Tuesday, 25 October 2011

An Uncertain End In Uncertain Times

Today, I found out that a rare Vietnamese sub-species of Javan rhino had been announced as extinct. According to reports, the International Rhino Foundation had been aware of just one individual rhinoceros living in the Cat Tien National Park, followed for over two years by genetic analysis of its dung, and that it had been found shot and killed, presumably by poachers, who had cut off its horn. The Vietnamese Javan rhino was no more.

Having never previously heard of the Vietnamese Javan rhino, I found it quite an odd sensation to learn of its demise and unnecessary plight. An animal that I never knew existed was now extinct and the first time I'd ever heard of it was to learn about it being crossed off God's big list. The tale is lonely, grim and resonating with loss; the last surviving rhino, unaware of both its importance and plight, living its life in the everyday Darwinian battle of the wild, shot dead by men for the price of its horn, for the sake of homeopathic medicine or lavish decoration.

I was surprised that, despite being completely ignorant of this rhino until that moment, I felt somehow complicit in its death, that in some way through either my actions or lack of them, I had played a minor part in this shameful story, that although I may not have pulled the trigger, I might have paid for the gun. For sure, I should feel a sense of loss in the passing of this beast, but should I feel as though I was an actor rather than the audience?

Now, clearly, if I am involved, my part is a small one. I am not, since I last checked, trafficking ivory, financing poachers or purchasing expensive homeopathy. As you would expect, my stance on all of the above rest on the right side of reason, respect and compassion, but is that enough? On the opposite side of the argument, I've never really spoken out or acted for the rights of animals. Apart from the occasional conversation in the pub or at a convenient zoo, my involvement with this sort of thing registers almost nil. I guess I sit somewhere in the middle on the animal rights scale, pro-medical but anti-cosmetic testing, pretty much anti the rest. Perhaps that's a bit more on the left, I don't know, I've never really thought about it.

So taking into account the above, is it my lack of participation in the story of the Javan rhino that grates me? I suppose the answer is a yes, but a frustrated one.

I think I find it frustrating not just because of the seeming impotence of anything that I could realistically have done to save the rhino, but mainly because I never had the chance. Ignorance isn't an excuse, don't get me wrong, but having only learned about the rhino's existence when learning about its extinction, I might have well been reading about the dodo, except it happened today, not in the late 1600's. This is something that every generation after ours will look back on with the same disbelief as we look back on those dodo hunters, drunk with greed, decimating the flightless bird, either unaware or uncaring as to the consequences.

I know I can't compare the lives of the Vietnamese poachers with my own and I think it would be wrong to expect to impose my set of values on them. They're obviously the rhino's executioners in this tale, but the far more powerful judge and jury are the system and societies in which we all live. At the risk of oversimplifying, if there was no demand, there'd be no poaching.

While it might be hard to see exactly where I fit in with the system that killed this particular rhino, it's not so hard to see it elsewhere. There are countless similar stories of endangered animals, exterminated in our drive to mine deeper, or cheaper, to trawl harder, or build further. I would guess that parts of the laptop I'm writing this on, or the phone I'll upload it with, come from such places, were assembled in others and flown here over at the cost of a whole lot more. If asked, would I trade one to bring the rhino back? Probably, who wouldn't? Sadly, that's not an option.

It would be nice to think that from now on that I'll try to be more aware of the criticality of some of the endangered animals around the world, after all they are endangered entirely by us, but it's naive to think that I'll become some kind of eco-warrior. Yesterday's sadness will become today's melancholy, will become tomorrow's memory. Hundreds more species will die at our hands and the vast majority of us will do nothing. We'll buy iPods with conflict rare Earth minerals in them, we'll mine for gold in National Parks, we'll still buy tuna sandwiches and we'll continue to pay for coal-powered electricity.

So what do we do? We live in a system where the real basic choices are taken away from us. Where the decisions that get made are too distant, bureaucratic, disempowering or alien for us to change them or know about them in the first place. We're babies in a pram, spoon fed and almost totally reliant. The Vietnamese Javan rhino is just another unfortunate victim on the way, part of this arching tale of our time, both insignificant and immensely important, and now gone.

I should tell you to be more concerned about where your products come from, to make sure they're responsibly sourced, not to buy animal tested cosmetics; you could also work and campaign to demand more transparency in business and in Government, write letters, get on Twitter, whatever you're good at or at least you could just vote with these things in mind come election time; maybe you're one of those people that can really make a difference. These are your decisions to make and hopefully you'll make them however best suits you. I would like to think that the passing of the Vietnamese Javan rhino at least made me stop and think. It made me write this. It made me want to tell you about it. One lonely rhino dies and the world moves on; let's hope too many more don't have to before it stops. Vietnamese Javan Rhino, I will miss you.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Globally Detrimental Problem

A perpetual motion machine is a something that, once started, will continue to move forever without any further input; think about a swing that once you've pulled the seat back a few feet and let it go, rather than it swinging forward back and forth in ever decreasing arcs, before slowly coming to a rest back in the centre, the swing continues to swing back and forward, always swinging to the same height on each side, never loosing an inch, never coming to a stop, never needing another push to get it back up to speed.

In energy production terms, perpetual motion machines are the Holy Grail. Imagine a power plant that once you chucked in your first shovelful of coal, the big pistons started moving and never needed a second shovelful - it would basically be free energy forever after, no more coal burning, no more pollution; it would change the world.

Unfortunately for us, despite our best efforts, perpetual motion machines don't exist. Coal power stations still need more coal, oil plants still need more oil and my laptop still needs recharging.

This concept of "always more" is synonymous with how we think about our economies. Economically speaking, in order for a country's economy to be doing well, it needs to be growing; if it stops growing, well, the power plant breaks down and we have a recession. This growth is measured mainly using a single metric, Gross Domestic Product or GDP, which is the sum total of everything of monetary value that gets made or sold in a country in a given time period. At its most basic level, GDP is simply the amount of money spent in total by everyone and everything in that country over time (you, me, businesses, government, net exports etc).  There are other things that can be used to measure an economy, such as employment and investment levels, but GDP is really the primary factor.

When GDP is growing well, life in that country is generally a bit nicer - employment is up, wages are up, investment is up and so on. When GDP growth is slow you see the inverse happening - high unemployment, lower wages, investment spending cuts. Any of this sounding familiar? Guess which is happening at the moment. Our power plant requires more coal, or economically speaking, we're going to run out of steam.

Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad, globally speaking, if it were only happening to us, but as we know from the relentless torrent of financial doom and gloom in the news, this is happening pretty much everywhere. The US recently shook the financial world with the unprecedented downgrade of its financial rating from triple A as it teetered on the edge of defaulting on its $14 trillion debts, brought on in part by the insane wrangling of the Tea Party and the Eurozone continues to shudder as Greece and other struggling Euro nations have their empty accounts refilled by the more affluent likes of France and Germany, who aren't keen on a third round of ever more expensive I.O.U.s.

This global, or certainly Western, slowdown of GDP growth has been a long time in the making. Since the concept of measuring GDP was invented back in the mid-Thirties, after the massive post-World War Two boom in Western economies started to even out, economy growth rates started to slowly tail off. Over the next decades, on average, growth continued to slow, leaving growth rates between 2000 and 2007 at just 2.7%. When the 2008 financial collapse came about, economies had very little room to play with and since then we,ve seen all manner of innovative ways of trying to prop up the rapidly deflating GDP balloon.

So where does this leave us? Well, not anywhere particularly enjoyable. There seems to be two main schools of thought about how to resolve an economic slump and kickstart an economy, either scale back public spending and cut regulation and tax in the private sector to encourage business growth, as favoured by those on the right, or to raise taxes and increase spending on the public sector side, reinvesting in the economy, which is more favoured by those on the left. Both aim at a net increase in GDP over a given period.

To me though, although I certainly favour one of the above options over the other, the whole concept seems to be based on the premise that successful economies always have to be growing, that no matter what the "real" circumstances of that country are, it must always be doing more; equilibrium is death.

The idea that economic growth is a mandatory factor to success, or even normality, seems somewhat unsustainable. As mentioned above, historically speaking we've seen a general downward trend over the last 50 years or so anyway, so the fact that we now have to force our economies to squeeze out the last tenth of a percentage of growth in order to stay afloat seems not just counter intuitive but completely unrealistic.

Economic expansion, as we know, comes not without its costs; whether industrial expansion and its effect on the environment or financial expansion and its effects upon our debts, these ideas seem to smack of a 20th century ethos, of an unreal  so-called "golden era" of naivety that humanity could do whatever it wanted and consequences be damned. The generations before ours have exploited everything they could, have pushed the resources of our planet to the limit, almost to collapse. They have constructed a system so engrained with the military-industrial complex, with every aspect and every level built around a need to always do more, to always build more, to mine deeper, to consume greater, to create a bigger profit. To continue down this path without any kind of miracle cure leads only to a bleak future for those generations after ours; a planet ruined by climate change and environmental destruction, draconian states serving the interests of corporations over citizens, a disparity of wealth distribution so great that it will make the have-nots of today look like landed gentry by comparison. This is all great stuff for a dystopian sci-fi novel, but it's no way to plan our future.

Perhaps as we move into the 21st century, it is time we re-assessed the yardstick by which we measure ourselves, after all, GDP's drive for more is only a construct of our devising. To me it seems, like a lot of the mindset of the 20th century, that the thinking is we have is that because they system is set up in a certain way now, that to change it in any way seems impossible. Since its inception in the mid-30's, GDP may have been the driving force behind the way the world has run but, as we all know, the  world is a changing place; old technologies make way for newer ones, governments come and go, nations rise and fall.

Rather than base our world on the coal power plant that always requires more fuel, perhaps we should look to the perpetual motion machine as our inspiration, to the idea that once something has settled into something of an equilibrium, that it requires no further pushing to maintain speed, that perhaps the focus should be on the quality of the parts, rather than how many we can make. Maybe we should allow the more settled Western economies to reach that point of equilibrium, the seemingly inevitable point when growth simply stops and a country reaches what we could call its  "potential".

One such example of this is the tiny nation of Bhutan, which is the first nation to base its success on not GDP, but what it calls "Gross National Happiness". GNH attempts to define the success of a nation by determining the quality of life and social progress for its citizens, rather than the sum total of the country's financial worth. While you might initially think this may seem unquantifiable, GNH is actually based around many economic factors such as sustainable development and good governance; as we know from GDP, happy people tend to come from economically successful places, they have jobs, they have education, they have rights. GHN takes into account that the nation of Bhutan, with its 750,000 inhabitants, has a finite amount of resources and therefore once it has reached a moderate economic level, its focus became not that of relentless expansion but more internally focused on of well-being; that's not to say that GNH prevents growth, as increased happiness, as we said, has massive related economic impact, but that growth no longer becomes the only measure of success.

That's not to suggest that GNH is the final answer to the GDP problem, there are several other main contenders out there for measuring economics, for instance the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) measures economic factors of sustainability and welfare of the nation in a similar way to GNH but retains several of the growth-based metrics of GDP at the same time. One of the main drawbacks of both GNH and GPI is their susceptibility to political influence (to measure happiness, you must first define what happiness is) but one would perhaps naively hope that at a global level that a general definition could be found.

It's my view that over the first half of this century, the world will change a great deal. Perhaps by refocusing the way we measure our success at a global level, we can ensure that some of that change will be for the better. Perhaps the first perpetual motion machine should be not one that produces energy and powers our homes, but one that powers our thinking, that drives our achievements, one that provides a sustainable future for the generations after ours.

Hello, well done if you made it this far, much appreciated! As I've put this post together using my phone, there are no links included in the above text; I assure you there are some, I've not just made it all up! I'll put them in when I'm next near an actual computer. I hear there's this great website called Google which is full of links to useful information, so you should try that in the mean time. Until then, yours, always looking forward (uncertainly), Luke.

ps. If you wanted to retweet / share this post while you're at it, that'd be most appreciated too...

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Multiversey Star Parks

Yesterday, the BBC science news website ran a story about how the a study of the cosmic microwave background, which is basically the very faint echo of the Big Bang that reverberates around through space, has added significant weight to the theory that our universe is one of many others and exists in a kind of "multiverse".

Up until now, the multiverse theory has been just a theory, albeit one that is popular in modern physics, but as you can imagine, is pretty hard to test for - mainly because it was generally thought that in order to find out if there was anything outside our universe, we'd have to somehow be able to actually see outside it. As we already know, we can't even see across to the other side of the Universe, as light from there would not yet have had time to travel all the way to us (which, considering the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, means that that is an unbelievably large distance) and that the other side of our universe is accelerating away in the opposite direction doesn't help much either. So, not knowing where the edge of our universe is is one problem, but even if we knew that, how you get beyond there is anyone's guess and probably impossible, so there's not really much chance we're going to see what's outside and if there's other universes just hanging around out there, putting out their own universey vibe.

The general idea behind the multiverse theory is that other universes exist in their own bubbles of space and time, just like ours, and as these universes have popped in and out of existence, if they're nearby, they occasionally bump into ours. It's these collisions, and the patterns they may leave in the cosmic microwave background, that may enable us to test whether these other universes exist or not.

The current tests suggest that there may indeed be these patterns in the CMB but more data is needed before any more solid conclusions can be drawn. Next in line to run some tests is the cutting-edge Planck space telescope, which can measure the CMB in far greater detail, but results won't be available until 2013 so we're going to have to wait 'til then to find out more (well, I guess we've waited this long, so what's another 18 months...).

So far, so good. I think we're all relatively alright with the idea of other universes as a general concept, it's just extrapolating the scale up another level - our planet near other planets, our solar systems near other solar systems, our galaxy near other galaxies - why not more universes? It does tend to make you think "then what?" or "so what are those universes in?", but it seems that those might be the wrong kind of questions.

Quite reasonably, we tend to think that our universe is a big place, full of things, all bundled in there in a nice 3D kind of way. It turns out that this may be completely wrong; our universe may in fact be a hologram.

Now, unlike with multiverses, this is not quite as easy to explain so I'll skip over most of the detail and try and get the main points.

If you imagine a plain white ball and onto that ball you cleverly projected an image of a man onto it so that it looked like the man was inside the ball. Next, when you rotate the ball, the projection also makes it look like the man is rotating at the same rate so, no matter how you move the ball, it always looks like there's a man inside it, even though you know there isn't. If you did this well enough, it would be impossible to tell whether you were really looking at a man in a ball or a projection of a man in a ball. By using the projection of the man, we have essentially encoded the surface of the ball with all of the information that our eyes need to be convinced they're actually seeing a man in the ball, even though they're not.

This is a bit like how the hologram theory suggests the Universe might work, that we are the man in the ball. From our perspective, inside the ball, you'd think we wouldn't be able to tell whether we were really in the ball or just a projection on the outside - we're just the man in the ball - but it may be emerging that we've found out a way to actually test this without having to step outside the ball (or Universe, which as we said before was probably impossible).

The problem with the man in a ball analogy is that it would actually be impossible to make the projection absolutely perfect, that the surface of the ball couldn't quite contain enough information on its 2D surface to render the 3D man perfectly. For the Universe, the same should be true, that if we are a projection on the outside of the Universe, we should be able to tell if we can find any points at which the 3D universe isn't perfectly rendered.

Now, we know that Spacetime, the thing that makes up our physical universe, is grainy, a bit like pixels on a screen - while the picture looks fine and mulitcoloured mostly, if you got really close you could see the individual pixels which would all be one colour each. By undertanding the Spacetime is made up of these small pixels, we know that these must be the smallest things can get, as they're the most basic building blocks of our physical universe.

The problem is that in an experiment in Germany in 2008, a super-sensitive motion detector, looking at gravitational waves, picked up measurements that were actually smaller than it should be possible to actually detect. These measurements were a bit of a fluke, so now require their own dedicated tests to confirm, but by suggesting that there's something smaller than the building blocks of Spacetime, this adds weight to the theory that we're the projected version of the man in the ball, rather than a real one. If we're the projected version, then we're not really inside the ball at all, we're information about the man, projected onto the 2D surface on the outside.

A bit lost? Fair enough, I don't really get it either. This is head melting stuff; that we're a 2D projection of ourselves (as well as everything else) on the surface of the Universe, somewhere about 42 billion light years over there, is outstandingly high-concept stuff. For the most part, for us, it wouldn't matter either way if were "real" or a hologram, as we've seemed to get on mostly fine so far.

I'm not that convinced that hologram theory will hold up to much in the end; to me it seems that perhaps our understanding of the facts we think we know are more likely to be incorrect than the more esoteric hologram suggestion. This all heads merrily off down Stephen Hawking heavy physics string theory and M-theory routes so we're all pretty out of our depths from here on in.

In conclusion: Space is mental. The end.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

All The News In The World

I've been trying to write this post now for nearly two weeks and, frankly, it's been impossible.

As anyone who's not been hiding down a hole recently will know, Britain is currently going through some rather dramatic revelations regarding, largely, illegal phone hacking undertaken by our then best selling Sunday tabloid "newspaper" The News of the World. This has, at the time of writing, resulted in the shock closure of said 'paper, the arrest of ex-editor and ex-Head of Communications for the Conservative Party, Andy Coulson, the resignation of the NotW's ex-editor and parent company News International's CEO, Rebekah Brooks, FBI investigations into State-side phone hacking, huge payoffs signed off by Murdoch junior, the complete replacement of the Press Complaints Commission and two judge-led inquiries, one into the general hacking and police payments scandal and another into the culture and ethics of the British media.*Phew*

In fact, it turns out that even just what I've written there is now already out of date. I just Googled "phone hacking arrests" and it turns out Rebekah Brooks has now been arrested too. 53 minutes ago and counting. Basically, no matter how fast I type, I have to bear in mind that this is already a historical document. If you're reading this on Monday, you might as well be reading the Dead Sea Scrolls.

With such dramatic news conditions taking place, in which the expression "breaking news" has started to lose all meaning - red hot stories have about 30 minutes until they're reduced to room temperature by the next slab of sizzling revelations - it leaves the more casual opiner (i.e. those of us not doing this for a living) woefully behind the curve to get digital pen onto virtual paper before the world has moved on. In the hour or so that I get of a lunchtime at work, I usually try and pull together useful links and quotes and such for the next post; this week, most of my notes were irrelevant by home time.

It's not just me though, anyone who reads a daily newspaper must be feeling the same. I'd often catch the headlines of The Metro on the way in to work, only to find that by the time I'd had a look at the BBC website, The Metro was already yesterday's news. Flicking through my mate's daily copy of The Guardian, who were responsible for breaking most of this story, seemed oddly quaint compared to the online onslaught.

To me it seems kind of ironic that a relentless pace of a news story about the conduct of newspapers is demonstrating the slow transition to irrelevance that many newspapers now face. Getting the initial 'scoop' aside, once a story is out in the wild, once daily paper-printed updates seem somewhat archaic. This week I imagine journalists must have been submitting their articles of an evening, praying that nothing new broke that either required a significant late-night rewrite or simply made the whole thing seem like ancient history before people started buying a copy in the morning.

The online spread of information is delivered in minutes, even seconds; whether it's Guardian journo George Monboit's or C4's Jon Snow's blogs, or Alistair Campbell's or John Prescott's instantly tweeted commentary, the latest breaking news is there at your fingertips just as quick as you can search. 24-hour news channels pump out updates with mechanical regularity, looping the coverage round and round, updating and amending the narrative as it happens.

So where does this leave the (real) newspapers? Do we still need them or are they, like their news stories, rapidly heading out of date?

To me it seems that the printed press has three distinct advantages: its ability to break stories by investing time and money into its journalists, the in-depth analysis they have room to provide and the fact that by being a physical medium it presents all the information in the same place. The BBC may tell you all the same facts, but they won't give you much of the back story or three different people's opinions while they're at it, or not usually without watching three different programs. Online reporting may be first off the blocks, but they can't guarantee the weight of impact that the morning press can (or perhaps not yet). Most online breaking news is also intended to have a very short shelf life, hastily written in the race to be first, never intended to set the world alight with its insight; similarly if it doesn't make the homepage there's a greatly reduced chance it will get read at all. Journalist's personal blogs are good swift opinion, but always seem mindful of saving the best for their more lucrative main events; those sites that do specialise in more heavyweight analysis, like Truthdig for instance, also seem slightly restricted by it, sacrificing fluidity of reporting for depth of content.

So while I think the printed press is not without its limitations, it still holds its niche in its ability to provide both ends of the spectrum in one handy format. The problem for their future, it seems, may not just lie with the delivery of the content, but probably more in the time that people can dedicate to reading it. People aren't buying newspapers because they don't want to read one, they're not buying them because they don't have time.

It's hard for me to say what it was like 20 years ago, being 10 and not overly interested in the news at the time, and why the pace of life has supposedly increased as such that we can't enjoy a newspaper every day. Perhaps there are more distractions today, more things vying for our attention that we feel sparing a whole 30 minutes or an hour with The Independent is too much. Probably its more likely that we pick up the basics from The Metro, more news through osmosis from the internet throughout the day and top up with Channel 4 News over dinner to warrant any extra time dedicated to a whole other newspaper (cynics might suggest that perhaps a greater percentage of the population would prefer to top up with Hollyoaks and the problem lies down that road instead).

Whatever the true reason for the decline of (real) newspapers, I think that they still currently provide news in a way, both content and delivery-wise, that isn't quite available elsewhere. If we are moving to a print-news free world, I think that we should be careful not to lose more than we gain. I'm not saying that we should all buy papers we don't want or read, but that perhaps those newspapers or other similar services need to think about that gap in the online market and exploit it.

As for Rebekah Brooks' arrest all those paragraphs before, that was hours ago now. A quick Google already shows thousands of links, blogs, tweets and articles offering their own slant on the event; the first part of my post is already history. What do you think I'll do now, wait for tomorrow's papers to catch up on the facts or have a look on Twitter and see what else has happened since?

Thursday, 30 June 2011

All Your Secrets Are Belong To Us

On Thursday night, the hacker collective Anonymous, as part of their Antisec campaign, released the third installment of their Chinga La Migra attack on the police force of Arizona. The hack released huge volumes of the officer's personal information and email history - some of which contained extremely embarrassing content for the force, including racist remarks about torturing terror suspects, anti-Obama propaganda and the police force's efforts to spin the fact they were employing a convicted sex offender - as well as terrorising and shutting down a number of their websites.

The Chinga La Migra (which loosely translates as "Fuck the Border Patrol") hacks are a direct response to what Anonymous are calling the "racial profiling anti-immigrant police state that is Arizona", who recently introduced the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, a very controversial anti-illegal immigration policy which requires all aliens over the age of 14 to register with the US government and carry identification with them at all times. As you can imagine, this has led to numerous racially tense situations with US citizens from racial minority backgrouds being arrested as "illegal immigrants" as they didn't happen to have documentation proving they were US citizens with them at the time; the assumption here being "guily until proven innocent".

This particular online attack was initiated by the Anonymous splinter group LulzSec, short for Lulz Security, six hackers who decided to run a 50 day campaign of "high-quality entertainment at your expense". It was LulzSec who were famously responsible for bringing down the Sony Playstation Network, claiming to have comprimised the usernames, email addreses and passwords for over one million PSN accounts (although Sony claims it was far less). The Sony hack was claimed to be in response to Sony's legal action against George Holz for cracking the allegedly watertight Playstation 3.

LulzSec went on to compromise and steal data from a raft of corporate and government databases and post it online, along with a basic description of how easy it was for them to invade the local system, the main objective of which being to embarrass the victim company by exposing their often extremelty weak security. This "grey hat" hacking doesn't aim to maliciously exploit the data it steals, or use it for personal gain (like black hat hacking) but does often break the law in order to expose the holes in the company's system's security (unlike white hat hackers, who are often security consultants hired directly by the company).

This kind of "hacktivism" isn't really a new thing but LulzSec's activities have gained it a lot of exposure in the media spotlight both for the sheer scale of their exposures and the witty delivery of the results in their releases and Twitter feed, mainly by their spokesperson, Topiary (not really what you'd expect in a hacker name - I don't imagine that the Matrix would have had the same impact if when Keanu Reeves is fighting Hugo Weaving, the dialogue goes: (Smith) "Goodbye, Mr Anderson", (Reeves) "My....name...is...Topiary!"). After Sony was brought down, certainly in the UK, LulzSec was making its way onto mainstream news programs - Channel 4 News even ran a whole article on them - always amusing to see their logo used in a serious report.

The LulzSec Logo

At the end of the 50 day LulzSec lifespan, LulzSec called it quits and its six members merged back into the anonymous Anonymous horde, citing a new combined approach to a larger campaign, Operation Anti-Security, or AntiSec. AntiSec's aims follow the initial examples set out by LulzSec but with a much more politicised agenda, specifically targetting Government agencies, corporations and banks and utilising the combined power of Anonymous rather than the limited resources of just the six LulzSec members.

Operation AntiSec has been running for nearly two weeks now and largely it's living up to its word, causing myriad problems online, taking down both the Brazilian and Chinese government's websites, the US Navy website and dumping 12,000 usernames, email addresses and passwords from the NATO online bookshop. Some of their corporate targets have seemed, to me at least, more opportunistic than particularly interested in direct protest, with Disney, EMI, Universal Music and the online game Battlefield Heroes all coming under fire.

Whilst engaging with Anonymous in Operation AntiSec has clearly given LulzSec's activities a number of benefits, it also could be seen as something of a retreat, or at least a regrouping. Media claims that the arrested Essex-based hacker Ryan Cleary was a core LulzSec member seem to have been somewhat exaggerated as although the MET charged him under the Computer Misuse Act for DDOS attacks on the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the IFPI, the SOCA attack's dates line up with LulzSec's attacks but the IFPI charges date back to November 2010 - way before LulzSec even existed, as they themselves pointed out via Twitter (they also seem to claim that Cleary wasn't part of their attack on SOCA but he may picked up on what they were doing and joined in). Whether Cleary was a LulzSec member or affiliate or not, it's fairly obvious that the six members of the team must have been starting to feel the heat from their actions, with both police forces and other rival hacker groups such as TeaMp0isoN (seriously) racing to identify them. By slipping back into the blanket anonymity of Anonymous, LulzSec have perhaps wisely hidden themselves, at least for now, from any returning fire.

Operation AntiSec seems to now be gaining some further momentum and expanding its influence, with plans for a WikiLeaks-style website, based on stolen rather than leaked material, a kind of HackerLeaks if you like. This shows something of a maturing attitude from the initial "just for the Lulz" approach and may prove to be a bigger thorn in the side of the authorities than WikiLeaks itself. While WikiLeaks had.its spokesman and media friendly face in the form of Julian Assange, he was also their easiest and most obvious target. Conspiracy theorists would tell you that the rape charges eventually brought against Assange were a meticulously planned "honeytrap" to bring down WikiLeaks; whether that's true or not, Anonymous certainly has no such frontman to target.

What I think LulzSec realised, in the support for their actions from the general online population, is that in Operation AntiSec, they could galvanise the online community under the blanket banner of Anonymous to enact a new level of protest. As I stated before, there's nothing that new in what they're actually doing but it's just never been done on such a massive and mainstream scale before.

In our Western democracies, it's been proven multiple times in recent years that normal forms of protest are becoming less and less effective. As stated on Wikipedia, in early 2003, some sources claim that up to 36 million people across the globe took part in almost 3,000 protests against the Iraq war and yet our governments still went ahead with their plans. Similarly in March of this year, anywhere between a quarter and a half a million people came to London to protest against our Coalition government's proposed spending cuts and were met with almost complete indifference from those in charge. The media agencies covering the recent London protests chose to spend their time reporting on the small amount of breakaway violence that occurred, whilst the police force imposed heavy handed "kettling" tactics against numerous peaceful but determined groups.

In the form of protest that Operation AntiSec aim to undertake, you could argue that the few anonymous individuals involved, rather than the millions that marched, could have more power in influencing government through inciting voters via exposures of corruption and leaked or stolen documentation. In taking down governmental websites and databases they continue to prove that they're one step ahead, both strategically and technically than their targets, although its harder to see the same levels of support across the population for similar attacks against online games companies like Battlefield Heroes or multinational record companies battling bankruptcy like EMI. For me, Operation AntiSec needs to focus its efforts on more legitimate targets in order to widen its support; the Chinga La Migra hacks are an undeniably powerful political statement, the more of which we see, the strong AntiSec's influence will grow.

However you choose to classify the propagators of Operation AntiSec: as a nuisance or as terrorists, as self-indulgent geeks or as revolutionaries, they are capable of showing us something - that sometimes, it's not the actions of the many that make the difference, it's the actions of the few. They're capable of being more than the sum of their parts; they're a movement, they're a force for change, fighting to show us that it's not this government or that corporation that's the problem, that the problem is the system itself.

Back in 1995 there was an Angelina Jolie film called Hackers, in which a small group of (unrealistically attractive) computer nerds saved the planet. Being 15 at the time, I obviously loved it and its naively optimistic view of the world (and still do). Operation AntiSec isn't as glamourous, doesn't involve Angelina Jolie and presumably doesn't involve as much bad CGI, but will it change the world? Maybe. Even if it's just a little bit.

Monday, 20 June 2011

President Bachmann

Last Monday, the Republican Party of America set out it's seven potential candidates to challenge Barack Obama at the Presidential election in 2012 in a warm up debate in New Hampshire. Thrusting her way into the limelight, the percieved big winner of the debate was Michele Bachmann. Bachmann's performance was reportedly slick, strategic and full of stage presence; a strong-minded, attractive and resolutely American-blooded woman, the current darling of the Tea Party and second to only Sarah Palin in their crazy Fox News universe.

Palin, of course, has so far neglected to stand for the forthcoming election and although you might think that's a good thing, Palin is such a devisive figure in the States, that many think although she'd get the backing of the more right-wing half of the GOP demographic audience, that the more moderate Republicans would abandon ship, leaving Obama with a clear path to victory. Palin might very well be the very worst chance the Republicans have to regain the seat behind the desk in the Oval Office.

It's also interesting to discover that recently, for the first time, more than fifty percent of Republicans support the creation of a new third US political party, most likely in the form of the separation of the Tea Party from its Republican Party host. Over sixty percent of Tea Partiers would prefer a three party system and it's not hard to imagine that a lot of the more moderate Republicans are equally frustrated in being lumped in with the more extreme elements of their party.

However, splitting the Republican party down the middle has some very obvious downsides for them, namely that no one is splitting up the Democrats too. If the Tea Party decides to go it alone, then there are serious concerns from within the GOP that Obama could simply coast to the finish next November. More bad news for the Grand Old Party then.

So this leaves us with the possibility of a Bachmman / Obama contest in 2012 and, as many of you would probably agree, right now the stakes could not be higher. In order for any of us to stand a chance in the forthcoming century, we need forward thinking, modernist leaders withn sound econonimic and scientific understanding of the world, people willing to push things forward rather then letting them slip into reverse. Although you might agree that in some respects Obama might not represent enough of those things or always endorse or enforce them in ways we might wish, Bachmann doesn't represent any. Bachmann is, in my opinion, not just a bad choice, she's frankly a dangerous one.

The possiblity of President Bachmann, or maybe just even her existence, prompted Truthdig's columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr to pangs of "nostalgia for Bush". Based on his previous articles and has he himself states, that's not something he ever expected to have.

Bachmann has already called for the closure of the US's Environmental Protection Agency (created by Republicans, actually) as part of her swathe of spending cuts and obviously diametrically opposes the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare, as she'd call it) and pretty much every other form of government aid as "socialism". You could argue that this is just down to politics though and that sacrifices have to be made somewhere; the environment and healthcare might not be the first choice of everyone but they're usually fairly close when it comes to the Right getting to weald the spending cleaver (our NHS anyone?). Hoever, I think there's something far more worrying about hearing it come from Bachmann - the fact that she's a hardline fundamentalist Christian (described by possibly my favourite website - Conservapedia - as a "Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod").

This puts Bachmann firmly into the climate change denying Creationist camp, something she's gone on record about several times. In 2006 she claimed that “there is a controversy among scientists about whether evolution is a fact… hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes, believe in intelligent design.”, which as the linked site rightly points out, is so completely false it's borderline farcical. She's spoken out similarly fantastically incorrect fashion about Global Warming on several occasions too, claiming as recently as 2009 that “[T]here isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows carbon dioxide is a harmful gas. There isn’t one such study because carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas, it is a harmless gas. Carbon dioxide is natural. It is not harmful. It is part of Earth’s life cycle.”. Needless to say Bachmann is also pro-life and pro-guns (always a bewilderingly illogical combination, I think).

To me, this kind of denial-based reasoning, the hide-your-head-in-the-sand attitude, is the most terrifying aspect of Bachmann. Her extreme religious views propel her forward, certain under the knowledge that she is correct because God tells her she is. I find it very hard to believe that she would ever even bother listening to a reasoned scientific argument that didn't already support one of the views she already holds. In September of this year, we'll be remember how religious fundamentalism flew some planes into a building and killed a whole load of people; if Bachmann's fundamentalism takes the Presidency next year, I am confident we will see a much bigger crash and a much more severe collapse, of which the fallout will not just kill a few thousand but that its effects will be epochal. We're well known to be on the brink of a paradigm shift in the world; it's a knife edge, one last chance to step back from the void; with Bachmann, the Americans seriously risk seeing the ground give out beneath both them and us.

That said though, I have hope that the American's are simply not that stupid. We, over here in the jostling, secular world of Europe, often tend to regard our US cousins with a fairly dim view when it comes to religion. We can't really understand how middle America obsesses over Christian values, how their nation struggles with separating morality and rationality from religion, how they give face time to Fred Phelps and Fox News. The nearest we get to religious interference is when a bishop has a bit of a go at a few Coalition policies and even then most of us, even the non-religious, respect the fact that although he's a holy man, he's also talking about non-religious things; we might not agree with Dr Rowan Williams about his his choice of deities, but that doesn't mean we can't agree with him about anything else.

I suppose the hope comes from facts like the potential divide looming in the Republican party. We have to hope that those elements that have arisen to power within the GOP remain cowed by the moderates on whose votes they depend. We have to hope that the moderates see through the smokescreens and outright lies to see exactly who and what they're voting for. If I had to offer any advice, I would call that moderate Republicans should stand up and defy this new wave of ridiculous Tea Party candidacy, they should vote with their voices, their actions and frankly, their votes. Maybe they should vote Obama, just to show Bachmann how it really is.

Dionne is right when he says that against such candidates, one would wish for the return of Bush. He may have invaded Iraq because "God told him to", but at least we weren't very worried that he might actively be seeking the End Times.

Oh yes, one last stat I forgot to add in, the one that inspired this whole article actually... As you'll remember we recently managed to avoid 21st May's notably absent Rapture, as prophecised by the US televangelist Harold Camping. A recent national poll of the GOP primary voters revelead that although Bachmann at the time was only supported by nine percent of the pollsters, a staggering thirty-five percent of them believed the Rapture was really going to happen. Compare that will Palin, who was second place for potential Rapturees (is that a word?) who was way down at seventeen (which is still obviously worrying).

Perhaps we should have a little more faith, if you like (small "f"), in our more sensible American cousins. Clearly, most of them thought the idea of the Rapture was ridiculous and hopefully enough of them will think Bachmann is too. I couldn't name you a single person I know that would come out in defence of Bachmann and I'm sure if I was in America that would still be the case.

Really though, America, it's time to pull your socks up. This kind of thing is going too far.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Antimatter Anticertainly

So this week, as you may have read in the paper, some rather clever fellows at CERN have managed to create some anti-hydrogen and hang onto it for about fifteen minutes.

Anti-hydrogen is the antimatter equivalent of hydrogen (I think you'd probably already worked that out) and, in this instance, was created by getting some positrons (which are anti-electrons) to orbit some antiprotons, thus creating said anti-hydrogen. This isn't the first time this has been done but what's remarkable about this instance is that they held on to them for so long - fifteen minutes is literally ages in atomic physics terms.

As I understand it, as matter and antimatter are true opposites, if they both exist in the same place they will cancel each other out. Think of it a bit like having +1 and -1 in an equation; if you put them together, you just end up with zero. Therefore, one of the main gists of CERN's experiment will ultimately be to determine why we live in a universe with so much matter in it, when the Big Bang happened and huge equal  amounts of matter and antimatter were created, why was so much matter left over afterwards (when they should have added up to zero and left nothing)?

Anyway, I watched a BBC news article about this, loosely explaining the above, with helpful on-screen magic like turning half of the picture to negative colours when explaining antimatter. Well, I say helpful but I actually mean not really very helpful at all.

Reading back over what I've written above, it just makes me think how virtually impossible this sort of thing is to understand. When the BBC demonstrate antimatter as being a bit like a negative colour screen, or I compare it to plus and minus one, you think "yes, ok, I get it" but in reality it's nothing like either of those things. I can get my head round the facts presented and even understand them in a (moderately) scientific kind of way but what I can't do is relate them in any way to anything I can actually comprehend.

For example, let's take an obvious question: what does antimatter look like? You would imagine the opposite of matter to look like nothing, like a vacuum; something and nothing are opposites, right? Wrong. Antimatter plus matter equals nothing, so what we were saying before is that we know what the +1 and zero parts look like but not the -1 part.

Now, if I say that mathematically I understand the concept of minus one, but I'm fine with the fact you can't have, say, minus one apples in your hand so this is a bit like antimatter I'd be wrong again. Antimatter is a physical thing and given enough of it you could theoretically hold it in your hand, test tube or Large Hadron Collider. If it is a thing, what does it look like?

Now I know I'm jumping the gun here and we can't really be expecting lovely press shots of a substance we created in super-micro amounts for a matter of minutes. My point is that when we get on to topics like this, cutting edge sciences and so on, is that there's no real way to explain them in layman's terms.

The LHC also rustled up something called quark-gluon plasma this week too. This stuff is the densest material we've ever created; denser than a neutron star and a hundred thousand times hotter than the centre of the sun, the only things we think may be more dense are black holes; a cubic centimeter of quark-gluon plasma would weigh around forty billion tons. Great stuff, anyone understand that? Not really.

(Which kind of reminds me of watching The World's Strongest Man and the commentator saying that the giant rock the ridiculously massive bloke has just picked up weighs "as much as two baby rhinos" or "a chest freezer full of food". Do I know how much those things weigh? Of course not. A lot?)

The problem is, I guess, that in science the numbers are getting so big or small, the concepts so esoteric and exotic and the background understanding required becomes more deep or specialised, that it's increasingly difficult trying to make these things into palatable subjects for consumption by normal people.

My concern is that as cutting edge science moves steadily off over the horizon, normal people will lose sight of why it's important. I've said it before about climate science but I think it applies across the board; science and scientists need to think about the way they communicate about what they're doing and why and how it might affect the rest of us.

Perhaps antimatter is a harsh example; it's probably up there with the most complicated things we've ever done. Perhaps science is already doing a remarkable job in even distilling that understanding down to a point where particularly interested people like me can write about it.

I love all this stuff and I find it genuinely engaging, interesting, meaningful and important and I think other people should too. I just don't think you should have to be a particle physicist first.

NB. Just in case you were wondering, I've just written this whole post using my phone. This is a) pretty cool, b) quite difficult and c) has taken absolutely ages. Any nonsensical sections, bad spelling or wild grammar should be forgiven until such time as I've looked at it on a proper screen!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Utopia or Dystopia?

Last night I was back at the British Library for another Out of this World talk, this time discussing ‘Utopias and Other Worlds’, with a panel consisting of Gregory Claeys, Professor of the History of Political Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the authors Francis Spufford and Iain M. Banks (with an M, as he was there with his sci-fi hat on…). Overall, it was a bit more of a generalised discussion of the topic than some of the previous Out of this World talks but overall it focused on what utopias and dystopias are, why we have them and how they’re reflected in literature, especially science fiction.

As we got round to audience questions, I posed the panel a question around the nature of utopias and dystopias, a kind of thought experiment to see which way they’d go on a given potential outcome of our society. It went a little something like this (a little less eloquently at the time, but forgive me my poetic license):

“Within the next one hundred to two hundred years, Humanity continues down its current path of environmental exploitation and destruction, leading to a catastrophic event which renders the planet largely inhospitable to human life. At the same time, we also invent a way in which to upload our conscious thought onto computers and, merging with artificial intelligences and so forth, create a digital paradise in which the “surviving” members of the human race can live on forever in total happiness, regardless of the damage done to the outside world. Would you say this was a utopia or dystopia?”

All the panel were in agreement that this scenario would be a dystopia, based on the fact that we’d caused widespread destruction to the planet and a significant proportion of humanity, mainly the poorer half, will have perished en route. Francis Spufford also argued that it would be a dystopia because humanity had lost all physical, or real, interactions with the outside world and each other and Banks, quite rightly, pointed out that those who did survive would just be total bastards. Claeys highlighted some of the gaps in my question and how it took a broad brush to a plethora of issues, about which he’s obviously correct but a) I thought this up about 30 seconds before I asked it, so give me a break and b) it’s my question, so I can assume whatever I like anyway.

Now, you’d probably agree with all of the above points (and so do I for the most part) but I think that although we may not like the circumstances in the situation’s arrival, it doesn’t mean that we can’t argue that it is a utopia. My basic justification for this is that the people who do survive get to live in a paradise and although it’s potentially a paradise for the few at the sacrifice of the many, it is still a paradise (although I didn’t actually specify in the question that we hadn’t managed to upload everyone before said disaster).

In Banks’ own utopia, the Culture, he talks about the fact that his vast civilisation made many mistakes along the journey to being the galaxy spanning wonderland that it is. Who’s to say that similar situations to the one above wasn’t one of them (apart from Banks, obviously)? You can’t make an omelette… right?

I suppose the definition of a utopia is that it’s defined by those outside that are perceiving it as such, rather than the theoretical (or otherwise) individuals who live in it. If you’re already living in one person’s idea of a utopia then the likelihood is that your idea of a utopia is somewhere else that you perceive to be better than your own situation. We currently live in a utopia by the standards of the entire of human history, however that doesn’t mean that we have to think it’s paradise. In my proposed world, those citizens of the digital paradise live in an all encompassing heaven, so by the assumptions set in the question, therefore they must live in a utopia of sorts from our perspective.

Also, I don’t think that dismissing their perception of “fake” reality as being any less true than our “real” one counts for much either way as, as is often spelled out in many science fiction novels, reality tends to be a blurry thing once you have more than one (am I a man dreaming of a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of a man, for instance).

In summary, I think that I agree that all of the panellist’s main points about the situation that I laid out are totally valid and obviously the situation is a bad one, although I have trouble labelling it as either a utopia or dystopia though as I think it fails to be either. The situation is awful by nature’s standards, but humanity continues in a form (let’s not get into digital animals) so the situation isn’t a total nightmare scenario. If we assume that everyone got “copied over” at the start, then on a human scale the loss is a trade of one perception of reality for another. A dystopia for the natural world then, perhaps?

The citizens still have to live with the guilt of their actions from the previous “reality” and their circumstances are still under threat from external “real” forces, earthquakes etc, so the paradise is definitely tainted in some aspects. Mankind has a reasonably short memory for guilt though so perhaps they’ll get over it (well, I guess that goes with death, so with immortal computer people, who knows?). Maybe they’ll invent a way to get back “out” into the real world eventually and sort things out.

Ultimately, it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting we pursue the proposed course of action but I think that it’s an interesting way of showing that perhaps from some perspectives a utopia or dystopia isn’t necessarily what we might normally assume it is.

I do agree with Banks though, those digital citizens would definitely be total bastards.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Transhumanist Bling

Transhumanists are a funny bunch. Their basic outlook is that one day in the not too distant future, probably within our lifetime, humans will cast off our physical bodies and unite ourselves in digital-only form with our AI counterparts, creating a new form of immortal 'transhuman' that exists entirely on computers. No-one will ever die and those of us 'natural' intelligences and the other artificial ones will be entirely indistinguishable. This concept is known as the Singularity or often jokingly referred to as the "geek rapture".

Now, this all sounds a bit sci-fi to most of us, but the possibilities of this are taken very seriously by a lot of notable scientists, perhaps the most famous of which is Ray Kurzweil. Over the years, Kurzweil has had a lot to say about our future and even in the mid-90's correctly predicted much about the digital, internet-based world we currently enjoy - wirelessly accessing a worldwide internet using tiny handheld personal computers anyone? My school didn't even get the internet until 1998; that was only 13 years ago...

In his 2005 book The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil has predicted that by 2018 you'll be able to buy a computer with the same memory space as the human brain for about $1,000 (that's 10 to the power 13 bits, apparently) and by 2020 it will be just as clever as you too. By 2029 he thinks that the first computer will pass the Turing Test, basically proving it to be "sentient" and in the mid-2030's we'll all be uploading ourselves to computers willy-nilly. After that it all gets a bit crazy, but ultimately he's hedging on the Singularity happening in around 2045, so keep that year free in your diaries.

So far, so sci-fi though in my opinion; scientists and geeks are very easy to excite when they start talking about this stuff, so I think they miss out on some of the more basic questions when they start pulling out the geek rapture story.

Firstly, while it's easy to say that we're just organic computers, I think there's a bit more to it than that. Our brains might be a mega-complex computer like series of neural connections but it's also subject to the whims of the rest of our bodies, hormones 'n all. An obvious example is, if you're uploaded to a computer, do you still get randy? You won't have the appropriate parts any more, so that's going to be difficult to deal with. What about the bit of you that enjoys going for a poo, does that bit get copied over too? My point is, that even though our brains might do the thinking, there's a bit more to us that just that.

Another issue is that it might seem like a great idea to keep everyone around forever, it turns out a lot of people aren't really that great. Osama bin Laden forever anyone? Didn't think so.

Humanity has evolved socially over hundreds of years, slowly, you might argue, advancing our morality, leaving old prejudices behind and overall becoming fairer and more egalitarian. While that's a rose-tinted view, the principle stands and my point is that death is very much a part of that process. Old ideas die with the people who have them, making way for new people to have new ideas of their own. If no-one dies, then are we pretty much stuck with the opinions that we have today? Alright if you're a geek and live in a bit of a bubble, but I think the rest of us would agree that we've still got a long way to go before we can draw a line under our society and say "yep, that'll do".

To be fair though, I recently went to a talk on the future of humanity at the British Library, as I've mentioned in previous posts, part of their Out of this World series and exhibition, and was hugely surprised by their transhumanist panelist, Anders Sandberg.

Sandberg, a Research Fellow at The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, had a lot to say about exactly the kind if thing I've mentioned above and helped assure me that not all of those who believe in the Singularity are necessarily only thinking about a giant magic World of Warcraft future.

Just to give an example, when one of the audience asked the panel about cryogenics and whether we should be freezing ourselves when we die so that we can be reanimated once everyone else has worked out how to do it. Sandberg's response was to reach inside his academic's tweed jacket, pull out a small silver medallion and say:

"my answer is yes; this medallion signifies my insurance policy that means should I die i'll be frozen. It cost quite a lot but I'm hedging my bets that one day someone will be able to both bring me back to life and repair whatever needs repairing.

My main concern being that when they wake me up they'll all be laughing at some of the ridiculous predictions that I've made, but hopefully it'll be better to be embarrassed and alive than not; this medallion, I call it my Transhumanist bling".

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Mutually Assured Distraction

After watching All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace last night, I started thinking again about the climate change issue. As the programme talked through our collective failure to revolutionise ourselves as a leaderless, cooperative society, the lack of room in those ideals for the basic human natures of power and influence and how our own democracy works against us, making us individualistic, self-obsessed walking money bags, I started to think about our collective failure to handle or even properly address the fact that we're quite possibly screwed.

Imagine a protagonist in a story, set in a world that faces potential destruction in the hands of a population and governmental system who's relentless apathy and avarice blinds them to the obvious damage they're wreaking. Imagine that in that story, instead of attempting to change the situation, the protagonist simply ignored it or at best mildly worried about it sometimes. You'd probably think that the protagonist was a bit weak or that the author had chickened out of dealing with a complex problem; you'd probably have thought that you might have done things differently or at least cared more. Well, you didn't. And neither did I. In fact, not very many other people did either.

So why not? Why aren't we doing something about it? If your protagonist had been born into a doomed world, you'd naturally expect them to do something about it, right? Why aren't we that upset about being thrown the hot potato or mad about turning up to the party to find out all the drinks have gone and you've got to help tidy up? Why aren't we angrier?

Well, I think there are a couple of potential reasons, further to those I mentioned in my last post.

The first, as Machines... pointed out, depends upon the system that we've set up for ourselves. Our democracy encourages our individualistic tendencies towards self-serving goals; we care less because we're too busy looking at our own navels, worrying about how the products we buy define us as people.

Most of you reading this will, like me, have been born at the tail end of the last century; too young in the eighties to have understood the problem, cosily living out our teens in the naive Clinton wonder years bubble, cowering in fear of random terrorist attacks in our early twenties and more recently groaning at the latest round of public service cuts set out by our financial markets controlled government.

Since we became old enough to start getting what was going on, somehow other issues always seem to be getting in the way, which I presume has been happening much the same with previous generations to ours. Not even extreme examples of environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill really make much headway into the overall climate debate. There's always a bigger ticket news item, more directly affecting our lives that the one that's looming right there in front of us.

This is my second point really; as a people, we're not very good at reacting to foresight. It's much more in our nature to react to things that have happened than to things that might. Think about the recent protests against the spending cuts; why did we wait until after the government had made up its mind before kicking up a stink? We all knew it was coming, so why wait until afterwards? If we'd have acted up front, when the coalition was at its inception, perhaps we'd have had a better impact on the outcome. By protesting post the decision, we simply allowed the government to do what it wanted and then say "well you're stuck with it now" when we all started moaning.

Like I said before, collectively we're like children, unable to make the mature decision to stop eating sweets before our teeth rot out. Just as Machines... pointed out our inability to construct a truly egalitatian society due to our basic human desire for power, we're unable to unite ourselves to fix the planet due to other failings in our own nature.

My criticism of Machines... would be that it didn't present any solutions to the problems it laid out. It's easy to say things won't or don't work but harder to say what will. On my part, not being a scientist, I don't have a huge amount to suggest on the climate front, but one thought I'll finish with is that if our own human nature is the problem, perhaps if we can remove that from the equation, we might be ok? Perhaps the solution to humankind's immaturity is an external parent figure, taking the reins on the problems we can't bring ourselves to solve. Perhaps that solution is taking shape in our research into Artificial Intelligence? By creating a machine to think for us, to be driven by different motivations to us, perhaps we can eventually make the decisions that we've so far been unable to?

That said, in all likelihood, a truly intelligent machine created by humans would be subject to the very same humanity we are. If we train it to think, wouldn't it think exactly like we do? Perhaps hedging our bets on absolution isn't the answer either...

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Fixing the Planet: have we finally got some concrete options?

Fixing the Planet: have we finally got some concrete options?

I’ve been to a few talks recently at the British Museum as part of their Out of this World exhibition, the general theme being science fiction and whether a lot of what we might think of as science fiction is really about to become science fact. So far this has been a debate on what the future might ’mean’ to us, the looming potential technological revolution and yesterday’s topic, whether we can solve the climate problem.

I’m probably going to post a few things about the series, which has so far been excellent, but this one’s going to focus on the climate debate. The premise of the talk was about whether we now have some ‘concrete’ options on how to save the planet from our scorching, super sea-levels, not enough food and ‘everybody has a fairly dreadful time of things’ apocalyptic future (on a sliding scale of shitness, depending on who you listen to). Not being amazingly up on current cutting edge climate-fixing technologies, I thought the event sounded like a good way to learn about some and hopefully coming out of it thinking a bit more that the answer would be “yes”, rather than the usual “we’re all fucked”.

The panel consisted of several prominent climate-based people, Chris Goodall, a notable climate scientist; Claire Faust, a climate activist; Craig Sams, the founder of organic chocolatiers Green & Black’s; Chris Turney, Professor of Climate Change at the university of New South Wales and the Chair, Mark Stevenson, a popular science writer and author of The Optimist’s Tour of the Future. I’ve not read The Optimist’s Tour... but it sounds pretty good – basically he travelled around the world asking really super-scientists about what they were up to and reporting back that generally it sounds like the future’s going to be pretty cool (which I think we all agree hopefully involves hoverboards). Stevenson had been on the panel of the week’s earlier events and generally I found his opinions and approach to science to be engaging and, well, optimistic, in a sense of both the celebration of the science itself but also of the overall outcomes. In part, his attitudes are kind of what I want to get into here, but we’ll get to that later on.

The climate debate started with an overview of the problem and a quick summary of the major routes possible solutions are taking. One of the major things under discussion was biochar, a method of recarbonising soil by producing a kind of charcoal from trees, which when mixed with the soil causes the earth to re-absorb carbon and return to being the carbon-rich kind of soil that we had in the days of yore (apparently, modern soil and its contents has like 10% of the carbon that it used to; carbon that’s now in the atmosphere).

The relative merits of biochar were debated heavily by the panellists, namely the likelihood it would work and exactly how much of it we’d need, which seemed to be a lot (like a “we’d need to dedicate a fifth of the world’s arable land to making it” kind of amount). Arguably, that could be justifiable if it was the ultimate answer but you’d clearly need to be so absolutely completely certain it would work or don’t even bother trying to convince anyone to even start taking it seriously. And so the debate went on for a bit, as well as about a few other likely candidates for our salvation, each panellist voicing opinions for or against nuclear power etc, but ultimately never really reaching much in the way of an agreement.

After a while, I started to think about the question posed by the event and whether I felt we were getting any closer to answering it – my conclusions were definitely heading towards the negative. I’d also made a few notes about things like dealing with climate change deniers, the overall negativity of climate science and the unreasonable expectations that some climate activists have (such as trying to bring down or radically change capitalism or global economics or calling for us all to return to our tribal roots and live in a yurt hunting rabbits). Sitting in that lecture hall listening to some really outstandingly knowledgeable individuals debate the options made just me think “if these people can’t decide what to do, then how the hell am I supposed to?”

Based on what I learned over the course of the event and on what I knew beforehand, I think we probably do have some serious options about fixing the planet; some of those options may still only be at the design stage, some may be more efficient or practical than others and any likely overall solution is likely to need to be comprised of many smaller ones rather than one big fix, but we definitely have some really strong ideas to start making progress. If that’s the case then why did I still feel as though we weren’t getting anywhere?

Climate change is a stone-cold proven fact and, although we might not be able to say for certain exactly what the consequences of it may be, we do know that they’re almost certainly going to be extremely serious and this is what made me realise that the question the event had set out to answer – do we have any concrete options to fix the planet – wasn’t the right question to be asking at all; what we should have been asking is “do we even have a concrete message about fixing the planet?”

I felt that although no one at the talk doubted the validity of climate change or the relevance of climate science I felt that if someone had spoken up against it, they would have derailed the whole conversation, certainly for a good while, and this is really where the problem lies: people who speak out against climate change are taken just as seriously or at least given an equal platform as those who try and raise our awareness, regardless of how qualified they may be to comment on the issue. Why isn’t Jeremy Clarkson dragged kicking and screaming into the news more often for voicing his idiotic and naive opinions, just as he would if he’d suddenly jumped on the homophobe bandwagon? Why do we allow oil companies who clearly have a vested interest in denying climate change to voice theirs?

In my opinion, climate science needs to wake up. Anyone with half a brain can work out that we’re doing awful things to the planet, so why do we allow that message to get denied, subverted or derailed by those with other agendas (which are now agendas on a rapidly decreasing timescale unless they stop acting like dicks, by the way)? The problem is that a massive part of the population is just not exposed to the facts in an engaging and educational way; it’s probably not the job of actual scientists to directly engage the public in the majority of subjects – they certainly don’t have to on this scale for most other topics (apart from maybe stem cells and GM foods) – and frankly I think their time is better spent doing what they do best, but what we need is for the scientific community to find a better way of putting their message across; more Brian Cox celebrating the science and less the University of East Anglia being dragged around by it, if you like.

Climate science also needs to get away from its obsession with declaring incomprehensible facts, the public isn’t equipped to deal with the data in the same way scientists are – “so what if the sea rises ten centimetres in ten years, ten centimetres is nothing”, “so we’re only putting an extra tenth of the carbon into the atmosphere that occurs naturally, how can only a tenth make a difference?” - the numbers themselves aren’t what’s important, it’s the impact of those numbers. Telling people about the sea level rise is one thing, telling them that a billion climate refugees might arrive at their doorstep in ten years is another.

The public are the key; convince them and you start convincing governments that come election time, they’d better start pulling out their green guns; convince the public and you start getting them to want to buy products that they know are economically and environmentally sustainable; do that and companies and corporations are going to change their policies; after that follows the markets and so on. In some respects it’s already happening - look at how many zero-carbon and electric cars have just come on the market – that’s great but it’s obvious - cars are the first thing people think of that burns fossil fuels, so an obvious status symbol for the greener citizens – let’s build on that and start pushing for zero-carbon energy companies and the like.... well, maybe it’s not quite as simple as that but you get the idea. If the public care then it’s a shorter walk until everything else starts to have to.

We also need to start helping to protect our climate scientists. The vast majority of them are doing incredibly complex work that requires the kind of skills that most of us will never have, to try and solve what may be the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. They’re not working to create an apocalyptic climate smokescreen just so that they can stay in their jobs; I would imagine most of them would love to be able to empirically prove that climate change wasn’t real as, not only would it immediately make them the world’s most famous scientist, but they’d be extremely relieved in the knowledge that we might actually make it into the next century. Unfortunately, for them, all the results that come back show that climate change is very real and very serious. What I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t allow those with opposing agendas to interfere with the science. If scientists can’t work because they’re bombarded with Freedom of Information requests, or feeling threatened about simply being honest, then we need to ensure that our legislation and media are doing the job of condemning the instigators, rather than the scientists that suffer.

The last thing I’m going to say is that climate change is sold as about the single most depressing subject ever, pretty much wall to wall doom and gloom. Perhaps it’s time we started getting away from the negativity of the apocalyptic future and start looking at the positive and pro-active things that can be done to avert or change it. Humanity’s next biggest challenge is surviving its own achievements; it’s about growing up rather than growing fat; it’s about progress in maturity rather than progress in greed. Let’s phrase the question like you would to a child: what do you want to be when you grow up? The first answer everyone gives is “alive”.