Normally it’s rather difficult to get the news media to lose their shit like a bunch of screeching schoolkids over a story like, “Defense Manufacturer Offers New Product That Makes Incremental Advances on Existing, Widely-Used Technology.” But fortunately for Israeli defense manufacturer Rafael, the maker of the Iron Dome short-range air defense system, reporters don’t always understand what it is they’re reporting on.
– Ryan Faith
…mobile phone technology!
VICE has a very interesting report, looking at at how the US military is adjusting to the astonishingly rapid proliferation and deployment of cheap drone technology. Faced with using multi million dollar weapons platforms firing munitions costing hundreds of thousands of dollars against these things, they are seeking more feasible ways to counter air threats costing thousands or even mere hundreds of dollars. And the threat is not hypothetical: even the daesh Islamic State claims fairly plausibly to be using cheap reconnaissance drones right now, and Hezbollah appears to have fairly sophisticated armed drones (fast forward to 1:25 or thereabouts to see the boom and hear the invocations to Admiral Ackbar or whatever). We really are entering a new era not just commercially but also militarily.
Great confidence is being expressed about how robot cars are about to change the world. Robot cars, says a typical headline that Google (one of the prime movers in this new technology) has just today alerted me to, may be coming sooner than you think. But doubts are also being expressed:
A good technology demonstration so wows you with what the product can do that you might forget to ask about what it can’t.
Case in point: Google’s self-driving car. There is a surprisingly long list of the things the car can’t do, like avoid potholes or operate in heavy rain or snow.
Yet a consensus has emerged among many technologists, policymakers, and journalists that Google has essentially solved – or is on the verge of solving – all of the major issues involved with robotic driving.
“Essentially”. That’s a word that often means “not”. And “on the verge of” often signals a problem that turns out to be hideously intractable, as year after year passes with nobody any nearer to a definitive answer. I seem to recall an entire British high speed train project being abandoned because they just could not make the tilting of the carriages work perfectly. It worked okay, but okay wasn’t good enough. It had to be perfect, and perfection proved elusive. Here is what wikipedia says about that, for whatever wikipedia may be worth when reporting a story that remains controversial.
Even that constantly repeated refrain about how robot cars are coming “sooner than you think” is, if you think some more, an acknowledgement from robot car boosters that there are actually widespread doubts out there in the regular, non-techy world about how well these devices really will work, and how completely, above all how quickly, all the problems that they will face have really been and will really be solved. Yes, the techies will eventually get their robot cars working, probably. But for a few more years yet, there will surely be a nasty little clutch both of known unknowns and of unknown unknowns to deal with, all of which will have to be thoroughly dealt with. Crucially, such problems will all have to be solved. If robot cars get the go-ahead and work flawlessly for two months, followed by a lurid catastrophe like something out of a disaster movie, when a bunch of robot cars all follow each other into a swamp or over a cliff, or just run amuck and kill dozens or even hundreds in one catastrophe like in a plane crash, then their introduction will be judged a failure rather than given nine out of ten for technical accomplishment and an A plus for effort.
This strikes me as a lot more immediately promising:
→ Continue reading: Robot lorries now seem to me more immediately promising than robot cars
Imagine audio and video bugs get better and better. Maybe in the form of tiny physical cameras, maybe as viruses that will eventually succeed in penetrating any computer, phone or similar device, maybe as some kind of broadcast or field. There is parallel progress in the science of searching through audio-visual records. Eventually every house, every room, every human body is bugged – saturated with bugs. Of course most of the time no one is interested in you. But if ever you become interesting, they can watch you, not just now, but at any time going back years. What you were doing on any given day. Every time you sang along to your ipod, had sex, mentioned the word “government”. But “they” is not just the government; it is anyone.
Bishop Hill has linked to what he calls a “magnificent” polemical book review by a man from the other camp, Martin W. Lewis, who speaks from the conviction that “anthropogenic climate change is a huge problem that demands determined action.”
Magnificent it is. Magnificently funny, as in the bit about the pussycat apocalypse; and magnificently right about what is wrong with The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.
Oreskes and Conway’s authoritarian inclinations are seemingly linked to their contempt for the West, which they identify with a dangerous devotion to personal freedom. The most telling passage to this effect is found in the authors’ interview, where Erik Conway states:
To me, [The Collapse of Western Civilization] is hopeful. There will be a future for humanity, even if one no longer dominated by “Western Culture.”
No matter that Oreskes and Conway see every last person in Africa perishing, they still apparently find such a scenario promising as long as Western Culture perishes in the process.
As noted at the beginning of this essay, tens of millions of people have reached the conclusion that anthropogenic climate change is a giant hoax perpetuated by corrupt scientific and journalistic establishments. In their previous book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway attribute such benighted views to the money and machinations of oil companies and other organizations with financial interests in the status quo. While I would not deny that such factors play a role, they do not provide a full account. Of particular significance are the writings of green extremists such as Oreskes and Conway themselves. By putting forth grotesque exaggerations, by engaging in misleading reportage, and by embracing authoritarian if not totalitarian politics, they discredit their own cause. The Collapse of Western Civilization, in short, reads as if it were part of a great conspiracy, one that that seemingly rests on an insincere approach to evidence and argumentation.
Martin Lewis also highlights an area of particular interest to me. Apparently Oreskes and Conway disapprove of those “overwhelmingly male” * physical scientists who concentrate on narrow “physical constituents and processes”, “to the neglect of biological and social realms.” Lewis quotes Oreskes and Conway as going so far as to regard statistical significance as an outmoded concept. Lewis writes further,
Although many of the key scientific questions of the day do indeed demand, as Oreskes and Conway write, an “understanding of the crucial interactions between physical, biological, and social realms,” it is equally imperative to recognize that most do not. Most of the issues addressed by chemists, physicists, and geologists have nothing to do with the social realm, and must be examined through a “reductionistic” lens if they are to be approached scientifically. To insist instead that they must be framed in a socio-biological context is to reject the methods of science at a fundamental level. Such a tactic risks reviving the intellectual atmosphere that led the Soviet Union to the disaster of ideologically contaminated research known as Lysenkoism. In the final analysis, the denial of science encountered in The Collapse of Western Civilization thus runs much deeper than that found among even the most determined climate-change skeptics, as it pivots on much more basic epistemological and methodological issues.
This passage describes one type of catastrophist error about science very well. I would like to point out, however, that it is not the only type. There are also catastrophists who propagate, some knowingly, some not, the opposite error. I refer to those who, rather than dismissing the Gradgrind-like definiteness of physics and chemistry, seek to borrow their reputation for precision and certainty in order to cloak the naked fact that no such certainty is even close to being achieved in the study and modelling of of climate systems.
*And boy, or rather girl, does that irrelevant slighting reference to the scientists’ presumed gender tell you nearly everything you need to know about Oreskes and Conway’s attitude to science.
Optimistic science fiction does not create a belief in technological progress. It reflects it. Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people – that, in short, leaves out consumers. This perspective is particularly odd coming from a fiction writer and a businessman whose professional work demonstrates a keen sense of what people will buy. People are justifiably wary of grandiose plans that impose major costs on those who won’t directly reap their benefits. They’re even more wary if they believe that the changes of the past have brought only hardship and destruction. If Stephenson wants to make people more optimistic about the future and more likely to undertake difficult technological challenges, he shouldn’t waste his time writing short stories about two-kilometer-high towers.
– Virginia Postrel.
I rececntly ordered a water circulating heater for sous vide cooking. I do not like cooking all that much, but the controllability and repeatability of sous vide, along with the opportunity to play with a new gadget, appeal to my not-so-inner geek. To make the most of it, I ordered a copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home. It is a home version of the original Modernist Cuisine book that comprises six volumes and 2,400 pages and deconstructs the science of cooking. It is part of the molecular gastronomy movement in cooking, an attempt to make cooking more science-y. This appeals to me also because normal cookbooks are oppressive: “Do this!” they say, without ever explaining why. From their random examples I am unable to build a mental model of what is going on, so I can only follow the instructions blindly and wonder why I failed. And the jargon in cookbooks is incomprehensible; I am much more likely to be able to understand a science book.
Nathan Myhrvold is a principal author of Modernist Cuisine. He was the CTO of Microsoft and later went on to found Intellectual Ventures, which buys patents and licenses then to companies who are being patent trolled, though others have accused them of patent trolling themselves. An offshoot of this is Intellectual Ventures Lab, which does research and applies for patents and contains the kitchen where the cookbook was developed.
Myhrvold is a global warming believer, though he annoyed all the right people when he appeared in a chapter in Superfreakonomics suggesting that we might reverse the effects of man-made global warming with other man-made technology, instead of by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And he is a proponent of nuclear power as a solution. Intellectual Ventures Labs began work on a travelling wave reactor, a type of nuclear reactor that runs on U-238, which reduces the need for enriching. TerraPower is now one of many subsidiaries, and is developing the reactor.
Between this, thorium, and a host of other reactor designs, I am hopeful about the technology of nuclear power, we just need the politics to catch up. A micro nuclear reactor was proposed in Alaska but, “the project never began the mandatory, lengthy and extremely costly process of gaining approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission…which takes tens of millions of dollars and several years”.
Talk about ingenuity! That thing does not looks very RPG-resistant, so it very wisely has a top mounted camera so it can fire from behind cover!
But guys, it is an improvised armoured ambulance, not a ‘tank’.
Bishop Hill has a posting up today about the gigantic folly that is the D(epartment) of E(nergy) and C(limate) C(hange).
Says the Bishop:
As we look at UK energy policy now, DECC has had the country make a massive financial gamble on the back of a prediction that was wholly unfounded and which has been obviously so for many years. We now learn that DECC has also distributed this astonishing wave of public money in a manner that can only be described as monstrously incompetent, and which many will assume to be monstrously corrupt…
Comment (Oct 3 9.32am) from “fen tiger”:
I have a relative who works at DECC, and has done since getting his masters. He’s an environmental economist (one of many in DECC, I imagine), briefing the likes of Huhne, Davey, and Gummer. He appears to know nothing whatever about the climate question, but is fully invested in the warming scare (condition of employment, I guess).
Closing DECC would obviously benefit the country: but it would also benefit many of those who work there. My relative is not an untruthful man, but he has worked since leaving university in an environment where systematic untruthfulness and wishful thinking are the norm; an environment where the taxpayer would get better value if he were paid to stay at home and do nothing. He desperately needs to get out and find a real job (although his qualifications won’t help with that).
This comment is anonymous partly because I don’t want to foment a family rift, and partly because I am ashamed of having a family member employed in this way.
But how to close DECC?
“Roger Tallbloke” (Oct 3 9.08am) had already commented earlier, thus:
Strategic action on the part of the consumer could actually make a difference and help get rid of DECC. This action is quite simple, and won’t take long or cost the consumer anything. Here’s what they need to do.
Would that work? Is this a case where your vote might actually make a difference?
UKIP has turned into a me-too operation on most of the big items of state spending, as Ben Kelly writes in this Libertarian Home report of the recent UKIP conference. But on UKIP’s energy policies, Kelly writes this:
Energy – Ah, Roger Helmer; an intelligent and articulate man, an asset until you get him on the subject of gays or the finer details of rape. Then it’s hide behind your hands time. Luckily he was simply talking about energy policy today. He wants to scrap the Climate Change Act, cut all green taxes, end subsidies for wind farms and get fracking, creating a sovereign wealth fund with the tax income. It is the Guardian’s worst nightmare, and I like it.
Me too. It would be a worse Guardian nightmare if there wasn’t that bit there about “creating a sovereign wealth fund with the tax income”. But when it comes to voting, the question is not: What gets me everything? It is: Does anything get me anything?
Apple and Google recently stated that they intend to encrypt-by-default in future mobile phones, and the FBI does not like it one bit. Interesting.
But then again, I asked a highly skilled technical chum of mine about this a few days ago:
What is your technical take on this? Is this a welcome development or bullshit?
And his reply was:
Somewhere between. Trust in closed-source product is hard to build.
Still… the fact the FBI is bleating is heartening. But it is true that we need to keep in mind that these are indeed closed-source products, thus we really do only have Apple and Google’s word for it that they will be as secure as they say they will be.
I am in the midst of cleaning my home in advance of a meeting this evening. That is a big task, still not nearly done, so I will be brief. Read all of this, if not now then very soon. It’s about climate scientists and the immoral fools that they are almost all now making of themselves.
It is by “Katabasis” (and yes it is indeed disgusting that he has to use a pseudonym for saying it so like it is (he explains why)), and it deserves to go viral.
I have spent years cheering on the efforts of those who have unmasked those political activists dressed as scientists who, still, peddle the CAGW line (on second thoughts: skip that n). What Katabasis does is nail what you might call the anti-anti-CAGW peddlers for the immoral fence-sitting cowards that they are. This is an absolute masterpiece of the polemicist’s art, and I am very, very envious. Not being any sort of climate scientist, I could not possibly have written it myself but I still wish I had. Go read.
I recall, in the very early days of the personal computer, articles, in magazines like Personal Computer World, which expressed downright opposition to the idea of technological progress in general, and progress in personal computers in particular. There was apparently a market for such notions, in the very magazines that you would think would be most gung-ho about new technology and new computers. Maybe the general atmosphere of gung-ho-ness created a significant enough minority of malcontents that the editors felt they needed to nod regularly towards it. I guess it does make sense that the biggest grumbles about the hectic pace of technological progress would be heard right next to the places where it is happening most visibly.
Whatever the reasons were for such articles being in computer magazines, I distinctly remember their tone. I have recently, finally, got around to reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, and she clearly identifies the syndrome. The writers of these articles were scared of the future and wanted that future prevented, perhaps by law but mostly just by a sort of universal popular rejection of it, a universal desire to stop the world and to get off it. “Do we really need” (the words “we” and “need” cropped up in these PCW pieces again and again), faster central processors, more RAM, quicker printers, snazzier and bigger and sharper and more colourful screens, greater “user friendlinesss”, …? “Do we really need” this or that new programme that had been reported in the previous month’s issue? What significant and “real” (as opposed to frivolous and game-related) problems could there possibly be that demanded such super-powerful, super-fast, super-memorising and of course, at that time, super-expensive machines for their solution? Do we “really need” personal computers to develop, in short, in the way that they have developed, since these grumpy anti-computer-progress articles first started being published in computer progress magazines?
The usual arguments in favour of fast and powerful, and now mercifully far cheaper, computers concern the immensity of the gobs of information that can now be handled, quickly and powerfully, by machines like the ones that we have now, as opposed to what could be handled by the first wave of personal computers, which could manage a small spreadsheet or a short text file or a very primitive computer game, but very little else. And of course that is true. I can now shovel vast quantities of photographs (a particular enthusiasm of mine) hither and thither, processing the ones I feel inclined to process in ways that only Hollywood studios used to be able to do. I can make and view videos (although I mostly stick to viewing). And I can access and even myself add to that mighty cornucopia that is the internet. And so on. All true. I can remember when even the most primitive of photos would only appear on my screen after several minutes of patient or not-so-patient waiting. Videos? Dream on. Now, what a world of wonders we can all inhabit. In another quarter of a century, what wonders will there then be, all magicked in a flash into our brains and onto our desks, if we still have desks. The point is, better computers don’t just mean doing the same old things a bit faster; they mean being able to do entirely new things as well, really well.
→ Continue reading: Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old