Whatever happened to the driverless car?

 

Is that a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a flying car.

Doubtless egged-on by the hype lavished on driverless cars, wild promises of levitating family autos are all the rage again.

Yup, the prospect of flying to meetings in your own car instead of a helicopter is right back on the agenda.

Terrafugia Flying Car Prototype on Road

See – here is the TF-X, Terrafugia’s bid for aero-motoring immortality. A deeply unsexy prototype that could become a sleek, er, road-legal helicopter-cum-plane.

fly-car-rendering

Call me a bit skeptical but to my untrained eye the TF-X visualised in the pics displays all the aerodynamic qualities of a Corgi toy attached to a lolly stick. Those skinny wings might lift a super-flyweight body – but not something that would conceivably get an NCAP collision rating for a family vehicle.

Since the first object you encounter on the project’s web page is a button labelled “$ Invest”, it’s a safe bet that there’s a long way to go and a lot of cash to burn before ‘une brique volante’ lands in a back garden near you. Ad astra per pecunia you could say.

(And by the way, what’s with the utterly crapola and mega-depressing, round-the-back-of-in-industrial-unit-next-to-the-dumpsters destination of the TF-X in the promo? Failure of imagination or a teeny hint that flying cars won’t fit in normal workplace parking bays?)

But each to his own, I say. It’s your money. If you’re excited enough to invest, be my guest. Really, if you think that road-legal helicopters have a future, I think someone might have a Moller M400 Skycar to sell you.

With driverless cars, at least there are a few potential benefits – like having multi-user vehicles that deliver themselves to drivers. The reason flying cars have remained a pipe dream since the 1950s is they’re basically a solution looking for a problem.

On wait! Silly me. Of course, we’ll soon have self-driving flying cars. Where else could today’s utterly fabulous technology lead us?

The title of this article? Oh, that’s just irony.

Vote Leave dulls down its message

EU-Guide-In         EU-Guide-Out

Did Vote Leave miss a trick when it designed its page in the Electoral Commission’s referendum voting guide? Or does it know something about a dull, impenetrable presentation that everyone else has missed?

Vote Remain pitches in with patriotic colours, punchy headings and big, positive bullets. Not forgetting snaps of happy, smiley people. Who will be..? Stronger! Safer! Better Off!

See? Didn’t even have to read it.

Vote Leave’s page looks like something you’d see wired to a farm gate during a foot and mouth outbreak.

Assuming that many undecided voters will go with their hearts rather than their heads on May 23rd, which of these layouts will leave them with more of a warm, fuzzy feeling if it was the last thing they glanced at before entering the polling booth?

Vote Leave actually has the better-written content, inasmuch as it picks two hot buttons – immigration and the UK’s £350 million weekly contribution to the EU budget – and repeats them. I’m not sure what the UK would do with 660,000 more nurses on top of the 300,000 it’s already got but I get the point they’re making.

Vote Remain blunt their messages in their haste to make a lot of positive points quickly. For example, they flag up the claim that EU membership is worth a net £91 billion a year to the UK economy. But calling it £1,800 million a week would have made it into more of a mind-sized number; much easier for people to sum up as five or six times higher than Vote Leave’s contribution figure.

If this was a contest over substance vs. style, you’d have to award the marks for substance to Vote Leave. But this is one of those situations where style matters a lot.

Vote Leave may have overestimated the importance of being earnest.

Don’t cry for me Fukushima

The race to rehabilitate radiation continues apace at everyone’s favourite Deep State mouthpiece, the BBC.

After Tuesday’s inept attempt on the Today programme to push the case for cutting-down safety levels at the forthcoming (possibly) Hinckley Point C nuke, the PM Programme yesterday ran a slicker piece from – where else? – Fukushima, basically saying that everyone has overreacted to the 2011 post-tsunami radiation escape there.

This time, though, the expert on hand was actually a qualified scientist with a track record in studying the effects of radiation on people.

Professor Geraldine Thomas, of Imperial College, crunched through the wreckage of a home abandoned in the Fukushima exclusion zone in the company of its owner and the BBC’s Tokyo reporter, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes.

Her verdict: although the average radiation level in the zone is 50% higher than the normal background dose you get everywhere, that’s not enough to harm anyone. Implication: don’t worry, rebuild, go home.

From a propaganda point of view, the only bum note was struck by Rupert W-H as he signed off saying: “If the danger from radiation is being exaggerated then it is making the human tragedy at Fukushima much worse than it should be.”

Should be? It’s so BBC to inadvertently imply that there’s a scale of how tragic, costly and terrifying a nuclear accident can be before it’s considered de trop by the powers that be.

Keywords

As the Absorb-a-Millisievert-with-a-Smile campaign develops, keen observers should watch out for certain keywords including ‘death’, ‘radiation’ and ‘on-site’. On Tuesday I though it was a mistake for the pro-nuke person to mention Fukushima but I was wrong.

The idea seems to be to turn ‘Fukushima’ into a shorthand for a situation where the public danger from radiation can be spun as turning out to be less bad than first feared (or, in spin talk, ‘was grossly exaggerated’). Where no-one died from radiation exposure, at least off-site. And where evacuating can be portrayed as causing far more death, misery and destruction than radiation – never mind that reactor buildings are burning and exploding at the time, or that no-one on the site can get at them or to the spent fuel pools.

If the debate over Hinckley Point C’s safety levels can be framed in this way, they can marginalise awareness of many other real issues such as the idiotic cost of the project and the potential scale of non-fatal health impacts from a future accident.

For those, you have to look back past Fukushima to Chernobyl, whose 30th anniversary on 26th April must now seem uncomfortably close to the pro-nuclear lobby. It’s surprisingly hard to get a handle on the scale and geographical spread of issues such as birth defects and genetic disorders arising from the Chernobyl accident. The World Health Organisation has put the potential toll of premature deaths as 4,000 although many believe the WHO’s estimate to be much too low.

Time will tell. But when someone rocks up on Today in year or two, saying a corners-cut version of Fukushima is good enough for Hinckley C if it saves a billion, just nod along with them and say “What could go wrong with that?”

Outlook Mailchimp junk folder workaround

Fossil fuel-powered industrial civilisation may be hitting limits to growth but life goes on in inboxes everywhere.

If you use Outlook and want to be tough on spam and the causes of spam, then you’ll have set your junk mail rules to send everything to the junk folder unless the sender’s address is in your whitelist or address book.

Unfortunately, that means that OK stuff sent through the likes of MailChimp ends up in your junk folder because the ‘from’ address is different on pretty much every message.

That’s when you find that adding a catch-all to your whitelist like ‘*@rgsrv.net’ doesn’t work. Messages still end up in junk, needing to be found and fished out manually.

You can download lists of all MailChimp’s sender addresses and add them to your white list but there’s an easier workaround, which uses Outlook’s search folders.

  1. First create a new search folder by right clicking on the Search Folder section heading in the folders pane at the left of the Outlook window.
  2. A set-up panel opens up. Give the new folder a name – I call mine ‘Not junk’. Next, click Browse and select Junk from the folder list as the folder to include in the search. Click OK.
  3. Next, click Criteria and, on the Message tab, click the drop-down arrow next to the box labeled ‘In:‘. Click the ‘subject field and message body option’ to select it.
  4. Now go to the box above, labeled ‘Search for the word(s):‘ and add your keywords, separated by commas. Obviously you’re looking for words or phrases that are unique to the emails you want to catch with the search.
  5. When you’re done. click OK and OK again. Your new search folder will open up showing (hopefully) just those emails and newsletters you want to read. If some of them don’t show up, try using different keywords.

Once you’ve created your ‘Not junk’ search folder, you can put it in with your other favourite folders with either drag and drop or right-clicking and choosing ‘Add to favourites’.

You can add, remove or change keywords at any time by right-clicking the search folder and clicking the Criteria button.

Remember that Search Folders don’t move messages. They just show you a filtered selection of what’s in a folder (or folders). Any messages in the ‘Not junk’ search folder you want to keep must be moved to another folder or they’ll be deleted the next time you empty your physical Junk folder.

Conditional formatting

Another way to pick out ‘wanted’ newsletters in the junk folder is to use Conditional Formatting (under Folder Settings) to automatically change the font colour in the list of messages. But you still have to scan down the list to check for them whereas the search folder method presents you with only the ones that matter.

The extraordinarily good record of the nuclear industry

Woke up yesterday morning to hear someone on the BBC Today programme seriously suggesting that we should weaken nuclear safety standards to make atomic power more affordable.

It was in a segment (starts 50 minutes in) pegged to the continuing woes afflicting Hinkley Point C.

To recap quickly, the finance director of intended plant-builder EDF Energy resigned on Monday. Why? Well, he judges Hinckley C’s financial prospects to be so dire that they’ll sink his company if the project goes ahead. And that’s in spite of vast taxpayer subsidies, a guarantee of extortionate electricity tariffs and that ‘we saw you coming’ price tag of £18 billion – half the bill for HS2 for one power station.

The air is tremulous with the sound of huge bets going massively wrong. The bet on unlocking loads of (some … any?) domestic natural gas via fracking. The bet on a ‘friendly’ gas pipeline from the Gulf – a bet that’s a big reason for the desperate brawl tearing up Syria. The bet that nuclear power might ever provide affordable AND SAFE base load electricity.

As unpalatable situations go, this one is up there with a decomposing frog sandwich. Procrastination, wishful thinking and willingly doing the Neocons’ bidding have got the UK exactly where you’d expect. Which is:

  • Plan A. Pour blood into sand for years to come in an unwinable play-off for oil and gas between the US-dominated bloc, the Gulf states, Russia and the many – often overlapping – proxies of all three.
  • Plan B. Pay whatever ransom is demanded by anyone capable of building us a nuclear power plant.
  • Plan C. Anyone got a plan C?

Now, we know the BBC could no more allude to a state of affairs in which Plan A exists than it can ever come to terms with its high-level culpability for the long reigns at Broadcasting House of Jimmy Savile and other molesters of the airwaves.

That leaves the option of selling – sorry ‘examining the issue of’ – Plan B. So with the first hour of Today rapidly closing in on the weather, Sarah Montague introduced a ‘nuclear specialist’ to discuss the ballooning price tag for Hinckley Point C. What, she asked, Malcolm Grimston of the Centre for Energy Policy and Technology, makes it so costly?

”It is a big plant. It is going to generate 7% of our electricity. But nonetheless what we have seen is, as safety system is piled on top of safety system, this has become enormously complex as well as having a vast number of pumps and valves and the like associated with that.”

Right, ‘pumps and valves and things like that.’ Easily explains why Britain’s next nuke could cost, what, £20 billion allowing for the inevitable overruns.

OK, let’s forgive the shaky start. Doing live radio can be a tough gig at ten to seven in the morning.

Mr Grimston had another run at explaining why nuke safety has got out of hand and ought to be reined in to keep the price down:

“Given that the safety record of nuclear power is so extraordinarily good – I mean a single accident in the whole of its history that has had health impacts off site – I’m sceptical as to whether this is really the way forward,” he began.

Woah! How do you jumble up the letters F-U-K-U-S-H-M-A and C-H-E-R-N-O-B-Y-L and come up with ‘extraordinarily good safety record’?

nuke-accident

Had Today introduced Mr Grimston as what he is, that is a career-long PR person and advocate for the nuclear industry, this would have been the moment for the presenter (note the term) to go for his attempted spin like the Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh savaging Sir Lancelot.

Instead, apparently for the benefit of not-quite-awake-yet listeners, Montague fed him a neat summary of the pitch he was there to sell:

“So are you saying that we should remove some of these layers of safety to ensure that the next generation of nuclear plants are built?”

Grimston:

“Well I think you have to reach a level of safety – which I think we have reached in the nuclear industry – whereby the chance of an accident is extremely small. But we learnt from Fukushima that, actually, the health effects of nuclear accidents are not the radiation – nobody, certainly off site, and probably even on site at Fukushima – is … we’re not going to be able to detect anybody dying as a result of radiation … the evacuation has killed an awful lot of people.”

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It’s so easy to do. I know I have. A friendly ‘presenter’ lobs you a ridiculously soft ball just before they cut to to the weather and you not only fluff it, you end up mangling your message until it looks like the shredded, bloody leftovers from lunch with the Rabbit of Caerbannog.

DON’T MENTION FUKUSHIMA. Yes, no-one’s (yet) apparently been killed by radiation there. But many people died during the emergency evacuation of nearby settlements carried out to avoid exposure to escaping radiation. And two clean-up workers have died of heat-induced heart attacks at the site under the strain of working in full-body radiation protection gear, including masks and helmets covering their entire heads.

Grimston’s claim that “we’re not going to be able to detect anybody dying as a result of radiation” stretches credibility to the absolute limit.

(Sigh). It’s surprising how many take-aways can come out of a two minute slot.

  1. Nuclear accidents do kill people (but not on site, so that’s OK)
  2. ‘Safe’ nuclear plants are stupidly uneconomic to build. But it’s apparently not stupid to reduce safety levels to make them slightly less stupidly uneconomic in the hope that someone will be stupid enough to sign up to build one.
  3. It may be that, like Churchill’s take on democracy, nuclear power is the worst non-fossil-fuel energy option available to us – except for all the others. But if the foregoing lamentable exchange is the best debate the BBC and the industry’s finest spokesperson can come up with, God help anyone hoping to find out.

What if God is an ant?

I happen to think that life, the universe and everything is almost completely a matter of entropy. Once you’ve had the big bang, the rest is energy gradients.

Entropy explains how life starts, evolves and ends – or organises, attenuates and dissipates if you prefer.

Many people don’t like that idea because of the mindbogglingly ginormous levels of chance required to arrive at a planet like earth, let alone a planet like earth with an advanced industrial civilisation necrotising its way across the surface. (I say, get over it. The universe is a big place and it’s happening all the time.)

Of course if we’re not random, we must be designed. And if so, there must be a designer – though for reasons unknown, he or she remains undetectable by human senses or any kind of physical instrument.

Conveniently, this designer, humans decided, is very like us. Well, depending on which tradition we’re talking about, he or she may be many-headed, animal-like or somewhat Greco-avuncular … including the curly silver hair, robes and sandals. Whatever, the Designer’s described behaviours in nearly every tradition fit a human pattern: protective, destructive, petulant, creative, inconsistent, forgiving, angry, nurturing, genocidal, and so on. Mirror mirror on the wall.

Is that right? It might be. But the usual line from the Designerists is that questioning who or what God actually is is borderline wicked. Conventionally, our our default approach to deity should be to exhibit the kind of abject humility witnessed in many species of social animals when an outsider is trying to gain acceptance to an existing pack or tribe.

Ours is not to reason why.

Too right it isn’t. Because if one is going to ask questions one of the first ones might be why, out of all forms of life on the planet God might possibly resemble, he or she would choose to conform to the characteristics of that Johnny-come-lately homo sapiens?

Why not sea sponges? They’ve been around for 750 million years. Or jellyfish (500 million years). Jellyfish are great survivors. Or better still, ants. Admittedly ants are a bit nouveau — being only 100-ish million years old as a species — but so far they’ve been way more successful than humans.

They’re simple, strong, organised and sustainable, which would seem to be a good set of starting criteria for a supreme being. Ants operate at a scale whereby something like 10 quadrillion (that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000) of them exist in almost every corner of the globe and would seem to be able to do so indefinitely barring some kind of asteroid-induced cataclysm or whatever.

Humans-‘made-in-God’s-image’, on the other hand, weren’t especially sustainable once we invented farming, and have rapidly squeezed ourselves into a bottleneck since unleashing fossil energy.

So if there was a god who, crucially, wasn’t interested solely in what mankind selfishly thinks is best for itself, it’s surely more likely that he/she/it is more like an ant than a human.

Enjoy the ride.

Questions and Answers

Dreaming about rockets to Mars is easy compared to, say, transitioning our futureless Agri-Biz racket to other methods of agriculture that don’t destroy soils, water tables, ecosystems, and bodies. It’s easier than rearranging our lives on the landscape so we’re not hostage to motoring everywhere for everything. It’s easier than educating people to both think and develop real hands-on skills not dependent on complex machines and electric-powered devices.

James Howard Kunstler