Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Why are the Arab states toppling?

Almost every day one hears of unrest from one of the authoritarian states of North Africa and the Middle East. Even Syria, which had been, I thought, relatively progressive and had provided refuge for Christians fleeing from Iraq, seems to be in trouble. Yet the economies of these countries and their literacy levels have been improving and some concessions have been made to the pressures for political reform. 

So why now?

In their highly perceptive book The Great Reckoning (1992) James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg concluded that microchips and floppy discs were the main causes of the Soviet break up around 1990. Information could be stored, distributed and accessed without the knowledge of the apparatchik.

Today we have the incomparably more powerful Internet, global in extent and with immense potential for good and evil use in the whole spectrum of human societies. In particular, authoritarian nations are finding it impossible to control  information flows within and across their borders. But if a country closes down its web infrastructure it suffers economically and the rulers themselves are denied social networks, access to the sum total of human knowledge, computers games, international trade, online banking and all the enhancements of life offered by the web.

In other words the autocrats and dictators have little choice but to keep the Internet running and linked in to the rest of the world. The Internet is not, on balance, a friend of tyrants. It seems likely that the increasingly demanding cries for freedom in such regimes have been given power and impetus by the tools of the Internet; and as the authorities make concessions this only increases the demand for more.

Activity undermining dictators and autocrats (distinguished from dictators by hereditary rights) can be grouped under three headings: person-to-person, surfing and publishing. Much of this applies equally to the leaders of terrorist cells and no doubt the list below is far from exhaustive.

Free exchange of ideas and information both within and across borders, including, e.g., bomb making, weapon procurement, demonstration plans and disruption strategies. Learning first hand about how friends abroad are discussing or perceiving world affairs. Hearing about how individuals live in parliamentary democracies.

Exposure to subversive websites; awareness of goods and services abroad; ability to learn with increasing objectivity about world history and ideas emerging from the Enlightenment; appreciation of the diversity of views expressed without fear.

Ideas dangerous to the holders of power; information on demonstrations and exhortations to civil disobedience are published on websites produced and edited in places and by individuals difficult to locate geographically. E.g. a  website dangerous to the elite of nation A could be edited from the front room of someone in nation B on the other side of the world.

Concomitant with the Internet are the young median ages of these countries. They all have large young populations with rising aspirations impatient for signs of progress and rising prosperity.

It is, of course, easy to be sanctimonious. Even an ideally democratic nation state could not afford to let activity directed to its replacement by an autocracy go unchecked. It is a tragedy that a small group led by a ‘dominophile’ (a term I use in 2077 AD for a person with the desire and ability to control others and incite them to hatred) and with the necessary destructive means can remove the freedom and ruin the lives of millions.

There is no doubt that those wanting freedom in the Arab states have a good case. Yet  if a power vacuum is created it may be filled by something worse, such as an Islamic theocracy with world caliphate ambitions. The aspirations of today’s freedom seekers would have come to nothing.

Author, 2077 AD

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Fukushima goes global?

Two major stories have been dominating the news recently: Bahrain and Fukushima. At the time of writing, 14.15 GMT, the Fukushima one looks likely to eclipse the other.

This was the situation radiation-wise at 11 a.m. (Thu 17 March) according to the BBC Q&A site
What kind of radiation levels have been recorded at Fukushima?
Levels as high as 400 millisieverts per hour have been registered at the plant itself. A couple of hours exposed to this dose-level could cause radiation sickness. However, for long periods since the crisis began, the level has been at 10 millisieverts per hour or lower. (A spinal X-ray delivers roughly one millisievert of radiation, a CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis has an effective dose of 15 millisieverts.)
To be a global threat there has to be a thermal event strong enough to force primary radioactive material (from the fuel rods themselves) tens of thousands of feet into the atmosphere. See video.
Unless the particles get to these heights they quickly sink down and the effects remain local.

Resuming writing at 14.15 GMT , the main focus is on the pond used to store ‘spent’ fuel rods.
These are still radioactive – just not in the way needed for use in the reactor itself where heat is generated to produce steam for the turbines used in generating electricity.

The water has somehow leaked from these ponds and when this happens they heat up in a chain reaction. This can cause a very dangerous fire releasing radioactive material high into the atmosphere, where it has the potential to spread globally. This is why helicopter crews are risking their lives trying to spray water into the ponds even as radiation levels in the vicinity escalate. The helicopters have to be high to avoid lethal radiation doses and this makes it difficult to target the ponds.

Tokyo Electric are trying to restore power to operate cooling pumps but this project also is hampered by radiation levels around the plant. Yet it seems to be our best hope – and by ‘our’ I mean the world’s best hope. My understanding , and I hope I’ve got it wrong, is that hundreds of these spent fuel rods could catch fire and reach temperatures of thousands of degrees. If this sent particles miles into the atmosphere the dispersion could be truly global.

Not only could this magnify the already appalling humanitarian disaster of the tsunami several fold but the whole world economy could be affected if Japan has to withdraw reserves from the US banking system, thereby causing the dollar to collapse as one of the props supporting it is removed and as oil supplies are threatened.

Hold on tight and pray.

Author, 2077 AD

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Hold on to the Truth: Afterthoughts

Reading feedback from the previous post it was heartening not to feel alone in being concerned about the future of science. In particular I was pleased to learn that an atheist theoretical physicist, Paul Davies (agnostic author of the Goldilocks Enigma, which I can recommend) said:

‘...even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as lawlike order in nature that is at least part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological world view.’
Templeton Prize address (1995)

Long may the atheist keep the faith. Some recently have not; but only by doing so can science be saved from resorting to the absurd simply in order to dispense with the need for a Creator. (Those believing in a rational monotheistic God already have this faith.) 

I mentioned the two-slit experiment, where the behaviour of quantum particles appears to be linked in some incomprehensible way with  awareness or knowledge. One variation of this is the delayed choice version which concludes:

'Therefore our delayed choice of how to measure the particle determines  how the particle actually behaved at an earlier time'

 What has this to do with peace on earth? Quite a lot, because for science (and hence technology, ultimately) to avoid stagnation and decline scientists must not lose their nerve and resort to  irrational or arbitrary  models to explain such strange seeming events of the quantum world, as some have been doing. Prosperity depends on science and peace depends partly on universal prosperity. (The only long term peace is  holy (whole) peace but that is another question.)

Finally. some readers may suspect I have misinterpreted Hawking and his postmodern concept of  'model dependent realism'. I would not blame them - I have to keep returning to convince myself he is serious.
So here is another extract from The Grand Design. After first referring to the model of creation which follows from a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 (as opposed to perceiving it as a divine  metaphor showing  the relation between man and God) he briefly describes the standard big bang model of creation. He then says

'...so this model - big bang theory - is more useful than the first. Still, neither model can be said to be more real than the other.'

(26% through on iPhone Kindle app)

So if lots of historians publishing accounts of the Battle of Waterloo in peer reviewed scholarly journals agree that it took place near Waterloo on Sunday 18 June 1815 and some amateur historian says it took place on Olympus Mons on Mars in 1955 because it is more useful for him, each model is real. To which I say, get real!

Consider this statement:

'no statement is more true than any other '.

 This is self contradictory because the  statement  itself claims to be more true than the statement

 'some statements are more true than others'.

In conclusion, for science to continue to prosper all it needs is for atheistic and agnostic scientists to avoid believing that nature and the universe are meaningless and chaotic. See also the five-fold threat to science.

Author, 2077 AD