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Uncertain futures


Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Tiny robots fly in

Scientist are trying to create tiny flying robots the size of insects, reports CNN. Unfortunately the only devices close to insect size that they've built haven't got off the ground yet - currently sheep-size flying robots is as good as it gets.

The problem is that flight at insect scale works on different principles to existing airplanes or helicopters. Though the aerodynamics are becoming better understood, there are still substantial engineering and control problems to sort out.

Predicting precisely when a usable technology will arrive is difficult in these circumstances. Breakthoughs are required in several fields before flying micro bots become a reality.

CNN reports that spying, space exploration and clearing up chemical spills are the sort of application envisaged for the devices. They clearly haven't been reading enough Philip K Dick. These things are just as likely to find employment as advertising robots, with the potential to be far more annoying than today's two-dimensional popups.


Monday, July 29, 2002

Perils of prediction

Many predictions turn out wrong. This is particularly true of attempts to look more than five or ten years into the future. Here's a wonderful sequence of images from Horizons, an attraction at EPCOT in Florida closed by Disney Corporation in 1999. It contains a vision of a future filled with cities under the sea and robots doing the vacuum cleaning. Who knows, maybe it will still happen, but now it all seems charmingly dated.

Even more dated, but with flashes of brilliant insight, is this sequence of images by Albert Robida (1848-1926). Robida is interesting not just for what he gets right, but for exactly how he goes wrong.

In a work published in 1883 he's spot on about the importance communications would have for our world, but can only envisage it done via wires (Marconi's key demonstration of radio didn't happen until 1901). Nonetheless, this didn't stop him predicting television, and even some of the ways we use TV.

As a footnote, Walt Disney's own plans for EPCOT didn't turn out as he intended. It was originally going to be a place of real science - Experimental Project: Community of Tomorrow, not a theme park, as Jerry Pournelle explains.


Sunday, July 28, 2002

Popcorn predictions

Came across these 16 trend predictions made by New York-based futurist Faith Popcorn. They were probably made about five years ago to go with her book 'Clicking', but it is interesting to see how many are still valid.

I reckon at least 13 - and possibly as many as 15, still hold true. This is very good considering how many other ideas from that era are now in tatters.

Unfortunately the Popcorn prediction I have most serious doubt about is 'Save Our Society', which is all about rediscovering a social conscience and compassion. I don't see much sign of that being on the increase today, either in the US or Europe.

I'm also not so sure about 'Anchoring' and 'Pleasure Revenge'. But the others are all pretty accurate.

Popcorn, as her adopted name suggests, is mainly concerned with consumer behaviour, and is a major corporate marketing guru. Though her language is very American, the great majority of her trend predictions seem to apply across the affluent world.


Saturday, July 27, 2002

Saddam and Sharon

Britain and France have told President Bush that they will now support an attack on Iraq, according to the Guardian. 'Senior officials are saying a sudden military strike could be launched as soon as October.'

Apparently the military is confident it can do the job with a much smaller number of troops than during the Gulf War - despite earlier worries that such an approach would lead to a 'Bay of Goats' disaster.

But what about America's other key ally - Israel. Last time, despite Saddam's best efforts to bring Israel into the war, the Israelis kept a very low profile. But last time Ariel Sharon was not Israel's prime minister.

Sharon may see a new Gulf War as a chance to get rid of his Palestinian problem permanently - by clearing the occupied territories of Arabs. In an article in the Daily Telegraph back in April top military historian Martin van Creveld argued that this is exactly what he is planning.

'Some believe that the international community will not permit such an ethnic cleansing. I would not count on it', van Creveld wrote. 'If Mr Sharon decides to go ahead, the only country that can stop him is the United States.'

Presumably Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac have talked to Bush about Israel's likely response should an attack on Iraq go ahead. What did he say to reassure them?


Friday, July 26, 2002

Snapshots of the web's past

I've just been playing around with the Wayback Machine. It lets you look through a vast historical archive of the whole web going back to 1996.

At over well 100,000 gigabytes the archive is simply too big to offer Google-like search facilities, so you have to know the web address of the site you are looking for. But it can be fun to look at sites you've been associated with in the past and see what you used to think was a good web site.

The archive typically has multiple copies of each site grabbed on many different dates over the years, so you can see how the site has evolved. And with some sites the content itself is still of interest, as it may have disappeared from today's web.


Thursday, July 25, 2002

Betting on the future

I'm amazed that the Flipem site is legal, but apparently it is. It lets you place bets on a wide range of future events, and have the cyber equivalent of betting slips mailed as gifts to people who can then collect real money if they win.

For example, you can bet on the number of commercial jets mothballed in US deserts at the end of August, or on the style of shot that will win the 2002 World Conker Championships. The site is based in London, and benefits from recent relaxation in UK online gambling laws.

In many ways it is reminiscent of the Foresight Exchange, but is a more commercial concept suitable for a dumbed-down age. At the Foresight Exchange, which has been going for at least seven years, no real money changes hands. Instead the point is to see how people expect the future to turn out. This can be gauged directly from the changing odds on the various predictions.

At the even more cerebral Long Bets Foundation, set up last year by Kevin Kelly and other people mostly associated with Wired magazine, you can bet real money - but the minimum stake is $1,000 and all winnings have to go to charity.

But the present cultural climate is more suitable for Flipem. For example Banzai, a betting show that spoofs a crazed Japanese game show, is a surprise hit on British TV at the moment.


Afghan heroin trade is booming

The new Afghan government is failing to reduce heroin production, according to a BBC news team that has been inside the country. In many areas only a few token fields have been uprooted. Indeed, poppy production was controlled much more effectively under the Taliban.

There were warnings that this was likely to happen before the Taliban was ousted. The prospect now is that Europe will be flooded with cheap heroin.


Spam busting

Will unsolicited email ever be got under control? At the moment I try to keep it down to manageable proportions by giving out different versions of my home email address (I can do this because I have my own domain). Then if one address falls into evil spammer hands I'll know where the spammers got it, and will also be more easily able to filter the spam out.

Spam Motel automates process. It creates any number of disposable email addresses on demand, and lets you make notes on who you are giving them out to.

When email subsequently starts arriving for these addresses Spam Motel forwards the messages on to you, along with the your notes. Then, if any of the addresses fall into the hands of spammers you can simply delete them - you own original email address remains unaffected.

This beats my existing approach, which lets me identify incoming spam easily but doesn't cut it off at source.

What I'm not sure about is how Spam Motel is funded. It's free, but is there a catch?


Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Asteroids and ice cream

Good coverage of the threat posed by asteroid 2002 NT7 at the BBC, including a forum to reassure worried readers.

There's reassurance of another kind at US ABC News, where Asteroid may hit Earth has to compete with Can an ice cream diet be good for you? Apparently 'dieters can now live the dream'. So we can at least all go on a guilt-free comfort-eating binge.

Real reassurance depends on governments committing the resources to fund an adequate space watch programme, but at the moment they are not. NASA-JPL's Near Earth Object site has an clear explanation of the nature, scale and likelyhood of the threat.


Business leaders with feet of clay

Wonderfully bad-tempered and somewhat unfair attack on Sun's boss Scott McNealy by Michael Thomas at Salon. But his wider complaint is spot on.

What's really annoying Thomas is the dominant ethos of American business over the last decade, which he describes as 'near worship and lavish compensation for people who "make things happen" coupled with near contempt and minimal rewards for people who "make things work".'

He points out that what happened is exactly what could have been expected: 'a tidal wave of scandal ...meltdowns and bankruptcies'. He also predicts that there's another scandal coming - because many of the products and services supplied by the firms with the happening bosses never worked properly.


Divided Israel

Two articles in the always-interesting Israeli daily newspaper Ha`aretz show how current hard-line policies are straining consensus among Israel's supporters.

The first concerns the assassination of Salah Shehadeh, accompanied by the deaths of at least 15 civilians. Amos Harel asks how the decision to go ahead with this questionable operation came about.

His conclusion is that in the light of horrifying terror attacks on Israeli citizens 'a kind of apathetic indifference to the possibility of Palestinian casualties has set in'. If this attitude continues Israelis could end up on war crimes charges in The Hague, he warns.

The second piece is by Alec Dubro, a 55 year-old American of Jewish descent who lives outside Israel. Despite supporting the state materially and emotionally over the years, he's now asking for the removal of the settlements from the West Bank, Gaza and Golan.

But inside Israel what many want is the exact opposite - the removal of the Arabs. According to a recent opinion study, 46 percent of the adult Jewish population of Israel support 'transfer' of Palestinians from the occupied territories. The report (pdf) by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, reveals a population strongly divided on many issues, but moving increasingly to the right.


Friday, July 19, 2002

Way clear for unpiloted aircraft in UK

Increasing military use of large unpiloted aircraft raises the question of when civilians will get their hands on the technology. Farmers, security firms and academic institutions are all potential uses provided so-called UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are cheap enough and legal.

Until recently the legal problem has been the most serious. But the Civil Aviation Authority has released an updated guidance document that sets out a clear framework for their use in UK airspace. As well as summarising the present legal requirements, the document provides pointers to the sorts of capabilities UAVs are likely to require in the future to operate safely alongside other air traffic.

In the US September 11th hasn't helped the case for unpiloted aircraft. But pressure is growing on the Federal Aviation Authority to relax the rules or at least come up with a clear roadmap.


Steam plane flying on a beam of light

Scientists at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have taken up the idea of powering aircraft by laser beams from the ground (see report on earlier experiments at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and at the University of Toronto in this blog).

A new wrinkle added by the Tokyo researchers is to use water as the reaction mass rather than air. This would allow such craft to operate at altitudes where the air is thin or non-existent.

But don't expect to ride in such a plane any time soon. The Tokyo plane has a wingspan of about two inches, weights less than a hundredth of an ounce and has achieved a top speed of only three miles per hour.

There's a movie of the thing in action at the Nature site.
New York Times story (requires registration but free).


Thursday, July 11, 2002

Nevada to vote on legal use of cannabis

Voters in Nevada will decide in November whether to let adults legally possess small amounts of marijuana (the preferred US term for cannabis). A petition to put the measure on the ballot has narrowly succeeded with about 75,000 valid signatures.

The Omaha World Herald quotes one of the organisers as saying the result proves that most Nevadans think it's a waste of tax dollars to arrest people for small amounts of the drug. Most of the comments on the newspaper's site agree.

The proposed changes go further than those currently taking place in the UK, where penalties for possession of small amounts of cannabis are being reduced but not eliminated.

Under the Nevadan proposals, the drug would be legal if bought through state-licensed shops, and provided cheap to those needing it to treat medical conditions.


Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Getting the facts right on phones
'Half the people in the world have never made a phone call' is undoubtedly a startling expression. Not surprisingly it has proved very popular with politicians and corporate leaders. But is it true?

Clay Shirky argues convincingly that it's a myth - and what's more one that conceals a much more interesting truth. The real story is of very rapid growth in telephone use - especially in poorer countries.

Expert spots forgotten Michelangelo
Good report on how a visiting museum director from Scotland made the find while on holiday in New York.

Friday, July 05, 2002

Arab world is stagnating

Over half the young Arabs polled for a UN report want to emigrate.

Five percent of the world's population - 280 million people, live in countries with Arab-speaking majorities. The Arab Human Development Report looks into their prospects.

Though life expectancy has gone up in recent years and the numbers attending school increased substantially, the overall picture is of stagnation and cultural isolation.

Currently the Arab world as a whole translates only about 330 books a year. Each year Spain translates as many books as the Arab world has managed in the last thousand.

Only 1.2 percent of people in the region have access to a computer, and only half of that number use the Internet.

The economy lacks dynamism. The region is still overwhelmingly dependent on oil, which makes up 70 percent of exports. Spending on research and development is less than one-seventh the world average.

In spite of the progress in education at school level, 65 million adults are still illiterate. Almost two-thirds of them are women.

On the plus side HIV/AIDS rates are low, but tobacco and road accidents are still major killers.


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