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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Climate change: Current warming 'unparalleled' in 2,000 years

By Matt McGrath, BBC Environment correspondent

24 July 2019

The speed and extent of current global warming exceeds any similar event in the past 2,000 years, researchers say. They show that famous historic events like the "Little Ice Age" don't compare with the scale of warming seen over the last century. The research suggests that the current warming rate is higher than any observed previously. The scientists say it shows many of the arguments used by climate sceptics are no longer valid.

When scientists have surveyed the climatic history of our world over the past centuries a number of key eras have stood out. These ranged from the "Roman Warm Period", which ran from AD 250 to AD 400, and saw unusually warm weather across Europe, to the famed Little Ice Age, which saw temperatures drop for centuries from the 1300s. The events were seen by some as evidence that the world has warmed and cooled many times over the centuries and that the warming seen in the world since the industrial revolution was part of that pattern and therefore nothing to be alarmed about. Three new research papers show that argument is on shaky ground.

The science teams reconstructed the climate conditions that existed over the past 2,000 years using 700 proxy records of temperature changes, including tree rings, corals and lake sediments. They determined that none of these climate events occurred on a global scale. The researchers say that, for example, the Little Ice Age was at its strongest in the Pacific Ocean in the 15th Century, while in Europe it was the 17th Century. Generally, any longer-term peaks or troughs in temperature could be detected in no more than half the globe at any one time, The "Medieval Warm Period", which ran between AD 950 and AD 1250 only saw significant temperature rises across 40% of the Earth's surface. Today's warming, by contrast, impacts the vast majority of the world. "We find that the warmest period of the past two millennia occurred during the 20th Century for more than 98% of the globe," one of the papers states. "This provides strong evidence that anthropogenic (human induced) global warming is not only unparalleled in terms of absolute temperatures but also unprecedented in spatial consistency within the context of the past 2,000 years."

What the researchers saw is that prior to the modern industrial era, the most significant influence on climate was volcanoes. They found no indication that variations in the Sun's radiation impacted mean global temperatures. The current period, say the authors, significantly exceeds natural variability. "We see from the instrumental data and also from our reconstruction that in the recent past the warming rate clearly exceeds the natural warming rates that we calculated - that's another view to look at the extraordinary nature of the present warming," said Dr Raphael Neukom, from the University of Bern, Switzerland. While the researchers did not set out to test whether humans were the chief influence on the current climate, their findings indicate clearly that this is the case. "We do not focus on looking at what's causing the most recent warming as this has been done many times and the evidence is always agreeing that it is the anthropogenic cause," said Dr Neukom. "We do not explicitly test this; we can only show that natural causes are not sufficient from our data to actually cause the spatial pattern and the warming rate that we are observing now." Other scientists have been impressed with the quality of the new studies.

"They have done this across the globe with more than 700 records over the past 2,000 years; they have corals and lakes and also instrumental data," said Prof Daniela Schmidt from the University of Bristol, UK, who was not involved with the studies. "And they have been very careful in assessing the data and the inherent bias that any data has, so the quality of this data and the coverage of this data is the real major advance here; it is amazing." Many experts say that this new work debunks many of the claims made by climate sceptics in recent decades. "This paper should finally stop climate change deniers claiming that the recent observed coherent global warming is part of a natural climate cycle," said Prof Mark Maslin, from University College London, UK, who wasn't part of the studies. "This paper shows the truly stark difference between regional and localised changes in climate of the past and the truly global effect of anthropogenic greenhouse emissions."

[One day people will believe the science, when the evidence is looking them in the face, when they are cleaning up the mess of yet another climate related disaster or retreating from the flood a little more inland each year they’ll start to believe. One day we’ll actually get our act together on a global scale and do something about it. Until then we shall continue to fiddle as the world burns………]

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Keeping Cool......

Just Finished Reading: The Living Wisdom of Socrates by Mark Forstater (FP: 2004)

I haven’t read any classical philosophy for a while and a random book choice gave me that opportunity so I took it. I developed a real passion for the Ancients during my last university course where Aristotle became a firm favourite of mine much more so than Plato who I honestly never really rated (apart from the allegory of the cave which is pretty neat if, in my opinion, taken too far). Anyway, Plato’s writings are the main way that the world found out about Socrates who never wrote anything down – a concept explained well in this thin volume. The other is the writings of the military leader Xenophon who knew Socrates and made himself a part-time student of the great man. One of the (honestly few) interesting points the author makes in the book is that the picture of Xenophon’s Socrates and Plato’s Socrates are of two very different people. I’m sure that there’s a book ready to be written (if it hasn’t already been produced) on that very subject.

Unfortunately, at least from my perspective, is that these few interesting insights were just about the best thing in the book. Most of the book is given to rather free translations of the original texts (from both Xenophon and Plato) updated into modern parlance from a 19th century original translation. Purists would, naturally, be squirming in their seats throughout the whole 226 pages. These is actually very little discussion of what Socrates meant during his conversations with the great, the good and the normal in Athens. So I was left a little confused (as to the function of the book to be honest), a little irritated and a little bored. This is not really an introduction to the philosophy of Socrates nor is it an analysis of that thought. Honestly it had the feel of a patchwork quilt of a book looking for a theme. It’s actually billed as a ‘self-help’ book and I will label it as such. I do think that with that in mind it could have been far more focused towards that end and less a ‘copy and paste’ composition. Not terrible but neither for the novice nor the fan. (R)

Monday, July 22, 2019

If only they grew ON trees and not just FROM trees....

RIAT 2019

I’d been watching the weather forecast for about 2 weeks before we were due to go to RIAT (Royal International Air Tattoo) 2019 with a mixture of trepidation and annoyance. The weekend before and after were predicted fine and dry. The weekend of the event itself? THUNDERSTORMS! But as the day got closer and the forecasts got more accurate (and less random/changeable to be honest) things started looking up. Not great weather but (mostly) OK. Confidence was high that they’d be flying so – about two days out – I gave it the green light. The group went in two separate cars this time so we made good time to the venue at RAF Fairford. We also got lucky with the parking and made it onto the hardstanding rather than the rather muddy grassed area which was still soft underfoot after Friday’s rain. It was still pretty cloudy when they sent up some props to see what the ‘ceiling’ was like. Things were good – and predicted to get better – so a full flying programme was announced. As usual (after meeting up with friends) the windbreak was pitched – much needed as the airfield was very open and essentially at the top of a hill – seat unfolded, trolley parked we headed off to the nearest coffee place and to check out the static exhibits.

Fairford is HUGE so we quickly got separated between exhibits. I treated myself to an ice crème (as it was starting to get quite warm) and watched the world go by for a while. Once finished I cruised the stalls looking for my usual purchases at such events: T-shirts and books. This year the numbers were reversed and I ended up buying no T-shirts at all and 6 hard backed books at bargain prices including two high on my buy soon list on seaplanes. Still recovering from a bad cold (weirdly in the middle of July) I dragged my haul back to our ‘slot’ and spent the rest of the afternoon watching the display.

This year a whole host of anniversaries hit at the same time: The 50th of Concorde, The 50th of the Harrier in service, The 70th of the foundation of NATO, The 75th of D-Day and the 100th of the first commercial passenger service (to say nothing of The 50th of the Moon Landings). No Concorde flight I’m afraid but we did have 2 Harriers from the Spanish Navy (pictured), various NATO fighters, a Jumbo 747 in the livery of BOAC (one of British Airways’ predecessors), the standard Spitfire/Hurricane fly-by and much else besides including the ever popular Osprey ‘tilt-rotor’, the Apache attack helicopter (in a simulated attack on an enemy radar system) and a lovely flight of an aged Mig-21 which I was entranced with last year as a static display. There were, naturally, lots of acrobatic flying with the Italians always putting on a good show as well as a very nice Red Arrows plus French team co-op display. All in all it was well worth the effort getting there and the decision to go with the weather so changeable – it actually rained for about 90 seconds but I ended up coming home with a bit of a tan. Already looking forward to 2020.   

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Will ships without sailors be the future of trade?

By Stav Dimitropoulos, BBC Technology of Business reporter

16 July 2019

On 7 May, customs officers in Ostend, Belgium, received a box of oysters from the UK. The molluscs had been caught in Essex and transported to Belgium on a 12m (39ft) aluminium-hulled vessel, which traversed the English Channel with no humans on board. It was the world's first unmanned commercial shipping operation. The crewless boat was carefully watched by four people in a control centre in Tollesbury, Essex, headquarters of Hushcraft, the company behind the design and development of the craft. UK and Belgian coastguards also monitored the oysters' progress. "You could actually listen to the waves hitting the boat," says Ben Simpson, Hushcraft's managing director. It boasts a hybrid diesel engine, electrical generators, satellite links, CCTV and thermal cameras, an automatic identification system to warn approaching vessels of its position and more.

The boat was made by Sea-Kit, and the same vessel helped an international team of hydrographers, funded by the Japanese non-profit Nippon Foundation, win the $4m (£3.2m) Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize for advances in autonomously mapping the oceans. Now Hushcraft wants Sea-Kit to be used for transporting cargo, hence mounting the 5kg box of oysters - a local delicacy - on to the vessel and sending it to Ostend. But is there a market for it? "The benefits are many," says Mr Simpson. "You can send them around the world to do different jobs at a significantly reduced cost. Then, you don't have to have a galley, you don't have to have toilets. You can utilise space." They are better for the environment as they can be electrically propelled, and since they can use smaller ports they can replace road transport and cut even more fumes, he says.

For Lawrence Brennan, a retired US navy captain and adjunct professor of admiralty and maritime law at Fordham University School of Law, all these virtues of uncrewed cargo ships come with certain caveats. Ships with no sailors mean no risk to human life from fires or other hazards at sea. No-one needs to recruit staff, pay them, keep them trained or guard against unlicensed crew. The boats can go anywhere. But, in Prof Brennan's view, the first Achilles heel of unmanned shipping might be the very technology that created it. A failure in communications between vessel and base will render it a ghost ship, hopelessly drifting without a soul on board, a hazard to its owners, the owners of its cargo, and the environment, he argues.

"Unmanned ships may be stopped by pirates by disabling shots or damaging the ship's propeller and rudder," Prof Brennan continues. Karolina Zwolak, head of the Navigation Section at the Institute of Navigation and Marine Hydrography of the Polish Naval Academy, contributed to the success of the oysters' voyage. Part of her job was collision avoidance. Dr Zwolak is already working on the Sea-Kit international team's next ambitious endeavour, which will be to sail across the Atlantic next year, but is aware of the technology's limitations. "When unexpected situations occur on board, human creativity, experience, and non-schematic thinking can solve the problem," she says. So she does not see a revolution in the shipping industry in the near future. "I just believe more and more tasks will be delegated on shore, using communication technology," she says.

For his part, Mr Simpson, who believes crewless short-sea transportation might not be a rarity in five years from now, says that problems such as the risk of piracy plague both manned and unmanned vessels. He also thinks it is not economically sound to lay people off. "Unmanned ships need to be built, maintained, and controlled. The people that would have been on the bridge of a manned vessel are now in the office," he maintains, adding that a lot of training will be involved in the transition. The other obstacle is the law. "The legal regime is decades, if not a century-and-a-half out of date," says Prof Brennan. "As unmanned ships were never contemplated until recently, legislation says manning is essential for having a ship that is seaworthy, classified, and authorised to operate in national waters and on the high seas," he explains. For self-navigating ships to crisscross the oceans free from legal constraints, an entirely new maritime legislation will have to be drawn up and embedded in national laws and international regimes, otherwise financiers will be frightened off. Still, the international maritime community is going through such a frenzy of technological creativity, that for Dr Zwolak there will be a solution soon. "Technology has always preceded law," she says.

[..and another AI milestone falls…. Shipping will be one of the first transport industries to be largely automated I think (along with train travel before moving into the air and on the roads). Obviously there are hurdles, indeed entire mountain ranges, ahead but these problems can be identified and solved one by one. Start with the position that a new technology will never reach its full potential is simply setting yourself up for a fail. Robots are simply here to stay. The smart response is to ensure it’s implemented properly with minimal disruption to human livelihoods.]

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The Vanquished – Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 by Robert Gerwarth (FP: 2016)

For those who had been there and had been fortunate enough to leave again it was known as the most dangerous place on Earth – Eastern Europe between 1917 and 1923. Whilst the victorious Powers of France, England and the USA returned to a state close enough to normal (or at least what passed for normal after 5 years of bloody conflict) those on the losing side as well as Italy with its “mutilated victory” descended into an era of political strife, uncertainty and civil war. With the great land Empires torn apart under the principle of ‘self-determination’ (largely undefined or even undefinable) the recently created and largely artificial new ‘nations’ attempted to solidify around a single ethnicity, culture or religion in a definable, defendable and rationale space – whilst often in direct conflict with their neigbours doing exactly the same thing. A few countries were relatively lucky with a historically agreed (and agreeable) border and a simple ethnic mix. Others, substantially less lucky, had borders than no army could defend and an ethnic mix so complex and so deeply historical that the locals themselves could not answer the simplest questions posed to them in plebiscites arranged in Paris. Families, neighbours, friends were torn asunder depending on church affiliation, accent or traditional dress. Before the ink was dry and the dust had time to settle the fighting started and before long the fighting was over something more than where a line was drawn on a map but who a people were and what kind of future – if any – they had in the new reality. Then it got nasty. Very nasty.

Across Russia revolution turned to Civil War, in Germany governments tottered on the edge of dissolution as Left fought Right in street battles and targeted political assassinations, in the Balkans where it all started a wave of ethnic ‘cleansing’ sept across the region resulting in mass expulsions and mass starvation. Further East in the remnants of the collapsing Ottoman Empire whilst the French and the British carved up vast areas to satisfy their imperial ambitions (and ignored by the anti-imperialist Americans) new forces arose to challenge the western narrative assumptions and began to fight back first against the victorious allies and then against the invading Greeks ending in the massacres of Smyrna as allied warships stood at anchor and did precisely nothing. The smug assertion that the war had ended in November 1918 was not even a sick joke to those in the East. They had forgotten how to laugh long before the war to end wars supposedly came to an end with a meaningless armistice ignored everywhere outside of the victorious powers. As the fighting rumbled on and countless lives were lost in massacre, famine, plague and political assassination the ground was being laid for an even greater conflict to come. One where the revolution stated in St Petersburg would engulf the world, were Germany would be vindicated and gain her rightful place in the world, where Italy would finally be given the empire and respect they deserved and where Japan would no longer be looked upon as inferior, foreign and sub-human.

Told with devastating frankness and with few punches pulled this is an eye-opening account of how the First World War most certainly did NOT end for the majority of Europeans (and beyond) in 1918 something I for one naively believed until fairly recently. The armistice may have stopped western armies fighting the central powers but it most certainly did not stop the fighting and destruction over huge tracks of land. It was not until a series of treaties signed in 1922 and 1923 that much of the fighting stopped simply because by then most of the survivors had, at least temporarily, managed to acquire most of what they wanted. A series of open sores across the world would need to be addressed by the new League of Nations once stability had been achieved which it had by 1926. Now, if only the nascent economic growth could be maintained for the next 10 years the world might have a chance to recover from its greatest calamity….. Whilst only 267 pages long this is still a heavy book (though by no means heavy going). I did feel more than once that I was wading through rivers of blood rather through words on a page but I guess that was the point. Vast in geographical scope it gives you an invaluable look at the disaster of World War One and why a mere 20 years later the world slipped into the Second World War. Unmissable for anyone interested in the end of one war, the beginning of the next and the often ignored turbulence in-between…. and for those who want more there’s a very impressive 62 page bibliography! Highly recommended to all 20th Century history buffs. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Looks safe...........


My LOVE for Cartoons

I LOVE cartoons. Presumably like most children my first entrancing TV moment is during cartoons. I can honestly say that some of my most formative heroes have been of the animated kind (hand drawn back then of course!) Even today I hold up Bugs Bunny as probably my favourite cartoon character and still one of my heroes. I LOVED the way that, not only did he always win (as far as I remember) but he did so by using his brains to achieve his aims. Probably my second favourite – from the pre-CGI Age – is the ‘underdog’ Mutley from The Whacky Races. Again under appreciated, scorned, but very smart and who won (or at least go his own back) by using devious methods. Some of my other favourite are The Scooby Gang (before Srappy or the risible movies) when they solved problems and uncovered fraudulent Supernatural events using reason and logic, then there’s Dangermouse (the great detective) and finally the totally bizarre but wonderful Magic Roundabout (HATE the movie BTW). But there days it’s essentially seventh heaven to all cartoon lovers. We live in the age of CGI and, more importantly, Pixar. Hardly a month goes by where I don’t watch one of my favourite CGI movies. But here are my favourites from recent years (in no particular order).

Inside Out
Monsters, Inc
Shrek (and Shrek 2)
Toy Story (and Toy Story 2)
Wreck-It Ralf
Despicable Me (and Despicable Me 2)
The Incredibles (and Incredibles 2)
Ice Age
Over The Hedge
Final Fantasy – The Spirits Within

They make me laugh, make me cry make me look on in wonder and make me think…. Can’t beat it.   

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Google's DeepMind goes undercover to battle gamers

From The BBC

11 July 2019

Gamers in Europe are being invited to take on a bot developed by some of the world's leading artificial intelligence researchers. But there's a twist: players will not be told when they have been pitted against it. The tests are being carried out by DeepMind, the London-based AI company that previously created a program that defeated the world's top Go players. In this case, the challenge involves the sci-fi video game Starcraft II. It is seen as being a more complex task, since players can only get a partial overview of what their opponent is doing, unlike the Chinese board game Go where all the pieces are on show. In addition, both Starcraft players move their armies about simultaneously rather than by taking turns. DeepMind - which is owned by Google's parent Alphabet - has said its bot AlphaStar is playing anonymously so as to get as close to a normal match situation as possible. The concern is that if people knew for sure that they were playing against a computer, they might play differently. But gamers will only face the algorithm-controlled system if they have first opted in to be part of the experiment.

There is a risk that if they lose, then their Match Making Rating (MMR) score will suffer, reducing their ranking against other players and affecting their likelihood of being promoted to higher leagues. One of the UK's leading players said there was a lot of interest among the Starcraft community as to how AlphaStar would perform. "It's a game of hidden information and making decisions with very limited knowledge," explained Raza Sekha, from Kent. "People are very curious to see whether DeepMind will innovate and come up with new strategic thoughts. That would be a really great achievement, but I don't think many people are expecting it to happen." AlphaStar's predecessors have, however, come up with creative strategies within the games of chess, Go and shogi, which have in turn influenced some of the top human players to change their own tactics.

This is not the first time AI researchers have sought to advance the field via video games. Last year, San Francisco-based OpenAI reported a breakthrough when it effectively created a "curious" agent to achieve high scores within Montezuma's Revenge. A range of machine learning experiments have also been carried out within Minecraft, thanks to Microsoft developing a special version of its block-building title. And DeepMind itself rose to prominence by developing agents that taught themselves how to play dozens of Atari games including Breakout and Space Invaders. More recently it created software that plays alongside human team-mates within Quake III Arena. These ready-made virtual environments provide a way to carry out a process called reinforcement learning. This involves agents discovering ways to perform better by themselves via a process of trial and error, receiving "rewards" for success rather than being told what to do. In some cases, agents teach themselves from scratch. But in AlphaStar's case, it was first trained to imitate human play by referencing past matches, before being unleashed against other versions of itself to further improve performance.

AlphaStar's progress has not been without controversy. Some players felt that it had an unfair advantage in earlier matches because it could look at a game's entire map at once, taking in more detail than a human could. "As a human, one of the hardest parts of the game is multitasking," explained Mr Sekha. "It's really hard to split your attention between two places. So, an AI has a crucial advantage when it can see everywhere at once, as that lets it attack and defend almost at the same time, whereas a human would have to choose whether it's best to do one or the other." To tackle this, the agent has been tweaked to use the game's map more like humans do. It now has to zoom in to a section to determine the action within, and can only move units to locations in view.

DeepMind has also reduced the number of actions AlphaStar can take per minute to address other criticism. But Mr Sekha said there were still unanswered questions. "If it can switch very quickly from one camera to another camera, much faster than a human could, that would still be a bit unfair," he said. "So it will be really interesting to see what steps they have taken to level the playing field, because last time the community felt it was a bit too much in favour of the artificial intelligence." DeepMind intends to share more details about the project as part of a scientific research paper, but has yet to determine when it will be published.

[I’ve long thought that there are players out there who HAD to be AI’s – they were just too damned good! It’s also well understood that online gaming is THE place to train AI’s. Not only is it an existing artificial environment with bounded rules where a machine intelligence can do well it’s also a ready-made laboratory to study many aspects of human behaviour. Inevitably I think AI’s will do very well in many if not all game formats. I for one certainly wouldn’t like a fully ramped up AI opponent. But, as most of my friends would agree, playing against the computer on single player is sometimes very easy as the AI continues to do stupid things are singularly fails to learn from its mistakes. But once learning kicks in the human player is very quickly outclassed and the game becomes unplayable. Good for training AI’s – just not particularly fun for human players.]

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Just Finished Reading: Life 3.0 – Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark (FP: 2017)

It’s coming whether we want it or not, it’s just a matter of when. Although there’s a chance that such a thing might actually be impossible most experts in the field consider the arrival of Artificial General Intelligence (equal to that of humans) consider it a certainty. Few, however, can agree on when or what it ultimately means for humanity – its creators. Few experts consider it likely that AGI will be arriving imminently – as in the next 5 years. It’s just possible but there would need to be a number of unexpected breakthroughs to make that happen. An equally small number hold that AGI is either impossible or that it’s hundreds of years away. The present consensus seems to be hovering around the date 2045-2050.

But when it does finally arrive what will it mean to us? Few if any see Terminators in our future although some do not rule out that a future AGI could see us as a threat and be determined to do something about us. One of the scariest aspects of hyper-intelligence is that we might even be aware that our AI has determined our fate in a microsecond. It might just as easily introduce an irreversible contraceptive into our drinking water or the atmosphere as send robot killers to hunt us down. We’d probably never know until it was far, far too late. Likewise the empowered AGI could see us as a minor inconvenience (as we often see ants or wasps) an eliminate us to make way for a host of ultra-efficient batteries (just not in The Matrix). But how do we avoid this fate? A good chunk of the book – one of the less speculative sections – discusses bringing into fruition Friendly AI which won’t kill us by accident or by design. It might end up keeping us a pets or as we keep endangered species off the endangered list by paternalistically looking out for us. The bargain, according to the author, might be worth it with the trade-off for being obsolete being a long life free from pain, disease or want – a bounded paradise for as long as we want it.

The author is primarily a mathematician and cosmologist and it shows. Whilst a very large portion of the book is theoretical a good chunk is very theoretical indeed. When the discussion moves to humanity in the next billion years and colonisation of other galaxies (without the benefit of Faster Than Light travel) you know things have moved far beyond the reasonable – especially considering humans have been around for much less than 500,000 years and we haven’t managed to start a colony on the Moon or Mars yet. But that kind of expansion into known and unknown space is based on the author’s expectation that, once AGI becomes a reality, pretty much everything becomes possible. He did seem more than a little entranced with the idea of The Singularity (AKA The Rapture of the Nerds) were technology becomes so advanced so fast that it simply cannot be speculated about on this side of the ‘event horizon’. But it’s easy to get carried away – with talk of computing power thousands or even millions of times more powerful that today. Just imagine what you could accomplish if the laptop you use every day has more computing capacity and simple raw power than every machine in existence today. At the push of a few buttons and the click of a mouse you could do….. anything. Now times THAT by a million and think what we could do.

There was much here that I agreed with. AI or AGI is coming within the next 100 years and probably much sooner than that. Once it exists it will not be contained for long. Once out it will…. Well, do what it wants. If we can ensure that its goals are either in line with ours or do not actively conflict with ours we could not only see a new Golden Age but a Golden Age that extends into the far, far future. If our goals do not align and especially if they conflict then we’re in trouble – BIG trouble. That in itself is a good portion of the book, the idea that we need to be addressing this issue now before the AI arrives without any guidance or any idea of what we need to teach it. Being ready for Life 3.0 will do immeasurable help in keeping humanity alive and assisting in the birth of a future worth having for countless generations to come. It’s a noble aim that should not and cannot be ignored. Mostly definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the future of computers, of humanity and the likely consequences of getting the technology wrong. Highly recommended.