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Uncertain futures


Sunday, September 22, 2002

US adopts first-strike strategy

In future the US is going to be more prepared to shoot first and go it alone without allies, according to a strategy statement presented by president Bush to congress on Friday. Pre-emptive military strikes, previously regarded by the US itself as against international law except in very limited circumstances, are now seen as legitimate in many more cases. More on this development over at my other blog Uncertain Futures.

Meanwhile the way the war in Iraq is fought may be effected by a shortage of the US military's preferred smart bomb, according to William Arkin in the Washington Post. The JDAM (joint direct attack munition) is satellite-guided so it can work in all weather, unlike laser-guided weapons. Without them more troops will be needed on the ground. Alternatively, the war might be delayed until stocks of the bomb have built up.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Air car makes its debut

Powered by compressed air contained in tanks under the body, Aircar is intended to provide low-cost, pollution-free urban transport.

The company behind it, French-based Motor Development International, claims the vehicle can reach a speed of over 60 miles per hour, and can go for over 120 miles before the tanks need refilling. This takes four hours using the built-in compressor connected to an ordinary domestic electricity supply, but just three minutes using a heavier unit that MDI hopes to sell to filling stations.

Since the major motor companies don't seem to be interested, MDI plans to set up numerous small manufacturing plants run by franchisees. Projected price for the vehicle, which could conceivably be available in the UK next year, is under £6,000. Here's the MIT Technology Review's take on the story.

Pop fragmenting

Interesting article in Prospect magazine from the drummer of defunct UK art-house band Gay Dad about the problems of the music industry. There's no doubt that turnover worldwide is down, and that the UK industry has got itself into an even deeper crisis. The question is why, and what happens next.

"With the rise of MTV and the internet, many believed that music culture would increasingly homogenise, and every home, be it in Boston, Bordeaux or Bath, would eventually enjoy the same mix of Slipknot, Celine Dion and Robbie Williams. But contrary to expectations, many countries, including Britain, have developed a brand of pop whose appeal is strictly local."

Africa heads for oil boom

Africa already provides about 15 percent of the United States' crude oil imports, and this is likely to rise to 25 percent within the next 10 years as offshore reserves come on stream, according to an article in the New York Times.

Most of the production comes from sub-Saharan countries that have direct access to the Atlantic, such as Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea. A new pipeline will link oil fields in landlocked Chad to the ocean.

What the article doesn't discuss is whether the new oil wealth will benefit the ordinary people.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

War could cost London £1 billion

London's bill for toppling Saddam Hussein could be at least £1 billion, according to a report issued by the Mayor's office.

In the Gulf War of 1991 the most severe impact on London was the loss of US visitors too scared to fly. Numbers were down by 30 percent. If the same thing happens this time, the report puts the cost to London at over £1 billion in lost tourism revenue, with a possible loss of over 45,000 jobs.

Military developments, confidence in the financial markets and oil price levels are harder to predict than tourist behaviour, but could be decisive. A prolonged war, loss of confidence in the financial markets or a large oil price rise could push the economy into recession.

The full report 'A future gulf war - its potential economic impact on London' (PDF) is on the end of this newsletter about the London economy.

Author Bridget Rosewell does mention some plus factors. This time US tourist numbers are already down in the wake of 9/11, so it's possible an Iraq war won't have such a noticeable impact. But on the negative side Rosewell thinks there's more of a risk of a general economic slowdown now. Lack of support for the war means that the wealthy Arab nations and Japan are unlikely to help pay for it, which helped counter recession last time.

Monday, September 16, 2002

US diplomats doing their job?

It's the job of diplomats to keep their government informed of anything likely to inflame feeling against their country. So presumably diplomats working at the US embassy in London think Londoners will sympathise with their attempts to avoid paying the new fiver-a-day congestion charge that's the centrepiece of a pioneering road-pricing scheme due to go live in February 2003. They obviously think there's no chance anyone will say 'Look - Arrogant Americans, throwing their weight around again'. This is bad timing - and bad diplomacy.

The Guardian's take on the story.

Meanwhile over in Vancouver they are taking a different approach to congestion. They are using an old bridge to deliberately clog up traffic to keep it out of the downtown (city centre) area. But that's because they like bicyles, which can go round the jams. And because they think that only a suicidal politician would try putting a direct price on the use of roads.

Overlooking worst-case in Iraq.

Just read this comment piece in last week's New York Times - Imagining the Worst-Case Scenario in Iraq. Author Milton Viorst argues that there's a chance that Saddam may pre-emptively invade Saudi Arabia, or launch a chemical, biological or nuclear strike on Israel before the US arrives in force in the region. The weakness in Bush's strategy is that it relies on Saddam behaving in a similar way to last time - which was basically to sit and wait for the US to strike. New York Times access is free but requires registration.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

w:bloggar is good

Now I've got two futures weblogs going (the other is Uncertain Futures), I can go off-topic more often on this one.

I just started using w:bloggar, something of no interest to anyone except other webloggers. What it lets you do is write items off-line, without being connected to the Internet. You can then upload them later to services like Blogger, Movable Type or Drupal.

I haven't got round to setting it up yet with MT, but I'm using it all the time now with Blogger.

Since I'm normally connnected to the Internet all the time through an ADSL connection, the main purpose of w:bloggar as an off-line loader didn't initially interest me. But what I like is the interface - it's far better than Blogger's own.

What's more, when you use Blogger in the normal way as a hosted web service, there is always some delay, even with ADSL. So w:bloggar - a software tool developed in Brazil, makes things more convenient. It's freeware, BTW.

Must get round to putting this sticker in the right place when I next go to Blogger proper.

Interesting business model

A Tchibo coffee shop has appeared on my local High Street (Sutton, a suburb nine miles south of central London in the UK).

What's interesting is that it also sells other consumer goods on a rolling basis. Every Wednesday a new set of products organised around a single theme appear in the coffee shop-window. This week it's natural-themed house wares and bedding, next week it's business clothes.

The formula seems quite successful. The products are fairly cheap and once they have gone from the shop they can be bought online or by mail order.

There are two interesting things about this development.

1. Other coffee shops make poor use of their prime retail locations. Tchibo is using the space more effectively.
2. This is business migration. Tchibo has looked at the infrastructure at its disposal, and is using it to move into a different market.

Tchibo is not some innovative small business, but Tchibo Frisch-Röst-Kaffee GmbH, a huge and venerable chain that already has over 60 shops in the UK and some 900 directly-operated outlets in its native Germany.

Indeed, the parent Tchibo Group has plenty of money at the moment, having recently sold its majority stake in Reemtsma, a large German tobacco company.

It's using this war chest to roll out more of the novel coffee shops across Europe. So Tchibo probably isn't scared of Starbucks, which has wiped out smaller coffee shops in my locality.

Just found this review of a Tchibo shop, which describes it as a cross between Starbucks and the Innovations catalogue.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

What the US military learned in Afghanistan

The New York Times has interviews with heads of all four US services about what they've learned from Afghanistan [free but registration required].


Integration between army, navy, marines and air force is accelerating - everything is 'joint' now.
The US Marines are turning from an amphibious force into a rapid-reaction expeditionary force that is expected to go far inland.
Precision weapons mean you need a smaller logistics tail - because fewer heavy items need to be transported.
But missions are more complex, and may require the military to switch rapidly from fighting to delivering food.
Troops need to be capable of fighting, policing and negotiating.

Swiss join UN - but not EU

Switzerland finally joined the United Nations yesterday. It's unlikely to join the European Union in the foreseeable future, according to the Economist - the Swiss people wouldn't approve. But has already become a pseudo-member, with close economic ties.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

PC recovery delayed

IDC has changed its estimate of when PC sales will recover from their present stagnant condition. The US research firm doesn't expect a significant improvement until the middle of next year - which is later than its previous prediction.

Businesses continue to postpone PC investments, and consumers aren't coming to the rescue. But PC sales are flat rather than in freefall. IDC expects over 135 million PCs to be shipped worldwide this year. That's up one percent on the year before.

Why nanotechnology no longer appeals to investors

This article in the new-look, slimline, humbled Red Herring eventually gets round to discussing why VCs are reluctant to invest in nanotechnology. There's a science risk - maybe the idea won't work, and many projects are far too ambitious. Better to attack existing markets from below than try to change the world.

The article makes a good contrast to the usual boosting, which announces some lab breakthrough as if the problems of commercialising it are trivial.


I've started a new weblog called Uncertain Futures. It's focused more tightly on emerging trends and techniques for thinking ahead than this one. It also uses a different platform - Movable Type rather than Blogger.

At the moment there's considerable overlap between the blogs, but I intend giving each its own identity.

Uncertain Futures concentrates on the future. It's an out-and-out futures blog, and is all about thinking ahead. It will link to items because of what they can tell us about the future, and for no other reason. I also intend adding more background articles and reference material, and better links to non-weblog sources of information.

New Realities will range more widely and be more personal. It will tend to have shorter items than now, but more of them, and generally be more relaxed and less polished. Nothing is irrelevant as long as it is interesting to me. It will belong more in the weblog community.

Why the change of platform for Uncertain Futures? Partly it's just fun to try something new. But Movable Type's ability to categorise postings was the deciding factor. It allows you to produce a site that's easier to navigate and less of a diary, and so more suitable for material that has some lasting value. MT is very flexible, so you can produce different types of page - for example a list of quotations or a glossary, for which organisation by date of posting makes no sense.

It's been a year since I started weblogging. In that time the number of people producing weblogs has increased enormously. To find an audience I believe weblogs need to become more focused, so people can quickly get an idea of what a particular weblog is about.

On the other hand, I still want a personal weblog in which anything can be included. So that's why I'm both creating a focused futures blog and retaining this one.


Cold starch good anti-cancer agent

Another interesting story from the Leicester conference: apparently it's not the high-fibre that's good for us in high-fibre diets, but the uncooked crystalline starch that is often present in the same foods.

According to Professor John Burn, this form of carbohydrate interacts with the bacteria in the lower gut, producing a chemical that affects the way genes linked to bowel cancer function. The belief that it was the high-fibre itself producing the protective effect was wrong - and an example of experts jumping the gun before a mechanism is properly understood.

To work the starch must also be eaten cold - heating it changes the chemical structure.

Fat plague here to stay

We're getting fatter in the same way we started getting taller 200 years ago, Professor Andrew Prentice told a science conference in Leicester, England. This change in shape is likely to be permanent. Unfortunately it is not good for us, reducing lifespan so much that today's parents could outlive their increasingly fat children.

"The obesity pandemic is gathering pace rather than slowing down, and current interventions are only marginally effective and very expensive", Prentice told the BBC. Just exhorting people to eat less and take exercise isn't enough to reverse the trend. Only tough measures like changing the transport system to force people to walk are likely to have an impact. Here's the Telegraph's take on the same story.

Meanwhile over in Australia the food industry is lobbying against a proposed snack tax.

Monday, September 09, 2002

War game reveals danger of group-think

A recent US military simulation of an attack on a middle-eastern country has raised questions about whether war with Iraq will be the walkover that many expect. The scenario used was a US attack on Iran with an 'n', not Iraq, and in 2007 rather than the immediate future. Plenty of things went wrong, including the loss of much of the attacking American fleet, the New York Times reports [free but sign-up required].

The worry is that lessons won't be learned from the exercise, which involved 13,500 people. The New York Times quotes one senior war game commander as saying that slogans and clichés seem to be replacing deep thinking. "General Van Riper said the mood reminded him of the mindset in Vietnam: excessive faith in technology, inadequate appreciation of the fog of war, lack of understanding of the enemy, and simple hubris."

Sunday, September 08, 2002

Winning social innovations

The Institute for Social Inventions is a philanthropic body based in the UK that encourages people to think up ideas for a better world. It has just announced the winners of its 2002 Social Innovations Awards.

The one I like best is Boomerang Day for returning borrowed items, suggested by Tony Paynter.

He suggests we set aside one day a year to search our homes for things that don't belong to us that we've neglected to return. Boomerang Day would be the day to return them.

Greek game ban sign of deeper law-and-order problem

In an effort to crack down on illegal gambling the Greek government has banned ALL computer games. This has been the cue for much ridicule and indignation around the world. Tourists are being told to steer clear of Greece, where jackbooted police are supposedly roaming the beaches arresting anyone possessing a mobile phone. Has the Greek government gone mad?

The short answer is no. Computer gamers have simply been caught in the crossfire of an increasingly ugly struggle between the state and organised crime - one that organised crime is winning. The Greek authorities are running out of options - but are still acting fairly rationally.

First all let's get clear exactly what the law says, then look at the wider context. The law does indeed ban all electronic gaming - on PCs, laptops and mobile phones, not just on arcade machines. And yes, it makes it illegal to possess such gaming equipment, even in your home. What's more, tourists are not exempt. The police really could drag you off for having Microsoft Windows (which comes with Solitaire and Minesweeper) on your laptop, or Tetris on your mobile phone.

However, they are not likely to do so. Nor indeed is the law itself likely to stand much longer. It came into force at the end of July, and may already have done its work.

The background to all this is ultimately Greece's geographic position in the unstable Balkans, on Europe's south-east fringe. Greece has land borders with Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the north, and with Bulgaria and Turkey to the east.

Following the Yugoslav and Kosovan conflicts, the northern area has become the base of heavily armed gangs, many of them involved in drug and people trafficking. To the east, the relevant factor is the elimination of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has been followed by soaring drug production. The traditional routes for Afghan heroin into the prosperous markets of western Europe run through Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. These routes have revived, now largely under the control of the Kosovan gangs.

This has placed a huge load on Greek police and customs officials, who in the face of organised intimidation and corruption are being overwhelmed. Gambling plays a crucial role because it is not just another profit centre for the criminals, but because it can be used for money laundering.

In this context Greek actions start to make more sense. Tough anti-gaming laws were originally mooted in February, precisely because other measures to crack down on the illegal gambling dens weren't working. Gambling outside of a few defined contexts was already against the law. The point is the police and courts were unable to enforce the law because of intimidation and corruption.

On its way through Greece's parliament the new law was toughened up, giving police essentially the powers to seize anything even-remotely capable of being used for gambling.

Of course the law won't stand. Greece has lawyers, and they know the ban is likely to be struck down on human rights grounds as soon as the first appeal reaches the European Court of Justice. Since Greece is a full European Union member the law would also eventually fall because it clearly clashes with EU competition rules.

But that doesn't stop it being an effective short-term measure. Since July the authorities have been busy - not oppressing Solitaire players and tourists, but shutting down gambling dens.

The current international fuss only started very recently when they turned their attentions to Internet cafes. This posting from Aegean Times, a local group weblog, makes interesting reading.

The Greek Internet Cafe Union are mounting a very effective campaign against the crackdown. Here's their petition - but are you sure you want to sign it? The people of Greece will give their verdict in a couple of week's time when local elections are held.

What does all this say about the future? It doesn't tell us that 'clueless governments don't get the Internet'. That's the knee-jerk take on things. Instead it's a warning of just how far gangsterism and the black economy are getting out of control in Europe.

Friday, September 06, 2002

Dawn of the age of true self assembly

Most of the media have treated this New Scientist story about intelligent self-assembly furniture as a joke, but it has implications that extend well beyond helping puzzled Ikea customers put together their purchases.

What the team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has done is fit light-activated sensors to the key components that make up an Ikea wardrobe. When you open the carton the sensors start sending data to a battery-powered microchip built into one of the pieces.

This works out where all the components are in relation to each other, and generates assembly instructions that are sent over a wireless link to a PC. The idea is to make assembly easier and to prevent accidents.

But the same approach could be applied to much larger construction projects, and to problems like the more efficient loading and unloading of ships or containers. Indeed, radio-frequency identity (RFID) chips are already used in the freight transportation industry. With their cost likely to fall to a few pence over the next few years, ultimately every brick, parcel and can of beans could have its chip.

-- More --

At the risk of sounding like a Bruce Sterling fanatic, this is another development prefigured in that thoughtful Science Fiction writer's work. In Distraction (1998) he has this exchange between his main character and a couple of cinder blocks:

"I'm a cornerstone", the cinder block announced.
"Good for you", Oscar grunted.
"I'm a cornerstone. Carry me five steps to your left."
Oscar ignored this demand, and swiftly taped six more blocks. He whipped the scanner across each of them, then pulled the last block aside to get at the next level in the stack.
As he set his gloved hand to it, the last block warned him "Don't install me yet. Install that cornerstone first."

More about the Swiss Smart-Its project.

It's part of the wider EU-funded Disappearing Computer initiative, which is having a big conference at the end of September.

Reuter's version of the story, in case the New Scientist one disappears into its paid-for archive.

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