Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The last sound

Is the world going to end with a bang - or with a whimper? What about that bit in Revelations - The last trump?

The one thing we can assume is that the world will one day 'end' - even if that means waiting around for a few billion years until the sun expands to a red giant and swallows up the earth. But what do people mean when they speak of 'the end of the world'? Let's take a look at some doomsday scenarios.

  • Impact events - The impact of a big enough asteroid or comet could create giant tsunamis, global fires, and cause a global winter from the dust it puts in the atmosphere. There is strong evidence that such an impact has occurred several times in the history of the Earth. It is highly probable that such an event was the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs. The chances are that we would receive little or no warning of such an event. (Sorry Armageddon fans - it just wouldn't be noticed in time for Bruce Willis to go and blow it up). Definitely a 'Bang' scenario.

  • Volcanism - Throughout the history of the Earth there have been huge 'supervolcano' volcanic eruptions which involve the outflow of millions of cubic kilometers of ejecta in a short period of time. By comparison the biggest volcanic explosions recorded by history are tiny. The dust and gasses would poison the atmosphere and oceans and bring on a global winter in a way that may cause extinctions. This cause has been proposed for the End Cretaceous, End Permian, End Triassic, and End Jurassic extinctions. There are supervolcanos at Yellowstone in the USA, Indonesia and New Zealand. Definitely a 'Bang' scenario.

  • Nuclear war - Apart from the destruction and radiation, a global nuclear war could throw sufficient dust into the atmosphere to cause a nuclear winter which would prevent crops growing for up to two years and bring about mass starvation. Definitely a 'Bang' scenario.

  • Climate change - Rapid changes of climate may be capable of stressing the environment to the point of causing mass extinction. Such a scenario is suggested in the film 'The day after tomorrow'. Whilst such a scenario would greatly inconvenience us, causing mass starvation and making some species to become extinct, ice ages in the past seem to have had little effect on bio-diversity. Extinctions suggested to have this cause include: End Ordovician, End Permian, Late Devonian, and others. This one would be a shivering whimper

  • Gamma ray burst - A nearby gamma ray burst caused by a supernova within 6000 light years distance could cause enough radiation on the surface of the Earth to kill most of the larger animals living there and destroy the ozone layer in the process. Insects would probably survive. Astronomers tell us approximately 1 gamma ray burst can be expected every 540 million years. This has been suggested as an explanation for the End Ordovician extinction event. A whimper scenario with a spectacular display in the sky.

  • A new disease. It's possible that a new disease could develop, either by natural means or by genetic manipulation. Humanity would have little or no resistance to it and only isolated communities would survive. There have been several natural pandemics in the past but none of them came close to wiping out humanity. They did have a dramatic effect on civilization however. The black death killed from 20 to 80% of the population of towns, 33% overall of the worlds population. Labour became in short supply and it caused the end of the feudal system. A whimper scenario.

  • Simulation shutdown. I'm sure you've seen the 'Matrix' films. Science fiction huh? Well maybe not! It's possible that we are living in a simulation. Consider the way in which computers have advanced. It won't be too long before they advance to the point where it would be possible to create a society in simulation (Sims 2 game?). Given a sufficiently advanced technology it would be possible to simulate an entire world in incredible complexity. Think that's unlikely? We could in fact be in such a simulation and not know it. If that were the case then it would be possible for the simulation to be shut down. There's not a lot we could do about it. One second we are 'alive' and the next - off. No sound at all.

  • Nanotechnology. This is in effect a man made equivalent to a biological plague. Whilst nanotechnology (the creation of microscopic machines) could have enormous potential for good it could also cause a 'grey death' where the nano-machines convert the entire mass of the Earth to more machines. An unlikely scenario? You would only need one of these nanobots to be created to start the process. Another 'whimper' scenario first proposed by Eric Drexler, in his book 'Engines of Creation' and was followed by Michael Chrichton's book 'Prey'.

  • Magnetic pole reversal. Geological evidence shows us that the Earth's magnetic poles reverse every 200,000 years on average. The last one was 700,000 years ago so we would seem long overdue for this. When it happens it will have a dramatic effect on the Earth. The main cause for concern is that the Earth's magnetic field which creates the protective Van Allen belts will disappear and Earth will be exposed to very high levels of solar radiation. Some scientists think the magnetic field is already weakening. This would be a 'whimper' event - maybe a good time to invest in sun-screen manufacturer shares.

  • Runaway Greenhouse. In this scenario, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reaches a point where more heat is trapped in the atmosphere than can be radiated back out into space. Forest fires would greatly add to the effect. The result is a unstoppable temperature rise over a period of years or tens of years, which would be sufficient to wipe out most forms of life very quickly. Venus, where temperatures at the surface are high enough to melt lead, is affected by this phenomenon. It's possible that the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the Earth's atmosphere could trigger the release of trapped methane stored on the oceans floors causing this effect. This is very uncertain however since it may be that the Earth's oceans will absorb whatever we release. Again a 'whimper' event.

  • Superseded by technology. Eventually we will create an artificial intelligence which could replace us as the dominant intelligence on this planet. Something like the scenario on which the Terminator movies are based. The war between it and us would be a bang event. Of course we could carefully program such intelligences with something like the laws of robotics suggested by Isacc Asimov and it could go too far the other way with such intelligences stifling our future development by being over protective - a whimper event.

  • Global Snowball. The very reverse of the runaway greenhouse. Dust from volcanoes or impact events could cause a winter which freezes the oceans. This increases the amount of heat reflected and the temperature in summer is never enough to melt the ice. A very chilly 'whimper' event where we would desperately try to induce a greenhouse effect to solve it!

  • Solar old age. As the Sun uses up all its hydrogen fuel, helium at it's core will start nuclear fusion causing an increase in solar temperature. The result is a gradual increase in size. This process will continue until, around 5 billion years from now, the Sun will be 100 million miles across - encompassing the entire orbit of the Earth. Life will have been extinguished on our planet long before that. The seas will boil off and all gas will be blown away from the Earth by solar storms. It is estimated that 1 billion years from now, the temperature of the Earth will be similar to present-day Venus making life untenable. Given a billion years this will be a long drawn out 'whimper' where our descendants (if we have any by then) will probably bear little resemblance to us today.

  • Alien invasion. Could it be the might be an alien invasion on the lines of 'Independence Day', 'Battlefield Earth' or 'War of the Worlds'. If we were to face a hostile advanced intelligence would we really have any chance against them? Probably a 'Bang' event.

  • Uploads. This is an alternative to developing artificial intelligence which supersedes us. It may be that we will develop the ability to transfer our consciousness to a computer by 'uploading our brains'. If that were the case then many would choose this as an alternative to death. Once this is the case human intelligence can evolve at an ever increasing rate as processors become more powerful, faster and storage capacities increase. The upload would be able to redesign itself and eventually uploads would swamp the 'normal' humans. The question here is whether an upload could count as being human? Humanity as we know it today would wither away. A whimper event.

  • Divine intervention. Most religions suggest that there will come a time when Man's purpose on Earth is achieved and God/the Gods call an end where the good people are separated from the evil ones.
    • In the Christian Biblical account of the Last Judgement, the End of the World is preceded by War, Conquest, Pestilence and Famine, the so-called "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and the blowing of seven trumpets.
    • Islam nails the Apocalypse down to a formula in the Qur'an, thanks to prophecies by Muhammad. It's the apocalypse when 'x' amount of famine is multiplied by 'y' amount of drought, divided by the square root of 'z' infidels. (It's any day now, in case you were wondering.) Only Allah will know the exact date however but we can watch out for: Fire, Floods, Pestilence, Wars, Rumors of wars, Strange lights in the skies, The Second Coming, A virgin birth, The birth of the Antichrist, A number of false Christs and/or Messiahs, Cloning, Identifying marks being placed on the population at large, Famine, Earthquakes and The Rapture where true believers will be whisked away to heaven.
    • The Hindus believe that the universe is running a cycle which will culminate in a Cosmic Reboot at the end of the Fourth Age (which we are currently enjoying). Currently the world exists in the Age of Kali, the god of destruction. Kali rules over an age of strife, anger and war on earth, which will end with the destruction of everything to pave the way for a new world. Unlike the Christians and Muslims, the Hindus don't believe this event is coming any time soon.
    • Buddhists believe that the seeds of the ending of the universe are present in the creation of the universe. (Quite in tune with cosmology). The "Buddha of our time", Shakyamuni Buddha, did not say he was the first Buddha. He did speak of the end of illusion which would change how we see the universe. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is predicted that the physical universe will end with earth and air being subsumed into water and fire, and all will dissolve into space. Within this cosmology, the end is predicted to be a long way off in the future as there will be 1,000 Buddhas who appear in this fortunate kalpa (great eon).
    • The Mayans too believed in a cyclic world. Their highly detailed and accurate calendar is a list of days in the Fourth Sun, the current cycle of the world. The calendar simply ends on Dec. 21, 2012 (the winter solstice), and the Mayans did not offer a calendar addendum to specify anything much happening after that.
    • The Jews believe they are God's chosen people and that the Messiah will arrive in the future and gather them into Israel. There will be a general resurrection of the (Jewish?) dead, and the Jerusalem Temple destroyed in 70 CE will be rebuilt. I'm not sure on what Jews believe will happen then or to the rest of the world. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable could enlighten me?
    • Zoroastrians believe in a single supreme god Ahura Mazda and an evil spirit Angra Mainyu who opposes. At the end of time there will be a cosmic conflict involving the entire universe.Humanity will be required to choose which to follow. Evil, and the Spirit of Evil, will be completely destroyed at the end of time. Eventually, everything will be purified. Even the occupants of hell will be released.

So lets see - that's 4 'bangs', ten 'whimpers', a 'last trump' and an 'off'. It seems the whimpers have it.

Further reading :

  1. Do we live in a computer simulation?.
  2. The Future of Humanity
  3. Accidents, Malice and "Gray Goo"
  4. If Uploads Come First
  5. Yellowstone supervolcano

Monday, October 13, 2008

I'm sick of 'Doom and Gloom'

If you listen to the media it's all bad news. The stock market is dropping, the banks are failing, we all need to take swimming lessons because of global warming, petrol (gas) costs a fortune, we are all afraid of pandemics, terrorists will kill us and 6:00am December 22nd 2012 (GMT) is rapidly approaching.

Geez. Hasn't the media ever thought of telling us the good news? I for one am sick of 'doom and gloom'. Lets take a look at some of the things they are not telling us about.

  • If the stock market falls - that's a great time to buy! The real reason it's bouncing around is because some people are making a fortune!
  • All those bankers getting into a panic. Can you think of a better bunch of people to wish a bit of strife on? (Well - maybe lawyers and politicians?). Lets face it our money is safe provided we all don't listen to the doom and gloom media.
  • Global warming? Somehow I don't think it will be quite the disaster that some predict. You see there is some great technology rapidly approaching which will turn everything around - more about that later. You just need to be aware that back in 1894 an expert predicted that in fifty years the streets of London would be buried beneath nine feet of horse sh*t.
    Not only can technology come to our rescue but are we actually being told the truth? At the moment it's 'fashionable' to talk about global warming but did you know these indisputable facts?
    • Sea level is rising - at the same rate as it has been for the last 60,000 years.
    • Ice cores do not show a link between the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and temperature
    • Some glaciers are melting - others, just as many, are advancing
    • No matter how big an area of sea ice is which breaks off and melts - it won't affect sea level at all.
    • London and Venice are sinking - that's why they have problems with flooding
    • The vast majority of temperature measuring stations are in cities which are getting warmer because the cities are growing
    • The first global warming predictions for the future were out by an overestimate of 300% - that's not even a good guess! Anyone who supports using a computer model this inaccurate is crazy!

      Don't believe this? Try watching the video below or reading Michael Crichton's book 'State of Fear

  • Gas prices? In the US they were complaining about $4.00 a gallon. Here in the UK we pay more than twice that. The good news is that we don't live in Sierra Leone where gas rapidly approached $20.00 per gallon. More good news is that the price of oil has dropped 40% in the last 3 months. If you are still furious about it then move to Venezuela where you can buy it for just $0.17 per gallon.
  • Health? Have you been watching the astonishing developments in medicine? Looks like we may soon prevent cancer, Alzheimer's disease, heart attacks and lots of others including the common cold.
  • Terrorists? Guess what - the problem is being blown out of all proportion. You are more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than by a terrorist. Far more sensible things to worry about are heart disease, cancer, strokes, accidents, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, flu and pneumonia, kidney disease, septicemia, suicide, liver disease, hypertension, Parkinson's disease and drowning in that order. According to the statistics I found the risk of terrorists killing you appears at number 80 on the list of possible deaths at a 1 in 9,300,000 chance. Just to put it in perspective you have a 1 in 4,297,630 chance of being killed by legal execution.
  • That 6:00am GMT time on 21st Dec 2012 marks the end of the Mayan Calender. (the Mayans were on Central time, 6 hours behind us Brits). Hey - the calendar hanging on my wall ends on 4th Jan 2009 but that doesn't mean there won't be a 5th Jan!
Now what about those technology advancements I mentioned?

  • The Large Hadron Collider, is complete and though there are a few technical problems to iron out (and a few repairs to do), looks to give us lots of advancements in physics. It might be possible to produce mini black holes (singularities) which any Trekkie will tell you are used in the power source of Romulan spaceships. Now I know that's science fiction but in theory a mini black hole could be a tremendous source of energy. Its not a matter of 'will' it happen - its a matter of 'when'.
  • It begins to look like nuclear fusion experiments will soon produce more energy than they put in. When that happens - and it will - then cheap almost unlimited power will be available. It won't produce huge quantities of deadly radioactive by-products and will wipe out at a stroke much of our carbon emissions.
  • Cheap electricity will offer car manufactures an incentive to produce electric vehicles.
  • New technology such as the free piston engine which could out perform fuel cells, offers a better, simpler and cheaper way of producing power for vehicles. Couple that with a car like the Extended-Range Electric Vehicle (or EREV), Chevy Volt and you'll have a vehicle which can run on any fuel including pollution free hydrogen, ethanol and gasoline but most of the time will run on stored cheap electricity. Again wiping out much of our carbon emissions.
  • In the last few weeks we have heard of cures for cancer using carbon nano tubes, drugs such as Abiraterone and radioactive scorpion venom, treatment for Alzheimer's disease using anti-inflammatory drugs, Parkinson's disease being slowed by the use of vitamins and flu vaccines being more effective and quicker by inhalation.
  • Even more dramatic is the effect genetic research will have on us. Its a matter of time before the death gene is figured out and a virus is used to fix it. How about living a productive life for 200 years! Now I know that that will cause population problems but it will also give us the incentive to move outwards from our planet and secure the future of the human race. I for one don't want to sit and be a target waiting for the next comet to wipe out humanity.
  • Have you noticed how the power requirement of electrical equipment is dropping? It's not just things like computers and TVs; its even heavy duty items like heaters and air conditioners. The trick is to make them more efficient and better insulated. Technology is doing just that.
  • We all moan about the price of oil and that's inevitable as this limited resource is used up for heating and as a fuel for transport. Unfortunately that's the last thing we should be using it for. In the future it will be needed as a feedstock for making plastics and other chemicals. Burning oil, natural gas and coal as a fuel makes the price of plastics and chemicals higher than it should be. In the future we can look forward to cheaper products because our energy will come from cheap, pollution free power sources leaving the oil and natural gas to be used for chemical feedstocks. Think what that will do to the world economy!
So there we have it. Doom and gloom? Not in my future.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

BT Anywhere Broadband?

A catalogue of delivery failures.

Since I moved house to an area without cable broadband I've been using Virgin Media 'Up to 8 MB' adsl broadband - or in this case it was 'broadbad'. Despite repeated calls to their technical support my connection speed steadily dropped. It started at 1.7MB in April but when it finally sunk to just 107 bytes per second (yes that's right not even kilobytes) I had had enough. I finally got through to a tech support guy who admitted that they couldn't provide me with the 2MB download speed they had first offered me and that although they had plans to improve things at my local exchange - Hexham, they wouldn't be able to do so for several months.

Part of the problem was my distance from the exchange - 4.7 kilometres; part of the problem is obviously my line which hisses, crackles and is very quiet. The rest of the problem was Virgin's contention ratio and their reluctance to get anything done about my line. Although I was just six months into a one year contract I negotiated a penalty free MAC code from Virgin and contacted BT to join their Anywhere broadband service.

Now why BT Anywhere? Well I had several reasons:
  • I wanted an 'unlimited' service
  • I liked the idea of being able to connect anywhere without further charges
  • I liked the idea of a second Internet phone with it's own number which allowed my family to make up to three simultaneous phone calls at the same time
  • I wanted a faster wireless N router with a better range that would go through the three foot thick stone walls of my house
  • I needed a new mobile phone to replace my aging Motorola V3 and O2 XDA Exec brick
  • I liked BT's mobile price structure. The total cost would be less than my Virgin broadband and T-mobile contract
  • I reasoned I would have a better chance of a BT Broadband engineer doing something about my awful line quality if I was a BT customer
Although not rated as the 'best' ISP (That honour belongs to Zen Internet), BT offered the most in my particular area.

I contacted BT by phone to order BT Anywhere Broadband and quickly got through to a very helpful lady called Virginia and discussed my requirements.
  • Yes I could get BT Anywhere in my area and would be able to get 512KB download speed
  • Yes a new smartphone was included in the price and I could upgrade it to an even better one the HTCs710 for an extra charge of £29.99
  • The smartphone included 50 minutes talk time and 50 texts, unlimited GSM Internet access or it could be used unlimited on the wireless network, unlimited BT FON system or 500 minutes on the BT Openzone network
  • A wireless N modem/router was included which 'could give up to twice the range of my existing wireless G router
  • An Internet phone was included, the BT Hub phone, which would have it's own number and offer Skype style calling to the USA (1.25p/min to both landlines and cell phones) etc
  • For the first three months it would be £23.99 then £29.99 thereafter, an 18 month contract.
I decided to go ahead and ordered the HTCs710 phone. I was told the broadband would be activated on 7th October and the equipment would be with me by 6th October. (Delivery promise 1)

I was very impressed when at 2:00pm the next day a large box was delivered by a BT courier!
great service I thought and sat down to open it.

Inside was a large packing list telling me what I should have and there my problems started.
I got:
  1. The BT home hub
  2. A sim chip for the mobile phone
  3. an HTCs620 mobile phone
  4. No Hub phone
'Great, they've sent me the wrong phone and not sent me the Hub phone' I thought and rang them up.

The person I got through to was very apologetic and said the wrong phone had been ordered and for some unexplainable reason the Hub phone had not been put on the order list. She would have the wrong phone picked up by the person who delivered the missing bits and it would be with me by the 6th October. (Delivery promise 2)

I waited in all that week, expecting a fast delivery as before but nothing arrived. On 6th October I checked my order progress and had it confirmed by their website that my equipment would be delivered by 7:00pm

7:00pm came and went with no delivery so I got back on the phone. They were very sorry but my order did not show on the system. They said they had corrected this and my missing phones would be with me tomorrow. (Delivery promise 3)

On 7th October at 2:00pm my Virgin Media connection stopped working and I connected up the BT Hub and followed the instructions to install it. The installation CD didn't work, telling me my password was wrong, but I was able to manually enter the information provided to set the new connection up. The connection was a bit flaky at first but the documentation warned me that this would be the case for the first 24 hours and that connection speed would gradually improve over the first 10 days.

7:00pm again came with no delivery of phones although I did get an e-mail telling me it would be with me by 7:00pm. I got back on the phone and after waiting in a call queue for 45 minutes was told their system was down and could I call back the next day?

8th October 9:00am I called again and after queueing for 30 minutes was told that there was no delivery scheduled for my address. Would I like to speak to the BT Anywhere team? I did and after explaining the problem yet again I was told that there was a delivery scheduled and it would be with me by 7:00pm today. (Delivery promise 4). On the positive side my adsl speed rose from an average of 233KB/s to almost the 512KB/s promised. (I really miss the 20MB Cable connection I had in Essex)

7:00pm came and went with no phones delivered. I got back on the phone thanking my lucky stars that unlike Virgin, BT don't charge for calling them. This time I spoke to Robert Wilson who told me for some reason the order had not gone through and that he had re-ordered it for delivery/collection on Friday 10th Oct. (Delivery promise 5).

Friday morning I contacted the BT delivery section and checked that they had indeed a delivery scheduled for my address; 'Yes it will be with you by 7:00pm today'.

7:00pm - still no phones! I called BT yet again and after being on hold 15 min and cut off twice I spoke to Kelsey in Dundee who told me there was now a message on the system that if I called back I should be told that the delivery would not be today. I asked Kelsey if BT had not thought of using the phone to tell me that instead of having me waiting around all day to find it out the hard way! Perhaps BT had the name wrong and it should be called 'BT Nowhere'? Again Kelsey was very apologetic and assured me that the order was in the pipeline and would definitely be with me on Saturday - yes the courier did work weekends. (Delivery promise 6)

You guessed it - 7:00pm came and went on Saturday and still no phones.

So that's six broken promises BT. Guess who's going to get a flea in their ear come Monday? I suspect the saga will continue.

Update 13th Oct

I rang BT (0800 0322 111) and spoke to 'Jan'. She checked and found no order was showing on their system - again. She was very apologetic and told me she would get the Hub phone sent to me. This time she gave me an order number and a delivery date of 16th Oct. (Delivery promise 7) She then passed me on to Chris of the BT Anywhere sales team who looked into the problem. It seems the last order had a delivery date of 10th September rather than October and this confused their system. Chris ordered the correct mobile phone for me and promised I would receive it tomorrow, 14th Oct. (Delivery promise 8) He also arranged a bag for the return of the wrong mobile and gave me order references for both. He checked and confirmed the order number that Jan had given me was on the system and confirmed the delivery date. Best of all he told me there would be no extra charge of £29.99 for the upgrade to the HTCs710 phone.

Full marks to BT for polite sales team and promises but I'll reserve judgement as to whether they are capable of keeping them. I wonder if anyone else has had 8 or more delivery promises from BT?

Update 14th Oct 2008
Finally, after all this time BT delivered my missing mobile phone. Full marks to Chris for being the first to keep a promise.
Update 16th Oct 2008
Jan delivered too. Finally I have the complete package. I'm happy with it and my download speed has improved greatly. It's just a shame it took so many phone calls to get everything in place. At least, however, the phone calls are to an 0800 phone number and free, unlike those made to Virgin Media.
Update March 10 2009
Well I'm still happy with BT Anywhere broadband BUT BT dropped yet another one!
I gave them a PAC code to transfer my old phone number from T-Mobile. I know they used it because I started getting mobile phone bills with the number on them. After a while however the number changed and T-Mobile reclaimed the number. That meant they started billing me for it again and since I'd cancelled the direct debit for it, I built up a £30 bill before they bothered to write to me and complain it hadn't been paid. Naturally I pointed out that the service had been cancelled back in September 2008 and the number transferred to BT.
"Oh - so you did" said the guy from T-Mobile. "But BT never confirmed they had taken the number over so it went back to us. Now if you just pay..."
"Not a chance" said I "Take it up with BT."

Monday, October 06, 2008

On My Cat

OK - I admit it. The picture is a fake.
The anvil is made of papier mache.

Now if I just wait here - maybe...

Now I know you guys are moving but you won't forget me will you?

...or me!