Screen-capture from YouTube: Google Tech TalksI am frequently guilty of ranting, panic, and gross hyperbole on this blog. I get carried away with some ideas, especially political ones, and make a bigger noise than is in any way warranted. I’m not sorry: This is my blog and I’ll rant if I want to, because it’s fun.

In my opinion, this post is not hyperbole and not a rant:

In my considered opinion, I honestly believe that I have just watched the dawn of a new age.

WARNING: This video is blurry footage of a wizened old physicist with lots of charts and diagrams and high-energy-physics jargon. If you’re not into the physics (which are seriously funky if you are into that kind of thing) then the ramifications of this system are beautifully summed up in the ten minutes from 59:30 to 1:10:00, and the practical considerations and somewhat embarrassing politics of the matter are well discussed in the questions after 1:10:00.

For those disinclined or unable to do the streaming-video thing for ten minutes, I would sum it up thus:

Dr Robert Bussard’s research group have been looking at a lateral approach to the magnetically confined fusion problem for the past eleven years. They have been doing this in a DARPA-funded laborotory in relative secrecy because their approach is practical, feasible and relatively cheap, making it anathema to the dual vested interests of conventional Tokamak-based fusion research and fossil-fuel economics.

Their system uses a spherical magnetic containment field to produce a clean (radiation free) fusion reaction, without molten lithium or multi-billion dollar building-sized toroids.

The important point of the video is that they’ve already done it. They made it work in a machine the size of a domestic oven, on a shoestring budget, with a team of five people.

Some weeks ago, when I started reading Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla I was struck by the attitude of the great minds of the time, one which saw physical science as malleable and controllable, a field in which one brilliant idea in one ordinary human mind in one brief human lifetime could reshape the world.
This attitude, I recall saying to PFH at the time, is something which seems to be missing in modern science: That kind of glory is seen as being firmly beyond the reach of individuals, or even individual research groups. Everything is to be refined and tested in infinitesimal steps, and there will never be another great revolution like Tesla’s AC power system, or so our scientific community is expected to believe.

Seeing this talk has convinced me that I was wrong, or at least partly wrong. A lot of Dr. Bussard’s concluding comments say exactly the same thing: he’s been closeted with his research group behind closed doors for eleven years, and now it’s very rare to find anyone experienced in this kind of science.

I was wrong though, because Bussard and his team exist. As he says during the questions, somewhere, somehow, the concluding research is being done. A viable fusion power source is being perfected, and I will probably live to see it come to fruition.

It’s hard to be calm in the face of such things.

As one with the machine

Reading and watching a lot of Fantasy and Science Fiction, one comes across a lot of elegant ideas and no small amount of wish-fulfillment. Some of these ideas are catchy because they’re so elegant or kooky. Space elevators totally rock! Others are appealing because they stimulate our imagination. Nanotech is the scariest thing since Margaret Thatcher! But there are some that stick in my mind (I can’t speak for anyone else on this) like fish-hooks, because they’re just so desirable:

  • The cell-by-cell healing machine.Shipdoc
    If you’re a freaky healthy person who has never been seriously injured, horribly unwell, or even moderately unfit, you won’t get this. The idea as various authors use it is just that one can build a perfect medical-care machine which can look at an entire human body and fix anything that isn’t ideal. The superficial idea is cool because it yields a bunch of traditional holy grails like clinical immortality, endless youth, effortless fitness, and the instant gratification of removing all physical pain.
    In fact, it gives you the potential for a kind of confidence in your own wellbeing that no real-world person can ever have: to know that you’re healthy: no lurking subtle problem, just waiting for the right moment to leap out and ruin your life, or end it.
    What really gets me about this idea though, is the thought of impossibe things like genuinely perfect skin. Even if it only lasted for half an hour, imagine every microscopic fleck of dirt removed, every irritated follicle soothed, every tiniest scar or irregularity gone without trace.
  • TeleportationTransporter Room
    Again, if you’ve never commuted in city traffic, or endured interminable intercontinental air-flight, This may not ring true.
    If, like me, you spend more than an hour (or two) of every weekday struggling through the tortuous tedium of an urban commute, you can probably already see it: You get up in the morning much later and do your normal routine, you kiss your loved-one goodbye and step into that fictional booth by the door… and you’re at work. Instantly. Coming home at night (or for lunch, or to change your shirt, or to take a personal phone call… you get the idea) is just as trivial.
    But again, that’s the superficial view. Instead, consider: is there a restaurant (or a family kitchen) anywhere in the world where you remember having a fantastic meal, and you frequently wish you were there, or reminisce fondly to distract yourself from your packet-soup. Imagine if it was as easy to go there, any time, as to walk from your study to the kitchen. That would of course go for everything. You can visit your friends anywhere at a whim. You can live anywhere you like, regardless of where your friends live, or where you work, or where the kids go to school. Now that’s something to fantasize about.
  • Direct neurological learningHow to fly a B12B helicopter
    This has always been the most desirable idea, for me: Like Neo suddenly acquiring kung-fu, or Trinity learning to fly a helicopter, you just choose the trick you want to master, the topic you want to cram, and stuff it directly into your brain. Imagine: you decide you want to do make a rose-garden, so you take the wall of rose lore from a big library, and you just upload it into your head, like reading every book, but without the hours of tedium, the eyestrain, or the sheer investment of time paid out from your ever-dwindling four-score-and-ten.
    Then think bigger.
    You want to beef up your general knowledge? Upload Wikipedia into your head, complete with reference and commentary on potential bias.
    No, bigger.
    A net-pundit whose name escapes me recently pointed out that a ten-terabyte piece of personal storage is no longer an unreasonable or infeasible thing, and that in such a store, one could keep a complete audio/video record of every second of one’s entire life. In itself, this is an intriguing and quite spooky idea, but taken with the idea of the machine as a natural extension of the mind: Imagine perfect photographic recall of your entire life, even when you were asleep.
    I know Kung-fu You’re a theoretical scientist. You have a complex theory, or theories, from the edge of your field, which synthesize breakthroughs in several adjacent fields. You don’t know enough about the neighbouring fields to really properly test this theory yet though, and neither does any other individual human being. So, you go round the leading minds in those fields, and borrow their life-recordings for their latest twenty years work, including all of their own postgraduate study. You upload it all. Now, suddenly, you’re an expert in all of those fields. Not only do you have all the underpinnings your theory could ever need, you now have the practical experience to empirically test it too.
    Must remember to keep that appointment with the super-synthesist tomorrow to loan her your vastly expanded life-record.
    I’m sure you get the idea.

Environmentalism, Space and The Spin-Doctor

I generally avoid environmentalism as an issue on my blog because I fear the power of fatigue and denial: Everyone in the world who hasn’t been living in a skinner box for the past thirty to sixty years is suffering from some kind of fatigue and living in some level of denial about sustainability, pollution, global warming and the mind-buggeringly vast array of potential issues that flock with them. You think you’re not fatigued by them or in denial about them? Convince me that your whole life really is zero-impact then, go on. Convince me that you still stop and read every piece of news you can get your hands on regarding global warming (to pick one single issue) and the political machinations that go with it. Then, having done that, tell me how your plans take into account the actions of the rest of humanity in order to guarantee a safe and happy future for yourself.

The fatigue and denial are natural things. It makes me a little sad to see people like Jeremy Clarkson becoming actively hostile in their denial, but it doesn’t surprise me, and I don’t hold it against him: This kind of reaction is inevitable.

I would usually like to think of myself as an environmentalist (to some extent) and a communist (likewise), but readers will note that this blog has a marked lack of references to The Revolution or The People (except in jest). This is because, while I think Communism is an archetype of the ideal government, I fail to see:

  • A practical way to get there from here, right now.
  • A complete or consistent model for how it’s going to be made practical.
  • A sufficiently large or urgent demand for radical change.

Instead, I have leanings: I like to encourage communal organizations and economic structures where they crop up. I am always careful to vote with socialist leanings in mind. I try to foster an interest in others in concepts like how industrialization makes the agrarian work-ethic increasingly inappropriate. I frequently tout Iain M Banks’ “Culture” novels (or Ursula Le Guin) to friends. 🙂 I avoid even mentioning the strong left-wing papers or classic Communist writers for the same reason that sane modern Chrisitians don’t like to talk about Jack Chick or carry a bible for the purpose of quoting it. Why is it, do you think, that in a world where open-source software is a vast and growing industry, so fe people know or care about Richard Stallman and the FSF, who arguably started it all? People get tired. People especially get tired of being told that their hard work, their glories, their achievements and their luxuries, generally earned in good faith, are wrong and bad, and must be given up or undone. In fact, I think people get tired of being told that anything is bad and wrong in a generalised or dogmatic kind of way.

Wow! Long rant. Apologies for the fatigue, folks. 🙂

My point in all of this is that environmentalism, arguably one of the most important causes in human history, has really bad spin. I never really understood what spin was until I met my first expectation manager

Businesses that Sell something usually aim to achieve Customer Satisfaction. i.e. ensuring that the Quality of the Product meets The Customer’s Expectations. All the obvious parts (the parts any business wants us, the public to see) of said business are about ensuring the Quality of the Product. You know; making sure that the product lives up to expectations. The secret part is that this is a two-way process. Roles like Marketing and Sales are tinged with it, but only the role of Expectation Manager is really frank and honest about this part.

An Expectation Manager is someone who ensures that the buying public’s expectations are kept on a par with what the company actually makes. This is not about selling the product as the be-all and end all, but it’s not about negativity either. It’s about finding the strengths in what you have, and elaborating on them. The customer has never felt the need for a hard-drive in their pocket before, but having their own music collection to play wherever they go, that’s cool. How did they live without it?

So, how do we spin environmentalism? Same way you spin anything.
(warning: may contain traces of sarcasm)

  1. Environmentalism is not hard. It’s easy.
    (Marketing and Engineering can worry about making this true, or making it seem true).
  2. Environmentalism is not boring, sad, or angry. It’s fun.
    (State-of-mind stuff. Sell the whole package right, and it will be true).
  3. Environmentalism is not nerdy, fringe or elitist. It’s cool.
    (Say it loud enough, often enough and it becomes true. Brainwashing is your friend).

As long as Environmentalism takes the form of trying to punish the naughty consumers for buying stuff and using stuff, to berate the naughty companies for making a (profitable) mess, it will continue to have all the sex-appeal of a jail term. To sell it, it has to be a positive thing. It has to look easy, fun, and worthwhile. I’m not being defeatist or cynical about this: maybe mankind does possess enough wit to react intelligently to a threat like global warming, maybe it doesn’t. The odds are that such a reaction will be late, half-hearted, and involve euqal parts bitterness and suffering. For certain though, humanity knows how to follow trends and learn new tricks. We know how to rise to technical challenges, to manage impossibly expensive things like the space race. We know how to suddenly start using radios… and telephones… and TVs… and mobile phones… and eBay… and iPhones… and… and…

Environmentalism (maybe under an assumed name, the old one has cooties) just needs to be the next killer product, or products. How? That’s engineering’s problem. 🙂

For example, we could be Colonizing Planet Earth.

Oooh. I ranted. Sawry…


It’s Official!

Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds

Pardon me while I rant and rave, cackle and chortle and foam at the mouth and dance complicated little victory dances to the strains of Thick as a Brick.

And at last, disco/punk fascism is dead! It may have been acceptable in the eighties, but now it’s buried, strangled by its own children, the likes of The Scissor Sisters, to give birth to The New Prog! We can have songs for the brain again! Single tracks can run on for half an hour without shame! Albums can even have a plot if they want to!

Hell, even Trent Reznor can make a story album!

Some of us never stopped believing.

Caffeine-induced megalomania

JavaOh god I love caffeine! Welcome back into my life O wonder drug.

This post finds me half an hour after my second coffee of the day, a very fine cappuccino  courtesy of the Food Inc. at the bottom of the tower. At this point I am still talking waaay to fast and feeling deliciously omnipotent. I have just come from a meeting in which I introduced the two managers who control my job and who hadn’t ever properly met before to each other. It rocked. In another 25 minutes I will be running off to another meeting (at which I am at risk of being fed more coffee!) with a guy who has been the intermittent bane of my existance and one of the aforementioned managers. In the interim I have to read a dense five-page project plan and work out how I feel about it so that I can speak coherently and lucidly about it in the meeting. Nonetheless, I am pausing to write this blog post (insanely quickly and with minimal quality control) because caffiene has made me ALL POWERFUL and I am quite confident that I can do ANYTHING in fifteen minutes or LESS! I know that a crash will likely follow the boom, but right now I DON’T CARE! 🙂