Energy Crisis

This is just a first try. Comments and improvements welcome.

Martin wiped the sweat from his brow, and checked his energy card. He’d just finished 4 hours straight on the treadmill, and together with the energy he’d made in the morning, that should be enough for him for the day. He was looking forward to an evening with his new wife. As he looked at his card, he saw the days energy requirement increase by 200 units, which would be roughly another 10 minutes of treadmill for him. Some of the millions of workers hadn’t been able to make their quota due to illness or some other reason, and he along with everyone else had to make up the difference. He groaned, and started up again, the rorschach of sweat cold on his back.

Thomas was sat hidden under a bush that was growing through the floor near a smashed window in what had been the city library, a stack of papers and books next to him. Some distance away lay his energy card, the badge of his citizenship. It had been stamped on, but the display still showed a 90,000 unit unexplained deficit. He’d spent most of the day reading, a little time making rough calculations involving various fractions of millions of people and some time before lunch, (which he had had to miss since he had no permission for his deficit) he’d gone to visit some of the buildings on the eastern outskirts of the city. For the last hour though, he’d just sat there thinking, his face grim.

Once Martin had finished his quota, and had his lukewarm shower, he left behind him the lines of people coming for their evening shift, and walked to meet his wife. She had an exemption from quota, as she was a farmer. The huge building that she worked in had once been a multistorey car park, but there were few signs of that now. Vast chunks of it were missing, collapsed. Some of it was deliberate, to let sunlight in, but much of it was from the years before they set up the hydroponic farm there. When people were forced to give up their cars it had fallen into disrepair. There were massive fibre optic cables, carrying light from collectors miles around the city snaking up the old ramps that cars had used. There were only four hydroponic farms in the whole city, good management and technology had enabled food production on an unrivalled scale. It had in fact been too good for the scientists who solved the problem of feeding the world. After they’d finished receiving their awards, they had been unable to find anyone interested in funding further work in the field and were forced to retire. Tanya had finished her work in the farm early, but was waiting for him at the corner, and she smiled as he approached. They’d just greeted each other and started to walk towards home when Thomas caught up with them.

“I have to talk to you, it’s urgent!”
Martin was taken aback. What could possibly be urgent? Thomas looked like he was in trouble, but he’d never been the sort to get into trouble. He looked at Tanya, who was wearing a rather resigned look, and said the only thing he could think of.
“You better come back with us”

They were halfway back before Martin realised that Thomas wasn’t wearing his energy card. This set his mind racing. If Thomas had rejected society, then it was illegal to give him help in any way. He should not invite him into his home, and certainly not feed him, on the other hand, perhaps his card had been stolen, or he’d just mislaid it, in which case, Martin would need to go straight to the police for a replacement.
“Martin, your energy card, where is it?”
“Oh, it’s just here in my pocket”, he tapped at his pocket, “The catch broke off….”

Once they were inside, Tanya prepared the food, leaving Thomas and Martin to talk.
“So, what’s wrong?”
“Everything. Everything. I did some reading. Did you know that there was a time that people didn’t have to spend all of their energy working on treadmills, and bikes and producing energy?”
“Really? What did they do all day?”
“Whatever they liked, made music, travelled, studied useless things. Some of them went to the moon.”
“That’s crazy. You’ve been reading too many of those old books.”
“Maybe. Imagine what you could do if you didn’t have to work on the treadmill until you were exhausted every day.”
“A lot, I suppose, but of course, we do have to. Everyone knows that for the continuing functioning of our society, it is necessary, not to mention illegal not to”
“Perhaps. Have you ever asked yourself what all this energy is being used for?”
“I don’t know, perhaps the food, or the lighting we have in the central square”.
“No. I looked into it. The hydroponic plants use hardly any energy, they’re very efficient. We only light one small area of this city, with very efficient lights. You’ve seen the dead street lamps. This city used to be completely lit up at night. You could see it from miles away. The same is true of all our factories. We manufacture very few things, and what we do is very efficient. It would require less than 200 men to keep everything that our society lives on running. Not to mention the fact that every building for miles around has solar panels making energy from the sun the whole time, and you know that there are unending fields of wind farms only a few miles out of the city to the south.”
“200 men?”
“Yeah, 200 men, in conjunction with the wind and the sun could power everything that our society needs, there’s no reason for everyone to be working so hard”
“What are you talking about”
Thomas paused for a while.
“Have you ever seen how the Elders live?”
“Of course not, they have private rooms. We grant them privacy and exempt them from production so that they can do the tasks that our society needs to keep running, and dedicate themselves to learning the secrets of manufacture and history.”
“Straight out of the creed”
Martin was irritated, “Well of course. I do believe you know.”
“Ok. I’m not trying to challenge your beliefs, but you know that the reason I dedicated myself to study was because I hoped some day to become an Elder. That’s why I took the effort to learn to read and to do maths. I’m not trying to criticise you, you had no ambition to become an Elder.”
“I know that you did, and I’m convinced that one day you will be invited to join them.”
“I was invited last night. I went to the Halls of the Elders, and there I witnessed unbelievable luxury. Lights so bright and colourful, you could barely see, and frivolous machinery waiting on them hand and foot. They moved up and down in lifts, and used machines to carry them from one place to another. They had a completely automatic hydroponic farm that required no workers, so that they did not need to rely on food from outside, and they spent their time trying to find more ways of using the vast amounts of energy produced by everyone outside.”
Martin was staggered.
“This can’t be true. They wouldn’t do that, they always teach us not to waste things”
“That’s the rule for us, but not for them – they have rooms that they make hot, and other rooms that they make cold, just so that they can grow interesting plants. They have hot running water whenever they want it.”
“Hot running water?” Martin moaned.
“Really hot, not just the slightly warmed by the sun water that we have to use”
“Is this true?” Martin was beginning to get angry.
“Yes.” Thomas was quiet, almost doubtful. Then louder. “Yes! 2 and a half million people working nonstop every day so that the Elders can live in luxury. If we only produced the energy we needed, you’d work less than one day a year!”
“I can’t really believe this”
“Then come and see.”
“Into the Hall of Elders?”
“Yes”
“But. We can’t get in, they won’t let us”
“We’ll break down the door if we have to, get your friends”

It seemed as if at every street corner there were people prepared to believe the shocking, almost, but not quite unbelievable story of priviledge and oppression. Before long, the crowd of people going to the Hall of Elders had become very large. Police had tried to break it up, but when they heard what was going on, many of them joined the march, and the others were hit over the head. As they marched past the work houses, people left the treadmills to come and find out what was going on. People came from all over the city, leaving buildings empty. At the head of the throng, Martin began to feel the power of being a part of something much larger. He could feel the outrage behind him, and it drove him on, Thomas at his side.

Eventually almost the whole city was gathered outside the doors of the Hall of Elders. They stood there for hours, shouting, demanding that the Elders come out and give an account. At 3 in the morning, the huge doors slowly swung open. The crowd grew silent. The hall had no coloured lights, no frivolous machines, it was musty, falling apart, lit only by the lights from outside that lit the crowd. It was dominated by a single enormous flywheel that was slowly spinning down. An old man came through the mighty doors.

“You fools” he shouted, and the crowd were quiet enough that his quaking voice could be heard.
“We demand to know what you do with all our energy” shouted Martin back, and the crowd joined in.
“What we do with the energy? The same thing we do with all the energy. It goes to keep the world alive!”
“Lies!” the crowd shouted. “Tell us the truth!”. It was a while before the old man could be heard over the noise of the crowd, but eventually they were quiet enough to hear him.
“Many generations ago, the people made an enormous machine that could generate power from matter. It generated more power than all the world needed, and there was a period of prosperity. It also produced dangerous waste, and eventually they had to devise a system to make it safe. They created an enormous chamber, where it was stored, and they used massive quantities of energy to slowly reprocess it and make it safe. The energy it used was large, but the machine produced more, so it still benefitted mankind, and there was a period of lesser prosperity. The people were happy, but the reprocessing chamber was very dangerous, and if it should ever not receive all the energy it needed for cooling and reprocessing, then all the waste would explode in an conflagration unlike any that the world had seen. It would kill everyone and everything. Later they discovered that some parts of the system were overheating, and so more energy was needed to keep them cool. Bit by bit, the amount of energy spent keeping the whole system running became greater and greater, for small things had been overlooked in many places. 400 years ago, it passed the point of equilibrium, and ever since then, we have had to run the power plant at full, and add all the work of your hands and all the energy we can extract from the environment to stop the waste from exploding. Eventually, even the scientists working on solving the problem had to be put to work at the treadmills. There is no excess. There is no luxury.”
There was a silence, as the crowd took in what he said. Behind him, the giant flywheel shuddered to a stop.
“And now, the world will end”, the old man said.

Suddenly, he saw Thomas, standing by Martin, at the front of the crowd.
“But he can tell you all this!, I explained it to him last night when he joined the Elders”

Martin turned, with a sinking feeling towards Thomas.

Thomas’s face was sad, but glowed with a strange kind of certainty.

“I don’t expect you to agree with what I have done. Not all of us will die. It will indeed be terrible, unlike anything before, but a tenth of us will survive to live a terrible new life. That new life will be hard at first, terrifying, perhaps worse than the death that most of us go to, but for those that survive there will finally be hope. For too long have we lived as slaves to our forefathers. For too long has the sweat of our brows and the toil of our hands been used to pay for their mistakes. For how much longer? You had given up hope. You no longer read, or played, invented, studied or explored, you did nothing but drive yourselves to your graves because of those already dead. I would not leave this perpetual slavery to my children, or yours. I would not watch the slow death of the human race, robbed of all it’s grandeur and beauty. We owe our ancestors nothing.”

Behind him, to the east, the sky glowed red, and there was a terrible thunder.

Portable and Secure

There are a growing number of projects to provide a relatively secure environment on alien, and possibly untrusted computers. This is unsurprising, given that occasionally even the most technologically advanced of us is likely to need to use an internet cafe at some point. The last one I used reminded me a lot of Mos Eisley – “a more wretched hive of scum and villainy you will not see”, only without the cantina music, and with more spyware, remote control programs and backdoors than you could possibly imagine (and I know you could imagine a lot).

When you’re running on such an untrusted computer, it doesn’t really matter if you load up your personal environment on a virtual machine running off a USB stick, if the host has a keylogger, you’re toast. However, it seems to me that it would be relatively easy to make a small hardware device that the keyboard plugs into which scrambles the keypresses, so to the host Windows, you’re typing complete nonesense, but to the virtual machine, which knows what the game is, the keypresses can be decoded back into what you actually typed.

That is Easy, but It Will Still Take You a Full Week To Do.

I used to program BASIC V on the Archimedes, and you could at any time drop into assembly and out again, within the BASIC program. I want to be able to do the same thing in Eclipse with java.

I should be able to specify @lang for each method/class/package. Ruby, Groovy, Nice, Scheme, Visual Basic, BASIC, Lisp, Prolog, Smalltalk, Ada, Javascript, BeanShell, Python, Assembly are all available in ways that compile to the JVM, so why can’t I say “I want to implement this method in Scheme, and this other method in Nice, and this other method in assembly” within the same class?

This should be transparent, with all code highlighting, refactoring tools, javadoc, etc, available.

When native code has to be called, this is something else that should be straightforward. I should just be able to specifiy language C or C++ in the same way as all these others, and it should do everything it needs to automatically. Why should I have to fiddle with build scripts or header generators? Mindless repetitive tasks are things that computers are supposed to be good at.

During debug, I want to see an object graph of the whole system that I can drill down through and edit the state of (the whole time it’s running, not just at breakpoints), and have a console window, with all scripting languages available to manipulate the system.

Eclipse seems to spend half of the time I use it recompiling projects. Sometimes when it doesn’t need to. It loves to randomly pause in the middle of something and leave me stuck for ages. It’s just way too slow for large projects.

And why, when I create servlets, do I have to edit interminable xml, and wait for hours while simple changes are deployed here and there. The amount of configuration you have to do to create a HelloWorld servlet that talks to a database is utterly crazy. The amount of time I’ve spent waiting for eclipse to redeploy a servlet on every tiny change is bizarre.

It seems that java, with its myriad libraries, and IDEs, makes everything easy, but nothing trivial. No wonder people are jumping ship to more dynamic languages.

Contrast this with Ruby on Rails, or even .Net. Just put [webmethod] in front of your normal c# method declaration and drop the file into the web server, and suddenly you’ve got a SOAP service and a form to test it. It’s so easy.

As I read in a Perl book once, simple things should be simple.

Plant Fragment

Just a story idea fragment:

In the hope of solving hunger and war, humans bioengineer themselves to produce chlorophil and begin to photosynthesise. Everything is fantastic, but fast forward 1 million years, and a visiting alien species discovers that with the need to move around to find food gone, people have begun to take root at their desks, only tendrils of fingers still connecting them to the internet where they still socialise and meet.

Perhaps from the other side, humans visit a planet where this happened/discover this already happened on earth – all the trees are connected to an internet and actually lead a very deep virtual life.

Earth trees communicate already using chemical signals.

A Genuinely Social Network

Social networking sites should be called “social databasing sites”. They aren’t networks at all, but centrally controlled repositories of as much of their users information as they can get their hands on. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t get 3 or 4 invitiations from various friends to add myself to a social networking site (of course, they all use a different one, and the systems don’t interoperate).

Users want to share their information with each other, professional, personal, photos, etc, and trusting it all to a third party seems the easiest way to do it.

Trusting such personal things to a third party is bad for a lot of different reasons. I won’t argue them here, but let me say : AOL search fiasco, single point of failure, illegal government wiretaps, spammers, indian call centers selling identities, profiling, genocide….

If Knowledge is Power, and Power corrupts and Absolute Power corrupts absolutely, then maybe we should be shying away from providing any third party with absolute knowledge.

I think I started getting a bit concerned about all this when I was about 16 and discovered how easy it can be sometimes to go from knowing next to nothing about someone to knowing their address, what school their children go to, (sometimes their passwords), previous girlfriends, unusual habits, and much more, all with information publicly available on the internet. This was all before Flickr and MySpace and blogging…. Sometimes I do a bit of this as an experiment and every time it disturbs me. If you’re prepared to go a little bit further, I am sure that you can find out much, much more.

All the benefits of social databasing (or building up a complete profile of who a person is, has done and what and whom they know) can be ours without giving up the power over our own destinies.

What we really need is a true social network. Independant nodes, run by diverse organisations and individuals, all talking a common protocol with only a part of the picture. This is the internet way.

The machine that contains all the personal details about yourself can be under your own (or a company representing you as a customer) control. Access to different types of information would be on the level appropriate for your relationship with the person requesting access, with access enforced by public/private key encryption. People contacting you via another, would be able to provide a node address of your common friend, and you could check the recommendation automatically with your friends node.

Your node would also contain authentication mechanisms, a computer readable picture, fingerprint, pin, passwords and phrases, etc. It would provide authentication for a third party if it supported the mechanism, or if they had the appropriate priviledge, provide the data for them to do the authentication. E.g. the airline wants to do a face match. You enter a pin, which allows them access to your standard passport type photo, or their system asks yours if the photo they just took matches.

Each piece of information stored in your node could be certified by another individual/organisations node.

Types of trust network would be available. For example, I trust this man as a host for a good evening out, but not as a business partner. So, I’ve travelled to the other side of the world on business, and would like to meet up with someone in the evening for a chat and drink. I want to search for friends of my friends who are good hosts and friendly, and live in the city I’m visiting. These recommendations are stored on my friends nodes, and I can ask them for info. They will give it if my friends trust me enough, but the matches that my friends give might be completely different if I want to find someone to do business with. What they return from the search would not be any personal information about the target, but a node address within the system. Before a node address is returned, permission to do so would have been requested from that node. My node would contact that node, giving the friends node as a referer, and that node would determine how much information to share based on how much they trust our common friend.

Such a system could also easily incorporate a community credit system.

Routing information would be stored in a distributed hash table, not a central repository, and most people would get two servers providing their information in case of problems with one. This way, you can share your diary with people who should know about your diary, your photos with people you want to know about your photos, your career information, your medical information, your bookmarks. All these social networking sites could continue to exist, and would plug into the same web of personal information, but it would also be easy to run your own, and each social networking site would not actually have all information. The point is that you should have your own control over this data. Ideally, even governments access to your data should be on a need to know basis, and controlled by you.