2008-04-27

Ender's Game

Somehow I already knew the basic idea behind Ender's Game. The idea reached me by word of mouth; I was infected by the meme! Then one day I was discussing the meme with Janos, who knew the book and lent it to me.

Ender's Game did not disappoint. Perhaps the aim of sci-fi is to combine a brilliant idea with a gripping story. Ender's Game certainly did that, and it's lasting reputation is deserved.

One gripe I have when writing about books and films is that many of them aren't free content. I'm part of the free culture movement. I'm in favour of the idea of property for physical things, but intellectual property is an oxymoron. When you're talking about information, a whole new set of rules apply. You should be able to do anything you like with information; copy it, sell it, modify it, whatever. The only thing you shouldn't be able to do is remove these freedoms.

2008-04-20

Lars and the Real Girl

Moving, emotional, satisfying. I particularly like taking ideas seriously, and this film does that with the protagonist's outwardly odd behaviour. I know I always refer back to The Fabric of Reality, but Lars acts as if he's applying the approach of David Deutsch. I'll explain. Lars' mind has come up with the idea of the doll, and rather than dismissing it, he takes it seriously. In this way a resolution is inevitable, one way or the other.

Science Cafe: Feilden Clegg

'Exceeding expectations' is one of those new phrases. The architect from Feilden Clegg exceeded my expectations in his Science Cafe talk. He spoke with great intelligence, wit and depth. Here are the points that particularly interested me:
  • Heat Recovery Ventilation. I intend to install this in my house. My question was, 'what if there's a power cut in the night, will everyone asphyxiate?!!'. The feeling was that there'd be enough air in the house for everyone to survive, and then they could simply open a window when they awoke.
  • On-site electricity generation. In the Code for Sustainable Homes, there is a bias towards local generation. I'm disappointed in this. It may be more efficient to have a huge distant off-shore wind farm than numerous local turbines. Government should restrict itself to increasing the cost of CO2 pollution through CO2 TaxBack, and leave the detailed choices about generation to the market.
  • Grey water recycling. The speaker, an architect, said he used to be skeptical of grey water recycling as he hadn't yet seen it done properly. What changed his mind was the EcoPlay system. This costs about £1,500 and replaces the cistern in the downstairs loo. It fills up with water from the shower / bath upstairs, and then uses it to flush the loo. If the grey water hasn't been used after a certain period, it is discarded to avoid the water going bad.
  • Water softerners. I'm about to install a water softener in my house, and I wanted to know whether it was a good idea on environmental grounds. The speaker said he didn't know definitively, but he was installing one in his house for practical reasons.

Rising food prices

Food prices are rising, the poor risk hunger, what should governments do?

Some advocate price controls. The problem is that if prices are kept artificially low, the food business won't be so profitable and supply will decrease.

Some say that if your country's people are going hungry, it's madness to be exporting food, so food exports should be banned. The problem is that this depresses prices, which again leads to a decrease in supply.

I think the real problem is that some people are poor. In the UK we actually tax the poor, and I've heard it said that poor people pay more tax as a proportion of their wealth than rich people. All taxes that aren't related to income should be abolished. This includes National Insurance and VAT. How would this be paid for?
  • Ending agricultural subsidies
  • Legalizing prostitution
  • Legalizing drugs.
  • Abolishing the national minimum wage.
  • Freeing up trade by ending protectionism.
If we took these steps, then we could let food prices find their correct level, and be confident that people could afford to pay for it.

2008-04-06

Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation

According to Greenpeace:
[...] the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) will force fuel companies to include biofuels as part of their fuel mix. [...] 2.5 per cent of all petrol and diesel sold in the UK will come from crops such as palm oil and maize.
Here's why RTFO is a bad idea:

Say I take a (diesel) train to work, but I've adapted my house so that it is zero carbon. My neighbour cycles to work but lives in a draughty house. Even if our carbon emissions are the same, our penalties aren't the same. There's a higher price for emitting carbon by burning diesel than for the same emissions from burning gas to heat a house.

Okay, you may concede that the penalties for CO2 emissions aren't the same, but why is that so bad?

In the above example, you could say that I should live like my neighbour (I shouldn't have insulated my house and I should cycle to work) and then I wouldn't be paying a higher CO2 penalty. This would have a detrimental effect on my finances because a local job would be less well paid, and so would be detrimental effect to the economy.

In summary, having unequal penalties for different ways of emitting CO2 is worse for the economy than having single penalty rate for all types of CO2 emissions. Such a single rate system is CO2 TaxBack.