Sunday, 31 July 2011

Africa: fighting corruption using the Web

It is easy for westerners to forget how endemic corruption is in less fortunate parts of the world such as the Middle East and Africa. Charities have to help direct resources to the poor and the hungry and to do this they need to know when money is being diverted into private pockets.

On p.23 of the summer issue of Christian Aid News Eric Gutierrez points out the complexity of the problem. Sometimes rulers have to allow armed gangs and rebel groups to  carry on an illicit trade or criminal activities in return for not causing too much disruption; and so many leaders are involved in bribery and fraud  that it is not uncommon for a politician to be re-elected despite previous convictions. In general, the priority is to deal with violent conflcit before corruption.

Some charities, like Christian Aid, try to tackle the problem at grass roots but to do so they need information and it turns out that the Internet is proving useful in getting it to where it’s needed.  Two examples:

Media-Analysis and Research Services Group was set up in 2005 to publish online evidence such as budget documents, bidding rules and project profiles. This helps journalists reporting on corruption and aids prosecutors in pursuing cases.

Rafael Marques, a journalist, diverted anti-corruption reports to from newspapers when the latter were bought off by companies fearing his reports. His website led to Daimler AG withdrawing from a joint venture with an Angolan general and also has led to the Cobalt oil company being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

There are of course difficulties, both political and technical, in maintaining these sites but they are helping citizens set up campaigns such as the Partnership for Change, a non-violent initiative in Kenya to 'end the impunity of corrupt politicians'. More internet-based anti-corruption action has originated in Angola with various Christian Aid partners such as
There is a long way to go but it is good to see from the above and other evidence that corruption in parts of the developing world is being taken increasingly seriously by aid agencies, governments and the indigenous peoples. As with most misery in the world human frailty and evil are the root cause. 

Feedback welcome.

author, 2077 AD

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Internet: a citizen's view

The Internet was originally developed by the US Department of Defense during the Cold War. International packet switched networks were devised. These enabled messages to be transmitted between any two points on the network even if parts of it had been destroyed in a nuclear attack. Later, a CERN physicist called Tim Berners Lee wrote the World Wide Web software enabling the exchange of  text and images.

Once the web was fully operational it became the domain of idealists:  hippies and cyber-libertarians. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other organisations emerged to oversee it; and in 1996 John Perry Barlow, a lyricist with the Grateful Dead,  wrote the Declaration of the independence of cyberspace.

Without this initial idealism and the freedom from government interference it is doubtful whether the following benefits would have happened so quickly:

  • Wikipedia  – a truly unique knowledge resource.
  • Augmentation of parliamentary democracy (e.g. in the UK the ‘38 degrees’ online petition service).
  • Data exchange worldwide, allowing problems to be tackled more powerfully and quickly. (e.g. in biomolecular and climate change models).
  • Business productivity improvements.
  • Consumer choice and convenience.
  • Citizens and professionals are able to cooperate in ways previously unimaginable (e.g. in climate, astronomical and wildlife monitoring using the processing power of thousands of home PCs).
  • Medical treatments have been enormously improved and made widely known to patients.

Unfortunately, the web has over the last decade or so been subject to negative influences arising from the  shortcomings of human nature and the absence of adequate regulation by nation states or international bodies:

  • Spam (e.g. 75% of the world’s emails are spam) and obtrusive advertising.
  • Hacking for profit or malice or fun. Even the latter can waste enormous amounts of time, including that of the hacker who could be doing something useful (e.g. removing grafitti).
  • Fragmentation of society as news, information, comment, analysis, art, literature, music and entertainment are increasingly tailored to the individual.
  • Curtailment of some mental faculties, such as the building of an internalised body of knowledge, although others may be improved (e.g. reaction speeds, multitasking).
  • Divorcement from reality by excessive concentration on fantasy games as well as games masquerading as realistic when in fact they rely on the author’s particular model of a subset of reality.
  • Fraud and the undermining of the financial system.
  • Propagation of evil values outside the law and widely accepted mores of most nation states or the UN etc, (e.g. paedophile rings, child prostitution, slander, certain kinds of theft).
  • Mind control by totalitarian states (e.g. China, North Korea and most states in the Middle East) able to block or restrict foreign access.

The Internet itself and the devices connected to it are functioning less effectively as the quest for profit wins over the original ideals, while these very ideals are used as an excuse for Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and others to prevent nations and supranational bodies from interfering with their right to profit, even if this has a downside for users: intrusive advertising, loss of privacy, social inequalities of access, dysfunctionality arising from incompatible technologies (e.g. wars between browsers and operating systems) or over-concentration on immediate profits (e.g. deterioration of an existing system in the rush to start up a  new money spinner) and the prevention of innovation from newcomers.

Also, I’m not an expert in IT, but I get the impression that bandwidth is being unwisely allocated on a free market basis, with corporations buying bocks of channel capacity from the internet service providers. There is only a finite amount of channel capacity in the network while its 2 billion user-base is growing fast. TV programmes and movies hog a large amount of channel capacity, yet can be broadcast or sold on DVDs. Consequently, important Internet uses in education, business, science, medicine, public services and leisure get slowed down or made unreliable.

So in my view it is time for international and state interference, so that the full potential of the Internet miracle can be realised.

Feedback welcome.

Author, 2077 AD

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The US debt mountain

Much of the western world is in debt. Here I am concentrating on the USA because it is in more debt than most and because, as the largest economy and the most powerful nation on Earth militarily, its future affects everybody.

The total government debt in the USA is now about $14.3 trillion and the population is 313 million. Dividing one by the other gives $45,000 of government debt for every man, woman and child – about $180,000 per family. In the long term this money has to be paid back to the nations, banks and other institutions who have lent the money – and with interest. The longer it takes to pay back the larger the interest.

The government does not have enough money to pay its bills - e.g. salaries and pensions of state employees. Frequently, as on August 2 2011,  it has to ask Congress for permission to borrow the shortfall. 

How are US citizens going to payback all this public debt? Through taxes; but the citizens themselves are in debt (mortgages, car loans etc.) to the tune of $7,800 per capita, say $30,000 per family.

In addition to the government and personal debt the US is running a large trade deficit. In May 2011 $50 billion  exited the US financial system as payment for imports exceeded revenue from exports.

 If foreign creditors asked for their money back the value of the dollar would collapse: the US would be unable to afford imports, including energy, raw materials, foods and consumer goods, and the US banks would be unable to invest in US industry because they would have no money to lend. If the government tried to print the money in this situation there would be hyperinflation and astronomical interest rates.

So why do foreign nations continue to put money into the USA by buying government bonds and investing in US industry, or at least retain their existing dollar holdings?

Because if they did not their own dollar investments would suffer as the dollar collapsed. And I believe every country in the world has major dollar investments because the dollar has become the main currency by which oil, gas, precious metals, corn etc. are traded and by which goods are bought and sold internationally. This situation has arisen over the last century because the US economy and entrepreneurial spirit have grown to dwarf that of any other nation.

It is a precarious situation. It only takes one country to suddenly withdraw substantial dollar reserves and this would be perceived as a signal to panic by others, setting off a financial chain reaction and the downfall of most economies worldwide. This could happen if, say, Saudi Arabia was taken over by a hostile jihad group wanting to destroy western civilisation. Evidently such groups do not care if they themselves suffer (or rather the leaders do not suffer but their brainwashed subjects do).

The only way of preventing this would be to freeze assets, unless of course this caused other nations to stop investing in dollars for fear that their own assets would be frozen.

Overall President Obama is saddled with a problem which in the main he did not create and which it is in almost everyone’s interest to  have solved. 

Author, 2077 AD

Monday, 18 July 2011

Evolution: onward and upward

About 4 billion years ago the Earth is rock, molten lava, obnoxious gases and a vast amount of water.
 The information content of the planet's surface is minimal and there is no biosphere.

Within the blink of a cosmic eye (less than a few hundred million years) the first life forms appear. Even the simplest organism is extraordinarily complex and information rich. Life begins to alter its own environment, even the atmosphere, in a way which promotes more life.
The biosphere has started and its information content begins to grow.

500 million years ago life multiplies in the ocean, diversifying, experimenting, the atmosphere is benign. Vision had been invented in sea creatures so that the world is seen  for the first time in the history of Earth, if not the universe. Coded survival solutions are being carried between species  (horizontal gene transfer), e.g. by viruses, and within species (vertical gene transfer) by descent with modification. Probably much else is happening.
The information content of the biosphere is huge and growing fast.

Today, ecosystems abound in water, on land and even in the air and  information content is astronomically high and still growing fast.

Why is it growing fast? Because humankind is evolving fast and we are incredibly information-rich in a way distinct from any other species, having spanned the world, turning it into a global metropolis in the sense that you can travel by air between any two cities on the planet in a time comparable to that of traversing a city on foot; while knowledge and social interaction is planet-wide at the speed of light.

We are unique in many ways. Our technology has developed to the state where we can, e.g.
  • produce food in abundance and, in principle,  distribute it to where it's needed
  • heal the sick and prevent diseases
  • manage some natural systems to a limited degree (e.g. wildlife reservations)
  • undo some of the environmental damage we do
  • simulate nature in mathematical models
  • record data, process it and distribute it globally as well as around the solar system
  • transfer people from one celestial body to another
  • copy subsystems within elementary life forms
  • probe matter down to quarks, gluons and other subatomic particles
  • derive knowledge of the universe billions of years into the past and billions of light years away
  • harness the quantum world for electronic devices and computing
  • release the power of the atomic nucleus. 
Our imagination, creativity, curiosity, persistence, intelligence, consciousness and tool-making prowess have allowed us to probe into the working of nature, to speculate on its limits and orgins, to exploit it in innumerable ways and travel in our imaginations independently of  space-time. 

At this stage in human history we are confronted with deep questions on what it means to be human and what is sacred as biotechnology has the potential to physically alter our mind-body system in ways unimaginable only a few decades ago.

Which reminds us that there are even more important ways we are distinct from other life forms. Humans have a sense of
  • good and  evil
  • justice and judgement
  • truth
  • humility and pride
  • pity and mercy
  • grace 
  • redemption and salvation
  • humour, irony and narrative
  • aesthetics
  • awe and wonder.
We are able to conceive of divine love as the highest ideal and of a monotheistic source of all being from which our reality emanates and to which we can choose to relate to in body, mind and spirit, because we have been imbued with the freedom to do so.

It is fortunate we have these qualities of mind and spirit and the choice of a relationship to our Creator. Otherwise how are we going to cope with the  nature we have discovered and used as well as those layers of mystery which, if science, technology and medicine are not  plunged into some atheistic, neo-pagan or post modern dark age,  may be revealed in future?

Now let me descend from the soap box and invite your comments.

Author, 2077 AD

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The five-fold threat to science

Peer reviewed academic science started and evolved in a Judeo-Christian culture in which there was faith in the infinitely multilayered underlying order of God’s creation. In addition there was a belief that truth was sacred and divine. To lie was to sin.

It has not been a smooth ride. There have been plenty of departures from the ideal paradigm– lies have been told, data fudged, honours fiercely fought. But the scholarly peer review procedure has been recognised by all as the ideal and it has taken us a long way, yielding many blessings, including clean drinking water, plentiful food, miraculous medicine, the Internet and a progressively evolving insight into the workings of nature. These gifts can be considered as the end result of 250,000 years of evolution or as blessings from God or both.

Today, it seems, this process is under threat in five ways:

/1/ A lack of faith in the underlying order of nature
Without this all motivation to discover new laws could cease. If Newton (a devout Christian and mystic)  had not believed in an underlying order there would be no laws of motion, no law of gravity, no optics and possibly no calculus. The lack of belief in cosmic order by some scientists probably is the result of the randomness of  quantum events, leading to a dismissal of material reality as essentially meaningless. But as argued in another posting there is often, perhaps always, a meaning behind a random sequence (e.g. the digits of π).

/2/ Post modernism
All ‘truths’ are imposed by our mind and culture and one reality is as good as another.  This very statement sets itself up as true so it contradicts itself. 

/3/ Model dependent realism
Scientific models are constructed for practical purposes only. The one which works best is adopted but is not any closer to the truth than any other. This might allow applied science to keep going but without the almost theological pursuit of truth for its own sake we will be stuck with our present highly incoherent model of reality.  Stephen Hawking, for example, claims that the literal description of creation given in Genesis is equally true to the Big Bang theory. Take your pick: whatever works for you. (This could be regarded as a subset of /2/)

/4/ Young earth creationism
There is no need to explain anything new. Just say God did it. No need to explore or invent new, more powerful explanations of the world. That’s just how it is. Only use science to invent new technology. This overlaps with /3/ above. (Note to young earthers:  although your interpretation of Genesis chapter 1 is  different from mine I share your faith in the Resurrected Christ, which is immeasurably more fundamental than our conclusions about the material world.)

/5/ Declining belief in the sacred nature of truth
There is an increasing tendency to pander to the media, to the bodies which issue grants and to the latest idea of what is cool. The gentleman scientists of the 18th and 19th century were not subject to these pressures which  can cause some scientists (still, thankfully, a minority) to exaggerate or falsify data to prove or disprove some model or hypothesis. These pressures have always been present but without holding truth sacred there is little to counteract them other than the risk of being found out. 

Let me put my cards on the table. I am a Christian and one who values science as a gift from God. These dangers are mainly associated with atheism, humanism, neo-paganism and, of course, young earth creationism; but I have recently discovered Christians who appear to be adopting the view that the material world is of no relevance to their belief in God or Christ and that anything goes in pure science.

Without a thriving search for scientific truth  there will be no jumps forward in our understanding of the created order, no quantum leaps in our technology (since these depend on the former), no rescuing of people from poverty, no solution to the looming environmental problem, no expansion into the rest of the universe and no global convergence towards a common understanding of the world.

See also

Hold on to the truth

Why the future is unpredictable

Bridging gaps

The doctrine of chance

Our precious planet

Is there meaning behind random events?

Author, 2077 AD

Friday, 8 July 2011

Waste from the Western World

We are all aware of the huge amount of waste generated in the West but in our daily lives it is easy to forget this. I recently came across some startling data in the seminal book Natural Capitalism: the New Industrial Revolution by Hawken, Lovins and Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute, 1999).

The information below is for the USA but other developed countries need not feel sanctimonious!

The data  is probably an understatement because the world-wide industrial-cum-consumer engine will have grown a lot in the intervening decade, despite the recent slow down; although some efficiency and recycling measures will have been taken.

On average the US citizen wastes or causes to be wasted 1 million pounds per year. In the nation as a whole the annual wastage includes:

  • 3.5 billion (3,500,000,000) pounds of landfilled carpet

  • 3.3 trillion (3,300,000,000,000) pounds of carbon dioxide

  • 19 billion pounds of polystyrene peanuts (I’ve no idea what these are but this is not a joke)

  • 28 billion pounds of food discarded at home

  • 710 billion pounds of hazardous industrial waste

  • 3.7 trillion pounds of construction debris

Add to this the waste generated abroad on behalf of US citizens and subtract the 2% of waste which is recycled (mainly paper, glass, plastic, aluminium and steel) and we get 250 trillion pounds of US resources transformed into nonproductive matter each year.

One can only quake at the thought of these being scaled up globally. A third world country typically produces less than 10% of these amounts per person, yet they all aspire to develop western-type economies, including China and India with a combined population of 2.5 billion, which is 8x the US population.

Can anything be done about it? Yes, but it needs a change of mindset to make a real impact.

Author, 2077 AD

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Internet and the world economy

Worldwide there are 2 billion internet users and the turnover of e-commerce is $8 trillion p.a., which is three times the entire GDP of the UK.

James Manyika (San Francisco) and Charles Roxburgh (London) of the McKinsey Global Institute studied the economic effects of the Internet on 13 countries, including the G8 and presented their findings in a recent report: Internet matters: the net’s sweeping impact on growth, jobs and employment.

Here are some of the main points reported in the July issue of Prospect magazine.

  • The Internet accounts on average for 3.4% of the GDP of a country

  • Half of this GDP component arises from buying online and paying for advertising. Much of the rest comes from investments in Internet technology: servers, software and communications.

  • Over 1995-2009, i.e. 15 years, the GDP of the 13 countries of course increased; but 10% of this growth was due to the Internet. Over 2005-2009 the Internet component of growth was 21%. So its impact on growth appears to be accelerating. 

  • 4,800 small and medium sized enterprises studied reported on average a 10% increase in profitability due to efficiency improvements

  • These same companies claimed that 2.6 jobs were created for each one lost to technology-related efficiencies 

The Internet of course raises questions outside the scope of the report.What kinds of jobs have been created? What have been the social effects? Is there an underclass of people with no prospect of  linking into the prosperity engine? Has creative thought been enhanced or diminished? Has the sustained development of an idea and its application been undermined or enhanced? Are games distorting or improving our perceptions of the real world? What has been the effect on democracy? Is there more sectarianism? There are many more questions.

 The Internet has proved powerful and world changing beyond anyone’s dreams but, like the recently unleashed power of atomic physics, quantum mechanics, materials science, biotechnology and genetic engineering, it is morally neutral.

We human beings are faced with the choice of using it for good or evil. Perhaps the first step is to recognise that good and evil exist.

Author, 2077 AD

Monday, 4 July 2011

Egypt: Facebook, football and the Moslem Brotherhood

The January-February 2011 revolution in which President Hosni Mubarak was deposed was one of a long succession of periods of civil unrest in Egypt since the Nationlist government first came to power in 1952.  In fact periods of insurrection go back to 1798, when Napolean occupied the country.

The one preceding the 2011 revolution was in 2008, involving strikes, demonstrations and food riots. It was then that Facebook usage started as football fans sought to support Egypt in the finals of the African Cup of Nations. The Facebook network helped a textile workers’ strike gain widespread support and brought many young people into conflict with Mubarak’s security forces. Since then the Facebook usage has, presumably, grown rapidly as it has in other parts of the world.

Egypt has a a median age of only 24, which means there as many people under 24 as above it; while Mubarak is 82 and his asscociates are mainly of similar age. 

The Nationlist regime had a progressive health and education policies which means Egypt now has a demographic bulge of young educated people with little prospect of fulfilment through a career. 700,000 graduates leave university each year and have to compete for only 200,000 jobs. Also, food prices are rising fast, as in most parts of the world.

So the conditions were ripe for revolution. Large masses of educated but discontent young people coordinated and mutually encouraged by use of Facebook. The successful Tunisian revolt beginning in December 2010 would also have urged them on.

But there was another factor at play. At least 1 in 4 of the population (i.e. over 20 million out of 80 million) support the Moslem Brotherhood and this long established radical Islamic movement was able to get its supporters onto the same streets as the secular demonstrators. Although the MB claims to have moderated in recent years it has a long history of violence and persecution of minorities.

So the question now is can the new holders of power (the Military Council) set up a democractic regime with minorities at least as protected as they were under the old regime and with a similarly progressive education system? Any help the West can give them would be in most people's interest.

Feedback welcome

author 2077 AD

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Climate change: things ain't what they used to be

The climate is one aspect of a biosphere of unimaginable complexity.

 Along with oceans, icebergs, lakes, rivers, glaciers, snow, sleet, hail, fog, mist, rain, water vapour, terrain varied in relief and texture, volcanoes and air comprising oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, various trace gases and meteoric dust from space there is a multitude of living organisms integrated into and affecting the global climate system.  Jungles, forests, grasslands, crops, flora, tundra, pollen, algae, bacteria, viruses, insects, reptiles, fish and mammals all have been shown to affect the weather.

Add to these 7 billion humans which have evolved powerful but polluting technology, including the ability to modify living systems through genetic engineering and which introduce into the biosphere all manner of pollutants previously unknown to nature.

 It is hardly surprising that no one can predict climate with any degree of certainty.

Nevertheless it is possible to construct computer models which approximate the long term meteorology and have built into them laws of physics which have been thoroughly proved, tested and peer reviewed by networks of scientists over decades. Greenhouse warming, e.g., is as certain as the law of gravity. The problems and uncertainties arise from the chaotic nature of natural processes on a global scale and the inherent unpredictability of interactions between living systems of all kinds and the land, sea and air which they inhabit.

Numerous climate models have been loaded onto computers, all getting different results; yet as far as I am aware all agree that  that things ain’t what they used to be before the Industrial Revolution and the long term temperature trend is upward.

 Here are some of the difficulties faced by climate scientists:

  • The Arctic is warming and melting much faster than other parts of the planet. These are cooling in some places but the overall average temperature at the Earth’s surface is rising. But by how much?

  • Parts of the Antarctic are melting, parts are cooling, but the balance between these two trends is uncertain.

  • Land-bound ice melting (e.g. glaciers in Greenland) is the only melting that causes the sea level to rise. Icebergs melting make no difference to sea level although this may well affect ocean currents which in turn can affect the weather. But how fast are the icebergs melting and how much fresh water do they hold? (A recently launched satellite, Cryosat, should help a lot.)

  •  Glacier melting is considerably accelerated by thin , invisible layers of soot from forest fires, older diesel engines and slash-and-burn agriculture. Again, just how much is the acceleration?

  •  ice and snow cover as well as changes in the nature of the earth's surface and atmospheric composition affect the amount of heat absorbed from the sun

  • Algae in the sea affect precipitation by mechanisms which are imperfectly understood.

  • There are 4 large scale chaotic systems, imperfectly understood and synchronised to varying degrees, which sometimes counteract, sometimes enhance, global warming: the El Nino Southern Oscillation, the North American Oscillation, the Pacific Decalal Oscillation and the  North Pacific Index

  • Sunspot activity is currently unusually low, as it is has been previously at various times over the last several centuries, and this has a small cooling effect to offset man-made greenhouse emissions. But what will the sun do next? No one is sure.

  • Methane from ocean bed deposits and tundra is 20x more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The hotter the ocean and atmosphere the more methane escapes into the atmosphere but we don’t have  enough data to know how quickly this is happening and whether it is likely to lead to runaway heating.

  • Volcanoes emit greenhouse gases in very small amounts compared to artificial emissions yet it is possible that an unusually large one could erupt at any time. More significant is the sulphur dioxide from volcanoes which forms aerosols of sulphuric acid in the atmosphere and this causes cooling by blocking incoming radiant heat from the sun.

  • Cosmic debris is burning up in the atmosphere all the time but there is always the chance of something big hitting the biosphere and disrupting it. The weather can be regarded as part of the biosphere. It certainly affects and is affected by it.

  • Data on past climate change has to be indirect, based on such things as pollen and flora entrapped in lake or ocean sediments or ice layers as well as tree growth rates. The data has to be collated over large geopgraphical areas in order to reconstruct past climate scenarios.

  • Clouds and aerosols of various types and thickness can have either a warming or a cooling effect and we don't have enough data on this - a major cause of discrepancy among climate models to date.

  • The pollution by human beings is intrinsically unpredictable because we have ever more powerful technology coupled with free will (except for those who think they are machines).
  • moss growing on rock causes CO2 to be absorbed into the dissolved rock

  • plate tectonics affects the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere

The biggest danger is that some time in the next decade or so the 4 oscillating systems mentioned above will work in sync to cause a sudden jump in temperature and that this will set off a chain reaction (more heat causes more heating mechanisms causes more heat etc. etc.) leading to a catastrophic breakdown of the whole system. (Think of Venus, almost identical in size to the Earth, where the temperature is high enough to melt lead, partly because it is 27% closer to the sun but largely because of the prevalence of carbon dioxide.)

On the longer timescale of hundreds of thousands of years global temperatures are widely thought to be governed by the Milankovitch cycles associated with the orbit, rotation and tilt of the Earth. According to these we should now be entering a new ice age. Hopefully, this cooling trend will save us from the relentless upward trend due to man’s input since about 1800.

No one knows what the global temperatures and sea level will be in 100 years; but we do know that nature cannot continue to be arrogantly exploited without some kind of ecological breakdown.

Author, 2077 AD