to replace self-driving cars with ultra-cheap driver-less pods. If the breakthrough is big enough, it could even start efforts towards a space elevator.

4 Drones

Tiny and cheap drones could help security forces to reduce crime dramatically. Ignoring for now possible abuse of surveillance, being able to track terrorists and criminals in 3D far better than today will make the risk of being caught far greater. Tiny pico-drones dropped over Syria and Iraq could pinpoint locations of fighters so that they can be targeted while protecting innocents. Environmental monitoring would also benefit if billions of drones can monitor ecosystems in great detail everywhere at the same time.

5 Active contact lens

Google has already prototyped a very primitive version of the active contact lens, but they have been barking up the wrong tree. If they dump the 1-LED-per-Pixel approach, which isn’t scalable, and opt for the far better approach of using three lasers and a micro-mirror, then they could build a working active contact lens with unlimited resolution. One in each eye, with an LCD layer overlaid, and you have a full 3D variably-transparent interface for augmented reality or virtual reality. Other displays such as smart watches become unnecessary since of course they can all be achieved virtually in an ultra-high res image. All the expense and environmental impact of other displays suddenly is replaced by a cheap high res display that has an environmental footprint approaching zero. Augmented reality takes off and the economy springs back to life.

6 Star Wars stimulates renewed innovation

Engineers can’t watch a film without making at least 3 new inventions. A lot of things on Star Wars are entirely feasible – I have invented and documented mechanisms to make both a light saber and the land speeder. Millions of engineers have invented some way of doing holographic characters. In a world that seems full of trouble, we are fortunate that some of the super-rich that we criticise for not paying as much taxes as we’d like are also extremely good engineers and have the cash to back up their visions with real progress. Natural competitiveness to make the biggest contribution to humanity will do the rest.

7 Europe fixes itself

The UK is picking the lock on the exit door, others are queuing behind. The ruling bureaucrats finally start to realize that they won’t get their dream of a United States of Europe in quite the way they hoped, that their existing dream is in danger of collapse due to a mismanaged migrant crisis, and consequently the UK renegotiation stimulates a major new treaty discussion, where all the countries agree what their people really want out of the European project, rather than just a select few. The result is a reset. A new more democratic European dream emerges that the vest majority of people actually wants. Agreement on progress to sort out the migrant crisis is a good test and after that, a stronger, better, more vibrant Europe starts to emerge from the ashes with a renewed vigor and rapidly recovering economy.

8 Africa rearranges boundaries to get tribal peace

Breakthrough in the Middle East ripples through North Africa resulting in the beginnings of stability in some countries. Realization that tribal conflicts won’t easily go away, and that peace brings prosperity, boundaries are renegotiated so that different people can live in and govern their own territories. Treaties agree fair access to resources independent of location.

9 The Sahara become Europe’s energy supply

With stable politics finally on the horizon, energy companies re-address the idea of using the Sahara as a solar farm. Local people earn money by looking after panels, keeping them clean and in working order, and receive welcome remuneration, bringing prosperity that was previously beyond them. Much of this money in turn is used to purify water, irrigating deserts and greening them, making a better food supply while improving the regional climate and fixing large quantities of CO2. Poverty starts to reduce as the environment improves. Much of this is replicated in Central and South America.

10 World Peace emerges

By fighting alongside in the Middle East and managing to avoid World War 3, a very positive relationship between Russia and the West emerges. China meanwhile, makes some of the energy breakthroughs needed to get solar efficiency and cost down below oil cost. This forces the Middle East to also look Westward for new markets and to add greater drive to their regional peace efforts to avoid otherwise inevitable collapse. Suddenly a world that was full of wars becomes one where all countries seem to be getting along just fine, all realizing that we only have this one world and one life and we’d better not ruin it.

2016: The Dark Side

Bloomberg reports the ‘Pessimists guide to the world in 2016’, by By Flavia Krause-Jackson, Mira Rojanasakul, and John Fraher.

Excellent stuff. A healthy dose of realism to counter the spin and gloss and outright refusals to notice things that don’t fit the agenda that we so often expect from today’s media. Their entries deserve some comment, and I’ll add a few more. I’m good at pessimism.

Their first entry is oil reaching $100 a barrel as ISIS blows up oil fields. Certainly possible, though they also report the existing oil glut:

Just because the second option is the more likely does not invalidate the first as a possible scenario, so that entry is fine.

An EU referendum in June is their 2nd entry. Well, that will only happen if Cameron gets his way and the EU agrees sufficient change to make the referendum result more likely to end in a Yes. If there is any hint of a No, it will be postponed as far as possible to give politics time to turn the right way. Let’s face facts. When the Ukraine had their referendum, they completed the entire process within two weeks. If the Conservatives genuinely wanted a referendum on Europe, it would have happened years ago. The Conservatives make frequent promises to do the Conservative thing very loudly, and then quietly do the Labour thing and hope nobody notices. Osborne promised to cut the deficit but faced with the slightest objections from the media performed a text-book U-turn. That follow numerous U-turns on bin collections, speed cameras, wheel clamping, environment, surveillance, immigration, pensions, fixing the NHS…. I therefore think he will spin the EU talks as far as possible to pretend that tiny promises to think about the possibility of reviewing policies are the same as winning guarantees of major changes. Nevertheless, an ongoing immigration flood and assorted Islamist problems are increasing the No vote rapidly, so I think it far more likely that the referendum will be postponed.

The 3rd is banks being hit by a massive cyber attack. Very possible, even quite likely.

4th, EU crumbles under immigration fears. Very likely indeed. Schengen will be suspended soon and increasing Islamist violence will create increasing hostility to the migrant flow. Forcing countries to accept a proportion of the pain caused by Merkel’s naivety will increase strains between countries to breaking point. The British referendum on staying or leaving adds an escape route that will be very tempting for politicians who want to stay in power.

Their 5th is China’s economy failing and military rising. Again, quite feasible. Their economy has suffered a slowdown, and their military looks enthusiastically at Western decline under left-wing US and Europe leadership, strained by Middle Eastern and Russian tensions. There has never been a better time for their military to exploit weaknesses.

6 is Israel attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Well, with the US and Europe rapidly turning antisemitic and already very anti-Israel, they have pretty much been left on their own, surrounded by countries that want them eliminated. If anything, I’m surprised they have been so patient.

7 Putin sidelines America. Is that not history?

8 Climate change heats up. My first significant disagreement. With El-Nino, it will be a warm year, but evidence is increasing that the overall trend for the next few decades will be cooling, due to various natural cycles. Man made warming has been greatly exaggerated and people are losing interest in predictions of catastrophe when they can see plainly that most of the alleged change is just alterations to data. Yes, next year will be warm, but thanks to far too many cries of wolf, apart from meta-religious warmists, few people still believe things will get anywhere near as bad as doom-mongers suggest. They will notice that the Paris agreement, if followed, would trash western economies and greatly increase their bills, even though it can’t make any significant change on global CO2 emissions. So, although there will be catastrophe prediction headlines next year making much of higher temperatures due to El Nino, the overall trend will be that people won’t be very interested any more.

9 Latin America’s lost decade. I have to confess I did expect great things from South America, and they haven’t materialized. It is clear evidence that a young vibrant population does not necessarily mean one full of ideas, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial endeavor. Time will tell, but I think they are right on this one.

Their 10th scenario is Trump winning the US presidency. I can’t put odds on it, but it certainly is possible, especially with Islamist violence increasing. He offers the simple choice of political correctness v security, and framed that way, he is certainly not guaranteed to win but he is in with a decent chance. A perfectly valid scenario.

Overall, I’m pretty impressed with this list. As good as any I could have made. But I ought to add a couple.

My first and most likely offering is that a swarm of drones is used in a terrorist attack on a stadium or even a city center. Drones are a terrorist’s dream, and the lack of licensing has meant that people can acquire lots of them and they could be used simultaneously, launched from many locations and gathering together in the same place to launch the attack. The attack could be chemical, biological, explosive or even blinding lasers, but actually, the main weapon would be the panic that would result if even one or two of them do anything. Many could be hurt in the rush to escape.

My second is a successful massive cyber-attack on ordinary people and businesses. There are several forms of attack that could work and cause enormous problems. Encryption based attacks such as ransomware are already here, but if this is developed by the IT experts in ISIS and rogue regimes, the ransom might not be the goal. Simply destroying data or locking it up is quite enough to be a major terrorist goal. It could cause widespread economic harm if enough machines are infected before defenses catch up, and AI-based adaptation might make that take quite a while. The fact is that so far we have been very lucky.

The third is a major solar storm, which could knock out IT infrastructure, again with enormous economic damage. The Sun is entering a period of sunspot drought quite unprecedented since we started using IT. We don’t really know what will happen.

My fourth is a major virus causing millions of deaths. Megacities are such a problem waiting to happen. The virus could evolve naturally, or it could be engineered. It could spread far and wide before quarantines come into effect. This could happen any time, so next year is a valid possibility.

My fifth and final scenario is unlikely but possible, and that is the start of a Western civil war. I have blogged about it in and suggested it is likely in the middle or second half of the century, but it could possibly start next year given the various stimulants we see rising today. It would affect Europe first and could spread to the USA.

Networked telescopes

A very short one since I am still recovering from a painful trapped nerve that has prevented me writing. Anyway, the best ideas are often the simplest. I re-discovered this one in a 2008 article I wrote but I don’t think it has been done yet and it easily could.

So you buy a telescope for use at home. You point it up at a planet or a star. It probably does a magnification of a few hundred. Why not add a digital zoom that is linked to networked images from large telescope such as Hubble? When you reach the limits of your cheaper version, you see images from more expensive better ones. You also could swap to radio or IR or xray images just as easily. Adding that networked function would be fairly simple and cheap, maybe adding a few tens of dollars even to do it well.

Naturally, you could add networked zoom to cameras too, for landscapes and beauty spots anyway.

You could just make a fully digital telescope of course that has no real telescope function at all, just seeming to be one, and working the same way except that ll the images it provides are digital, using direction tracking to pull up the right one.

Ok, my arm hurts again.