Category Archives: education

New book: Society Tomorrow

It’s been a while since my last blog. That’s because I’ve been writing another book, my 8th so far. Not the one I was doing on future fashion, which went on the back burner for a while, I’ve only written a third of that one, unless I put it out as a very short book.

This one follows on from You Tomorrow and is called Society Tomorrow, 20% shorter at 90,000 words. It is ready to publish now, so I’m just waiting for feedback from a few people before hitting the button.

Frontcover

Here’s the introduction:

The one thing that we all share is that we will get older over the next few decades. Rapid change affects everyone, but older people don’t always feel the same effects as younger people, and even if we keep up easily today, some of us may find it harder tomorrow. Society will change, in its demographic and ethnic makeup, its values, its structure. We will live very differently. New stresses will come from both changing society and changing technology, but there is no real cause for pessimism. Many things will get better for older people too. We are certainly not heading towards utopia, but the overall quality of life for our ageing population will be significantly better in the future than it is today. In fact, most of the problems ahead are related to quality of life issues in society as a whole, and simply reflect the fact that if you don’t have to worry as much about poor health or poverty, something else will still occupy your mind.

This book follows on from 2013’s You Tomorrow, which is a guide to future life as an individual. It also slightly overlaps my 2013 book Total Sustainability which looks in part at future economic and social issues as part of achieving sustainability too. Rather than replicating topics, this book updates or omits them if they have already been addressed in those two companion books. As a general theme, it looks at wider society and the bigger picture, drawing out implications for both individuals and for society as a whole to deal with. There are plenty to pick from.

If there is one theme that plays through the whole book, it is a strong warning of the problem of increasing polarisation between people of left and right political persuasion. The political centre is being eroded quickly at the moment throughout the West, but alarmingly this does not seem so much to be a passing phase as a longer term trend. With all the potential benefits from future technology, we risk undermining the very fabric of our society. I remain optimistic because it can only be a matter of time before sense prevails and the trend reverses. One day the relative harmony of living peacefully side by side with those with whom we disagree will be restored, by future leaders of higher quality than those we have today.

Otherwise, whereas people used to tolerate each other’s differences, I fear that this increasing intolerance of those who don’t share the same values could lead to conflict if we don’t address it adequately. That intolerance currently manifests itself in increasing authoritarianism, surveillance, and an insidious creep towards George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The worst offenders seem to be our young people, with students seemingly proud of trying to ostracise anyone who dares agree with what they think is correct. Being students, their views hold many self-contradictions and clear lack of thought, but they appear to be building walls to keep any attempt at different thought away.

Altogether, this increasing divide, built largely from sanctimony, is a very dangerous trend, and will take time to reverse even when it is addressed. At the moment, it is still worsening rapidly.

So we face significant dangers, mostly self-inflicted, but we also have hope. The future offers wonderful potential for health, happiness, peace, prosperity. As I address the significant problems lying ahead, I never lose my optimism that they are soluble, but if we are to solve problems, we must first recognize them for what they are and muster the willingness to deal with them. On the current balance of forces, even if we avoid outright civil war, the future looks very much like a gilded cage. We must not ignore the threats. We must acknowledge them, and deal with them.

Then we can all reap the rich rewards the future has to offer.

It will be out soon.

Inspired by the Doomsday Clock, the 1984 clock is at July 1st 1983

The Doomsday clock was recently re-assessed and stays at 23.57. See http://thebulletin.org/timeline

I have occasionally written or ranted about 1984. The last weeks have taken us a little closer to Orwell’s dystopian future. So, even though we are long past 1984, the basket of concepts it introduces is well established in common culture.

The doomsday committee set far too pessimistic a time. Nuclear war and a few other risks are significant threats, and extinction level events are possible, but they are far from likely. My own estimate puts the combined risk from all threats growing to around 2% by about 2050. That is quite pessimistic enough I think, but surely that would give us reason to act, but doesn’t justify the level of urgency that extinction is happening any minute now. 11pm would have been quite enough to be a wake-up call but not enough to look like doom-mongering.

So I won’t make the same mistake with my 1984 clock. Before we start working out the time, we need to identify those ideas from 1984 that will be used. My choice would be:

Hijacking or perversion of language to limit debate and constrain it to those views considered acceptable

Use of language while reporting news of events or facts that omits, conceals, hides, distorts or otherwise impedes clear vision of inconvenient aspects of the truth while emphasizing those events, views or aspects that align with acceptable views

Hijacking or control of the media to emphasize acceptable views and block unacceptable ones

Making laws or selecting judiciary according to their individual views to achieve a bias

Blocking of views considered unacceptable or inconvenient by legal or procedural means

Imposing maximum surveillance, via state, social or private enterprises

Encouraging people to police their contacts to expose those holding or expressing inconvenient or unacceptable views

Shaming of those who express unacceptable views as widely as possible

Imposing extreme sanctions such as loss of job or liberty on those expressing unacceptable views

That’s enough to be going on with. Already, you should recognize many instances of each of these flags being raised in recent times. If you don’t follow the news, then I can assist you by highlighting a few instances, some as recent as this week. Please note that in this blog, I am not siding for or against any issue in the following text, I am just considering whether there is evidence of 1984. I make my views on the various issue very clear when I write blogs about those issues.

The Guardian has just decided to bar comments on any articles about race, Muslims, migrants or immigration. It is easy to see why they have done so even if I disagree with such a policy, but nonetheless it is a foundation stone in their 1984 wall.

Again on the migrant theme, which is a very rich seam for 1984 evidence, Denmark, Germany and Sweden have all attempted to censor  news of the involvement of migrants or Muslims in many recent attacks. Further back in time, the UK has had problems with police allowing child abuse to continue rather than address it because of the racial/religious origins of the culprits.

Choice of language by the media has deliberately conflated ‘migrants’ with ‘refugees’, conflated desperation  to escape violent oppression with searching for a wealthier life, and excessively biased coverage towards those events that solicit sympathy with migrants.

Moving to racism, Oriel College has just had an extremely embarrassing climb-down from considering removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, because he is considered racist by today’s standards by some students. Attempting to censor history is 1984-ish but so is the fact that involvement of the campaign instigators in their own anti-white racism such as links to the Black Supremacy movement has been largely concealed.

Attempted hijacking of language by the black community is evident in the recent enforcement of the phrase ‘people of color’, and illogical and highly manufactured simultaneous offence at use of the term ‘colored’. The rules only apply to white commentators, so it could be considered a black supremacy power struggle rather than an attempt to deal with any actual anti-black racism. Meanwhile, here in the UK, ‘black’ and ‘people of color’ seem both to be in equally common use so far.

David Cameron and some ministers have this week accused Oxford University of racism because it accepts too few black students. A range of potential causes were officially suggested but none include any criticism of the black community such as cultural issues that devalue educational achievement. In the same sentence, Cameron implied that it necessarily racist that a higher proportion of blacks are in prison. There was no mention that this could be caused by different crime incidence, as is quickly learned by inspection of official government statistics. This 1984-style distortion of the truth by marketing spin is one of Cameron’s most dominant characteristics.

Those statistics are inconvenient and ignoring them is 1984-ish already, but further 1984 evidence is that some statistics that show certain communities in a bad light are no longer collected.

Europe is another are where 1984-style operations are in vogue. Wild exaggeration of the benefits of staying in and extreme warnings of the dangers of leaving dominate most government output and media coverage. Even the initial decision to word the referendum question with a yes and no answer to capitalise on the well-known preference for voting yes is an abuse of language, but that at least was spotted early and the referendum question has been reworded with less bias, though ‘remain’ can still be considered a more positive word than ‘leave’ and remain still takes the first place on the voting slip, so it is still biased in favor of staying in the EU.

Gender is another area where language hijacking is becoming a key weapon. Attempts to force use of the terms ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ accompany attempts to pretend that the transgender community is far larger than reality. Creation of the term ‘transphobic’ clearly attempts to build on the huge success of the gay equality movement’s use of the term homophobic. This provides an easy weapon to use against anyone who doesn’t fully back all of the transgender community’s demands. Very 1984. As recently pointed out by Melanie Phillips, UK government response to such demands has been very politically correct, and will needlessly magnify the numbers experiencing gender dysphoria, but being accompanied by a thorough lack of understanding of the trans community, will very likely make things worse for many genuine transgender people.

As for surveillance, shaming, career destruction etc., we all see how well Twitter fills that role all by itself. Other media and the law add to that, but social media backlash is already a massive force even without official additions.

Climate change has even become a brick in the 1984 wall. Many media outlets censor views from scientists that don’t agree that doom caused by human emissions of CO2 is imminent. The language used, with words such as ‘denier’ are similarly evidence of 1984 influence.

Enough examples. If you look for them, you’ll soon spot them every day.

What time to set out clock then? I think we already see a large momentum towards 1984, with the rate of incidents of new policies pushing that direction increasing rapidly. A lot of pieces are already in place, though some need shaped or cemented. We are not there yet though, and we still have some freedom of expression, still escape being locked up for saying the wrong thing unless it is extreme. We don’t quite have the thought police, or even ID cards yet. I think we are close, but not so close we can’t recover. Let’s start with a comfortable enough margin so that movement in either direction can be taken account of in future assessments. We are getting close though, so I don’t want too big a margin. 6 month might be a nice compromise, then we can watch as it gets every closer without the next piece of evidence taking us all the way.

The 1984 clock is at July 1st 1983.

 

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.

The future for IT technicians

This blog accompanies the British Computer Society’s launch of RITTech, a new standard for IT technicians. For more info look at:

http://www.bcs.org/content/conWebDoc/55343 and

http://www.bcs.org/category/18031

It is a great time to be in IT. Companies are fragmenting and reconstructing and new business models are emerging every year. Everything is becoming smart, bringing IT to pole position in the sector race. Everyone has multiple mobile devices – smart phones, tablets, readers and laptops, even smart watches and wristbands. The opportunities to add electronic control are abundant, but they all need to be developed, software written and circuits fabricated and tested. Engineers have never had more core technologies to play with to create new products and services, and they rely on technicians to make it happen.

One of the most important things for anyone in a globalised world, where potential customers or employers will often never have met you or even seen you, is to be certificated. Having a respected industry body confirm that you have reached a given level of ability makes decisions  safer. Knowing that a person has the skills required to do the job takes away the biggest risk in employing them for a project. Global companies such as Microsoft offer such certification, but so can professional bodies such as the British Computer Society. The important factor is that the body is known, respected and their certification trusted.

Trust is absolutely key in a networked world. Anyone can pretend to be anyone, and can act across borders via the net from anywhere. Dangers lurk everywhere. People need to know they can trust appliances they use, the websites they visit. They need to be confident that their details will not end up in the hands of criminals, especially anything related to their finances. They also need to be confident that code won’t crash their machines or leave them open to hackers. Few people have the ability to look after all the IT themselves, so they rely on others to make it safe for them. They trust a corporate brand, so they trust their website, so that means that company has to be able to trust those who write it and maintain it to be able to do their work competently and reliably.

That is all getting more and more difficult in a miniaturizing world. The internet of things is already bringing us into the early stages of digital jewellery. From there, it is only a small step further before IT devices will often be dust sized, well below a millimetre, and then they could easily fit through the holes in an office machine, or sit on keys on a keyboard. Add that to security holes in a smart light bulb that nobody thought of as a security risk, but which opens a back door into a home LAN, and it becomes obvious just how tricky it will be to make things secure.

Security will remain a background problem no matter what is being built, but that doesn’t take away the excitement of making something new. Every wave of new core technology opens up new doors to new gadgets or network capability. Artificial intelligence also adds capability in parallel. A huge gap has opened over recent years between what has become possible and what has been done. There just aren’t enough engineers and technicians to do everything. That means it has never been easier to invent things, to find something exciting that nobody has done yet. That next big thing could be invented by you.

You might think it won’t be because your boss has you working on another project, but new tech opens up potential in every area. There is probably something right next to your project waiting to be discovered or developed. Showing creativity or innovative capability will fast track you to your next promotion and when your colleagues learn you have done something special, you will feel the warm glow of recognition too. Few things feel better than peer recognition. Nobody is too junior to come up with a new idea, or a new way of looking at something, or spotting a feature that would increase customer satisfaction without increasing cost. Some of my best ideas have happened in areas I have just started work in. If you’re new, you might not have all the finely honed skills of someone who’s been working in it for years, but you also don’t have their prejudices, you don’t know why you can’t do something, so you just do it anyway. The barriers they thought they knew about may have been rendered irrelevant by technology progress but their prejudice hasn’t kept up with change. You might be surprised how often that is the case.

In short, as a technician going for certification, you are laying down a solid foundation for secure and fruitful employment in exciting fields. That same desire to take control, push yourself to your limits and make life work for you will also make you exactly the sort of person that is likely to do something  special. A technician is an important person already, making dreams happen, but ahead lies a career full of opportunity for further development, excitement and fulfilment.

The future of questions

The late Douglas Adams had many great ideas. One of the best was the computer Deep Thought, built to answer The question of ‘life, the universe and everything’ that took 6 million years to come up with the answer 42. It then had to design a far bigger machine to determine what the question actually was.

Finding the right question is often much harder than answering it. Much of observational comedy is based on asking the simplest questions that we just happen never to have thought of asking before.

A good industrial illustration is in network design. A long time ago I used to design computer communication protocols, actually a pretty easy job for junior engineers. While doing one design, I discovered a flaw in a switch manufacturer’s design that would allow data networks to be pushed into a gross overload situation and crashed repeatedly by a single phone call. I simply asked a question that hadn’t been asked before. My question was “can computer networks be made to resonate dangerously?” That’s the sort of question bridge designers have asked every time they’ve built a bridge since roman times, with the notable exception of the designers of London’s Millennium Bridge, who had to redesign their’s. All I did was apply a common question from one engineering discipline to another. I did that because I was trained as a systems engineer, not as a specialist. It only took a few seconds to answer in my head and a few hours to prove it via simulation, so it was a pretty simple question to answer (yes they can), but it had taken many years before anyone bothered to ask it.

More importantly, that question couldn’t have been asked much before the 20th century, because the basic knowledge or concept of a computer network wasn’t there yet. It isn’t easy to think of a question that doesn’t derive from existent culture (which includes the full extent of fiction of course). As new ideas are generated by asking and answering questions, so the culture gradually extends, and new questions become possible. But we don’t ask them all, only a few. Even with the culture and knowledge we already have at any point, it is possible to ask far more questions, and some of them will lead to very interesting answers and a few of those could change the world.

Last night I had a dream where I was after-dinner speaking to some wealthy entrepreneurs (that sort of thing is my day job). One of them challenged me that ideas were hard to come by and as proof of his point asked me why the wheel had never been reinvented (actually it is often reinvented, just like the bicycle – all decent engineers have reinvented the bicycle to some degree at some point, and if you haven’t yet, you probably will. You aren’t allowed to die until you have). Anyway, I invented the plasma caterpillar track there and then as my answer to show that ideas are ten a penny and that being an entrepreneur is about having the energy and determination to back them, not the idea itself. That’s why I stick with ideas, much less work. Dreams often violate causality, at least mine do, and one department of my brain obviously contrived that situation to air an idea from the R&D department, but in the dream it was still the question that caused the invention. Plasma caterpillar tracks are a dream-class invention. Once daylight appears, you can see that they need work, but in this case, I also can see real potential, so I might do that work, or you can beat me to it. If you do and you get rich, buy me a beer. Sorry, I’m rambling.

How do you ask the right question? How do you even know what area to ask the right question in? How do you discover what questions are possible to ask? Question space may be infinite, but we only have a map of a small area with only a few paths and features on it. Some tools are already known to work well and thousands of training staff use them every day in creativity courses.

One solution is to try to peel back and ask what it is you are really trying to solve. Maybe the question isn’t ‘what logo should we use?’ but ‘what image do we want to present?’, or is it ‘how can we appeal to those customers?’ or ‘how do we improve our sales?’ or ‘how do we get more profit?’ or ‘how can we best serve shareholders?’. Each layer generates different kinds of answers.

Another mechanism I use personally is to matrix solutions and industries, applying questions or solutions from one industry to another, or notionally combining random industries. A typical example: Take TV displays and ask why can’t makeup also change 50 times a second? If the answer isn’t obvious, look at how nature does displays, can some of those techniques be dragged into makeup? Yes, they can, and you could make smart makeup using similar micro-structures to those that butterflies and beetles use and use the self-organisation developing in materials science to arrange the particles automatically.

Dragging solutions and questions from one area to another often generates lots of ideas. Just list every industry sector you can think of (and nature), and all the techs or techniques or procedures they use and cross reference every box against every other. By the time you’ve filled in every box, it will be long overdue to start again because they’ll all have moved on.

But however effective they are, these mechanistic techniques only fill in some of the question space and some can be addressed at least partly by AI. There is still a vast area unexplored, even with existing knowledge. Following paths is fine, but you need to explore off-road too. Group-think and cultural immersion stand in the way of true creativity. You can’t avoid your mind being directed in particular directions that have been ingrained since birth, and some genetic.

That leads some people to the conclusion that you need young fresh minds rather than older ones, but it isn’t just age that determines creativity, it is susceptibility to authority too, essentially thinking how you’re told to think. Authority isn’t just parents and teachers, or government, but colleagues and friends, mainly your peer group. People often don’t see peers as authority but needing their approval is as much a force as any. I am frequently amused spotting young people on the tube that clearly think they are true individuals with no respect for authority. They stick out a mile because they wear the uniform that all the young people who are individuals and don’t respect authority wear. It’s almost compulsory. They are so locked in by the authority and cultural language of those they want to impress by being different that they all end up being the same. Many ‘creatives’ suffer the same problem, you can often spot them from a distance too, and it’s a fairly safe bet that their actual creativity is very bounded. The fact is that some people are mentally old before they leave school and some die of old age yet still young in mind and heart.

How do you solve that? Well, apart from being young, one aspect of being guided down channels via susceptibility to authority is understanding the rules. If you are too new in a field to know how it works, who everyone is, how the tools work or even most of the basic fundamental knowledge of the field, then you are in an excellent position to ask the right questions. Some of my best ideas have been when I have just started in a new area. I do work in every sector now so my mind is spread very thinly, and it’s always easy to generate new ideas when you aren’t prejudiced by in-depth knowledge. If I don’t know that something can’t work, that you tried it ages ago and it didn’t, so you put it away and forgot about it, then I might think of it, and the technology might well have moved on since then and it might work now, or in 10 years time when I know the tech will catch up. I forget stuff very quickly too and although that can be a real nuisance it also minimizes prejudices so can aid this ‘creativity via naivety’.

So you could make sure that staff get involved in other people’s projects regularly, often with those in different parts of the company. Make sure they go on occasional workshops with others to ensure cross-fertilization. Make sure you have coffee areas and coffee times that make people mix and chat. The coffee break isn’t time wasted. It won’t generate new products or ideas every day but it will sometimes.

Cultivating a questioning culture is good too. Just asking obvious questions as often as you can is good. Why is that there? How does it work? What if we changed it? What if the factory burned down tomorrow, how would we rebuild it? Why the hell am I filling in this form?

Yet another one is to give people ‘permission’ to think outside the box. Many people have to follow procedures in their jobs for very good reasons, so they don’t always naturally challenge the status quo, and many even pursue careers that tend to be structured and ordered. There is nothing wrong with that, each to their own, but sometimes people in any area might need to generate some new ideas. A technique I use is to present some really far future and especially seemingly wacky ones to them before making them do their workshop activity. Having listened to some moron talking probable crap and getting away with it gives them permission to generate some wacky ideas too, and some invariably turn out to be good ones.

These techniques can improve everyday creativity but they still can’t generate enough truly out of the box questions to fill in the map.

I think what we need is the random question generator. There are a few random question generators out there now. Some ask mathematical questions to give kids practice before exams. Some just ask random pre-written questions from a database. They aren’t the sort we need though. We won’t be catapulted into a new era of enlightenment by being asked the answer to 73+68 or ones that were already on a list. Maybe I should have explored more pages on google, but most seemed to bark up the wrong tree. The better approach might be to copy random management jargon generators. Tech jargon ones exist too. Some are excellent fun. They are the sort we need. They combine various words from long categorized lists in grammatically plausible sequences to come out with plausible sounding terms. I am pretty sure that’s how they write MBA courses.

We can extend that approach to use a full vocabulary. If a question generator asks random questions using standard grammatical rules and a basic dictionary attack, (a first stage filtration process) most of the questions filtering through would still not make sense (e.g, why are all moons square?). But now we have AI engines that can parse sentences and filter out nonsensical ones or ones that simply contradict known facts and the web is getting a lot better at being machine-comprehensible. Careful though, some of those facts might not be any more.

After this AI filtration stage, we’d have a lot of questions that do make sense. A next stage filtration could discover which ones have already been asked and which of those have also been answered, and which of those answers have been accepted as valid. These stages will reveal some questions still awaiting proper responses, or where responses are dubious or debatable. Some will be about trivia, but some will be in areas that might seem to be commercially or socially valuable.

Some of the potentially valuable ones would be suited to machines to answer too. So they could start using spare cycles on machines to increase knowledge that way. Companies already do this internally with their big data programs for their own purposes, but it could work just as well as a global background task for humanity as a whole, with the whole of the net as one of its data sources. Machines could process data and identify potential new markets or products or identify social needs, and even suggest how they could be addressed and which companies might be able to do them. This could increase employment and GDP and solve some social issues that people weren’t even aware of.

Many would not be suited to AI and humans could search them for inspiration. Maybe we could employ people in developing countries as part of aid programs. That provides income and utilizes the lack of prejudice that comes with unfamiliarity with our own culture. Another approach is to make the growing question database online and people would make apps that deliver randomly selected questions to you to inspire you when you’re bored. There would be enough questions to make sure you are usually the first to have ever seen it. When you do, you could rate it as meaningless, don’t care, interesting, or wow that’s a really good question, maybe some other boxes. Obviously you could also produce answers and link to them too. Lower markings would decrease their reappearance probability, whereas really interesting ones would be seen by lots of people and some would be motivated to great answers.

Would it work? How could this be improved? What techniques might lead us to the right questions? Well, I just asked those ones and this blog is my first attempt at an answer. Feel free to add yours.

 

 

The future of MBAs

I’ve reached M in my ‘the future of’ series. So, MBAs.

We have all had to sit through talks where the speaker thinks that using lots of points that start with the same letter is somehow impressive. During one such talk, I got bored and produced this one letter fully comprehensive MBA. Enjoy:

Corporate Cycle

Teacher remuneration – do they really have cause to moan?

Some teachers are brilliant, dedicated people who perform miracles with difficult kids. Some.

Today a lot of teachers went on strike over pay and pensions (and some other things). Well, it is understandable that nobody wants to see any drop in their overall remuneration, but let’s take a quick look at their financial situation. I think they are actually doing pretty well. Sure they work hard and it’s stressful, but we all do, and what job isn’t?

I did a quick search for a reference for their pay and pensions.

http://www.nasuwt.org.uk/consum/groups/public/@salariespensionsconditions/documents/nas_download/nasuwt_011343.pdf

lists the salary scales for those teachers covered by the biggest union. The bottom end is an unimpressive £21.5k per year, but the bottom end on almost every career is pretty low so that doesn’t tell us much. The top is pretty high, but I actually want to focus on their pensions because they don’t seem to understand how fantastic a deal they get. A lot of teachers don’t stay in teaching very long because they find it too stressful or hard work, but I don’t have any stats on where they go next. If they stay in the public sector, then presumably they can transfer their pensions to another public sector scheme. Pensions are extraordinarily generous in the public sector, and the lower you are in the career path, the higher the proportion of your salary they make up since they are based on final salary. So…  for those teachers who stay in teaching or move elsewhere in the public sector, what is the full package worth, even then? Let’s see.

Let’s filter first. Rubbish teachers don’t deserve to be paid well, and they cause a lifetime of big problems for their unfortunate pupils, so I don’t care if they are badly paid. It is better if they leave and find another job where they can do less damage.

Good teachers can expect to climb high in the career structure. A few of the good teachers will become heads or department heads. For those that are quite good but don’t make it that far, they can expect to reach about £47k. A head teacher can reach £105k but not many teachers reach that level of course. Currently, each year that a teacher works, they earn 1/60th of final salary, regardless of their salary at the moment. From 2015 that will change to career average, a very different figure. Average life expectancy at age 24 right now is about 83, and retirement age for a young teacher will be 67, so they’ll get a pension for an average of 16 years, but that assumes no further progress is made on longevity. Actually, they will almost certainly live a lot longer than that, and get far more total pension. A starter teacher on the lowest salary point possible who will later progress to the top of their profession earns a miserly £21.5k salary, but gets a whole year’s worth of contribution to their pension. A pension that will possibly be 43/60ths of £105k, i.e. £75k, for 16 years, a total of £1.2M. Averaged over their working life, (since they get one year contribution per year even at the bottom) that gives a pension value of £28,000. A teacher on a salary of £21.5k effectively gets a pension fund addition of £28k! Being fair, not many teachers will get that much, but a few will. A second tier teacher that ‘only’ reaches a £57.5k final salary would get a pension of £41k, adding to £660k in total over their retirement, worth £15.3k per year on top of whatever salary they earn. So a good teacher on a salary of £45k may really be earning between £60k and £73k once their pensions are included. For those that don’t ever get to the top, the figures are of course less.

This all looks pretty rosy and teachers of course would like to keep this scheme, but as it stands it will be replaced in April 2015 by a new scheme based on career average earnings. That will have a huge impact on pension value for the top performers, but a more modest (though still significant)  impact on the ‘ordinary’ teacher.

But there is another component that benefits some teachers’ remuneration. Teachers on £45k are barely into the high rate tax bracket, and without wanting to generalise too much, teachers are often married to other teachers. Two teachers living together pay very low tax on their combined income. In many professional couples, one pays a fortune in tax and the other pays hardly any. It is very rare in other occupations for couples to have their salaries split so perfectly to incur minimal tax.

So, teachers at the moment are one of the most privileged groups in society and are facing being forced into a scheme more like the rest of us. I can understand why they want to keep such a generous reward scheme as they had, but I really can’t feel much sympathy for them striking.

 

 

And another new book: You Tomorrow, 2nd Edition

I wrote You Tomorrow two years ago. It was my first ebook, and pulled together a lot of material I’d written on the general future of life, with some gaps then filled in. I was quite happy with it as a book, but I could see I’d allowed quite a few typos to get into the final work, and a few other errors too.

However, two years is a long time, and I’ve thought about a lot of new areas in that time. So I decided a few months ago to do a second edition. I deleted a bit, rearranged it, and then added quite a lot. I also wrote the partner book, Total Sustainability. It includes a lot of my ideas on future business and capitalism, politics and society that don’t really belong in You Tomorrow.

So, now it’s out on sale on Amazon

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269/ in paper, at £9.00 and

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00G8DLB24 in ebook form at £3.81 (guessing the right price to get a round number after VAT is added is beyond me. Did you know that paper books don’t have VAT added but ebooks do?)

And here’s a pretty picture:

You_Tomorrow_Cover_for_Kindle

Is secular substitution of religion a threat to western civilisation?

In 1997 I delivered a presentation to the World Futures Society conference titled: The future of sex, politics and religion. In it, I used a few slides outlining secular substitutes for religion that constitute what I called ’21st century piety’. I’ve repeated my analysis many times since and still hold firmly by it, virtually unchanged since then. A lot of evidence since has backed it up, and lots of other people now agree.

My theory was that as people move away from traditional religion, the powerful inner drive remains to feel ‘holy’, that you are a good person, doing the right thing, on some moral high ground. It is a powerful force built into human nature, similar to the desire to feel social approval and status. When it is no longer satisfied by holding to religious rules, it may crystallise around other behaviours, that can mostly be summarised by ‘isms’. Vegetarianism and pacifism were the oldest ones to be conspicuous, often accompanied by New Ageism, followed soon by anti-capitalism, then environmentalism, now evolved into the even more religious warmism. Some behaviours don’t end in ism, but are just as obviously religion substitutes, such as subscribing strongly to political correctness or being an animal rights activist. Even hard-line atheism can be a religion substitute. It pushes exactly the same behavioural buttons.

I fully support protecting the environment, looking after animals, defending the poor, the powerless, the oppressed. I don’t mind vegetarians unless they start getting sanctimonious about it. I am not for a second suggesting there is anything bad about these. It is only when they become a religion substitute that they become problematic, but unfortunately that happens far too often. When something is internalised like a religious faith, it becomes almost immune to outside challenge, a faith unaffected by exposure to hard reality. But like religious faith, it remains a powerful driver of behaviour, and if the person involved is in power, potentially a powerful driver of policy. It can drive similar oppression of those with other world views, in much the same way as the Spanish Inquisition, but with a somewhat updated means of punishing the heretics. In short, the religion substitutes show many of the same problems we used to associate with the extremes of religion.

That’s the problem. The western world has managed pretty well over centuries to eventually separate religion from front line politics, so that politicians might pay lip service to some god or other to get elected, but would successfully put their religion aside once elected and the western state has been effectively secular for many years.  Even though they have gained acceptance in much of the wider population, because these religion substitutes are newer, they are not yet actively filtered from the official decision processes, and in many cases have even gained the power levels that religion once held at its peak. They feature much more heavily in government policies, but since they are faith based rather than reality based, the policies based on them are often illogical and can even be counter-productive, achieving the opposite of what they intend. Wishful thinking does not unfortunately rank highly among the natural forces understood by physicists, chemists or biologists. It doesn’t even rank highly as a social force.  Random policies seemingly pulled out of thin air don’t necessarily work just because they have been sprinkled with words such as equality, fairness and sustainability. Nature also requires that they meet other criteria – they have to follow basic laws of nature. They also have to be compatible with human social, economic, cultural and political forces. But having those sprinkles added is all that is needed to see them pass into legislation. 

And that is what makes religion substitutes a threat to western civilisation. Passing nonsensical legislation just because it sounds nice is a fast way to cripple the economy, damage the environment, wreck education or degrade social cohesion, as we have already frequently seen. I don’t need to pick a particular country, this is almost universally true  across the Western world. Policy making everywhere often seems to be little more than stringing together a few platitudes about ensuring fairness, equality, sustainability, with no actual depth or substance or systems analysis that would show reliable mechanisms by which they actually would happen, while ignoring unfashionable or unpleasant known forces or facts of nature that might prevent them from happening. Turning a blind eye to reality, while laying the wishful thinking on thickly and adding loads of nice sounding marketing words to make the policy politically accepted, using the unspoken but obvious threat of the Inquisition to ensure little resistance. That seems to be the norm now. 

If it were global then the whole world would decline, but it isn’t. Some areas are even worse crippled by the extremes of religion itself. Others seem more logical. Many areas face joint problems of corruption and poverty. With different problems and different approaches to solving them, we will all fare differently.

But we know from history that empires don’t last for ever. The decline of the West is well under way, with secular religion substitution at the helm.  When reality takes a back seat to faith, there can be no other outcome. And it is just faith, in different clothes, and it won’t work any better than religion did.

Casual displays

I had a new idea. If I was adventurous or an entrepreneur, I’d develop it, but I’m not, so I won’t. But you can, before Apple patents it. Or maybe they already have.

Many people own various brands of pads, but they are generally expensive, heavy, fragile and need far too much charging. That’s because they try to be high powered computers. Even e-book readers have too much functionality for some display purposes and that creates extra expense. I believe there is a large market for more casual displays that are cheap enough to throw around at all sorts of tasks that don’t need anything other than the ability to change and hold a display.

Several years ago, Texas Instruments invented memory spots, that let people add multimedia to everyday objects. The spots could hold a short video for example, and be stuck on any everyday object.These were a good idea, but one of very many good ideas competing for attention by development engineers. Other companies have also had similar ideas. However, turning the idea around, spots like this could be used to hold data for a  display, and could be programmed by a similar pen-like device or even a finger touch. Up to 2Mb/s can be transmitted through the skin surface.

Cheap displays that have little additional functionality could be made cheaply and use low power. If they are cheap enough, less than ten pounds say, they could be used for many everyday purposes where cards or paper are currently used. And since they are cheap, there could be many of them. With a pad, it has to do many tasks. A casual display would do only one. You could have them all over the place, as recipe cards, photos, pieces of art, maps, books, body adornment, playing cards, messages, birthday cards, instructions, medical advice, or anything. For example:

Friend cards could act as a pin-board reminder of a friend, or sit in a wallet or handbag. You might have one for each of several best friends. A touch of the spot would update the card with the latest photo or status from Facebook or another social site. Or it could be done via a smart phone jack. But since the card only has simple functionality  it would stay cheap. It does nothing that can’t also be done by a smartphone or pad, but the point is that it doesn’t have to. It is always the friend card. The image would stay. It doesn’t need anything to be clicked or charged up. It only needs power momentarily to change the picture.

There are displays that can hold pictures without power that are postcard sized, for less than £10. Adding a simple data storage chip and drivers shouldn’t add significantly to cost. So this idea should be perfectly feasible. We should be able to have lots of casual displays all over our houses and offices if they don’t have to do numerous other things. In the case of displays, less may mean more.