Recent issues in science and technology

Draw Muhammad

May 2015

Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of Western civilization. Censorship is a tool of totalitarianism.

Currently, the West finds itself embroiled in a struggle that it only reluctantly acknowledges: Islamists want to prevent criticism and discussion of their religion. It would be easy to give in to this demand, but doing so would be a first step in accepting the totalitarian views of Islam, at the cost of traditional Western freedoms.

Drawing of MuhammedThe attacks on the Danish cartoonists, on Charlie Hebdo and on the cartoon contest in Garland, Texas demonstrate just how serious the Islamists are: Islamists cannot tolerate Western civilization, and Western civilization dare not tolerate them. Freedom of expression is essential, even when - especially when - that speech is offensive.

I applaud the courage of the people in Garland, Texas in hosting the most recent Draw Muhammad contest. This was a clear statement: we value our freedom of expression, and we will not be intimidated by threats of violence. The winning cartoon, by Bosch Fawstin, really says it all (click to enlarge).


Anonymity in the Internet: we know who you are

December 2014

We are constantly being tracked and monitored in the Internet, by companies seeking to learn our purchasing patterns, our financial worth, and how they can sell us more stuff.

It would be nice to think that we could move about the Internet more or less anonymously. Unfortunately, a combination of tracking services and our own chatty browsers makes this nearly impossible. This is a quick look at a few steps that we can take, but there currently is no easy solution.


Patterns, Superstitions and the Scientific Method

February 2013

We are confronted daily with complex issues. How do we know what to believe?

This is a brief essay suggesting that all of us should understand and apply the scientific method in our day-to-day lives.


Censorship, regulation and the Internet

January 2012

As I write this, many sites in the Internet are displaying black pages. The current US government is attempting to pass legislation that would allow - indeed require - private organizations to censor the content of their users. Legislation that would allow the US government to shut down websites without due process; even websites owned and operated by people outside of the USA.

Nearly every country in the world attempts to censor the Internet to one degree or another. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about what the Internet really is. Any explanation I could write would be only half as good as the following link. It is long, but the topic is important.

Please read A World of Ends


Japan and nuclear power

March 2011

The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed. Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked...

If one ever needed proof of nuclear safety, this is surely it: take 40-year-old technology, hit it with one of the largest earthquakes ever, follow that up with a massive tsunami, and...nobody dies. Well, that's not quite true - one person at a nuclear power plant died when a crane fell on him. If 1960's technology is that good, imagine what we could achieve today!

Try this with any other technology capable of producing gigawatts of power, and see what happens. Coal mines in an earthquake? Oil platforms? How about a huge hydroelectric dam? The fact is, nuclear energy is the safest method humanity has ever developed for generating energy. The worst-case scenario in Japan will have a few thousand people exposed to minor amounts of radiation, followed by a messy and expensive clean-up effort.

Yet, the media and politicians are twisting the story into one of fear. They do not understand nuclear technology, and they are scared of what they do not understand. In reality, as Willian Saletan points out, we should take the Japanese experience as proof that nuclear energy is the way to go. If you want some of the technical details, read "Why I am not worried about Japan's nuclear reactors" by Dr. Josef Oehmen.

Closing note: for help in understanding the dangers posed by varying amounts of radiation, see the radiation dosage chart from XKCD.


Global warming

Global warming - the consensus is clear! Isn't it?

As Michael Crichton writes: "There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus."

If we can't forecast the weather a week in advance, why should we believe forecasts a hundred years ahead? When I was in high school in the late 1970's, the "consensus" was warning of the coming ice age. The fact is: the initial scientific papers supporting global warming have been debunked, and all the evidence points to natural climate variations. Unfortunately, there is money to be made, and political reputations are at stake.

Read more in A Global Warming Primer from the NCPA and in web-sites like Watts Up With That?


Where to? A view of the information revolution

I wrote this in 1997, predicting that governments would struggle in vain to stop the free flow of information over the Internet. Unfortunately, as many recent events have shown, governments seem to still have the upper hand. See also https://projects.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html

We have been talking about the information age for some 20 years now. What we didn’t realise is that we were only comfortably pregnant, and only now, with the explosion of the Internet, are we finally (perhaps painfully) giving birth. And, as with all births, this one will revolutionise our lives.

This is the information revolution, and it is not an exaggeration to liken it to the industrial revolution. Over the course of a few decades, the industrial revolution changed the face of the world. So will the information revolution.

While it is hard to make concrete predictions of the changes to come, we can guess at the general outlines. And we can certainly expect changes in all aspects of society, including government, industry, and private life.

One hears periodically that the anarchy of the Internet threatens government as we know it. This is usually intoned menacingly by - no coincidence - a member of government. But look back: the industrial revolution also changed government as it was then known. From rigid, absolutist governments evolved today’s representative democracies. The industrial revolution dramatically increased worker productivity, which led to a higher standard of living, which led to an educated populace interested in and capable of participating in its own governance.

But today’s governments are not idyllic creations. Among other flaws, they are characterised by the bloated, inefficient bureaucracies inevitable in any monopolistic activity. It is precisely these bureaucracies that - rightly - feel threatened by the information revolution.

The threat is twofold. First, information respects no boundaries. If one buys a physical product internationally, the product is scrutinised (and taxed) by customs. If one purchases an information-based product over the Internet, the locations of the purchaser and seller are irrelevant. Indeed, the transaction is essentially untraceable - it is simply impossible to install a customs shack on every Internet connection. Hence, geographically-based governments will lose much of their relevance.

Second, because of the untraceability of Internet transactions, information is fundamentally not taxable. As more and more of the economy moves into the information realm, the enforceable tax base of governments will erode. Modern governments consume anywhere from 25% to 50% of the gross domestic products of their countries. This astronomical level of taxation and expenditure will become insupportable, forcing the privatisation of many services and the elimination of the corresponding bureaucracies.

The technology that ultimately secures the untraceability of electronic transactions is encryption. Any competent programmer can implement unbreakable encryption methods. Defenders of the governmental status quo are trying desperately to put the encryption genie back into the bottle. But it isn’t possible, and one reason is that encryption is essential to the future of industry.

The vast new connectivity will change the form of industry as surely as that of government. Telecommuting never lived up to its promise, but only because it tried to preserve the traditional employer-employee relationship. With the Internet, it is now truly possible for a company in Moscow to hire a worker in Singapore. The company sends the work description, the worker returns the completed work, and the company sends payment - all electronically.

The difference from telecommuting is that the company neither knows nor cares how many hours the worker sits in a particular chair - the relationship is results-based. Workers become truly independent; they can work for one or many companies, on projects of their own choosing. Information-based companies, in turn, no longer need large, fixed workforces with their corresponding huge overheads.

But any company investing money in a project wants to be certain that the project cannot be stolen. Which means that only companies using secure communications can benefit from this new work model. Hence, any country wanting to participate in the economic growth of the information age must accept and allow encryption.

The result of these changes will be a society as different from today’s as today’s is different from the agrarian society of yesteryear. The industrial revolution changed the world: private life, business, and even the predominant form of government. There were those who feared and resisted the changes, but the metamorphosis to a new type of society was inevitable, and few would now trade away the benefits of modern industry to walk behind a plow.

The information revolution is bringing changes of similar magnitude. With these changes, today’s society metamorphoses into tomorrow’s. Just as we cannot stop a caterpillar changing into a butterfly, so we cannot halt our entry into the next age - the true and long-promised information age. Nor should we want to - it will be a beautiful tomorrow.


Great Simple Myths

Excerpted from "The Prevention of War" by Reginald Bretnor

Although this article was written during the cold war, it still expresses valid criticism of the way that democratic nations conduct their foreign policy, especially as regards non-democratic nations. Reginal Bretnor says that most of us have...

...swallowed several Great Simple Myths.... Here they are:

  • All peoples, everywhere, want peace.
  • Only their wicked leaders...want war.
  • All cultures everywhere are of equal value: all they need is for us to understand them.
  • Given any opportunity, any culture - no matter how retarded, vicious, or how apparently opposed to everything we ourselves consider good and true and beautiful - will (what a lovely word!) emerge into the glorious light of civilization.
  • Therefore there are no savage nations, no backward nations, no nations that need more than government by their own leaders...

The only trouble with these pretty myths is that they are unadulterated bullshit.

All peoples everywhere do not want peace - if by peace we mean peace fo all other peoples everywhere. Many individual men and women find war exciting; many are sadistic; many are susceptible to the exhortations of the inordinately ambitious, the fanatical, the lunatic. If the great majority really and actively wanted peace, there'd be no problem.

All peoples everywhere do not have democratic aspirations. Many of them still want to kill their neighbors, rob their neighbors, enslave their neighbors, or even serve their neighbors up for supper.

All cultures are most certainly not of equal value - and the more clearly we understand them, the more obvious that becomes...

Therefore all peoples, and all nations, are not equal. All cannot be trusted equally, either with the powers inherent in science and technology or with absolute sovereignty. One reason that the UN is an almost total failure is because it is based on the assumption that - except where size is concerned - they are.

* * *

Where a world organization is concerned, [to succeed, the organization must have] some uniformity in each member nation's body of domestic law. Certain human rights must be uniformly guaranteed. Certain individual and collective acts must be uniformly prohibited. It is, for instance, ridiculous to expect a dictator legally free to preach and launch a holy war to be a reliable member of our world club; and it is just as absurd to expect this reliability from a power group legally free to quell any opinion contrary to their own and to preach and plan the violent overthrow of the governments or economic systems of their fellow members.

* * *

Which brings up another interesting question: just what would happen even today if [the United States], the British and Germans and French and Scandanavians and all other non-totalitarian nations everywhere (if anyone could get them to agree) were to withdraw from the UN, ... take over those of its agencies we support already and form our own private club, functioning according to more civilized rules? And what would happen were we to confine our massive aid to those nations that chose to join us under these rules...?