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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Self driving cars

Are we really sure that we want self driving cars.  In fact, are we sure we want a car that is even connected to the Internet.  There are some pretty strong arguments against both self driving cars and against cars which are connected to the Internet (done so that software updates can automatically be fed into the car computer).

Just recently there have been some pretty serious hacks.  The NHS (National Heath service of the UK) was taken down and here in New Zealand we just had a program on our National Radio about the hacking of electrical power line companies.  You would have thought that if there were systems with the very best of protection, it would be these.  Perhaps they did have excellent protection but were hacked anyway.

Update  Today (17 Oct 2017) WiFi was hacked.  Sheeeesh!!

Imagine the chaos if we had even 10% of our cars connected to the Internet when someone managed to hack the system.

Then there is the secret services of the United States and the so called 5 Eyes.  In America it is illegal for these institutions to spy on American citizens but they do it anyway.  The  hoover up every phone call and e-mail from America and from the rest of the world.  Even having a car which is connected to the internet, never mind self driving, gives these institutions yet another window into the private life of all of us.  And don't give me the argument that if you are not doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear.  That argument is so discredited that it doesn't even justify wasting a paragraph explaining the  fallacy.

Suppose, for the sake of the argument I want a new software program for the electric car I am driving and my car is not on the internet.  No problem.  I will go to my home computer, download the upgrade on to a flash drive, take it to my car and plug it in to the flash drive socket provided.  Besides, I may want to wait a year to let the early adapters test it out before installing it.  The computer world if rife with new computer programs being full of glitches.

Suppose I need navigation.  I will simply take my cell phone and put it on the Velcro patch on the dash board.
As for self driving, let me ink out a scenario for you.
You have a daughter - the apple of your eye.  You insisted that she learn to drive on a gear shift car since you are a little old fashion and value the old skills.  However since she got her license, she has never driven.  You gave her a self driving car for her birthday and she loves it. (no wonder) Today she is off to a show in the next town with her boyfriend.  ETA 30 minutes.  What do you think she is doing for that half hour.  

She is snogging in the back seat with her boyfriend going at highway speed  when some sort of computer glitch or hack demands that she take the wheel and manage the brakes and accelerator.  It would be chaotic enough if she was sitting in the drivers seat with her hands off the wheel.  You fill in the rest.

Add to this the ability the secret services will have to send a car into oncoming traffic, over a cliff or into a tree.  You think I am exaggerating.  Look at the drone programs exposed by Manning.  They took shots at a suspected terrorist while he was surrounded by civilians.  Secret services are amoral and we don't need to give them more tools to do what they want.  What's that you say?  They don't operate on their home soil.  Give me a break!!!

And one further point.  With self driving cars and trucks, we put yet another tranche of workers out of work.  These are folks that will never be engineers, scientists or lawyers and we need work for them as well.  Economists seem to always ignore one basic fact of the economy.  The most important factor is the rate that wealth circulates through the economy, not the amount of dollars available.  Work through the implications (already demonstrated) of putting yet more people out of work.

It simply leads to wealth being more and more  concentrated in the hands of the very few uber rich and less circulating in the economy.  We are rapidly getting to the point that less and less people will be able to buy the products produced in the factories.  One good effect of this is that it cuts into inflation.  That may help to explain our present situation (2017). 

I have a strong feeling that an electric car manufacturer who advertises that his cars are not self driving and have no connection to the Internet would have a strong selling point.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The folly of GM crops

I'm not going to go into various esoteric subjects such as the chance of human created genes jumping to other unrelated species or the chance of wiping out whole species which we consider pests but who's function in their ecology we don't fully understand (possible with CRISPR).  This blog looks at the folly of past agricultural advances and the harm they have caused and hence the folly of increasing food production even more.

Despite the propaganda of the large companies promoting GM crops, their aim is not to relieve human suffering and provide food for the starving masses. (surprise surprise)  It turns out that we already are producing enough food to feed everyone in the world quite adequately.  Their aim is to accumulate more of the wealth of the world to themselves and is just one more manifestation of the growing wealth inequality that we see everywhere.

 As they accumulate more of the world's wealth, the very people they say they are working for become poorer and less able to afford to feed themselves. So what are the down sides of producing more food.

Malthus, the much maligned, stated that populations increases exponentially; ie 1,2,4,8,16 ......, while food production increases arithmetically; ie 1,2,3,4,5 ...... In reality, populations such as humans which lack predators are limited by starvation. A possibly more useful way of stating the principle, with apologies to Parkinson is that Population expands to use up any advance in food production*.

Richard Dawkins on P391 of his excellent book The Greatest Show on Earth stated it succinctly and I quote.  "If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."  One would hope that humans who, at least individually, show a modicum of foresight might learn to show collective foresight.

Malthus didn't count on various technical advances we would make in food production ever since we left the hunter gatherer life style but was completely correct. Each increase in food production has been used up by population increase. The recent, much vaunted green revolution which started around the 1960's was the latest of such jumps in food production and gave India and some other countries, a few decades without starvation. A recent estimate is that there are now 700m more people on earth due to this latest green revolution.Link
So with a few delays, Malthus has proven to be completely correct.

What he didn't know is how our knowledge of contraception would advance. It has often been observed that when populations reach a fairly high level of economic well being, birth rate falls. Everyone is mystified by this and explains that women are delaying having babies as they pursue a career; people are not having any children so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labor and so forth. 

No argument there but how do you think they are avoiding having children. Abstinence??? I don't think so!! Abstinence went out of fashion more than half a century ago. One of the reasons for not having children (not often stated) is so you can enjoy non-abstinence uninterrupted. The simple fact of the matter is that with a certain level of economic development, contraception becomes affordable. 

The proof of this is a number of countries which have made contraception affordable before they achieved a western level of development. They did it by subsidizing contraception and lo and behold their birth rate fell. Of course, with birth rate under control, per capita economic development is much more likely. There are less mouths to eat up  advances in productivity.

While we are at it, lets look at the most recent  green revolutions that began in the 60's. The Yield of a number of grain crops was greatly increased. Some reports say production was tripled. This production was achieved by careful selective breeding but the new varieties only fulfilled their potential with irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides and  insecticides. Despite being free of starvation for a number of decades. the change was not an unmitigated success. Part of the dark side has been:

   a) mining of the water table to provide water for the new, highly productive varieties, lowering it disastrously, notably in China and India,
   b) accessing deeper layers of water which are contaminated with arsenic, notably in Bangladesh and parts of India,
   c) Pesticide pollution of aquifers, which along with arsenic contamination has led to a greatly increased incidence of cancer, especially in Bangladesh and parts of India
   d) salination of soils, rendering them unfit for agriculture.
   e) more land in production pushing nature and her free provision of food, fuel, fiber, medicine waste disposal and clean water further into a corner*.

*(you would have thought that land would have been taken out of production due to higher yields.- go figure)

   f) production of greatly increased grain yield but with less vitamins and minerals per kg of grain than in traditional varieties resulting in nutrient malnutrition,
   g) huge loss of a genetic diversity as locals switched to the new varieties, abandoning their traditional varieties.
   h) the loss of small farms to large land owners as the peasants borrowed to buy fertilizer etc., got into debt and defaulted on their loans.
   i) an increase in population of about 700,000,000 mouths that are only with us because of this most recent green revolution.

We really have got to the point of diminishing returns. Every advance in agriculture production makes us poorer and poorer. It makes us poorer by:

*decreasing the availability of food, fuel, fiber, clean water and clean air that we obtain gratis from nature as more land is put into agriculture for profit.
*decreasing the ability of nature to process our wastes safely
*decreasing the variety of foods available to us as areas which once grew fruit and vegetables are given over to the more profitable growing of grain crops for cash.
*reducing the space we have to live in as we are crowded by more and more people.
* facilitating diseases of crowding that we would otherwise not have had and increasing the possibility that a pandemic will be much more severe.
* pushing us closer to a disastrous collapse in our Gia support system as we test the theory of sudden climate change with gay abandon.

There is talk now of the need for a second (actually more like the 100th) green revolution, this one based on splicing new genes into varieties of grain. This will probably work and will further increase production. As has happened since agriculture began, population will increase until the new advances in production are used up. In the mean time all those extra people will further degrade the natural environment that we depend on for our existence.

If you want to see the other likely consequences, go back and read what resulted from the 60's green revolution.

Note: It has been reported that a number of genetically changed plants caused organ failure when fed to rats.

Extra agricultural production only pushes us closer to the brink. The last thing you want when you are standing at the edge of a cliff is a great leap forward.

As was mentioned above, since the 60's it has been noted that when a country achieves a certain level of prosperity, birth rate falls. This is a modern phenomenon. It didn't happen anywhere in Europe before the last century. Britain's birth rate remained high all through the industrial revolution with well off Brits having as many children as their poorer cousins. Think back to your grandfather and great grandfather's family. How many children did each of your ancestors have as far back as you can trace. The difference, as previously mentioned,  in the 'modern era' is contraception.

Contraception has been available at least from Roman times, but it only became truly effective when it was modernized and put into the hands of women. Both the pill and the effective IUD (as opposed to previous less than adequate models) only became practical from about 1960 onward and they have had a huge effect in countries where they are affordable either because the economic level of the population makes them so or because the government has subsidized them.  In both cases, birth rate has fallen precipitously. Ignoring immigration, which is another story, most European countries have decreasing populations. What a success - and they are fighting against it tooth and nail. That is also another story.

I lived in South Africa for 15 years, much of the time in the homeland of Gazankulu.  Despite an educational level of around grade 2 amongst many of the women, they would come into the clinic for their 3month jab to keep them from getting pregnant.  There is a vast difference between not having a formal education and being stupid.  These women were clever and fully realized the advantages of having less children.  Their men were not so smart.  They would have beaten the women if they knew what was happening.

We must learn to live in our respective countries with a stable and then a reducing population. This , of course will result in a population in which the age distribution curve is heavily skewed toward older people. We have to work out ways to live and live well in such a society. For far too long we have been living in a pyramid scheme in which each generation had to be larger than the previous one. 

This was necessary so that there were enough young people to fill the more menial jobs before they rose up to higher levels.  It was also necessary in order to have enough working people to provide the pensions of the retired. This, quite frankly, is a stupid system.  The pension contributions of the working public should go into buying up the means of production.  Pensions are then paid  from the dividends from these companies and even from selling the shares to presently working people.  The elderly become a boon rather than a drain on the economy as they spend their pensions.  

Our system can't go on.  We must stop importing so-called cheap labor to fill the positions of the children we are not having. In the long term, cheap labor is very expensive.

Note that people are now worried about robots taking over our jobs.  Surly these two phenomenon fit together beautifully.  We have less jobs available and less young people to fill the positions.  The critical factor is taxing fairly the companies who are producing their goods by automation instead of by people.  Too many large corporations now get away with paying little if any tax.  This tax money then goes to the unemployed, whether young or pensioners.  The companies should also face up to reality.  If people have no money they can't buy the goods they produce by automation.  It is in their interests to have money in the pockets of the people.

Pyramid schemes collapse and the mini collapse we are going through at present (2008ff) is nothing compared to what is to come if we keep increasing agricultural production rather than concentrating on reducing population. If we continue this way, we will soon have an answer to the question of who is correct regarding sudden climate change. If the climate change sceptics are wrong, we may very soon achieve the lovelock number.

* Starvation killed an estimated 50m Chinese over the 19th century, 20m Indians in the latter half, 1m Irish between 1845 and 1852, 1/3 of the population of Ethiopia from 1888 and 1892 and 3m in Bengal in 1943. Imagine the effect of the failure of the wheat and rice crop for just one year due to sudden climate change or even from a mega volcano one spring. (link)

** If you double your population or your GDP, you pretty well double your use of water, wood and minerals, double your production of pollution and garbage and double the area of land you cover in buildings.  You continue to eat into unoccupied land, you eliminate all the benefits unoccupied land brings to the human population for free. Below is a table of how long it takes to double all of the above as a function of yearly GDP growth rate. You can calculate it for yourself with a high-school calculator if you put in (for 3% growth rate, for instance) log 2/log1.03.  The '2' is a doubling time, 1.03 is the interest (growth rate).

Annual growth and number of year to double the economy

70 years

2% 35 years
3% 23 years
4% 18 years
5% 14 years

How many countries in the world do you know that can find twice the water, wood, minerals and produce twice the pollution and garbage and still have any quality of life.  The only two I  can think of off hand are Canada and New Zealand.  We don't want to live like this.