The age that could be amazing

Douglas Carswell blogs the internet age is amazing. Indeed, not just the 3-D printers Douglas mentions, but materials science, large and small scale engineering, power technologies, and, perhaps most important genome science all boggle and beckon to the inquiring mind. Synthetic biology promises us atomic-scale engineering and immortality.

But the kids who do that aren’t going to come from schools that fail to teach them hard science, art, language and history, then hide differences in undiscriminating exams.

Nor from Universities that ban the best students as having an unfair disadvantage, and scurry after government grants in a public research environment that stifles controversy and thereby, the food of creativity.

Nor will they come from businesses starved of California-style capital funding, or a country chained by regulation, craving safety, and uninterested in reality… Without a big change back to the days of discovery: 1666, Victoria, or the USA of Carnegie and Rockefeller, tomorrow will feel more and more like Da Vinci: Dreaming of machines that can’t be assembled, and wondering, as he said, whether, we bring our pictures and plans to others that they ‘do not bring them to their mouths, and ask if they are something to eat’.

Nationalisms: English and other

Hugo Rifkin (on Question Time Extras  – via iPlayer so you won’t be able to see it…) claims that English nationalism is distinguished from other nationalisms by “being about keeping others out“. This, he contrasted this with other nationalisms which, he said,  “seeking to raise up rather than excluding“.

If most nationalisms are similar in someway, I think it is more likely to be not so much raising up as opposed to excluding others, but about expansionist building out (think Sudetenland).

If English nationalism is simply about wishing to remain English – leaving individuals, families, friends, and their collaborations to live as they wish and not usurp this role for State, then that seems a source of greatness to me. And rather a proud  source at that.

Media Survival strategy: OpenID Advertising

It will be interesting to see if Mr Murdoch’s innovation of charging for access to his newspaper’s online content works.  We don’t know what he plans: My guess is just like the WSJ, he will simply ask people to pay to read the stories. I think that is doomed. As soon as The Times goes this way, people will swithc to reading the Telegraph or Guardian, their advertising revenue will double, and they have a business model again, having effectively lost one competitor. A which reporter will want to write for a tiny audience?

I can see several mechanisms for making papers and magazines highly successful today.

One very powerful tool would be to make a newspaper like The Times free to anyone with a “Times Buyer’s” card:

Advertisers would scan this card (for high-street and big-box purchases) or use it to authenticate via OpenID for online purchases). At a stroke, this creates a mass market for the paper (who wouldn’t take a free copy of media like The Times, Telegraph or Spectator?), and a verifiable but anonymous revenue stream from advertisers, as well as a motivation for consumers to let choose advertisers in their preferred media (while preserving complete anonymity for the card-holder, the card’s validity for free copies of The Times would be maintained by public-key encrypted notification of purchases.)

The media owners would receive an income stream from their advertisers/sponsors, based not on page views or clicks, but on actual purchases made anywhere, by anonymous, but authenticated buyers of their media.

Just 0.01% of each ‘subscriber’s’ annual purchases would make Media one of the biggest, most profitable, and potentially civilization-enhancing businesses on the planet once more.

More speculatively (say 5 years), once e-paper gets down to a price where a sheet of wirelessly self-updating paper can be given to each person as a loss leader (say £200 manufacturing cost, like an iPhone), I think Newspapers are in for their biggest business boom ever!

Great engineers (according to the BBC)

I smiled when TED gave a slot to a boy who they hailed as an engineering hope for Africa when he had managed to follow plans for a small farm windmill and assembled it from standard parts… That’s not actually innovation, I am afraid.


But today on Radio 4’s women’s hour we heard of young british woman who had made an evaporative cooler (yip – putting a wet blanket over a box, with a lid). This was hailed as a design breakthrough. I couldn’t see it, and I couldn’t see, either, how useful this would be given that her first (yes, she’s a multi award winner) prize wining design was for a wheel-barrow to carry — you guessed it — water!

An initial wonder concerns whether African’s can really have failed to develop the wheel barrow, or if, perhaps more likely, the tracks they are carrying water over make the alternative of carrying one bucket n your head better than pushing 5 on a barrow).

But aside from that, what use is a terribly inefficient, and ineffective passive evaporative cooler going to be in an environment where water has to be carried several miles, 5-gallons at a time?

Given that neither the ‘wheel barrow’ nor the ‘water power refrigerator’ are even engineering or design breakthoughs, let alone inventions, this seems to set a low bar for aspiring female engineers. But maybe that’s the point.

Bill Gates and education

We owe  many of the enduring institutions of our civilization to a handful of businessmen who ended their lives with large amounts of capital and gave it to the future in the form of charitable education and research investments: Rockefeller, Mellon, Carnegie, Wellcome*, and more recently Howard Hughes, and JP Getty.  Bill and Melinda Gates control the worlds two largest fortunes, but have a different vision than these great pioneers of philanthropy. The Gates foundation has two core beliefs:

  1. The world would be better if people were more able and skilled.
  2. Education and health are the source (rather than partially being results) of variation in how able people are, and many skills they have. 

For this reason they are throwing 100 billion precious dollars into Africa and education. I believe that this is one of the biggest tragedies of our century. There are several very important things that can only be achieved with the concerted investment of  billions of dollars in one project: Creating new drugs, life forms, new manufacturing processes and materials to name a few. Without a new round of investment in the future of discovery, we will all be poorer.

Of course if Gates was right, and preventing malaria or vaccinating against AIDS and re-jigging schools would make everyone as intelligent and diligent as he is, then that would unquestionably be an even bigger stimulus for world development. But I think they are wrong. Most of what they see as causes, are consequences. Poverty, like wealth reflects ability, and much of social chaos is a consequence of a low drive to cooperate. Experiments in intermediate “causes” of wealth such as schools are therefore invaluable for understanding the causal chain.

It was therefore sad, but revealing (in the sense that we might see that what we are doing is not working and, like a good scientist, stop and think) to read in this New Yorker article about just how wrong are the assumptions of the foundation.

A failed school recently  received  a million-dollar intervention from the Gates Foundation, making the school more ‘intimate’, and much more expensive to run. The result? Learning fell, gangs increased, and, thankfully, half the parents pulled their children from the school.

Now, if you were the Gates foundation, and you found that adding $1,000,000 and your vision to a school wrecked it so bad that people fled, might you not rethink? It’s not to late to stop, and to change. Warren Buffett: If you are reading this – take your money and put it into a Wikipedia-based global discovery laboratory. More in another post about how this could drive costs out of science while at same time creating an invisible hand to coordinate and drive innovation and wealth just like the industrial and scientific revolutions did before.

*Wellcome Trust is an interesting case: The trust simply owned shares in a for profit pharmaceutical company. At the time of his death, everyone thought Wellcome had made a horrible error, forgetting to put the company inside the trust. At the time (in the midst of the last global depression), the company was worth a few million in todays money: Barely a month of two of grants from todays trust! What happened to turn this tiny ‘mistake’ into a billion pound charitable behemoth? The US branch of the company had an innovative CEO who 10x’d the company, then doubled it again! The charity despite receiving income only from a tax-paying entity, rode this prosperity to its present position.

Gedanken experiment

I read the phrase gedanken experiment the other day, and though I knew from reading about Einstein as a kid that this means “thought experiment” I was stimulated to learn more about the word gedanken. Finding it was not in my Dictionary made me think about what I thought it meant—Not a bad thing to do.

Of course a Gedanken experiment is exactly the opposite of an experiment: it is armchair theorizing: Not much different, then, from making up some data. However, while a Gedanken experiment is not experiment, it does capture what is missing from definitions of science which focus on hypothesis testing: Science is Gedanken + experimentation: thinking, creativity, and conversations with oneself and others— disciplined and made practical by testing with data.

A relationship-completer plug-in for Addressbook

If you use OS X , addressbook, and AppleScript, then I think you’ll like relationship completer.This plug-in to Addressbook will fill in the obverse relationship for selected contacts: so if  (a) is (b’s) assistant, b is marked as a’s manager. Quite handy! Unfortunately it doesn’t complete real relationships: So don’t add x as your girlfriend and expect you to become her boyfriend (or vice versa 🙂 ).