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If there is one thing that defines humanity, it is our beliefs. We all have beliefs. Beliefs about God, health, death, the government or our purpose in life, among many others. Beliefs can rule our lives. They can be shared and replicated amongst billions. They can persist for thousands of years, passing from parents to children, generation after generation. Beliefs can be sensible, such as the world being round, or certifiably insane, such as a world dominated by lizard people. People will kill, maim and die because of their beliefs.

Beliefs do not require facts. They can exist in our heads, completely separated from reality. Most beliefs are wrong, either completely or in part. Furthermore, most people accept that beliefs can be wrong. All they have to do is to read a newspaper, listen to other people, or turn on the TV. It is ironic then, how convinced so many people are that their own beliefs are perfectly right. They will often cling to them as if their lives depended on them, and no amount of evidence or argument will change their views.

Beliefs are strange. They are simultaneously fragile yet unremittingly tenacious. They are products of our psychological make-up. Where we acquired such mechanisms is hidden in the depths of time.

Why is it that beliefs are so difficult to get rid of? Why is it so rare to hear someone saying “ah, yes, I was wrong about all that”. How often have you heard someone admitting that their most strongly held beliefs were a load of baloney?

Perhaps beliefs are investments. The bigger your personal stake in your belief, the more you are likely to lose: reputation, friends, money, influence. You must, therefore, defend your beliefs at all costs. It could be that the consequences of not having closely held beliefs are too difficult to countenance. Maybe we defend our beliefs because they are held by people we respect and we cannot ever imagine them ever being wrong. Possibly we are fooled by confirmation bias, a well known psychological effect where our brains filter out contradictory our viewpoints. Or it could be that we just don’t like thinking about things so much.

Beliefs should never be sacrosanct. All beliefs should be challenged, allowing the well supported ones to thrive, while the flimsier ones are discarded. Beliefs that need threats to survive are the ones in most need of analysis and criticism. Poorly supported beliefs prevent us from learning and progressing. They can cause conflicts where no conflict should exist. If beliefs were more easily discarded perhaps this world wouldn’t have so many problems.

Have you ever had a set of beliefs that you subsequently relinquished? What caused the rethink? Why didn’t you discard them earlier? How did you feel about losing your beliefs?

“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

– Roger Ebert
(via Pharyngula)

This is the last of my 2019 time capsule postings, where I look at how the stories of 2009 might pan out in the next decade. This entry looks at two successful companies, and asks if they will still be around in 10 years time.

Google

From out of nowhere, Google became one of the great corporate success stories of the noughties. Originating as the first search engine that actually worked properly, it went on to corner internet advertising and to deliver such gems as YouTube and GMail free of charge to the rest of us. In the process it became a very rich company indeed. The first of it’s kind to profit hugely from the new economics of the Internet. The word “google” is even a verb, for heaven’s sake! But will they be so powerful ten years from now? Will they end up fighting endless court battles over privacy or copyright or abuse of a dominant position like Microsoft? Or might new technology from left-field beat them at their own game? It’s really hard at this remove to see any threats to their reign, but monopolies (even the good ones) rarely live forever.

Ryanair

Ryanair is the airline we Europeans all love to hate, and yet despite it all, we keep flying with them. Originating in Ireland in the 1980’s it has since gone on to become one of the biggest airlines in the world by passenger numbers. The secret? An obsessive attention to low airfares resulting in full flights all the time. To their credit, they shook up a stagnant airline industry and brought huge efficiencies into air travel. More people than ever are flying routinely thanks to the likes of Ryanair. However the branding and advertising stinks of the brash Celtic Tiger “up yours” mentality, and customer service is a joke. And it’s not such a cheap way to travel anymore, with extra costs being charged for everything except breathing and going to the bathroom (no, wait)… So what is the prognosis? Will they go from strength to strength, or is there a possibility that passengers will abandon them en-masse should a half-decent alternative jump onto the stage? Well, it hasn’t happened yet despite numerous predictions to the contrary. One thing is for sure: Ryanair is lead by some very clever people and they will not give up their position readily.

Over the last few days I have been blogging on what life might look like in 2019. The bottom line, of course, is that nobody knows. For sure, there will be wild-cards in the next ten years that nobody could have predicted. Even so, it’s interesting to speculate about how the events and trends of today will play out over the coming decade. Today it’s the turn of the dismal sciences. 

The Great Recession

unemploymentThe world has never seen anything quite like it. During the last six months of 2008, every country in the world caught an economic ‘flu precipitated by years of care-free lending across the globe. Stock markets crashed and some of the biggest names in banking were forced into government ownership. Unemployment soared. Breadlines and tent cities have began to appear. The USA was caught out very badly, and it’s likely that its standing in the world may never again be the same in the face of growing competition from China and India. As I write we are still unsure how deep this recession will cut or how long its effects will be. The Economist, in a recent article, declared that the recovery is going to be prolonged and painful, with double-digit unemployment rates and horrendous levels of public debt. Such crises have massive after-effects: history has shown us that revolutions and wars are common outcomes. Will this time be any different?

The European Union

eu-flagIn 2004, the European Union grew in size to 25 states: a new political entity at the heart of Europe based on the free movement of people and capital, the promotion of democratic values, and a pooling of resources when it comes to foreign relations, humanitarian aid, financial policies, agriculture and lots of other areas that impinge on everyday life. That said, the political structures required to govern such a large and diverse group of nations are not quite up to it. Two attempts have been made so far to resolve this problem, but the first foray failed outright and the second attempt – the Lisbon Treaty – has been driven into the mud primarily as a result of an unsuccessful referendum in Ireland. What is clear is that the EU is comparatively toothless if it doesn’t resolve these issues quickly. Its long term future is far from certain, despite evidence that it has lead to a greatly improved quality of life for many people within its borders. There are several groups within the EU who desire to see it fall under it’s own weight and while a legislative vacuum remains, these groups have been gaining in confidence. No-one knows what a post-EU Europe might look like, but my guess is that it would not be pretty. Nationalism, once you get beyond the flag waving and the late-night singing, is often an ugly spectacle to behold. So where will it be in ten years time? Dead? Broken? Stagnant? Or, perhaps, reinvigorated? Thriving? We can hope.

Last installment tomorrow: The 9/11 Wars.

This is the fourth posting in my 2019 Time Capsule series, looking at how the issues of today might be seen ten years from now. This entry is a topical one, particularly given the influenza scare over the weekend.

Global Warming

Global WarmingThe scientists are largely agreed: our world is warming up, and the long term effects on the environment are likely to be very substantial indeed. The principal cause is a massive increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to “anthropogenic factors”. In other words: us folk is wot have done it, m’lud. Guilty as charged. Over the last two centuries, we have been busy burning away Earth’s fossil fuel reserves – coal, natural gas and oil. All around the world, average temperatures are on the increase, while glaciers and ice shelves are on the retreat. Weather effects such as bushfires, droughts and stronger hurricanes provide us with hints of a coming crisis. Although climate change deniers still exist, the main scientific debate now rages about the depth of the crisis seemingly awaiting us. Will the effects be as bad as scientists are predicting? Ten or twenty years is probably too short a time to say for certain. However what should have changed by then is the extent to which we will we have started to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels. Will nascent technologies such as wind, wave, geothermal, biofuel, nuclear power and solar power be much more in evidence? Will a new source of energy be discovered? How will these technologies affect how we live our lives? How will they affect world politics? Interesting times.

Killer pandemics

pandemicOne of the big wildcards, when it comes to speculating about the future, is the possibility of a nasty virus originating in somewhere like South East Asia or the jungles of the Congo, and devastating the world’s population within a matter of months. It has happened before and many people will tell you that it is only a matter of time before it happens again. Influenza is regarded as one of the most probable culprits due to the ease by which it infects new hosts and how amenable it is to air travel. While there is always a worry that such a scourge might rear its head at any time, a more interesting question is whether scientists might have it beaten. A recent breakthrough in Australia indicates that a weak spot might indeed have been found, and that we might be able to immunise people from all deadly ‘flu viruses in the near future. We hope so. Viruses, owing to their vast numbers and their propensity to mutate quickly, are never beaten for very long.

Next in line: The economy.

This is the third entry in my 2019 Time Capsule series, where I discuss questions that may well have answers within the next decade. Today I take a brief look at technology. 

The Internet Copyright Wars

Internet mapWe are currently living through a period of time when many big industries are under threat. The industries in question are publishing, music recording, telephony and movie-making, and the threat is the Internet. For the first time in history, the expression of human thought in pictures, words and sound can be sent around the world in the blink of an eye, and for free. It is the ultimate vision of Gutenberg, and the vested interests who wish to make scarce this infinitely available commodity are fighting a losing battle, mainly resorting to courts and politicians. But like Gutenberg, such wars cannot last forever and the world will some day settle into a new economic relationship with the Internet. What will it look like? How will we enjoy music and art and films 10 or 20 years from now? Will the battles continue to rage in the courts or will relatively new players such as Google eventually render the incumbents powerless? What will the business models look like? What scarcities will these businesses exploit? Who will be the winners? 

The Human / Computer Interface

HALI have a feeling that the next decade will be a time of big changes in how we interact with computers. For years we have communicated mainly through the use of keyboards, and although I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon, I suspect that very different forms of computer interaction are going rising to prominence. Take Multitouch for instance: the technology popularised by the movie “Minority Report“. The iPhone has given us an example of how natural and engaging this technology is – a small child can understand it intuitively. Another technology that seems to be whispering it’s way towards us is Recognition. Voice Recognition – the ability of a compute to recognise and respond correctly to voice commands – is probably the best known. It’s been around for a while and results can still be somewhat patchy. But it’s improving and other forms of recognition are also appearing: face recognition (e.g. iPhoto) and music recognition (e.g. Shazam). Given that, I don’t see why we would not be communicating in very different ways with computers in just ten years time. 

Stem Cell Research

Stem cellsWe are being told that we are on the brink of a revolution in medical care. Diseased and damaged organs can be replaced, not via anonymous donors, but grown instead from cells found in the patient’s own body. These miracle cells are known as stem-cells: generalist cells that can be conditioned to transform into specialised cells: heart muscle, kidneys, skin – anything you like. From there they can be grown in laboratories into complete organs – thus allowing people to gain to have transplants with no concerns about rejection. I have already seen footage showing replacement teeth and bladders being developed. It is possible that this breakthrough will transform medicine in the next ten years. It will be interesting to see to what extent it will have developed.

Up next: Global Threats.

This is the second posting in my 2019 time capsule series, where I consider how the questions of the present will be viewed in 10 years time or afterwards. Today, I’m going to focus on space, and some of the big questions that may well have convincing answers within the next decade.

Dark Matter

Dark matter in the observable UniverseWe look into the skies and we try to understand why the universe acts as it does. Unfortunately some of our biggest questions don’t have good answers. We resort to placeholders such as “dark matter” and “dark energy” to explain why galaxies spin the way they do, why the universe seems to be expanding at an accelerating rate, and other conundrums that make little sense to us with our conventional models of the world. With the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, it it possible that answers may be found and that our understanding of the world will need to be rewritten within the next 10 to 20 years. What progress will we have made by 2019?

Extraterrestrial Life

ET DNAThe Earth is the only place we know of that contains life. Our planet is saturated with living organisms: from the deepest undersea valleys to the highest mountaintops; the rims of the hottest volcanoes to the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Life came into being only a few hundred million years after the Earth itself formed and somehow managed to survive the hellishness of our world’s early existence. Life is pretty rugged. And yet, we know of no other place: no planet, no moon, no comet or asteroid, where life is present. But there are hints. Methane, water and microfossils on Mars, ice volcanos on Europa and Enceladus. Who knows what we may find? Probes are being developed as we speak. Will we discover, as some think, that life is not just confined to one small planet, but is virtually everywhere?

Tomorrow: Technology.

The following series of entries is a time-capsule of sorts. Today in 2009 I have many questions that may someday have answers, so  I’m writing these postings to anyone who might be bored enough to come across this blog in ten or twenty years time, i.e. 2019 or afterwards. The list of questions covers technology, economics, politics and space and war. I will lay out some open questions that may be resolved by the time we reach the third decade of the century – well, here’s hoping anyway.

First off: some international politics.

Zimbabwe
Robert MugabeIn 2000, Robert Mugabe began to show his true tyrannical colours when he seized white-owned farms, disrupted elections and intimidated opponents, with the aim of staying in power by whatever means necessary. His actions since then have resulted in an economic collapse of apocalyptic proportions. He won’t live forever, and the suffering that he and his cronies have inflicted will not go unpunished forever. So what will the eventual demise of his regime be like? Will the implosion follow quickly from his death, or will Mugabe and his entourage take flight to Morocco or Saudi Arabia like ruthless dictators of his ilk before him? Will his replacement be worse and more insane than himself? Time will tell.

North Korea

North KoreaThis tiny country, abutting some of the wealthiest and fast-developing countries in east Asia, has long been known as the last Stalinist dictatorship in the World. Ruled by the so-called “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung, and then by his unstable (and possibly now dead) son, Kim Jong-il, this outpost of paranoia has proceeded to develop nuclear warheads and to threaten its neighbours regularly, acting more like a spoilt child than a mature state in its negotiations with other countries. Meanwhile its people starve. Human rights are non-existent, and it is believed that concentration camps are in operation within its borders. This abomination of a regime will some day come to an end. But how? Will it be fast and painless, slow and gangrenous, or could it possibly end amidst the white heat of a nuclear fireball?

Next up:  Space.

Over the last few weeks I have been reflecting on the dramatic end to the Irish boom years. The papers and radio programs can talk about little else these days. It seemed to me that we Irish lost control of ourselves, embarking on a no-holds barred journey of utter hedonism and a devil-may-care financial splurge of epic proportions.

And yes, there were excesses. I remember once meeting the wife of a builder in Co. Clare, who told me that she changed houses every 2 years. At the time, they were both living in a 4,000 square-foot pad, and they would probably build a bigger one as soon as she got bored with it.

In a more general vein, there was the epic investment in foreign properties and towering office blocks; the multiple holidays per year to far flung locations such as Mauritius and the Seychelles; the arms races between neighbours and the ubiquity of stretch limos ferrying debutantes and first holy communicants to their dates with destiny.

But despite all this, the boom years were good years: a chance to forget the day to day struggles and to approach that stage of self actualisation heralded by Maslow. Many people were permitted to set up new businesses in a wide variety of fields, from coffee shops to tree surgery to exotic footwear. The quality of everything – food, clothes, furnishings – jumped dramatically. People were better able to provide for their families and to enjoy meals and outings with their friends. Services were set up to help people to improve the quality of their lives. People could indulge themselves in their hobbies and interests. Many people worked harder than they had ever worked in their lives, fanning the flames of an entrepreneurial ethic within Irish society. For a short few years, the wolf was no longer at the door, and it felt good.

So screw it. Let’s not regret the boom years. Let’s figure out how to get ourselves back to such times as quickly as possible so that we, our families and the less fortunate in society can benefit from a bit more cash in our pockets.

As Spike Milligan once said, “money can’t buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasent form of misery”.

singularity

Evidence has come to light over the past few decades that the ancestors of modern man spent, not a few years, but hundreds of millennia fashioning very primitive tools out of stone in the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya. Throughout that time almost no change in style took place. Sons and daughers simply learned the craft from their parents without, it seems, adding or enhancing the technology. Technological development had reached a plateau.

Now let’s move the clock forward to 200,000 years ago, to the beginning of anatomically modern humans. The tools had changed and social organisation had advanced to the point that humans were able to spread around the world, dominating and sometimes defeating those species that stood in our way. But nevertheless, the technologies throughout this time remained relatively primitive. For much of the last 200,000 years, people lived in small hunter-gatherer communities, surviving from day to day. No great works. No monuments. Despite our slow spread around the globe, change was severely limited by the scarcity of important resources such as food.

Then, only 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, we discovered agriculture. Towns, cities, kings and queens came into existence. Professions and trades were born. Laws and religions developed. Writing was discovered and men went to war in large numbers. Great monuments grew out of the deserts and the jungles. But nevertheless, there was a lot we did not understand. We didn’t have the tools or technology to allow us to fly, or understand the universe, or even to cure the simplest of diseases. It was as if again we had reached a limit in terms of our understanding of the world.

Then along came Science. In the last 400 years, human beings have begun to systematically understand ourselves and our surroundings, to put aside our magical fantasies and to discover what really works. We learned how to put things together to make better things; how to take the properties of the physical realm to beam pictures and ideas around the world; how to put people into outer space; how to cure and prevent the worst afflictions such as Typhoid and Smallpox and how to lay waste an entire nation at the press of a button.  

Even during this decade this progress has continued unabated. We have put probes on Mars, unravelled the human genome and spotted planets revolving around distant stars. You can store the entire contents of the Library of Congress in a few small boxes beside your desk. You can search for and find the information you need, from anywhere in the world, in mere seconds. Faster and faster and faster and faster. As if this progress were approaching an asymptote, a singularity.

It makes you wonder, where will all this progress lead to?

Will we reach a point where this seemingly exponential rise in technology will continue unabated, or will things level off as we reach the limits of our abilities, as yet undefined? Are we living through a short transition point between an early agricultural and an advanced technological civilisation? Will we reach a new plateau, and what might that plateau look like?

A few scenarios come to light, some bad, some good.

The gloomiest and yet more probable of scenarios suggests that our recent advances will end in tears, with humanity blowing itself apart or enacting such a huge price from the environment that the planet seeks revenge, taking us and a large section of our fellow travelling species into oblivion.

A less gloomy scenario suggests that, while not destroying our species, humanity is reset back to the dark ages, or into hunter gathering mode, perhaps to rise again in a few millennia, only to meet a similar eventual fate in due course. A periodic rise/ collapse cycle fluctuating in tune with future Ice Ages perhaps.

Or perhaps we will find some way to live sustainably, in concert with the planet, while not sacrificing our technological knowledge in the process. Could it be that we will look at technology in the same way as we look at door-knobs, napkins and salt-cellars nowadays: where there is little scope for development apart from the vagaries of modern fashions? In this scenario, generations will pass and fads will change, but the overall technology framework will remain roughly constant, just like those humanoids in the Olduvai Gorge so many years ago. 

Maybe indeed all this talk of technological progress is a mirage. Instead, the big events in human society: war, disease, over-population, ideology and catastrophe, drive technology over the longer term as opposed to the prevailing view that technology is in the driving seat.  Perhaps we are simply too close to events to note how technology will adapt to the human story over a span of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. We think we are driven by technology, but perhaps it is only a blip in a much bigger picture in the development of our species.

In an alternative rendition of our future, we are on a course for unending techological advance. Perhaps our curiousity and propensity to keep innovating will know no bounds? Perhaps we will keep on bending, breaking and redefining the limits of the possible? Maybe, as some suggest, we will pass on our propensity for innovation into robots, nano-machines and newly created biological forms, thus maintaining the acceleration indefinitely? 

Is it not too wild to suggest that the end game in all this is a journey to the stars? It may be that we are on course to developing the capabilities needed to cross the multi-trillion kilometer gulfs between our Sun and its neighbours? So in this case, as we board the ships to the sky, the acceleration might come to a sudden halt, to be replaced thousands of years hence by a new burst of activity, followed by further intense cycles of innovation as future generations disperse, ever so steadily, across the galaxy.

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