A New Golden Age Of Technology

It used to be said that one of the “benefits” of war was the great leap forward in technology that accompanied each. So for example, the technology to build long range bombers to carry death and destruction to enemy cities in distant lands was used after the second world war to carry holidaymakers to those same destinations. We can’t imagine a world without mass air transportation now. Similarly, the cold war race fostered America’s defense advance research projects agency out of which emerged the Internet. We can’t imagine a world without that either. Each war throughout history has examples such as these and as periods of development each stands out for furious inventiveness compared with peace time lethargy. It remains to be seen what “benefits” we may derive from technological leaps due to the war on terror, such as drones and the data mining of vast amounts of individual personal communications.

But are we living today in an era of extraordinary technological progress that used to only occur during times of war? Science fiction writer Madsen Pirie thinks we are. If you read his blog here, you will see regular posts highlighting such advances. Today’s is a case in point: “A fusion breakthrough releases more energy than it takes to achieve it.” As he explains and as I certainly remember, nuclear fusion as a source of limitless energy has been promised for decades, with “promise” being the operative. It has seemed at times to be akin to the ancient goal of turning base metal into gold or the pursuit of perpetual motion. But it draws ever closer to realisation. The latest news is that for the first time genuine fusion has been achieved that produces more energy than was used to initiate it. It’s only been achieved on an experimental scale and I can see it would take a decade or more to scale it up to production, but this is a significant step nonetheless.

I think we really are living in a golden age of technology. Medical technology has advanced beyond recognition; people today are living longer with diseases that not long ago would have quickly killed them. Aircraft and road vehicles travel further on less fuel than we could have imagined only a few years ago, and in much greater safety. SatNav has transformed the way we travel too. And when once it took months to have a very basic telephone installed in your home, we now carry around mobile phones that have more power than a desktop computer of just a few years ago, but in addition they are connected to the Internet and they take better photos than a top of the range camera used to do. Even something as mundane as shopping has been transformed with supermarkets that have fresh produce brought from all around the world where you can wander round ‘ringing up’ your own purchases as you go and paying for them at an unmanned till with a piece of plastic or, even, your mobile phone. The greatest advance in technology, however, has to be social. Google, Facebook and Twitter have changed the world. People everywhere can interact as never before, in ways we are still struggling to comprehend and in ways that are literally revolutionary. Twitter in particular has been the precursor or the igniter of popular uprisings that have toppled governments making a texted word more powerful than tear gas or bullets. Now that is technology at its best and it is happening without the impetus of a war.

There are many technology posts on Madsen’s blog that are well worth reading. He is also president of the Adam Smith Institute so a lot of his posts also concern economics and the free market, and you might also enjoy his eclectic range of moral and social topics.

“Daytime Discounts” For Cheaper Electricity

British Gas has announced a new scheme where customers pays more, or less, for their electricity depending on the time of day.

This is what Privatization does. When liberated from the dead-hand of state control, privately run businesses can innovate more because more ideas can be dreamed-up and market tested. The concept of market testing is alien to state-controlled businesses because they don’t operate in a market, they have captive users who must accept whatever is offered at whatever price is charged. So there is no incentive to innovate in the first place.

I like this idea. I think it is imaginative and I think it would work. The next step though would probably be dynamic pricing, where the price fluctuates not only with the time of day but with how much load there is, that is how many other people are competing with you to use electricity. In that case electricity will go to the highest bidders, those prepared to pay the most. I’m not sure I’d welcome that personally, but if a Ryanair-style energy provider does enter the market, who knows how they would structure the tariff.

Read the full Daily Telegraph article

I Robot, You Student

A university-backed project in America is working on software that will mark exam papers, thus relieving professors from the need to know if their students are learning anything. Students sit in class, or log on via the Internet, follow a lesson and then take an online exam. Those essays are then marked by computer and the results instantly returned to the students.

I assume professors will get to see what the scores are, indeed one day I expect their salaries will depend on them. But they will not be able to see how well they did their jobs qualitatively because the feedback loop has been broken. They won’t learn anything about their students other than how well they can game the scoring algorithm.

This would help turn teaching into a one-way process. Indeed, you may not even need the professor other than to record videos that students can watch at their leisure. Or the smarter students can write a program that will watch videos and take exams for them.

When that happy day dawns, if it does, there will be a market for a radical form of education where a teacher actually meets with some students. They are able to interact face-to-face, with the teacher asking questions and students responding to demonstrate they have learned something, or to let the teacher realise what points haven’t been properly understood. The teacher will still be paid, but will now also receive job satisfaction while the students will feel they have a mentor, someone they can ask further questions of and expand their knowledge. It would be just like the Greeks did thousands of years ago when they invented university education.

The article in the New York Times that reports this is well worth a read, but the last but one paragraph is laugh-out loud funny. It reports on the views of a supporter of the new technology: “Plus, he noted, critics of the technology have tended to come from the nation’s best universities, where the level of pedagogy is much better than at most schools.”

In other words, the critics tend to be those who best understand the subject.

Or, let’s not listen to those who know what they’re talking about, listen to the idiots!

New York Times article: Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break

Carbon Lifeform Offset

In order to counter the effects of politicians on the environment I am proposing that we introduce a “carbon lifeform offset” by creating a market to trade in carbon lifeforms. The more harmful the lifeform the greater the offset to be earned by “trapping” it.

This would be accomplished by building stockades in remote places where the highest-polluting carbon lifeforms could be rounded up and sent. This will neutralise their harmful effects on the world and generate millions of dollars in offset revenue for companies that trap them. A good place to build these stockades would be in the deserts of Arizona, but we could get off to a good start by locking the gates at Westminster Palace and not letting them out. We would have to be vigilant against attempts to tunnel out, but the chances of them getting themselves organised enough to manage that are frankly slim.

However, where there is a market there will be those who seek to exploit it and so we will need to consider measures to prevent the creation of additional unwanted politicians. This might be accomplished by psychometric profiling to look for anyone with a high self-importance factor combined with a low threshold for humiliation, or by organising “sting” elections where those who enter as candidates self-identify themselves as politicians and can safely be trapped and traded.

This would leave the rest of us free to deal with the real problems facing the world.

To read a little about the inanity of carbon trading, please see this article in the New York Times: Profits on Carbon Credit Drive Output of a Harmful Gas

Next proposal: Bankers’ bonuses to be paid with jars of Marmite

Another medical murder averted

Persistent vegetative state.

It’s a diagnosis that can be used for legal murder by starving the victim to death.  These cases always get to me. In this latest instance reported today doctors were supposedly within hours of turning off this guy’s life-support system and his relatives were already choosing the music to play at his funeral.

Telegraph report: Cyclist makes ‘miraculous’ recovery

I have blogged about this many times, here’s my most recent: When is starving someone to death ever acceptable?

Is there no way we can raise awareness amongst the judicial and medical professions, and amongst relatives of those afflicted?

Is there some kind of professional blindness at play here? Or a Harold Shipman syndrome? Are people like Aaron Denham seen as “bed blockers” who need to be cleared out of the way for “proper” or “more deserving” patients? Is it a budget issue? I cannot believe that the doctors and nurses involved in this case would knowingly put this guy to death if they thought he could be saved, so how did we get into this situation? If they honestly believed he was in all senses of the word dead, why wouldn’t they just give him a lethal injection instead of turning off life support? Had they pulled the plug Aaron would have died a terrible and traumatic death. It’s not just the fact of him being killed, it’s the slow and agonising way they would have killed him. Are they happy with that thought?

Please read my previous blog where I consider this subject in more detail. There have been so many cases where doctors have been proved wrong.

Please: Stop Killing Patients.

BLT: Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato? No, Botulism, Listeria and Toxoplasma

Frankenstein’s food laboratories have excelled again: they’ve created a sandwich that stays fresh for fourteen days. Of course, that’s stretching the meaning of the word “fresh” somewhat but it brings a renewed challenge to Gerald Ratner who once said that his shops sold earrings that were cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich “but probably wouldn’t last as long”. Now the food technologists have raised the bar and Ratner must up his game.

I don’t doubt that the new, if that’s the right word, sandwiches taste “fresh”, my concern is what has been done to the components to make them last that long. Natural foods go off for a reason. It’s nature’s way of saying “Don’t eat me” because what made it wholesome in the first place has now gone and the bad stuff has taken over. We know and understand how we can slow that process down naturally, by freezing it for instance, but even so we can still lose some of the goodness. Other ways are less benign. Adding chemicals to preserve food is adding potentially harmful substances and we won’t know for sure whether or not they’re harmful until we’ve been consuming them for a decade or two.

I would also like to understand whether the new process merely masks the tell-tale evidence of rotted food, fooling our senses into thinking that it is still “fresh”. Just because they’ve stopped a sandwich from curling doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat. Frankly, I’d rather trust my senses than the food technologists because they have an abysmal track record in food safety and food preservation.

This story reminds me of another great innovation, the tin can. Nobody thought that was a problem until explorers and sailors started dying from lead poisoning caused by the solder leaching lead into the can’s contents. We’ve made the very same mistake again in modern times. We used to think wrapping food in clingfilm was safe enough, but we now know that plasticisers aren’t good to eat and the early products were banned because they can cause cancer. Millions of people used to wrap food in clingfilm and cook it in a microwave, that’s how ignorant we were.

Or more to the point, that’s how ignorant the food technologists were.

When is starving someone to death ever acceptable?

These tragic cases hit the headlines every few years. A loving family applies to the courts for permission to stop “life sustaining treatment” to allow a loved-one in a persistent vegetative state to “die with dignity”. The “life sustaining treatment” bit is just some weasel words that mean removing their feeding tubes and letting them starve to death. Now I don’t question the love that the family has, or the agony and torment they’re going through, or their desire to do whatever is best for their loved one, but I do have two serious concerns.

My first concern is the method. I really do mean that weasel words are used to conceal the real horror of what’s being done. If the patient has a heart attack and the medics do not resuscitate, that’s fine with me, but that’s not what this is all about. This is about actively bringing about their death. It’s about removing their oxygen supply if they have one, and removing their feeding tubes. If they’re not able to breathe without assistance, they will suffocate. If they are able to breathe, they will stay alive until they have starved or dehydrated.

I’m not happy about that.

If all the expert medical opinion is agreed, and all the tests are conclusive, and no mistakes have been made, and the patient can be considered medically and legally dead, then I can understand the desire to bring a peaceful end to a tragic situation. But still. By starvation? Would we treat a dog like that? If we judged that a much-loved pet had to be “put to sleep” – more weasel words – would we be happy if the vet put the pet into a cage and left it there until it had starved to death? Then why would we treat a human being like that?

My second concern is alluded to above. What if they’re wrong? Mistakes are made and misdiagnoses do occur. Medical malpractice lawyers in America make a very lucrative living from such cases and while the culture of litigation here in the UK is different, I’m sure we make just as many mistakes. They will be very rare mistakes. But what proportion of potentially recovering patients to patients with no prospects of recovery would we be happy with? How many living people must we kill before we become uncomfortable with this whole process?

We can combine my two concerns into one hypothetical. Let’s say that the patient really is just a breathing cadaver. Why shouldn’t we let surgeons harvest the organs while they’re still fresh? If we are so convinced the patient can feel no pain, where’s the harm? But if we are still a bit squeamish about it, if we don’t like the way the body twitches when the surgeon cuts the heart out, then why don’t we just put a bullet through the brain? Far better than damaging useful transplant organs by using poisonous gasses or chemicals to terminate life.

Whatever we do, it has to be quick and humane. Starving to death is neither and we are just dancing around the issue. Should a court find that circumstances are such as to warrant life support being withdrawn, it should also rule that measures can be taken to actively end the life. It cannot be right that a court can sanction a barbarous act and encourage the suffering which will be the likely result. If everyone is so convinced there would be no suffering if life support is withdrawn, then do the job properly and bring peace to all involved.

Finally, I would not have been prompted to write this piece were it not for an article in the Telegraph today reporting that a mother is applying for just such a court order concerning her daughter.  She has been in a “minimally conscious state” since February 2003, a truly tragic situation.  But what was the bigger aspect of the story that piqued the Telegraph’s interest? It was that the mother has also obtained an injunction to protect her family’s privacy and this was the first to explicitly cover social media, citing Facebook and Twitter by name.

First injunction specifically bans Facebook and Twitter

So an upcoming death by legally sanctioned starvation is not as big a story as anything about Twitter is.  Such is modern reporting.

Landing on Mars

These two photographs are separated by thirty nine years, and more than thirty five million miles. The inset is of Neil Armstrong stepping off the Lunar Lander of Apollo 11 back in July 1969. The fuzzy, low-resolution television pictures were beamed all around the world to a spell-bound audience witnessing for the first time man landing on a heavenly body that was not the Earth. It is slightly ironic that in this age of high definition tv, the new history-making image is as fuzzy as the one from decades ago. It shows the Martian probe, Phoenix, descending to the surface with the parachute visible above it. You can just about make out the trace of the parachute chords between the two. For all that it is a low-resolution image, it is nonetheless breathtaking and I find it far more interesting than the surface views taken from the lander itself, almost mesmerising in fact. Remarkably, the image was taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which is on an unrelated mission to Mars. It was launched in 2005 and arrived in March 2006, while the Phoenix Mars Lander we see in the image was launched in August 2007 and arrived yesterday. What will we see in another thirty nine years? Man landing on Mars? The chances are that to beam the first pictures back to us as soon as possible and at extreme range, they will once again be black and white and fuzzy.

Why Diana died

Something I have never seen mentioned anywhere in all the coverage we’ve had over the years is the Pont De l’Alma tunnel itself. There are no crash barriers. Drive through any underpass in London and any support pillars will be screened-off with crash barriers. Lose control of the car and you simply skid along inside the tunnel until you come to a halt. Lose control in a Paris tunnel and you run into a reinforced concrete pillar and come to a dead stop. That’s what happened to Diana, at high speed. And the final factor that makes the crash unsurvivable: she wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Those pillars are still not screened with crash barriers to this day, although I have no idea whether any motorists have been killed in similar accidents since.

Montage of photos: Top left, the crash car clearly showing the impact with the pillar. Top right and bottom left, two pictures showing the absence of crash barriers. Bottom right, a contemporary photo showing there are still no barriers there. (photos: www.usatoday.com, www.abc.net.au, www.telegraph.co.uk, www.jellesen.dk )