Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The man who rediscovered the future

Recently I encountered a Margaret Atwood quote. She said that during the slavery era in the USA many people deplored the situation but felt that nothing could be done as slavery seemed an essential part of the economy. And so it is today with our current attitude towards fossil fuels. Most educated people accept that through our use of hydrocarbons we are creating an environmental time bomb. And, moreover, in order to feed our oil habit we must trade with states which are at best non-democratic and at worst active supporters of extremist fundamentalist regimes. And yet it’s felt that, as in the era of slavery, we just have to accept this because this is how our economy works.  

Even without the environmental damage the fact that the supply of fossil fuel is finite demands that sooner or later we have to find alternatives. But the apparent lack of options supports denial of the consequences. The result? A near future doomed to be much like the present and a more distant future that people just don’t want to think about.


It was not always like thus. The future, as seen from the 1960s, seemed very different. The huge technical achievements of the Second World War and the early 1950s seemed set to continue. When the movie 2001 was new, in 1968, Stanley Kubrick's vision, with nuclear powered spacecraft out roaming the rings of Saturn, seemed a reasonable extrapolation of present technology. 



Project Apollo, and it’s counterpart in the Soviet Union, was ongoing and funded by huge amounts of taxpayer money. An engineering culture that was as generously funded as the wartime Manhattan project developed. Space technology became, because it could be, an enormously expensive business. Yet the technology that largely underpinned it had been devised quickly and often on shoestring budgets during the war. Small teams of clever young people had been set very difficult targets and created jet engines, radar systems and  the beginnings of digital technology.  

When 2001 actually dawned progress had  slowed considerably. By then the Space Shuttle was the pinnacle of space achievement. It had been created, at enormous expense, as a way of reducing the cost of spaceflight.Yet the cost of access to space remained very high. By 2008, following a second fatal accident, it was heading for retirement and the USA had no serious replacement. Space was costly and dangerous and the USA had no particular need to go there. And, except when there was a little government funding available the aerospace industry had effectively abandoned space flight.

World wide the automotive industry was equally moribund. A few big multinationals were churning out a range of largely equivalent models. There were a few outliers, Toyota with their hybrid Prius managed to become a taxi drivers favourite but the closest the mainstream came to innovation was the environmental absurdity of diesel powered private cars. As mentioned in an earlier blog an electrified future for cars had seemed possible as early as 1910 but despite a few private and taxpayer funded initiatives electric vehicles seemed permanently parked on hold.  

One might be excused for asking, what happened to the future? How had the shining future that  had seemed so plausible in 1968 got lost?

In fact many bright young people, who were the spiritual children of the technological wizards of the 1940s, were hard at work. They had been busy engineering the internet and the new tools that grew out of information technology. And out of these ranks stepped someone who was ready to take on the dinosaurs of the aerospace  and automobile industries. And he would use the culture and practices of Silicon Valley.

That man is Elon Musk.  Barely 15 years ago he was just another rich geek who’d made millions out of the internet.  Musk sought out areas that were overdue for innovation.  An early endeavour was his take on on-line banking, this eventually became PayPal. Then Musk moved into an area of technology where previously only companies backed by huge amounts of taxpayers money had dared to tread. This was the field of  space technology.  Soon afterwards he got in on the beginnings of the Tesla car company.

Musk did more than finance two companies. He had grand goals for both of them. SpaceX was intended to radically reduce the cost of access to space. And the Tesla car company was to make electric cars. Musk has stated on a number of occasions that his goal is to reach Mars. He has another goal to make personal transportation independent of fossil fuels. 

Musk  brought with him a different kind of engineering culture. The aerospace and automotive worlds had a certain way of doing things. Traditionally they had deep management hierarchies with clearly drawn divisions between workers, engineers and management. They'd been structured like this for decades. But things had started out differently in the software world. The first software engineers had to design systems, write code and get it all working. And the Silicon Valley software engineering culture had a much shorter management chain. The chief executives often came up through the ranks having started out writing code. Musk himself did this. 

The aerospace and the automotive industries had taken to ‘outsourcing’ a lot of their essential engineering and manufacturing. Such a strategy reduces the risk and spreads the development effort. In any case, the strict traditional divisions between engineering and manufacture means that the actual hardware can be built almost anywhere. For a lot of the big names of manufacturing that means China. And outsourcing manufacturing means outsourcing jobs.

But the outsourcing approach means the supplier companies don’t always produce the optimum solution.  Moreover, in the automobile industry, where rival manufacturers share a common ‘automotive supply chain', it tends to steer all the competitors towards the same path.  A company such as Bosch may supply a similar product to different, competing manufacturers. Over in the area  of space technology outsourcing is justified on the grounds of spreading those taxpayer created jobs more widely. 

When Musk started SpaceX and got involved with Tesla he specifically picked engineers who were ‘hands on’. It was the Scrapheap Challenge/Junkyard Wars type of people that Musk recruited. An early photograph from Tesla shows JR Staubel, who is now the CEO of Tesla, assembling a battery pack for the prototype Tesla Roadster.  And not only were the engineers expected to get their hands dirty, the men managing the companies were expected to have, as Musk has, a complete understanding of the technical issues.  
        
And it wasn’t just the organisation structure that Musk has changed with SpaceX and Tesla. It is also about manufacturing ‘in-house’. This is what is referred to as vertical integration and is exactly the opposite to outsourcing. Vertical integration had Tesla and SpaceX creating, within their own premises, progressively more of their subsystems. They are designing and making even circuit boards. This has reduced costs and ensured that the product does exactly what the engineers want it to do. For Tesla this also means that cars like the Model S have a system architecture that is completely under the control of Tesla’s engineers. It lends itself to the approach where software derived improvements to performance and economy can and have been downloaded overnight to the car. (This isn’t completely impossible for other car companies but is much more difficult as vehicle functionality is distributed across a number of third party supplied subsystems.)



Musk has spent the last 15 years innovating in areas where big aerospace and big automobile had ‘proven’ that no other ways were possible or even desirable. Musk has shown that the difficult art of rocket science is still within the grasp of the USA and what’s more that there are ways of doing it that are cheaper than even the Russians and Chinese can find.

Musk has proven that not only can electric cars be practical they can compete at the luxury sedan level with the best in the world.  And there’s plenty more to come. Musk’s strategy of vertical integration is now being extended to include battery manufacture and this is essential in order to bring down the marginal cost of batteries and enable his stated goal of a mass-market electric car with a range of better than 200 miles.

In SpaceX another great milestone was recently passed when an orbital launcher was recovered and landed vertically under autonomous control. This was a challenge that has never even been attempted by 'big aerospace'. And the Tesla Model S is a luxury automobile which can have the performance of a supercar and include all the latest automated gadgets.

Musk's efforts have been a catalyst for change. Now,  the automobile big names are finally rushing to bring electric vehicles to market. Mercedes have announced four new electric vehicle projects for 2017. And General Motors have a new electric car design, the GM Bolt which is set to sell for $30000 with a 200 mile range. 





Here is a video of the Falcon 9 landing.  




The work of Elon Musk has meant that, once again,  innovation means real change. He is a great engineer and a great visionary and more than that, Elon Musk has rediscovered the future.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The lost world of electric powered transport

There's a much loved fantasy genre, Steampunk, where steam power never lost its preeminence as the dominant technology. But, surprisingly, there's a real alternate reality where electrical vehicles dominate.


In 1900 one of the worlds great cities, New York, was serviced with electric powered taxi cabs, vehicle charging points and battery exchange facilities. In 1908 an electric vehicle was driven on the dirt roads of the mid western United States. From Lincoln Nebraska nearly 1800 miles to New York. With many of the stages between recharges over 100 miles in distance. Fritchle

Electric powered mass transport, trams, followed the electrification of cities. This started in the 1880s. City electrification started with electric lighting but that meant demand was primarily in the mornings and evenings. The power companies sought a reason to sell power in the daylight hours so their plant could be kept running. Electric trams were developed in Germany and they provided the answer.  And what an improvement they were! Previously cities were dominated by the exhaust pollution of horses! The smell of horse shit was all pervading and the clean, quiet and reliable electric trams provided a welcome alternative. Electric_trams

In 1911 there was a railway line from Seattle in the west to Chicago. At the time the only technology capable of handling  the gradients of the Rocky Mountains were electric powered trains. And the Rocky Mountains themselves provided hydroelectric power  and copper mines to wire the railways.



This was a world where Thomas Edison and Henry Ford planned a mass market electric vehicle and where a transcontinental electric railway looked set to connect the North American east and west coast.

Science fiction? Not a bit of it. This was our world, up to 1914. It is described in Edwin Black's book. Internal_combustion_Black In this fascinating book Black promotes the thesis that, following the discovery of oil in Texas, the USA abruptly changed direction towards hydrocarbon powered vehicles. The tram tracks were ripped up and replaced by petrol fuelled busses and these were eventually largely abandoned to private cars. (Chrissie Hynde in her bio Reckless recalls how, in the 1950s, whole subdivisions of lovely residential homes were torn down to build freeways through her hometown of Akron Ohio.)

The USA and Europe became addicted to oil and has gone to further and ever more extreme lengths to service that addiction. Black recounts a history where  control of the fuel supply, whatever it was, has been a fundamental aspect of life. First the timber supply was controlled by the monasteries and then by an aristocracy who set supply levels and prices, this from the 10th century. Then coal came into use (see Hostmen_of_Newcastle_upon_Tyne) and finally oil. The periodic supply shortages generate big profits.  And even after a big scare the suckers keep coming back for more. Since the 1973 oil crises we've had ever larger, less economical private vehicles introduced. 

But what if the developed world had not gone the oil route  in the 20th century? The electrical technology of the early 20th century did offer a viable alternative. The fundamental characteristics of electrical machines offer some big advantages. An electric motor is a very simple machine.  An electrical current is produced whenever a loop of wire is moved through a magnetic field. And any electric motor is also, simultaneously, a generator.

Apply power to an electric motor and as the current flows it will turn. And as it turns it also starts to generate electricity in the opposite direction to the electrical current supplied. This is what is known as BEMF, Back ElectroMotive Force. When starting up the motor doesn't generate much BEMF because it is turning slowly. So the motor draws a lot of current from its supply. The high current flows into it and produces lots of power to get the thing turning. Very useful in a heavy railway train or tram and in a car it can give a ferocious acceleration.

As the motor picks up speed more BEMF is produced and so the current drawn from the supply is reduced. Eventually an equilibrium speed is reached where the supplied current almost equals the BEMF.  There has to be a little extra current to overcome turning resistance and aerodynamic drag. It is this characteristic that makes the electric motor so effective. It's also so much simpler than an internal combustion engine with its pistons shuffling up and down, valves opening and closing and various liquids being pumped around.

When it's time to slow down again the input current can simply be removed and the motor will start to slow. But the machine can be slowed more rapidly and electric current, the BEMF, fed back into the battery. This is how hybrid cars such as the Prius achieve economy. In stop start driving the Prius is more economical because when slowing energy is recovered to the battery. This is reused when the car next accelerates. Electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla also use this technique. It is usually referred to as regenerative braking. The Fritchle car in the top illustration used regenerative braking - Fritchle called it electrical braking.

With combustion powered vehicles the energy of braking is simply wasted. In fact in high performance cars disposing of the heat caused by braking can be a major issue. In fact, in combustion engined vehicles keeping all the various fluids: cooling water, lubricating oil, hydraulic brake fluid, at the right temperatures and pressures places a huge burden on the design. Moreover, a gearbox must be used just to generate sufficient torque to even get the car moving. The internal combustion engine is only really powerful within a small speed range, usually about 3000 revolutions per minute.

That such a limited propulsion system as the gasoline powered car should come to dominate 20th century propulsion, especially in competition with the quiet and elegant electric vehicles, is a long story and that is the story told in Edward Black's book.


But it's fascinating to speculate on what an electrically powered 20th century might have been like.
The character of aviation would have been completely different. Without the petrol car market Rolls Royce would not have made the Merlin piston engine. Whole fleets of warplanes, the Spitfires, Hurricanes, Mustangs and Lancasters would never have existed.


Battery powered planes? Well they exist now.  Airbus_E-Fan  It took the needs of early 21st century laptop and phone users to mobilise the development of new battery chemistry.  But in that alternate universe we might have had electrical aircraft engaged in dog fights in 1940.

And, it need hardly be said, the current position of the Middle East and its position on the global scene would have been immensely less significant.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Whatever happened to Internal Combustion?

Way back in 1960's the SF author Arthur C. Clarke dismissed the internal combustion engine as an absurd power system needing petrol, water and oil pumped to it in sequence. Perhaps, at last, the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine has been glimpsed.



Lets fast forward to 2030 where the Top Gear 24hr news service is covering the end of an era - the end of production of the last internal combustion powered private car, the Rolls Royce Lucifer. Over to Jeremy in the studio.

"In the same way that wet film photography hung on after most of us had junked our pre-digital cameras, so has the petrol engine. But today the car maker for Princes and Arab sheiks has finally closed its petrol engine product line.

"For those of you who've never experienced a petrol powered car let's take a look at what made those old cars tick. Let's look inside this Audi from 2005.

"And how weird! Three pedals. Throttle, brake and, wait for it, something called a clutch! Missing completely from modern vehicles the clutch was used because the driver had to disconnect the engine from the transmission in order to change gear. Amazing, isn't it. But these petrol engines could really only produce a decent amount of power when turning at one speed - usually around 3000 revs per minute. That's ok when you are travelling down the motorway but to accelerate you have to cycle through as many as 5 different gears. This was done by pressing on the clutch with one foot while simultaneously waggling the gear selector.

"And don't even think about starting the car off on a slope where you had to include another lever, the handbrake, into the ballet.      

"Look at all these dials, as well as speed and fuel level (somewhat like a normal range readout) we have engine revolutions, water temperature, oil temperature, oil pressure. The dashboard might be in a second world war fighter plane.

"So what is it about these petrol engines? This huge, noisy lump weighs over a 150 kgs yet generates only 75KW (100 hp) and then only in short bursts. An electric motor to propel the same car will fit in a small suitcase. But why IS the petrol engine so inefficient?  Well, it's very heavy and consumes a lot of power just moving itself around. Much of the energy is being turned into heat which must be contained and disposed of. And lots of power is lost in the gearbox.

"What is the petrol engine powered car like to drive? With all this weight stuck out in front it's fine in a straight line but cornering was a challenge. Couple that with the need to be constantly manipulating the gear selector and the three foot pedals driving was not a relaxing experience.

"Finally, though, we come to the craziest thing of all. The fuel. A toxic, highly inflammable liquid which was stored in a tank kept as far separated from that snarling red-hot engine as the car's size permitted. Each litre being refined from crude oil, which process alone uses sufficient energy to propel a normal electric car much the same distance.

"And worst of all you had to drive the car to a special 'gas station' to refuel the thing. Just imagine not being able to recharge at home as with a normal electric vehicle! What would it be like if you had to take your phone, every week, to a special place to refill it?

"Finally, hidden beneath all these obvious problems we have the environmental issues. Turning oil into petrol uses energy and creates carbon, and so does delivering oil it. Huge amounts of it. That's before we even get to burn the stuff inside the engine.

"So, if the petrol engine was so crap why did it last so long? Well the point is some pretty big companies made a lot of money selling fuel for the things. Just like tobacco production the fact that the product was dangerous and made no sense made no difference. The tobacco companies were in business and they had the money to buy lots of influence and propaganda. Just like the oil companies.

"The 2015 VW toxic gasses and CO2 emissions revelations was the tipping point. The company that had made the petrol engine drivable turned its attention, seriously, to electric vehicles. Germany already had large amounts of renewable energy but was still burning petrol and diesel. Suddenly all that changed.

"The early advocates of electric vehicles, Tesla, Nissan and Toyota had a new, highly competent competitor. And electric vehicles got a whole lot better.

"Of course, a few reactionaries hung on to the old ways and eventually, as electric vehicles fell in price and became the majority, it became a mark of status to be driven around in an expensive, polluting and downright inefficient vehicle. Being chauffeured around in a Bentley or a Rolls Royce became a bit like being the King in his Coronation coach.

"But finally even this market became unsustainable. And so in 2030 we say goodbye to the internal combustion engine. Now fit only for the hobbyist and the museum.  

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Jeremy Clarkson

The recent VW exhaust emissions affair has been correctly identified by George Monbiot of The Guardian as an example of corporate crime. We’ve come to expect sleazy behaviour from bankers but it’s a disappointment when the engineers are at it too. In this case the damage has been to our health rather than our pension funds. Some of those VW diesel powered cars are emitting more than 4000 times the legally permitted limits. These emissions are nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, substances known to cause emphysema, bronchitis and heart disease. They are also carcinogenic. So who would be balmy enough to defend such an act? Jeremy Clarkson that's who.


Now, in a belated attempt to explain their problem VW have borrowed a strategy from the financial sector by inventing a counterpart to the rogue trader – the rogue programmer.  In their public statements VW, rather than admitting a corporate responsibility, have attributed the creation of the software used to ‘game’ the emissions test to rogue programmers. This, if I may say as an engineer and one time programmer, is about as likely as someone adding an extra wheel to the car without anyone noticing.

The engine management unit, it is said, has a calibration mode which is invoked when the car is on the emissions test equipment. It’s not difficult to determine if a vehicle is likely to be on an emissions test stand – and then select the calibration mode. Seemingly by detecting when only the driven wheels are turning. Simple, yet such software still needs to be specified, designed, programmed and tested. And it will, somewhere, be documented.  It’s ludicrous to suggest that this would be done independently by a couple of software guys.  Of course, had VW really come up with a way to produce such power, fuel efficiency AND a clean exhaust without recourse to large scale use of exhaust additives this would have been huge news within the corporation, all senior executives would have been in the know.

Remarkable is the fact that VW believe that the public are gullible enough to swallow the rogue programmer story. Though I suspect that without the 'rogue programmer' trope VW would lay themselves open to conceding actual corporate responsibility. This would be tantamount to admitting that criminal negligence was part of their corporate culture.

The sad part is of course that the general public, in large percentage, are already swallowing large volumes of expensively generated misinformation produced in the interests of climate change denial. Useful idiots such as Jeremy Clarkson, who made a name for himself by portraying the stereotypical golf club racist bigot, has sprung to the defence of VW and has come out in support of their strategy of hiding the emissions of poisonous gasses.  

So, what does Clarkson say about Dieselgate?

Firstly that creating cheat software to defeat the emissions test was actually the right thing for VW management to do. (Clarkson either made his statement before the VW rogue programmer story was promoted or he didn't believe it either.) And for the following reasons:
a.      That this whole exhaust gas business is just a silly fuss dreamed up by woolly minded environmentalists and Eurocrats. (In the lexicon of professional climate change deniers such as Clarkson those with concern for the environment are always described as woolly minded.)

b.     Clarkson also states that  NOx occurs in great quantities naturally.  It's true that NOx can be produced naturally by lightning strikes but the quantities produced thus are trivially small. They cannot be compared to the NOx at ground level in a city centre produced by diesel vehicles.

c.      Then, in an apparent attempt to prove a double think among environmentalists, Clarkson goes on to claim that the use of diesel fuel was first promoted by environmentalists. In fact big claims were made for  clean diesel by the auto industry, (encouraged by a fuel industry eager to maintain market share). And it seems to be true that diesel engines  produce less CO2 than an equivalent petrol engine. (CO2 is a greenhouse gas that must be reduced in order to avoid further global warming.)  Mercedes Benz even seem to have a cleaner diesel engine. Their system requires a urea additive – a consumable that must be regularly replenished. This offers the possibility that diesels can be cleaned up. But VW didn't manage it.

d.      In a final orgasmic burst of doublethink Clarkson claims it is through the mass marketing of VW diesels the German economy has become strong enough to accept all those asylum seekers. That the doyen of the subtle racist slur should choose such an argument is certainly audacious.  And misses the point that had VW applied its considerable engineering resources to hybrid and electric vehicles the German economy would be just as strong and the atmosphere considerably cleaner.

Of course, it’s impossible to know whether Jeremy Clarkson actually believes anything that he says. He claims not to like electric cars and he’s had a legal tussle with Tesla over an electric car demonstration on Top Gear where the car supposedly ran out of power. Tesla knew from their on-board logging that the stunt was staged. There were similar complaints when Top Gear tested another electric car, the Nissan Leaf. This antipathy to new technology makes him seem like one of those guys who shouted out ‘get a horse’ at broken down Edwardian motorists. Top Gear on Electric cars

But one new technology Clarkson does have a good word for is hydrogen power. Commercial hydrogen production is mainly from fossil fuels by the petroleum industry.  And commercial hydrogen production using the steam reforming method generates huge quantities of CO2 commercial hydrogen_production So, shouldn't we be a little suspicious when the famous petrolhead finally does accept an alternative to petroleum and the new fuel that he raves about is manufactured by Exxon and Shell?

Now a BBC producer recently offended Clarkson by comparing him to Jimmy Savile. Now why would that be?

The BBC having been the means to facilitate a celebrities behaviour turned into a major embarrassment for the BBC when Jimmy Savile was finally outed. I think Clarkson got the push because the BBC didn't have the stomach for another scandal. The Top Gear Live show is sponsored by Shell Petroleum. So how much of Clarkson's predisposition to knock environmentalism and electric vehicles is there because Shell are stumping up the cash?

My guess is that the BBC have been looking for an opportunity to dump Clarkson for some time and big sighs of relief were breathed when he finally gave them one. Clarkson's gone, as you might say, toxic.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Soft Machine

Dr Oliver Sacks died recently. Reading a review of his biography I was inspired to buy a copy of 'On the move: A life.' It makes fascinating reading. Not having read anything from Sacks before I was delighted to find that he writes with an extraordinary fluency.


Now I could dwell on various aspects of Sacks's life that were unexpected but the real interest with Sacks is what he has to say about the brain and the nature of consciousness or self. Sacks has made his examinations of various sufferers of brain anomalies a way of studying how the brain works. I use the word anomaly, rather than defects or illnesses, deliberately. Sacks met sufferers from Tourettes syndrome and other serious ailments. He considered all these conditions just conditions that were removed from 'normal' by a degree and not diminishing them as individuals. In fact he thought that Robin Williams (who played a version of Sacks in the movie Awakenings) had a kind of Tourettes condition which gave him his remarkable gift of quick fire patter.

Sacks was extraordinarily non-judgemental. One of his brothers was schizophrenic and Sacks himself was gay. Despite being told by his mother she considered him, as a gay man, an abomination Sacks took the view that people were what they were and that these conditions were just to be accommodated. That there is no actual human 'ideal' is a fascinating philosophical point. Sacks was a Jew who grew up in wartime London. He had relatives in the camps in Europe. Bombing raids and genocide were carried out  in the name of a master race that had very specific notions of physical and behavioural correctness.


Of the anecdotes that pepper Sacks's bio his tale of a painter who lost his ability to recognise colour is illustrative of how the Sacks technique gives insight into the workings of the brain. After suffering a minor auto accident which did no damage to the patients eyes the subject lost all colour vision. He lost even the ability to dream in colour. Research has revealed an area of the brain which seems to be generally dedicated to adding, as it were, the colour component of perception. This was the area damaged in Sacks's subject.

The implications drawn from this are that the eyes do not 'deliver' to the brain a fully constructed image, as a video camera does, but a collection of raw, largely randomly ordered signals which the brain must learn to process (or decode) into a meaningful image. Computer buffs might imagine, by way of analogy, a bundle of wires delivering signals from the optic source which must then be completely decoded by software into a structured image. With, perhaps in the latter stages of processing, the decoded colour information being added in the appropriate places to a monochrome image.

This 'software' must, somehow, be self organising. It must learn through trial and error how to resolve sensory inputs into meaningful and useful data.  (And, in addition, images recalled in memories and dreams.) This 'trial and error' is referred to as the heuristic technique.

That the brain is a system learning from day one how to decode stimulus and how to manage our arms and legs is implicit. Every infant, it seems, has to learn from scratch how to locate and touch an object in it's vision field. Very little, aside perhaps from the general brain architecture, is hardwired. We are all individuals in the sense that we've all mastered, in our own ways, how to grasp and comprehend our environment. Again this notion of individual methods and processes supports the philosophical position of no ideals or correct behaviours.

Other studies of colour blind people, who's eyes are not delivering colour information reveal that the region usually devoted to colour processing has been 'repurposed' to some other sight related task. Perhaps to extract more graduations of shade from a monochrome image. This kind of thing reveals a brain which is capable of managing physical anomalies and making the best of them. I find myself thinking of it as a very software intensive system with very little 'dedicated, function specific hardware'.

Elsewhere in Sacks's book we learn of a patient with a condition where the fluid, continuous perception of motion, that most of us are familiar with, is suspended. A smooth stream of liquid, tea pouring into a cup, for example, is apparently frozen in stream or absent.  This implies that there's a region of the brain that somehow is ordering the inputs of the visual field into a world of continuous and fluid motion.  The world thus perceived being perhaps more useful than the one imaged by our imperfect human senses.

Despite the apparent flexibility and accommodation of the brain to various shortcomings it is not without some restrictions. Children born totally deaf must be taught sign language within the first 3 years of life if they are to ever acquire language skills. Perhaps, once too long a time has passed without input, those areas of the brain devoted to language are 'repurposed' for other tasks. This also implies that this same region processes language in a high level form. Information that has already been converted to an abstract information stream. A fortunate arrangement as this permits writing to be managed by the same 'subsystem' that deciphers speech.

How the brain learns to process these various inputs is still a mystery. The brain, or perhaps those parts of the brain that are associated with different functions, proceed heuristically to 'discover' how to process, for example, colour information. But heuristic processes must have a 'goal'. Some ideal situation where that added colour information, to use that first example again, as been processed 'correctly.' We know from art that we all generally share a common perception of the visual world. Literature provides us with a view of the internal monologues of others. Somehow or other these heuristic processes that stitch together sensation and experience, for individuals, have manage to converge on an experience of being which is more or less the same for us all.


Sacks was a prolific writer. When he went swimming he kept a pencil and pad by the pool so that he could jot his thoughts down as soon as he was out of the water. He kept writing materials by the bed so that he could record his dreams.  He felt that he could not understand a subject without the kind of deliberate thinking that turning thoughts into narrative requires. I'm with him on this one.


'On the move: A life.' by Dr Oliver Sacks is recommended.



Friday, August 7, 2015

The Big Other

In his book ‘Capitalist Realism’ Mark Fisher discusses the concept of the big Other. The big Other is a name for the imagined rationalisation of various collectively held fictions. These  fictions are known not to be true but somehow, for the sake of the big Other, they must be maintained. Fisher cites the former Soviet Union as going to great lengths to maintain the pretence of being a workers paradise when everyone at all levels within and without the country knew it to be otherwise.


In 1968 Krushchev finally said in public what everyone was thinking, that the Soviet Union had some serious problems. But he did so in a public way. The secret was out so now even the big Other must know the truth! This is what made the revelation so tremendous.

The concept of the big Other is further revealed through Gerald Ratner. Ratner famously ruined his company, Ratner’s the jewelers, by publicly denigrating what his company sold. Ratner, it seems, believed that he was stating what everyone knew, even his customers. After Ratner had made his public statement his customer stayed away in droves, hence the demise of Ratners.  By not  respecting the feelings of the big Other Gerald Ratner had caused the demise of Ratner’a the Jewellers. 

Foreign readers may be interested to know that the British media is subject to a system called the 'D' notice. Notionally government guidelines on what the media should NOT write about for reasons of military secrecy. 

It’s no particular secret that GCHQ are in the business of monitoring communications. It even says so on their website. But back in the 1960s Daily Express journalist Chapmen Pincher got into hot water because he went public with the news. d-notice-system-state-media-press-freedom

As it turned out Pincher was cleared of an accusation of revealing more than the various ‘D’ notices that the UK government issue to media outlets advise. It seems as though the Wilson government of the time felt that the press should have had much less to say on the subject than they did. In fact the British, or at least the English, have been intercepting and deciphering communications since the time of Elizabeth the first. Sir Francis Walsingham

But it seems that the big Other prefers not to know about it. Perhaps the big Other is with Henry L. Stimson who said, "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail." Or perhaps it is just so  the Prime Minister is not required to answer embarrassing public questions on topics that have formally entered the public domain. 

Of course, in defense matters the end can usually be persuaded to justify the means. and they do say,  “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.” But, is does seem likely that the Government also pressurises the media on topics beyond those related to national security.  media-gagged-westminster-child-abuse-ring

It’s a sad fact that Britain seems predisposed to give out knighthoods to child abusers. Former PM Sir Edward Heath may now be joining the racks of Sir Cyril Smith and Sir Jimmy Saville. The Jimmy Saville case being the one that finally convinced the big Other that being a TV celebrity is not enough to provide eternal immunity. 

Mrs Thatcher knew, back in the 1980s, of the accusations levelled against Cyril Smith but it didn't stop her approving his Knighthood.  And it seems that the British police are still afraid to fully pursue their investigations.  establishment-child-sex-abuse   According to a BBC Newsnight report  a Metropolitan police investigation was halted by an unknown senior officer who threatened to prosecute the investigating officers under the Official Secrets Act if they revealed what they had found.

The big Other may have finally accepted that dead or surviving B-list celebrities can be abusers but it is not yet ready to admit the same of politicians.




Monday, July 27, 2015

New Reading, New Writing

Recently I’ve been rereading the book, 'Profiles of the Future' by Arthur C. Clarke. I first bought this collection of speculative essays in 1962. I think I heard a review of it on the radio. (The BBC Light Programme as it was called then). It's interesting to discover what Clarke got right and wrong. 

In fact, this time around the actual reading experience is very different. Reading it on the Kindle for the Mac I can look up references and names as I go. Those of Clarke’s references that I encountered and puzzled over 50 years can now be traced within seconds. And Kindle permits searches of wikipedia direct from the text. 



Reading online is also essential with Will Self in the New Statesman. Will Self -The Who in Concert I can usually get no further than two paragraphs into a Self essay without encountering some word (such as valetudinarian) which has me reaching for Control C to copy whatever stray, (Self would probably have gone with tatterdemalion) from the hinterland of the Oxford English Dictionary that he's come up with this week.

It's also, of course, possible to have the text read to you by the machine and I've used this for proofing text. It gives a different 'take' on the material.

But wait, writing has changed too. This blog has been written, in part, using Apple’s text to speech dictation system. I’m giving it a try. But I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the old silent communion between brain and keyboard though. 

The system does a pretty good job of the translating my speech into text, undoubtedly I will go through it line by line on the keyboard and edit the first draft as normal but creating the first draft should be quicker than my two finger typing skills.


We are all accustomed to seeing business people dictating to their secretaries. It’s been the height of luxury to be able to just open one’s mind and mouth and create. And it seems easy enough when we see it on TV. However, it’s a rather different process in practice. I find it better if I don’t look at the screen while dictating because somewhere in my head my fingers are still itching to get to the keyboard and get my thoughts down the old fashioned way.

Moreover, one of the reasons I write it’s because it allows me to organise my thoughts and formalise them. I have numerous half formed ideas on many topics. The process of actually writing something down is essential to exploring and analysing the idea. During writing the thoughts run on ahead of the typing. The log jam of the fingers on the keyboard seems to allow the brain to go off and find additional points that might have been missed when narrating verbally.

On the keyboard I usually do a first quick draft to get all the points down and then iterate through it deleting duplications and 'burning' as few words as possible. I'm also adding further points or clarifying explanations. Maybe text-to-speech can be used in the first draft. And then the editing, which typically requires a lot of hopping around the text, will be done on the keyboard.    


At the end though speaking to a computer was certainly one of the things Clarke got right. Who can forget, "Open the Pod bay doors Hal." But the enhanced reading experience was not, I think, predicted by him or anyone else. 

That an animal evolved/optimised for hunter/gathering should come up with something as remarkable as a written language is astonishing enough. That every thousand years or so the inventors come up with a new spin on it is, as Will Self might put it, thaumaturgic.