Saturday, January 23, 2016

Most threats come from progress in science and technology ̶ Stephen Hawking

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
 - Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.167-8), 

The renowned physicist recently discussed his BBC* Reith Lecture1 on black holes.2 It emerged that in response to a question submitted by a schoolboy on whether the world is likely to end on account of humans, or through natural disaster, Hawking pointed to humans, their science and technology as potential culprits. According to The Telegraph's Science News3, Hawking responded  “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognize the dangers and control them. I’m an optimist, and I believe we can.”

Hawking specifically mentioned nuclear war, global warming and genetically engineered viruses as examples of human-made threats. Colonizing planets is seen as a means of surviving, a point that Hawking also made in the 2011 documentary Surviving Progress4, saying this was our only chance. But now he explicitly identifies science and technology as responsible.

In saying that we won't stop progress, or reverse it, Hawking is perhaps inadvertently revealing why science and technology may be our Achilles heel. History abounds with institutions that refused reform, and criticism. Athens prior to the Peloponnesian War, the pre-Reformation Church and the Soviet empire, to name a few. Critics were seen as heretics and worse. These days, Science and Technology present themselves in many ways as beyond reproach, infallible even. As it turns out some lessons were learned by those historic institutions.

To consider the learning process that gave us Stephen Hawking as something not applicable to the problem of progress as a potentially terminal challenge, just makes no sense.

Evolution has enabled us not only to learn how to become a very capable survivor in our world, but to create new instruments and modify our world as well as our behaviour. This process suggests there are "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of " in our science, and we should learn this lesson as soon as possible. Mars can wait.5

How do we have the brain power to do that? With 80 to 100 billion neurons in any given person's brain,6 and each neuron capable of making and receiving up to 10,000 connections, do the math.

by Daniel O'Leary FRSA - 23 Jan. 2016

  2. Radio Times, 23-29 Jan.2016.
  5. Goodman G, Gershwin ME, Bercovich D.   Mars can wait, facing the challenges of our civilization. Isr Med Assoc J. 2014 Dec;16(12):744-7.
    Amitai Etzioni Mars can wait, Oceans can't.  CNN  Aug.17, 2012
* The Reith Lecture with Prof. Hawking - broadcast in 2 parts on BBC Radio 4 on January 26, 2016, and on Feb. 2, 2016 both at 9 a.m.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Governments have signalled an end to the fossil fuel era, committing for the first time to a universal agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions

-  from the (Saturday 12 December 2015):
"Six years after the chaotic ending of the Copenhagen climate summit, the agreement now known as the Paris Agreement for the first time commits rich countries, rising economies and some of the poorest countries to work together to curb emissions.

Rich countries agreed to raise $100bn (£66bn) a year by 2020 to help poor countries transform their economies. The overall agreement is legally binding, but some elements – including the pledges to curb emissions by individual countries and the climate finance elements – are not."

read the full article:

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Economy of scale - small scale.

Escaping the progress trap
Since the beginnings of industry, economy of scale1  meant large scale. It was natural to get as much as possible done with the fewest resources. Over time, this meant larger farms, larger houses, larger cities, larger states, transport systems, and much, much more. Then came machines, electricity and factories - which gave us economies that never slept. One disadvantage of all the bounty was that humans adapted to the machines, most of which were larger than us anyway. There was no choice.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to indentured omnipotence. Ingenuity began making the the machines smaller and smaller. And smaller. Many machines are still larger than humans, don't sleep and must be fueled non-stop. But our most beloved, frequently used machines are smaller than we are. We can turn them off. We can ignore them. We can stop feeding them. Best of all, a single one of them can do many things. Little miracles. Instead of being slaves to them, we can tell them what to do.

That includes providing music, getting mail, monitoring our heart rate and figuring out exactly where we are the morning after. We adapt these small machines to suit our purposes. They are addictive sometimes, but that's not the same as involuntary slavery to polluting mega-industries like energy production, agribusiness and big pharma. The most useful gadgets such as pacemakers may have only one purpose, but they are small.

Without revolutions, marches or barricades we are quietly liberating ourselves from enslavement to the production line.

The thing is, we can do more things on a small scale, such as individually tailored medical treatments, without sacrificing what we used only to enjoy on a large scale. Yes, Mr. E. F. Schumacher 2, small is beautiful.

Eventually we may be able to dispense with behemoth states, cities and perhaps a few polluting industries. For now, I can set aside the tablet on which I wrote this, for as long as I like.
by Daniel B. O'Leary FRSA
  1. Economies of scale
  2. Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Wind of Change

 The Wind Empowerment 2014 conference (3-7 Nov.) has just ended in Athens. Their video below shows how this technically challenging resource can be harnessed on a community scale, by people who need it most and have the will to make it work.

WindEmpowerment is an association for the development of locally built small wind turbines for sustainable rural electrification.

The keynote speaker was Hugh Piggott, who has built wind turbines on Scoraig island in Scotland, a process that started in the 1970s. He is the author of A Wind Turbine Recipe Book which may be the standard work on the topic. Events included demos, technical sessions and a presentation by Michel Bauwens, (P2P Foundation) on commons-oriented infrastructures.

Participants also visited 'small' wind installations in Marathonas, the site of the battle of Marathon in 490 BC synonymous with success in the face of overwhelming opposition.

by Daniel B. O'Leary, Montreal

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What's all this about a Win-Win climate situation? (IMF and Paul Krugman)

Merely three months after The World Bank and former U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson presented plans that show how we can address climate problems while prospering economically, the IMF and the  New Climate Economy project1 have come up with very similar ideas!

The International Monetary Fund's idea is that putting a price on CO2 emissions would actually enhance economic growth. The IMF shows it has done the math in a working paper2.

It gets better: the New Climate Economy report has 10 recommendations for growth -
Recommendations 1 to 6 define the necessary conditions for better, low-carbon, climate-resilient investment and growth; recommendations 7 to 10 focus on the potential for sectoral change which drives future growth and lower climate risk, specifically in urban, land use and energy systems.
There you have it. Just as world leaders gather in NYC for a crucial UNO climate meeting, and thousands plan to march, we have compelling evidence that we can not only survive but prosper as well.

As Paul Krugman snidely puts it in his New York Times piece: "if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality."
by Daniel B. O'Leary, Montreal, 20 Sept., 2014

  1. Global Commission on the Economy and Climate - New Climate Economy project
  2. Ian Parry, Chandara Veung and Dirk Heine, How Much Carbon Pricing is in Countries’ Own Interests? The Critical Role of Co-Benefits, IMF Fiscal Affairs Department Working Paper WP/14/174
  3.  Paul Krugman, Errors and Emissions, Could Fighting Global Warming Be Cheap and Free? New York Times, SEPT. 18, 2014

Monday, July 07, 2014

SHOCKER - no electronics at the Faraday Cafe!

“There was life before the Internet,” said artist Julien Thomas, adding Smart phones mean people can cede memory to their devices. There’s no need to remember phone numbers, geography or definitions. We have given up that responsibility to remember things that are important.”

The Faraday Café in Vancouver is temporarily home to a place where folks can go to leave all their digital baggage behind, for the price of a cup of coffee. No tweets, hashtags or pokes. For Mr. Thomas and his like-minded artist clients, disconnection is vital to restoring creativity.

The e-fugitive spends the coffee break in a fine wire-mesh enclosure that can screen out air-borne electronic contaminants. The safe haven is named for Michael Faraday, the father of electronics applications and inventor of the mesh cage. The enclosure keeps external static and non-static electric fields out by directing electricity through the wire net, and is used in laboratories. Thus the cage provides an escape. If ever a situation reflected the progress trap, this is it.

But what would Faraday think, having the most sophisticated electronic applications blocked by one of his simpler inventions?

Source: Globe and Mail
By Daniel B. O'Leary, 7 July, 2014

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The World Bank and Henry Paulson on Climate Change and Risky Business

We can deal with climate change AND create jobs.
June 2014.  Introducing his 'Risky Business' program, Henry Paulson recently wrote in the New York Times1 that its goals are to:

"..develop technologies, lower the costs of clean energy and create jobs as we and other nations develop new energy products and infrastructure. This would strengthen national security by reducing the world’s dependence on governments like Russia and Iran. Climate change is the challenge of our time."

Paulson served as secretary of the U.S. Treasury from July 2006 to January 2009, and is thus well positioned to learn from the past. It was on his watch that the 2008 financial crash developed, and all leaders could emulate his candour: "We’re making the same mistake today with climate change. We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy."

The Risky Business project ( is intended to mitigate climate change while strengthening alternative energy economies and jobs. What is risky is that it plans to act now rather than waiting for all the science to come in. It's courageous because Paulson is a conservative, as is his partner in this project former Mayor Bloomberg, and these notions are not popular in quarters where many deny climate change even exists. As Paulson puts it, "We’ll never know enough to resolve all of the uncertainties. But we know enough to recognize that we must act now."

In the same week, The World Bank issued a report3 - "Climate-Smart Development." It shows that the practical benefits from actual projects illustrate how the goal of mitigating climate change while boosting economies can be achieved. The case studies involve:
  • Sustainable Transport in India
  • Cleaner Coookstoves in China
  • Solid Waste Management in Brazil
  • Biogas digestion and solar photovoltaics in Agriculture - Mexico
These projects showed that the aggregate benefits over 20 years of the four development projects will accomplish:
  • 195,000 to 261,000 new jobs
  • 1million–1.5 million tons of crop loss avoided
  • About 1 million lives saved
  • $37 billion–$60 billion increases to GDP
  • 350–520 Megaton (million metric tons) CO2 equivalents3 reduction
The World Bank is very confident that climate-smart development will "secure growth, increase jobs and competitiveness, save lives and slow the rate of climate changes."

Avoiding the progress trap
Henry Paulson could not have expressed the progress trap paradox better: "I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course."

by Daniel O'Leary, Montreal, 28 June 2014

See also:
What's all this about a Win-Win climate situation? (IMF and Paul Krugman)

1. Henry M. Paulson Jr. The Coming Climate Crash, New York Times,  June 21, 2014
2. World Bank Climate-Smart Development report
3. CO2, BC, methane (CH4), HFCs, and nitrous oxide (N2O).

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cosmos and Mr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, you asked..

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves" - Shakespeare

Allow me to transcribe some eloquent lines spoken by Niel deGrasse Tyson in Episode 9 of Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey. The topic is mass extinction of species, such as befell the dinosaurs. After extolling the human skills that gave rise to civilizations, he observes:
There is nothing like the inter-glacial period—one of those balmy intermissions in the ice age—and the great news is that this one is due to last for another fifty thousand years. What a break for our kind!
    Just one problem, we can't seem to stop burning up all those buried trees from way back in the carboniferous age in the form of coal, and the remains of ancient plankton in the form of oil and gas. If we could we'd be home free - climate wise. 
    Instead we're dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate the earth hasn't seen since the great climate catastrophes of the past - the ones that led to mass extinctions.
    We just can't seem to break our addiction to the kind of fuel that'll bring back a climate last seen by the dinosaurs - a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on our environment and our ability to feed ourselves.
    All the while, the glorious sun pours immaculate free energy down upon us, more than we will ever need. Why can't we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us?
    The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming - what's our excuse? 1
A similar question has been asked by the author of Collapse, Jared Diamond:
it is clear from all the cases discussed in this book that precisely such a failure has happened repeatedly. How did so many societies make such bad mistakes? ...a baffling phenomenon: namely, failures of group decision-making..2
Diamond offers several explanations, including: absent prior experience, reasoning by false analogy,  imperceptibility, distant managers, creeping normalcy, landscape amnesia, rationalized greed, sunk-cost effect, denial and resource exhaustion. In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainer linked the loss of creativity to the growth of complexity.3

Clearly human behavior has a lot to do with it, in addition to the obvious ability of vested interests to preserve the status quo and create diversions. What is baffling is why science has not taken up the challenge of determining how as humans we often undermine our best efforts.

Ongoing research for the author's progress trap project shows that the following behavioural factors may also contribute:
  • habituation
  • inattentional blindness
  • epigenetics (change passed down from parent to child, one generation to the next)
  • impaired emotional intelligence
  • addiction
  • technocratic obsession
  • incomplete paradigm shifts
  • cognitive overload
  • impaired (environmental) feedback loops
  • disconnection syndromes
  • phenomenal dissociation
  • institutional bias
The neurological aspect has been discussed by Antonio Damasio. In Descartes Error, he criticized the pioneering philosopher-mathematician and lamented the exclusively rational tendencies of science. In a lecture on Emotion and reason in the future of human life, he applies the same thinking to the environmental context:
It is difficult to conceive of any future for human life without an abundance of collective human wisdom and such wisdom depends upon a well-tempered machinery for decision-making within which emotion and reason are interwoven.4
Examination of the neurological factors could make the whole issue a lot less baffling. Indeed, the unfairly maligned left-brain right-brain debate does throw light on this paradox, providing insight into 'normal' human actions that are often at odds with our own long-term interests. As Iain McGilchrist, also a critic of Descartes, wrote:
the left hemisphere may be 'inadequate for the more rapid complex syntheses achieved by the [right] hemisphere...This broader field of attention, open to whatever may be, and coupled with greater integration over time and space, is what makes possible the recognition of broad or complex patterns, the perception of the “thing as a whole,” seeing the wood for the trees... In short, the left hemisphere takes a local short-term view, where the right hemisphere sees the bigger picture.5
The explanations that Diamond and McGilchrist offer are surely the beginnings of serious inquiries that will answer Neil deGrasse Tyson's question.

The rest of us would also like to know.

by Daniel B. O'Leary FRSA

  1. Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey  Episode 9 - The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth,  2014
  2. Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking Penguin, New York, 2005. p420
  3. Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press; 1988
  4. Antonio Damasio, "Emotion and Reason in the Future of Human Life," Mind, brain, and the environment, Bryan Cartledge, ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1998, p. 57.
  5. McGilchrist, Iain. Reciprocal organization of the cerebral hemispheres,  (2010). Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 12(4), 503–515.

    Sunday, May 18, 2014

    What is 10,000 times greater than the rate at which humankind consumes energy?

    A new study by NASA finds that the rapidly melting section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appears to be in "an irreversible state of decline, with nothing to stop the glaciers in this area from melting into the sea."  The study suggests that sea level rise projections for this century are toward the high-end of the IPCC range, which is 1 - 3 feet (26 to 98 centimeters).

    The NASA video, narrated by Eric Rignot of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, illustrates what Mother Jones magazine has described as a "Holy Shit Moment for Global Warming" and can be seen on YouTube:

    More graphics are available at the NASA website 

    - and the press release is at:

    But wait - there is good news. Lots of it.
    To underline how unnecessary these problems are, consider this from the IPPCC:

    "Solar energy is the most abundant of all energy resources. Indeed, the rate at which solar energy is intercepted by the Earth is about 10,000 times greater than the rate at which humankind consumes energy."

    * Arvizu, D., P. Balaya, L. Cabeza, T. Hollands, A. Jäger-Waldau, M. Kondo, C. Konseibo, V. Meleshko,
    W. Stein, Y. Tamaura, H. Xu, R. Zilles, 2011: Direct Solar Energy. In IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation [O. Edenhofer, R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, K. Seyboth, P. Matschoss, S. Kadner, T. Zwickel, P. Eickemeier, G. Hansen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

    Sunday, April 06, 2014

    What is a science graduate and aspiring journalist to do?

    - if you haven’t already been snapped up.

    First let me thank the McGill (University) Daily for inviting me to participate in a panel on Science Journalism in the Digital Age. The March, 2014 event was coordinated by Diana Kwon, the Sci & Tech Editor. Co-panelists were Elizabeth Howell, space and science journalist, and David Secko, science journalism professor at Concordia University, in Montreal. This post summarizes some of my main points.

    So, if you haven’t already been recruited by the mainstream media, there are things you can and should do. Explore and promote your own idea(s). One benefit is that you will be marking out your territory. The other is that you will learn hands-on ‒ and often at little cost ‒ what works and what doesn’t, digitally.

    For example, even though my own book Escaping the progress trap never made any best-seller lists,
    • the sites that complement it, and consistently rate near the top on Google searches . That’s due to careful SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and regular, focused updates to the blog and the main site,
    • the book also has an electronic edition - eBooks are often short and can be produced at little or no cost,
    • the most frequently read page at the book’s site is about Tikopia,  and that page is also close to the top of Google searches for Tikopia,
    • the most frequently read page on the Blog is  Creativity: how extraordinary is the ordinary person's mind – an excerpt from the book.

    The Territory
    The digital extensions of this book are thus beneficial, and the 'territory' has been marked out, something that needs doing even if you have copyright and your work is widely known. In 23 years, only one author has claimed to have coined the term “progress trap” since I registered copyright on it in 1991.

    Harvard Bookstore

    Not built in a day
    Some books do take time – for instance We, the Tikopia by Raymond Firth, was published in London in 1936 and languished unsold until WWII, when the publisher had to decide whether to dispose of it, or not. The book survived the blitz and eventually found a market after the war.

    Quality, not quantity?
    As a fictional aside one recalls the amusing episode from Angels and Demons where the character Robert Langdon ruefully proclaims upon unearthing one of the cryptic clues “ aaah.. just a few days with this and I could have finished my book …  and sold dozens of copies at the Harvard Bookstore.”

    The digital world
    So, on to the digital real world: There are many ways to analyse the performance of your site, blog, tweets & videos, and more internet tools than one can hope to use. Most of us rely on Google Analytics to gauge a site’s performance. For a general overview of the state of the net there is the assessment of internet publishing in its many forms: The 2013 Digital Influence Report is useful on blogging, social media and multimedia.

    Common wealth
    The Creative Commons license provides a free springboard to source material that is often the basis for serious, professional study and reporting. Better yet, Open Data sources from many international bodies such as the World Bank are available. There is also Open Science Data  and many governments provide Open Data. Yes it’s Ok to consult Wiki. If you can’t bring yourself to cite Wikipedia, do cite one of the peer-reviewed articles that you are likely to find among their references. After actually reading that article, of course.

    Anyone for MOOCs?
    If you suddenly feel the need for more expert knowledge, don’t be shy to take a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Perhaps the best known are under the MIT-Harvard umbrella known as They are free for the most part and don’t take up too much time. I have taken three in the last year and now have Harvard, Berkeley and Oxford on my resume. FYI, is just now hyping Street-Fighting Math, #educatedguessing.

    While it is true that traditional media outlets have been trimming science staff, the jobs haven’t gone away. Science isn’t going away. It gets more intricate all the time, needing expert interpretation for voters, policymakers, investors and everyone else. Many organizations rely on new media for communicating their interests. One example is the Mayo Clinic that lists about thirty staffers in its Communications department. The site also lists 14 Canadian Institutions and their newsroom personnel.

    It means different things to different people and usually takes endurance, smarts as well as copious resources. This little blog post of mine can assure neither fame, fortune, professional accolades ‒ or any of the above ‒ to anyone. On the other hand, you might be invited to speak at McGill University!

    The last word – goes to Jared Diamond
    “The Easter Islanders' isolation probably also explains why I have found that their collapse, more than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts my readers and students. The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other…..Thus, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples.”
    Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. Viking 2005

    Thanks also to the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA)