You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics

Leaf Cutter Ants
Originally uploaded by Micah & Erin

I was reading The Economist’s featured article on innovation pessimism yesterday. It’s very interesting, and definitely worth reading.

Before I read it, I said to my beloved wife that it isn’t very surprising if innovation is grinding to a halt, given how scientists are underpaid and ridiculed while footballers, reality TV stars and mediocre musicians are treated like demigods, and youngsters spend their time on their phone and on Facebook rather than reading books and newspapers.

However, after reading the article I’m sitting here wondering why the advent of the computer age hasn’t led to an upsurge in productivity. The article in The Economist doesn’t really answer this and optimistically hopes that we’re just seeing a temporary blip before productivity and GDP start skyrocketing again.

However, I can’t help thinking that perhaps it’s something else. It used to be the case that manufacturers would produce new and better products all the time, so that you needed to upgrade your old product. The new one would often be more expensive because of the improved functionality, so prices would go up, and because salaries were index-linked, they would rise too, and everybody would get richer and richer. These days, innovation mainly goes into products that don’t cost much. If you’re using Facebook, you’re always using the latest version. It’s not like people will laugh at the old Facebook in your living room, and you’ll feel obliged to buy a new and better Facebook. So there is no cycle of rising prices and salaries, just a cycle of new and better products at the same price as before.

I’m also wondering about the effect of globalisation. In the old days, developing countries would acquire the old technology of the rich countries just as the latter were creating new products. If this pattern had still been in existence, the outsourcing of manufacturing to India and China would have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of computer programming exclusively in the West. In other words, we’d be exporting computer programs to them while importing manufactured products, and the rich world would remain ahead. However, now programming can be done just as easily in Asia as here, and we don’t seem to be developing anything new that we’re better at than them. Surely the consequence of this will be that we can’t maintain much higher salaries in the West in the longer term, which will be a very painful adjustment.

Finally, I can’t help thinking that a larger and larger part of humanity is essentially redundant. Of course some people will need to work in menial jobs that cannot be automated (yet), for instance producing food or collecting rubbish, and other people will have very rewarding jobs on the top, creating entertainment (music, TV and smartphone apps) for the entire planet. However, a lot of people in the middle aren’t smart enough to be at top but won’t be needed in farming and production. Are we perhaps getting to a situation where we need to create jobs simply to keep people occupied and the economy ticking along? Should we abolish unemployment benefit and similar welfare payments and instead give entrepreneurs a lot of money simply to employ people? Or should we just introduce a citizen’s income?

Tau Zero

I decided to read Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero because I was getting frustrated with the physical implausibility of most science fiction, in particular the ubiquitous use of the warp drive (i.e., faster-than-light space travel), and I had heard that this book explored space travel at slightly less than the speed of light.

Although this did turn out to be the case, I was ultimately frustrated, however. The book’s conclusion (which I won’t reveal here) strikes me as being just as physically implausible as the warp drive.

Why is there so little science fiction that is physically (and biologically) plausible? Most SF that doesn’t involve warp travel instead uses sleeper ships where the crew is kept in some form of stasis, but that is assuming some biological developments that are by no means certain to happen.

According to the principles of relativity, time on a space ship travelling at speeds close to light will slow down so much that putting the crew into stasis isn’t necessary at all. Why doesn’t this form of space travel get explored more? Is it considered too boring?

I think it would be fascinating to explore the cultural and linguistic diversification of worlds unable to interact in real time.

Fractal architecture

Ornate ceiling
Originally uploaded by subblue

Everybody knows fractal images (such as the Mandelbrot ones). They are normally two-dimensional, but three-dimensional versions do exist, too.

With the emergence of 3D printers, it has suddenly become relatively easy and cheap to print out such three-dimensional fractal shapes.

I can’t help thinking that if you use the largest 3D printers that are designed for printing houses, it would suddenly become feasible to get computers to design and build fractal houses.

I’m not sure anybody would really want completely fractal rooms inside their house — I would certainly prefer a smooth floor and a window in every room — but I’m sure the technology could be used for making houses that at least on the outside looked much more organic. There would be no reason to build smooth concrete surfaces when the house printer could just as easily create beautiful details everywhere.

I imagine it would be slightly similar to Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, which is also full of endless details.

HTML5 metric clock

Three years ago, I added a metric clock to this blog, but I later redesigned the whole site and the clock got lost.

In the meantime, HTML5 has been getting more and more widespread, so I think it’s now time for an HTML5 metric (or decimal) clock:

Your browser is not capable of displaying an HTML canvas. 🙁

(Based on an ordinary HTML5 clock.)

Just in case any readers might have forgotten my definition of metric time and dates, here’s an edited version of what I wrote nearly five years ago:

I think the basic unit should be the day, so that we get some nice units such as deciday (slight less than 2.5 hours), centiday (almost 15 minutes) and milliday (almost a minute and a half). Just a shame there’s no SI prefix for 1/100,000, because this fraction of a day is the closest one would get to a second (0.864s, to be precise). I guess people would just say “second” in everyday speech and mean 10µday, just as “minute” would be a sloppy way of saying milliday.

Looking at longer time scales, the decaday could replace the week, the hectoday the month, and the kiloday the year. It would of course have the slight drawback that holidays wouldn’t fall on the same point in each kiloday (because it wouldn’t be aligned with the solar year), but moslems already have a similar problem with their calendar, so I’m sure we’d get used to that quickly. A ten-day week would lead to different working patterns, I guess – seven days at work and a three-day weekend, perhaps?

To honour the people who introduced the metric system in the first place, I think kilodays should be counted from the start of the French revolution, that is, day 0 would be 22nd September 1792. That would make today (12/06/12) day 80,251 (kday 80, hectoday 2, decaday 5, day 1).

Scottish phone numbers after independence

Originally uploaded by zigazou76

Once Scotland becomes independent, it would be natural to get its own international calling code instead of the British +44.

My guess is that Scotland would get +424 – it’s similar to +44, it’s available, and it’s in the European block.

There’s of course nothing that would prevent Scotland from stopping there, resulting in phone numbers such as +424 (0)141 639 9718. However, this would be unnecessarily long.

There are only two three-digit area codes in Scotland, (0)141 (Glasgow) and (0)131 (Edinburgh); these could easily be mapped to one-digit codes instead, such as (0)4 and (0)3.

Similarly, the four-digit codes could be mapped to two-digit ones, e.g., (0)24 instead of (0)1224 (Aberdeen). (See all the current area codes here.)

After shortening the area codes, all Scottish phone numbers would effectively have only eight digits in total, so perhaps the area codes could be permanently fused with the phone numbers, just like it happened in Denmark a few decades ago.

A few examples:

Area Current 1st stage 2nd stage
Glasgow, 0141 +44 (0)141 639 9718 +424 (0)4 639 9718 +424 4639 9718
Edinburgh, 0131 +44 (0)131 348 5200 +424 (0)3 348 5200 +424 3348 5200
Aberdeen, 01224 +44 (0)1224 272 000 +424 (0)24 272 000 +424 2427 2000
Isle of Arran, 01770 +44 (0)1770 600 341 +424 (0)17 600 341 +424 1760 0341

Moving the UK to CET/CEST

Crazy Timezones
Originally uploaded by tm-tm

The UK government’s recent idea to move the UK from GMT/BST to CET/CEST and the Scottish Government’s refusal to play along is quite interesting.

Let’s have a look at various locations in the UK and compare it with a city on the same longitude but further south, Málaga:

Equinox (23/09/2011):

Location Sunrise GMT/BST Sunset GMT/BST Sunrise CE(S)T Sunset CE(S)T
Inverness 7:05 19:13 8:05 20:13
Glasgow 7:05 19:13 8:05 20:13
Belfast 7:12 19:19 8:12 20:19
London 6:49 18:56 7:49 19:56
Málaga 7:07 19:13 8:07 20:13

Obviously there’s not much difference between any of these locations, and one might argue that CEST is a better time zone at this time of the year.

Summer solstice (21/06/2011):

Location Sunrise GMT/BST Sunset GMT/BST Sunrise CE(S)T Sunset CE(S)T
Inverness 4:20 22:17 5:20 23:17
Glasgow 4:33 22:04 5:33 23:04
Belfast 4:49 22:02 5:49 23:02
London 4:44 21:19 5:44 22:19
Málaga 6:00 20:38 7:00 21:38

At all of the UK locations, the sun rises at an impossibly early time, so either time zone is feasible in the morning. In the evening, either time zone is feasible in Scotland, but I can understand if people in London would rather have brighter evenings.

Winter solstice (22/12/2011):

Location Sunrise GMT/BST Sunset GMT/BST Sunrise CE(S)T Sunset CE(S)T
Inverness 9:00 15:30 10:00 16:30
Glasgow 8:48 15:43 9:48 16:43
Belfast 8:47 15:58 9:47 16:58
London 8:05 15:52 9:05 16:52
Málaga 7:28 17:04 8:28 18:04

This is the problematic time. In London, it’s probably not a big deal whether the sun rises at 9 instead of 8, and they would enjoy having daylight until 5pm (and this tendency is even more pronounced in Málaga). However, in Northern Ireland and Scotland, it would mean not seeing the sun till around 10am in the winter, which makes for very depressing mornings.

I must therefore support the Scottish Government’s stance on this – moving to a time zone further east makes good sense the further south you are, but north of 50°N it’s not a good idea (remember also that most of the UK is further west than London).

I probably believe so more strongly because of growing up in Denmark. In Denmark, schools normally start at 8am, not at 9am like in Scotland. The effect is therefore the same as if Scotland moved to CE(S)T. And I must say that I found going to school in the winter utterly depressing, and I was very happy to move to a country where people get up later in the morning.

Happy New Kiloday!

If metric time had been introduced as I suggested, today would be the beginning of kiloday 80.

So Happy New Year (or should that be Happy New Kiloday?)!

It’s a very special day, of course. The beginning of kiloday 70 took place on the 19th of May 1984, so quite a lot has happened in the past myriaday (metric decade), and I guess the celebrations last night would have rivalled the millennium parties if only this calendar had been adopted already.

I actually wonder whether myriadays would be a better way of remembering history than either decades or centuries – have a look at this:

First day Old calendar
70,000 19 May 1984 Collapse of communism, rise of Islamist terrorism and globalisation
60,000 1 January 1957 The Cold War, building the welfare state, oil crisis
50,000 16 August 1929 The Depression and WWII
40,000 31 March 1902 The build-up to WWI, the war itself, and the boom afterwards
30,000 12 November 1874 The second industrial revolution
20,000 27 June 1847 Revolutions and civil war

It’ll be interesting to find out what will happen in this metric decade, which will end on the 19th of February 2039 (by which time I’ll be 67 years, or rather 24 kilodays old).