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This blog will be taking a time out for a few months in order that other work can be fitted in

holly leavesI regret any disappointment to my regular readers, but I now have to take a break from this blog for a few months in order to work on other projects.  I am due an amended second edition for Bloomsbury of the logic book, “How to Win Every Argument.”  I am due an economics book for Harriman House, provisionally entitled “Sense and Nonsense in Economics,” and I am anxious to start on the first book of a young adult SF trilogy called “Time Force.”

It is not that I haven’t the time to continue with the blog as well; it is that I need the mental space.  It’s a curious thing to explain to those who don’t experience it, but I would simply have too much going on in my mind simultaneously.  It’s the main reason I stopped writing anotherfoodblog.com.  I need to clear some mental space so I can get the books out onto the slipway.  This is especially true in that I’ll be continuing with my Adam Smith Institute work and my Cambridge stuff.  I’ll still be visiting schools and universities to speak, and still keeping up with developments in the world of public policy and with scientific and technological progress.

My intention is to leave the blog up where it is, but cease to update it.  After a time I’ll probably archive the content somewhere that people can access if they wish, and remake the home page of my site.  I hope I can take it up again after a few months.  I’ve really enjoyed writing it, and it’s been great having you aboard.  My best wishes to you for the festive season, and I hope you have a really great fun-packed New Year.


There’s to be a museum of science fiction opening in Washington DC in 2017

science-fiction-picI’ve seen exhibits of science fiction memorabilia before, but now there’s to be a whole museum devoted to it.  As a writer of science fiction for young adults I naturally approve.  Science fiction plays an important role in stimulating youthful imaginations and even in directing young people to seek out science-based careers or to work on new inventions at a later stage.  The new museum’s executive director, Greg Viggiano, says it will be “offering a dizzying array of characters, props and other awesomeness from Star Trek, Dune and the novels of Isaac Asimov to name just a few.”  Since a museum basically features things to look at and to interact with, it will rely heavily on visual props from movies and TV shows.  For those who cannot wait until 2017, Viggiano hopes to open a “preview museum” in 2015 to showcase some of the exhibits that will be in the big museum (fifteen times as big) two years later.  I think the prospects for this are good.  Science fiction has a huge fan base, some of whom remain fans for life and will seek out such a museum to visit with their own children. [With this story I am very close to the time when I must suspend writing the blog for a few months in order to complete other commitments].

Are there qualities that give some people an unfair advantage in life?

????????????????The BBC ran a piece on BBC Worldwide (International Site) which they won’t let UK viewers read, so I’ll summarize it.  They went to the question-and-answer site Quora to find if some people have qualities, ones they didn’t necessarily earn, that give them an ‘unfair’ edge over others.  It makes interesting reading.  One of the most popular was “not needing a lot of sleep.”  If, like Napoleon and Lady Thatcher, you can get away with only a few hours a night, that leaves you with more productive hours out of your 24.  “Optimism” was another choice, since optimistic people believe in themselves and have a can-do attitude that brings results.  “Energy” was chosen, in that some people seem able to live at a pace that would exhaust others, and manage to fit an incredible number of activities into their lives.

“A good memory” was listed as conveying several advantages.  It helps you learn by remembering your mistakes.  It helps with people by remembering things about them.  And it helps with self-confidence as you remember all your achievements in full colour.  It also aids your efficiency if you can keep track of everything you are engaged in.  Not mentioned in the survey, but one I’d include is what might be called a practical intelligence, meaning that you can work out ways of doing things.  It does enable people to achieve things that might leave others baffled.

But does any of this deserve to be called unfair?  Some people are good looking and become movie stars.  Some have good voices and become pop stars (as do many that don’t).  Some have blue eyes; some have blond hair.  Nature is by no means egalitarian when it comes to handing out talents, and the same might apply to life skills.  OK, some need less sleep, some are more optimistic, some more energetic.  Some have more vivid memories and some people always seem to know how to do things.  Why not just call them lucky?

The battle to use genetically modified organisms for the benefit of humankind is quietly being won

GMO cropThe arguments against GMOs were never very good.  Some of it was a straight anti-progress campaign against “interfering with nature.”  The heir to the British throne is of that school, but every time you use penicillin you are engaging in just such interference.  It’s a fundamentally conservative position, appealing to the old, traditional ways of doing things, and decrying the complexity and speed of modern progress that leaves some people unsettled.

Some of the opposition was straight anti-business.  Typically it takes big firms with deep pockets to undertake the development and testing of GMOs, so they make a convenient target, depicted as big, money-grubbing bullies that exploit the little guy to line their own pockets.  Some of the anti-GMO movement was just plain fearful of new developments whose risk was unquantified.  NGOs whipped up scare campaigns to attract more subscriptions and support, many talking scientific balderdash in the process.  Since their audience was mostly unscientific, they could get away with it.  The worst NGO bullies used ‘direct action’ to impose their views over those of elected governments by sabotaging experimental crops.  They were dubbed ‘greenshirts’ in ominous reference to the blackshirt goon squads of earlier times.

Quietly, the battle has been turning, with more papers published on how GMOs can make agriculture greener by minimizing use of pesticides and fertilizers.  Increased crop yields can mean less need for more acres to be planted, leaving more rainforest intact.  As I wrote before, ‘golden’ rice has opened the door to use of GMO crops to combat blindness and death, especially among children in poorer countries.  Above all, the years of experience with GMO crops has helped allay fears of potential harm.  Millions have eaten such foods over many years without apparent ill-effects.  It is not the sort of battle where victory is declared and everyone goes home.  Rather it is one in which gradually more and more GMOs will be used to beneficial effect over the years, and in which opposition becomes less strident and less sure of itself.  It will without doubt be written up as one of the more opportunistic, discreditable, and harmful campaigns that environmentalist NGOs have engaged in.  And one in which a fearful and gullible public was preyed upon and hoodwinked by zealots.

Learning about evil dunters in the Scottish borders – while enjoying a beer

dunterI’d never seen the beer before.  It was called “Dark Dunter” and was one of the ‘Christmas ales’ that many Cambridge pubs seem to have laid on for the festive season.  At 4.8 percent you could have quite a merry Christmas, but what on Earth was a dunter?  In the old days, before history began when Steve Jobs stood up on a stage, people might have speculated for hours, even days, until they found a dictionary big enough.  Now of course you simply ask Mr Google.

“A Red Cap or Redcap, also known as a powrie or dunter, is a type of malevolent murderous dwarf, goblin, elf or fairy found in Border Folklore. They are said to inhabit ruined castles found along the border between England and Scotland. Redcaps are said to murder travellers who stray into their homes and dye their hats with their victims’ blood (from which they get their name).”

Legends vary, but they are usually vicious, with red eyes, big teeth and talons.  The one in the beer tap sign does not seem to be carrying his traditional pikestaff, though he does of course wear a red cap.  I rather like the tale of the redcap familiar of Lord William de Soulis, who “wrought much harm and ruin in the lands of his master’s dwelling” before he was taken to the circle of nine stones near the castle, wrapped in lead and boiled to death.  The beer’s pretty good, so cheers to that…

Combining the raising of aquatic animals with hydroponic plant culture

aquaponicI knew something about hydroponics and a little about how aquatic animals are raised and developed, but I knew hardly anything about aquaponics, the process that combines the two in a kind of symbiosis.  It joins aquaculture to hydroponics.  The animals can be snails or crayfish, or more commonly freshwater fish.  Sometimes edible fish such as tilapia are used, and sometimes inedible ones such as goldfish of koi.  In the basic system bacteria are added to the water so that the ammonia in the fish excreta can be converted into nitrates.  The nitrates in turn nourish the plants that are grown separated from the fish to protect their roots.  In a normal tank the waste products from the fish would make their environment increasingly toxic, but the bacteria enable it to be converted into a mixture that nourishes plant life.

What sparked my interest was a story that Vietnamese fishermen in New Orleans East have turned to this process after the oil spill in the Gulf spoiled their fishing grounds.  They use koi and minnows to produce nutrients for healthy crops they sell locally.  The process uses water, oxygen, light, fish food, and electricity to power the pumps and filters and to oxygenate the water.  In other aquaponics centres edible fish are marketed as well as the plants.  The process uses less land and water than do conventional methods and can be done on quite a small scale in less developed economies as a valuable source of food and extra income.

Fitting pacemakers into heart patients without invasive surgery

micro-pacemakerA remarkable example of miniaturization is reported in MIT Technology Review by Susan Young.  It’s the world’s smallest pacemaker (as yet) and can be inserted into the heart after being steered through a large vein accessed from the patient’s thigh.  Last week the device produced by Medtronic was given to a patient in Linz, Austria in the first live trial.  It’s the Micra Transcatheter Pacing System (Micra TPS), and measures only 24mm long, and is 75cc in volume, small enough to be carried along by a catheter.

This kind of ‘keyhole’ surgery has long been in use to unclog arteries using balloons delivered through blood vessels.  Then it was used to insert stents to keep weak or narrow arteries open by holding the walls apart.  Next came heart valves small enough to be delivered into position by similar methods, and now there’s a pacemaker small enough to be delivered in the same way.  The new devices don’t use electrical wires to deliver pulses to the heart, but sit inside it and use small prongs that touch the heart to send the pulse.  Their batteries are claimed to last 8-10 years on full stimulation, after which the device presumably has to be replaced or recharged.  It’s a very positive development for elderly or frail patients for whom major heart surgery would be more risky.  Typically the new procedure would involve local anaesthetic and sedation rather than total anaesthesia.  The new device is a tenth of the size of a conventional pacemaker and reduces the amount of power required.  It sure beats the trauma involved in full surgery, and its procedure is quicker and lest costly.  Good news all round.

On the morality of taxation and how to minimize the harm it does

Moller 0010Yesterday I addressed a conference of the Young Britons’ Foundation at Churchill College in Cambridge.  The theme of my session was the morality of taxation, and I put forward the view that taxation is basically immoral when it is coercive, which it nearly always is.  To a libertarian, coercive behaviour is only justified to prevent people from harming others.  Taxation takes away our choice to allocate our resources according to our priorities and values, and makes us live by someone else’s, like pawns on someone else’s chessboard.  Sometimes taxation forces people to fund things they have moral objections to, such as war, bank bailouts or abortions.  It can undermine personal responsibility by making people think it is the state’s job to look after others, and it can crowd out private morality by pre-empting the funds people might otherwise have used for good purposes of their own.  Taxation often promotes internal divisions, with interest groups vying against each other to secure resources.  It gives politicians the money to buy votes with, and it makes society poorer by increasing the costs of the transactions that create wealth and prosperity.

All of that said, taxation might be immoral, but it is alas also necessary, and the question then comes down to minimizing its harmful consequences.  Adam Smith set out four canons for making a tax as fair as possible.  Firstly, the cost of collection must be low compared to its yield.  Secondly, the timing and amount must be known, without allowing tax collectors the discretion that can lead to corruption.  Thirdly, the means and timing of the payment must be convenient to the payer.  For example, when wages are made or a transaction takes place, a little of the money generated can be conveniently collected by the state.  And fourthly, Smith said that taxation should fall mainly on those who can pay.  Yes of course.  They can afford it more easily.

I add a fifth canon to Smith’s four: No tax should damage the economy out of all proportion to the revenue it raises.  I cite Corporation tax as an example.  It is not paid by corporations, but by employees, customers or shareholders.  And it seriously holds back the wealth creating process.

There are reasons why markets are not very popular in some quarters

steet mktTim Worstall introduced readers to the word “emporiophobia,” meaning the fear of markets.  One reason it is so prevalent is that supporters of markets tend to talk about “competition,” whereas the essence of a market transaction is co-operation.  The exchange takes placed willingly because each values what the other one has more than what they offer in return.  It could also be that the English upper classes have traditionally disdained “trade” and regarded land management as an activity much more appropriate for gentlemen, when they were not hunting, shooting and fishing.

Markets have also had a bad press because they largely reward economic contributions rather than intellectual ones.  Many writers and thinkers feel aggrieved that they are not given the high status and rewards that they think deserve.  I think security is a factor, too, in that the outcomes of markets are uncertain and unpredictable, and leave people in fear of the harm that an unknown future might bring.  There is a plausible theory that we are hard-wired to pay more attention to danger and bad news for good old survival reasons, meaning that predictions of doom and chaos will always command attention.

I, on the other hand, although a writer and to some extent a thinker, am happy putting more trust in markets than in meddlers.  On the whole the greater numbers seem to get it right more often than the few on the central committee, and markets are quicker to recognize errors and take corrective action.  Despite all the disasters I remain optimistic that the future will be better than the past.  It will make more choices and more chances available to us and will present undreamed of opportunities.  Unfortunately this does not make for nearly such a good story as imminent disaster does.

The advanced technology winglet from GKN Aerospace will save fuel costs

wingletThe Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is justifiably proud that a British multinational, GKN Aerospace, has been awarded a contract by Boeing to supply advanced technology winglets for its forthcoming 737 MAX aircraft. The Department is so proud of this that they set up a model of the winglet outside their Victoria Street offices to show off to passers by.

The upgraded 737s are scheduled to fly in 2016 and start being delivered to airlines in 2017. GKN will manufacture the winglets in Cowes, Isle of Wight, safeguarding hundreds of highly skilled engineering jobs in the UK. The winglet has a complex composite structure and its more efficient airflow will save an estimated 1.5 percent on fuel costs. This may not sound much, but it represents billions of pounds saved by airlines over the course of the 737s’ working lives. It is part of a series of design updates incorporated into the 737 MAX that will between them give it an 8 percent per passenger seat cost advantage over its likely competition. GKN is a world leader and one of the UK’s most visible success stories, so plaudits all round, guys, on winning the contract.

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