Archive for August, 2015

Just a Second

August 25, 2015 Leave a comment

I recently read through a list of interesting things which take just one second to complete. Some of the information was mind-boggling and some was just worrying. So let’s make a look at some of these statistics now…

Statistic 1: Every second, on our planet 4.3 people are born and 1.8 die.

The difference is 2.5 per second meaning the human population is still increasing quite rapidly. The problem of overpopulation used to be a major discussion point but in the last few decades it seems to be increasingly ignored.

My theory is that moden economies require growth and that is easily achieved through increasing population. But that is a stupid approach because it can’t last and as the population increases there will always be problems with allocating fixed resources to increasing an number of people. Again we have let a particular form of economics become the master rather than it being shaped to our requirements.

Statistic 2: Warren Buffet, the world’s highest earner, makes $402 in 1 second, while someone on the global poverty line makes $0.0000144.

Inequality is being recognised as one of the major problems of our era. I think a good case should be made to say that some people should be paid more because they have greater responsibility, work harder, or make a greater contribution to society, but when a tiny fraction of the population make what only could be described as an obscene income there needs to be rational change before the exploited majority force change.

Statistic 3: The Large Hadron Collider collects 6,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data in just 1 second.

In fact I’m fairly sure this isn’t true because there is just no way to capture that much data! According to CERN’s web site the LHC generates 30 petrabytes per year which means, on average, it generates one terabyte per second. Of course the data is generated in short bursts but at 6 petabytes per second it only takes 5 seconds to create the 30 petabytes for the year.

But whatever the real number is, it is an astonishing amount of data and the computer equipment at the LHC is just another amazing part of a totally incredible project, which I believe would be in the short list of humanity’s greatest engineering achievement.

Statistic 4: The International Space Station travels 7700 km in 1 second during its orbit around Earth, and New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft ever, takes just 1 second to travel 16.26 km.

Well there’s something wrong here, obviously. These numbers did come from a source I would normally trust but I do wonder whether they checked them very thoroughly!

The ISS orbits a few hundred kilometers up and (if my memory is correct) takes about 90 minutes to complete an orbit. That means its orbit is the diameter of the Earth (plus its height) multiplied by pi which is about 41000 kilometers. Dividing that out gives me about 7.6 kilometers per second. Maybe they meant 7700 meters, not kilometers?

Still, that’s pretty quick, but not as fast as New Horizons. That mission to Pluto, which took 10 years even at that speed, is another impressive technical achievement. So much could have gone wrong in that time and the audacity of shutting down communications during the brief flyby (which only lasted a day after 10 years of travelling) was extraordinary.

Statistic 5: 48,745 Google searches happen in just 1 second, and 2,393,470 emails are sent in just 1 second.

Considering each search is potentially looking for text on any page on the whole web – a total of about 5 billion pages – this is an extraordinary achievement. If you estimate 2000 words per page (a guess based on a few random pages I looked at) times 5 billion pages times about 50,000 searches you get 500 trillion word searches per second, 24 hours a day, every day.

Of course Google don’t use a simple “brute force” algorithm like this but I think Google search (and to a lesser extent others) is the one service which has made the internet genuinely useful.

And even though there are now plenty of alternatives to email for communicating on the internet that is still a lot. Add the tweets, Skype calls, Messenger messages, and other forms of communication and it is even more impressive, no doubt.

Statistic 6: The world’s fastest computer performs 33,860,000,000,000,000 calculations in just 1 second.

That is almost 34 quadrillion floating point calculations in a second. In the past I have used comparisons with how long this would take to do by hand so this time I will use an alternative. Imagine each calculation is printed on one line in a small font on a paper tape (quaint concept, I know). How long would the tape be?

Well that would be 3 (let’s say the printed line is 3 mm high) times 34 x 10^15 divided by 1000 (to get meters) then divided by 1000 again (to get kilometers). That is 102 billion kilometers. The distance to the Sun is 150 million kilometers so the tape would reach to the Sun and back 340 times! That’s just one second of calculations for one computer.

So yes, you can get a lot done in a second. Makes me feel kind of bad that it took me half an hour to produce just this one blog post!


Pawel Kuczynski

August 21, 2015 Leave a comment

There is a Polish illustrator called Pawel Kuczynski who creates clever satirical illustrations (or artworks or cartoons – call them whatever you wish) which often seem humorous on the surface but have a deeper meaning (in fact the meaning is usually not particularly hidden and is generally fairly obvious) related to subjects such as modern society, politics, war, etc.

I think a lot of his work does make very credible points about society so it seems an obvious subject to discuss in this blog. I’m not sure about the copyright status of these works so I cannot display them here but if you Google his name you will find his work easily enough (or just go to and I am going to describe them in words for you anyway.

So here are a few of my favourites…

1. Loop. This image shows some people pulling down the statue of a dictator (think of the destruction of the statue of Saddam Hussein) but unknown to them (presumably) the statue is attached to an axle and underground attached to that are three other identical statues. As one is pulled down the next one emerges from the ground to take its place.

The imagery here is obvious. When the people think they have rid themselves one one hideous political leader they are really no better off because there’s always another one who is just as bad (or maybe worse) there to replace him.

I’m not saying that every revolution is doomed but in reality many of them are. Since the removal of Saddam is Iraq any better off? I think a very good case could be made to say that things are now worse. The people pulling down that statue really were just pulling up another one even worse to replace it!

2. Pawel Kuczynski 37. This shows a poor man or a peasant stuck in a pit (or maybe stuck behind a wall he can’t get over). There is a ladder leading out of the pit but the man has been forced to burn the rungs of the ladder to keep himself warm so now he can no longer escape.

Again the message isn’t really too obscure. There often seem to be ways for the poor and disadvantaged to rescue themsleves from the situation they live in, but the reality is that those ways of escaping are not really available to them simply because of their situation.

For example, imagine the ladder represents the possible time the person could put into being educated, but because he must work long hours every day just to make enough food to live the education option isn’t really available. Of course the rich look and ask: why didn’t he use the ladder?

3. Dollar. Shows a large dollar note is draped over a frame and a person is beating it like she would to clean a rug. Weapons of war fall from the note as she beats it.

The message seems to be that making money is a significant factor in warfare. One reason wars happen is that they are good for the weapons industry in the US (and elsewhere to a lesser extent). And why did the US put so much effort into intervening in conflicts in certain countries in the Middle East and far less into others? The fact that the countries where a greater commitment was made also have more oil might be a factor according to this illustration!

4. Pawel Kuczynski 25. On the surface we see the Washington Monument, a symbol of good leadership and a great president. But underneath the ground is a puppet-like figure and the monument is just his rather large nose which extends above ground-level. Maybe the reason his nose is long is that he lies a lot and it has grown, as in the Pinocchio story.

Politicians consistently come near the bottom of lists of trusted professions. There is a very good reason for this: they cannot be trusted and even those who are too clever to outright lie are generally talented at presenting information in a totally misleading way.

Another illustration, titled “Speech” makes a similar point. In this a politician stands next to a dais making a speech. There are several microphones in front of him but instead of cables these lead to a drain pipe which empties into a sewer.

5. Pawel Kuczynski 55. Here we see a large voting form with a smartly dressed person standing on it with a sheep dog. A herd of sheep are seen being directed towards a particular tick-box, presumably to vote for the candidate favoured by the herder.

People are easily lead by clever politicians and their hideous spin-doctors. Voting is largely a waste of time and people exercise about as much freedom when they vote as sheep do when they are herded towards a destination chosen by the farmer (for example, a slaughterhouse).

There are many other illustrations which would be worth commenting on. Many are far more obscure than those I have chosen here and different people might interpret them in different ways. I think the examples I have used here are fairly clear and my interpretation is probably what most others would accept. However, if you disagree or have anything to add please leave a comment!

Leech Collectors

August 15, 2015 Leave a comment

It’s really unfortunate that we don’t have any lamplighters any more, and I really miss those leech collectors, switchboard operators, ice cutters, and morse code operators. Obviously we have gone too far replacing these valuable occupations with new technology.

That’s the sort of sentiment you don’t hear much of because certain jobs once performed by humans are just pointless now and society overall is not really much worse off than before. Sure, I agree you could make a case saying the possible social interaction with a switchboard operator (for example) was nice but I don’t think many people would really say that occupation is practical considering the volume of calls made today.

So if the demise of these occupations is generally accepted today why are people so worried about those which are under threat by current and emerging technology? Maybe it’s because up to 47% (I’m a bit suspicious of such an exact number because I suspect it could just as easily be 30% or 70%) of current jobs are threatened in the near to medium future by technology, and the way our current society is structured simply cannot cope with the removal of so many jobs.

In a recent discussion one commentator said “That [the loss of about half of current jobs] is huge. I don’t want to see that many people out of a job.” But why not? Most people don’t enjoy their work so why should we be worried that they don’t have to do it any more?

Is it because if they don’t work they won’t get paid? I guess so, but why does it really have to be that way?

Is it because without a job people feel worthless? Maybe, but is that a natural state or is it an invention of our current industrial/capitalist society?

Is it because if people don’t work the economy will suffer because it will be less productive and efficient? That might be true but only because of the way we define the word “efficient”.

The point I am trying to make is that none of the justifications we currently have for people having to work make any sense if we go back to fundamentals. There is nothing natural or inevitable about our current economic system, it is just something we invented during the agricultural, and then the industrial revolution.

It will soon be time to un-invent it.

Automation will make many jobs obsolete but there is an even bigger revolution on the horizon which will just make all the social, political, and economic models we have ever known obsolete. That is the ability to create anything essentially for free.

This will become possible with 3D printing techniques which are just getting started now. Once we have this technology working efficiently change becomes inevitable because 3D printers will be capable of making new 3D printers, resources will be collected efficiently by self-replicating nano-bots, and energy will be effectively limitless because of fusion and other technologies.

At least this is the scenario presented by many futurists and estimated to happen within 50 years. I am not totally convinced by the argument – not necessarily because there is anything impossible or even unlikely in what they are saying – but more because history has clearly showed us that predictions of the future are notoriously difficult to make, even by experts.

But even though I don’t necessarily accept the inevitability of the pure “post-scarcity economy” portrayed by many people, I do think that is the general direction we are heading in. We should get used to the fact that there won’t be jobs for many people, and that capitalism will not be the best economic model in the future, and that current government systems don’t work and should be replaced.

So we are heading to a future where most people won’t need to work, where anything will be available for nothing, where conventional businesses will be unnecessary, and where we won’t need politicians or political parties any more.

Many people see this as a disaster because they are still living in the past. And the people who gain the most advantage out of the current system don’t want it to change, obviously. But the whole thing is inevitable and we should be starting to plan for the transition now.

So here are a few simple first steps I think we should be starting to implement now to make the transition easier…

First, reduce the working week to 30 hours. This will give people more leisure time and make work a less important part of their lives. And it might mean that some other people get employed to make up the extra 10 hours, although I doubt it. Will this make our economy less efficient? Well maybe, but we already can’t compete with countries which operate on a virtual slave economy (like China) so what’s the difference?

Second, encourage local production and bottom up economics wherever possible. For example, put solar power panels on people’s homes so that they generate their own power instead of buying it from a big business. That’s a good preparation for the real revolution of 3D printing, where we won’t need to buy anything, when it finally arrives.

Third, introduce more direct democracy. As a transition keep our current representative democratic political system but gradually introduce more internet-based binding referenda on important decisions. Sure, people might make bad decisions but politicians already get things wrong on our behalf so this will just make the ownership of good and bad decisions more direct. Eventually we won’t need politicians at all and who will be sad about the demise of that particular occupation?

We should start preparing now. One day the way we work today will seem as barbaric as what forcing children to work 80 hours a week in coal mines does now. And just about every occupation we have today will seem as pointless and obsolete as being a leech collector.

Do These Make Sense?

August 8, 2015 Leave a comment

I am currently reading a book (or, more accurately, listening to an audiobook) called “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense” by science writer, Michael Brooks (the book has quite a lot of overlap with a list made by New Scientist which I blogged about in 2006). As the title suggests, it discusses several phenomena which don’t seem to fit in with the current scientific understanding and I agree with his conclusions to varying degrees.

The author’s overall tone seems to suggest that he thinks that science is too conservative and too reluctant to accept new ideas and therefore is missing out on a lot of potential new discoveries, and that there is a conscious effort to repress new ideas which don’t fit in with the scientific orthodoxy.

But is he right?

Well those points do have a certain amount of truth to them but I think he significantly overstates one side of the argument, either because he just wants to make the cases he chose to cover in his book more interesting, or because he really doesn’t understand the scientific process that well.

There is also the fact that when criticising science we need to say exactly what it is we are talking about. There is no accepted definition of what science is, for a start, and even if there was, all pure science is contaminated by politics, management, and commerce. Do we criticise science the way it should be or the way it is?

Since I criticise religion, democracy, and capitalism for what they are rather than what they should be in some idealised world, I really should apply the same rules to science. So yes, there are huge problems in the way that science is actually done and I’m sure that if it was allowed to progress in a “pure” form the world would be a much better place. But that is about as likely as religion or anything else proceeding in a pure form – approximately zero – so I will discuss what is, not what should be.

All of these points aside, the book (at least so far, because I am less than half way through) does over-state scientific resistance to change just to make its point. One subject, for example – the Pioneer Anomaly – has since been perfectly explained in simple, conventional terms which the book rejected or at least minimised. Note that the book was published 2008, and the anomaly was explained 2012.

That doesn’t mean that the other phenomena will also be explained without making major changes to current scientific theories and it doesn’t mean that science isn’t too resistant to new ideas either, but it does mean that we shouldn’t try to explain something caused by something simple by creating a new fundamental theory (in this case conventional thermal effects were the explanation and a new theory of gravity was unnecessary).

Conservatism is part of science because it’s more effective to only change theories when the evidence is really strong rather than to pursue potentially false lines of evidence and then have to backtrack if that doesn’t work out.

So that’s the big picture. To finish this post I will quickly discuss some of the other things which “don’t make sense” and how seriously I take them…

The missing universe (dark matter and dark energy). Well yes, it is a well-known source of embarrassment that science doesn’t really understand the nature of over 95% of the mass/energy of the universe. But at least the issue is being investigated and several possible explanations are available.

There’s nothing that really “doesn’t make sense” here – it’s more a matter of which of several possible answers is correct (if any because maybe there’s another one not considered yet, although that is unlikely).

Varying constants. The author makes it seem like scientists are so ideologically opposed to varying constants and/or physical laws that they won’t even contemplate the possibility. This is far from the truth. The idea is openly discussed by many physicists and the evidence is taken quite seriously (especially when considering the fine-structure constant).

But I do agree that constants (which as the name suggests are supposed to stay the same) changing over time or space does significantly change our approach to cosmology (in particular).

Cold fusion. This is a fascinating subject because it is such a mix of science, engineering, politics, and reporting. The original experimenters were forced by their university to release their findings in an unnecessarily sensational way. Many attempts at replication failed but others seemed to show positive results. Science politics intervened and generally discredited the whole field. Research has continued since and we still only have negative and inconsistent positive results.

I do have to say that it would be great if cold fusion was real but generally in these situations (when consistent results aren’t produced from apparently identical scientific setups) there is some anomaly or error in the experiment. That is far from certain though and I think further research is quite justified, especially considering the slow progress with hot fusion!

The other topics on the book’s list are: life, the Viking experiments, the Wow! signal, a giant virus, death, sex, free will, the placebo effect, and homeopathy.

It’s certainly a fascinating mix and I look forward to hearing the rest. Looking at the list I predict there is nothing too extraordinary in many of them but I will reserve judgement until I hear the arguments. I think another blog post will be called for at that time!

If You’re Right, You’re Right

August 6, 2015 Leave a comment

My political views are broadly left-wing and liberal but I don’t usually use labels like that because they can be misleading. For example I despise political correctness and many traditional left oriented beliefs have a significant component of this in them. Because of this, sometimes the people who would usually be my allies are surprised when I have a completely contrary view to what they might expect.

There are two other elements to my personality which can also mean I sometimes appear to be controversial, or even rude! The first is that I sometimes like to present an alternative view to that held by the majority just to emphasise that there is always more than one way to approach a question (you might call that being “devil’s advocate”), plus I like to pursue pure rationality and forget about history and what the traditional response might be.

All of this is illustrated very nicely in a recent incident involving New Zealand’s Prime minister, John Key (henceforth referred to as the PM or JK) and a comment be allegedly made at a school meeting about his opinion of Maori Language Week (a week where the language of the Maori – the original inhabitants of New Zealand – is emphasised).

So here is one statement about the incident I found on a national new source: “John Key leaves girl in tears after calling Maori language month ‘boring'”. The question was something like did the PM support extending Maori Language Week (which had just finished) to Maori Language Month.

The whole issue has become rather convoluted and hard to get any real facts on, but apparently what he really said is that he thought the shorter time was better because people might be bored with a full month. And the reaction of the young (16 year old) woman asking the question has only been reported second hand from a “friend” who is involved in pro-Maori activism!

Naturally many of my politically correct friends were horrified at the whole thing. First, how evil was JK that he made a young girl cry? Second, how evil was he that he didn’t support te reo (the Maori language)? And third, well they just don’t like the PM no matter what he does.

So let’s look at each of these issues to show how I treat them differently from my erstwhile allies…

Is upsetting someone by making a comment they don’t approve of a bad thing? I guess it depends on the circumstance to an extent, but I think the PM just gave an honest answer here, which was his opinion at the time (exactly what the questioner wanted). Whose fault is it that his answer wasn’t what she expected and therefore upset her?

If she was offended by an honest answer to a potentially controversial question then I would say that is her fault, not JK’s. And yes, she was quite young, but when I mentioned this to my daughter she said 16 isn’t young, running away and crying because you don’t like an answer sounds more like an immature 5 year old!

So come on everyone, toughen up, and be prepared to accept a bit of diversity of opinion. What’s the point in asking a question if you are only going to be able to cope with one answer? If you don’t want to hear the answer then just don’t ask the question!

I think this is a sign of how bad things have got in our schools though. Rational thought, fair consideration of contrary opinions, and honesty in answering questions has been thrown out and replaced with repetition of politically correct slogans and other meaningless nonsense.

So on this first point I support the PM. He gave an honest answer (something to be encouraged in politicians, surely) which not everyone agreed with. What is wrong with this? Nothing that I can see. If the girl really did get that upset (highly doubtful) then it’s about time the school did its job and taught her about how to handle genuine political debate.

So the second point is should JK have been more supportive of the Maori language? Well this is a politcal question in the end and depends on your perspective, but even if he was trying to support the language more having a month designed to advance it isn’t necessarily going to be more successful than a week.

It’s not the people who are already interested in the language (or at least determined to pretend they are interested to keep their political correctness status intact) who should be the main target of the week (or month) it is more the people with no current interest or knowledge at all. And they are the type of people likely to get very resentful if they think they are having someone else’s political views forced on them!

So would people get bored with a Maori Language Month? Well it depends on exactly what form it takes, but a fair fraction of the people I know find the week boring enough so yes, I think he has a really good point there! I have to say that on the second point I also support the PM!

So what about the third point, should I just reject the opinion of someone who I would normally not have a political affiliation to? Of course not. That is one of the saddest things about modern politics. People make their decisions based on what their political leaders say, not what is right or wrong. I’m quite happy to accept it when the right make some point I agree with, just like I am happy to point out any deficiencies in the left.

Yet again, on the third point, I am on the side of the PM, even though he represents a general political view contrary to mine. Here’s the way I see it: If you’re right, you’re right, even if you’re from the right!