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There are no crew on spaceship Earth -mixed messages about Mars

Posted on 19 March 2015 by JasonK

TED 2015 is on right now in Vancouver and while I am not there (one day:) I have been watching the various media streams when I have a moment.

What I was struck by on the first day was what I think is a profound dissonance between a couple of presentations on the general topic of missions to Mars and the implications.

While I recall previous talks by Prof Brian Cox “Why we need the Explorers” and various others over the years in support of the general thesis I was very interested in Lucianne Walkowicz was talking about this year.

Contrast the comment attributed to Elon Musk (below) “50,000 people living on Mars by 2050″ with a more sobering assessment by Walkowicz.

Lucianne gave a TED talk in 20111 Finding planets around other stars so she has a different perspective to most of us. Marcus Wohlsen of Wired.com has been writing about #TED2015 this week – scroll down to Day one or search on the title “TED Day One: Mars Isn’t a Good Backup Plan for Humanity” or for another view On blazars, quantum computers, and looking for life on Mars: A recap of TEDFellows Session 1 at TED2015

“But the biggest challenge to an audience steeped in Silicon Valley pieties was astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz. Her work involves looking for what she called “choice alien real estate,” searching the cosmos for planets that might be hospitable to life. “The more you look for planets like earth,” she said, “the more you appreciate our own planet itself.” Among the planets that don’t quite measure up is Mars.

Mars might have been inhabited by life once, Walkowicz said. But these days, she said, compared to earth, it’s a pretty terrible place to live. She pointed to the fact that humans have so far failed to colonize the least hospitable places of our own planet, such as deserts, which have the advantage of a rich, highly oxygenated atmosphere. Aspirations to colonize Mars, as described by Walkowicz, have an air not of innovative ambition, but of giving up.

If we can figure out how to make Mars habitable by humans, she said, we ought to be able figure out how to keep earth habitable for humans, too—an effort at which we are currently failing miserably.

That last statement about how we should “figure out how to keep earth habitable for humans” really struck a chord with me (italics are mine.)

Here is a talk she gave earlier. When this years talk is released on video I will update this post with the new clip. Lucianne is not some disinterested bystander; she works on the NASA’s Kepler mission so to hear her frame her talk in this way is significant.

Many years ago Marshall McLuhan was quoted as saying – “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew”. What I think Lucianne is saying is that we aren’t behaving like crew and really solving the big issues that face earth. Instead we are like a bunch of passengers trying to get off to the lifeboats of Mars.

I’m surprised that given that #TED2015 is being held in Canada that quote is not being mentioned. I’m guessing that McLuhan himself may have been referencing “Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth which is a short book by R. Buckminster Fuller, first published in 1968″.

In my view the short version is that we shouldn’t give up on spaceship earth – despite it being a hard question to ask and answer. Like in the famous “Space Seed” episode of StarTrek 1967 I’m paraphrasing here – Khan says despite the improvements in technology, we humans are still much the same and in 2015 that is still the case.

I look forward to the video of  Lucianne’s latest talk but in the meantime here is another quote by her.

For anyone to tell you Mars will be there to back up humanity is like the captain of the Titanic telling you that the real party is happening later on the life boats,” Walkowicz said. “It is hubris to believe that interplanetary colonization will be enough to save us from ourselves.

What do you think?

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Ed Snowden at TED 2014

Posted on 24 March 2014 by JasonK

Last week Ed Snowden appeared at the TED 2014 conference via telepresence robot. Of the 2046 registered TED members who have rated that talk so far most of the votes were that the presentation was “courageous” and “informative”.

ted-ed-snowdonI would encourage everyone who is interested in the balance between individual privacy and security intelligence ( oxymoron alert right there) to watch this video and the follow up by the NSA spokesperson (Richard Ledgett) which came a couple of days later.

Here is a snippet of the transcript where Edward (ES) is talking about the PRISM programme.

“ES: The best way to understand PRISM, because there’s been a little bit of controversy, is to first talk about what PRISM isn’t. Much of the debate in the U.S. has been about metadata. They’ve said it’s just metadata, it’s just metadata, and they’re talking about a specific legal authority called Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
That allows sort of a warrantless wiretapping, mass surveillance of the entire country’s phone records, things like that — who you’re talking to, when you’re talking to them, where you traveled. These are all metadata events.

PRISM is about content. It’s a program through which the government could compel corporate America, it could deputize corporate America to do its dirty work for the NSA. And even though some of these companies did resist, even though some of them — I believe Yahoo was one of them — challenged them in court, they all lost, because it was never tried by an open court.

They were only tried by a secret court. And something that we’ve seen, something about the PRISM program that’s very concerning to me is, there’s been a talking point in the U.S. government where they’ve said 15 federal judges have reviewed these programs and found them to be lawful, but what they don’t tell you is those are secret judges in a secret court based on secret interpretations of law that’s considered 34,000 warrant requests over 33 years, and in 33 years only rejected 11 government requests.

These aren’t the people that we want deciding what the role of corporate America in a free and open Internet should be.”

Further into the conversation Ed notes the the difference between public interest and national interest and that there are many more revelations to come. (CA) stands for Chris Anderson who was asking the questions.

ES: “The public interest is not always the same as the national interest. Going to war with people who are not our enemy in places that are not a threat doesn’t make us safe, and that applies whether it’s in Iraq or on the Internet. The Internet is not the enemy. Our economy is not the enemy. American businesses, Chinese businesses, and any other company out there is a part of our society. It’s a part of our interconnected world. There are ties of fraternity that bond us together, and if we destroy these bonds by undermining the standards, the security, the manner of behavior, that nations and citizens all around the world expect us to abide by.

CA: But it’s alleged that you’ve stolen 1.7 million documents. It seems only a few hundred of them have been shared with journalists so far. Are there more revelations to come?

ES: There are absolutely more revelations to come. I don’t think there’s any question that some of the most important reporting to be done is yet to come.”

Here is the clip.

“CA: Sorry. Do you think there’s a deeper motivation for them other than the war against terrorism?

ES: Yeah. The bottom line is that terrorism has always been what we in the intelligence world would call a cover for action. Terrorism is something that provokes an emotional response that allows people to rationalize authorizing powers and programs that they wouldn’t give otherwise. The Bullrun and Edgehill-type programs, the NSA asked for these authorities back in the 1990s. They asked the FBI to go to Congress and make the case.

The FBI went to Congress and did make the case. But Congress and the American people said no. They said, it’s not worth the risk to our economy. They said it’s worth too much damage to our society to justify the gains.

But what we saw is, in the post-9/11 era, they used secrecy and they used the justification of terrorism to start these programs in secret without asking Congress, without asking the American people, and it’s that kind of government behind closed doors that we need to guard ourselves against, because it makes us less safe, and it offers no value.”

Tim Berners Lee was on stage for a couple of questions at one point.

“CA: And Ed, I think you’ve read the proposal that Sir Tim has talked about about a new Magna Carta to take back the Internet. Is that something that makes sense?

ES: Absolutely. I mean, my generation, I grew up not just thinking about the Internet, but I grew up in the Internet, and although I never expected to have the chance to defend it in such a direct and practical manner and to embody it in this unusual, almost avatar manner, I think there’s something poetic about the fact that one of the sons of the Internet has actually become close to the Internet as a result of their political expression.

And I believe that a Magna Carta for the Internet is exactly what we need. We need to encode our values not just in writing but in the structure of the Internet, and it’s something that I hope, I invite everyone in the audience, not just here in Vancouver but around the world, to join and participate in.”

Feel free to join the debate over on the main TED site – Edward Snowden

The talk about a magna carta for the internet is a clear marker for the divide between concerned internet users and those in the “intelligence community”. We see the debate in terms of privacy and the protection of hard won freedoms of speech and thought and yet the NSA claims the same interests prevent them from doing that.

For New Zealanders the claims by Ed that the NSA is proactive to weaken legal protections and encryption technologies globally is one to watch. In this story just last week Snowden: US helped create loopholes in NZ law

“NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden says the United States’ spy agency has helped find or create loopholes in New Zealand law to enable widespread spying.

In testimony to the European Parliament, the exiled former NSA worker said the agency’s Foreign Affairs Division put pressure on other countries to change laws to create legal gaps through which mass surveillance could be carried out.”

… and later in that article it says:

“In listing New Zealand among countries targeted, he said: “Each of these countries received instruction from the NSA, sometimes under the guise of the US Department of Defense and other bodies, on how to degrade the legal protections of their countries’ communications.”

Cyber rights group Tech Liberty’s spokesman Thomas Beagle said the new laws introduced in New Zealand last year appeared surprisingly quickly.

“It was like someone had it sitting in a drawer ready to go. Who is really writing these laws.”

He said the greater concern was the lack of oversight. “It’s never being able to test what they are doing what they say.”

It seems like the NZ government is being disingenuous in claiming NZ is acting independently when behind the scenes deliberate measures are being taken to undermine trust and faith in the very government it seeks to protect.

After TED managed to get Ed Snowden to present they also asked the NSA if they wanted to offer their view. That presenation was delivered via video conferencing and Richard Ledgett: The NSA responds to Edward Snowden’s TED Talk gave a somewhat defensive pitch on behalf of the NSA.

Crucially Ledgett agreed that a greater level of debate over the governance and activities was needed. He still strongly believed that Snowden should have used internal mechanisms at the NSA to raise his concerns but as Edward noted those avenues were not available to contractors.

Ledgett clearly has had some media training and none of the questions put to hime were disclosed in advance so he did well to present an alternative view of the various NSA programmes but in the end he wasn’t that convincing and in my view gave a more idealogical viewpoint than something that would help to rebuild trust and faith in the NSA processes and various oversight structures.

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Chinese Growth & the Implications

Posted on 03 February 2014 by JasonK

Back in Oct 2012 I spotted a new book by economist Dambisa Moyo on the rise of the Chinese economy and the pressure on global resources. The thesis of that book was challenging then and now in 2014 we are getting used to the idea it is the Chinese economy rather than the US one which influences trade and global business health.

As Dambisa notes in her introduction to a talk she gave at TED Global last year Is China the new idol for emerging economies?

From the transcript – here are some of the key points

“there’s understandably a deep-seated presumption among Westerners that the whole world will decide to adopt private capitalism as the model of economic growth, liberal democracy, and will continue to prioritize political rights over economic rights.”


“However, I am saying that on balance, they worry more about where their living standard improvements are going to come from, and how it is their governments can deliver for them, than whether or not the government was elected by democracy.”

“The fact of the matter is that this has become a very poignant question because there is for the first time in a long time a real challenge to the Western ideological systems of politics and economics, and this is a system that is embodied by China. And rather than have private capitalism, they have state capitalism. Instead of liberal democracy, they have de-prioritized the democratic system. And they have also decided to prioritize economic rights over political rights. I put it to you today that it is this system that is embodied by China that is gathering momentum amongst people in the emerging markets as the system to follow, because they believe increasingly that it is the system that will promise the best and fastest improvements in living standards in the shortest period of time”.

You get the idea. This kind of thinking is very challenging to us in the West but we are a minority.

She goes on to state that China’s record in lifting 300m of its people out of poverty and improve their living standards dramatically. OK that is excellent but the next point is one where I have serious misgivings.

Second, China has been able to meaningfully improve its income inequality without changing the political construct…However, these two countries have the identical GINI Coefficient, which is a measure of income equality. Perhaps what is more disturbing is that China’s income equality has been improving in recent times, whereas that of the United States has been declining.”

And the slide for this is shown below. From my research the trajectory of the Gini numbers does not follow what other sources indicate.


In other words – income inequality has been rising in China as well as in the U.S and this is not a point I would raise in support of any arguments in favour of the Chinese model because it is plainly wrong.

The Economist (magazine) noted that China released Gini numbers for the first time in 12 years and the number of .474 was not supported by real research.

In the China Digital Times they raised extreme doubts on the Gini numbers when commenting on the same news item. Tracking Chinese statistics is extremely difficult but some other indicators could be used such as the massive growth in the number of billionaires in China.

The Wall St Journal in an Oct 2013 article – Number of Chinese Billionaires Skyrockets

“It also implies a widening of wealth inequality,” she added. According to a survey by researchers at China’s Southwestern University of Finance, the top 1% of Chinese families own some $1.6 million in assets, compared to an average of $368,000 per Chinese family.”

According to some UBS sourced numbers there are now 157 billionaires in China.

“The US tops the list with 515 billionaires having an eye popping net worth of $2,064 billion. This is over three times the number of billionaires in China, which has the world’s second largest billionaire population of 157. The total worth of the Chinese billionaires is $384 billion—about one-fifth of corresponding US figure.”

Whatever the number – other indicators on credit growth and banking suggest that China has some major financial challenges to surmount this year.

It doesn’t make any sense to me to over sell the Chinese success story by quoting unsupported Gini numbers.

I believe we also do not get a real idea of the level of public and private dissent inside China itself. As living standards have been raised – expectations on other matters are also rising.

In most rapidly changing economies regardless of the politics what we see are small elites grabbing power and the money that goes with that. The difference in China is that we don’t hear much about this because the media is very tightly controlled still.

Dambisa’s thesis is that “economic growth is a prerequisite for democracy” rather than the other way around.

“What this is telling us is that we need to first establish a middle class that is able to hold the government accountable. But perhaps it’s also telling us that we should be worried about going around the world and shoehorning democracy, because ultimately we run the risk of ending up with illiberal democracies, democracies that in some sense could be worse than the authoritarian governments that they seek to replace.”

My question is when we get to the point where the “middle class” in China wants something different – how is that to be navigated? What does the West do then? Do we continue to stand by in the face of human rights inequities because it makes economic sense or what? And how do we interpret protest in China – not so easy. “One way to make sense of this disparity is to understand this: in post-Tiananmen China, not all protests are created equal.”

In other words – I believe that Chinese citizens on the ground are every bit as interested in human rights but we don’t get to hear about it and now most of the economic benefits have been delivered to the tradeoff is going to become more apparent.

And this is where Dambisa ends her talk. From the transcript again

“But I put it to you that if the United States and European countries want to remain globally influential, they may have to consider cooperating in the short term in order to compete, and by that, they might have to focus more aggressively on economic outcomes to help create the middle class and therefore be able to hold government accountable and create the democracies that we really want.”

All things considered it is a well delivered presentation although I remain unconvinced on the Gini

Note: China’s Infrastructure Footprint in Africa suggests that Chinese projects in Africa are mostly focussed on power generation and transport especially rail. There was a comment in Dambisa’s talk that mentions the Cairo to Capetown road was 9000 miles. Not true – it is closer to 4,800 miles or 10,300Km and while there may be Chinese input on that roading project it is far less significant that the rail or hydro projects in Africa. A mis step like that can be distracting but the main point still stands – Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa are vast and noteworthy.

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