A Large Crisis is Imminent

Welcome to day two of my ‘three day quote challenge’. ‘Day one’ is here.

I need to thank rayoflight144 for presenting me with this challenge — I’ve just done so, with a pingback.

Today’s nominations for three blogs to take up this challenge are:

The rules of this challenge are: post a quote on three days, each time nominating three other blogs to pick up the challenge…. Or not, as you see fit 🙂

And now for today’s quote (cue drumroll)…

This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you’ve got a moment, it’s a twelve-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour porterage, and an enormous sign on the roof saying: ‘This Is a Large Crisis’.

The explanation of this quote is coming up in my very next post: stay tuned! In the meantime, I thought it might be fun to throw the floor open to guesses as to who said this, and where the quote comes from… any thoughts? (No sneaky googly-cheating at the back, there!)

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A marble: floating in the middle of nothing

The Long Slow Goodbye

Our world is dying.

We are killing it.

We pride ourselves on our adaptability,

Yet we are locked in an anachronistic worldview:

One that deludes us into believing

That what once was will ever be.

It’s premature; it infects our thinking.

If we are shown reality:

Glaciers retreating, massively calving at their faces

Because we have not seen how it was before

We think that how it now is, is normal.

Because war has been the norm throughout our short lives,

We cannot conceive a world without it.

We are blind.

We are arrogant.

We deserve the future rolling towards us.

Yet, the planet we inhabit —

The only oasis of life of which we are aware —

Does not deserve our ignorance.

© pendantry 2018

Posted in ... wait, what?, art, Core thought, Education, Environment, Poetry, Science | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

Duplicity in the Duplex?

Bhavik Naik over at Bhavik’s Blurs introduced me to ‘Google Duplex‘ the other day, in a post entitled ‘Is Google taking it too far?‘ Here’s a four minute video demonstration of Google Duplex in action:

Pretty impressive, no?

As well as impressive, I also find it rather worrying… at present, this artificial intelligence widget can only — apparently at least — make appointments: but it’s not a huge step from there to being able to impersonate a salesman. Many (if not all) salesmen work to a script, one that is designed to keep the conversation on track. (I speak from experience: in a previous life I used to sell insurance.) Such activity is not so very far removed from the script required to call and make an appointment, as Google Duplex is shown doing here.

ZDNet recently claimed that this technology has beaten the Turing Test, a thought experiment in which a machine strives to prove itself indistinguishable from a human. But I disagree: although we’re pre-warned, I think it comes across pretty clearly to those listening in that the caller isn’t a real one.

In the clip above Google obviously has an agenda: it’s effectively making a sales pitch for its technology (the guy giving the presentation is Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO). So I think that what we’re shown has to be treated with a fair amount of suspicion (unlike the behaviour of the sycophants in that audience!). For one thing, we can’t be sure what the people who were called were thinking; their priority was to close the sale, and in that situation you’re not going to risk being impolite to your caller, even if you suspect there may be something odd about the call. For another thing, both sides are working from a script — any serious deviation from it causes problems (as we saw in the second call in the clip above).

But even so, there are many issues with this. One big problem is how easily this could be scaled up, at little extra cost. At a stroke, telemarketers around the world could be out of work. (Don’t get me wrong: I hate telemarketing, but I can still feel sympathy for the poor folks who do it to earn a paypacket, perhaps even while hating the job themselves.) Worse: these people could be replaced by a system that can potentially make far more calls in a day than even the largest telemarketing team.

Have you ever received a telephone call from someone pretending to be from Microsoft? I have, several times. I know enough to know that it’s a scam (Microsoft would never call little old me), and to terminate the call. But some folks don’t know enough, and it’s those people at whom such calls are aimed. Some months ago, my mother was caught out by exactly this: and when I found out that she had been duped, it was time to retire her old computer and replace it, just in case she’d unwittingly compromised access to anything important.

Scammers like this are running a type of ‘numbers game’, where every ‘no’ gets you closer to a ‘yes’; and when you can replace the humans making the calls with machines, the numbers game just got skewed in favour of the scammers.

Electric flex in the shape of a brainI don’t think that the ethical question here can be overstated. Some may dismiss Duplex as just another tool, and may claim that tools cannot be inherently bad (especially those who lobby in favour of guns). Sadly, technology is all too often hijacked by those with bad intentions. We, as a society, need to realise what may be just around the corner, and discuss how best to move forward if we’re not to be caught unawares.

Maybe the Turing Test hasn’t yet been passed, but I think that the lid may have just been lifted from Pandora’s box.

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Recognizing the Mother of Global Warming

Climate Denial Crock of the Week

footeUniversity of California at Santa Barbara:

By all rights, Eunice Newton Foote should be a household name.

More than a century and a half ago, Foote was part of one of the most important scientific discoveries of our time: revealing the role of carbon dioxide in the earth’s greenhouse effect.

And yet relatively few people have heard of her.

Foote was the first person to demonstrate that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and also the first person to suggest that an atmosphere containing high levels of carbon dioxide would lead to a warmer earth.


Her research findings, contained in the paper “Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun’s rays,” were presented at the August 23, 1856, annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Being female, however, Foote was not allowed to read her own paper. Instead, Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution spoke on…

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Why do we have time zones: time for change?

A few years ago I wrote a blog post on the topic of the total muddle that’s caused by the lack of a commonly accepted standard date format. Today, I’m going to waffle on about something similar.

Before standard time was adopted in England, each town — unbelievably — had its own local timezone based on its own town clock. The same situation prevailed in the USA (and no doubt other parts of the world, too). The advent of the railways brought the need to synchronise train timetables, and it was this local shrinking of space that was the impetus for the effort to set up the Prime Meridian, and to implement global time zones. (See Why Do We Have Time Zones?)

Nowadays, we have a similar nonsensical situation: a still-shrinking global village with many timezones, each of which has idiosyncracies such as those caused by the odd path of the International Dateline and the nonsense caused by the fact that daylight savings time changes aren’t synchronised with each other.

Not so long ago, for instance, I had to find out what time ‘2pm EST’ is. This is complicated by the fact that there are not one but three timezones referred to as ‘EST’: the one I need is the last of these, but why is there even the possibility of confusion? And it gets worse: ‘EST’ is sometimes ‘EDT’: classic nonsense!

EST Eastern Standard Time Central America
EST Eastern Standard Time Caribbean
EST Eastern Standard Time North America

“North American time zones: EST – Eastern Standard Time:

Only some locations are currently on EST, because most places there are currently on Daylight Saving Time. Locations that are on EST part of the year are currently on EDT (Eastern Daylight Time).”

Humanity can’t even agree on a universal world time standard. There is one; it’s called ‘UTC‘; but its adoption would remove some folk from the center of their universe. I think that this failure strongly indicates that it is unlikely in the extreme that we’ll ever be able to agree on solutions to some of our other more pressing global problems.

Here, for the curious, is a list of worldwide timezone abbreviations and their associated deviations from UTC. If you do follow that link I think you may agree with me that the current situation is, at best, totally bonkers. (Take ‘AMT’ for example. There are two of these: Amazon Time, which is UTC-4, and Armenia Time, which is UTC+4.)

There are many timezone converters available on the innerwebz. It’s not necessary to list them; you only need to search for ‘timezone converter’ to find them. I have had many discussions with people who claim that there isn’t a problem at all, because all one needs to do is to refer to one of these converters; but in this day and age isn’t that, too, totally bonkers? Why don’t we have one time standard to which we can all refer, whichever side of the planet we happen to be on, and not be confused?

Not so very long ago, I was active in the raid scene in Everquest II, a game that has players from all over the planet. It always drove me nuts that raid start times were often specified in the organizer’s local timezone, which made it very complicated trying to figure out what that time was where I was (and, of course, the same applied for many of the other players involved, too). I tried, with no success, to get us all to agree to specify these times in UTC. Yes, we’d still all have convert UTC to our local timezones, but at least after a while we’d get used to certain conversions (such as 7am PST — the time that the servers often went down for maintenance on a Tuesday — equating to 3pm GMT, except of course when there was daylight savings time to take into account). The point being, were we to all use UTC, we’d all be ‘speaking the same language’; we’d all have the same base point to start from.

What difference would it make if, instead of working from ‘9 to 5’ we were to do so from, say, ‘0300 to 1100’? After a while, we’d get used to that (it’s possible to get used to much worse). The advantage would be that it would be so much easier to co-ordinate with other folks around the world.

If, like me, you’re driven to dribble at the corners of your mouth by the lunacy of the current system, I have a suggestion: take time out to watch Longitude, which details the efforts of one John Harrison, three centuries ago, to devise a marine chronometer to enhance navigation at sea. It’s through the herculean acts of single-minded individuals like Mr Harrison, despite all barriers thrown in their way, that progress is made.

Posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Communication, Core thought, History, Ludditis, Phlyarology, Science, Strategy | Tagged , , , , , | 29 Comments

Climate Change Elevator Pitch: Eric Rignot

Someone said recently that we don’t need hope: what we need is courage.

You can hear more from Eric Rignot right here.

Climate Denial Crock of the Week

One of my favorite little series, sparked by an idea from John Cook.

Along with John I interviewed scientists at the 2014 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco. John’s little wrinkle was to ask each scientist for an “Elevator pitch”, –  a quick persuader on climate science, short enough to sum up between floors.

Another example of content that only happens here – with your support.


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Posted in balance, Biodiversity, Climate, Communication, Core thought, Education, Environment, GCD: Global climate disruption, Reblogs, Strategy | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

May the Fourth be with you

I’ve just discovered that I’ve been nominated for the ‘three day quote challenge’ by rayoflight144. Very kind of you, ray, thank you.

I’m not entirely certain of the rules of this ‘challenge’. I think I have to come up with a quote, and then nominate three other blogs to pass the challenge along to. Over three days. But which three days? I’m going to assume that they don’t have to be consecutive days — because a) I want time to think about this a bit; b) I’m not good with deadlines and c) I’m lazy.

OK, first off: today’s quote. Well, it depends upon how you look at it, because from where I sit it’s yesterday’s quote (it now being past midnight)… but I’m going to run with it anyway because it’s still May the fourth in some parts of the world, and will be for a few more hours yet. (Besides, it ties in neatly with a post on the subject of ‘time’ that I have already scheduled for this coming Wednesday.) Everyone’s been wishing me a ‘happy Star Wars day’ today; it seems only right to pass the buzz along.

So my quote for ‘day one’ of this challenge is, quite simply, a wish for well-being to all:

May the force be with you.

Now then, let’s see, what’s next? Ah, nominate three other blogs… let me see, who do I know who might rise to this challenge?

How about:

The rules of this challenge: (I’m not sure about this bit) post a quote on three days, each time nominating three other blogs to pick up the challenge. Or not, as you see fit 🙂

Posted in ... wait, what?, Communication, memetics, Phlyarology | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Will the plastics industry be the next target of the merchants of doubt?

A riddle for you: What has three words, eight letters and one meaning?

Screenshot capture showing 381 followers of 'Wibble'

I love my followers 🙂

My blog following now stands at 381. This number is special to me because it says 3-8-1, and to me that says “I love you”. I do love my followers; they make me feel special: but if there’s one thing that I love more than people it’s this planet we share. And we humans are currently treating that planet like our own personal rubbish tip.

Anyone familiar with the story of the ongoing (and nonsensical) ‘debate’ about climate change ought to have heard of the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway called ‘The Merchants of Doubt‘, and perhaps also the documentary of the same name. The book and the movie both track the same sorry crowd of usual suspects as they have — successfully — persuaded the public into wrong-thinking about a whole gamut of toxic subjects including acid rain, tobacco smoking, global warming and pesticides. The recurring tactic these contemptible folk employ involves ‘keeping the controversy alive’ by spreading doubt and confusion.

“Oreskes points out a tragic paradox: that doubt-induced delay in taking action on climate change actually increases the likelihood that heavy-handed government intrusion will be needed when the problem grows to crisis proportions, as we saw in the market meltdown. Mending the earth is dependent upon mending people’s belief in limited but effective government, and in the value of hard work–the sort that leads to scientific consensus.” (from a comment appended to Professor Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt talk)

My question is:
Are the merchants of doubt going to start working to delay action on plastics?

Any firm that manufactures, say, plastic packaging is stuck if its customers all start insisting on plastic-free packaging solutions, because unless the business is in a position to switch wholesale to an alternative, its only option, if it’s to stay in business, is to continue making the product it has. (Which is why the ‘free market’ doesn’t work in such cases — it can’t cure problems it has created — and national backup must be brought into play so as to buffer large changes of this sort.)

There are alternatives to plastic for a variety of things, such as myco packaging, but such innovations are going to need a lot of support if they are to succeed in supplanting the entrenched plastics industry. ‘Support’ includes regulation and government intervention, and to many people with a certain ideological bent, such things are simply anathema.

(Suggestion: use deturl.com to download this film to watch later.)

Posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Biodiversity, Business, Communication, Core thought, Culture, Economics, Education, Environment, Health, Phlyarology, Strategy | Tagged , | 24 Comments

Why Some Blogging Goals Are Bad

This is a highly insightful post that acts as a counterpoint to my recent post ‘How to increase your blog following‘… pursuing just numbers is often a mistake.

Wading in Wisdom

Goals are supposed to be this thing that lead us down a productive path. But, sadly this isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes it would be better if we just didn’t make them at all.

These “bad” goals often give us the feeling that we are achieving success. But, they are often followed by dark periods of realization.

You must remember that writing blogs posts is like going to the gym everyday. While you may not see immediate results, your effort will eventually pay off (if you are writing content that people love).

Let’s take a look at a one of these “bad” goals to see how they can be deceptive.

Get 3,000 views in a month

I don’t even understand why this goal exists. It’s almost like celebrating when you get 10 people to look at you when you were at the department store.

It doesn’t accomplished anything…

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How Wolves Change Rivers

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” — John Muir

When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent for nearly 70 years, the most remarkable ‘trophic cascade‘ occurred. In this short film, George Monbiot explains what a trophic cascade is, and how wolves do actually change rivers.

I found this so remarkable that I took the time to transcribe George’s words:

One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century has been the discovery of widespread ‘trophic cascades’. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom, and the classic example is what happened in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States when wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Now, we all know that wolves kill various species of animals, but perhaps we’re slightly less aware that they give life to many others.

Before the wolves turned up, they’d been absent for seventy years, but the numbers of deer — because there’d been nothing to hunt them — had built up and built up in the Yellowstone Park and despite the efforts by humans to control them, they’d reduced much of the vegetation there to almost nothing; they’d just grazed it away. But as soon as the wolves arrived, even though they were few in number, they started to have the most remarkable effects.

First, of course, they killed some of the deer. But that wasn’t the major thing: much more significantly, they radically changed the behaviour of the deer. The deer started avoiding certain parts of the park: the places where they could be trapped most easily, particularly the valleys and the gorges — and immediately, those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years; bare valley sides quickly became forests of aspen, and willow, and cottonwood.

And as soon as that happened, the birds started moving in. The number of songbirds and migratory birds started to increase greatly. The number of beavers started to increase because beavers liked to eat the trees; and beavers, like wolves, are ecosystem engineers, they create niches for other species. And the dams they built in the rivers provided habitats for otters and musk-rats and ducks and fish and reptiles and amphibians.

The wolves killed coyotes, and as a result of that, the number of rabbits and mice began to rise, which meant more hawks, more weasels, more foxes, more badgers. Ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the carrion that the wolves had left. Bears fed on it too, and their population began to rise as well, partly also because there were more berries growing on the regenerating shrubs. And the bears reinforced the impact of the wolves by killing some of the calves of the deer.

But here’s where it gets really interesting: the wolves changed the behaviour of the rivers. They began to meander less, there was less erosion, the channels narrowed, more pools formed, more riffle sections, all of which was great for wildlife habitats. The rivers changed in response to the wolves. And the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilised the banks so that they collapsed less often, so that the rivers became more fixed in their course. Similarly, by driving the deer out of some places and the vegetation recovering on the valley sides there was less soil erosion, because the vegetation stabilised that as well.

So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park, this huge area of land, but also its physical geography.

Note from the video’s publisher (Sustainable Human): “There are ‘elk’ pictured in this video when the narrator is referring to ‘deer.’ This is because the narrator is British and the British word for ‘elk’ is ‘red deer’, or ‘deer’ for short. The scientific report this is based on refers to elk so we wanted to be accurate with the truth of the story.”

Posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Biodiversity, Culture, Drama, Education, Environment, Strategy | Tagged , , , , , , | 25 Comments