Don’t Panic

A cheerful, and not-at-all anxious or paranoid post, from a Thorne who would never drink too much coffee on a Monday morning…

Don’t Google swine flu. Don’t think about Australia/NZ customs.

They're everywhere

Don’t go reading upsetting articles about the likelihood of fresh terrorism.

Don’t look too closely at current economic trends, things must be turning around.

After all, it’s not like economic downturn will have any impact on Peak Oil, or Peak Food.

If you’re reading about Global Warming, don’t read anything that talks about Tipping Points.

Worried about Civil Liberties? Don’t be, this is 2009: We all know better than to foster Police States.

…no links today, because there’s nothing to link to. Move along citizen.

Whatever you do, pay no attention to the sarcasm tag to the right. No! I told you not to do that! Stop it! Stop it at once!

What if fearmongering was a crime?

This is really just a sketch of an idea, but it rang so many different bells the moment it came to me, I thought I should share it…

I won’t turn this into a linkfest. If you want to see the kind of fearmongering I’m talking about, google anti-terrorism campaigns, anti-photography hysteria and anti-vaccination freaking action groups. Harder to search for, you could look at race/class/religious-hate baiting, since time immemorial. Look at the most vacuous pure-negative elements of every political campaign. Look at advertising of all kinds, bent on instilling, for example, a Howard-Hughes-esque obsession with hygiene.

As matters stand, we have legal barriers to false advertising. Advertisers do their best to leak around the edges, but the most blatant kinds of falsehood can be met with a legal rebuff.

Suppose, in the same vein, we could take legal action against someone who made a sustained effort to provoke a fearful reaction, without being able to substantiate their claims? Suppose there was a government body whose role was to pursue this kind of crime, warn people, and take action against the heedless.

Would this be a good thing? It seems to me that this would fix a huge number of problems, while being a relatively easy thing to measure and police. I’m sure there must be a catch… or why aren’t we already doing it?

A Response to Doctorow’s ‘Outquisition’

This is all about a particular BoingBoing post which I found particularly irritating. I would have posted something in the comments, or on the site itself, but in either case:

  1. I don’t fancy debating this with some of the more extreme foam-lipped loons who seem to inhabit either forum.
  2. The sheer volume of commentary in either forum would drown me out (yeah, I’m a selfish egoist; this is my blog.) and I shake with fear at the thought of the tsunami of follow-on emails.

So:

The Outquisition idea glosses over a lot of intractable real-world economic and social problems, and, as many, many commenters observed, is vastly arrogant in its assumptions about ‘knowing better’ than everyone else.

A more honest, somewhat less arrogant take would be to create a ‘technology evangelism movement’.
This leaves out the naive and pompous idea that new technology can solve everyone’s problems, or that blogging tech-groupies are somehow smarter than everyone else.

Instead, it focuses on the traditional role of the religious missionary: to take some dogma and shiny beads and go use the beads to spread the infectious memes, even (especially?) where they’re not currently wanted or needed. The engadget/BB-gadgets crowd already do this without really thinking about it.

Consider, if you will, a yuppie with a new iPhone, traveling out of his trendy urban home to visit his parents and their friends, trumpeting the virtues of his new toy from the rooftops at every opportunity. The yuppie can list a dozen reasons why an iPhone will change your life and solve all your problems, and he has the technological shiny-beads to dazzle his listeners with.

The dynamic is just the same: the new dogma brings with it a world of complication and ritual which ultimately costs the new converts more than it gives them, destroys their existing skill-sets, culture and traditions, and leaves the newcomers as second-class citizens in the promised land anyway. Those who refuse to adopt the new ways are abandoned, spurned.
The new community absorbs things like access to work and traditional support networks, leaving the outsiders to fend for themselves, often effectively driving them out of town.

To be fair, I would have to point out that I am a devout follower of the cult of tech. As a sysadmin I may even qualify as some kind of clergy. I draw the line, however, at gratuitous evangelism. I find the idea of missionary crusades downright offensive.

This kind of evangelism smacks of insecurity, a desperation to thrust ones own interests on the world and make them mainstream, thus avoiding the question of whether they have any merit.

Just because I’m into it doesn’t make it right.

ALL UR MEMEZ…

Mododrum, shameless purveyor of contagious memes inflicted this  one on me…

1. Did you cry today?

No, although I nearly howled with rage at one point, at work no less!

2. What were you doing at 8.00am this morning?

Sitting on a train, reading Iain M Banks’ Matter and enjoying it immensely.

3. What were you doing 30 minutes ago?

Readin’ mah smokin’ feedz in Google Reader.

4. What was something that happened to you in 1992?

I achieved the greatest efficiency and productivity as a VCE student that I probably ever will.

5. What is your Mum’s Mums name?

These days? Gillian Annwn, or possibly Briony, depending on who/when you ask. Edit: Oops! That should probably be the late Thelma McMahon.

6. Words to explain why you last threw up?

Food poisoning, I think it was. It was bad; these things happen to me very rarely.

7. What color is your hairbrush?

My What? You mistake me for someone with a use for such a thing. :)

8. What was the last thing you bought?

Breakfast & coffees for myself & workmates.

9. Name 5 things you want to do before you die?

  1. Travel through the UK and western Europe.
  2. Live some infinitesimal, tiny part of the future envisaged in Diamond Age.
  3. Be a better father than mine was.
  4. Be honestly, completely alright, at least once.
  5. SOME-THING. THAT MATTERS!

10. What did you eat for breakfast?

Eggs benedict and a croissant in the cafe under my office to cheer myself up.

11. Where did your last hug take place?

In the kitchen, with E, waiting for the kettle to boil.

12. Are you ticklish?

If you need to ask, the answer’s ‘no’.

13. Are you typically a jealous person?

No.

14. Favorite animal?

The Cat.

15. Last gift received?

A Genki Inversion Table, a terrifyingly cool early anniversary present from E.

16. Who’s the last person to call you?

My Dad, although he got my voicemail, and obviously didn’t want to talk badly enough to try my mobile. *shrugs*

17. Do you chew on your straws?

No. ABOMINATION! I get disproportionately annoyed by imperfect straws.

18. What makes you sad?

The news.

9. Where did you go today?

From Springvale North to Springvale Station, in a little blue car driven by E, from Springvale station to Melbourne Central in a Connex train, then up a lift to my floor.

20. What is something you say a lot?

‘Teh’.

21. Who was the last person you said “I love you” to and meant it?

E.

22. What should you be doing right now?

Explaining extremely silly things to the South Australian Government.

23. Do you have a nickname?

Apart from what E calls me, no, not really. My brother calls me ‘Dude’, but this is also what I call him.

24. Are you a heavy sleeper?

Only if it’s already loud while I’m falling asleep.

25. What are you listening to?

A streamripped copy of this morning’s Triple J Breakfast show.

26. What was the best movie you’ve seen in the past two weeks?

Iron Man. Trashy, wonderful movie. Like some of my favourite novels, it touts ideology I could hardly be more at odds with, but it is also full of Toys, so I can forgive.

27. Do you like anyone right now?

I’ve had enough coffee this morning, so yes, I do currently harbour positive feelings for other members of the human race.

28. What book are you reading at the moment?

Matter aforementioned. Classic Culture. Don’t f*ck with them.

29. Name someone who made you smile today?

E. I sense a theme.

30. Secret guilty pleasure?

Solipsism.

…CHANGE THE WORLD…

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.

Long time no blog!

Those holidays went on forever didn’t they?

Uh, yeah, I’ve been lazy. As long as I don’t post, I figured, that last comment about being on holidays will still stand, right? Maybe not… :)

So far, 2008 has gone well for me, with very little exciting stuff to report. Christmas lunch for the whole Hatherell clan this year went spectacularly well, despite my persistent mental block about how long one needs to thaw a three kilo roast. E has escaped from the hospital system (just this last week) and is infinitely happier for it.

Apart from that there’s been plenty of fascinating news, but all I can think of is news about other people, all of it thoroughly public. I don’t even have anything interesting to add.

I will seize the opportunity to say (belatedly) Yay Mr Rudd! or at least, Yay not Mr Howard… just so that I can tick the ‘politics’ category box.

This post is really just a matching bookend to match the ‘On Holidays’ one . I will try to follow with some more interesting goop in separate, specific posts.

Are you an Invalid, citizen?

For those who haven’t seen seen Gattaca:DNA image licensed under Creative Commons from Flickr

  1. Go see it, it’s a great film.
  2. Skip this post if you don’t want to be spoiled.

For those who have, be very, very afraid: It has begun.

To sum up: Two companies in the USA are now offering to do you a gene-scan, scanning “about a million and 600,000 sites across the genome” (sic) to look for known genetic illnesses, potential susceptibilities and predispositions, and even more broadly, just ‘traits’. You can buy this service for about USD$1000 from deCODEme or 23andme. If you can buy it for $1000, it’s not implausible that you could get one done to add it to your resume: after all, if it says good things about your health and life expectancy, eyesight, maybe even your intelligence, dilligence or honesty, why wouldn’t you? If it says bad things, you can just leave it out…

…except that someone, somewhere, is going to get a scan that is unarguably better than yours, and they might include theirs with their resume. Then you may well be screwed. After all, who’s going to employ you with your predispositions to diabetes and heart failure when they could get someone with similar skills and no such genetic issues?

The next step, as explored in Gattaca, is kind of inevitable too: If you have the choice of guaranteeing no genetic defects in your child, why on earth wouldn’t you? If it costs $1000 to do a scan for 600,000+ known defects on a single genome, how much would it cost to scan half a dozen eggs and a dozen or more sperm? $20,000? I don’t know if this kind of thing is subject to economies of scale, but it seems plausible, especially when all the eggs and all the sperm are respectively from the same two donors. $20,000 is less than a university degree. I know people who spend more than this getting a single child’s teeth straightened. In today’s money, my own teeth probably come close to it. What if my parents had had the option of ordering ‘straight teeth that fit’ pre-conceptus?

In the simplest case, ask yourself how much you would pay, just to rule out the possibility of down syndrome in your child, a 1-in-1000 chance? This is a genetic test which already exists and is carried out in-utero.

Now look forward thirty years to a world that might resemble that portrayed in Gattaca very closely: Your child is applying for a job. As a routine part of this process, they have to have a genetic scan, or else their resume simply won’t be taken seriously. You either have, or haven’t, had your child through a genetic screening process. If you have, their scan can be assured of being better than average, an asset to their employability. If you haven’t, it’s the luck of the draw, but in a world where screened children are more and more common, your chances are less than 50/50.

The obvious question is: How severe can this really get? Obviously it’s a risk we can see coming, and there’s plenty of robust legal impediment already in pace to stone-wall this kind of discrimination, not to mention the technical barriers that make this kind of commonplace IVF unlikely for the time being. Then again, the average age of parenthood is still going up, bringing exponential increases in both genetic defects and infertility. Demand for IVF and genetic screening is already high. The likes of deCODEme and 23andme promise to supply it.

If this is a good thing, why does it scare me so much?

Transhuman medicine

Follow-on from yesterday’s post led me to read today, at lunch-time, about Democratic Transhumanism, a disturbing name for a political label which I suspect I might actually like to adopt. The idea that we can just plain outsmart our own limitations is one very dear to me, one that seems self-evident to me from the shape of human technological history.

With this roiling about in my head, I take an end-of-day glance at ye-olde bucket-O-morons, Slashdot, and find a link to this article.

DNA vaccine could help MS sufferers: study

The cause (of Multiple Sclerosis) is unknown, but evidence suggests the immune system of MS patients attacks the myelin that covers and protects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.”

“(The Vaccine) incorporates the DNA sequence of myelin basic protein into cells, which then start to make the protein.

Say what?!? If I understand this correctly, there’s a disease where sub-part X of body-part Y breaks down and goes away… so we engineer a vaccine which introduces DNA into body-part Y which enables it to re-grow sub-part X. HOLY FARK!

Needless to say, this strikes me as pretty frickin’ “transhuman”.

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…

Rudd & the shape of politics

As a long-standing leftie (of some kind or other) I am immensely pleased to see that Australian politics is once again polling firmly in favour of Labor.

(disclaimer: my current preference in terms of Australian politics would run 1.Any promising independent 2.Green, 3.Democrat, 4.Labor, etc. although the Dems are still on very shaky ground IMO. This means that I would support a Labor victory over the Liberals, without necessarily liking present-day Labor very much.)

Rudd worried me a great deal when he first made a bid for leadership in the company of Ms Gillard. Small-minded factional in-fighting, bickering and back-stabbing within the Labor party is almost as much of a worry as it is in the Democrats, so I badly wanted to see Labor shelve their differences and pull together behind Beazley like they so painfully failed to do behind Latham. The sudden appearance of Rudd and Gillard, to my untrained eye, seemed like yet another pointless rift at the time, but I have been pleasantly surprised.

So far, Mr Rudd has been the strongest leader I’ve seen at the Labor helm since Keating, at least in terms of party solidarity and media presence. It is this last point that worries me a little though, prompting this post. As my somewhat random and erratic father put it the other day: something about Rudd yields a taint not unlike religious evangelism. I would put it differently, but I have this same feeling: Rudd is a very smooth operator.

This does not surprise me. Ever since I read Neal Stephenson and Frederick George’s Interface a few years ago, I keep seeing political debates in two completely unconnected ways:

  • The Debate: What issue is actually at stake? Insofar as it’s possible to tell, what are the approaches that each side seems to be committing to? What do I think about this?
  • The Presentation: How good do the contenders in this debate look and sound? How do I expect Joe punter who isn’t really paying attention (or who already has a dogmatic opinion or vested interest in this debate..) to react to this? How are the contenders looking in the polls? How much air-time / how many column-inches / how much sarcasm from local comedians is each side receiving?

The latter, seemingly pointless and trivial, view stems from the outrageously cynical view that is taken in Interface to presidential politics in the USA: the idea is that modern political contests are fought and won through the quality of Presentation, not the relevance or soundness of ideas brought to the Debate. I recall having some wonderful discussions about this phenomenon with Korny on occasion, particularly referring to some older members of MURP and the devastating powers of debate which enabled them to win arguments decisively while being unmistakably in the wrong, often not even believing the arguments they were expounding, but rather playing devil’s advocate, or Trolling.

That the substance of the Debate is becoming less and less relevant is hardly news. I can confidently say “Politicians are liars!” on my blog in the knowledge that this isn’t going to get my server swamped due to the controversy of my unprecedented and outrageous sentiment. Even if I were to assume that the contenders in a political debate were all devoted ideologists, bravely speaking their unscripted opinions in a frank and open manner, I can still rely on the vast and clanking apparatus of government to ensure that their plans and schemes will not be enacted exactly as they intend.

Instead, the Interface world-view suggests, I need to look at a politician’s track record, the time-proven leanings of the small army of people that follow them to power and carry out the implementation of their grand design. Then, to gain what value is present in their public appearances, I need to look carefully at their Presentation in order to see which side seems destined to win.

This is why I feel ever-so-slightly unnerved by Mr Rudd: He looks like a credible contender to beat Mr Howard. Howard is a proven arch genius when it comes to the Presentation. In fact, Howard is so good at it, that only a prodigiously canny Presenter would ever stand a chance against him. Rudd, however, seems to have a pat and populist retort for every mighty hammer-blow Howard delivers.

I’d like to see Rudd win, don’t get me wrong, but it chills me ever so slightly to think that this Labor leader, if he wins, could be anything at all. He is of the new breed, and if I’m right, that means we can only guess what he really intends, because his brilliantly doctored spin thus far will tell us nothing but the most obvious of facts: Mr Rudd means to win.