Freeman Dyson on climate change, interstellar travel, fusion, and virtue-signalling

The life of physicist Freeman Dyson spans advising bomber command in World War II; working at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, as a contemporary of Einstein; and providing advice to the US government on a wide range of scientific and technical issues.

He is a rare public intellectual who writes prolifically for a wide audience. He has also campaigned against nuclear weapons proliferation.

At America’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dyson was looking at the climate system before it became a hot political issue, over 25 years ago. He provides a robust foreword to a report written by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cofounder Indur Goklany on CO2 – a report published [PDF] today by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF).

An Obama supporter who describes himself as “100 per cent Democrat,” Dyson says he is disappointed that the President “chose the wrong side.” Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere does more good than harm, he argues, and humanity doesn’t face an existential crisis. Climate change, he tells us, “is not a scientific mystery but a human mystery. How does it happen that a whole generation of scientific experts is blind to obvious facts?”

We invited Dyson to talk about climate change and other matters, including a question from your correspondent’s kids – how will we do interstellar travel?

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Special Report: Inside the Government Digital Service – the Happiest Place on Earth

Last year, the UK’s Cabinet Office asked an external management consultancy to examine staff morale and high turnover at the Government Digital Service. After interviewing more than 100 civil servants, its scathing confidential analysis described an organisation beset by low morale and run by a “cabal” management of old friends, who bypassed talent in favour of recruiting former associates – while Whitehall viewed GDS as “smug” and “arrogant”.

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On Nudge

No 10’s controversial “nudge unit” has been spun out into a company – but it hasn’t fallen far from the nest. The 16-strong Behavioural Insights Team (as it’s known) will become a private entity and will be able to tap into cash originally set aside for fledgling inventors.

It will then sell its services back to the government and, if all goes well, other governments and organisations.

Former quango now-charity Nesta will provide £1.9m funding for the Unit’s experiments, and the government retains a 30 per cent stake in the new venture.

“Pretty well wherever you see humans and bureaucracy you can use behavioural insights,” claimed the Unit’s head, David Halpern.

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Habeas Data, or Why any Silicon Valley ‘bill of rights’ will guarantee you never have any

Widespread ridicule has greeted the announcement that eight giant technology companies led by Google and including Facebook and LinkedIn were going to save us from the NSA.

The ridicule is thoroughly justified, for trusting giant corporations – whose business models rely on selling your identity to advertisers – to safeguard your privacy is like hiring a kleptomaniac to guard the sweet shop.

Thirty years after the Khmer Rouge declared war on “the Garden of the individual”, Silicon Valley was lauding the collective “hive mind” while stealthily dismantling the rights that protect the individual.

Both practically and philosophically, today’s giant web corporations are incapable of defending you – and how can they, when don’t really accept that the individual really exists? In Silicon Valley, the individual is merely a phantom: a collection of patterns, or a node secreting data into one of its giant analytical processing factories.

Before we can understand why tech/media companies can’t protect the individual, and why their “solutions” are impoverishing us, let us remind ourselves what’s happened. We need to see how complicit the data business was with the behaviour of the intelligence agencies.

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“The price of nothing”

Kim Dotcom
Kim Dotcom has a new service, with features that Forbes calls “See No Evil, Store No Evil”. But perhaps that should be “see no value, store no value”.

I have not come to mock the rotund self-promoter, but rather to talk about what might happen if its users were to throw themselves at the service to share copyrighted content. But first, a history lesson.

One criticism of the monetarists during the Thatcher years was that they “knew the price of everything and the value of nothing”. It’s a magnificent phrase: a withering encapsulation of the view that value doesn’t merely reside in a price. It also strongly implies that these individuals were guilty of philistinism.

This condemnation was a response to some radical changes. After many years in which the supremacy of technocratic planning had been unquestioned, Britain in the 1980s saw supply-side reforms introduced in many areas. These were intended to reveal a pricing signal. John Birt’s Producer Choice at the BBC – which gave programme makers the power to buy services from outside the BBC – was one example, and internal markets at the NHS were another.

Enthusiasts for the changes argued that while the new systems coughed up occasional absurdities, the internal markets put a price on goods which ultimately allowed resources to be used more efficiently than a central planner could anticipate.

People responded to the pricing signal by thinking about how they used things. They began to use things more cleverly, and source alternate supplies, for example. The “value of nothing” was a response to the fact that “somethings” had a value beyond the immediate market price signal. For example, we might want to subsidise a good or service (like transport, or coal power) for a long-term benefit.

Now let’s wind forward to today. Something quite remarkable emerges.
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Why do sheep need Twitter?

Spot the broadband user in this picture

A House of Lords committee this week declared that British taxpayers must foot the bill for an internet that nobody wants – unless perhaps they have a second home in the country.

Some observations by the committee may be accurate: Britain’s broadband is slower than its rivals. But this doesn’t seem to be what vexes our noble and learned friends. Observations don’t amount to a rational argument – what the Lords are making is a very radical proposal. Huge and open-ended taxpayer funding must be committed, they argue, to build a national utility. One that will largely be used by sheep.

As every one knows, the nation’s finances are in a dire state. The national debt is increasing. So what’s the economic argument for new public spending? The peers won’t say: their report almost completely avoids making the economic case. To our knowledge, no study, public or private, has ever shown any benefit to UK plc from expenditure on rural broadband infrastructure. The committee has a glimmer of understanding how much this will be – citing a four year old Broadband Stakeholder Group study estimating the cost of building fibre to the home to every home as £28bn.
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How to fix the broken internet economy

How can we begin to unpick the tangled mess that the technology and creative industries have created?

There’s certainly no shortage of blame to go around. In the past every new wave of technology has delivered healthy creative markets – but today this is no longer happening.

Just 20 years since the birth of the internet economy, with the advent of the worldwide web, it’s worth asking why. It’s time we looked afresh at where both industries went wrong, and how they can get on the right track again.

Much of what follows will highlight key mistakes made – but before we do that, we need to put them in some historical context. What worked in the past is a fairly reliable indication of what can work again in the future.

The current impasse between technology and copyright sectors is certainly an odd one. Historically, war is the greatest driver of technological innovation of all, but in peacetime it’s the demand for culture and entertainment that spurs the most innovation. People want to see and hear stuff, and are prepared to pay for it.

The cash generated is ploughed into more entertainment – even creating new art forms. (Recall how the first movie dramas were starchy, filmed theatrical plays.) This creates more investment in technology so people can enjoy the entertainment in a better way. Round and round it goes.

At the heart of this virtuous circle, copyright has been the obscure back-room business-to-business mechanism that keeps the players honest. Creators demanded that their industries engage with the new technologies to create new markets, which returned more money for their talent.

As a result technology innovators needed to attract talented creative people, and induce them to produce stuff for their kit: recording their music on long-players rather than shellac, or printing their movies in Technicolor™. So the two sides need each other. Technologists’ incentives were simple: create more amazing gear to deliver the best of other people’s stuff. And each wave of innovation grew the market, and ensured the creators and workers were richer. Remember: No innovation has ever made creative industries poorer.

Unfortunately, the truth of this historical mutual dependency gets forgotten today because the incentives aren’t lined up. Investment decisions in technology services are made without a thought for the health of the creative people who generate the demand for the goods. Creative investment decisions either don’t take advantage of the technology, or are hamstrung in a way that leaves the potential of the technology untapped. Things are also complicated by another factor we’ll call the Unicorn.

I’ll open the catalogue of errors at chapter one, the music industry.
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The Open Rights Group gets rights wrong. Again

oscar_award

When Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock opens his mouth, his foot soon disappears inside. The UK’s leading digital rights advocate has just demonstrated still more difficulty understanding the "rights" the group campaigns about.

At a Citizen 2012 data conference in London yesterday, where he was introduced as "the infamous Jim Killock", Citizen Jim listed the many injustices of the UK’s copyright law.

"The Olympic logo is copyright. The Olympic mascots are copyright. Therefore, reusing them is a breach of copyright and of course parodies using them get pulled down," claimed Killock.

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Windows Metro Maoist cadres reach the desktop, and pound it flat

metro_hubris_450w

The revolutionary dogma of Metro is sweeping through the old Windows desktop, too, a new leak of Window 8 confirms. The leaked build, newer than the public release of a fortnight ago, abandons the 3D design elements introduced into Windows in 1990 for a resolutely two-dimensional world. The ‘legacy’ desktop in Windows 8 is denuded of anything that takes advantage of human depth perception, such as window shadows, gradients or sculpted controls.

It’s a flat, flat world.

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