Multiple Me’s?

I’m generally a great fan of The Guardian/ The Observer, but they do sometimes publish a load of nonsense, because they have a blindspot, being entirely materialistic and denying the interiority of mind and the spiritual. Here is a recent example that just appeared in my inbox: What happens if your mind lives for ever on the internet?

This article actually takes this question seriously and goes on to examine the implications of multiple versions of ‘you’.

I would suggest that this is nonsense, like much that is written about so-called Artificial Intelligence.

Yes, I accept that at some point it may be possible to understand aspects of my/your brain activity and put it up on the internet as some sort of simulation of me/you. But it will be just that, a simulation. It will be algorithmic, will not be conscious. It will be all ‘outer’ and no ‘inner’. it will not contain the essence of me/you.

And thank God for that!

Featured image is from the article.

 

Humanity’s biggest own goals

This is a great post by Matthew Wright on the human-created problems of global warming and potential nuclear calamity. I am reblogging it with the following observation, already made in a comment:

We will never get out of this with a ‘glass half empty’ perspective. With the ingenuity of billions of people becoming aware of these existential problems, there is always the possibility that we will collectively work out ways through the apparently impossible situation we are creating.

Matthew Wright

There’s no question in my mind that human-driven climate
change has to be one of the biggest own-goals humanity has ever struck on
itself. And we should have seen it coming. I mean, we’ve been pushing
combustion products into the atmosphere in ever-larger quantities since the
advent of industrialisation, over 200 years ago. We’ve been burning up fossil
fuels, polluting the environment, hacking down forests and generally creating
ecological mayhem at ever-increasing scale and speed. What did we think would
happen?

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.

When I say ‘one of’ the biggest own goals, to my thinking there’s only one other totally massive own-goal in the same league; the invention of nuclear weapons. And it’s a bigger one. The thing about human-driven climate change is that ultimately it’s not risking end-game. It’ll likely reduce what we call our civilisation. It’ll change…

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Air pollution

I remember hearing about the great smog of London in 1952 and the clean air acts that were supposed to resolve the problem. Luckily I lived far away up north, in Lincoln. Although I remember cycling through thick East-England fogs, scarf over mouth, there was nothing to compare with that polluted London smog that killed thousands.

This was brought to mind by a recent insightful article in The Times by Tom Whipple: Air pollution: Undertakers knew truth about the Great Smog (sorry, it’s behind the Times paywall). As well as outlining the story of the smog and the official prevarication before it was addressed, Whipple takes the story forward through a number of similar problems related to air pollution in the intervening years since then.

The response to the smog was to reduce smoke by mandating smokeless fuels and tall chimneys. But nothing was done about the sulphur, until ‘acid rain’ made the problem unavoidable from the 1970s.

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s it was realised that lead in fuel was reducing the general IQ, so there came lead-free petrol.

Then came global warming and the move towards more diesel cars to reduce C02 emissions. Sadly, the car manufacturers and standards authorities were economical with the actualité of NO2 and other emissions, and gradually another major pollution problem has engulfed our cities. And there is an unexplained spike in occurrences of asthma, alzheimers, cancers,…

So what did we learn over those nearly 70 years since the London smog?

Basically, we need more checks and balances on introducing new technologies, and we need to anticipate the downsides that are inevitably there, with more effective regulation. So we need a U-turn from the current political atmosphere of deregulation.

But don’t hold your breath… Or maybe you should, while waiting to cross the road at a busy junction.

Featured image Nelson’s Column during the great smog 1952,
by N T Stobbs via Wikimedia Commons

The Last Million Mile Men

It’s scary to think how much driving I’ve done in over 50 years since the late sixties. Probably not quite a million miles (that would be 20000 miles per annum), but getting well towards that. That’s about 28000 hours, assuming a probable average speed around 35mpg, or around 3500 average 8-hour days. So that’s nearly 10 years of possibly productive time devoted to driving.

There must be many of mine and the next generation who will ‘achieve’ the million miles over their lifetime. No wonder we have a problem with global warming and pollution! Now, driving is not unpleasant, but what could I have achieved in all that time spent driving?

But it is clear that these generations will be the last million mile men. The technologies are converging fast and change will happen fast – just as horses and carriages were supplanted by the motor car within a decade or so at the start of the twentieth century. Electric vehicles, order on demand and automated driving are inevitable. Only the rich and people in sparsely populated areas will bother to own cars – until driving is banned on many roads for safety reasons.

Just think of the advantages – unpolluted towns and cities, no hassle of car ownership, an end to 1.25 million global traffic deaths per year (WHO-2013), reclaiming of the suburban front garden for plants and wildlife, a new mobility for the old and disabled, the opportunity to work or read while travelling… Of course, there will be problems, like hacking could take in a whole new dimension of crime – but these should be soluble. In the end, economics should force the change.

Well, yes but… There is now that unpredictable variable of climate breakdown, with extreme weather events becoming ever more frequent. Those who can afford it may just like to hang on to their motor vehicles, just in case… But they won’t be million mile men.

PS Before feminists complain, I would say that I am using ‘man’ in its old sense to refer to both genders. It would spoil the alliteration to add ‘and women’ to the title.
And I know I haven’t considered truckers, the ten million mile men!

Can computers ever be conscious?

This question is posed in an interesting paper True Artificial Consciousness – Is It Possible? from Sean Webb on the IONS blog. The paper is quite detailed and worth a read if you’re interested in the subject. My take is somewhat simpler, as follows.

Everything has an ‘inner’ and an ‘outer’. Science and technology deal with the ‘outer’, consciousness is a feature of the ‘inner’. Could the twain ever meet? Explaining consciousness is regarded as a ‘hard problem’ of science – too right – they operate in different domains.

So-called artificial intelligence is basically technology that emulates the real intelligence that flows forth from consciousness. This emulation can increasingly appear to be conscious, and even pass the so-called Turing Test of intelligent behaviour, but I would suggest it is not really conscious – could its ‘inner’ conceivably emerge from the ‘outer’ algorithms?

So, if we let machines control things we finish up with a mechanistic universe that is devoid of the spark of consciousness, indeed could become its persecutor.

Featured illustration of the Turing Test by By Mushii , via Wikimedia Commons

 

Petrochemical dream or nightmare?

So we took the grandchildren to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which we’d much enjoyed in previous years, particularly to see the new Wiess Energy Hall.

What a spectacular set of exhibits this provides, summarising all you might know or wish to know about the oil and petrochemical industries. Many working models and explanations keep young and old engaged and interested for hours. What a monument to the wonderful creative spirit that has engaged humanity for a century and mostly created the modern world, with its variety of fuels, chemicals, plastics…

If you want to know about different types of oil rigs, the fracking revolution, oil pipelines, and much more, this is the place to go. Maps show the incredible scales of operations in the US.

There are even sections on nuclear power and renewable energy sources, albeit at a lower level than the obviously dominant petrochemicals.

Sadly, there are things it does not tell you, issues it does not address – like how this petrochemical dream is running into the buffers.

It does not tell you about the global warming and climate change that is being caused, nor of the suppression of knowledge of this by those who first knew – the oil industry.

It does not tell you how the land and sea are becoming increasingly polluted with all those plastics, not to mention the regular oil spillages, escaping methane, frack-caused earthquakes,…

It does not tell you how the very soil we grow our crops on is being denatured by those chemical fertilisers.

It does not tell how insects, birds, vegetation, mammals, fish are all being depleted, species destroyed at an alarming rate as the chemicals and plastics spread around the environment and the industrial scale enabled destroys the intimate spaces of nature.

It does not tell how human populations have been subjugated and their politics subverted by the imperative for this energy.

It does not tell how the earth cries out at this painfully rapid change, and is harnessing its resources for survival, ensured by its wonderful yet frightful variability – the heatwaves, coldwaves, biblical rainfalls and fires and floods, hurricanes, typhoons, thunders and lightnings…

In short, like most human endeavours, this industry’s continued prevalence contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, which it resists to the death throes. But why would all those so-generous oil industry related sponsors of this exhibition in the oil capital wish to tell that story?

Featured image shows one of the exhibits: “Energy City,” a 2,500-square-foot 3-D landscape representing Houston, the surrounding Gulf coastal waters and the terrain of southeast and central Texas, aiming to bring to life the energy value chain.

Internet Addiction

How often do you see people with their faces stuck into their mobile phones, tablets, laptops, ignoring the real world around them – even their own children desperately craving attention. It’s become a real problem over recent years. And I can’t really throw rocks, as I can see the addiction in myself – another message, another email, another blog post arrived, a ‘like’ on my post, another important petition, another request for money, a news update, another try at that Candy game…

As this article in Positive News identifies, this is a big problem for many people, life threatening even for some. But the important thing is to become aware of it and do something about it, retain connection with other people and the real world.Read More »

British Lawnmower Museum

Following my recent post on matches, which was inspired by the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport, I was interested to note that the first lawnmower was actually invented by Edward Budding in Stroud in 1830, just after the perfection of a reproducible striking match in 1825/6. What an inventive time were those days of Great Britain’s industrial revolution.

The Southport museum contains an example of Budding’s invention, and a fine piece of engineering it was, operated by two people, one pushing and one pulling. But extremely heavy because of its cast iron manufacture.

It was interesting to discover from Brian Radam, who established the museum, that this is a true lawnmower. Later modern rotary ‘mowers’ are in fact ‘grass cutters’ that work by shearing and tearing, rather than by cutting.

Altogether, a visit to the lawnmower museum proves rather more interesting than you might think, with a number of rooms full of old machines and stories that Brian, a great enthusiast, will regale you with. And you get to see an old machine once owned by Nicholas Parsons of ‘Just a Minute’ fame!

How did you do that?

“How did you do that?”

Brian Radam at the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport was demonstrating to a 16-year-old work-experience volunteer how to light an old gas stove.

“How did I do what?” countered Brian.

“Make that flame when you ran that little stick across that box.”

That 16-year-old had never seen or experienced a match. My flabber has never been so truly gasted!

Makes you realise that things that one generation takes for granted as commonplace are not necessarily carried forward to succeeding generations.

It seems that a replicable and usable friction match was invented in 1826, and a safety match in 1855. They were so common during my childhood in 1950s Lincoln that the roadside gutters usually contained numerous matchsticks; I was even led to try making matchstick models, but soon gave up as it was all too messy and tedious – all that sticky glue!

After nearly 200 years, matches appear to be in the ‘long tail’ of their lifecycle. It seem unlikely that they’ll ever disappear altogether, but you never know…

Picture by thebarrowboy viw Wikimedia Commons

Naughty Microsoft Onedrive

You don’t want to know the mess I just got in with my documents on my laptop. It’s newish Windows 10 and I had thought it would be just like the previous Windows’. However, this thing called Onedrive, Microsoft’s cloud, seems to be getting in the way.

I finally got tired of its keep asking me to upgrade storage on OneDrive and tried to de-activate and remove stuff that was stored on Onedrive. Seems like I didn’t know what I was doing. Microsoft was actually keeping my documents on Onedrive, so in the end I’d actually deleted documents, and the backups I thought I was taking hadn’t covered these files. And the Microsoft restore from recycle bin didn’t seem to work, probably because I’d told it to stop putting this stuff on Onedrive.

The thing is, it seems designed to be confusing. On File Explorer I can find three folders of ‘documents’

  • one is under ‘Onedrive’, which is fair enough
  • one is under ‘my PC’, which appears to also be the Onedrive folder – this is just confusing
  • one is under ‘Libraries/documents’, which is where it used to be, and where I expected it to remain.

I can only conclude that Microsoft is being deliberately confusing. Perhaps if people get confused enough they will give up and buy extra Onedrive storage. The controls for Onedrive do not encourage any other approach.

If you get a new Windows 10 PC, do be careful.

You might find this article useful how-to-stop-windows-10-from-saving-files-to-onedrive.

Genius at the Château du Close Lucé

Some men and women show such prodigious genius, standing head and shoulders over all their fellows, that they almost seem part of a different race. Leonardo da Vinci was such a man.

After a leading career in Renaissance Italy, where his genius sparkled over many fields of endeavour, Leonardo spent his later years in Amboise,  by the River Loire,  at the service of the French king François. At this time he lived at the Château du Clos Lucé, now a museum that we recently visited.

We found this museum interesting in giving some insight into Leonardo’s later life, and particularly his innovative designs and engineering that prefigured many modern inventions – helicopters,  bridges, flying machines, pumps, armaments etc etc. This is reinforced by walking around the surrounding gardens, really a rather splendid shady park, containing examples of modern realisations of his designs.

However, there is little emphasis on his contribution as artist. Luckily, there was an exhibition From the Clos Lucé to the Louvre, in the exhibition hall, focusing on the three major works of art that Leonardo brought with him when he came to Amboise – La Giaconda, The Virgin, The Child Jesus and St Anne, and St Jean Baptist … and that enigmatic smile. This gave a much more balanced picture of this supreme Renaissance genius.

So, the Château du Clos Lucé is well worth a visit, but even more so while the exhibition is still there (until 15th November 2016).

Catching movement

Modern travel zooms are really easy to carry with you, yet still have the capability to zoom in on birds from a reasonable distance. My Panasonic TZ80 has most of the capability of the hefty SLR system with largish 300mm lens that I used to lug around decades ago.

But they do have their limitations, and photographing hunting birds is one of them – always on the move, never staying still for long. It’s tempting to destroy the blurry shots that come out, but some are actually quite attractive, like these consecutive shots of wagtails taking off, using the TZ80’s rather slow ‘burst mode’ and standard auto exposure.

You really get the impression of movement. Here are consecutive shots of a pied wagtail taking off and then in flight.

And here’s a grey wagtail taking off and turning in the process.

The other thing about travel zooms is the complicated array of buttons and menu options – different ways of taking the photograph. I guess I could have used ‘creative video mode’ or ‘4K mode’, either of which could have probably given more and sharper frames, but that’s for another day – and the blurring does have its own attraction!

Inspiration from North Wales

It’s difficult to recapture that oppressive atmosphere of the early 1980s – Thatcher, Reagan, US missiles in UK, the threat of nuclear winter, Greenham Common, support of unsavoury regimes… A time when things did not make sense. Environment and recycling didn’t get much of a lookin.

Then we took the children to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology in a reclaimed quarry near Machynlleth in North Wales. What a refreshing experience! Here sustainability was king – alternative energy sources, solar panels, windmills, recycling, composting , growing vegetables, conserving energy, explaining nuclear dangers… I still recall the relief that someone was taking these things seriously and doing real practical stuff. I’ve supported CAT and its development ever since.

Research and education have always been key themes for CAT. Leading light Peter Harper gave an inspirational talk as part of our series of  New RenaissanceLectures in Knutsford in the early 1990s. I’ve added used cardboard to the compost heap ever since!

It was a pleasure to recently receive Issue 100 of their magazine Clean Slate, still going strong, with news of the latest developments at CAT. In case you’re not aware, CAT is leader of the Zero Carbon Britain initiative, a source of inspiration to many across the world.

Congratulations to all involved with CAT, and may you continue to inspire us for many years to come. The need for your work is as great as ever.

Incidentally, the centre an excellent place to visit – friendly staff, good displays well explained, water-powered funicular, ‘green’ café, child-friendly, nature walks,…

Featured image of CAT funicular courtesy of Dr Neil Clifton , via Wikimedia Commons

Crikey!

Crikey: An expression of surprise (Oxford English Dictionary)

My dad Peter often used to say “Crikey!”, usually when confronted with some new piece of technology or new social custom that was not familiar to him.

“We’re taking the children on holiday to the south of France.” “Crikey!”

“This calculator will do everything your sliderule could do, and more.” “Crikey!”

“There’s a new sort of telephone you can carry around.” “Crikey!”

and so on.

His reaction was, I think, a combination of ‘can you really do that?’ with ‘why on earth would you want to do that?’. The fact that you could do it was news; whether it was worth doing was questionable.

To put it in context, Peter was born in 1915 and brought up in a family of 10 siblings in a small rural Lincolnshire village. He was clever enough to get to a decent school and became a draughtsman, designing pumps for draining the Lincolnshire fens. He had his first TV at age 38 and his first car around age 50. There was a lot of technology and a lot of crikeys since then, until he died in 2004. Beyond domestic appliances, TV and car I think the only more modern technology he really valued was the video recorder/player, and he never travelled outside Britain.

This does lead me to reflect on all the technology and social change we’ve had since the 1950s and 60s – email, pcs, mobiles, tablets, internet, broadband, portable audio devices, cheap air flights, foreign holidays, solar panels,… The list is almost endless.

Yes it’s all been possible, but has it all been valuable for us? Yes we’re enamoured by the technology, but have we in the process lost some of our connection with ourselves, with others and with nature? The million dollar question no one quite knows how to answer. But the evidence suggests that we are going to suffer a lot from that lack of connection with nature as the effects of global warming, resource depletion, pollution, species extinctions etc. increasingly hit us.

One thing that might help us though, apart from realising that we are all an interdependent part of nature, is all that wonderful technology.

crikeyCrikey!