Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Geo-engineering the earth’s ecology and climate

October 8, 2014

What if the world continues to fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?  There is a different approach to fighting global warming, called geo-engineering.  It means intentionally tampering with the Earth’s ecology and climate systems to stop global warming.

David Keith, in the video above, advocates releasing ash into the air to absorb sunlight.  Joseph Cannon, in a blog post (link below), advocates using Pykrete—ice impregnated with wood pulp—to slow the melting of Arctic ice.  Another plan is to dump clouds of iron filings into the ocean, stimulating the growth of plankton and other marine plants that absorb carbon dioxide.

Other scientists are working on genetically-engineered plants that would absorb sunlight more efficiently and suck up carbon dioxide in greater amounts.

I’m leery of such plans, without having any specific objections beyond Murphy’s Law. the Law of Unintended Consequences and the Precautionary Principle.

But if global warming starts to accelerate, the world’s people will demand emergency action, whether such action is well thought out or not.  So I agree with Joseph Cannon.  It is time to research Plans B just in case.

Keep in mind, though, that the open-ended buildup of greenhouse gasses, if not stopped, will sooner or later overwhelm any Plan B.   And that would require a Plan C, a Plan D and a Plan E.  Which would be followed by more plans to counteract the unforeseen effects of the earlier plans.

Or maybe, by that time, the problem will have been rendered moot by the scarcity and high price of what’s left of the world’s coal, oil and natural gas.

LINKS

Climate change and the limits of debate by Joseph Cannon for Cannonfire.  (Hat tip to Cannonfire for the video)

Should we upgrade photosynthesis and grow supercrops? by Michael Le Page for New Scientist.

 

The passing scene: Links & comments 10/6/14

October 6, 2014

Populist Former Senator Jim Webb Could Give Hillary Clinton Major Headaches in 2016 by Lynn Stuart Parramore for Alternet.

I’ve long admired Senator James Webb, the former Senator from Virginia.  A Vietnam veteran and Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, he switched from the Republican to the Democratic party out of disgust for the Bush administration’s subservience to Wall Street.  He has criticized the Obama administration on the same grounds.

Webb is an opponent of reckless military intervention abroad, a critic of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration and a friend of working people.

I admire Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for the way she stands up to Wall Street, but I agree with Webb on a broader range of issues than I do with her (for example, she goes along with the administration’s war policies).

Tech gives the rich new toys while perpetuating the criminalization of poverty by Nathaniel Mott for Pando Daily (via Naked Capitalism)

A new device allows subprime auto lenders to track the location of a debtor’s car and to disable the car if the debtor falls behind on payments.  The New York Times reported this has happened when the car is in motion.

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A map of the on-line world

October 2, 2014
Internet-Pop

Click to enlarge.

Hat tip to The Big Picture

India to Mars, on time and on a shoestring

October 1, 2014

dYOLLCrChart by Global Post

India’s recent Mars mission was the first time a nation succeeded in sending a spacecraft to Mars on the first try.  And it was the lowest-cost Mars mission on record—even cheaper to do that some well-known science fiction movies. Spokesmen say it was all done without any imported components.

It is true that India had the benefit of experience of nations that previously sent missions to Mars.  But Russia and Japan had that benefit, and they spent more with less success.

It also is true that the scientific mission of India’s spacecraft was more limited than that of some other nations.

Even so, India’s Mars mission is a remarkable achievement, both in itself and for how it was done.

LINK

Mangalayan sends India’s critics into orbit by Raja Murthy for Asia Times.

David Graeber on postmodernism

September 24, 2014

Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened?

The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies.  The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects.

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation.  [snip]

The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.

Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this.

The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

David Graeber on the space race

September 23, 2014

It’s often said the Apollo moon landing was the greatest historical achievement of Soviet communism.  Surely, the United States would never have contemplated such a feat had it not been for the cosmic ambitions of the Soviet Politburo.  [snip]

The American victory in the space race meant that, after 1968, U.S. planners no longer took the competition seriously.  As a result, the mythology of the final frontier was maintained, even as the direction of research and development shifted away from anything that might lead to the creation of Mars bases and robot factories.

The standard line is that all this was a result of the triumph of the market.  The Apollo program was a Big Government project, Soviet-inspired in the sense that it required a national effort coordinated by government bureaucracies. 

As soon as the Soviet threat drew safely out of the picture, though, capitalism [supposedly] was free to revert to lines of technological development more in accord with its normal, decentralized, free-market imperatives—such as privately funded research into marketable products like personal computers.  [snip]

In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development.  Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns.

To some degree this had always been true: the billions poured into missile research had always dwarfed the sums allocated to the space program.  Yet by the seventies, even basic research came to be conducted following military priorities.

One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

David Graeber on the lack of flying cars

September 21, 2014

David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist-anthropologist, wrote about possible reasons why technological progress seems to be slowing down, and why the science fictional dreams of his boyhood did not come true like the dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

David Graeber

David Graeber

One is that American institutions are reshaping themselves on the model of the for-profit corporation, where everything has to be justified on its potential for short-term profit.  If you have to show in advance what you intend to invent, and its guaranteed cash value, you’re not going to invent anything very new.

Another is that the government and corporate elite is not interested in radical new technologies that will disrupt the power structure.  So research is focused on high-tech automated weapons, on surveillance technology, on psychiatric drugs to keep us calmed down, and on special effects, virtual reality and electronic gadgets to keep us distracted.

Yet another is that the payoff from technology, in terms of profits, is reaching a point of diminishing returns, which, by the way, is something Karl Marx predicted.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.  Click on Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit to read it.

The new normal: Links & comments 7/21/14

September 21, 2014

There Are Social and Political Benefits to Having Friends by David Brooks for the New York Times.  (Hat tip to Hal Bauer)

David Brooks argued for the benefits of friendship, especially how good friends bring out the best in each other.  He proposed, tongue in cheek (I think), a program for bringing people together in circumstances in which they would be likely to become friends.  I think it strange to live in a world where the value of friendship is an unfamiliar idea that you have to argue for.

Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress by Jeanne Whalen for The Wall Street Journal.  (Hat tip to David White)

I think this article, too, is strange.  The author cites scientific studies that show the benefits of reading, and specifically of reading from printed books, as if reading were an unfamiliar activity that needs justification.

Eight Things We Can Do Now to Build a Space Colony This Century by Annalee Newitz for io9.

Based on the comments, the most controversial of the eight proposals is to build a sustainable future here on Planet Earth so that the space colonists will have a world to come home to.   Some of the hard-core space enthusiasts think this is a false priority.

 

Is progress in technology winding down?

September 16, 2014
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Is technological progress winding down?  I think it might be.   And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.

I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater.   They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.

Technological20progress20640x480What have I seen that is comparable?  Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel.  I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.

I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative.  The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still.  The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious.   Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.

Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made.   As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit.  It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.

The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas.   It is amazing to me that this is possible at all.  Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.

Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.

electricity_illustrationThis is all speculation.  I could be wrong.  This is not a subject about which I have deep knowledge.

I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent.   And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.

Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic?  It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.

The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality.   A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.

I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS].   This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.

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Life in the wired society

August 25, 2014

Oral-B, a Procter & Gamble company, this year launched its SmartSeries Bluetooth toothbrush — an essential appliance for what the firm calls “the well-connected bathroom”.

It connects to your smartphone, where its app tracks brushing tasks: Have you flossed? cleaned the tongue? rinsed? And highlights areas of the mouth visualized on the phone screen that deserve more attention.

More importantly, as the toothbrush’s website proudly announces, it also “records brushing activity as data that you can chart on your own and share with dental professionals.”

What happens to that data — whether it goes to these dental professionals, or your insurance company, stays with you or is appended to your data already owned by Facebook and Google — is a controversial question.

via Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data?.

The principle of financialization is that if anything can be done, it not only can, but should be done for money, and that the only standard of value is monetary.  Technology in the service of financialization applies this to your personal life.  Any information about you that is worth knowing is worth selling for money.

Now if personal data is a financial asset and nothing else, the individual person should have the exclusive right to sell it, just as the individual person should have the exclusive right to sell his or her own blood.   But is this how we want to live?

The digitization of everyday life, and the rapaciousness of financialization, risk turning everything — genome to bedroom — into a productive asset. 

As Esther Dyson, a board member of 23andme, the leader in personalized genomics, said the company is “like the ATM that gives you access to the wealth locked within your genes”.

This is the future that Silicon Valley expects us to embrace: given enough sensors and net connections, our entire life becomes a giant ATM.  Those refusing this would have only themselves to blame. 

Opting out from the “sharing economy” would come to be seen as economic sabotage and wasteful squandering of precious resources that could accelerate growth.

Eventually, the refusal to “share” becomes tinged with as much guilt as the refusal to save or work or pay debts, with a veneer of morality covering up — once again — exploitation.

It’s only natural that the less fortunate, under the burden of austerity, are turning their kitchens into restaurants, their cars into taxis, and their personal data into financial assets. What else can they do?

For Silicon Valley, this is a triumph of entrepreneurship — a spontaneous technological development, unrelated to the financial crisis.  But it is only as entrepreneurial as those who are driven — by the need to pay rent — into prostitution or selling their body parts.

via Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data?.

 Hat tip for the link to Daniel Brandt.


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