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Those who favour economic and social freedom tend to compare the present with the past, rather than with some hypothetical imagined future

futureWhen I addressed the University of Brighton a couple of weeks ago, I went through what I called the viewpoints of neo-liberalism.  By this I meant only to show the students how those of us who support the general outlook of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman view the world.  I invited the students to spend 15 minutes or so “looking at the world through neo-liberal eyes” as I put it, somewhat tongue in cheek.  I went through 10 of the ways in which those inclined to this philosophy viewed the world.  I did take a video of my address, and I am in the process of writing up extracts from it.  I might refer to some of them here.

I covered such things as the essentially subjective nature of value, of the importance of factoring time into economic transactions, and my third point told how we of that persuasion tend to compare the present with the past.  Others look at what is and compare it with a vision in their mind of what it might be.  We are more empirical, comparing it to what was.  Life expectancy about 150 years ago was about 30 years, and had been so for millennia.  Now it is about 68 years globally, and higher than that in developed countries.  We look at death to mothers in childbirth, and see it is now a tiny fraction of what it was even at the turn of the previous century.  We look at infant mortality and see how that, too, is now a tiny fraction of what it was.  Many of the diseases of the past have been conquered or controlled, and although there are new ones now that we live longer, we are in the process of controlling those, too.  In the past most people battled to survive at subsistence level, whereas now we have more people above poverty and starvation than ever before in the history of humankind.

In other words we see things as being better than they were.  Of course we can imagine a future which will be better than our present, but the empirical approach is to compare present with past, examine what made the difference, and attempt to do more of it.  What made the difference was economic development and wealth creation, not the redistribution of existing wealth.  It was opportunity, not equality, that drove progress, and we who support freedom want to see more of it, so that the future world will be as different from the present as ours is from the past.

How magicians have used psychology to deceive their audiences through the ages

rabbit-hatI’ve been having a great time reading about magic.  A friend has a research project on the psychology of magic, and the methods conjurers and stage magicians use to achieve their effects.  There’ll be a book at the end of it, and I’ve enjoyed reading and commenting on small sections of it.  It isn’t so much about the mechanics of how tricks are done as about the psychology they employ, diverting their audience’s attention, and persuading them to see things other than they really are.

There’s a whole section on “Magic at War,” dealing with the ways in which the methods of stage magic have been used to deceive enemies in wartime.  They include simple things like Rommel reviewing his forces in North Africa and having them come round repeatedly so that observers would report back far greater numbers than he actually had at his disposal, and be less ready to attack.  Allied machine gun nests could be hidden by cleverly placed mirrors, much as stage assistants were concealed in cabinets on stage.  But there have also been more complex operations in which stage magicians were recruited by different armed forces to manage large-scale illusions that deceived the enemy.  The D-Day preparations famously included a phantom army with rubber tanks and cardboard trucks to persuade the Germans that the invasion would come at the Pas de Calais instead of the Normandy beaches.

There is an eternal fascination with conjuring and stage magic, and people have always loved to be entertained by it.  I used to dabble in it myself when I was a boy, and once entertained the school scientific society with a display of ‘chemical magic’ that mixed chemistry with sleight of hand. I rather think the book will strike a popular chord when it is published.  It promises to be a fascinating read.

Here’s hoping that Comet Ison gives us all some Christmas illumination

comet-isonIt might happen, but there’s a big question mark about whether it will survive its trip around the sun.  Its orbit gives it a very close pass, some 1.2m km at its closest, which it reached yesterday evening.  When you reflect that the sun’s diameter is 1.39m km, you appreciate that it passed the sun less than a diameter away.  Given the intense heat and radiation, some observers have speculated that Comet Ison might not survive.  In its favour is its size, with estimates that it might be several kilometres in diameter.  It is also moving fast, at over 1m kph.  Much of that mass will be ice of various kinds that will vaporize.  This could give us a show as matter is ejected to form a characteristic comet’s tail.  Ison came from the Oort Cloud at the edge of the solar system, a region harbouring original matter that did not take part in the formation of planets.  Astronomers disagree about whether we are in for a spectacular in early December.  Some say it could be “the comet of the century” – not that there’s been much competition yet in the 13 years we’ve had so far of that century.  It could give us a show in the evening sky just after sunset, or in the dawn sky just before sunrise.  Some suggest it might be only just visible to the naked eye or with binoculars.  And others think it will break up as Comet Lovejoy did in 2011.  And Shakespeare scholars will note that it portends good news for beggars and bad news for princes.  (“When beggars die there are no comets seen.  The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes”).

Are lithium-ion battery packs in electric cars more dangerous than gas tanks?

tesla batteryThe answer according to a piece by Kevin Bullis in MIT Technology review is almost certainly no.  In a related piece he points out that three recent fires in Tesla Model S cars all resulted from collisions that damaged the batteries, rather than from internal failings.  Furthermore, Tesla puts a quarter inch thick plate of hardened aluminium around the battery, and has a firewall separating it from the passenger compartment.  In all cases the alarm system enabled the drivers to pull over and escape before smoke started coming out.

The verdict seems to be that lithium-ion batteries are safer than a tank of highly-explosive fuel that could ignite with a spark and engulf car and driver.  Electric cars put out less local pollution, and can be charged from power stations that pollute less globally.  Nothing that contains enough energy to propel a heavy vehicle forward at speeds will ever be 100 percent safe, but Tesla’s Model S earned the highest safety ratings from NHTSA after crash tests.  No-one has yet burned to death in a Tesla, but many have perished in gas-tank explosions.  It looks very much as though electric is safer.

The two-person 18-prop VC200 helicopter succeeds in its early flight tests

18-propWired tells us that a German manufacturer, E-volo, has reported successful test flights of its electric18 prop helicopter, the VC200.  We’ve grown used to those tiny four prop toy ‘quadcopters’ that flit around parks, but this one carries two people and has 18 props, each powered by its own separate motor.  You steer by tilting the back rotors to alter the thrust direction, and it’s claimed to be as easy to steer as the toy ones.  I object to the description of it as an octodecacopter.  It might be technically correct, but “18-prop helicopter” is easier to say and conveys its meaning more readily.  The VC200 uses carbon fibre and has multiple batteries.  One problem that occurs to me is that all of the props will have to be synchronized with equal thrust lest it unbalances itself.  I guess this could be solved by computer controls similar to the ones that regulate the thrust of each rocket motor in a cluster arrangement.

The thing looks ungainly and massively impractical, but it has test flown indoors to 22 metres in flight that have lasted several minutes.  The aim is a cruising speed of 50 knots in flights lasting an hour or more.  One good piece of news is that it is quieter and vibrates less than conventional helicopters.  Anyone who has flown in helicopters, which I have dozens of times, will know that the noise and vibration is a serious drawback.  OK, it’s not a production model yet, but I can see these things being popular for tourist flights and sightseeing.  I doubt there’ll be much business on windy days, though.

Offences that remain on the statute book, though clearly outdated in some cases

handling-salmonOver at the Kernel, Ned Donovan has picked out six of the strangest offences that remain in force, though their present-day usefulness might be called into question.  It’s illegal to “handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances,” which I guess is aimed at nabbing salmon poachers.  You break the law if you discharge artillery “of greater caliber than a common fowling piece” within 300 yards of people.  I’ve not done it myself, and I can see why it might be banned, and if I did it “to the annoyance of any inhabitant,” I’d happily pay the penalty “of not more than five pounds.”  If asked to queue on London Underground by an authorized person, those who push their way forward are breaking the law.  Good thing, too.

I’ve never personally touched a pelican in a Royal Park or open space, though I have touched a deer, without realizing that I needed the Secretary of State’s permission.  As for wearing armour in Parliament, the stature of 1313 still forbids it, though it’s not been tested to see if this includes my modern bullet-proof clothing.  And the next time I’m heading home intoxicated with my cattle, I’ll hope to escape the 40 shilling fine and month in jail that might come my way, though I’m glad to note that it also applies to steam engines as well as cows.  Much more dangerous.

Would someone tell me how two flower-pots help four small candles to heat a room?

tea-lightscandle heaterA YouTube video showing how to heat a room for 8p a day has attracted millions of views.  A journalist named Dylan Winter posted the clip and says that the heat put out by his device, combined with that emitted by his computer is enough to heat his study and save on his energy bills.  Four tea-lights (which were known as night-lights in my childhood) are placed in a bread tin, and a small flower-pot is placed upside down above them.  Then a larger flower-pot, also inverted, is placed over the small one.  That’s it, except that the small pot has its hole, if any, filled in, whereas the large outer one is left with its hole open.  Since tea-lights last about 4 hours each, 8 of them cover an 8-hour working day.  Buying them in bulk brings the cost to about 1p each, hence 8p per day.

Now I can see how the covering flower-pots might change the convection flow of air in the room, but the explanation – that warm air rises and cold air flows in to replace it and is heated in turn – doesn’t seem to explain their function.  Four tea-lights put out a certain level of BTU, and the flower-pots do not add to that level.  Left uncovered, the warm air above the candles would rise, and cold air would be drawn in to replace it.  So what is the point of the flower-pots?  A friend who has tried this reports that they become very hot, as you would expect, and have to be handled with oven gloves when you replace the tea-lights.  He also says the small one becomes very sooty.  Would someone out there who has worked professionally in a scientific field please tell me whether the flower-pots add anything?  Do they make the device somehow heat the room more than four tea-lights would if left uncovered?  I can see how having warm flower-pots might feel like a heat source, but candle energy has to be used to heat them to that level.  As you might gather, I am skeptical about this.  Would someone enlighten me?  And if anyone tries it, please report if it works.

Unanticipated consequences of China’s one-child policy

china-childrenChina has jut relaxed somewhat its policy, introduced in 1979, to limit parents to just one child per family.  A generation of Chinese has grown up without brothers or sisters, although their parents typically belonged to families averaging four children.  Some fears were unfounded.  Sociologists spoke of a “Little Emperor” syndrome, with single children growing up pampered, spoiled and self-centred.  It has not happened according to several studies.  It seems to have been just Western sociologists projecting onto the Chinese something they had occasionally observed with an only child in the West.  There have, however been several interesting findings.

It should be noted that the parents of this generation had brothers and sisters, so the only child was surrounded by cousins to relate to and to interact with.  The Chinese actually use the word “siblings” to include cousins.  The second thing of note is that the parents of such offspring could spend on the one child the resources that might otherwise have covered four.  This has meant a higher degree of education for them, coupled with parental pressure to achieve.  The Australian group that used games and surveys to research singleton children in Beijing reported that this was a generation “significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk averse and less competitive.”  They were also found to be “more pessimistic and less conscientious.”

More recent children have been born to parents who were themselves singletons, and thus lack the penumbra of extended families.  Furthermore, recent economic rends have led to increased migration, both within and beyond China, setting up distances between these only children and their grandparents and other relatives.  The question is whether this will weaken the typically Chinese concern with, and loyalty towards, family.  And one other factor is the economic one.  With only one child to care for, families have seen an increase in discretionary spending, and have seen living standards rise.  Combined with China’s economic expansion, this has seen unprecedented rises in well-being.  Of course, as this generation ages, there is concern that not enough young people will be around to pay the taxes that support social services.  But that lies further down the road…

The development of a liquid metal printer might just bring wearable computers a step closer

vital_jacketIt would be nice if we could print circuits onto useful, flexible surfaces.  RFID chips printed directly onto packaging would be useful, and it might be even more useful to be able to print circuits onto paper, cloth or even glass.  A problem has been that conducting inks have not been all that great.  Some are relatively poor conductors, while others needed to be heated to temperatures that ruin what they are printed on.

Now a team at the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry in Beijing seems to have made a breakthrough.  They use an alloy of gallium and indium which remains liquid at room temperature.  It is sprayed through the inkjet printer’s nozzles as fine droplets that settle onto the target surface.  The drops oxidize as they move through the air, and the oxides adhere to the target surfaces better than the metal itself does.  Patterns are achieved by masking part of the surface or by moving the printer head in a programmed pattern.  So far they’ve printed conducting circuits on things like cotton cloth, plastic, glass and paper, and even on a leaf.  The process is cheap and could rapidly become widely available.  This raises the prospect of incorporating circuits into all kinds of everyday objects, including the clothes we wear.  When we are praised in future for wearing “smart” clothes, it might just refer to a wholly different meaning…

Can London’s streets be made safer for cyclists?

bike trafficThere has been concern and disquiet in London as six cyclists were killed in a ten-day period.  All of them were involved in collisions with heavy vehicles, and questions have been raised as to whether the two types of vehicle are compatible on the same roads.  The BBC’s news magazine has been among those looking at ways to reduce the level of injuries and fatalities.  Some of the ideas might help, others are plainly silly and impractical.

1. Bicycle licences and even number plates.  This is silly.  The idea is that if cyclists can be identified, they will ride more safely.  But the problem does not seem to lie with cycl;ists, since only 2-3% of cycle collisions are caused by cyclists breaking the law.

2. Ban vehicles from city centres.  This is impractical in a city like London that needs to work and be supplied.  But banning heavy goods vehicles during rush hours, as Paris does, would probably make a difference.   Most cycle trips are made between 7.0 – 9.0 am and 5.0 – 6.30 pm, so removing HGVs during those times would make it safer.  Alternatively, vehicles might be routed around cycle-dense areas instead of going through them.

3. Allow cyclists to jump red lights.  It might help if cyclists could turn left or even go straight ahead at red lights.  Paris allows it at some intersections and it’s standard in Belgium and the Netherlands.  But it would irritate and endanger pedestrians in London who find it hard enough to cross as it is without cyclists filling up the gaps between vehicles.

4. Cycle on pavements.  Some of them do this a little, especially to get around difficult intersections, but it is illegal.  It works in Cambridge when cyclists and pedestrians share largely vehicle-free areas.  The problem with London is that if you legalized it, lycra louts would start belting along pavements at 20mph as if they owned them, scattering pedestrians from their path.  Few London pavements are wide enough anyway.

5. Ban headphones.  It makes sense to hear what’s going on around you, but there’s no evidence that headphones have played a part in recent fatalities.

6. Body armour.  A Canadian study suggests that body armour might protect chest and abdomen from injury, as it does for many motorcyclists.  It’s difficult to imagine that people would cycle to work, though, if they had to wear heavy body armour.  And if a heavy truck runs over you, it’s not going to save you.

7. Elevated cycling routes.  If you can separate cyclists and pedestrians from vehicular traffic, it would obviously improve safety, but overhead cycle lanes are just too costly for the most part.  A few might be built, but there’s no way they could provide a measurable fraction of London’s cycling space.

8. Scrap traffic lights and road signs altogether.  This is not as silly as it sounds.  If you eliminate people’s sense of entitlement to certain parts of the road, they slow down and look out for other users.  I’ve seen it work in Amsterdam, and the pilot scheme in London near the Albert Memorial seems to work.

Summing up these ideas, my guess would be that banning HGVs from city centres at certain times, and altering street architecture to coax users into being more careful in shared space would make a difference.  I also think we could look at dedicated pedestrianized routes that allowed cycles but banned all motor vehicles.  Fundamentally, heavy vehicles going fast and bicycles are not safely compatible.

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