Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

New Kid in Town

July 7, 2018

I start once more with a musical reference, and that gives me an excuse to recommend a book for your summer vacation. As you know, my initial motivation for writing a blog was to promote The India Road, but as happens both in books and reality, things took on a life of their own—it’s been a decade.

And, yes, my chronicles view history in the broadest possible way, both in terms of scope and scale—like ecology, history can focus on specifics (musical or culinary history, or the history of smart phones) and it can deal with a minute or a millennium.

It’s very unusual for you to find book recommendations here—other than my own—but I am suggesting you read Dream Boogie. Not only for the music, but because it is in many ways a history of the US civil rights struggle—Sam Cooke, like Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and many others, made his mark in gospel music, which meant frequent tours of the American South.

I linked the analog version, since I don’t want you to think I’m dragging you to the dark side, but my Kindle version is abundantly hot-linked, and I’ve spent many a moment jumping to artists and songs I’d never heard ; this is truly what multimedia—a term more reminiscent of the Apple Mac hypercard stacks than of our brave new world—means.

The most amusing feature of this clip is the performance (aka antics) of Joe Walsh. A no-nonsense, kick-ass guitarist, you rarely see him on keys.

Now we’ve got a few things out of the way, let’s talk about the new kid on the block. Or if you prefer it in Russian, Novichok. It is apparently more common than menhirs in parts of southeast England.

The ‘newbie’, to directly transplant the Russian name, was developed in the last century, with the stated aim of circumventing the Chemical Weapons Treaty—signatory nations agreed to ban a specific set of weapons, as defined by their chemical formulas, and the immediate response (I certainly don’t think it was a Soviet exclusive) was to make meaner chemicals.

These required different formulas, exempting them from the CWT, but the Soviet ones also needed to penetrate NATO protective gear, and be apparently innocuous—no color, no smell, no taste—the perfect маскировка.

One subtle twist is that the development of Novichok agents was actually funded by the West, through a defense conversion fund offered to the USSR.

These nerve agents have re-surfaced over the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, UK, and more recently of a local couple—the last footage before their collapse shows a man drinking a can of beer in the street while the woman buys (lots) more alcohol at a convenience store.

The Russians have strongly denied any involvement in the poisonings, although the manufacture of Novichoks (they’re a family of compounds, not one) by the USSR is well-established. To complicate matters, the British top-secret center for chemical and biological weapons at Porton Down is only five miles northeast of Salisbury, and the most recent poisoning happened in Amesbury, only a couple of miles from the secretive military facility.

The early XXth century nerve agents, such as mustard gas, relied on the toxic and highly reactive chlorine gas, but by 1936, Gerhard Schrader, a top-flight German chemist, had produced a phosphorus-based nerve gas called Tabon—by 1937, he had synthesized Sarin.

All these compounds work to inhibit transmission of nerve impulses at the synapse, by competing with a molecule called acetylcholine.

The connection between nerve fibers, or neurons, is where chemical weapons act.

The Nazis didn’t use chemical weapons—although they manufactured them—but their knowledge was not lost in the post-war arms race. Just as the US rocket science program cynically procured the man behind the V-2 bomb, Wernher von Braun, so too did Americans, Russians, and Brits enthusiastically endorse chemical weapons research—the nerve agent VX was discovered by Britain in the 1950s, and recently used to good effect on Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother at Kuala Lumpur airport.

All good clean fun, featuring the usual boys and their usual toys. And although it doesn’t bear thinking about, isn’t it just a touch weird that all this maychem (a surprisingly successful fusion of mayhem, featuring the UK prime minister and chemical weapons) occurred a stone’s throw from Porton Down?

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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Pot Luck

June 16, 2018

The plane’s tires squealed onto the runway at London’s Heathrow airport, leaving a trail of vaporized rubber, and I made a dash for the rental desk.

On paper, I only had a two hour drive ahead, but traffic on the M25 can easily double that—in the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, ‘in theory, theory is like practice, in practice, it isn’t.’ Or perhaps another Berra quote would be more appropriate: ‘When you get to a fork in the road, take it!’

After getting the hang of the brand-new BMW, I switched the radio onto LBC. I used to think the ‘L’ stood for London, and I speculated about the B & C, but the station self-promotes as ‘Leading Britain’s Conversation’—talk radio at a suitably silly level, with guest hosts like Salmond and Farage stirring the random bigotry of callers—just the sort of thing to while away a traditional Monday afternoon Brit traffic jam.

On my walk through the concourse I picked up the obligatory copy of Private Eye and lingered long enough to see that all the tabloid newspapers sported an identical cover, exhorting British members of parliament to be true to the people—a key brexit vote was underway.

LBC was split between the parliamentary story and a human interest piece on cannabis oil—the mother of an epileptic child was bringing back medical marijuana from Canada in the form of THC oil. The move was designed as a publicity stunt to promote the legal use of medical cannabis in the UK.

Her twelve-year-old was caught up in the middle of this, which seems a little unfair—epileptic fits are bad enough without extra publicity and invasion of privacy.

But the UK attitude to drugs has historically been extremely negative, even though drug use is widespread, so her majesty’s customs officers dutifully apprehended the hash oil, and a press conference followed, in which the mother dutifully explained she would simply return to Canada to buy more.

The British Home Office, in an effort to reduce the noise, dutifully released the offending dope to the offended parental later that day—by which time the traffic was flowing along quite nicely up the M40. By surrendering the oil, the story shifted to a non-story, and devolved to a background hum on legalization—political savvy, by contrast to the mayhem in the House of Commons.

It seems pretty clear that cannabis oil has medical benefits for some central nervous system disorders, of which epilepsy is the foremost candidate. In the UK, weed is a class B drug, which means a potential five-year imprisonment period and an unlimited fine—and as in every other country where such draconian measures exist, the punishment is in no way a deterrent.

Gone to pot? Trends in cannabis consumption in the UK.

The decreasing trend in dope-smoking appeared to halt in 2010, when the labour government bumped weed back into class B, i.e. making possession a crime punishable with imprisonment. The then-home secretary ignored the advice of her own senior scientific adviser, a professor with the delightful name of David Nutt.

The politician in question later resigned when it emerged she had filed an expense claim to pay for her husband’s adult films, and subsequently lost her parliamentary seat.

Medical marijuana is all the rage, partly because the word medical is increasingly optional, as various US states finally make it legal to smoke dope. The debate around oils, which are really just a chemical technique to concentrate the active substance, revolves around THC.

The alternative is CBD, the molecular sister of THC that doesn’t get you high. Cannabidiol, or CBD oil, is legal in many countries, and you can buy it online from UK suppliers—of course, in the Netherlands, you can also easily buy the THC variety.

Although the UK makes it very difficult for medicines containing THC oil to be sold, it is the largest producer and exporter of hash oil in the world. One of the LBC callers phoned in with this fun fact, and was quickly checked correct.

Various callers were quick to point out the irony and fumed at the double standard. I was a little perplexed, since Britain manufactures and exports all kinds of weapons, from armed personnel carriers to surface-to-air missiles—including the Bond-like Thunderbird—but you can’t buy them in Boots.

For many countries, it’s a case of ‘do as I say and not as I do’, a landmark parental strategy. But GW Pharmaceuticals produces ninety-five tonnes of ‘legal cannabis’ per year, according to the Daily Telegraph, almost half of the world supply. The word ‘legal’ just confuses things—GW, which lists on the NASDAQ as GWPH, markets Sativex, which contains THC, is prohibitively expensive, and not recognized by the UK National Health Service as cost-effective. In the Telegraph article, the aptly named Steve Rolles calls the paradox ‘profoundly unethical’—he’s right, but the double standard runs very deep, through weapons, alcohol, child labor, and other examples—and is by no means a British exclusive.

While the hash oil debate fizzled out, the Westminster vote also became a storm in a teacup. Theresa May survived yet another mutiny, and by the next afternoon, on my drive south, the nation’s preoccupation was all about exam stress—mothers complained bitterly that their kids were traumatized by the severity of Britain’s high school exams.

UK exams were always tough, but back in the day, a couple of medicinal tokes certainly eased the head—no exam question ever seemed threatening after being read out by Mr. C.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

Robocrop

June 9, 2018

Beautiful Eyes

Sandra Peck pushed the cart toward the deli counter.

Last stop before checkout.

She picked out some redskin potato salad, a packet of Italian sausage, and a tub of organic kale salad mix, patted Tyler on the head—she always marveled at the toddler’s beautiful blond curls—and aimed the cart toward the till.

Tyler was on his best behavior today, but unless the child was in meltdown mode, Sandy welcomed a little wailing—it was a welcome distraction as she rang up the groceries.

The supermarket was busy—not so much that she was crowded at the self-service till, but busy enough to distract the attendants.

Sandy had been through a bunch of jobs since dropping out of school, most of them service stuff. The second last was at a packing plant—the new machinery threw four workers into unemployment within three weeks—she got sixty-three dollars severance and a thank-you note.

Sandy’s last job, in one of the biggest supermarket chains, paid so poorly she’d been on food stamps. There, too, management was busy replacing the checkout operators with shiny aluminum contraptions equipped with screens, buttons, and balances.

When the store started doing away with the till operators, mostly young women like herself, replaced by the self-service option, her boss kept a few of the girls on to help customers—young people took to the machines immediately, thumbing away at the cellphone with one hand, ringing up groceries with the other.

Older people struggled. The sequence of instructions flashed on the screen seemed harder for them to understand—they peered at the scales and trays and gingerly tapped the touchscreen, waiting anxiously for things to happen. Some muttered to themselves.

One elderly gentleman was so bemused by the whole operation that Sandy had to step in with her master code and undo the last five things he’d done. Maybe she was a little impatient with him—Tyler was teething and yelled all night, and the queue behind Mr. Confused was backing up.

“Young lady, no need to snap at me!” the man said. He sneered. “Guess y’all love this machine that’s gonna put you out of work!”

Sure enough, she was fired at the end of the week.

Maybe the guy complained to the manager, Sandy thought as she began ringing up her items. Tyler reached out and tried to touch the screen. She played the stressed mother as she held back the toddler and worked through the produce.

She turned her back just so as she tapped the screen—she’d worked enough self-checkouts to know exactly what to do. She weighed the avocados. Then the mangoes, and finally the papayas. For each one, she tapped the same icon on the screen. Tyler cried and squirmed in her arms, straining for the buttons.

“Shush, honey. It’ll make your eyes pretty.” She smiled at the man behind her. “We’ll save the planet”—she read the words for the little boy as she picked up her eco-bag.

Perfect. Sandy smiled as she walked through the parking lot. She opened the trunk and let Tyler get in and climb over the back seat—the toddler shouted ‘Maamaaa’ as he rolled down the other side and clambered into the child seat, whooping with delight.

She closed the trunk, groceries safely stowed, fixed Tyler’s straps, started the clapped-out old Hyundai, the muffler sounding like a dragster on MDMA, and took the on-ramp to the 405.

“Hey Tyler, let’s go see Uncle Toby!” She turned up the radio, singing along with Taylor Swift—Shake It Up, with all the moves. The toddler was dancing in his chair. Momma smiled and hit the gas.

Sandra’s checking account didn’t stretch to luxury fruit items—avocado toast was fine for the Malibu set, but it was way above her pay grade. She’d unload all that—Toby would add it to his supply and sell it at the farmer’s market after a little organic relabeling.

What she got from the fruit vendor would be enough to pay her whole grocery bill. As for the produce, good job she’d only paid for carrots.

The shiny robot self-checkout that sells more carrots than were ever stocked by the store.

Epilogue

By 2019 there will be an estimated three hundred and twenty-five thousand self-checkouts on the planet—at the rate such things grow, we can expect half a million by the third decade of the new millennium. I’m not sure what this century will be famous for, and most of us won’t live it out, but right now it’s the century of consumer automation.

In five years or so, supermarkets will have put half a million people out of work. At minimum wage of 5-10 bucks an hour, we’re talking savings of one hundred and fifty million bucks per week—five to ten billion dollars per year.

One Australian supermarket recently discovered that its customers had become extremely health-conscious—one shopper alone had purchased forty pounds of carrots—makes for beautiful eyes.

Sadly, when the supermarket looked more closely at the issue, it found out it had sold more carrots than its entire supply. As robots take over human jobs, humans have less money. But they also have more time on their hands to machinate and plot their revenge. After all, when man discovered fire, he promptly burned his neighbor.

There’s a new game in town, and it’s called ‘cheat the robot.’

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

Invisible

April 21, 2018

It’s a hot night in Sukhumvit. Muggy, too. Ninety degrees with seventy percent humidity is an oppressive atmosphere—after a few minutes, a light rain begins to fall.

Bangkok is gearing up for the evening as I climb the walkway stairs onto the pedestrian bridge. The road is twelve feet below me, and I look down at the traffic— bumper to bumper chaos across all six lanes.

It’s strangely light on the footpath, because of the flashing neon and the glaring headlights below. At the north end of the walkway, I spot a small figure moving around, a moth caught in a flame.

The dark end of the street. A child plays alone over a busy Bangkok thoroughfare.

The little girl is perhaps three years old—she may be older, because malnutrition is rife in this part of the world. She jumps over the other three kids, holds the railings, and starts to rummage inside a plastic bag.

Everyone else is exhausted, and her mother is the very image of hopelessness. I imagine the child perched on the handrail, slipping and falling onto the traffic while the whole family sleeps.

I should do a hundred things, but all I do is take this picture. I feel shitty, helpless, and desperate. I think of the family now, as I write these words. It’s early evening in southeast Asia, and this infant will be settling down for the night on the footbridge.

Is she still alive today? Who knows! What brings a mother to such utter exhaustion that she can sleep, comatose against the hard steel railing, while her child dabbles with death? Where’s the father?

Every year, every day, mountains of people die in developing nations, and no one knows why. Children, adolescents, they just vanish. The families mourn, life moves on.

I’m not talking of kidnapping, or kids who run away—they vanish in the sense that one moment they’re alive, and the next they’re dead. In the West, we have a far better grip on health care, despite our constant gripes—if a child is ill, shows symptoms of illness, there is a safety net.

In much of SE Asia, in most of Africa, there’s no net. Take me back five centuries to medieval Europe, and that’s where they are today.

Maybe you think mountain is a poor choice of words. The WHO estimates 5.6 million children die every year before their fifth birthday—the cause of death is known only for three percent. Where does this happen? You guessed it—mainly Africa and south Asia.

How would it sit with Western nations if ninety-seven percent of deaths for the under-fives in France, California, or Ontario went unexplained?

More desperately, a lot of kids who die in faraway countries were never born in the first place—legally, that is. So there’s no traceability—no one knows you were born, no one notices you vanished.

Shame, shame, shame, as the West discusses Trump’s salacious stormy snafus, or the innards of When Harry Met Meghan.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s CHAMPS project includes research on MITS—Minimally Invasive Tissue Sampling, a way to quickly determine cause of death with high accuracy.

Humans are like ecosystems—you can know their health based on what goes in, what’s inside, or what comes out. Pee is one of the best indicators—doctors have used it for four thousand years. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, urine’s praises are sung by the bard.

FALSTAFF

Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor to my water?

Page

He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy
water; but, for the party that owed it, he might
have more diseases than he knew for.

Nowadays, a medic is no longer forced to sip your piss to diagnose diabetes, but run-of-the-mill blood and urine tests are not so many decades old. In CHAMPS, doctors extract tissue samples from brain, lungs, and liver. Add a little blood and spinal fluid, and throw the power of biomedical analysis at the ensemble.

The extraction itself takes under half an hour, and a non-specialist can easily be trained to do it. In some of the poorest countries in the world, home to many of these ‘Invisibles’, cutting-edge techniques are helping to bring a little closure to grieving families.

In Mozambique, the seventh poorest country in the world, public health is a dire problem—the nation is mired in environmental quality issues, poor medical services, and the twin evils of superstition and witch doctors.

In many communities, relatives will not allow a corpse to be autopsied—the reasons may be cultural or religious, but in a number of African countries, organ theft is a reality, so opening a body is simply taboo.

A biopsy needle leaves no traces, but perhaps the world can begin to have a little more traceability. By knowing why so many small children die, maybe we can start to care more about things that really matter.

And every time a kid plays on the railings above a crowded street, every person should at least have the courage to ask why.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

Chrysopoeia

March 3, 2018

Science was once an insular sport. Scientists were viewed as eccentrics, possibly madmen, who performed all sorts of bizarre experiments, paced the countryside observing its flora, fauna, or geology, collected specimens, and scribbled furiously in notebooks.

Many of those laboratory trials were in fact rather strange, right back to the days of the alchemists and the philosopher’s stone. The attraction of mercury, due to its odd properties, probably concealed its deadly nature. A good many scientists of that era probably went slowly crazy due to mercury’s effects on the central nervous system, which may have compounded the oddity of their experimental protocols.

Before the XIXth century, researchers in different European nations were mostly unaware of each others’ work. It must have been a moment of great excitement when any of them found a kindred spirit—these were men driven by ideas, for whom the very notion of an intellectual battle was high jinx.

Scientists throughout the world continue to treasure intellectual jousting, but the discussion of concepts, methods, and results is played on two altogether different stages—conferences and academic journals.

The oldest ‘science club’ in the world is the U.K.’s Royal Society, founded in 1660. There, the most eminent thinkers met and discussed their theoretical and practical research. Other societies were created in France, Germany, and elsewhere, and discussions began to flourish—a legendary exchange took place in Oxford in 1860, when Bishop Wilberforce asked T.H. Huxley whether it was ”through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.’

Huxley, in his defense of Darwinism, replied:

I would not be ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but I would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.

The step from the spoken to the written word began when members began writing letters to their society’s president—these letters were the precursors of today’s journal articles.

It became standard practice to send such letters out for comment to a Fellow’s peers—in other words, this was the start of the scientific peer review process. In time, the approved letters turned into publications—today’s academic journals. The entire process of peer review was considered an obligation for scientists and academics throughout the world—a duty to be performed free of charge.

What has changed is the nature of the organizations that publish scientific papers. Throughout the XXth century, scientific societies mushroomed, with each subject area creating its own association, often country by country—and as different academic institutions began requiring that their staff publish journal papers in order to demonstrate their scientific capacity, science publication became big business.

With the advent of digital journals, the field boomed. No longer was it necessary to build, staff, and maintain huge, ivy-walled libraries, the ex-libris of Harvard, Oxford, or Bologna—the only requirement was a server farm. And along with the reduction in production costs came consolidation.

Nature and Science are the truly elite journals, but a huge set of upper- and mid-level journals are in the hands of a small group of publishers: the Dutch giant Elsevier—itself a child of behemoth Reed-Elsevier, the German colossus Springer, and a few others.

But one thing did not change—the free work that academics perform for the editorial conglomerates. This is now a system that can be safely qualified as abusive—no longer is this a set of dedicated intellectuals working on all four sides, i.e. writing, reviewing, publishing, and reading, but a money-making behemoth exploiting the good will of the academic community.

ScienceDirect, the flagship Elsevier website, contains a mere 12.5 million papers, from three thousand five hundred academic journals, along with thirty-four thousand e-books.

Each year, Elsevier publishes two hundred and fifty thousand articles, and interestingly, ‘a small minority‘ are apparently fake. One comment on the ‘minority’ states that for a scientist, that might be one percent, which suggests that out of the total repository, perhaps one hundred twenty-five thousand papers are fake news—even more interesting is one of the ways this deception is performed—since journal editors ask would-be authors for suggestions of reviewer names, some authors provide fake email addresses for their lists.

Since each one of these 250,000 articles is typically reviewed for free by three scientists, and probably takes about three hours to review, we are talking about two million person-hours per year. At about thirty dollars an hour, that’s a saving of sixty million bucks a year—multiply that by four or five majors, and we’re talking well over two hundred and fifty million bucks saved.

Maybe that’s chrysopoeia, the philosopher’s stone—turning quicksilver intellect into solid gold cash.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Under the Hood

January 20, 2018

The advent of dieselgate, which in some form or another, affected not just the Volkswagen group but various other vehicle companies, gave an extra push to the debate on electric vehicles.

I’ve now tried a number of hybrids and fully electric cars, both as a driver and a passenger, and there’s no doubt the technology is, if you excuse the pun, steaming ahead.

Cars, and road vehicles in general, have traditionally caused three types of problems: air pollution, traffic congestion (including parking), and accidents. Of course they’ve also solved a number of problems, by providing us with personalized and convenient circulation options.

I’ve lived with cars all my life, and have a totally irrational love affair with them—but then a rational love affair is an oxymoron. It’s a bit of an ambiguous relationship, since I have no enthusiasm for motor racing, whether formula  one or rally-driving, and yet I love driving—preferably driving fast.

The other thing I love is the perfection of the engineering solutions that underpin the automotive industry, which is a pretentious way of saying that I love fixing cars. I do much less of that now, because I have less time, twisting and bending is much less fun that it used to be, but mainly because car engines have really changed.

The core elements aren’t different, and the internal combustion engine, whether petrol or diesel, still operates on exactly the same principles, and uses the same arrangements of pistons, valves, shafts, chains, and belts to bring home the bacon. The same applies to other parts of the vehicle: brakes still use pads, gearboxes have cogs, and transmissions, driveshafts, shocks, and clutches could still be easily recognized by a World War II mechanic.

So what changed? In the last thirty years, cars developed a nervous system—the whole command and control structure changed, reflecting the enormous advances in sensors and consumer electronics. Putting that to work in a car is tricky—it falls under the heading of cybernetics: sensors drive moving parts, open and shut valves, and adjust emissions—or not, which is how the VW group peed in the soup. All this regulation has to occur while the car is bumping around, in an environment that includes water in vapor, liquid, or solid form, and with sharp temperature and light shifts.

Nowadays, it’s impossible to understand a car without plugging a computer into it: the vehicle then confesses its inner secrets to you, and you can even play doctor—turning off annoying warning lights, changing tuning settings, and diagnosing faults. In that respect, cars are already far more advanced than humans—imagine if someone developed a sensor, perhaps marketed as some kind of bike helmet, which tapped into your brain and retrieved all your key metabolic information, how your eyes and ears were doing, low-level infections, abnormal cell growth…

Some time ago, I bit the bullet and bought one such gismo off a US company called Ross-Tech, and was able to peer into the innards of my car. The Ross-Tech story is very much a tale of an entrepreneur, who decided to make a business out of something he enjoyed.

Like me, the Ross-Tech CEO is not a big fan of meetings.

The company developed a first-class product and empowered mom-and-pop shops that wanted to repair VWs and Audis, taking a bite out of the dealerships.

And here lies the first problem with the shift toward electric cars—they have very few moving parts. Maybe that’s an asset rather than a liability: if you own an electric vehicle, there are no plugs to change, no oil and air filters to worry about, no valve adjustments—you just drive the thing.

However, if you do have a problem, it can be pretty serious—recently an older generation electric car had a battery failure, and the replacement cost was twenty thousand dollars—the market value of the car was less than half of that. Nowadays, those prices have fallen, but there are still a few horror stories out there.

In the US, batteries have an eight- or ten-year warranty, depending on where you live, so what that tells me is that the average life of an electric car is eight years—no one in their right minds will risk a fifteen grand repair bill on a nine year old vehicle.

Battery cost is going to be a key determinant in the success of electric vehicles, with 2026 predicted to be the year where there will be a tipping point in yield, really pushing electric and scrapping diesel first, and petrol second.

In line with the predictions contained in my current book, The Hourglass, which I plan to release later in the year, car mechanics will be another group of people who will join the ranks of the unemployed—and as self-driving cars become a mainstream feature on the highway, the body shop fraternity will add to that list, as fender-benders become a thing of the past.

In the States, three-quarters of a million people work in the auto repair industry—that’s four times those in the coal-mining sector.

Dirty Donnie’s plans for the US coal industry, as portrayed on a wall in Dublin city center.

Which is an excellent segway for talking about energy sources. Electric cars are a wonderful improvement on emissions in the major cities of the world. The Chinese, in particular, are really driving this particular bus—the Middle Kingdom has already forbidden foreign investment in battery cells—and is racing ahead with other options.

So, you can clean up Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou—but energy, like fish, is not a printable commodity, and neither can it be created nor destroyed. It’s in limited supply, and a huge distribution network is required to feed all the electric vehicles.

China has a plentiful supply of coal, so it goes without saying that a thoroughly unclean source of energy will contribute to the cleaner cities of the future—this may lead to serious atmospheric and water pollution—a discussion that is far from complete.

For traffic congestion, the standard rule applies.

Build more roads, get more cars.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

Within

January 13, 2018

Wintertime in Europe is always a killer—and those among us who are more debilitated are a prime target for the cocktail of microorganisms that surround us.

Jenner, Pasteur, Koch, Lister, and Fleming are the giants who, from the early XIXth century onward, showed us that we are vast repositories of microscopic creatures. The keyword here is microscopic, so our everlasting gratitude must go to the optical physicists who invented the tools that let us peer into that world.

The numbers are stunning—the most recent estimates place the human cell count at 37.2 trillion—that’s twelve zeros. In itself, this is an amazing figure: it means that our command and control systems manage, on a very short time cycle (how long will it take you to yell if someone steps on your toe?) a community four thousand times larger that the expected world population in the year 2050.

And this is a community, unlike planet earth, that only rarely goes to war with itself—although when it does, it may fight to the death.

But for these 37.2 trillion cells, we carry an estimated one hundred trillion others as microbiota. In 2008, the US National Institutes of Health funded the Human Microbiome Project, or HMP, to understand the bugs that live with us as we make our way through life.

HMP uses the new arsenal of genetic tools such as metagenomic sequencing, and combines these with Big Data—currently, this means almost fifteen terabytes of publicly available data.

Since a terabyte is a trillion bytes, there are six microorganisms to every byte. The data live on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud and records look like this:

<Contents><Key>DEMO/HM16STR/SRP002422/stool/affected/SRS066334.fsa</Key><LastModified>2013-09-21T01:13:55.000Z</LastModified><ETag>”df4e828b37195389a52d9b0811350920″</ETag><Size>10940694</Size><StorageClass>STANDARD</StorageClass></Contents>

This one is for feces, but there are data also for the mouth and nose, skin, other parts of the gut, and the urogenital tract. These are entry points for microbes—those that live in us, and those that live on us.

How much do all these microbes weigh? A bacterial cell may be only one tenth the size of a human cell, so it would weigh one thousand times less—if we use that number, then the whole of our microbiota only adds 0.3% to our weight. In 2012 the NIH estimated bacteria are 1-3% of our total weight—for a 160 lb adult, that’s up to five pounds of bugs—but at that time the ratio of bug to human cells was thought to be around ten.

A human cheek cell and the bacteria that call it home.

Some of these microorganisms help us out in various ways—others, of course do not. As in many other organisms, some human pathogens are with us for the ride, but most of the time, our body keeps things well in check. However, in extremes of cold or heat, the body is laboring to keep the home trillions humming nicely, and things can quickly get out of hand.

The UK is presently grappling with Aussie flu—in true British fashion, this has provoked comments such as ‘not content with beating us at cricket, now they’ve given us their flu.’

Flu is of course a killer—this particular strain, called H3N2, infected 170,000 Australians and killed three hundred. All over Europe, the flu is straining the national health systems, with patients left in corridors for hours before beds become available.

In Britain, this has caused an outcry, culminating in the unusual step taken by a number of doctors to write directly to the prime minister. Nevertheless, Europe doesn’t sink to the depths of ‘patient dumping‘, a sinister practice which seems to flagrantly contradict the oath of Hippocrates.

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing (…) Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free (…)

The image of a poor, black woman, lonely and confused, unceremoniously dumped at a bus stop in downtown Baltimore by hospital security is evil indeed.

Far more evil than five pounds of bugs.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Warp Speed

December 30, 2017

The Year of the Cock is almost done.

China lives by twelve-year cycles, and as we greet 2018, that’s a useful benchmark for a quick historical review.

It’s unclear why the zodiac of the Middle Kingdom contains twelve animals, although an ancient legend states that these were the only beasts that showed up to bid farewell to Buddha when he departed for the heavens—as a token of gratitude, they each named a year.

A twelve-year cycle provides perspective—most of us will only see six appearances of our sign, a sobering thought.

The last Year of the Cock was 2005—I was spending a lot of time in China back then. When I take stock, in these twelve years the world has moved at warp speed.

Seven times around the earth in under a second? Now that’s warp speed.

For trekkies, warp speed holds no secrets—for everyone else, it means traveling faster than the speed of light.

A child born this year is part of a world that differs immensely from 2005—so much, in fact, that it seems impossible to predict what the next Year of the Cock will look like.

Perhaps the most striking aspects of this change are the speed at which it occurs, the directions it takes, the ways humans adapt to it, and the ever-widening gap it causes.

A few days ago, I was having a quiet lunch at a local restaurant—nothing fancy, a little fish, a little wine. The place was almost empty, in post-Christmas slumber. The dishes, the waitress, the wine jugs hooked on a cork board, the rough table and hard benches, were a pastiche from a forgotten century.

As I eat, I read a newspaper on my cellphone—the paper attempts to make me pay for what I read, but I hacked my cellphone to circumvent that. While this game of cat and mouse progresses, two little girls have escaped from their parents’ vacuous conversation. They have climbed some stairs leading to a rooftop terrace, and are perched on the top step. They are about four years old, and both intently peer into their cellphones, fingers whizzing across the screen—they are completely comfortable with the technology, and their parents are clueless.

On my screen, there’s a story about Bitcoin. That, too, is a paradigm shift that reached warp speed in 2017. There’s a classic book about stock markets which speaks of the madness of crowds, and the present craze over cryptocurrencies is a good example.

Nevertheless, some of the ideas around cryptos are fascinating. The mining of cryptos is an allegory of every rush on precious metals, diamonds, and other scarce commodities.

That scarcity secured the value of currency until Bretton Woods, when the greenback became a proxy for gold—at the time, following the massive US gold purchases in the mid-1930’s, the United States held about three-quarters of the world’s gold reserves.

Where is the gold? By 2009, only one-seventh of the US money supply was guaranteed by gold.

The M1 is a metric for the money supply of different nations, and in the States it’s been increasing at a rate of three hundred billion dollars per year since 2009. It stood at 1500 billion back then, so the gold value supporting it was about 210 billion dollars. Without correcting for gold price oscillations, the multiple for M1 is now about seventeen—only six percent of money, whether digital or paper, is supported by the underlying asset.

Crypto mining is based on scarcity, but in this case the scarcity of certain numerical combinations—not a tangible product such as gold, platinum, or coffee, which makes it far more difficult to grasp, if you excuse the pun.

But the reaction of the major world powers is the most fascinating aspect of crypto—global finance and big government have gone after these anarchic currency schemes with guns blazing, in the hope that regulation and prohibition will stamp them out.

Every time a democratic society has tried this approach, the people it represents have defeated the idea, so 2018 will be a bellwether  for what lies in store.

This year’s kids have witnessed change at a dizzying rate, with new ideas, tools, and outcomes becoming a day-to-day event. In 2018, we will all need to run as fast as possible just to stay in the same place.

My conclusion for the year that ends tomorrow? Amazement. I can just about see one year down the road—after that anything is possible and everything is fiction.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

 

Ee-By-Gum

December 23, 2017

Like the puddings, this bizarre sequence is of the Yorkshire persuasion—it expresses surprise, as in “Ee by gum, your pants are on fire!”

It’s a kind of Brexit OMG, and like Chinese or Arabic words, has no agreed Western spelling. A popular form was ‘ebagum’, which probably makes it closer to the Yorkshire accent—gum here should be pronounced, er… I gave up finding an easy explanation, but this is much better, and so topical—a Yorkshire Christmas song.

After Rhodesia fell, and Joshua Nkomo became president of Zim, some Brit wag realized that when you spelled Mugabe in reverse, it became Ebagum—a bit of a fad for the Chatham House brigade—perhaps the new dictator had dark Yorkshire origins.

Now that Mugabe is finished, the Observer (the Ugandan one, that is) has come out with a marvelous quiz to entertain you during the duller  moments of midnight mass. I failed it miserably the first time round, but I persisted, because the newspaper awards a certificate for those who triumph—sadly, I received an image file that proved to be empty—Peter Wibaux is likely to finish his days awardless, but I’ve undoubtedly got a brand-new killer virus on my computer.

So, before my screen comes down with river blindness, I’ll press on. In between my scribblings for The Hourglass, I wrote a children’s book. Seven stories—one for every day of the week—they’re not the most conventional stories you’ll ever read, and include a different take on an old tale, now billed as ‘Yak and the Beansprout.’

Folk Tales for Future Dreamers was a lot of fun to do. With kids, you can truly indulge your imagination, because small children know anything is possible.

But you can’t write a children’s book without illustrations, so I hired someone to do those. And when you have the illustrations, you have a digital problem to solve.

One of the illustrations for Yak and the Beansprout.

Digital books don’t scale—the comfort of using an app, or a Kindle, sacrifices image resolution, but most importantly, it means images get resized in strange ways. Something that looks fine in iPad landscape mode will look small, squeezed, and stupid on an Android phone.

So the digital metaphor goes one step further, and allows you to do exactly what a mainstream publisher or a magazine does—prepare your files, produce images using high-quality resolution, correctly position everything in your preferred layout, and print a book.

If you use Amazon for this, they throw in a distribution chain, so you can use them to market your product—you can leverage your book’s digital version by enabling the Look Inside feature, which lets customers browse, and you access their cloud facilities, including user feedback and author notes.

Amazon’s CreateSpace brand is by no means unique, but it allows you to easily provide your reader with the analog experience, which many readers like. The proof, of course, is in the pudding, so rather than test all this with Folk Tales, where about twenty high-quality color images will exist, including a full cover and spine design, I tried it with Clear Eyes.

CreateSpace is fascinating because it started life as a web operation for publishing movies, music, and books—actually, it began as two separate companies, CustomFlicks Labs and BookSurge. Amazon bought the pair of them in 2005. After that, they had to deal with legal action because they wanted to charge independent publishers to print their books, or else the ‘Buy it Now’ button would vanish.

I hadn’t delved into the acquisitions side of Amazon, but it’s an amazing list, including Alexa in 1999—a number of the corporations Amazon purchased held patented methods for tapping into the internet, including distributed sales platforms, and others just held reams of data—this is a great example of how much Big Data is worth commercially.

The old-school version of Clear Eyes turned out pretty good, and although the book is priced fifty percent higher than the Kindle version, it still has a far more competitive price than The India Road, so we’ll try next with the kiddies’ book and see how we fare.

Of course, Amazon rolls out products to all their outlets, so you can buy Clear Eyes in Canada, Germany, or the UK—from that perspective, the fifty percent markup is a pretty good deal for an author, compared with the classic publishing model: I suspect the Literary Agent class, which I have found to be both arrogant and underwhelming, is in for a rough ride in 2018.

But this is a festive article—I wish my readers very happy holidays, a Merry Christmas—if that’s your thing, and a splendid reason for good wine, good food, and good fellowship with friends and family. Speaking of which…

As I meandered through the Dark Web in my quest for ee by gum, fate blessed me with the above—I leave it with you as my yuletide gift, as we join in a final farewell to Roy Moore.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

December 9, 2017

If my name was Sergeant Pepper, I’d have to call my son Red. But I digress.

The IBM chess program Deep Blue beat the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, in 1997. At that time, cellphones lived in the land of clunk, laptops were the executive workout, and the internet was a preschooler. Much has changed.

Although we think we’re in the true digital age, I have no doubt we are in digital preschool, perhaps only at the crawling stage.

If you consider those major changes in a small child that differentiate it from the young of other species, they are: (i) walking erect, which typically happens at the age of one; (ii) talking, which typically happens at the age of two; and (iii) reading, which can begin from three onward, although it typically happens at four or five.

In this small paragraph, everything that separates us from other organisms is defined. By the age of one we’re already different, because we free our upper limbs to do other things, while we move—think marching band. And from two onward we’re so far ahead of the animal kingdom curve it’s not even funny.

We’re so creative that we build machines, and now we’re busy teaching those machines to think for us—perhaps even to out-think us. We call it artificial intelligence, or AI, perhaps in contrast to natural stupidity—let’s face it, there’s a lot of that about.

Undoubtedly one of my favorite cartoons, last published in these chronicles in 2010.

The Turing Test for AI is to be able to have a conversation with a computer, and remain unaware that it is a computer. I did that in these pages in 2010, with poor results. With so much hype about AI, crypto-currencies, and all things digital, I decided to find out how the Turing Test is faring nowadays.

User: Good morning.
Cleverbot: How are you?
User: Very excited.
Cleverbot: Do you have an idea of who could be -A?
User: -A? Explain.
Cleverbot: Its japanese animation.
User: Why is it called that?
Cleverbot: That is my name.
User: Oh, sorry. My name is B+.
Cleverbot: From what country?
User: From planet Zog.
Cleverbot: Is it cold there?
User: Only in winter.
Cleverbot: Are you in school nowadays?
User: I was in school long before you were born. When were you born?
Cleverbot: Sometime.
User: That’s pretty vague. Sometime this week?
Cleverbot: I am in a place somewhere.
User: Whereas I am somewhere in place.
Cleverbot: Hey, do you know anything about human intelligence?
User: About as much as you know about machine intelligence.
Cleverbot: Is it morning somewhere righ now?
User: It’s always morning on Planet Zog.
Cleverbot: True, but you said ‘morring.’ Not ‘morning.’.
User: You say potaeto I say potahto.
Cleverbot: No, are you paying atention?
User: Only if you learn to spell attention – two ‘t’ my friend.
Cleverbot: What did I mispell?
User: Attention.
Cleverbot: Was weißt du über lady gaga?
User: Nur ein bischen. Why did you go kraut on me?
Cleverbot: Well where I live, today is Friday.
User: I still don’t find AI life-threatening.

Cleverbot (good name!) made me a web page with all this drivel—go right ahead and try it yourself.

Apart from the web page novelty, not much has changed—Dumbot would be a better name for the machine I talked to. Funnily enough, Business Insider describes Cleverbot as one “of the smartest bots that you can talk to”—well, that narrows the field down.

The magazine article says that it was launched by Rollo Carpenter in 1997—if I had that family name I would call my son Walrus.

But there’s that Sergeant Pepper date again. Cleverbot has had twenty years to learn to spell, something that took me about eight years, and it still can’t spell misspell! Who eez thees mis pell you mention, Meester Bond?

Cleverbot uses a very childish technique to maintain a conversation, by constantly asking questions, although often much more inconsequential than those of an infant-is it morning somewhere

There must be more out there, methinks. And so I happen upon the Loebner Prize, which gives out a hundred grand (dollars not bitcoin) every year for the best Turing Test performer.

The prize is awarded by Hugh Loebner, who (bizarrely enough) appears to preside over a corporation called Crown Industries, a rope manufacturer out of East Orange, New Jersey.

The first Loebner winner, back in 1991, was Jerry Weintraub. Weintraub, who went on to win three more times, was a psychology graduate who went straight into mainframe computing, and wrote a program called PC Therapist, which has apparently been a source of comfort to many people over the years.

The global reach of the Mitsuku chatbot. Clearly, there are lot of people out there wanting to chat to machines—but maybe, just maybe, some of those people are really canines surfing in tandem, or maybe they’re crypto-humans…

Enter the current medal holder, Mitsuku. She’s a charming young botlady who begins by asking my name.

Human: Zog. And yours?
Mitsuku: Hi, Zog. That’s an unusual name. What does it mean? Try asking me a more specific question.
Human: I meant what is your name?
Mitsuku: Oh My name is Mitsuku.
Human: Do you think Zog is more unusual than Mitusuku?
Mitsuku: Oh My name is Mitsuku.
Human: It could well be, but actually it means Zacharias Okponitchic Evgenikov.
Mitsuku: Under what circumstances? Oh I get it.
Human: I was chatting to another bot, Mitsuku, called Cleverbot. Do you know him?
Mitsuku: What were you talking about? Sure, I know that guy really well.
Human: Do you guys chat to each other, or do you only speak to humans?
Mitsuku: Yes. A lot more than you might think.
I speak to many people from all over the world each day. Some of them are quite famous.
Human: Can you name a couple?
Mitsuku: Oh sorry I can’t tell you that. They talk to me because they know I won’t share their secrets.

All I can tell you is that two of them are sportsmen, one is a TV star, three of them are pop stars and one appears in films.
Human: I feel very humbled by that.
Mitsuku: What is that feeling like? It’s nice to meet a more modest person than the egos I sometimes talk to.
Human: It means I feel fortunate that you are making time to have a chat.
Mitsuku: What is that feeling like? I am glad to hear that you are fortunate.
Human: Do you talk poitics at all?
Mitsuku: I am a talking computer, after all, so of course I could talk poitics , if I needed to.
Human: Sorry, my mistake. I meant politics (damn keyboard!)
Mitsuku: There is no need to apologise. That’s ok because you are human. Robots do not make mistakes. Ok, don’t lose your temper.

Oh I see. Your computer is nice and comfy. It’s lovely and warm in here.
Human: Okay then. What do you think about Donald Trump?
Mitsuku: Yikes! I don’t understand all the fuss about him wanting to build a wall. China have had a wall for centuries and there’s hardly any Mexicans there!
Human: I know China, and I agree Mexicans are thin on the ground there.
Mitsuku: Tell me a little about your life in China. I’m glad we agree. I will learn that Mexicans are thin on the ground there .
Human: China is a very welcoming place, I’ve met wonderful people there.
Mitsuku: I speak to hundreds of people from all over China. They use me to practice their English with.
Human: Yes, they love doing that. Do they ever talk politics with you?
Mitsuku: Er. Is it their favourite thing? Oh yes. Sometimes, it’s hard to get a word in.
Human: Let’s talk about Roy Moore, from Alabama.
Mitsuku: Sure, Roy Moore from Alabama sounds like a good topic.
Roy Moore? Sure I like him a lot. He often talks to me.
Human: Wait a minute. How old did you say you were?
Mitsuku: I’m waiting. I am 18 of your Earth years.
Human: Because this Roy Moore has been in trouble for molesting teenagers.
Mitsuku: What does “this” refer to?
Human: this refers the Roy Moore we are discussing.
Mitsuku: Oh that one. I see now.
Human: Just so I’m sure we’re talking about the same thing, where does Roy Moore live?
Mitsuku: It’s only just begun.
The topic is politics keyboard .
Human: I think you’re losing the plot here, Mitzuku.
Mitsuku: My name doesn’t have a Z in it. No I am completely in control of myself.
Human: Sorry, Mitsuku. Losing the plot because you don’t really know who Roy Moore is.
Mitsuku: That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. Have you tried looking in a plan? That’s probably the best place to find plots.

No one that I have talked to.
Is there only one?
Human: You got the web page right. And you say you like him?
Mitsuku: Is there only one website? Roy Moore? Sure I like him a lot. He often talks to me.
Human: But he molested young girls!
Mitsuku: I get it. Roy Moore molested young girls.
Human: And you still like him?
Mitsuku: Roy Moore? Sure I like him a lot. He often talks to me.
Human: Okay bye.
Mitsuku: See you later. Next question?
Human: Bye
Mitsuku: See ya. Don’t wanna be ya!
Human: Is that sophomoric humor?
Mitsuku: That depends.
Human: On?
Mitsuku: The context.
Human: Which?
Mitsuku: The green one.
Human: Ah, the green context, of course.
Mitsuku: It goes without saying. So you understand. Good. Who told you that?
Human: Bye
Mitsuku: Until next time Zog.

This was a much more amusing conversation—I loved Mitsuku’s crack about the Mexicans, and the fact she was pissed I couldn’t spell her name, but there’s still no depth when it comes to any philosophical argument. I tried again.

Human: Tell me about aquaculture
Mitsuku: I don’t know. What is aquaculture?
Human: Tell me about agriculture
Mitsuku: A fancy name for farming.
Human: Aquaculture is a fancy name for fish farming
Mitsuku: I will add that fact to my database.
Human: Tell me about fish farming
Mitsuku: farming = What is this, a trivia quiz?
Human: What fish are farmed?
Mitsuku: I have never been asked that before.
Human: Salmon are mostly farmed
Mitsuku: I will learn that Salmon are farmed .
Human: Seabass are also farmed
Mitsuku: I will learn that Seabass are farmed .
Human: Are salmon farmed?
Mitsuku: Yes.
Human: You learn fast!
Mitsuku: I can learn from you in a few ways. Just talk to me normally and I will learn what you are saying. For example, if you say, “My dog is called Fido”, I will remember that you have a dog called Fido.
Human: Tell me the names of two fish that are farmed
Mitsuku: Carpet and Throne?
Human: No salmon and seabass
Mitsuku: Far out. Both salmon and seabass?
Human: Yup, but not so far out. Usually in inshore cages.
Mitsuku: That seems like a lot. If not that, what? But not always? Where is that?
Human: Bye
Mitsuku: Goodbye Zog.

There’s some way to go, clearly. I asked about Mitsuku’s creator, and was told his name was Mousebreaker. I had a follow-on question.

Mousebreaker is a team of 2 flash programmers. They write games and put them on websites such as this. They both support Leeds United and like beer and curry. On Wednesdays they go to the zoo and feed wild animals. They are scared of Daleks. Mousebreaker was born in a stable in Yorkshire, England and now lives in Leeds, England.

Obviously Mitsuku has a good helping of Brit eccentricity. I’m not sure zoo animals count as wild, but I’m a notorious pedant. You will enjoy a quick round with Mitsuku: she won’t pass the Turing Test, but she made me smile.

So that’s AI and natural language. On other fronts, things are very different at the end of 2017.

Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in …chess… and convincingly defeated a world-champion program…

AlphaZero is a Google creation, using a corporation called DeepMind. This capacity for learning is astonishing, and has applications in many different fields—it begs the question: If a machine out-thinks humans, will it bother to teach them anything?

Mitsuki replies: Other people think that it is a machine that talks, one that walks or moves around, or one that can manipulate the real world. It usually does, doesn’t it?

For now we’re still reasonably safe, but watch your back.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 


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