Shocking, in a good way – Neal Stephenson’s latest

You may have noticed from this blog that I quite like the big beasts of the US descendant-of-cyberpunk meme. William Gibson is more literary; Neal Stephenson more in your face. I couldn’t get on with Agency, from Gibson, but I very much enjoyed Stephenson’s Termination Shock.

If all novelists have to pen a climate change novel, the issue is how to do it while retaining your own voice. See below for my take on how brilliantly Kim Stanley Robinson has done this.

And Stephenson too. As befits his style, the book is about vigorous geoengineering approaches to climate. I was unsurprised to see lovely Oliver Morton, a reasoned enthusiast for this technology, among the thanked.

First things first. You’ll be glad or worried to know that Stephenson’s enthusiasm for firearms is undimmed. Plenty are used here, along with sticks, stones and a range of more advanced weapons. So too is his love of the “bizjet,” with the things plentifully on hand for the cast’s travel needs. (All cyberpunk has some means of guaranteeing indefinite resources to the players.) And as ever, he writes at leisure, unafraid to break up a sentence or a whole chapter with a ramble into some unfamiliar terrain. How he does this without losing the plot, I don’t know. But maybe he writes the bones of the tale and then goes back to embellish them.

However, the great man’s keenness on liquid metal, ideally gold, is less visible this time out. Instead he has grown fascinated by big, big, big engineering – flood control in particular.

Even more than usual with this genre, there are more settings than a Bond movie – various US states, India, Venice, the Netherlands, Papua, Canada, Albania…). But as with anything sf-related, the question is whether the author can create any characters I care about.

And he can – a vast number including the Queen of the Netherlands, whose sex life is a theme, a boar-hunter, a Sikh patriot, a Texan service-area billionaire, and a gallimaufry of others from hither and yon – Venice, Saudi, City of London….

Drawbacks? For a man of action – at least on paper – Stephenson needs to work on his action scenes, such as the mega one at the climactic end. But then, where else could you get a crash course on the fauna of the US South, the chemistry of sulphur and the politics of the Himalayas, all built in to a novel you’ll read and enjoy?

But on that theme, someone who knows as much science as Stephenson does ought not to be caught out by stuff I did in chemistry at age 15. Reacting water and sulphur dioxide yields sulphurous acid, not sulphuric. Adding the extra oxygen atom was a triumph of 19th century chemical engineering that the author would enjoy reading about.

Maybe best to leave it there, although the title itself runs the risk of what Stephenson would term spoiler issues. Mind you, that was also true of SevenEves.

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My Crypto insight

If Bitcoin and its ilk are disrupting old-type money, why do all news stories about it feel obliged to tell us the current value of Bitcoin in, er, US $? When will I see a story in which the value of an old-fashioned $ is given in Bitcoin to help the reader?

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Carbon coins and the odd airship: Kim Stanley Robinson and the future

In the past, Kim Stanley Robinson has taken a Tolkien-like three volumes to transform a planet, in his magnum opus the Mars Trilogy. Now however, he can manage it in one. Admittedly, The Ministry of the Future is about the Earth, so there is no need for spaceflight. And it still takes 563 pages.

The eponymous Ministry is a body set up under climate change machinery to represent future people and ecologies which cannot speak for themselves. And while the book starts with a crushing climate tragedy, it ends as the most hopeful of global futures imaginings.

You really should read the book to discover exactly how the Ministry, led by a former Irish foreign minister, transforms the world.

Despite Robinson’s standing as a leading science fiction author, very little hard technology is involved, just the odd airship. Instead, Robinson takes us on a trip which reminds me of the big reply to climate change deniers: what if we made the world a better place without needing to?

The answer is delivered as a stunning series of changes to human attitudes as well as to global systems. It’s no surprise in a book of this seriousness that carbon pricing via a new carbon-unused coin is part of the picture. But the atmosphere is only one side of the equation. On the other, we find human beings, and a massive concern for inequality, forced migration and statelessness. As a result of more or less consensual action, the Ministry succeeds in altering not only the climate, and global ecology as a whole, but also human views of progress, wealth and how we live together.

At the same time, the book is the product of a whole-body immersion in pretty much anything to do with the future of humanity and the Earth. The importance of central banking? Of course. Antarctic glacier drilling? Naturally. Rewilding and wildlife corridors? Yes, big time. Making a COP meeting interesting? Walk this way. Nansen Passports? Check. A cure for inequality? D’accord. Soil science? Understood. Community-led land reform? Sine qua non.

This is Robinson’s 25th book and shows him at the height of his powers. You ought to read it. But there is just one oddity. Lots of the book is set in Switzerland, especially Zurich but also the Alps, in a way that restarted my own desire to be there again soon. The tourist board must be delighted. But while the Helvetic Confederation may look like a blueprint for sociable living, critics may view its role as a sump for grubby money in a less kind light.

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Yes, Africa really is home to the world’s top telescope

Two hundred years ago, a couple of interesting and related events took place in the worlds of science and of empire. Of course, they began in London. First, a group of gentlemen met at a pub and started the Astronomical Society. A decade later, the King handed over some parchment and it became the Royal Astronomical Society, now celebrating its bicentenary. Disclosure: I am a Fellow of the RAS.

Next, an overlapping group of gentlemen persuaded the Admiralty that it needed an eye on the sky in the Southern hemisphere. The result? An observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, handy both politically and logistically. It made use of slave labour and later, South African astronomy happened under apartheid. Now its successor body, the South African Astronomical Observatory, flourishes in a more benign environment.

If you doubt the importance of astronomy to national life, you did not hear Dr Tana Joseph’s talk last night as part of the RAS 200 celebrations. She was talking about the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s biggest radio telescope, now a-building in South Africa, other African nations, and Australia and New Zealand. It will work by combining signals from hundreds of dishes in Oz and NZ, and thousands in Africa, to create the effect of a single 1km dish. Even now, the much smaller number of SKA precursor telescopes are generating great science.

When it got going, an early YouTube video on this ambitious project brought in a baffled response from a viewer who could not believe that Africans could carry out such a project, much less pay for it. In fact its development has led to a big growth in South African technical and science education , and to heavy development of local IT skills, because (read the next bit slowly), SKA running at full tilt will generate 157 terabytes of data a second. Who’s to say that next Bill Gates won’t spring from one of its many science scholarships?

SKA has created 9,000 jobs, and the R14 bn cost is a fifth of the GDP of the North Cape, its epicentre. It has involved Zambia’s first astronomy PhD and Burkina Faso’s first woman astronomer, showing its potential to raise knowledge and skill across Africa. And it is a major player in upping school standards, a running sore in South African development.

Oh, and SKA will produce terrific science. Joseph showed us a fantastic image of a cool hydrogen bubble in our own galaxy: the picture took three nights to be gathered by ASKAT, the Aussie precursor telescope for SKA. If the mighty Australia Telescope – the previous state of the art – took on the same task, it would need 15 months.

Is there a down side? Well, people living in the Karoo desert near SKA can’t have smartphones or Wi-Fi – too much interference. But it’s sparsely populated, and sellers of ethernet cables are happy. Joseph is incensed, however at the potential threat to SKA from the big constellations of tiny communications satellites now being launched by tech billionaires. They promise to bring the internet to Africa, she says, but Africans never asked for them, unlike SKA which has clear benefits and for which support has been built from the ground up.

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“Fish, er, make love in it”

Was W C Fields right about the hazards of drinking water?

I always feel a little uneasy about people who don’t drink tap water, at least in the UK. The water quality here is high, and the reasons people give for avoiding the water often seem to be halfway to the wacky world of fringe medicine.

In any case, I tell myself, how dare these people shun our lovely British water at a time when people across the Global South are endangered by dangerous or scarce water supplies?

So I was intrigued to hear Letizia Bocchi of Italian company Medica SpA , speaking today at a press conference to launch next week’s big EU event on graphene technology. She said that within the EU, only 55 per cent of people drink tap water. This makes Europe one of the world’s biggest consumers of bottled water. Whether the other 45 per cent distrust the water or just hate the taste, something has to be done, for economic as well as environmental reasons.

Medica is leading an EU initiative to develop graphene as a water filtering technology, in a grouping that also includes the University of Manchester, long a global graphene powerhouse, and Icon Lifesaver, a UK company in the clean water business.

Within 3-4 years, she says, graphene may reach the point where it can remove heavy metals and drug residues from water. These two are the biggest concerns among non-users of the public water supply. In combination with other filters, there might be scope too for removing viruses.

Bocchi points out that while water purity can be poor in the South, thing are not perfect in Europe either. One use for this new technology is for to clean emergency water supplies, and she points to recent water quality emergencies in Europe, for example Venice.

While she concedes that graphene filters might cost more than existing materials such as activated carbon, Bocchi adds that much of today’s activated carbon comes from coconut shells. Producing it is a mighty environmental mess. I know from visiting Ghana that there are plans to turn its billions of spare coconut shells into fuel, which might well be a lot greener. In any case, it’s got to be a plus for the environment to reduce the number of water bottles used by Europeans each year.

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Life off Earth: maybe some facts at last?

Life on another planet? (Or to be precise, in the clouds above it?) A news story doesn’t get a lot bigger than the detection of possible life indicators in the clouds of Venus. It potentially suggests that life is abundant in and beyond the solar system.

But for me, some of today’s great journalism (there’s too much of it to link without accusations of bias) on the matter misses one vital point. Existing research on life elsewhere in the universe is a bit like someone who has only ever heard and spoken Danish writing a book on the world’s languages. It’s full of anthropomorphic “findings” such as the necessity for a Moon, a magnetic field, some specific chemical elements, or an ionosphere.

With luck, any discovery of life in the Venusian clouds will moderate this train of thought by adding some facts. While this life, if it is there, may have originated on the (then more hospitable) surface of Venus, it would be a true revolution in our understanding of life to prove that it could now live entirely in the atmosphere.

The first result of all this hubbub is a predictable one -a call for spacecraft, balloons and other forms of life-hunting technology to be sent asap to the planet. But remember that this all grows out of the detection of phosphine (a gas PH3 related to ammonia, NH3) in the atmosphere of Venus using Earth-based telescopes. The scientists are clear that there could be a non-bio explanation. But maybe a hunt for other possible markers visible from Earth might be the smart move before we fuel up the rockets?

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Eclipses! Magic! Toilets! A life lived to the full!

If you haven’t already seen it, take a look at this. It’s the first attested movie of a solar eclipse, filmed on May 28, 1900 in the US. It has been lovingly restored after languishing in the vaults of the Royal Astronomical Society. Shamingly, it’s about as clear as my own digital eclipse pics from the present century (see above).

Despite being a Fellow of the RAS, I first encountered this stunning film through a brief news story in Sky and Telescope magazine. It attributed it to “amateur astronomer and filmmaker John Nevil  Maskelyne.” Fair enough, but I could figuratively hear all British readers going “what??” at this point. Surely, they thought, there was an Astronomer Royal of (more or less) that name?

[What a pleasure btw to see that Sky and Telescope has been rescued from its owners’ financial travails by absorption into the American Astronomical Society, a highly appropriate home.]

Yes there was, the fifth Astronomer Royal was Nevil Maskeleyne, 1732-1811, AR from 1765 until his death. He is unfairly remembered as the enemy of John Harrison in the famous chronometer/longitude wars, but actually achieved much more.

His descendant was if anything an even more interesting character. According to a well-known online encyclopaedia, he invented the pay toilet. He worked as an illusionist and magician, and became in effect a founder of the skeptic movement, showing that no ethereal explanation was needed for the tricks that baffle stage audiences. At the time, plenty of distinguished scientists and experts believed in spiritual and magical powers. And as we see, he was a movie pioneer.

All in all, it strikes me that this Maskelyne is a steampunk novel waiting to be written. Anyone?

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10-22 and all that

If you are at all involved in the world of higher education and research, you have probably heard of Skolkovo. A literal green-field site on the western edge of Moscow, it is home to post-Soviet intiatives including a business school and a science and technology institute, distinguished by their global connections, their international approach and their cutting-edge architecture.

This month, Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology was home to, if not the biggest, certainly the longest-lasting higher education event I have ever heard of. Called Island (Ostrov) 10-22, it ran between those dates, adding up to almost a fortnight of enthusiastic thought about the university of the future.

This was the second iteration of Island. The first was held on an actual island, an approach that was was deemed too much hassle to repeat. This time it was run by players including events company EdCrunch and Russian professional university 20.35.

The big idea of Island is not a unique one. It is to encourage Russian education and business into the digital world, transform working life and help the idea of high-tech start-ups put down roots there. A look at the vast unused area of Skolkovo billed as being set aside for start-ups makes the point that Moscow is still not Northern California, despite the energy and ambition of its denizens.

However,  Island did bring in over 2,000 participants to hear from each other and from around the world about ways of being more digital, especially in the worlds of lifelong keanring and fast-growing business. An example was the series of seminars on making the UK’s Staffordshire University a digital business, run by Andrew Proctor, Staffs’ head of digital services.

And there was also some inspiational stuff.  On the day I was there, Sung-Chul Shin, president of KAIST in Korea, gave a presentation called “Miracle on the River Han,” about the nation’s rise from immiseration to prosperity, driven by education, technology and internationalism. Surely, went the subliminal message, the nation of Mendeleev should be well capable of something similar. In 1962, says Shin, Korea had exactly zero papers in journals in the Science Citation Index, and filed precisely no US patents. In 2018, it had 59,628 of the first and 19,494 of the second. KAIST itself was set up with US aid money to help drive this process. Its next move, says Shin, is to appoint to perhaps the best job in the world university system. The “Singularity Professor” is intended to unearth new research areas for KAIST and will be assessed only after 10 or 20 years in post.

One clear message from  many of these speakers is that even coding skills, which seem to hab replaced the Greek and Latin of an earlier era as the must-have asset for intellectual life, are not the whole story. Instead, we were told by Stephanie Teasley of the University Michigan, soft skill (ie knowing how to operate in society and at work) are more important and longer-lasting.

Tragically, I didn’t stay long enough to see the 130 Russian university teams, totalling 1500 members, competing and cooperating in the Island 10-22 innovation projects. But if there is to be a Russian unicorn charge, some of the runners and riders will be folk who were here.

Full disclosure : I attended as a guest of EdCrunch and the other organisers and was paid to be there.  

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Getting physical in Da Lin

What do you know about Taiwan? Well, it’s where one-time communist Chiang Kai-Shek fled in 1949 after defeat by Mao, to become a thorn in the flesh of mainland China and darling of the US right. It’s where most of the world’s bikes are made. And it is home to that company that may or may not make most of the iPhones, albeit they employ people in the mainland to do it.

Well, Taiwan’s status as an irritant to Beijing remains. While its claim to house the legitimate government of China has lapsed, a range of existential “cross-straits” issues still looms large in political debate. And future possibilities for the well-armed island range from integration into the mainland to full nation status.

This unique situation dominates discourse, and may be the reason why the visitor (me, last week) is sometimes unprepared, even after many years of showing my face there, for the fact that the normal things that go on in any other country happen here too. Green energy, gay marriage, school quality, the ups and downs of the stock market: all these turn up in the newspaper here as anywhere else, in a lively democracy which supports a vigorous civil society.

As an example, try a visit to Chiayi, a modest and far from affluent city that’s half-way down the island on its West side. It’s subject to a challenge familiar around the world – an ageing population, driven partly by falling birth rates but also by the region’s lack of reasons for young people to move there, or to stay once they hit the job market.

To attack this problem, the Chiayi region has built a striking partnership between the local university,  National Chung Cheng, and the voluntary bodies that exist to keep older people healthy and busy. I was honoured to visit one such centre, in the small town of Da Lin, and to hear about its plans to become an age-friendly “slow city.”

Some of the activities that go on at the centre are familiar. Board games are a standby mental simulant for old and young alike on all continents. Less expected was the Ocarina band that greeted my arrival and which was well up to on-stage standards. It now goes on tour.

And there were surprises too. One is that because we’re in China, calligraphy is big business. Any parade of shops is likely to have somewhere selling brushes, pens, ink and special paper for this activity. It’s apparently brilliant for keeping hand, eye and brain active and coordinated.  Another is the sheer quality of the art produced at the centre. It includes saleroom-grade paintings of the area and of other subjects, on show at a gallery formed from the railway station manager’s hut, a beautiful building dating back to the Japanese occupation. Yet another: I have never seen yoga done with this level of physical intensity, even by people in their twenties.

Or try a visit to the bus station. Here a series of sculptures has been created by a group with an average age of over 70, all representing the snail that is the symbol of the slow city. Tyres, bottles and other rubbish, destined for landfill, have become the raw material for a charming and evocative piece of art on what seems to have been unused land.

In total, 316 people are active “students” of the centre, one per cent of the local population. They are helped by a volunteer group of about 30. While it would be good to grow to about twice its current size, teachers and volunteers are both in short supply. One specific aim is to bring in more men. Apparently, males are reluctant to risk looking foolish in class, and are a rarity in this setting.

There are 369 such active age centres on the island, but the group around Chiayi is specially interesting for its links to academic life. Teachers and volunteers have been trained at CCU, which has a deep commitment to education for older people and to other aspects of the ageing issue, and papers in international journals have emerged from the connection.

One strong emphasis is on the physical shape of older people. Asked to take part in tests, I could hardly say no, and a bunch of Masters students were soon attaching me to wires and making me do surprisingly punishing exercise. I was told (eeek) that my body is several years older than I am, and I dd not need telling to lose some weight. And yes, I already knew that my physical coordination  wouldn’t get me a job as a goalkeeper. But maybe this message, transmitted to me by proper scientists in a real science lab, is one that I needed to hear and that others could usefully absorb too.

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Cash or card?

I am not much of a joiner of single-purpose campaigns. But here’s one I’d maybe pay money to support.
And that would be appropriate, because the subject is money, and to be precise, coins and notes. Despite the offical Bank of England line that cash is here to stay, there seems to be growing drumbeat of opinion for abolishing both. The most recent Weekend FT ran a piece on the topic (here it is, paywall) pointing out that Sweden is making progress towards seeing off notes and coins altogether, and that other nations are following, albeit at a slower pace.
Admittedly the same piece concedes that the UK supply of notes and coins has gone up, and that more people are now using only cash for their finances. But there’s little doubt that the abolition of cash is gaining traction as an idea.Of course, enthusiasm varies around the world. It is hard to imagine low-street-crime, high-banknote Japan going all-electronic soon.
Why? Well, part of it is the old story of bits and atoms. The former are more movable and cheaper to process. But if you think about all the things holding back the UK economy (don’t get me started), where on the scale is the hideous cost of handling all those pound coins, fivers and the rest? Nowhere high on the list, I’ll be bound.
So what is this really about? The obvious answer is that an all-electronic economy puts everyone in a panopticon from which there is little escape. Everything costs money. The only way round it would be a false identity.
There is a slight argument here that putting us all in this prison would allow evildoers – tax evaders and criminals – to be caught. This is nonsense. It means that we regard their activities, which account for only a few per cent of the economy, as outweighing the lives of all the honest people. In any case, we know from the Paradise Papers and many other sources that crooks use banks. There’s an estimated $T of their loot running through the banking system each year.
There’s also an argument that says much of the criminal use of cash can be killed off by abolishing the highest-value note. That’s the fifty for the UK (already rumoured), the €500 in the Eurozone (none now being issued although they remain legal tender) and the C-Note in the US. This is an argument I’d buy, although the same FT piece quotes an anti-cash zealot as saying that this is merely a first step on the slippery slope to killing off the oher notes too.
Abolishing cash does of course have some other upsides for those of authoritarian mien. Anyone can be made a non-person with a click of the mouse if their credit can be cancelled.
On the other hand…
Obviously nobody can mention any of this without the Blockchain sidling onto stage. There are no crypto tenners. If these parallel currencies are to gain ground, cash is their enemy. How far is the anti-cash movement backed by the crypto crowd?
In any case, would there ever be support for this change in the current climate of distrust for institutions and the people that run them? I doubt it. That’s doubly true because of the unstable nature of IT systems (add your own example here), including big ones such as those used by banks and finance ministries, and their obvious value as hacker targets. In a world where there is a UK majority for quitting the EU, what do you think would be the result of a referendum on abolishing those sheets of paper with Her Majesty’s likeness on them?

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