Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Mobilising and kick-starting Africa

Africa is a big continent with  1 billion people (15% of the world population). The growth rate is large, the average age is low, the population having multiplied 5 fold since 1950.

What at a material level does Africa need to mobilise itself towards prosperity? Young people are coming out of universities and schools with little opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge they have acquired. Most are trapped in areas with insufficient food and water or tribal warfare or invasion by religious extremists or exploitation and pollution by large multinational corporations or endemic corruption and discrimination.

Africa needs hope.

The aid organisations are doing their best and need our support. E.g. Christian Aid are doing their utmost to tackle local problems at source, with the emphasis on helping people to help themselves and tackling corruption. They also have a campaign to force western companies operating in Africa to pay a fair tax to the host countries.

However, a grander scheme is called for to really make a difference.  What in my view is needed is a focus on big projects financed globally, especially by Europe, the Americas, Russia and China, subject to them solving their own debt problems. I suggest a concentrated effort on just three areas:

Mobile phones network
Electricity grid
Water grid

If Marshall Plan scale investment went into these projects Africa could actually become a source of employment for the western populations and allow the African peoples to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.


This is already happening in a big way. Over 2005 to 2010 mobile phone ownership doubled to 41% of the population (the world average is 76%). Even smartphone use is significant. See New Scientist 8 October, p.21-23.

Rapid growth stems from 4 factors: no need for land lines; World Bank, charity and corporate investment; falling hardware prices; and immediate benefits such as the following:

  • Pest control. Smartphone cameras enable crop pests to be located quickly and for diseased plants to be removed or replaced. See e.g. a system for monitoring disease in cassava (tapioca)  in Uganda.

  • Agricultural market. Buyers and farmers can communicate for the best prices and delivery arrangements. Previously farmers and buyers had to travel large distances to communicate or rely on messengers.

  • Health. Symptom checkers, medical advice and locators of local health facilities. E.g. MedAfrica.

  • Forgery detection. An Android smartphone is connected to a USB microscope to form an authentication system (PaperSpeckle) which examines the microscopic patterns in paper.

  • Technology and skill base. Smartphone applications, accessories and the infrastructure which goes with the installation of phones are becoming increasingly indigenous. This creates jobs and careers. See e.g. mlabs . Much of the training already takes place in African countries.


Partly through climate change driven by carbon emissions from the developed world and partly through local corruption (local officials selling off stores of grain intended for lean years) millions of lives arebeing ruined by drought. Water is essential for food production, drinking, hygiene and sewage disposal. So we need a continent-wide water grid.

Electricity is needed for lighting, air conditioning, electric and hybrid cars, trains, manufacturing, sewage and drainage pumps, irrigation systems, production lines, mines, power tools, electrical equipment, information technology and much else. Local generators can be used for, say, hospitals and pumping stations, but it is often better to have these as backups to a grid supply. Modern power grids are far more efficient than the old ones and can also be used to carry broadband signals.

The area to be covered is large – several million square miles; but the technology for building these networks is well developed, the rudiments of a power grid exist in most areas and investment goes a long way in Africa. It is primarily a problem of money, commitment and encouraging a spirit of honesty.

Where would the water come from? Large lakes could provide a lot but there is much potential in desalination powered by the sun. Desalination is becoming much cheaper and can be combined with solar thermal electricity generation. No doubt some nuclear power would be needed and possibly wind or tidal or wave power would be feasible in parts.

There are over 50 different countries to be considered; and corruption, conflict and power mongering are major obstacles but once the vision is promoted and a momentum is established Africa could grow in a sustainable way. Probably new ways of living and doing things would be found by necessity and these could spread planet-wide, which could be a blessing if our present ailing system needs to be rebuilt for sustainability and to provide a meaningful way of life for its citizens.

It is easy to forget how our economies and societies depend on communication, power and water. Installing them over the African continent would provide immediate meaningful employment and hope for Africans and for the developed world as it struggles to redefine itself.


John, author 2077 AD

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Why the future is unpredictable

There is no doubt that certain computer models of social and economic systems can be more useful than harmful as planning tools. On balance the best models have considerably more than an even chance of being correct  and enable us to plan housing, medical services, sewage systems, transport, long term financial investment and much else in as rational a way as practicable.

However, it also essential to recognise their limitations. They have to be quantitative in nature and many of the models are based on Game Theory, which assumes that human beings are rational machines who act only out of self interest and enlightened self interest. There is also often an assumption that past trends are a guide to future trends.

It is not just computer models that get things wrong. History proceeds through large, sudden, unpredictable changes – referred to by N.N.Talab as ‘black swan events’ in his recent book The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable . E.g. the Cambrian explosion of life forms, 540 million years ago, as shown in the fossil record; the power of the atom; the television; space travel; the Internet; the abolition of slavery in the West; the National Health Service; and the current uprisings in  North Africa and the Middle East.

A good example of the folly of assuming that human behaviour is predictable and can be modelled on the assumption of selfishness is the Wikipedia. It requires the contributor to use non-intuitive editing software and spend a lot of time working for nothing. It also has no specialised refereeing teams yet achieves a high degree of reliability and is kept continually up to date. On top of this it is immeasurably more comprehensive than any ordinary encyclopaedia (for which, nevertheless, there is an important role, but that's another story) depending on paid referees. Anyone predicting the growth that actually happened in only a decade would have been dismissed as a naive dreamer.

The recently departed Steve Jobs was probably alone in having the vision to see that the iPhone would catch on. No focus groups, no user surveys, no trend projections. Just intuition and the resources to follow it up.

There are innumerable examples of great leap forwards in all fields of human endeavour and in the evolution of life. In fact the whole universe is like this when you examine what evidence we have of progress to date, starting with the Big Bang.

As Rabi Jonathan Sacks says in his highly acclaimed recent book and on a BBC radio programme called Start the week, the universe is creative, and creative events are by nature unpredictable.

The only aspect of reality that we can predict with certainty is that it will continue to be unpredictable.
Author, 2077 AD


Friday, 21 October 2011

Cyber attacks on power grids - how they can happen

One often hears about the possibility of electricity grids being blacked out by cyber attacks but until coming across an article in the Financial Times (Oct 12) I was not sure how this might happen. 

An electricity grid, such as the UK’s National Grid or various regional grids in the USA, comprises a network of power stations connected by very high voltage cables. Houses, corporations and public service all depend on the electrical power distributed by the grid.

 The essence of a power station is

  • A source of heat, be it the burning of fossil fuels (gas, oil or coal) or the splitting of atoms (nuclear).

  • A boiler to provide super-heated steam.

  • A turbine which rotates as the steam is fed into it.

  • A generator comprising coils of copper wire in a magnetic field.

The rotational energy of the turbine causes the wires of the generator to be rotated through the magnetic field and this induces an electric current in them. It is this current which is fed into the grid.

So how is this system susceptible to cyber attacks? The answer appears to be in the turbine control unit which governs the speed of the turbine. If malicious data gets into this control unit the turbine blades can rotate too fast and be damaged or completely destroyed, which means no power. When these control units are part of an electronic network which is connected to the internet they are vulnerable to hackers hell bent on sabotage.

There are of course measures to counteract such attacks and many power stations are not connected to the internet, although even these could be affected by personnel with direct access to the turbine control units. The problem is that the security people are in a kind of arms race with the hackers, so that our domestic, corporate and public electricity supplies are dependent on the security programmers winning this race as well as on thorough vetting of power station staff by employers.

A recent survey indicated that 85% of the world’s utility networks have been infiltrated by criminals and spy agencies. In a way you could say this is encouraging because despite the infiltrations no serious widespread black outs have occurred but nevertheless I hope there is no relaxing of vigilance.

Author, 2077 AD


Friday, 14 October 2011

There's probably no Dawkins

This coming week  William Lane Craig, an academic  based in the USA, is touring the UK to argue, on non-biblical grounds, for the existence of God.    (NB Click on the video).

It is a busy schedule but it seems that the standard debate format is not to the liking of  Richard Dawkins, who has refused an invitation to debate the question 'Is God a delusion?' at the SheldonianTheatre at Oxford University on Tuesday October 25. He has refused a number of  similar invitations without any sound reason that I am aware of. Not surprisingly this a source of some amusement and has led to the Oxford bus campaign in which 30 buses in the area display the words 'Probably there's no Dawkins - so stop worrying.' This is in response to a London bus campaign a couple of years ago pronouncing 'There's probably no God - so stop worrying.'

My understanding is that Polly Toynbee of the British Humanist Asscoiation,  initially agreed to step in but changed her mind. An empty chair will be supplied in case Dr Dawkins decides to turn up: otherwise it will be a lecture, not a debate, except that several leading atheists will be invited to interrogate Dr Craig, presumably as a panel. Prof A.C.Grayling also declined.

Dr Lane Craig is a prolific author of scholarly papers and 30 books on philosophical theology and cosmology. Previously he has debated with devout atheists such as A.C.Grayling, Christopher Hitchens and Laurence Krauss.

His tour starts on Monday 17 October at Westminster Hall in London where he will oppose Stephen Law.

Should be an interesting week.

Author, 2077 AD

Thursday, 13 October 2011

America's space strategy

NASA has now committed itself to the development of a heavy-lifting rocket system able to deliver a hundred tons or so into orbit, using a rocket more powerful than the Saturn V which sent astronauts to the Moon in 1969 and the ear;y 1970s. The new system will allow heavy structures to be built in orbit and enable manned expeditions to asteroids to be launched. Later, interplanetary missions to Mars and other planets could be mounted from bases in orbit around the Earth.

Initially I was disappointed by this approach to space exploration. It seemed rather unimaginative, a mere upgrade the long abandoned ballistic-missile-type Apollo programme. In the long term what we need is a low-cost spaceplane able to take men into orbit and able to both take off from and land on an ordinary runway. See the post on the Skylon, a revolutionary concept being developed in the UK.

However, an article in Spaceflight (Nov 2011), a monthly journal of the British Interplanetary Society (which I belong to) has given me pause for thought.

One aspect of the low cost spaceplane approach is the frequency of flights, since this determines the cost per mission of launching one ton into orbit, and the flight frequency depends on the demand, which depends on the quantity and size of structures in orbit which need servicing. The heavy lifting ballistic rocket approach will allow a rapid growth in such orbital hardware and this will create a market for independently operated earth-to-orbit vehicles like the Skylon.

As the author, Mike Armitage, points out, transport on the surface of our planet is not restricted to just one type – it ranges from bicycles to jumbo jets. So it would seem likely that space exploration will become similarly diverse.

Nevertheless I am perplexed as to why the Skylon project is not getting much media attention. Maybe if Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic took an interest the journalists would flock to it.

Author, 2077 AD


Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Scientists do not have to be nerds

In a recent issue of the New Scientist (23 July 2011, p.22) Laurence Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, complains that science is under attack from a shortage of funding. It has been estimated that the cumulative cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is something approaching $4 trillion while, Krauss maintains, warlords thrive, political freedom ranks low and ethnic and gender segregation continue.

At the same time, he observes, the US economy is in trouble. Both practical and purely academic projects are in danger and both categories contribute to the quality of life.

He adds that ‘we need to ask what the next generation of bright minds will lose. The remarkable images captured by Hubble have inspired a generation of people to dream about the universe and its myriad possibilities.’

Whether the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, with all the errors of strategy imposed on the military, achieved nothing is an open question (my own answer would be that overall they did achieve something and that they had little choice if civilisation, including  Islamic societies, was to be protected against a destructive minority). However, Krauss is right about the funding threat. For this reason scientists need to make sure that the population as a whole value and respect them, rather than consider them as clever nerds filled with hubris and asserting that all human beings are brought into being by the chance juggling of chemicals produced by a universe which was created by a universe-generating system which spontaneously came into being out of existential nothingness and, just in case you didn’t get the message, that life is totally pointless and meaningless.

People outside of science hear the most inane theories being talked about by those who purport to be logical and it must turn young thinking people away in droves. Fortunately, there are plenty of scientists who do not subscribe to such philosophical materialism, but, less fortunately, they are rarely given prominence in the media.

For instance, there is a theory that ‘our’ universe is one of an infinitely large number of ‘universes’ in which all things are possible and which happens to look miraculous. This is not only unprovable metaphysical speculation but totally outside the realm of logic. A professional philosopher could not possibly take it seriously.  

Why? Because if there were an infinite ensemble of universes there would have to be one in which there were no other ‘universes’. Why spend time and money even talking about such a paradoxical hypothesis? How much effort would you be willing to devote to a book purporting to prove that black is white? And would the writer of such a book be worthy of a research grant?

Hopefully, such inanities will gradually fade into oblivion so that real science can get the recognition and resources it deserves and needs if the West is not to fall to the forces of disorder that Krauss rightly recognises.

So rise up,you non-nerdish scientists, and make yourself heard!

Author, 2077 AD

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

China's economy may be faltering

Europe and America, operating largely on free market principles, are trying to cancel their huge debts. The only way they can do this safely, i.e. without hyperinflation (which could mean creditors getting back less money in real terms than they lent) is by real economic growth. This would generate profits, capital growth and tax revenue.

So far this is not happening and the hope was that China, with its state capitalism, would manage to keep growing fast and so buy exports from other countries, thereby stimulating their economies. It was also hoped that Chinese foreign currency reserves might be used to buy European and American government bonds. The money from this would help western governments (not only Greece but larger indebted economies) to avoid huge public spending cuts and to stimulate economic growth.

Doubts that either of these lifelines will materialise are beginning to surface.

The rate of GDP (i.e. economic activity) growth in China looks likely to fall considerably. An article in the New York Times section of the UK’s Observer (Oct 9) quotes an estimate of only 5% p.a. for the coming year. Over the last decade China has been expanding at close to 10% p.a., although recently it has been closer to 8% p.a.

So China is slowing down.

 Its stock market’s Hang Seng index has declined by 30% over the last year and property prices have stopped rising in 54 out of 70 cities. Chinese savers had been investing in property because of fears about inflation eroding their savings as it reached double the interest rates. But the bubble is deflating.  Government restrictions on lending by banks are causing a shortfall in loans to small businesses and there is rising unemployment.

The foreign currency reserves of China are large but this is not spare money free of obligation. It belongs to the Chinese savers and they are not likely to be happy about using it to rescue prolific spending governments and western banks burdened with gambling debts.

If there is widespread unemployment in China, a country where economic success means everything and where hopes have been raised unrealistically, and if savers find their money disappearing, it could cause social unrest and undesirable consequences for us all as the world economy contracted, although it would slow down greenhouse emissions.

Perhaps the world would be forced to find a way of growing in knowledge and spiritual fulfilment, while ensuring that everyone has enough food, water, shelter and medical help.

Author, 2077 AD

Monday, 10 October 2011

Longevity: a solution rather than a problem

It is becoming increasingly common to encounter thinly disguised views that old people are a burden on the young and healthy.

 As the sanctity of life is attacked by philosophical materialists, as life spans in the world increase, as people feel it is their ‘right’ to have an enjoyable life, and as the cost of caring for the elderly grows, how long before it becomes respectable to talk about encouraging people to terminate their lives when they feel themselves to be a liability, so that anyone refusing to take this option is put under ‘moral’ pressure to do so?

From the little I understand of modern molecular biology and medical science the possibility of very long life spans is by no means a fantasy. I even heard of one group at Cambridge seriously proclaiming a target longevity of 1000 years. The progress in understanding structure and function of biological life is also allowing people to stay active, mentally and physically, to within a short time from death.

Why is this a problem? If we can continue to learn, to enjoy our existence, to cherish and help others, why should we not prolong our earthly existence? (I see this as using the gift of science that God has given us to make Earth as much like heaven as possible – ‘Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven’, although this is incidental to our spiritual mission, if indeed the spiritual can be separated from the material.)

There are two obvious questions concerning the wisdom of increasing life span, even supposing we could stay well right up to the end.

  • Population growth.  The population would grow even faster than it is already and become unsustainable. The earth’s ecosystem would collapse.

  • Stagnation. New ways of living and evolving depend on the death of each generation. As the recently departed  Steve Jobs observed, death makes way for new life.

But do these problems necessarily follow from longevity?

Population would not necessarily grow.  Should small families become associated with longer lifespan (voluntarily, there is no other way) the population would fall dramatically. A one-child limit for the rest of this century would reduce China’s population to one tenth of its present 1.4 billion by the year 2100 (EconomistOnline, 2 August 2011). However, the limit must be voluntary if humanity is to be retained.

A life measured in centuries could be richer culturally, deeper spiritually and more pleasurable. There would be less tendency to live in a frenetic, consumption-driven, wealth-seeking, pleasure-obsessed way.  Such a change in values and life style looks likely to be forced on us anyway -by environmental  pressures and resource shortages. In the future it could be that art, music, writing, craftsmanship, anthropology, archaeology, antiques, sport, walking, travel, space exploration, linguistics, philosophy, sociology, psychology, science, mathematics, engineering, agriculture and innumerable other endeavours could occupy us, rather than consumption and wealth generation, according to our strengths and interests.

Technology could remove the drudgery. Such unpleasant work as remained beyond the capabilities of robots could be done for a short part of one’s life on a citizen’s rota basis. With a life expectancy of 300 years and drudgery removed there would be abundant time

The second danger – stagnation – need not occur either. Why should death always be needed for progress? With individuals living much longer and more healthily and having all the advantages of modern technology to enhance learning and communication, they may well be able to achieve  innovation to a degree not hitherto possible. The diversity of concepts that could be assimilated by the brain in a human lifetime would be so much larger and this could lead to more fusion of diverse ideas into totally new ones with who knows what consequences for technology and the progress of science.

The big question here is what would drive such a society forward? If pursuit of wealth became irrelevant because all material needs could be so easily secured and if accumulation of wealth above a certain level came to be widely regarded as pointless, I suppose people would be driven by curiosity or a sense of achievement or a need for adventure  – e.g. expeditions to other planets could provide all three. Probably the human weakness of status-seeking would remain common.

Overall, then, increased lifespans  could be part of a move to a lower energy, less polluting and more fulfilling way of life, and a whole universe rich with multilayered and fractal mystery to explore.

In my novel 2077 AD people have the option of Life Extension to 300 years and this naturally leads to the need for a natural successor to the nuclear family, one of which, the Kinship Circle, is proposed merely as a possibility to provoke discussion.

As always, this Blog is also to provoke discussion, so please come back to me if you have anything to say.

Author, 2077 AD