science

A quadrillion lives are in your hands. We often hear people talk of “protecting future generations”,and there is certainly a lot of value in thinking of your children and grandchildren when thinking about the future – it makes it personal.

But there is an additional way of thinking about this, which carries equal moral authority – that of existential risk at a human-extinction level.

If you use a pan-generational lens, the lives of all of the potential future generations are at stake.

Think about that idea for a moment. The future of human history.

It changes our perspective: we are familiar in considering genocide as abhorrent, but we are not used to thinking of omnicide (or ecocide) as even a credible threat.

You can also contextualise this by thinking of the differences between (a) peace, (b) 99% extinction, and (c) 100% extinction. What are the relative differences between (a), (b), and (c)?

Arguably the Manhattan Project was the first time we’d formally assessed the potential for omnicide – the study looked at whether a nuclear blast would create a chain reaction in our atmosphere, potentially destroying all life.

With an economic lens, we could consider our current financial markets as a “flawed realization” – we may have reached a technological maturity, but our financial infrastructure may be dismally and irremediably flawed: and a systems change needed to remedy it. It certainly has succeeded in ephemeral realization – but this spike of value is countered by our global consciousness of our bounded condition and is degrading rapidly.

The image of our island Earth has taken a generation to kick in.

Humanities “production possibility” frontier depends on the resources available at any point in time, but the amount of accessible free energy is finite and bounded. Whether we are 1 billion or 10 billion.

The distance between the reality of physics and the reality of our economic and social structures are so great, that it’s hard to envisage any material solution.

When we look at facts, such as the fact we have lost four fifths of arctic ice volume since 1980, that cleantech is already a $trillion dollar industry (about 1% of planetery GDP), or that PWC think that there might be some kind of “business as usual” scenario in a 6C world  we know one thing: we have to change. Typically change doesn’t happen slowly: it waits a long time, then happens much faster than anyone expects. We need to remember that to create the problems of an industrialised world, we spent *multiples* (not fractions) of our GDP. While this has created many kinds of wealth, the systems-cost, the existential risks, are still struggling to be truly taken on-board.

I wonder, now, what change we will see in our generation, and if we will even be in a position to reflect on what was needed to make a meaningful difference.

I view environmental sustainability (including but not limited to climate change) as an existential risk. In the systems design of our economic, resource-scarce, finite and bounded ecosystem, there is a desperate need to create meaningful mechanisms to engage, at scale and in the mainstream, that enable people to discuss, understand and act on their environmental impact.

In an age of fiduciary, evidence-based decision-making, our balance-sheets are missing volumes of data.

We have tried to create laws, processes and standards (e.g. Kyoto, Climate Acts, ISO), and ratings (e.g. green scores) but none have managed yet to scale to hundreds of millions of people and businesses and dozens of countries in any meaningful way.

There are many, many reasons for this, but looking forward, we have new tools (the web, open data, new currencies, pervasive networks), and new ways to drive collaboration. In order to catalyse engagement, we can now create different starting points: the rest is down to collaborative (p2p) engagement between people with the absolute minimum of hassle (e.g. understanding methodologies, zero or low financial costs of change, and minimal time and effort) to improve our insight. We then need to automate everything, so the lowest barrier to entry is to do nothing at all (we’re all busy and/or lazy to change unless confronted).

One question is “how can we influence our Treasuries?”. I wonder who will be the first to truly bring change here – governments in the EU, China, or the USA? or Kickstarter and BitTorrent? Or who will be the first to join up our global data-ecologies to reveal the health benefits of energy efficiency, the true financial impacts of education, or the social benefits of codified law.

To catalyse change needs many forcing-functions: policy has a role and will play a greater role over time, but until then we will continue to rely on the goodwill and foresight of the small number of inventors, innovators, influencers that have actively engaged in trying to make a difference. We need to build more success stories, based on evidence, and redirect our collective energies at scale. And fast.

Essential reading
http://www.nickbostrom.com/existential/risks.html (you may find Existential Risks PDF easier to read)

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RIP Patrick Moore

December 9, 2012 by

Very few public figures have influenced me over the years – Patrick Moore was an exception.

As a friend of my aunt, he wrote to me when I was 8, sending letters and copies of his books. Being on Arran, the skies were dark, and even the Milky Way visible on a clear night.

Fast-forward 10 years and I’m studying Astronomy at Glasgow University, then working at Jodrell Bank on Radio Astrophysics.

Fast-forward another 10, and I’m working at an early start-up, Virgin Net, where one evening we held an “webchat” with Sir Patrick. We then went for dinner.

Fast-forward another 10, and I’m in discussion with Sky at Night magazine about writing a feature, and separately with Chris Lintott on related projects.

I know his enthusiasm for Astronomy was felt by many of my peers.

Thank you. Goodnight, and RIP.

And now, go outside and look at the stars.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20657939

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/dec/09/sir-patrick-moore

http://boingboing.net/2012/12/09/sir-patrick-moore-1923-2012.html

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My slides from O’Reilly’s Strata conference “Making Data Work” today.

I described some of AMEE’s journey: through open data aggregation and distribution, accessibility, provenance,  and structure. But better data isn’t enough – no one (well, a few) really cares about the science or the technology. We need to engage with stakeholders to provide meaningful insight and relevance to their business. AMEE will be launching a new initiative this year to create an environmental score for every company in the UK.

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During the Olympics Opening Ceremony, the creator of the web tweeted “This is for everyone” to millions of people around the world.

Decades since their invention, we are still discovering and unlocking value from the innovations catalysed by the open web, open internet, and open source. The Open Data Institute‘s mission is to demonstrate and unlock the value in Open Data.

Today, I am joining Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt at the ODI, as its CEO.

The ODI is a start-up – the first of its kind in the world. We have ambitious plans, and aim to have a substantial and positive impact for many, many people.

  • Incubate and catalyse innovative new companies
  • Help large and small companies develop and derive value from open data
  • Provide the right environment to inspire, train, and develop world-class talent
  • Enable organisations publish high-quality open data
  • Help shape standards in this emerging space

We have had fantastic support across the political spectrum, from academia, from the private sector, and from individuals.

Open Data creates the potential for anyone to innovate. The web was created using, and exists because of, open source and open data. I want to explore how we can best deliver;

  • data presented in a structured, “machine-readable” form so that data can be used by and between services (for example, using Apps)
  • data that is addressable via the internet and can therefore be linked together

I believe that

“information causes change, otherwise it’s not information”
James Burke, dconstruct 2012

There are massive benefits of getting this right. Governments, businesses, and individuals around the world are gradually coming to understand the power of data. The World Economic Forum has now categorised Personal Data as a new “Asset Class”:

“Personal data is the new oil of the Internet
and the new currency of the digital world.”

Meglena Kuneva, European Consumer Commissioner

And this is just the beginning: there is an emerging shift in our collective understanding of the power of connected, addressable information.

The ODI will help us reveal this power, guide us towards best practices, fair usage, and empower a new generation of innovators to create value – and in this definition I include economic, environmental, and social value.

What is Data?
This may seem like an obvious question, and to help anchor our language I want to be clear what this means. We live in an age where almost everything is, or will be, digitised. We are familiar with government spending data, health statistics, company financial reports, school assessments, and our own personal records. We are less familiar with data that is collected when we (as governments, businesses, or individuals) use the web, or devices that generate new data (such as location data from your mobile phone, or using Facebook).

I see two trends here: one is a growing set of opportunities for innovation – creating new services that improve our lives, the other is a growing sense of anxiety – that we are monitored and not in control of our information. I want to address both these areas.

What is Open Data?
Firstly Open Data does not mean “all data”, or that it’s a free-for-all. For example, your personal health data is extremely private. There are benefits, for example aggregated anonymous statistical analysis can help us make better decisions. There are also risks – we know that companies, governments, and individuals are not always as well equipped to handle information as we may want.

Examples (please send me more – I am keen to learn!)
- Public data released around MRSA has contributed to reducing death rates
- Company data released around environmental data has helped to catalyse the transition to  more energy efficient operations
- And even remarkable stories involving individual data could help to find new cures…

 

NB: I will remain on the board of AMEE.

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I’ve been tracking Arctic sea ice melt for over 5 years – we now seem to have broken the 2007 record. There are a few week left in the melt season, so this isn’t the minimum yet….

More from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Earth Observation Research Center

More from the USA National Snow and Ice Data Center

Opinion from The Guardian

Note the grey bar, indicating the +/- 2 standard deviations range.

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This is good news:

“Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG) Linked Data Platform now hosts more than 270 million Resource Description Framework (RDF) statements….The data is now being updated in real-time and new triples are being dynamically added to the datasets as articles are published on nature.com.

Available at http://data.nature.com, the platform now contains bibliographic metadata for all NPG titles, including Scientific American back to 1845, and NPG’s academic journals published on behalf of our society partners. NPG’s Linked Data Platform now includes citation metadata for all published article references. The NPG subject ontology is also significantly expanded.

The new release expands the platform to include additional RDF statements of bibliographic, citation, data citation and ontology metadata, which are organised into 12 datasets – an increase from the 8 datasets previously available. Full snapshots of this data release are now available for download, either by individual dataset or as a complete package, for registered users at http://developers.nature.com.”

http://www.nature.com/press_releases/ldp.html

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ISEA 2012

May 29, 2012 by


I’ll be speaking at the Eighteenth International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA2012 Albuquerque.

Machine Wilderness is a symposium and series of events exploring the discourse of global proportions on the subject of art, technology and nature. The ISEA symposium is held every year in a different location around the world, and has a 30-year history of significant acclaim.

Acoustic Cosmology will be included in the “Radical Cosmologies” track.

Update: I’m speaking on “The Utterance of a Cosmological Model” in Hotel Albuquerque: Sandia Room at 2:30pm.

The “Radical Cosmologies” theme will gaze at the universe and question our place in it. It will explore a wide range of creative perspectives and practices around the cultural, scientific and philosophical possibilities of contemporary astronomy. This theme will incorporate various forms of media, written word, performance and installation, as well as workshops, community-based actions, lectures and online projects to offer viewers fresh interpretations and experiences of cultural myths, indigenous histories and contemporary science.

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Two pieces really struck me today. I think we can expect to see this form of direct action increasing. The issues (control of resource, environmental sustainability, and social sustainability) are intrinsically linked, but the shift that appears to be happening is of awareness, urgency, and engagement in direct action.

Chomsky’s piece in the Guardian is “what next for Occupy“;

“Coverage of Occupy has been mixed. At first it was dismissive, making fun of people involved as if they were just silly kids playing games and so on. But coverage changed. In fact, one of the really remarkable and almost spectacular successes of the Occupy movement is that it has simply changed the entire framework of discussion of many issues.”

The other was NASA’s James Hansen & Co. starting direct action against the distribution of coal – below is an open letter that Hansen has sent to Warren Buffet (I’ve copied as his website seems to be offline at the moment).

Coal Trains and Warren Buffet Request

The following Letter to Warren Buffet can be found on my website.

Sent By Mail:

Warren Buffett
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
3555 Farnam Street
Suite 1440
Omaha, NE USA 68131

Dear Mr. Buffett:
We want to inform you that on Saturday, May 5th, from midnight to midnight, we intend to prevent BNSF coal trains from passing through White Rock, British Columbia to deliver their coal to our coastal ports for export to Asia. We have chosen May 5th to take this action because it has been designated an International day of action by 350.org, with the theme “Connecting the Dots.” We can’t think of a more important connection to emphasize than the one between burning coal and putting our collective future at risk.

Who we are and why we are prepared to engage in civil disobedience to stop your coal trains:
We are a group of citizens in British Columbia, Canada who are deeply concerned about the risk of runaway climate change. There is a broad scientific consensus that we must begin to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions this decade to avoid climate change becoming irreversible. At the same time, governments and industry are eager to increase the production and export of fossil fuels, the very things that will ensure climate change does get worse.

These two things are irreconcilable, and since we can’t dispute the scientific findings or change the laws of nature, those of us who care about the future must do what we can to reduce the production, export and burning of fossil fuels – especially coal.

Since we know what is at stake we feel a moral obligation to do what we can to help prevent this looming disaster.  On Saturday May 5th that means stopping your coal trains from reaching our ports.

Our actions will be peaceful, non-violent, and respectful of others. There will be no property destruction. We are striving to be the best citizens we can. We will stand up for what we believe is right and conduct ourselves with dignity.

Why we are involving you:
We know that you have canceled plans to have your utilities build coal fired power plants. Like us, we are sure you know that coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels; when burned it produces the most global warming pollution per unit of energy. We assume you are familiar with the growing number of scientists – including NASA’s Dr James Hansen, and IPCC member Dr Andrew Weaver – who warn us that if we burn the world’s accessible coal reserves we will destroy the benign and hospitable climate that has allowed human civilization to flourish.

What we can’t understand is why you allow your railway, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, to continue shipping vast amounts of US coal out of Canadian ports to be burned in Asia. No matter where this coal is burned, it brings us closer to a climatic point of no return.

Mr Buffett, you have spoken eloquently about the need for shared sacrifice. But with all respect sir, when it comes to climate change it appears that other people are doing all the suffering while you profit from the very causes of the problem. That’s not fair, and we urge you to apply the same moral reasoning to the climate crisis as you have to the problem of economic inequality in your country.

You are in many ways an important figure of conscience in the world. We appeal to you to seize this opportunity and make a bold decision on coal. With your support we can ensure a healthy future for our children and people around the world.

We acknowledge that this action is taking place on unceded Coast Salish territory.

Sincerely,

British Columbians for Climate Action
http://stopcoal.ca
@stopcoalBC

cc:
Chief Willard Cook, Semiahmoo First Nation (sent by fax)
Andrew Weaver, University of Victoria
James Hansen, Columbia University
Bill McKibben, 350.org

Specific details on our intention to stop your coal trains on May 5th:
For 24 hrs on May 5th we are prepared to stop all loaded coal trains traveling west/north that approach mile 122 (White Rock pier) on the New Westminster Subdivision, Northwest Division, of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.  From dawn to dusk on May 5th we will also stop all unloaded coal trains traveling east/south approaching mile 122.

We will not interfere with other freight trains using this line on May 5th, nor will we interfere with the movement of Amtrak Trains using the New Westminster Subdivision on that day:

  • Cascades # 513, passing mile 122 at approximately 7:40 a.m. en route to Bellingham;
  • Cascades # 510, passing mile 122 at approximately 10:30 a.m. en route to Vancouver;
  • Cascades # 517, passing mile 122 at approximately 6:45 p.m. en route to Bellingham; and
  • Cascades # 516, passing mile 122 at approximately 9:50 p.m. en route to Vancouver.

We will step off the tracks well in advance of the arrival of Amtrak service. Our spotters to the south and north will give us notice of the approach of any freight traffic, and we will step away for these trains as well. A 21 MPH speed restriction is in place for some distance both sides of mile 122 of the New Westminster Subdivision, which is the site of a well used foot crossing that is safe and familiar to both pedestrians and train crews.We are confident that we can safely remove ourselves from the tracks to allow the passage of Amtrak service and freight trains.

Our spotters in the USA and Canada will provide us with notice well in advance if coal trains are moving anywhere on the New Westminster Subdivision on May 5th. We ask you to stand down all coal traffic on this day in order to avoid a confrontation at mile 122 and potential disruption of passenger rail service.

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A sneak preview of some of the work I’ll be presenting on Sunday.

Below is a radio-image taken by ALMA of the “Antennae Galaxies” colliding. We have transformed the image-cube data, in which each pixel represents an electromagnetic radio spectrum, into a sonic spectrum. By clicking the image and moving your cursor around you can “play” a spectrum of the colliding galaxies.

Spend some time moving slowly around the red(redshifted) areas – there is a surprising richness to the harmonics for such a simple sonification.

Note: this loads a 62MB data-cube before displaying (still working on a compressed version) … it could take many minutes to appear if you are on a slow connection – it did take these photons 70 million years to reach us, so please be patient while they go the last few bit-miles!

To view & listen, I recommend you open this link in a new tab while you are reading this post.

To get a sense of the picture at optical wavelengths, here’s the HST image .

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“On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human in outer space and the first to orbit the Earth. 2011 sees the fiftieth anniversary of that event…”

As part of my ongoing work on Binary Dust, I am speaking at Heavenly Discourses on Sunday 16th October 16:45 – 18:00. PANEL: Music

I’ll be presenting new work (including sounds and pictures derived from ALMA) that my great collaborators, Andrew Newsam and Julie Freeman, have helped me with (thank you!).

Here’s the abstract of my paper. I am delighted to have been accepted – esp. as I’m one of the few/the only non-institutional presenters at the conference.

The utterance of a cosmological model?

A conjoining of languages, Acoustic Cosmology is an attempt to describe our audible worlds – a 21st century progression of the music of the spheres – a narrative of acoustic sculpture within n-dimensional space. With no intentional stance on sound as a cultural construct or phenomenology, we openly explore links between cosmology and music, using the language of mathematics and sonic art.

Building on the works Trevor Wishart and Jean-Pierre Luminet, and developed by professional astronomers and musicians, we question and connect the fabric of these non-verbal languages.

Using cosmology and sonic art as its basis, this paper will provide a journey of discovery – a basis for discussion in the junction between music and astronomy, opening up new methods of comprehending scale, connection, depth and complexity. Sound examples and visuals will be included in the presentation.

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