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Monday Topsight, July 24, 2006

20060724_soho.jpgThe temperature here hit 100° in the last hour or so; it's a bit insane to say that this cooling trend is welcome, but when a projected max of 103° is the lowest max temperature in about a week, it's unfortunately accurate. 108°, well above today's projected 103°, so never mind that. Heat records are falling all over the place, from the US west coast to Europe. The old saying is that "there are no atheists in foxholes" (arguably subject to dispute); perhaps the new one will be "there are no global warming skeptics in 110° heat." (Photo of the Sun from NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observer website.)

• Droning On: An unrelated pair of reports about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- also referred to as "drones" -- should be looked at together. On July 14, an Israeli warship was hit by what was reported to be a cheap UAV outfitted with explosives, operated remotely by Hezbollah. Although subsequent reports attributed the blast to a conventional anti-ship missile, military analysts note that Hezbollah has been testing UAVs for just this sort of attack. Around the same time, New Scientist reported that Lockheed-Martin's new "Polecat" UAV, designed as a technology demonstrator, consists largely of parts printed in a 3-D printer.

The technique is widely used in industry to make prototype parts - to see if, for instance, they are the right shape and thickness for the job in hand. Now the strength of parts printed this way has improved so much that they can be used as working components.

About 90 per cent of Polecat is made of composite materials with much of that material made by rapid prototyping.

"The entire Polecat airframe was constructed using low-cost rapid prototyping materials and methods," says Frank Mauro, director of UAV systems at the Skunk Works.

You can see where I'm going with this. As the costs of 3D printing technology continues to plummet, and the capabilities of fabber systems continue to improve, we're heading into a world in which 4th Generation Warfare groups don't have to rely on shipments of weapons such as attack UAVs, but can simply print up a batch themselves. Mike Treder at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has written some important essays on the question of the intersection of molecular manufacturing and military capacity. What the combination of stories about possible Hezbollah UAVs and Lockheed-Martin 3D-printed UAVs is that we won't have to wait until the advent of nanofactories to see what this problem looks like -- or to start thinking about ways it can be handled.

• Noah Way: Régine at We Make Money Not Art offers up the ARK movement, an art/design/political "collective" in Europe trying to change how we deal with disruptive change by advocating a post-apocalyptic design, investment and behavioral aesthetic.

This is an example of the "we've lost, we give up, let's figure out what to do next" concept that a variety of green bloggers recently attributed to Stephen Hawking (incorrectly). As such, I find the ARK movement proposal to be enormously irritating, especially its calm assertions that disastrous global warming, peak oil and similar problems are simply inevitable. (That the ARK page is filled with misattributed references, scientific fuzziness, and annoying grammar/spelling errors simply compounds the problem, at least for me.)

But ARK has managed to come up with a truly interesting proposal amidst all of this: the Paradigm Index. From the WMMNA post:

The paradigm index is a reworking of a stock-market/share index. It is a way of measuring your investment. However you are investing in intrinsic value as it relates to world collapse, as opposed to investing in abstract value as it relates to market growth. The paradigm index takes a set of date from C02 level rise, peak oil production predictions and social and political trends such as wars and social break down. It works as a means of gauging your investment in a certain scenario or set of scenarios. As intrinsic value is linked so closely to a certain set of external parameters you can gauge its increase against proof of the manifestation of those external parameters.

From the ARK page:

The paradigm index is a calculation of many global factors into an index between 0 and 10. 0 being the complete sustainability and 10 being complete global collapse. Of course it’s a little more complex than that but that’s the basis.

You can track your value against the paradigm index by investing in products and skill sets that are designed for a specific index rating. As you track the progression of the index towards that paradigm rating, the value of your products and skill sets increase. This in-turn will increases your value and appeals to Ark collectives.

There's no reason why a Paradigm Index must only have negative elements, of course. An OtF-style Paradigm Index might also include measurements of (for example) the use of open source software internationally, the readership of open access science journals, the approach of molecular nanotechnology, and so forth. One could assemble portfolios focusing on projects and programs that drive the overall Paradigm Index towards 0 (in the ARK model, this indicates high sustainability), or look for investment/action opportunities that would undercut the factors pushing us towards 10. Presumably, one could also "sell short," and profit from civilizational collapse, but those folks will be first against the wall.

• Marin Börjesson Is Right: Martin Börjesson runs Futuramb, a futurist consultancy in Sweden, and is one of the most thought-provoking futurist bloggers I've yet encountered. Martin does me the honor of writing an essay this past weekend taking on my "12 Things Journalists Need to Know..." post from awhile back.

Martin starts out by saying that most of the items on the list were "missing the real point" of futurism -- although he notes that he's not the target audience for the post, in principle, so the advice doesn't necessarily apply to him. (He's correct, here; I wrote the post with general-feature journalists in mind, not foresight specialists.) His rationale is that most of the points on the list pay too close attention to the individual prediction and the "one-issue-at-a-time" approach to thinking about the future. I'd disagree somewhat, as part of the point of the list was to try to break journalists out of the "futurism=spot prediction" mindset, but I see what he's saying, and agree fully: thinking about the future isn't imagining future events, it's uncovering the processes that will drive future events.

Martin puts it this way:

When focusing on the quality of individual predictions I think we fail to see that they really are small parts of an emerging pattern or lens we collaboratively are putting together. The more pieces we can integrate the better lens we will get. A lens through which humanity can perceive and identify what is relevant for our long term future. [...] I think the best futurists are those that have identified and described the best pattern which helps organizing the zillion of facts we can see around us. Futurists are in a sense (like poets?) “synthesists” who are interpreting to world around us and is involved in formulating and developing lenses which help the rest of us see the whole world in “a grain of sand”.

Martin Börjesson is right.


I've had discussions with Chris Phoenix at CRN in that past about what the most powerful and important aspect of molecular manufacturing and, more specifically, nanofactories is. He says it's tremendously greater performance of nanoscale-manufactured products. I agree that that's likely, but I think the biggest impact will come from fabbers that can increasingly reproduce //themselves//. An enemy that can make cheap war machines is one thing; an enemy that can make cheap war machine //makers// is something else.

The critical thing I find about recursive fabbers is that, unlike the higher performance nanoscale-engineered products, you don't need a fabber to WORK at the nanoscale to realize the power of recursive fabrication. That being the case, we're likely to see them in the field much sooner that nano-engineered war machines. eg: http://reprap.org/

I agree, Jamais, this week might have marked a turning point for climate change "theory". With data in about the first half of the year being the warmest Jan-June on record for the US, and now all-time heat records being broken daily, denial would appear to be futile. Combined with Gore's movie, we would have reached a watershed moment in history, but the water's done evaporated aleady and is on its way up into the atmosphere, where it prepares to deluge on some unsuspecting future innocents.

The idea of a "lens" suggests that we apply different filters and it is somehow possible to see the entire picture. This perspective suggests that our problem is our limitation to absorb the entire picture so that we must digest it a piece at a time.

I think this view is wrong. I believe that rather we build models for analysis. Then we only change models when we are convinced that the current model in use is breaking down. In other words, our world view is a synthesis of experience and perception and not an analysis. The analysis is the description and justification of the synthesis.

The importance of this empirical view (rather than the rational view) has a great deal to do with how we listen to one another.


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