I already noted some years ago that most of the answer to the question ‘How will civilisation end?’ is ‘It already has. It’s only technology that is goose-stepping on, trampling humane interests underfoot.’ There are a few spots on the planet where so far that answer would be a little unfair and I have just returned from one of them which despite its obsession with ‘business’ scores better than most on the civilisation parameter (a word they like to use) as well as getting a whole galaxy of gold stars for the tech stuff. But travelling there and back raised an issue which is rather troubling, namely the instructions to passengers on most airlines about what to do if the pilot reports ‘Sorry about this. The plane will be ditching in approximately ten seconds from now.’ At the start of the flight the three passengers actually paying attention on any given aircraft are shown the posture to adopt if things go that badly wrong. Now I’m not an expert but it looks to me that the said posture gives an extraordinarily high chance of a broken neck accompanied by instant death. Is it safe to assume that there is no link, no link at all, to the different sums involved in paying compensation to the family of a passenger killed in an air crash and to an accident victim who lives on for thirty years as a paraplegic?
Editorial for UK edition Truth is the first casualty in government, as everyone knows, so nobody should hold it against the Donald if he readies himself for his time at the head of the nation that is leading the world into the post-truth era with a few dozen campaign promises. All that’s really needed with a campaign promise is that it should sound good at the time and place where it comes out. It’s a different matter for the official statements that emerge when you have actually won control of the puppet-strings of power, because then those listening can judge whether what you say really stacks up properly beside what they can observe for themselves. Theresa May’s remarks in Downing Street immediately after getting her fiercely studied shoes onto Number 10’s doormat can just about be excused as still being at the level of a campaign promise. The statements now emitted from that address asserting that the crisis in the once admired National Health Service is the fault of the doctors are preposterous. At best crass ineptitude, at a time when British doctors are under more pressure from all sides, to do more, to know more, to fill in more official requirements, and when 1,300,000 patients call on general practitioners in a single day. The government has not only disgracefully failed to meet its duties to the nation – and remember the Health Service exists not only to serve people individually but also to help the nation as a whole to maintain good enough health to do its jobs. Attempts to blame the doctors for the difficulties caused by the government’s own decision to spend the nation’s money in other ways are nothing less than shameful.
Technological progress (i) (A contribution from Kevin V. Solmsen, Nairobi)
Don’t know if this is good news or not. Drones and helicopters may not be blasting away at the terrorists on the world’s battlefields (nor at the world’s hospitals, and wedding receptions) much longer. The reason is that while technology has raced ahead ahead in small-scale aerial tech, the research aimed at increasing the power of lasers, although slower, is continuing steadily. Quite simply, before very long it will be quite easy to shoot down the drones while sitting before a screen in a secure office equipped with air-conditioning and free muzak (whether you want it or not) hundreds of miles from any battle-front, in other words in the same sort of laid-back style available to the drone-handlers themselves. But as a laser-handler you will have the advantage that you don’t need to sweat too much about hunting for targets. You only have to check it’s happening according to plan. Simply put your defense apparatus in place along with sensors which will detect anything coming across the relevant frontier and assess its speed and size, and decide automatically whether to bring its flight to a definite conclusion. Bad luck for bats and owls, but if you’re in the killing business, bound to be some collateral d. Good news for states rich enough and advanced enough to ring their entire frontier with the right materiel, to face off anything except multiple ballistic missiles. And insider your defensive arc you can use your own drones to bring a definite conclusion to incoming ground troops. The implications for those investing in helicopter production are not too rosy though, but hey there’ll still be a good internal market for helicopters for civilian uses.
Editor comments: Also bad news for some in the Middle East who thought they could get away with using reconnaissance drones by disguising them as eagles?
Curious fact A recent French media report added a little more fuel to the political climate change which is bringing increasing pollution to the international atmosphere and in particular leaving Russia under a dark cloud. Of course every country needs a certain amount of hostility to other countries, especially its neighbours, to maintain its own identity. (Failure there is what went wrong with the now rapidly collapsing attempt to engineer a European Union.) However, while this French report contained a generally acceptable level of hostility to Russia it included a seriously unhelpful note by saying we should not trust a country which does not trust its own population, citing a claim that 11% of the inhabitants were subject to government electronic surveillance. Now, most observers are under a strong impression that any country in the West which secretly watched fewer than 50% of its own population would be unusually careless or – if you like – unusually free. It seems safe to guess that those governments which are able to do so keep tabs on more or less 100% of their own population whatever they admit in public, often with a good proportion of the populations of other countries into the bargain, all of course in the interests of protection and maintaining high standards of civil order. (If it also helps to keep those who share political control of those countries in political comfort, well that is doubtless just an entirely unintended side effect.)
Technological progress (ii) / Linguistic corner Approaching at speed and soon to be in an adult-toy store near you: a device which will accept spoken input and turn it into beautiful calligraphy in a style and language of your choice. (Perhaps you would like to try the style devised and published by Lucas Materot in 1608, but the language of course is up to you.) It goes without saying that you will have to learn the clicks, grunts, hisses, and sucking noises which will be needed to take care of the punctuation, and whistles too if you choose a language which has accents. That is vital, since omission of punctuation except occasionally for reasons of speed is a sign of inadequate education or simple stupidity. (Do you think ‘He didn’t take the gun because he was scared’ means the same thing as ‘He didn’t take the gun, because he was scared’ ? If you mean ‘What he said was “Garbage!”’ would you write ‘What he said was garbage’ ?)
Political punditry Remember : nine pundits out of ten can’t tell the difference between ‘clever’ and ‘noisy’ when they’re talking about someone in the news (including and especially themselves).
Technological progress (iii) Many problems about driverless cars have been haggled over pretty well – so long as you’re looking at the car itself from the inside. It is far from clear that all the external issues have been properly taken into account by the enthusiasts who have got sore throats through running around their neighbourhoods gabbling about wonders to come when significant numbers of driverless cars finally hit the road, as well as hitting cyclists, and dim-witted overexcited dogs, and ditto children, and even dimmer-witted black plastic bags blown onto the road by gusts of wind. Never mind the appalling confusion when the mix is 50/50 and real drivers rely on the avoidance responses of cars which turn out to have reckless incompetent or drunk humans at the wheel. Never mind the malicious hackers exploring what they can make a hacked car do (inaugurating a new golden age of highway robbery?) Are these things going to work in more dimensions than 2 or only on broad level California freeways? Will they notice if a sinkhole opens up on the route they have chosen? Will they react appropriately where a human driver could spot teenage refugees from approved behaviour patterns dropping plastic bags filled with paint from a highway bridge? Those of course are fairly rare problems, but demonstrators are going to have the time of their lives, probably bringing large nations to a standstill. To give just one example, in France there is always some protest movement doing its best to annoy the bourgeois, but famers will no longer need to summon 30,000 peasants from the deep countryside to block a main traffic route with their tractors. All they need do is send along three or four men each with a pig to be gently and repeatedly taken back and forth across the road at different points a few hundred metres apart, while with further development in other technologies even the pig might not actually be necessary; it could be enough to have the accomplice at the roadside holding a small portable sonar device firing a barrage of signals at oncoming traffic while the road is crossed by a hologram of the pig.
Technological progress (iv)
Meanwhile research in the field of genetic engineering continues to race ahead. A recent closed-door invitation-only congress sponsored by the US government was said to have heard accounts of astonishing developments. Very strict secrecy was enforced both for commercial reasons and because it was considered that many advances had potential military applications. It is believed that achievements included not merely poisonous 20lb rats and bionic dogs able to read basic instructions in a form of morse code, but modified crocodiles able to swim the equivalent of five kilometres underwater in under twenty minutes with a two kilogram load strapped to a ventral pod. One source however claims that after a long debate the congress came down firmly in favour of an embargo on further work on higher species, allegedly citing a need to avoid competition at some point in the future from genetically modified genetic engineers.
Thought for the day
It is not hard to think of phrases to describe Blair’s efforts to finagle his way into British politics again but most of them are unprintable