Nature is not good

Before we can get to the land of science fiction we need to kill the idea that natural is by definition ‘good for you’ or ‘healthy’.  It is simply not the case.

If you are a creationist and also a nature-is-good-ist then you hold an intellectually defensible position. It stands to reason that if a supreme being created the world some thousands of years ago and pronounced it good then that world would have a certain divine harmony. It stands to reason but it is not necessarily so since it also stands to reason that the motives of the creator will be forever unfathomable by the created. The creator could just as easily have made an un-harmonious creation and then give the job of bringing creation into harmony some small part of that creation. It is hard to know without having a face-to-face with the supreme being.

If you are not a creationist but are a nature-is-good-ist then what are you thinking? There is no harmony between man and nature. Nature is chaos. Out of chaos, because of unusual circumstances and for a short time, there is intelligence. That intelligence is self-aware and seeks to use its advantage perpetuate itself for as long as it can before the lights go out. One of the things that that intelligence learned early is that almost everything in nature will eat it if it gets the chance. Early it learned to kill the large animals that were a danger. Later it learned how to kill the very small animals, I am speaking of bacteria, to keep them from killing it.

Today that intelligence has learned how that the chaos of nature extends into its own bodies. Life is precarious. Unless everything is just right death comes early and from within. Even if everything is at the natural optimum death still comes with age. The mere act of living is punishable by death.

The Future is bright. The day will come when people will use very un-natural methods to procreate. The genetic code of life will be altered and those alterations passed on to future generations. Gone will be the mistakes that cause such things as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis. Gone will be the mistakes that cause humans to have a lifespan of a only 100 years. Inserted will be genetic enhancements. The ability to make vitamin C will be reactivated. Maybe the the appendix will be reactivated allowing humans to gain a greater percent of their nutrition from plant fibers. Maybe there will be completely new enhancements. What if humans grew a new set of teeth every twenty years or so? What if humans had greater control over such things as bowel movements or had the ability to direct their ears towards sounds. Speaking of sounds what if everyone had perfect pitch and for that matter what if the peak mental plasticity of childhood could be maintained into middle age. The future is bright but it will not come naturally.



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The Education-Industrial Complex – who needs it.

Below is a link to an article in The Atlantic on the future of College. It is about some innovations in the field of higher education. It can’t come soon enough. Of all things that can be changed by computer technology education has the most room for change.

Think of your local Discount big box store. You go in to buy a pair of socks. As soon as you purchase your socks the manufacturing plant that made them immediately knows to produce another one of that size and the yarn manufacturer immediately knows to make more of that yarn and multitudinous and complex computer programs adjust shipping schedules so that another pair of socks arrives at that Walmart before they run out.

Think of your local Discount Airline. You no longer use a travel agent you buy your own ticket online. If you talk to a person the odds are good that that person is in their own home talking over a dispersed system and not in some centralized call centre (Canadian spelling of centre).  Computers and telecommunications have driven more and more waste out of the system.

Now think of your local discount college. Educational institutions do not even provide a hard good. No socks, No airplanes. Almost everything that a college does can be done by computer and what can’t be done by computer can be done by a person an a telephone. The only person to person contact that we need is when it comes to testing and soon we may not even need that.

The rule of economics is that when the price comes down consumption goes up. If we can drive down the cost of education then more people will have access to education. I don’t see a down side.

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High Speed trains still a bad idea

I like trains but not as much as I like making decisions that make good sense in the long run.  I don’t live in California so it is not my business but since every now and then some Canadian politician proposes high speed trains for some high density corridor in Canada I’ll make it my business. It is an ideological version of fighting a foreign war instead of waiting for the war to get close.

Why do we need high speed trains.

Technology has mad high speed trains passe, so passe. (pronounced pass-eh). High speed is passe because riding public transport is no longer a jail sentence. As long as you are electronically connected to the world it doesn’t matter where you are. Being on a train or bus is the same as being in your office or bedroom.  Trains are passe because engines are small and light so we do not need to build special steel roads for them. Buses and trucks do what trains used to do and more efficiently with one exception and technology is now taking away that exception.

If you could magically take away the cost of building the special right-of-way that trains require they would be a good idea on efficiency grounds. A train can move cargo using less fuel and labor per unit that the equivalent moved by bus or truck. That is about to change.  Within the next couple of years trucks and buses will be equipped with the technology to allow them to convoy up. Imagine three trucks traveling between two major cities synchronized by computer so that they can tailgate each other. They become a three truck road train. The driver in front steers and controls the speed. The other two watch movies or sleep. The three truck road train gains efficiency because of aerodynamics. The road train also has the advantage of being able to split and go to three different destinations upon reaching the city. Mid-trip the trucks can change positions so a different driver is in front. The result is safer and more efficient truck driving. Needless to say the three truck convoy can just as easily be a twenty truck  convoy.

The same thing can apply to buses. Imagine a two bus road train. One driver is in control and the other one can rest. When the train reaches the destination city the cars can split off and go to different parts of the city or even offer door-to-door service. Think about it. This is not something that is decades off. This could happen in two or three years is we wanted to make the effort.

Why do we need trains at all.

Trains were invented because engines were inefficient and operating them was a specialized skill. The engines had to be made large to haul cargo which meant they needed special steel roads to hold the weight. The specialized labor meant they needed to haul a lot of cargo per worker to spread the cost of the labor. Compare that to a motor in a truck. The engine is small and while not simple it is reliable such that no specialized labor is required to operate it. The result is that the efficient cargo size is less. This is a long way of saying that trains are passe. No one would build a railroad if they did not already exist and no one should.

There is one advantage that still accrues to trains. They are fuel and labor efficient. Those advantages are not enough to overcome the disadvantage of requiring their own right-of-way but if the track is already their then use it.

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Climate Modeling that is worthwhile.

The world is getting warmer, the polar ice caps are melting and the oceans are rising so say the climate modelers used in the IPCC report. What is the Science Fiction Land solution? The Qattar depression in Egypt has a below sea level volume of 1213 cubic km. The surface of the ocean is about 3.6 X 10^8 square km. filling the Qattar depression therefore would take about 3 millimeters of of the level of the oceans. The math is simple, the politics are beyond complex, and this is what I really want to know. How would filling the Qattar depression affect the climate? The level of the ocean would fall but the surface area would increase. Would that mean more water vapor in the air. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2, would the climate warm in response. Would there be increased cloud cover and therefore would the climate cool. Would there be more rain in Egypt due to the increase humidity or would that rain fall in Saudi Arabia or even India? Would wind patterns change because of the cooler air over the new body of water and what would be the effect of that?

Speaking of changing wind patterns, What if we filled Death Valley in California with sea water. I’m not saying it would be economical just asking what would happen. Would the cooling of the new inland sea cause a low pressure zone that would steer rain, i.e. the pineapple express, into southern California? I think someone should model this. Anyone? Anyone?

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No Left Turns

No it is not a political statement, It’s a safety demand.  I just read in the paper today about another child killed in crosswalk. We, the human race needs to understand how the human mind works and build our society to allow for our own foibles. For instance, it is difficult for a person to do two things at once, in this case watch both on-coming traffic and the pedestrian crosswalk. It is difficult for the human mind to remember to check for things that don’t happen very often, in this case, pedestrians in a crosswalk. People should walk more and in places where they do it is probably safer on a pedestrian mile basis but in places where people don’t look for pedestrians it is more dangerous. Humans fatigue. No matter how good of a driver you are you are worse when you are tired. For the purposes of this argument lets leave out impaired or distracted. 

What is the Science Fiction Land solution. First, it seems like a simple thing to make GPSs with a as few left turns as possible feature.  Second, there are probably some traffic flow changes that can be made. Just as some cities make a decision to go with lots of one way streets and people need to get used to it maybe there is away to design cities with few left turns. Third, self driving cars. It would be be standard practice to program a self driving car to watch both on-coming traffic and the crosswalk all the time every time.



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The Education-Industrial Complex – who needs it.

We don’t need it but we will probably keep it for a long time. Like passenger rail roads or public broadcasting or the post office politics will keep public education a drain on the public purse. If there is any area that is ripe for reformation it is education. Using American figures because they are easier to get, the United States currently spends about one trillion dollars on education out of a 15.6 trillion dollar economy. I’m betting that three quarters of the money could easily be saved by doing education right.

To understand old fashioned education, compare mental strengthening to physical strengthening. Suppose you took 30 kids and told them that they should all be able to do: 10 push-ups after one month, 20 push-ups after two months and after three months thirty.  It would be a very wasteful way to teach kids push-ups. No doubt some kids would be able to do thirty push-ups immediately some would improve faster and some would get there but much slower. The most efficient way to get the kids to do push-ups is to show them how to do one and then tell them to come and show you their thirty when they can do it. Then check on them from time to time and help the slow ones.   Something analogous to this can be done with mental training just as it can be done with physical training.

New education is all done on computer. Now we can record lessons by the top teachers in the land. We can add graphics that make the understanding of the lesson much easier. We can watch it twice. Then we can do lessons that ensure that we understood the material. Computers give us the advantage of spaced repetition which is the sin qua non of learning.  Some students will be able to progress very fast, some will take longer but everyone will be able to access the very best teachers. This process is well underway as seen by the plethora of on-line courses. Eventually someone is going to figure out that there is no need for a bricks and mortar school and they will dispense with them entirely. Indeed, why send the kid to college when it is so easy to bring the college to the kid.

Imagine an elementary school room based on the computer education. Parents who don’t home school can still send their children to a school but each kid can still learn at his or her own pace. Some would rocket ahead and some would lag behind but there would be no flunking therefore no over aged kids picking on their younger class-mates. There would be no social promoting either. Kids that lagged behind will just take longer to finish high school but everyone would finish. And everyone can finish. I think one of the worst ways to teach something is to give a 70 minute lecture and then assign homework. With a computer you can give a 5 minute lecture and then a problem set. Then another 5 minute lecture and another problem set and the lectures and problem sets can be repeated until the kid gets it.

The down side, it doesn’t work so well on the B.S. courses but I consider that an upside.  Teachers like to make some comment about teaching kids how to think not what to think. I’ve never seen it. I’ve had lots of teachers try to teach me what to think but I have never had a teacher go over the list of logical fallacies or even say something like “have you ever thought that through to its logical conclusion?” Teachers are like most people, they think they are more important than they really are and they are willing to use the political process for their own selfish ends.

My prediction, we will continue to have brick and mortar schools long after they have outlived their usefulness for the same reason that we still have passenger trains and  the post office and public television.


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The death of public transit is already on the horizon.

I live in Toronto, Canada. At the moment the Municipal politicians of Toronto and the Provincial politicians of Ontario are tripping over themselves in the advocacy of public transit.  It is too bad that we don’t have any far sighted politicians. Of course how can we, politics is a environment of survival of the appealing-est. They are forced to appeal to the average voter and the average voter does not think very far ahead.  The death of public transit is already on the horizon.

Computer Controlled Cars

Computer controlled cars are going to start taking the congestion off of our roads soon. Most of the space on roads is taken by stopping room. Stopping room is the one meter per mile per hour that the safe driving books recommend that you leace between you and the next car so that you have enough time to hit the brakes if needed. When we have self driving cars we will have cars that talk to each other obviating the need for stopping room. How more traffic will our roads be able to handle, double, triple? It might be ten times the current volumes.

Computer Controlled Cars will not need to accelerate quickly therefore allowing engines to be much smaller and for fuel consumption to be proportionately less. A computer controlled car will be in communication with all the other cars on the road so it will know if it is able to make that gap because the traffic will let it in.  A car that is driving itself will also mean that there is less hurry to arrive. The driver can sleep or work or what ever. A little electric car whirring along at 50 kmph (30 mph) will be fast enough.

There’s more.

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