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The Inverse Square Law

June 20, 2018 Leave a comment

The inverse square law is well known in physics. It states that some physical quantity becomes less strong at a rate relative to the square of the distance to the source. For example, if one planet is twice as far from the Sun as another, the gravity of the Sun won’t be half as strong, it will just be a quarter as strong, because a quarter is a half squared.

And the same applies to the light from the Sun. If one planet gets 1 unit of light, then another planet 10 times closer won’t get 10 times as much light, it will get 100 times as much, because the difference in distance is a factor of 10, and the difference in light is 10 squared, which is 100.

Basically it means that as the defining number (in this case distance) gets higher, the resulting number (gravity, light, etc) doesn’t just get lower, it gets much lower.

Of course, this blog post is not a lesson about physics, it is a rant about modern society. By the way, if any of my readers would prefer a lesson about physics please leave a comment because I know my basic physics fairly well!

Anyway, to get back to the inverse square law in relation to society. I always think of it in relation to large organisations and why they are so hopelessly inefficient.

If one person is responsible for getting a job done there is a good chance that it will happen fairly quickly and reliably. But add another and suddenly misunderstanding, miscommunications, poor relationships, and poor procedures suddenly become an issue.

Add another person and the total sources of issues increases exponentially. Imagine the two people situation (let’s call them A and B), then A could interact poorly with B or vice versa. There are just 2 sources of problems. But with 3 (A, B, and C) A could have issues with B or C, B could have them with A or C, and C could have them with A or B, additionally A could have issues with C via B, etc. The total chance of poor communication becomes high very quickly.

Now imagine an organisation where 50 or 100 people interact!

Yes, it’s not surprising that large organisations rarely work efficiently, is it?

In fact, this is far worse than an inverse square law because the number of interactions between a certain number (and therefore the potential confusion and inefficiency) is related to a factorial law, not a squared law. So a squared law would say that 10 people are 100 time as confused as one but a factorial law would say they are 3.6 million times as confused!

Of course, I’m not really saying that there is a simple mathematical law describing human behaviour in groups, I’m just saying the general principle applies in a general qualitative way instead of an exact quantitative one.

Now it’s time for an example. We haven’t heard from my friend Fred (not his real name) for a while, but just to remind you, he works in a large organisation in a similar role to me, so I sometimes identimes identify with his difficulties. Anyway, here’s the story…

A staff member needed help with a technical issue (I need to be vague here to avoid any repercussions to Fred or his employer). The staff member called the helpdesk which, after confusing the client with irrelevant questions, logged a call which went to a coordinator. That person forwarded it to someone they thought specialised in that area but that turned out to be the wrong person so they sent it back to the coordinator who then forwarded it to Fred.

Fred received the request and tried to contact the client, who was away and not answering their phone. He left a message in the system which the client didn’t notice, because the system is horrible to use and totally user-unfriendly. Fred got on with other work while he waited for a response from the client.

After about a week the client called the helpdesk again for an update and the request was sent to Fred (they got the right person this time). Again Fred could not contact the person but he left a voice-mail message, instead of using the system, which the client replied to the next day.

So Fred asked about the problem which turned out to be quite different from what was recorded in the system. Once he figured out the real problem he organised a time to visit the client. Unfortunately they didn’t have any time until the next week, but then Fred did meet the client, and figured out what needed to be done.

It turned out the client had to get her HOD to organise the required service, but because of her limited technical skills she asked for the wrong thing and the HOD sent the wrong information to the helpdesk. A request was sent to another support person who eventually figured out Fred was involved and sent it to him instead.

Fred corrected the information and re-submitted the request. When the helpdesk person received it they cancelled it because they thought it was a duplicate of the previous request which had just been corrected. So the wrong service was supplied, or at least the right service with the wrong settings.

After a while the client asked for another update from the helpdesk who gave the wrong information on how to fix it. When this didn’t work another request was sent and luckily the client mentioned Fred this time so the request ended up with him.

Fred visited the helpdesk staff in person and figured out who had made the error, which he then asked to be corrected. That went to the admins who ran that service and they assigned it to a technician who eventually got the service working properly. They noted this in the system. Unfortunately Fred was busy and missed the notification that the change was done.

So the client called for another update which went to Fred (they were getting used to who was coordinating it by now) and he organised another visit to undo all the wrong stuff which had been done after the first attempt, and to set up things correctly.

The total span of time was about a month and about 10 different people were involved. The client had to delay their work for that period because the service they needed wasn’t available. I cannot imagine what the total cost to the organisation was, but it could easily have been tens of thousands of dollars.

And do you know how long it would have taken if the client had been allowed to contact Fred directly, because he had an established working relationship with the client, and if Fred had been allowed to make the small change to settings to the system that was required? Fred estimates it would have taken about 5 minutes.

And this is the inverse square law in action: involving 10 people instead of one means it takes 100 times as long. A month is about 40,000 minutes. Fred estimated 5 minutes, so in fact it was a lot worse than the inverse square law, although I do have to admit this was an unusually dysfunctional interaction. On average, and allowing for somewhat more efficient examples, the inverse square is probably not too far off.

But if our systems are so obviously inefficient why doesn’t somebody create something better? Well first, I have to say that not every system run by a large organisation is as bad as what I have portrayed here, although they are all fairly bad. And sometimes the people involved in the day to day running these systems are not particularly skilled, or well-trained, or motivated, usually because they are not paid very well and not treated with much respect.

But the real problem in most cases is that the people who design these systems are idiots. They are the failures in life who can’t do anything except become managers. They have no ideas themselves and are not prepared to listen to those who do. Instead they just regurgitate what they see in a management magazine or what they learned in their MBA course. In other words: mediocrity and ignorance begets more mediocrity and ignorance.

Corporate processes tend to go through phases. Managers just latch on to the latest fad and blindly follow it. Eventually the pendulum might swing back to more sensible systems again, but who knows how long that might take. Until then we are all victims of the inverse square law!

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No Religion, No “Religion”

June 18, 2018 Leave a comment

I think the biggest problem with people, which I find on a regular basis, is their inability to accept reality, or at least to accept that reality, at least in a social or political context, has a lot of nuance. Why would people reject reality? Why would they refuse to concede that the world isn’t as simple as they think? Why would they not want to change their mind?

Well, there is one reason which applies to a huge variety of different people with different belief systems: that is they already know what they want to believe before they look at the circumstances under discussion. They have certain “bottom lines” which are not negotiable, and these act as a block to accepting new ideas.

So let’s look at some examples…

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. That is religion. It is true that there is a wide range of views out there which all could be interpreted as being broadly religious, but they all suffer from one basic flaw: they all must believe some supernatural entity exists. After all, if there wasn’t one it would be rather pointless being religious, wouldn’t it?

So religious people have to subscribe to the most extraordinary convoluted explanations of why the world is the way it is. If they believe in some sort of indistinct, generalised god they have to say why, because when the world is just as well explained without one, they have Occam’s Razor against them.

And it all goes down hill from there. Because if they believe in a specific god then the lack of evidence becomes far more obvious. The first group (generalised god believers) can get away with a lot because they don’t really say anything, but the more claims you make the easier it is to disprove those claims.

And at the extremes fundamentalists are ridiculously easy to dismiss, because they make very specific claims which no reasonable person would take seriously. For example, the “Young Earth Creationists” can be shown to be wrong in many ways, yet they still believe. Why? Because they have no choice. The young earth is a foundational claim of their worldview, and they cannot abandon it under any circumstances.

But religious people cannot accept this, because if they did accept the weakness of their ideas they wouldn’t really be thought of as religious any more. It is just part of their religion.

As I said above, that is an obvious case. Where else does this phenomenon appear, maybe in a less obvious form?

Well, my old friends the social justice warriors, feminists, and bleeding-heart liberals also suffer from it, of course. Note that I am not making any negative claims against left-oriented people in general (since I am one myself), just the extreme cases who have taken leftist principles too far.

So what are their foundational views? Well, I would suggest the idea that all the problems which befall disadvantaged groups are the fault of the conventional, patriarchal system they claim we live in. Note that there is some validity to this claim, but suggesting that no fault rests with the “disadvantaged” groups themselves is both dangerous and just plain wrong.

Another basic view might be that the products of big corporations, high-tech, genetic modification, nuclear energy, and anything “unnatural” are all bad and must be substituted for more natural alternatives. Again, this is not totally wrong. I think it’s fair to be suspicious of the motives of big corporations for example, but we should also accept that they also perform a useful function and their contributions should be considered on a case by case basis.

But the far-left cannot accept this, because if they didn’t reject these ideas they wouldn’t really be thought of as far-left any more. It is just part of their “religion”.

So now that I have dispensed with far-left ideology, let’s look at far-right, or more accurately, libertarian philosophy. In this case the market seems to be a bit like their god. Despite numerous examples where markets fail they refuse to accept their limitations and instead “double-down” by suggesting that the free markets which fail aren’t free enough, and if we just let them act they way they really needed to everything would be fine.

A friend of mine, who was a politician in the past, made a perceptive observation on this recently. He said: markets are a good servant but a bad master. This is the same slogan used for fire safety in the past: fire is also a good servant but a bad master. Give either too much freedom and you get burned!

But libertarians cannot accept this, because if they didn’t fully support free markets they wouldn’t really be libertarians any more. It is just part of their “religion”.

At this point I really should address the criticism that everyone has principles, beliefs, or ideas they don’t want to compromise on, and that therefore everyone suffers from the blindness I described in the three examples above.

I guess this is true, to an extent. For example, the claim that foundational beliefs are a bad idea is itself a sort of belief. But I think this belongs in the same category of criticisms of atheism which claim it is just another religion. This is clearly untrue, because atheism is the rejection of religion. In the same way rejecting foundational beliefs isn’t really itself a foundational belief.

Another criticism might be that no one really thinks they have these unquestionable ideas, and they would say they believe this stuff because the evidence shows it is true. Would a similar criticism not also apply to people not in the three groups, such as myself? Well, I guess it is always hard to judge yourself, especially in a critical way, but if I have a foundational belief I would challenge anyone to tell me what it is.

Sure, I have foundational guidelines. For example, I follow the principles of skeptical thought, but I realise that doesn’t always work and I am occasionally skeptical of something which is actually true. And I take scientific discoveries very seriously, but also realise that science is often wrong too.

So there is nothing there which seems to me to be as bad as the unthinking acceptance in the three examples above. So I am an atheist when it comes to religion but also when it comes to other bad ideas too. I don’t have a religion, and I don’t have a “religion”.

Goddamn Sucks!

April 29, 2018 Leave a comment

There are many conspiracy theories which attempt to explain the behaviour of big corporations. Some particular favourite victims of these theories are pharmaceutical companies and chemical companies, especially Monsanto.

But how true are these theories? Do big corporations really indulge in all the dirty tricks we hear about? Do they encourage the use of their products even though better ones exist? Do they use the legal system to lock people into using their products? Do they market products even though they know they are dangerous or ineffective? Do they use genetic engineering and other technology to force the use of their products? Do they gain patents on technology they have no real right to, then ramp up the prices after creating a monopoly?

Well, yes. I’m absolutely sure all of these things, and probably many others I haven’t even been devious enough to think of, happen quite often.

So does this mean we should stop using products made by these corporations? Or should the governments of the countries they are based in (mainly the US and Europe) use legislation to control them? Or should they just be shut-down completely?

Well, no. I am no defender of the current economic system, but until we come up with something better we should accept the bad with the good. Because there are many good products which have been created by corporations. For example, despite the plethora of bad publicity, Roundup is actually a really effective, and relatively safe product. Is Monsanto a well behaved and moral company? Hell, no! It is most likely guilty of most of the “crimes” I listed above.

But Roundup (and other glyphosate-based herbicides which have appeared since the patent expired in 2000) are useful products. Many of the claims against it: that it causes cancer, that crops genetically modified to resist glyphosate have a terminator gene to prevent farmers re-sowing them, etc, are not supported by good evidence. So Monsanto might be “evil”, but not as evil as that!

What about pharmaceutical companies? Well, many people prefer to take “natural” remedies instead of synthesised medicines because they are natural and therefore safer, and because they provide a way to escape the influence of the big corporations who manufacture the conventional drugs.

Except they are failing on both counts. Here are the facts: first, the vast majority of natural remedies don’t work, or at least there is little or no evidence to show that they do work; second, many natural remedies can have serious detrimental effects if they aren’t used carefully; third, many natural remedies either don’t contain the active ingredients they say the do, or they are in much different concentrations, or they contain potentially dangerous contaminants; finally, most of the natural supplements and remedies are made by big corporations, usually the same ones who make the conventional drugs!

So it makes a lot more sense to just accept the negative aspects of the pharmaceutical industry and make use of the fact that they produce many useful products which have been carefully tested and contain exactly what they say they do, in the concentrations they state, unlike many of the natural alternatives.

Despite what I have said so far, I do think large corporations need to be controlled far more than they are now. The free market does not provide good incentives for corporations to develop the drugs the world really needs, nor does it encourage fair pricing and good competitive behaviour.

Drug companies spend a lot of money on frivolous products which are not really necessary but can be sold for good profits, while ignoring important research on new antibiotics, for example.

How do I know this sort of behaviour exists? Well, recently investment and banking company Goldman Sachs produced a report of their clients in the biotech industry. One of the questions they asked was: “is curing patients a sustainable business model?”

Basically they were noting that a drug which cures a disease permanently does not result in a recurring revenue stream for the company from that product. Drugs which treat but don’t cure diseases, and might need to be taken for the rest of the patient’s life, are far more profitable.

Specifically they noted that a new hepatitis C cure will make less than $4 billion this year. They also noted that new gene therapies – which many people might think are an exciting new development – might lead to curing patients, but is this a sustainable business model? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “no”.

Would a normal, profit-based company work to develop new cures where they could make far more from treatments, or even supplements which do nothing and are subject to very little scrutiny of quality and efficacy? That seems unlikely.

Journalists have contacted Goldman Sachs for comment, but while they confirmed the content of the report, they declined to comment.

So it seems that the “evil” corporations really exist. It also seems that taking “natural” supplements instead of conventional medicines is probably the worst thing you could do if you want to thwart their evil ambitions. So what should we do instead?

Well, there’s not an awful lot you can do really, because our whole society is built around capitalism, and capitalism specifically rewards this “evil” behaviour. Capitalism is all about maximising profit at any cost. How often do we hear the platitude “that’s just business” after a person or company has done something of a highly doubtful moral standard?

But within the system – which many people say is the best of all possible systems – this isn’t actually bad at all, which is why I always put the word “evil” in quotes. If capitalism leads to the greatest efficiency, the greatest reward for hard work, and the greatest prosperity for the majority, then any perceived evil is invalid. Of course, it has become increasingly clear that the trickle-down theory doesn’t work, and that capitalism has many flaws, but whether any other system is better is open to debate.

My usual recommendation at this point is to keep capitalism but control it carefully, and that conclusion hasn’t changed. I think the word “evil” can genuinely be applied to many aspects of capitalism, and that tendency must be carefully controlled. In particular we need to understand that the free market will never provide for the most important needs of society. For that we need people motivated by something other than greed. Universities do that quite well, but we need to be careful not to apply the same “evil” incentives to them.

What we can do is try to change the zeitgeist. It should *not* be OK to have greed as your primary focus. Greed is *not* good. If you want to change society then change as many people’s opinion on this topic as you can. Show them that capitalism is evil, but try to keep it real.

The alternative is not communism or some happy but impossible utopia – it is, at least as a first step, capitalism with its worst excesses – those espoused by companies like Goldman Sachs – eliminated. In fact, let’s eradicate companies like Goldman Sachs who are responsible for the evil side of capitalism. They should have no place in any decent society.

Goldman Sachs? Should be Goddamn Sucks!

Jobs, Hitchens, Hawking

March 21, 2018 3 comments

Is it normal to feel a real sense of loss when people you never even met die? I’m not sure, but there have been three occasions where this has happened for me. Anyone who really knows me might be able to guess the three people involved, especially when one of them should be fairly obvious given recent events. But I would like to discuss briefly these three and why they had that effect.

Obviously the third is Stephen Hawking, but who are the other two? Well, if you haven’t read every blog entry I have ever written (why not, because I’ve only done 1905 at the time I wrote this) you might still guess that the first is Steve Jobs, and the second is Christopher Hitchens.

I often say that I’m not into hero worship, but that doesn’t stop me from recognising a few really special people who I do admire more than most, even when they are flawed or controversial in some way (actually, for me, that makes them even better).

In fact, what is the point of being any sort of public figure or even being a person who participates meaningfully in modern society if you are not controversial? Really all that means is you don’t accept every rule or bias currently imposed by society. If you don’t have at least one controversial belief then why even bother existing? And if you have these beliefs why not share them, discuss them, and maybe even have your mind changed on the subject or possibly convert other people to your ideas?

Looked at this way it is everyone’s duty to be controversial, although there is a fine line between offering genuine controversial and original opinions and just being a troll for the sake of it – a line I might have even crossed myself on occasions!

But back to the three people. Maybe the most interesting aspect of my list is that it is so short, and doesn’t include any pop (movie, music) heroes, politicians, etc, which many other people might be tempted to choose. Also, the three people are from quite different backgrounds: Jobs was a business person and tech entrepreneur; Hitchens was a critic, essayist, and journalist; and Hawking was a theoretical physicist.

They all died after significant battles with diseases: pancreatic cancer in the case of Jobs, esophageal cancer for Hitchens, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for Hawking. All of them knew the disease was going to kill them, but at least Hawking survived about 50 years longer than expected.

The battles they all had against these disabilities were quite inspiring, especially in the case of Hawking, and Hitchens wit and thoughtfulness about his imminent demise was made more compelling by the fact that his smoking and drinking habits were the likely cause.

Why I admired Steve Jobs is difficult to explain. He was fundamentally a business person, which is a category I don’t usually have much respect for, but Jobs was so atypical that he seemed above the others, except maybe for Tesla and now Elon Musk, who are similar types of characters.

Jobs wasn’t a tech genius and he wasn’t a business genius either. He was an ideas man and someone who could make his ideas happen, usually by ruthlessly utilising people who really were geniuses, especially in tech. There is no doubt that some parts of his character could be seen as being unpleasant, but what he did worked, at least most of the time.

I enjoy debating and arguing with people, and Christopher Hitchens was perhaps the greatest debater I have ever heard. I often felt sorry for his opponents before the debate even started because I knew Hitch would destroy them. Of course, he did tend to take on religious and excessively politically correct people, so my sympathy for them was limited!

But his recall of facts, use of language, and general knowledge of politics, history, and religion, amongst other topics, was impressive. Sure, his knowledge of science and tech was limited but that didn’t seem to matter in most of the situations he was in.

Some of his quotes are brilliant to, and include many of my favourites, like this one: “Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the transcendent and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

Finally, what about Hawking? Well he was a legendary figure in popular culture as well as in real science. If anyone was asked to name a cosmologist (or maybe even just a scientist) Hawking would be a common choice, because of his appearance due to his disability which required he live in a wheelchair and use a speech synthesiser, and for his appearances in popular TV shows such as the Simpsons and Big Bang Theory.

The speech synthesiser voice became so well known that it was like his trade mark and he didn’t want it changed even when more natural sounding synthetic voices were available.

Hawking is often pictured sitting in front of a blackboard full of obscure mathematical formulae, a sort of stereotyped image which goes back at least as far as Einstein. But he couldn’t write on a blackboard, and instead he manipulated complex mathematics purely in his mind. It is an astonishing ability and many of his great discoveries were made after his disability became more serious. Maybe being cut off from the world to some extent actually helped him focus on the science (he once said “I can’t say that my disability has helped my work, but it has allowed me to concentrate on research without having to lecture or sit on boring committees”).

I’m not the only one to be affected by the loss of these people. I was quite surprised to see Hawking being mentioned in so many mainstream news services recently, and not just on the day of his death. It’s good to know that genuinely great people can get some recognition as well as the more mundane examples of celebrity, such as movie stars and other entertainers.

Finally, here are a couple of Hawking quotes I like: “Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.” And, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

The Future of Driving

January 31, 2018 Leave a comment

In a recent post, I talked about how electric power seems to be the inevitable future of cars. This is probably not too surprising to most people given the way electric cars have become so much more popular recently, and how the company Tesla has successfully captured a lot of headlines (in many cases deservedly so, because of its technical advances, and in other cases mainly because of the star status of its founder, Elon Musk).

But a much greater revolution is also coming: that is self-driving cars. In the future people will not be able to comprehend how we allowed people to drive and how we tolerated the massive amount of inefficiency, and the huge number of accidents and deaths as a result of this.

In my previous post I commented on how I am a “petrol-head” and enjoy driving, as well as liking the “insane fury” of current petrol powered supercars. I commented on how electric cars have no “soul” and this would appear to apply even more to self-driving cars. Before I provide the answer to how this travesty can be avoided, I want to present some points on how good self-driving cars should be.

First, there is every indication that computers will be far better than humans at driving, especially in terms of safety. Even current versions of self driving systems are far better than the average human, and these will surely be even more superior in the future once the algorithms are refined and more infrastructure is in place for them.

Whether computer controlled cars are currently better than the best humans is debatable, because I have seen no data on this, but that doesn’t really matter because being better than the actual, flawed, unskilled humans doing most of the driving now is all that is required.

In fact, the majority of accidents involving self-driving systems now can be attributed to human errors which the AI couldn’t cope with, because they still have to obey the laws of physics and not all accidents can be avoided, even by a perfect AI.

So if we switched to self-driving cars, how would things change? Well, to get the full benefit of this technology all cars would need to be self-driving. While some cars are still driven by humans there will always be an element of unpredictability in the system. Plus all the extra infrastructure needed by humans (see later for examples) will need to be kept in place.

Ultimately, as well as all cars being self-driven, the system would also require all vehicles to be able to communicate with each other. This would allow information to be shared and maybe for a central controller to make the system run more efficiently. It might also be possible, and maybe preferable, to have a distributed intelligence instead, where the individual components (vehicles) make decisions in cooperation with other units nearby.

The most obvious benefit would be to free up time for humans who could do something more useful than driving. They could read a book, read a newspaper, watch a movie, write their blog, do some work, etc, because the car would be fully automated.

But it goes far beyond that, because all of the rules we have in place today to control human drivers would be unnecessary. There would be no need for speed limits, for example, because the cars would drive at the speed best for the exact conditions at the time. They would use factors like the traffic density and weather conditions and set their speed appropriately.

There’s no doubt that even today traffic could move much faster than it does if proper driving techniques are used. The problem is that drivers aren’t good enough to drive quickly. But speed and safety can co-exist, as shown by Germany’s autobahns where there is often no speed limit, but the accident rate is lower than the US.

There would be no need to have lanes and other symbols marked on roads, and even the direction vehicles are travelling in the lane could be swapped depending on traffic density. All the cars would know the rules and always obey them. Head-on crashes would be almost impossible even when a lane swaps the direction the traffic is flowing in.

The same would apply to turning traffic. A car could make a turn into a stream of traffic because communications with the other cars in that stream would ensure the space was available. There would be no guessing if another driver would be polite enough to create a gap, and no guessing exactly how much time was needed because all distances and speeds would be known exactly.

I could imagine a scene where traffic was flowing, turning, and merging seemingly randomly at great speed in a way that would look suicidal today, but was in reality is precisely coordinated.

Then there’s navigation. Most humans can follow GPS instructions fairly well, but how much better would this be when all the cars shared knowledge about traffic congestion and other delays, and planned the routes based on that, as well as the basic path?

Finally there’s parking. No one would need to own a car because after completing the journey the car could go and be used by someone else. It would never need to park, except for recharging and maintenance, which could also be automatic. All the payments could be done transparently and the whole system should be much cheaper than personally owning and using a car, like we do now.

The whole thing sounds great, and there are almost no disadvantages, but I still don’t like it in some ways because my car is part of my identity, I like driving, and the new world of self-driving electric cars sounds very efficient, but seems to lack any personality or fun.

But that won’t matter, because there will be two ways to overcome this deficiency. First, there might be lots of tracks where people can go to test their driving skills in traditional human driven – maybe even petrol powered – cars as a recreational activity, sort of like how some people ride horses today. And second, and far more likely, virtual reality will be so realistic that it will be almost indistinguishable from real driving, but without the risks.

And while I am on the subject of VR, it should be far less necessary to travel in the future because so much could be done remotely using VR and AR systems. So less traffic should be another factor making the roads far more efficient and safe.

In general the future in this area looks good. I suspect this will all happen in about 20 years, and when it does, people will be utterly shocked that we used to control our vehicles ourselves, especially when they look at the number of accidents and fatalities, and the amount of time wasted each day. Why would we drive when a machine can do it so much better, and we could use that time for something far more valuable?

The Future of Cars

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

I have mixed feelings about the idea of electric and self driving cars. I am a bit of a “petrol-head” (car enthusiast) myself and enjoy driving fast, reading about fast cars, and watching supercar videos, so the new generation of cars is not necessarily welcome to me.

There is no doubt that electric power and self-driving cars are the future, but both of these remove the fun factor from driving. Of course, that might be thought of as a small price to pay for the huge advantages the future will bring, but it’s still kind of sad.

But I should talk a little bit about how great the future will be with these two technologies first before I discuss the disadvantages. So here’s what is so great about electric cars (I’ll deal with self-driving technology later)…

Electric is fast. I said I was a “petrol head” and liked driving fast, but I guess I could adapt to fast driving in electric cars as well. After all, no petrol car can get close to an electric for initial acceleration off the line. Electric engines produce maximum torque from zero RPM. My twin turbo petrol car (and every other conventional car) takes a lot longer to reach peak torque.

Electric is cheap. Well, when I say it is cheap I mean it is cheap to run. Unfortunately at the moment the initial cost is far too high, mainly because high capacity batteries are not being mass produced in enough quantity to bring the price down. Some countries have subsidies to encourage the use of electrics, but this shouldn’t be necessary, and hopefully one day won’t be.

Electric is simple. Modern petrol powered cars are ridiculously complex. Depending on what you count as essential components, a petrol car might have hundreds or thousands of moving parts, against just a few on an electric (again, the number of parts depends on whether you count cooling fans for the batteries, air conditioning, and other extra components). Despite this, modern petrol engines (and transmissions) are incredibly reliable. But an electric can have one moving part (essentially the rotor of the engine) connected directly to the wheel. That’s one moving part for the whole drive train! There are no cam shafts, valves, turbos, gearboxes, differentials, or CV joints. Once electric cars become better established their reliability just has to be far greater.

Electric is quiet. The sound of a high performance petrol engine might be music to the ears of a true enthusiast like me, but to many people it is just an annoyance. The electric ars are so quiet it almost becomes a hazard but this will soon become normal.

Electric is environmentally sound. The advantages to the environment of electric cars aren’t quite as obvious as is often imagined, but they are still significant. There is little doubt that electricity generated centrally and used to charge batteries for cars is superior to burning fossil fuels in an engine – especially when an increasing fraction of electricity generation is from renewable sources – but the production of batteries, and their disposal after they lose efficiency, is an extra environmental issue which is sometimes not considered. This makes the environmental advantage of electric cars a bit less certain, but the consensus seems to be that they are still significant.

Electric is the future. Even if you debate the points I have made above it seems that electric cars are an idea whose time has come. Even though they still make up a small fraction of the total fleet, there is a clear trend to them becoming more common on our roads. And, most importantly, they are now an obvious option for anyone buying a new car, where in the past they were a fringe possibility that few people would take seriously.

Of course, there are big disadvantages too. I have already mentioned the initial cost, but the other major factor is range, slowness of recharging, and lack of recharging points. The first two are inherent to the technology but are improving rapidly. The last is a sort of a “Catch 22” situation: there aren’t enough recharging points because there aren’t enough electric cars needing recharging, because there aren’t enough charging points for them.

There’s nothing quite like the sound of a high performance petrol car being thrashed – the sight and sound of a Lamborghini or McLaren exhaust system spitting flames is just awesome – and there’s no doubt that petrol cars have more “soul” than electrics. But people said the same thing about steam engines before they were replaced with electrics. I guess petrol cars will go the same way, so we might as well accept the inevitability of technical progress just get used to it.

I started this post by mentioning both electric and self-driving cars and I don’t seem to have got onto the self-driving part yet, which is actually far more controversial and revolutionary. So I might leave that to a future entry, since it deserves a post to itself.

So, until I switch to an electric myself I will continue to enjoy driving my current car – but I won’t try to race a Tesla away from the lights!

Random Comments 9

January 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Here in New Zealand the summer break is a quiet time for controversial news stories so I thought it might be time to bring back one of my posts where I briefly comment on a number of items of lesser immediate importance. Therefore I present random comments 9…

Item 1: Jacinda is Pregnant!

The questions about our new prime minister, Jacinda Ardern’s, family plans seem more relevant than ever now that she has announced her pregnancy. When the question about this possibility was originally asked many people thought it seemed totally inappropriate, yet it really wasn’t.

I think the assumption was that the question was asked so that she could be condemned in some way if her wish to have children conflicted with her duties as prime minister, but the exact opposite has happened, because there has been almost universally positive reaction.

And I think this is a good thing. Our culture puts far too much emphasis on work, and if the PM can show that our family and personal lives are also important then that must be a good thing. And it’s nothing to do really with anti-woman sentiment, or misogyny, or glass ceilings, it’s just about a better deal for everyone.

Maybe this discussion will be an opportunity to de-emphasise work in our lives, reduce the number of hours everyone works, and to make taking time off for non-work related activities more acceptable.

Item 2: Kim Dotcom Strikes Again!

Kim Dotcom says he will initiate a lawsuit against the New Zealand government for its illegal (and in my opinion grossly immoral) attack on him six years ago. At that time his mansion was attacked by armed police in helicopters, his assets were seized, and his business was destroyed. All because of political pressure by big business in the US influencing the government there, then pressure from the FBI who demanded the NZ police raid his home.

Few people would claim that Dotcom is the most innocent citizen on the planet, but I hope that even fewer would say a violent (and no doubt expensive) raid of that type, and the continued persecution afterwards, was justified given his relatively minor alleged transgressions.

On this one I take Dotcom’s side. The reaction of police (and their political masters) was grossly out of proportion with what was necessary, if anything. While you could say that Dotcom represents the rich and powerful, I would say he more represents a reaction to those with far too much power and wealth. I give him credit for standing up to the corporate elite.

Item 3: The Wealth Gap Again

A recent report revealed more obscene facts about the richest members of society in New Zealand, and how much of the wealth they control in contrast to how little the rest of us do. There’s nothing surprising about this, of course, because it is a topic I have ranted about on several occasions in the past. Also, the gap isn’t as great here as it is in some other countries – but it’s still inexcusable.

An interviewer (I think it was the annoying Guyon Espiner, surely one of the worst on RNZ) asked what harm it did to have some people with so much wealth. How does that disadvantage the rest? Well, money is a placeholder for resources and power, and those two commodities are in limited supply. The more one person has, the less is available for the rest of us. So even if we ignore the obvious moral philosophical point about gross inequities in wealth there is also a practical point here. Effectively the super rich are stealing resources and power from everyone else.

Item 4: Confidence and Lack Of

The latest business confidence survey indicates a reduction in confidence, yet the general feeling is that the new government is doing a good job, although it is admittedly very early in their term. The consensus seems to be that business confidence is a rather meaningless measure of the overall economic situation and it seems to be mainly ignored.

Some commentators think that the National Party is unlikely to regain power with their current leadership. It might be that a more progressive (despite the inclusion of NZ First) coalition, lead by Labour, could run the country for the next 2 or 3 election cycles. These sorts of predictions are extremely difficult so I will reserve judgement on that.

So there it is, a few items of just moderate interest from a relatively boring period. I guess I’ll just have to hope that something more controversial happens soon. Or maybe I should comment on American politics instead!