Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why it may not be a good idea to arm the rebels in Libya

The US and the UK are considering to arm the rebels in Libya. This may not be a very good idea. There are the considerations already touched upon in the article (linked to above): al-Qaeda involvement with the rebels and a further splitting of the international coalition. But there is one other consideration that may have far longer term repercussions.

For this you only have to know a little recent history. How did the arming of the rebels in Afghanistan work out? In the short term it worked out great - from the viewpoint of the Mujahideen and the US who wanted the Russians out of the region. However in the long term it did not work out so well.

What happened was that young people were trained in using arms. Young people with a lot of anger in them. Young people who knew no life other than the fighting kind. Then, once the war was fought the US just acted like Afghanistan had never existed and pulled the plug on any further support. Afghanistan was left with a martial youth and little or no idea how to form a nation from the rubble left by years of war. They were left hanging at the time when financial aid for education and rebuilding was what it needed. Result: extremism flourished and now the coalition forces are reaping what they sowed: war against a foe they created themselves.

The chance of the same thing happening in Libya is big. Like the Mujahideen, the rebels in Libya have al-Qaeda elements among them. Not all of them will adhere to the extremist views but neither did the Mujahideen. However when you have lived under an oppressive regime all your life, when you have nothing and your former ally has buggered off and left you stranded, an extremist promising you heaven makes you pull the trigger pointing any which way the extremist tells you to. What have you got to lose?

The US and the UK do not have a great track record for supporting a country after it has been freed of its dictator. Afghanistan and Iraq are only recent examples. Will Libya become the next ruin they leave behind? Or will it become an example of changed politics? I doubt it. I doubt Obama has the power to pull the right strings to mount a massive, long term relief operation to help rebuild a peaceful Libya. Let's hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Turing, homosexuality, an app and irony

In 1952 Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer, was prosecuted for his homosexuality. He was given the choice: undergo treatment that would 'cure' him of his homosexuality or go to prison. He chose the first option. The hormonal treatment he received caused severe depression and one day in 1954 he was found dead. He had eaten an apple laced with cyanide. An inquest ruled it was suicide. A genius, worthy of the highest plaudits was mercilessly driven to death by anti-gay laws.

This week an app was pulled from the Apple app store that promised "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus". The app was initiated by Exodus, a group of Christians promoting the "ex-gay" movement. They claim they want to help people change their sexuality because they say many people are struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction.

How ironic is it that a device which was born from the ideas of Alan Turing should be used to promote the misconception that killed him?

The misconception lies in the fact that gays are not struggling with their sexuality, they are struggling with narrow minded people who use their religious beliefs as justification to force their views on others. They are struggling with people who make the lives of their fellow human beings a living hell by preaching doom and eternal suffering as punishment for something that can't be changed and is perfectly natural and should be a happy circumstance. They are struggling with people who presume too much and should be told to mind their own business and stop interfering with a person's most personal, most private affairs: one's love life.

There is no power in the world or outside it that can change who you love, whether the one you love is of the opposite sex or the same. Even Jesus, that super-hero of the Christian church is powerless in that matter. Trying to force sexuality into harshly defined and questionable morals results invariably in psychological pain, misery and eventually destruction. In effect the gay cure app promotes hurt and pain in a very real way. It is far more damaging than any porn-app that Steve Jobs tries so vigourously to keep out of the Apple app store. So it is only right that this app should be pulled. It is bad enough it had been approved in the first place.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are gadgets inherently non-green

In the public eye the search for green living mainly concentrates on green energy. The picture the media paints is that once energy becomes cheap and cheerful, all our problems are solved. But is this true? Can we consume with abandon once energy becomes as green as the grass and as cheep as chips?

“No,” is what the bleak answer must be I think. Energy is just part of the equation. Another part of the equation is made up by rare earth elements. Now, the name of these elements is slightly misleading. They are not especially rare, just very hard to get at. In fact, some of these elements are pretty common in the earth’s crust. But to separate them from their surroundings is another matter.

It turns out that refining material to get at the rare earth elements is an environmentally hazardous process. Often these elements are found in ores that also contain mildly radioactive metals such as thorium and uranium. Hence the waste product of refining rare earth elements from these ores is mildly radioactive and thus harmful to the environment. Also, during the process of refining, toxic acids are used which need to be disposed off properly. And as is always the case with us humans, if there’s money to be made, some of it will be made illegally. Sadly these illegal refineries of rare earth elements tend to take the toxicity of the waste products slightly less seriously than they should.

On top of this, only a few countries produce large amounts of rare earth elements. The largest producer by far (nearly 100%) being China. And they have announced a restrictions on the export of the much wanted elements. So they are becoming rare for real now.

Apart from rare earth elements, the production of our beloved gadgets also has a huge impact on our habitat. To get a coveted game console from heap of parts to gleaming object d’amour in your living room means a huge amount of transportation, robots to power, chemicals to react, waste created and heat to generate and dissipate. So the amount of impact on the environment of the production of one gadget is much more than just the sum of its parts.

So unless we find a way to produce gadgets that use common elements that are readily available without harmful refining procedures and we are able to streamline the production process in such a way that there is no harmful waste and no energy loss I’m afraid the enjoyment of gadgets will remain a thoroughly non-green human hobby. No matter where the power to make them sing and dance in your home comes from.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan disaster: is there anything positive to come out of it?

It is hard to come up with a second opinion about the series of disasters that struck Japan. The amount of human suffering is unequivocally horrible and this article is in no way trying to deny this. However, one way to cope with the tragedy as outsiders who can do little to help in any meaningful way, as most of us are, is to try and find a bigger picture that may show some positives to come out of a disaster like this.

The first that comes to mind is the fact that a technologically highly developed society witnessed this disaster. This means that the quake, the tsunami and the nuclear disaster have all been recorded both with amateur equipment like mobile phone camera's and by sophisticated specialist equipment. In 2004 much of the tsunami data was recorded once the water had receded. There is much more 'live' data coming out of this disaster that will teach us much more about the behaviour of shock waves, large bodies of water on the move and dispersal of radio active material once it escapes the reactor. In short: data becomes knowledge. Knowledge aids prevention and management of disasters.

The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant shows us that our lust for electricity has us use technology that we can not contain as soon as things go wrong. Nuclear disasters are rare but once they do happen their impact is big. 

It will be impossible to suddenly close every nuclear energy plant in the world. Eco-warriors may shout for that scenario but the electricity they use to power there bullhorns must come from somewhere. There are too many of us that plug in too many devices on a daily basis and nuclear power is too cheap, too plentiful and statistically too safe not to use it. But, and it is a big but, we have now seen again that a nuclear reactor starts to live a life of its own once we lose control over the system. The Chernobyl disaster was also such an event and Three Mile Island in the US, although the effects were minimal, another. The costs of such a disaster are tremendous and make the argument for cheap energy a tenuous one.

So the disaster in Japan may make us think again. It may stimulate companies and governments to start investing into the development of alternative energy sources in a big way. And the alternatives are there. Apart from solar, wind and wave energy, there is the TWR (Travelling Wave Reactor) which uses depleted uranium as its fuel. In one process we have zero emission energy and we get rid of our nuclear waste. Sounds too good to be true? Only further research will tell but in my opinion it's worth a shot! A disaster like this may open doors previously closed. Investment both in time and money and a willingness to listen to alternative energy proposals may become more readily available now that we have been faced with a nuclear disaster in a modern, technologically highly developed country.

Another, more sinister aspect of the nuclear disaster is that there are relatively few nuclear accidents on this scale. Data coming from a real world situation is always more valuable than data coming from a simulation. You can test fly a plane but you can't test fly a nuclear power plant. This accident will teach engineers a lot about the process of an accident and it will help make future power plants safer. Because, until we have found an alternative, new power plants will have to be built. Unless we substantially change our ways.

The Japanese people have shown themselves as examples to most of the rest of the world. A disaster like this could have easily sparked widespread looting and food hoarding in most other cultures. Not in Japan. The calm and reserved way they are dealing with this disaster is exemplary. There is an interesting article and discussion on this subject here: Researchers into human behaviour and the mechanics of society may learn a lot from the way the Japanese people are coping with this disaster. This may teach us all something valuable in a world that is becoming more and more crowded.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I pay my taxes, so let me watch YouTube in peace

About five years ago I stopped watching public and commercial television. We still had our cable connection but I just could no longer stand the garbage it delivered to our home. Either the quality of television had become worse or my tastes had changed, either way I stopped watching. Less than a year later we cut the cord completely and cancelled our cable subscription. We switched to Internet content completely. A Mac mini was bought, connected to our television and the mouse and keyboard became our remote. The bliss of self chosen TV content was ours.

Over the years the content became better and better. Video podcasts became more professionally produced - thanks to the efforts of such people as Leo Laporte and the guys and gals at Revision 3 - and YouTube came of age with better video quality and better content.

Much of the content on YouTube these days is contested as being illegal. Many a BBC programme or other public television content has been 'archived' at YouTube much to the chagrin of those that originally aired them.

However I feel justified to watch these programmes. Why? Because I pay my taxes. In the old days the situation in the Netherlands was such that one paid a fee as soon as one had a TV or radio in the house. This fee was used to finance public television and radio. In 2000 this fee was abolished and incorporated into the income tax. Income tax was raised by one point something percent and thus everyone pays that fee. Whether you watch public television or not. This used to be a fine system because everyone has a TV and/or radio and everyone used to watch public TV or listened to public radio.

But the situation has changed and our household is an example of the forerunners of that change (I'm tempted to shout 'Viva la revolucion!' but it is 4 AM so I'd better not...). We no longer watch public TV or listen to public radio. We can't because there is no longer a cable in our house delivering that content and picking up the stuff out of the ether is ancient history. So we watch public content - and yes BBC programmes were syndicated to our public broadcast channels - through YouTube and I feel no guilt doing so as I pay my taxes and thus pay into the public broadcast system of which I make no use.

I think this system should be more widely implemented. Instead of fighting illegal downloads, would it be an idea to embrace them. Charge a nominal fee for instance - either through taxes or otherwise - that reflects the content public television airs, i.e. feature films, syndicated programmes and bilge like the bloody X-factor and let people choose their own poison through channels such as YouTube or other Internet tubes (like Bittorrent or Usenet). In effect: illegal downloading would no longer exist, it'd be paid for. Those that do not watch Internet TV or do not listen to Internet audio content can go cry in a corner: I paid for all the filth they watched ever since I cut the cord with public broadcasting, now let them suffer for a while.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Life on earth, did it come from out there?

Not for the first time meteorites show signs of life. Or to be more precise they show signs of past life. Supposed micro-fossils of algae found in three meteorites seem to suggest that life is wide spread in the universe and it may even suggest that life on earth may have come from other parts of the universe.

Of course the claims are counter-claimed, suspected, scrutinised, disbelieved and generally treated with the utmost circumspection. After all, God forbid (!) that life on earth should be less unique than we hoped it would be.

On the other hand: can someone please explain to me why should life only exist on earth? I know, I know: There are lots of theories proving that the situation on earth has a <insert very big number here> to one chance of having occurred anywhere else but given that the universe is pretty damn large, the chance of it not having occurred elsewhere becomes remote again. So let's just say the chances in both camps even out which means that life on earth is just so-so unique and it is quite possible that life has developed on other planets in the universe.

Hopefully the extensive poring over rocks from outer space will one day give a conclusive answer to the controversial question: is there life somewhere out there in the universe? It would be great to put a definitive check-mark against that one so that we can all get on with our, well, life really.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

We can prevent a sixth mass extinction... but can we?

During earth’s long history, 5 mass extinction events have taken place. The sixth may be underway according to Anthony Barnosky, one of the co-authors of a study published in the journal Nature. The study suggests that we are indeed living in dire times and that if nothing is done about our impact on habitats, climate and the earth’s recourses, earth could experience its sixth mass extinction as soon as 300 years from now.

not too late

On a more positive note the study also suggests that it is not too late to do something about it. If we change our ways and stop treating the planet as an infinite source of goodies, many of the disappearing species may recuperate from their declining numbers.

change our ways

So will we? Change our ways that is. Yesterday saw the launch of the iPad 2. A product that no doubt will follow the same path to success its predecessor did. In other words it will sell millions. Every one of those iPad 2’s uses valuable resources the earth can’t provide without feeling the impact. No matter how many green stickers Steve Jobs sticks on the box, the iPad 2, sold in large numbers, contributes to the major impact we humans have on our living planet. And the iPad 2 is just one of the many gadgets we run mad for.


The problem is that Steve Jobs and his products attract a lot of attention and more importantly, that attention is followed up by action: the buying of a new product. News about the environment or human impact on life on earth is not popular and almost never followed up by action. Or rather inaction, i.e. the not buying of the newest gadget. There may be a fundamental animal instinct at the bottom of this behaviour. In other words we may not be able to help ourselves. The buying of a product gratifies our hunting and gathering instinct. We do not need to actively hunt or gather our food, we do no longer need to cut wood to keep warm, we do no longer need to build our own shelters; but the instinct that drives us towards all that still lingers inside us. At the same time, we are lazy, as most animals are. We always try to walk the path of least resistance. So instead of satisfying the instinct that tells us to provide for our needs by doing the things our long lost ancestors did, we buy stuff. It doesn’t matter what stuff, as long as it is stuff. We are like magpies, lining our nests with useless trinkets but we can't help it.


So unless we can find a different way to gratify our animal instincts, a way that affects the planet's habitats to a lesser extent, I fear we may be unable to control ourselves. The next mass extinction may well be caused by the species that has claimed superiority over animals based on its intelligence and yet we may still be too much of an animal to be able to prevent it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Is it going to be myxomatosis all over again?

Just finished reading a post on Wired. The title of the piece is "Mosquito-Attacking Fungus Engineered to Block Malaria". Apparently scientists are devising a new way to battle malaria by using genetically engineered fungi. The fungi attack the mosquitoes after reproduction while at the same time producing proteins that attack the parasite responsible for malaria. The 'after reproduction' bit is important as this prevents the mosquitoes from developing resistance against the fungi. It is proudly announced that this method will at the same time affect other mosquito species so other diseases like Dengue fever also run the chance of getting eradicated.

It all sounds too good to be true. No more malaria, which kills a million people a year and no more Dengue fever. All by genetically engineering some humble fungi. However, when something sounds too good to be true it usually is. And my fears are that in this case the axiom might be justified again.

Once upon a long lost time, when we humans were still very naive and not so very, very wise the way we are now, we thought to control bunny plagues by introducing myxomatosis. It turned out that the virus went way beyond control and moved swiftly on towards elimination of the rabbit. As a result the Iberian Lynx is all but extinct. If it were to become extinct, it would be the first big cat to go the dodo way in 10,000 years. Way to go, humanity.

We know little about the way our natural surroundings work. We think we do but we don't and as always: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. What will happen when all disease carrying mosquitoes are eradicated? We don't know. It may be that the humble mosquito fulfils an essential link in the chain that is called nature. It may be that in a hundred years time we have rid the world of malaria but created a problem greater than malaria ever was. A million deaths a year is not a trivial matter and I understand the necessity of finding a way to battle malaria but messing with fundamentals in nature of which we can scarcely predict the effects may be a very dangerous path to take.