Category Archives: teaching

Utopia scorned: The 21st Century Dark Age

Link to accompanying slides:

Eating an ice-cream and watching a squirrel on the feeder in our back garden makes me realize what a privileged life I lead. I have to work to pay the bills, but my work is not what my grandfather would have thought of as work, let alone my previous ancestors. Such a life is only possible because of the combined efforts of tens of thousands of preceding generations who struggled to make the world a slightly better place than they found it, meaning that with just a few years more effort, our generation has been able to create today’s world.

I appreciate the efforts of previous generations, rejoice in the start-point they left us, and try to play my small part in making it better still for those who follow. Next generations could continue such gains indefinitely, but that is not a certainty. Any generation can choose not to for whatever reasons. Analyzing the world and the direction of cultural evolution over recent years, I am no longer sure that the progress mankind has made to date is safe.

Futurists talk of weak signals, things that indicate change, but are too weak to be conclusive. The new dark age was a weak signal when I first wrote about it well over a decade ago. My more recent blog is already old:

Although it’s a good while since I last wrote about it, recent happenings have made me even more convinced of it. Even as raw data, connectivity and computational power becomes ever more abundant, the quality of what most people believe to be knowledge is falling, with data and facts filtered and modified to fit agendas. Social compliance enforces adherence to strict codes of political correctness, with its high priests ever more powerful as the historical proven foundations of real progress are eroded and discarded. Indoctrination appears to have replaced education, with a generation locked in to an intellectual prison, unable to dare to think outside it, forbidden to deviate from the group-think on pain of exile. As their generation take control, I fear progress won over millennia will back-slide badly. They and their children will miss out on utopia because they are unable to see it, it is hidden from them.

A potentially wonderful future awaits millennials. Superb technology could give them a near utopia, but only if they allow it to happen. They pore scorn on those who have gone before them, and reject their culture and accumulated wisdom replacing it with little more than ideology, putting theoretical models and dogma in place of reality. Castles built on sand will rarely survive. The sheer momentum of modernist thinking ensures that we continue to develop for some time yet, but will gradually approach a peak. After that we will see slowdown of overall progress as scientific development continues, but with the results owned and understood by a tinier and tinier minority of humans and an increasing amount of AI, with the rest of society living in a word they barely understand, following whatever is currently the most fashionable trend on a random walk and gradually replacing modernity with a dark age world of superstition, anti-knowledge and inquisitors. As AI gradually replaces scientists and engineers in professional roles, even the elite will start to become less and less well-informed on reality or how things work, reliant on machines to keep it all going. When the machines fail due to solar flares or more likely, inter-AI tribal conflict, few people will even understand that they have become H G Wells’ Eloi. They will just wonder why things have stopped and look for someone to blame, or wonder if a god may want a sacrifice. Alternatively, future tribes might use advanced technologies they don’t understand to annihilate each other.

It will be a disappointing ending if it goes either route, especially with a wonderful future on offer nearby, if only they’d gone down a different path. Sadly, it is not only possible but increasingly likely. All the wonderful futures I and other futurists have talked about depend on the same thing, that we proceed according to modernist processes that we know work. A generation who has been taught that they are old-fashioned and rejected them will not be able to reap the rewards.

I’ll follow this blog with a slide set that illustrates the problem.

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: and

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 rubbish quality art

Exhibit A: Tracey Emin – anything at all from her portfolio will do.

Exhibit B: What I just knocked up in 5 minutes:

Exploration of the real-time gravitational interaction of some copper atoms

Exploration of the real-time gravitational interaction of some copper atoms

A recent work, I can Cu Now

As my obvious  artistic genius quickly became apparent to me, I had a huge flash of inspiration and produced this:

Investigating the fundamental essence of futurology and whether the process of looking into the future can be fully contained within a finite cultural bottle.

Investigating the fundamental essence of futurology and whether the process of looking into the future can be fully contained within a finite cultural bottle.

Trying to bottle the future

I have to confess that I didn’t make the beautiful bottle, but even Emin only has a little personal  input into some of the works she produces and it is surely obvious that my talent in arranging this so beautifully is vastly greater than that of the mere sculptor who produced the vase, or bottle, or whatever. Then, I produced my magnum opus, well so far, towards the end of my five minutes of exploration of the art world. I think you’ll agree I ought immediately to be assigned Professor of Unified Arts in the Royal Academy. Here it is, if I can see well enough to upload it through my tears of joy at having produced such insight.

Can we measure the artistic potential of a rose?

Can we measure the artistic potential of a rose?

This work needs no further explanation. I rest my case.

Errones, infectious biases that corrupt thinking

I know it isn’t always obvious in some of my blogs what they have to do with the future. This one is about error tendencies, but of course making an error now affects the future, so they are relevant and in any case, there is even a future for error tendencies. A lot of the things I will talk about are getting worse, so there is a significant futures trend here too. Much of the future is determined by happenings filtered through human nature so anything that affects human nature strongly should be an important consideration in futurology. Enough justification for my human nature thinkings. On with the show.

Hormones are chemicals that tend to push the behavior of an organic process in a particular direction, including feelings and consequentially analysis. A man flooded with testosterone may be more inclined to make a more risky decision. A lot of interpersonal interactions and valuations are influenced by hormones too, to varying degrees.

In much the same way, many other forces can influence our thinking or perception and hence analysis of external stimuli such as physical facts or statistics. A good scientist or artist may learn to be more objective and to interpret what they observe with less bias, but for almost everyone, some perceptive biases remain, and after perception, many analytical biases result from learned thinking behaviors. Some of those thinking behaviors may be healthy, such as being able to consciously discount emotions to make more clinical decisions when required, or to take full account of them at other times. Others however are less healthy and introduce errors.

Error-forcing agents

There are many well-known examples of such error-forcing agents. One is the notorious halo effect that surrounds attractive women, that may lead many people to believe they are better or nicer in many other ways than women who are less attractive. Similarly, tall men are perceived to be better managers and leaders.

Another is that celebrities from every area find their opinions are valued far outside the fields where they are actually expert. Why should an actor or pop singer be any more knowledgeable or wiser than anyone else not trained in that field? Yet they are frequently asked for their opinions and listened to, perhaps at the expense of others.

When it’s a singer or actor encouraging people to help protect a rain forest, it’s pretty harmless. When they’re trying to tell us what we should eat or believe, then it can become dangerous. When it is a politician making pronouncements about which scientists we should believe on climate change, or which medicines should be made available, it can cause prolonged harm. The reason I am writing this blog now is that we are seeing a lot more of that recently – for example, politicians in many countries suddenly pretending they can speak authoritatively on which results to believe from climate science and astrophysics even when most scientists couldn’t. A few of them have some scientific understanding, but the vast majority don’t and many actually show very little competence when it comes to clear thinking even in their own jurisdictions, let alone outside.


These groups are important, because they are emitting what I will call errones, hormone-like thinking biases that lead us to make errors. Politicians get to be elected by being good at influencing people, celebs too become popular by appealing to our tastes. By overvaluing pronouncements from these groups, our thinking is biased in that direction without good reason. It is similar in effect to a hormone, in that we may not be consciously aware of it, but it influences our thinking all the same. So we may have held a reasonably well-thought-out opinion of something, and then a favored celebrity or politician makes a speech on it, and even though they have no particular expertise in the matter, our opinion changes in that direction. Our subsequent perceptions, interpretations, analyses and opinions on many other areas may subsequently be affected by the bias caused by that errone. Worse still, in our interactions with others, the errone may spread to them too. They are infectious. Similar to Richard Dawkins’ memes, which are ideas that self-perpetuate and spread through a population, errones may self-reinforce and spread organically too, but errones are not ideas like memes, but are biases in thinking more like hormones, hence the name errone.

Some general thinking errors are extremely common and we are familiar with them, but tat doesn’t stop us being affected sometimes if we don’t engage due care.


Other errones are assembled over years of exposure to our culture. Some even have some basis in some situations, but become errones when we apply them elsewhere. Consensus is a useful concept when we apply it to things that are generally nice to eat, but it has no proper place in science and becomes an errone when cited there. As Einstein pointed out when confronted with a long list of scientists who disagreed with him, if he was wrong, even one would suffice. There was once a consensus that the Earth was flat, that there were four elements, that there was an ether, that everything was created by a god. In each case, successions of individuals challenged the consensus until eventually people were persuaded of the error.


Another well-known errone is attitude to authority. Most parents will be well familiar with the experience of their kid believing everything teacher tells them and refusing to believe them when they say the teacher is talking nonsense (in case you didn’t know, teachers are not always right about everything). In varying degrees, people believe their doctors, scientists, parents, politicians not by the quality of their actual output but by the prejudice springing from their authority. Even within a field, people with high authority can make mistakes. I was rather pleased a long time ago when I spotted a couple of mistakes in Stephen Hawking’s ‘A brief history of time’ even though he seemingly has an extra digit in his IQ. He later admitted those same errors and I was delighted. He had the best authority in the world on the subject, but still made a couple of errors. I am pleased I hadn’t just assumed he must have been right and accepted what he said.

Vested interest

Yet another errone with which you should be familiar is vested interest. People often have an ax to grind on a particular issue and it is therefore appropriate to challenge what they are saying, but it is a big error to dismiss something as wrong simply because someone has an interest in a particular outcome. A greengrocer is still telling the truth when they say that vegetables are good for you. The correct answer to 7+6 is 13 regardless of who says so. You shouldn’t listen to someone else telling you the answer is 15 who says ‘well he would say it is 13 wouldn’t he…’

These common errors in thinking are well documented, but we still make new ones.

Word association errones

Some errones can be summed up in single words. For example ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘synthetic’, ‘fair’, ‘progressive’, ‘right’, ‘left’ are all words we hear every day that activate a range of prejudicial processes that color our processing of any subsequent inputs. Arsenic is natural, foxgloves are natural, so is uranium. That doesn’t necessarily make them good things to eat. Not every idea from the right or left of politics is good or bad. Stupidity exists across the political spectrum, while even the extremes have occasional good ideas. But errones cause us to apply filters and make judgments that bad ideas or things are good or that good ideas or things are bad, merely because of their origin. This errone is traditionally known as ‘tarring everything with the same brush’ just because they fall in the same broad category.

Deliberate errone creation

In my view, single word errones are the most dangerous, and we add to the list occasionally. The currently fashionable word ‘Self-proclaimed’ (yeah, OK, it’s hyphenated) is intended to suggest that someone has no genuine right to a platform and therefore should be ignored. It is as much an insult as calling someone an idiot, but is more malign because it seeks to undermine not just a single statement or argument, but everything that person says. Political correctness is very rich with such words. People mostly think using words, so coloring their meaning gradually over time means that people will still think the same way using the same verbal reasoning, but since the meaning of the words they are using has changed slightly, they will end up with a result that sounds the same as it used to, but now means something quite different.

For example, we’ve seen exactly that happen over the last decade by the redefining of poverty to be having an income below a percentage of average income rather than the traditional definition of being unable to afford basic essentials. People still retain the same emotional connection to the words poor and poverty, and are still shocked as politicians cite ever worsening statistics of the numbers of people in poverty even as society gets wealthier. Under its new meaning, if everyone’s income increased 1000-fold overnight, exactly the same number of people would remain ‘in poverty’, even though they could now all afford to live in luxury. People wanting to talk about poverty in its original meaning now have to use different language. The original words have been captured as political weapons. This errone was created and spread very deliberately and has had exactly the effect desired. People now have the same attitude to low income as they once held to poor.

All very 1984

Capturing language and fencing off entire areas of potential thought by labelling them is a proven excellent technique for furthering a cause. It is of course the basis of Orwell’s 1984, by which the authorities enslave a population by enforcing a particular group-think, with words as their primary tool, and understanding of the techniques has been much practiced around the world. Orwell wrote his book to highlight the problem, but it hasn’t gone away, but rather got worse. Increasing understanding of human psychology and use of advanced marketing techniques have only added to its power and effectiveness. In absolutely 1984 style, ‘progressive’ sounds very loving and positive and ‘regressive’ very nasty and negative, but how has it come that we describe alternative tax policies in such terms? Tax is rightfully an issue for political parties to debate and decide, but surely democratic politics is there to allow people a mechanism to live alongside peacefully in mutual tolerance and respect, not for each side to treat the other as inferiors who should be scorned and ostracized. However, infection biases someone’s thinking and is therefore error forcing, and an errone.

Similarly, ‘traditional’ was once a word we used to describe normal or slightly old-fashioned views, but political correctness seeks to quickly replace traditional values by using descriptors such as ‘dinosaur’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’ for anyone who doesn’t follow their line. Most people are terrified of being labelled as such so will quickly fall in line with whatever the current demands for politically correct compliance are. Once someone does so, they adjust the external presentation of their own thinking to make the new status quo more acceptable to them, and seek to authenticate and justify themselves to others by proselytizing the errone, self censoring and controlling their own thinking according to the proscribed filters and value set. They basically accept the errone, build it into place and nurture it. Memes are powerful. Errones are worse because they get far deeper into places mere ideas can’t.

Thanks to the deliberate infection with such errones, it is no longer possible to hold a discussion or even to state statistical facts across a wide range of topics without demonstrating a me-too bias. If analysis and debate can no longer be done without deliberate introduction of systemic error,  when error is not seen as a problem but as a requirement, then I suggest we are in trouble. We should be able to agree at least on basic facts, and then argue what to do about them, but even facts now are heavily filtered and distorted at numerous stages before we are allowed access to them.

Old wives’ tales (no age or gender-related slur intended)

Not all errones are related to this kind of tribal-cultural-political warfare and deliberately fabricated and spread. Some are commonly held assumptions that are wrong, such as old wives’ tales or because people are not very good at thinking about exponential or non-linear systems. Take an example. Most environmentalists agree that rapid IT obsolescence is a big problem, resulting in massive waste and causing far more environmental impact than would be necessary if we just made things last longer. However, each generation of IT uses far less resource than the one it replaces, and in a few more generations of devices, we’ll be able to do all we do today in just a few grams of device. With far more people in the world wealthy enough and wanting all that function, doing it with today’s technology would have huge environmental impact, but with tomorrow’s, very much less. Thus slowing down the obsolescence cycle would have dire environmental consequences. The best way to help the environment is to progress quickly to ultra-low-impact IT. Similar errors exist across environmental policy world-wide, and the cause is the simple errone that reducing the impact of any part of a system will reduce the full system impact. That is very often incorrect. This same environmental errone has caused massive environmental and human damage already and will cause far more before it is done, by combining enthusiasm to act with what is now very commonly held analytical error.

Linear thinking

The Errone of linear thinking probably results from constant exposure to it in others, making it hard to avoid infection. Typical consequences are inability to take correctly account for future technology or future wealth, also typically assuming that everything except the problem you’re considering will remain the same, while your problem increases. A  related errone is not allowing for the fact that exponential growths generally only happen for a limited time, followed by eventual leveling off or even decline, especially when related to human systems such as population, obesity, debt etc. Many stories of doom are based on the assumption that some current exponential growth such as population or resource use will continue forever, which is nonsense, but the errone seems to have found some niches where it retains viability.

Errone communication

Errones spread through a population simply via exposure, using any medium. Watching an innocent TV program, reading a newspaper article or hearing a remark in a pub are all typical ways they spread. Just as some diseases can reduce resistance to other diseases, some errones such as the celebrity halo effect can lead to easier infection by others. People are far more likely to be infected by an errone from their favorite celebrity than a stranger. If you see them making an error in their reasoning but making it sound plausible because they believe it, there is a good chance you may be infected by it and also help to spread it. Also, like diseases, people have varying vulnerability to different types of errones.

Being smart won’t make you immune

Intelligence isn’t necessarily a defense and may even be essential to create vulnerability. Someone who is highly intelligent may actually be more susceptible to errones that are packaged in elaborate intellectual coatings, that may be useless for infecting less intelligent people who might just ignore them. A sophisticated economic errone may only be able to infect people with a high level of expertise in economics, since nobody else would understand it, but may nevertheless still be an errone, still wrong thinking. Similarly, some of the fine political theories across every point on the spectrum might be mind-numbingly dull to most people and therefore pass over with no effect, but may take root and flourish in certain political elites. Obviously lots of types of social and special interest groups have greater exposure and vulnerability to certain types of errones. There may well be some errones connected with basketball strategies but they can’t have an effect on me since I have zero knowledge of or interest in the game, and never have had any, so the basic platform for them to operate doesn’t exist in my brain.

Errones may interact with each other. Some may act as a platform for others, or fertilize them, or create a vulnerability or transmission path, or they may even be nested. It is possible to have an entire field of knowledge that is worse than useless and yet still riddled with errors. For example, someone may make some errone-type statistical errors when analyzing the effects of a homeopathic treatment. The fact that a whole field is nonsensical does not make it immune from extra errors within.

Perceptual errones are built into our brains too – some of which are part pre-programmed and part infectious. There are many well-known optical illusions that affect almost everyone. The mechanics of perception introduce the error, and that error may feed into other areas such as decision making. I suffer from vertigo, and even a simple picture of a large drop is quite enough to fool my brain into a fear reaction even though there is obviously no danger present. This phobia may not be part genetic and part infectious, and other phobias can be certainly be communicated, such as fear of spiders or snakes.

Group-think related errones

A very different class of errone is the collective one, closely related to group-think. The problem of ‘designed by committee’ is well known. A group of very smart people can collectively make really dumb decisions. There are many possible reasons and not all are errone-related. Agreeing with the boss or not challenging the idiot loud-mouth can both get bad results with no need for errones. Groupthink is where most people in the room shares the same prejudice, and that can often be an errone. If other people that you respect think something, you may just accept and adopt that view without thinking it through. If it is incorrect, or worse, if it is correct but only applies in certain conditions, and you don’t know that, or don’t know the conditions, then it can lead to later errors.

I once sat through an electronics lecture explaining why it was impossible to ever get more than 2.4kbit/s second through a copper telephone wire and no matter what happened, we never would, and you can’t change the laws of physics. That’s hard to believe today when ADSL easily delivers over 4Mbit/s to my home down the same copper wire. The physics wasn’t wrong, it just only applied to certain ways of doing things, and that lecturer obviously hadn’t understood that and thought it was a fundamental limit that would block any technique. I could use a similar excuse to explain why I failed a thermodynamics exam on my first attempt. It just seemed obviously wrong to me that you couldn’t get any energy from the waste heat from a power station. Our lecturer had delivered the correct thermodynamic equations for the first stage of a heat engine and then incorrectly left us knowing that that was it, and no additional heat could be used however clever anyone might be. I couldn’t see how that could possibly be right and that confusion remained for months afterwards until I finally saw it explained properly. Meanwhile, I was vulnerable to errors caused by knowing something that was wrong, that had been communicated to me by a poor lecturer. Well, that’s my side, but I have to admit it is theoretically possible that maybe I just didn’t listen properly. Either way, it’s still an errone.

Why I am mentioning this one in a group-think section is because misunderstandings and misapplications of thermodynamics have permeated large populations withing the climate change discussion community. Whichever side you are on, you will be familiar with some errors that affect the other lot, probably less so with the errones that you have been infected with. Just like me I guess.

On a larger scale, entire nations can be affected by errones. We don’t think of patriotism as an error, although it clearly affects our value judgments, but patriotism is just one aspect of our bias towards communities close to where we live. Whereas patriotism starts as a benign loyalty to your country, extending that loyalty into a belief in superiority is certainly a very common errone, thinking that anything and everyone in other countries must be less good than what you have close to home. The opposite exists too. In some countries, people assume that anything from abroad must be better. Of course, in some countries, they’re right.

The huge impacts of errones

Errones can be extremely expensive too. The banking crisis was caused in good measure by a widespread errone connected with valuation of complex derivatives. Once that happened, a different errone affected the rest of the population. Even though the bank crash was costly, it only directly accounted for a tiny fraction of the overall global economic crash. The rest was caused by a crisis of confidence, a confidence errone if you like. The economy had been sound, so there was absolutely no reason for any collapse, but once the errone that a recession was coming took hold, it became strongly self-fulfilling. Everyone shut their wallets, started being unduly careful with their spending and economies crashed. Those of us who challenged that assumption at the time were too few and too influential to prevent it. So errones can be an enormous problem.

Elsewhere economic errones are common. Housing bubbles, the web bubble, tulip bubbles, we don’t ever seem to learn and the bubble errone mutates and reappears again and again like flu viruses. Investment errones are pretty ubiquitous, even at government level. The UK created what is commonly known now as The Concorde Fallacy, an errone that makes people more inclined to throw money down the drain on a project if they already have spent a lot on it.

Still other errones affect people in their choice of where to live. People often discount liability to earthquakes, volcanoes,  hurricanes, tsuanmis and floods if they haven’t happened for a long time. When probability finally catches up, they are caught unprepared and often looking for someone to blame. The normality of everyday life quickly builds up into experience that pervades thinking and hides away thoughts of disaster. In stark contrast, other people fall easy prey to stories of doom and gloom, because they have been infected with errones that make them seem more dangerous or likely than in reality.

Health errones are an obvious problem. Scientists and nutritionists change advice on what to eat and drink from time to time as new research brings results, but the news of change in advice is not always accepted. Many people will not hear the news, others will not accept it because they are sick of changing advice from scientists, others will just hear and ignore it. The result is that outdated advice, sometimes wrong advice, can persist and continue to spread long after it has been proven wrong. What was once considered good advice essentially mutates into an errone. The current fat v sugar debate will be interesting to follow in this regard, since it will have ongoing effects throughout the entire food, sports, entertainment and leisure industries. We can be certain that some of the things we currently strongly believe are actually errones that lead to errors in many areas of our lives.

Looking at transport, everyone knows it is safer to fly than drive, but actually those stats only work for long trips. If you only want to travel 5km, it is safer to drive than to fly. 50km starts to favor flying and more than that certainly sees flying being safest. That errone probably has an immeasurably small impact in consequentially wrong decisions, but has managed to spread very successfully.

I could go on – there are a lot of errones around, and we keep making more of them. But enough for now.

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 in paper, at £9.00 and 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:


Street lights, quality of life, and the UK space industry

I wrote a long time ago about the problem caused by excessive street lighting and sky glow that prevented a whole generation from growing up with the experience of awe induced in anyone looking up at a clear night sky.

Well, we now have many councils turning off street lights as early as 9pm, to reduce CO2 emissions, making streets dark, to the annoyance of many people and the delight of others, including me.  Carbon emissions are one of the lesser problems facing us, and the carbon emissions this avoids will have an immeasurably small effect on the environment. But the law of unintended consequences this time acts in favour of science, and will even benefit the environment by a convoluted route nothing to do with the one intended.

Anyway, we can see stars again, and it’s wonderful. Hooray! Keep the lights off – not on motorways though, very different situation there.

When people look at the stars, and see a whole sky full of them, they can’t help but think about their place in the universe. They start to wonder what’s out there, whether we are alone, whether they matter and their place in the grand scheme of things, whether even humans matter. They wonder about going out there, visiting, their kids maybe being space travellers. There are very few science teachers who can match the raw inspiration of looking at a clear sky full of stars. Suddenly everyone is a Hawking or at least a Cox, or maybe even a budding Armstrong. Apart from that, seeing a rich clear sky directly improves our quality of life.

Turning off the lights will drag many people of the isolation induced by modern life. It will expand their minds and make them think further. It will encourage many kids to do science and engineering, helping our economy prosper. Some will be inspired to become scientists looking at nature, and will help the environment as a result. Many others will be made aware of the smallness and vulnerability of the Earth. Some will want to go into space, or become engineers developing space technology. Or entrepreneurs looking at the potential for exploration and commercial exploitation.

In short, although done for the wrong reasons, turning off the street lights will bring great rewards. It will make us happy, more curious about the universe, more concerned about the fragility of the Earth, more determined to protect it, but more aware of the external factors driving things. And it will act as a recruitment drive for a generation of space scientists and space engineers and even astronauts.

Turning off the street lights will greatly increase the number of awe and wonder experiences people feel, and could be the biggest boost to the UK space industry we’ve seen in a generation. It would be great if this was intentional and local governments knew what they were doing, but I very much doubt that. It is instead a very happy accident.

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.

Time for the 13″ pad

800M people now have e-book readers, iPads or various other tablets. Most are around 7″ or 10″ screen size. The next obvious step upwards is magazine tablets.  There are a few very large format magazines out there, but Time magazine comes in at 13″ and I’d place my money on this being the next size for popular tablets. People can read books, papers and magazines on pads already, or even iphones for that matter, but with middle-aged eyes, I am not alone in wanting a bigger display and even the ipad feels cramped.

Smart-phones fit in your pocket, current pads are designed for taking out and about, but the 13″ pad will live mostly on the desk, coffee table or kitchen table. It is a better substitute for the laptop, and this is an important niche of course, but enabling new services in the home will be the big market for it. People who are used to reading paper magazines are more likely to buy a large format pad if the price is right. Games will look better on a bigger display, and so will videos. Even books can feel cramped on a 7″ pad, and in the home some will prefer to read them on large formats with bigger text instead of having to squint or juggle different pairs of glasses.

The 13″ format is more likely to be a shared device then the smaller formats. It is the natural home of home messaging, calendars, magazines, books, general web access and information services. Some of these are personal and will live on individually owned smaller pads, but the shared ones will move up.

I am expecting the phone to ring any minute as newspapers start producing their “what will happen next year then?” articles. Well, the 13″ pad will be top of my prediction list for 2012.



I spend a lot of time reading climate science blogs. I had a look at Anthony Watts’ site this morning. Normally I love reading it, it is one of the few sites that covers climate change issues with an informed rational analysis. Usually it is a breath of fresh air and helps reboot my brain.

This morning it was an awakening from a very different perspective. It wasn’t the core article, which was commenting on the NSF’s decision to fix their claim that sea level would rise because of sea ice melting and cause significant issue for coastal cities. It was the comments afterwards. I learned a lot about the way people think, and how quickly people will accuse each other or being idiots while jumping themselves to the wrong conclusion. I do that often too, so it also made me worry about the quality of my thinking. Do I jump to conclusions too fast too sometimes. Perhaps.

So here in a nutshell is the problem everyone was debating: sea ice melting would cause sea level to rise. True or false. I won’t answer it yet till you get hooked in and even then I’ll do my best to avoid it. You’ll see why.

Some of the early comments looked like teens repeating what they heard in class as gospel truth. Then people gradually got deeper and deeper into the issue. What had started off as people laughing at the NSF for making such a stupid schoolboy error turned out into a debate that showed the fierce complexity of almost anything to do with climate change. Most were being too simplistic and treating everyone else as idiots if they disagreed instead of looking at the problem afresh.

The debate is worth unpeeling, like an onion, to see the many layers of detail involved. Some of the comments showed remarkable lack of thought, other a remarkable level of pedancy, and some raised issues I’d never have thought of in 100 years.

First layer of the debate. Isn’t the NSF stupid? Everyone knows floating ice doesn’t raise water level when it melts. What morons to think it would. Archimedes knew that yonks ago but the NSF is so stupid they didn’t know. There were quite a lot of supporters of that line but I suspect they soon regretted it.

Second layer: Yes, it is true that if you put an ice cube in a glass of fresh water, it will melt into exactly the same volume of water as the cube displaced. Well, almost exactly. But sea water isn’t made of pure water, it is denser. A pure ice iceberg weighing one ton floating in sea water would displace one ton of seawater, but sea water contains lots of salt and is denser than fresh water, so that mass of seawater occupies less volume than fresh water at the same temperature, and the fresh water the ice melts into would take up 2.6% more space. So it isn’t an ice cube melting into a lake of freshwater, it is seawater. If everything else was left simple, sea level would rise. If!

Third layer: It isn’t that simple. The ice berg isn’t pure water, it does contain some salt, about a tenth as much as seawater, though it varies, and that varies with the age of the ice. First-freeze ice contains more than second-freeze ice. And snow landing on the ice is purer still. And the seawater is diluted a bit by recent ice melt, so its density locally isn’t the same as other parts of the sea. And the temperature of the water isn’t the same as elsewhere so the density is different. But it is all one big ocean so which density is the appropriate one? And melting ice dilutes it. But the salt from the rest of the seawater also mixes with the recent melt and concentrates that.

So there are a hundred complicating factors in the equation before you get to any answer worth looking at. The NSF isn’t looking quite so dumb perhaps. Except until you look at the maximum figures involved and find the differences any of this all makes are in the region of a millimetre. So regardless of the fact that there is a finite but hard to calculate rise in sea level due to sea ice melting, the fact that the rise is of the order of a millimetre or two means they were certainly right to retract the part that said it would be significant to cities.

But the onion still isn’t peeled fully. The sea ice formed mostly from sea, so in the long term, its melting would theoretically mean return to the ‘original’ level. But that misses one of the points, because some of the sea ice is old, and some of the time-scales involved are high. So yes it would return, but if there had been loads of sea ice and then there isn’t, there will still be a difference between then and now.

And ice floats, and ice is a different colour to the sea. It therefore affects the average height of the surface, which affects lots of things, such as the rotational angular momentum of the earth, and the gravity distribution, and the area exposed to wind, and the amount of solar energy absorbed and radiated is different at the various parts of the spectrum because of the colour difference. How many layers does this darned onion have? Let’s not forget ocean currents that change local temperatures and salt concentrations, winds that move bergs around and a zillion other factors, right down to where polar bears poo given there are usually no woods nearby.

All of this debate was coloured by endless discussion of the relative temperature-density profile of seawater and fresh water, whether ice should form at the bottom or top of the oceans, and how something can be irrelevant because of its dilution across the whole planet, even while something else of similar magnitude could be central to the debate. There were also numerous references to experiments and hypothetical experiments that would actually prove something totally irrelevant to the central point, things like melting ice cubes in an alcoholic drink. When tiny effects like the differences made by taking into account temperature-dependent salt concentrations are coming into the debate, such school lab experiments are hardly relevant.

Anyway, the NSF retracted, and were right to, but not because of the reason assumed by some of those making comments. Mainly they were right because the effect is too small to be ‘significant’. Sea level would rise a tiny bit, but as to exactly how much, anyone’s guess. The only sensible answer is: not much.

So no panic then. Physics is intact and so is planet Earth for  while longer. But a great many egos damaged I think. Like everything in climate science, it isn’t as simple as it looks.

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.