Out of Africa – Malawi

Disclosure: I love Africa and have a long history of involvement there. I first travelled to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya on business as early as 1979, lived in Johannesburg for five years in the 1980s and continued to travel occasionally for business and family purposes until a few years ago. So I watch African matters with interest, and am not at all surprised that Africa continues to lag the rest of the world in all matters, particularly Covid19.

I recently started to take a close interest in Malawi because I made a tiny project investment there. I read the newspapers, research on socio economic matters and look forward to the day I can visit. So I plan to report periodically on the country as a snapshot of life in Africa. As the project moves forward, I will report on it.

Malawi is totally landlocked, bordered by Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the north and northeast, and Mozambique to the east, south and southwest. The country was “discovered” by David Livingstone in 1859. As a result of his visit it was claimed by the British and in 1889 proclaimed a British protectorate. In 1907 the protectorate was named Nyasaland and remained under British control until 1964 when it became independent from British rule and renamed itself as Malawi. For 29 years the country remained a one party state under the control of its first president (Banda). In 1993 the country voted for a multi-party democracy.
Topographically, Malawi lies within the Great Rift Valley system. Lake Malawi, a body of water some 580 km long (!) and about 460 m above sea level, is the country’s most prominent physical feature. About 75% of the land surface is plateau between 750 m and 1,350 m above sea level. Highland elevations rise to over 3000 m and the lowest point is on the southern border where the Zambezi is at 37 m above sea level.

Today Malawi is one of the world’s least developed countries. The economy is dominated by agriculture and has a largely rural and rapidly growing population. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. About half of the population are below the poverty line, with 20% described as “extremely poor”. The country is heavily dependent upon outside aid. In 1993 the population was approximately 9 million. Today it is 19.5 million. There is a diverse population with numerous ethnic groups. There are two official languages including English. In the past there was periodic regional conflict perhaps triggered by ethnic divisions, but by 2008 this internal conflict had considerably diminished, and the idea of identifying with one’s Malawian nationality had emerged.

Against this background, Malawi has just the same challenges as the rest of the world. In this post I’ll talk a little about Covid19.
Covid19 first arrived in Malawi in April 2020 with cases imported from India, the UK and South Africa. In that month the president announced a 21 day lockdown, but the High Court barred the government from implementing. Among the arguments were that thousands of agriculture workers sold their produce in markets and had a highly precarious existence. A lockdown would cause extreme hardship. In the end no lockdown was used and the pandemic spread slowly during 2020. This was probably less to do with previous experience gained during the earlier SARS epidemic than the rural population spread.

But after being largely spared by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Malawi is now being swept by a new, fast-spreading wave of the disease that is quickly overwhelming the healthcare system. Medicine Sans Frontiers reported, “In the first few weeks of January 2021, the number of people confirmed with the disease has doubled every four to five days, and while the local capacity is already saturated, access to vaccines is likely a few months away. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) responded to a call by the health authorities in Blantyre, and launched emergency activities to tackle the exponential increase in the number of severe patients in the area.”

In October the Guardian reported a drastic rise in Malawi’s suicide rate linked to Covid economic downturn. Malawi is seeing a sharp rise in suicide rates this year, with some attributing it to the economic stresses of the Covid pandemic, noting that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with about half of the population below the poverty line, with 20% described as “extremely poor”. Malawi police service reports an increase of as much as 57% on the same period last year. Suicide mortality rate (per 100,000 population) in Malawi was reported at 3.7% in 2016 by the World Bank.

The country went into lockdown on 18 January, the first time since the pandemic began. By then Malawi had recorded 12,470 coronavirus cases and 314 deaths, with a 40% increase in infections in a month. There were 17380 new cases in January, raising the total number of confirmed cases to 23963. The death toll rose to 702. The number of recovered patients increased to 8615, leaving 14646 active cases at the end of the month. Among the fatalities were two Cabinet ministers. By March the deaths had risen to 1117.

In March, Malawi received the first shipment of Covid19 vaccine from Covax the international partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF and WHO. The COVAX Facility shipped 360,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from Serum Institute of India from Mumbai, India, as well as supporting equipment. However, in the second week of April, the Guardian reported that, more than 16,000 expired AstraZeneca Covid-19 doses are to be destroyed in Malawi as concerns over vaccine hesitancy increase. The vaccines are among 102,000 doses donated by the African Union (AU) to the Malawian government last month. Currently, about 230,000 doses have been administered, enough to vaccinate nearly 1% of the population. As well as doses from the AU, the country received more than 400,000 AstraZeneca shots from Covax and the Indian government.

Initially, Malawians responded to the vaccine enthusiastically, with long queues at vaccination points and hospitals since the rollout began last month. But numbers have dropped off. It was reported that people were also spreading messages that they will receive the expired vaccine, causing damage to the effort of the government. George Jobe, executive director of Malawi Health Equity Network, expressed concern. “In the country, especially in rural areas, people are still clinging to the negative information about the vaccine. We should remember that there has been misinformation on the vaccine, and now we’ve experienced the danger of such messages.”

And I read in the Nyasa Times today that the Parliament’s PAC (presumably public accounts committee) is grilling officials over possible misappropriation of Covid19 funds! Senior officials from DODMA Department of Disaster Management Affairs were grilled on how about 50% of K6.2 billion (that’s about €6.8m) went towards “allowances” including conferences, allowances, stationery etc. I must admit this type of report doesn’t reduce possible prejudice about corruption in African countries.

In my next post on this topic I will continue tracking Covid19 matters but focus on Climate Change, which you might imagine may have a dramatic impact on this poor country.

Malawi has administered at least 229,220 doses of COVID vaccines so far. Assuming every person needs 2 doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 0.6% of the country’s population. (Reuters)


Admiration nation Which is The Economist’s country of the year?

. . . this year’s prize goes to a country in southern Africa. Democracy and respect for human rights regressed in 80 countries between the start of the pandemic and September, reckons Freedom House, a think-tank. The only place where they improved was Malawi.
To appreciate its progress, consider what came before. In 2012 a president died, his death was covered up and his corpse flown to South Africa for “medical treatment”, to buy time so that his brother could take over. That brother, Peter Mutharika, failed to grab power then but was elected two years later and ran for re-election. The vote-count was rigged with correction fluid on the tally sheets. Foreign observers cynically approved it anyway. Malawians launched mass protests against the “Tipp-Ex election”. Malawian judges turned down suitcases of bribes and annulled it. A fair re-run in June booted out Mr Mutharika and installed the people’s choice, Lazarus Chakwera. Malawi is still poor, but its people are citizens, not subjects. For reviving democracy in an authoritarian region, it is our country of the year.

Posted in Africa, Covid19, Malawi, Technology and Society, Travel | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Let the Majority Speak!

I sent the following letter to numerous Irish national newspapers this morning. Needless to say, I don’t expect any to publish!

My wife and I, both in our 70s, were delighted to receive a call from the HSE last night and immediately attend the CIT mass vaccination centre just a few Kms away. It was the end of a long day in which many hundreds of people had already been processed by the selfless doctors, medics, administrators and guides, yet the atmosphere was efficient, calm, professional, supportive and friendly. It struck us that this is the real Ireland which is calmly and resolutely working to end this crisis.

If we listened uncritically to the media we might be tempted to believe there is another parallel Ireland where chaos and anger rule. That the Irish have given up and must be given more freedom if we are to succeed in beating this virus. I suggest we need to give voice to the majority. Instead of constantly undermining the national effort, looking for mistakes, equating small errors to overall process failure and giving equal voice to minorities and naysayers, we should be better reflecting the majority view. It’s clear from the data that the overwhelming majority are ready and willing to stay the course. We understand the strategy and are not constantly calling for clarity. This is particularly relevant to the national broadcaster, but equally all media channels that would do well to critically examine their role in the national effort.
Yours etc,

It’s not just in Ireland that minorities seem to hold sway. It happens worldwide in democracies.

The BBC famously strive for balance and many will remember during the Brexit debate in 2016 the BBC strove so hard for impartiality that no discussion, debate or talk couldn’t include some Brexit supporting lunatic and truth was an obvious casualty. Obvious to everyone except the BBC perhaps! The level of the debate was well illustrated by Boris Johnson’s contribution, “We export French knickers to France… Are the French really going to put tariffs on our French knickers when we buy so much of their cheese and their champagne? Of course they’re not!” Similarly whether the imaginary £350m (Brexit cost saving) claimed by Johnson and Gove would ever be spent on the NHS was not treated as a lie for the BBC to repeatedly expose, but “a reasonable opinion”. In essence the BBC’s policy was that all opinions merit equal coverage, and the public might as well give up on fact or evidence-based argument.

Today it’s evident that this policy is the new normal everywhere. It applies increasingly to Covid19 but equally climate change where it’s also a major challenge because there are many lobbyists that continue to peddle climate nonsense as unchallengeable fact.

For example, here in Ireland (from the Irish Times) we have a university professor, Dolores Cahill who until recently was regarded as one of the world’s leading scientists in the area of proteomics (the large-scale study of proteins). Her work has been cited almost 6,000 times in academic studies and she has been involved in a bewildering array of scientific boards, councils and taskforces. Her return from Germany to Dublin in 2003 was regarded as a coup for the Irish scientific community. Eighteen years later, the immunology professor has become one of the leading purveyors of Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories, not just in Ireland but around the world. The impressive resume of the UCD professor, along with her many appearances on conspiracy theory podcasts and YouTube channels, means her views are now frequently cited as proof that Covid-19 is simply an overblown version of the flu and that preventative measures such as face masks and vaccines are just not ineffective but dangerous. Not surprisingly there is “widespread frustration” over her comments and that public statements from senior professors challenging her misinformation had been “sorely lacking”. And incredibly she is still employed by Dublin City University because evidently they cannot fire her for non academic activity.

However, again here in Ireland, (from the Journal.ie) polling carried out by Amárach Research on behalf of the Department of Health shows that despite being more angry frustrated in recent weeks than at any stage over the past 12 months, the largest proportion of the population believes that the current (very tough) level of restrictions is about right. Out of 2,200 people who were asked on Monday of this week the extent to which they are obeying restrictions on a scale of 1 (indicating ‘not at all) to 7 (indicating ‘very much so’) , the average score was 6.3 – consistent with levels seen last summer.

It seems that in spite of all manner of efforts to undermine the national effort, the silent majority are sticking with the programme. And that’s what my wife and I observed yesterday.

Posted in Coronavirus, Covid19, Democracy, lockdown, Pandemic, Truth | 3 Comments

UCC Climate Conference 2021

I virtually attended most of the UCC climate conference yesterday. It’s was a useful experience, not really because of the content which was highly variable, rather because it allowed me to think about where we are at. Here are my thoughts:

Dr Clare Watson is a climate change giant, a genuine pioneer and ground breaker. She explained how she is leading a research team supporting the Dingle Peninsula 2030 project – a community based effort to create a sustainable future for a defined area. Many readers of my blog will be familiar with the Dingle Peninsula – the most northerly part of County Kerry, home to some 12,500 people and many holiday homes with the famous Blasket Islands just off the far western point. It’s a well-defined area, perhaps ideal for an experimental or pilot project which involves not just numerous agencies and support organizations, but crucially the people themselves. Their goal, nothing less than “to transition our beautiful peninsula into a low-carbon society.” I loved the idea of climate mentors, local people who have trained in specific aspects of climate change relevant to their occupations, who work with and guide local residents, farms and businesses in making change in the most practical, on the ground manner. I asked Clare whether the project can be seen as a template for other areas, and what she thought might be guidelines for other projects. She replied that, yes of course there are loads of lessons to learn, but each project would be unique. She did however comment that their project has benefitted greatly from the support from a retired civil servant who has been invaluable in creating links, opening doors and cutting red tape! Also the key to their project is collaboration on many different dimensions without competition between groups. See links below, this is a genuinely inspirational project worth watching.

There was a panel discussion session labelled as “Youth Climate Activists”. To be honest I wasn’t very impressed because the discussion was very academic. I wondered whether the activists would be better off finding, engaging with and or starting local projects such as the Dingle Project, in which they could get involved in delivering real world benefits.

I wondered why there wasn’t anything on the agenda about agriculture. This was an Irish Climate Conference and given that the agriculture sector is the sector with the highest emissions at over 30%, it would have been an obvious topic to include. Instead I noted there were a couple of side comments and references to this. One speaker with reference to the energy sector made a comment that that sector might have to over achieve in order to compensate for under achievement in the ag sector! Wow!

The other speaker that I found thought provoking was Dr Stephen Onekuse. He spoke passionately about big business – the biggest inhibitor to making progress on climate change. These big businesses are totally focused on GDP growth at the expense of the environment, and making mega profits without bearing any of the environmental cost. In the process we are destroying our environment. He discussed the current pandemic as an environmental cost, which we all now understand is going to be huge. I asked the question, “whether we can put an environment tax on big businesses, separate to tax on profitability?” Stephen responded that firstly, many large enterprises, particularly in Ireland pay little or no tax, and have all the resources to engage the necessary specialists to ensure this would continue, regardless of the structure of the taxation. Secondly, that these same companies act as powerful lobbyists of government(s) and have such power than any measures would probably never happen. Thirdly, he commented that the biggest issue is that even if there was a tax related to environmental costs, that the money raised would only be spent by governments that are short term driven and of course also strongly influenced by lobbyists!

I didn’t get the opportunity to dialog with Stephen, but I would have liked to get his opinion on a) possible strategies for the Irish agriculture industry, which has exports of $14.5 billion, yet still don’t allow farmers to earn a living wage. And b) options for monetary systems, such as that advocated by Kim Stanley Robinson (see reference below).

In summary for me the conference was useful for alerting me to the Dingle project plus the questions it raised for me.

Dingle Peninsula 2030

Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson ISBN 978-0-356-50885—6
To Slow Down Climate Change, We Need To Take On Capitalism

Dr Clare Watson, Chasing Hubcaps

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Model, Organic Farming | Tagged , | 1 Comment

There’s More Bad News – Plastic is Even More Deadly than We Realised

Just when we are starting to hope that we can see an end to the Covid19 pandemic along comes more bad news. I read today that research now shows that tiny plastic particles in the lungs of pregnant rats pass rapidly into other organs including the heart and the brain. Evidently this is the first such study in a live mammal that shows the placenta does not block such particles. Of course we are now well aware that microplastic has reached every part of the planet and people are consuming the tiny particles via food and water and also by breathing them in. The impact on health is as yet unknown.

Separately, but potentially connected, I read that thanks to hormone-disrupting chemicals human fertility is declining at an alarming rate all around the globe. In an article by Erin Brockovich (yes you do know the name, she’s now writing for the Guardian) we learn of a book by an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist, Shanna Swan, that reports human sperm counts have dropped almost 60% since 1973. On that trajectory sperm counts could reach zero by 2045. No natural reproduction, no babies. No new humans. The chemicals to blame for this reproductive crisis are, surprise, surprise, found in everything from plastic containers and food wrapping, to waterproof clothes and fragrances in cleaning products, to soaps and shampoos, to electronics and carpeting. I’ll quote from the Guardian article:

Swan’s book is staggering in its findings. “In some parts of the world, the average twentysomething woman today is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35,” Swan writes. In addition to that, Swan finds that, on average, a man today will have half of the sperm his grandfather had. “The current state of reproductive affairs can’t continue much longer without threatening human survival,” writes Swan, adding: “It’s a global existential crisis.” That’s not hyperbole. That’s just science.

However, on the same day I read in the MIT briefing that researchers have grown mice in an artificial womb for as long as 11 or 12 days, about half the animal’s natural gestation period. It’s a record for development of a mammal outside the womb and, according to the research team, human embryos could be next. The researchers say scientists will want to develop human embryos this way too, in order to better study early development. The human equivalent of 12-day-old mice would be a first-trimester embryo. But the scientific community agrees that they would never try to establish a pregnancy with artificial embryos—an act that would be forbidden today in most countries. Maybe the ethical issues would go away very rapidly if the very existence of the human race is up for grabs!

The whole topic of sustainability has become very topical. Primarily in context with climate change questions. But it is becoming very clear that humans in their race for growth, are in the process of destroying everything! Just when you thought we didn’t need any more “once in a lifetime” problems, it seems that we are facing into even more global crises. Tighten your seat-belt!


Plummeting sperm counts, shrinking penises: toxic chemicals threaten humanity
Erin Brockovich

Plastic particles pass from mothers into foetuses, rat study shows

A mouse embryo has been grown in an artificial womb—humans could be next

Posted in Plastic Pollution, Survival of the Human Race, Sustainability, Technology and Society | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Tell me No Lies,

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan

This post is also available as a podcast:

Over the past few years I have commented frequently on what many of us believe is the primary threat to society – the rise of alternative facts. The concept of “untruths” are now so many and varied that ordinary, well educated people frequently find it hard to know where the truth lies. This isn’t necessarily new, it has always been the case that powerful, influential people, politicians, business people and others have lied to further their own ambitions. But the advent of social media has provided the purveyors of untruths and their potential listeners with huge opportunity and bandwidth to pervert the truth. Tech platforms have facilitated this, and efforts to apply governance have been inadequate, controversial and simply too late.

I first came across the concept of open source investigation in the New York Review of Books in 2019. The article described the case of a summary execution carried out by the Cameroon government soldiers of two women villagers, suspected of links to Boko Haram, and their children in July 2018, to illustrate the concepts of OSINT – open source intelligence. In 2018 a video of the killings started circulating on social media making it very clear “what” had happened, but the facts were unclear – where and when did it happen, who were the perpetrators and why did they kill? The BBC’s Africa Eye investigated the case and won an award for their ground breaking work. They geolocated the site by matching topographical features from the video to satellite maps, established the time by using shadows as sundials and confirmed the killers’ identities by cross-referencing social media profiles with government records. This work led to strong parliamentary condemnations in the US and EU and withdrawal of funds from the Cameroonian Army.

This wasn’t the first use of OSINT but clearly it attracted a lot of attention. Back in 2010 an open newsroom tool Storyful established a platform and collective for collaborative investigation, enabling the new form of investigative journalism. One of the active participants was a Leicester based blogger, Elliott Higgins whose success with open source investigations brought him media attention which led to the foundation of Bellingcat – an international collective of researchers, investigators, and citizen journalists that conducts investigations using techniques he pioneered.

In 2021 Higgins published a book, We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People. The book provides a fascinating account of real events that in many cases read like a thriller, but provide detailed insight into how the Bellingcat collective gets beyond the noise and propaganda and has established the truth in some very high profile cases. These include the 2018 Novichock poisonings in Salisbury, the 2014 downing of MH17 in the eastern Ukraine, the 2018 chemical attacks by the Assad regime against innocent civilians in Homs, the violent unrest by Klu Klux Klan and others in Nazi uniform in Charlottesville in 2017, the 2013 Boston Bombings, the horrific attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 and many more.

Higgins describes how traditional investigative journalism has been turned inside out. It used to be journalists would guard their sources and insights as competitive material. But since the rise of social media Higgins tells us that there are huge information resources that are simply hiding in plain sight. All that’s required is to trawl existing sources and often to use tools such as Googlemaps, Geolocators etc to validate and verify. Of course there are often conflicting stories, and social media being what it is, everything needs cross checking and validation. A quick search brings up “101 OSINT resources for investigators which includes tool categories of searching people, searching social media profiles, searching video and images, online communities and blogs, classified listings, background checking, business search sites, bitcoin and blockchain searching for illegal transactions, specialized deep web searching, geolocation searches, and more. You get the idea.

The OSINT market today is huge. In addition to pioneers such as Bellingcat there are today numerous organizations undertaking OSINT. Private firms like Snopes provide support to tech companies including Facebook. I note specialist firms such as Reuters are very active. And of course government agencies are very, very active. In addition there is a huge tools market. You might say it is a significant new marketplace, driven by the huge and complex social media environment. Global Newswire estimate the current market at $3.8bn growing to $12Bn by 2026. Allied Market Research have even bigger numbers!

The fact this market has grown indicates the huge demand for trust. Organizations need to know who and what they are dealing with before entering into contracts, be it employment, business collaboration etc. Of course we can all observe the huge gulf in the USA particularly where politics drives belief systems. Many of us will recall Catch 22 and I quote:

“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Or Terry Pratchett:
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

It suggests that millions of individuals are now prepared to put aside logic and fact, and adopt fantasies as normal! No one needs reminding of Kellyanne Conway’s “Alternative facts” during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017. Apart from being a huge driver of the OSINT market, it suggests there is a need for some form of verifiable truth in everyday life.

As a researcher and publisher between 1997 and 2017 I was accustomed to providing accreditation to whatever I published. As a blogger I do provide references at the foot of posts where appropriate. But I am minded to reinforce this practice as a matter of course. This is entirely normal in many professional communities. I have in mind that we should encourage everyone, and I mean everyone to provide accreditation, be it on tweets, posts, images as small but meaningful way to reinforce the veracity of what’s being communicated. Perhaps what we need is an evangelist to pick up this idea and promote! Meantime bloggers, if you’ve read this blog, please provide accreditation to your own work. Thanks!

George Orwell invented the word doublethink in his 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, its origins within the citizenry is unclear; while it could be partly a product of Big Brother’s formal brainwashing programs, the novel explicitly shows people learning doublethink . . . due to peer pressure and a desire to “fit in,” or gain status within the Party—to be seen as a loyal Party Member. In the novel, for someone to even recognize—let alone mention—any contradiction within the context of the Party line is akin to blasphemy, and could subject that person to disciplinary action and the instant social disapproval of fellow Party Members. Wikipedia – Doublethink

Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, © 2010 by the Moynihan Estate.

Bellingcat and How Open Source Reinvented Investigative Journalism, Muhammad Idrees Ahmadre, New York Review of Books, June 2019

We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, By Elliott Higgins,
Bloomsbury Publishing (4 Feb. 2021) ISBN-13 : 978-1526615756

Posted in Democracy, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Governance, Open Source Intelligence OSINT, Technology and Society, Technology Platforms, Trust | 2 Comments

Technology’s Crucible – Cause or Solution to Our World in Crisis?

Back in the 1970’s I, like many in the tech industry, followed the work of James Martin – a genuine guru and polymath who between 1965 and 2006 wrote over 100 books, many of which were huge best sellers. The book he is most remembered for is The Wired Society which presciently predicted the impact of what we now call the internet, at a time when even personal computers were still in the realms of science fiction.

I first saw James in London in 1972 at one of his seminars on Real Time Systems Design. His book and ideas on that topic were widely followed as the industry made the giant leap from batch processing to online and his seminars were sell out events. In the mid 1980’s I had the great fortune to join his consulting company James Martin Associates or JMA, the company formed to implement James’ ideas. And over the following decade or so I and colleagues worked with the world’s leading corporations and large governments to guide them in adopting the ideas, methods and technologies for automating the automation process.

But for me the book that James Martin should really be remembered for is Technology’s Crucible. Published in 1987 it was his thoughtful analysis of, in his own words, “how the high technology of today, and man’s own nature, impact the quality of life tomorrow?”

In this book Martin discussed how with devastating speed, an ocean of technology is rolling in. No business, no industry, no institution will be left untouched. He advised that what seems improbable to one generation seems commonplace to the next: genetics engineering, super-robots, artificial intelligence chips, appalling weapons systems, psychrotropic drugs, workerless production factories etc. And he asked, “Are we at the mercy of technology? Or can we channel it to our own ends? If not at the mercy of technology, are we at the mercy of human nature?

The book Technology’s Crucible is actually set as a film script set in the year 2019, and the Narrator asks the question, “Would the course of history have been different if the public in the 1980s had understood the journey on which they had embarked?”

Each chapter of the book then examines various aspects of technology and society as seen from 2019. And in general the book reflects James Martin’s optimistic viewpoint and suggests that by 2019 there is a highly sophisticated society that concentrates on the ultimate purpose of our labours and minimises drudgery needed to achieve the purpose. It refines and reflects the pleasures that civilization can achieve. It removes drudgery, creates wealth, gives us superb systems, access to knowledge, mobility and supports the very essence of the word civilized. He reflects that a striking aspect of history is that new technologies destined to change society dramatically have always taken us by surprise. There has always been a reluctance to anticipate or believe the implications of powerful technology. The industrial revolution was one such fundamental change in human history that it could not have been anticipated. But by the second half of the twentieth century the early warnings of new technology should have been heeded.

The problem is that technology, just as in the crucible of the sorcerer’s apprentice, is like magic. It’s literally impossible to predict. And here Martin is as fallible as everyone else. In the book he covers the topics of work in the future, education, government, transport and war (or rather the end of war). And in each instalment he paints a vision of how technology will dramatically change life and civilization for the better. From the perspective of 1987 it’s an inspiring picture. Sadly from today’s perspective it’s rather demoralizing. Our reality is, as we all know, that technology has facilitated a dystopian, highly unequal society in which many of the 1980s problems have been exacerbated. The rise of authoritarian governments, the loss of integrity and truth in communications generally, the complete failure to protect the world from the threat of climate change and loss of biosphere all have their roots in the interaction between technology and society.

As I said, James Martin was always an optimist. One thought in his book that remains with me is his thinking that we should take a more proactive, planned approach to technology. Of course we can’t control innovation. But we might consider treating technology like pharmaceuticals. We don’t release drugs into the market until we know they are safe. Why do we do that with technology?

But I don’t under-estimate the difficulties in doing this.

So let’s ask James’ question again: “Can the course of history be altered if the public in 2021 understand the journey on which they are embarked?”

References and Links:
Technology’s Crucible, By James Martin
1987 Prentice Hall Inc.
An exploration of the Explosive Impact of Technology on Society During the Next Four Decades

Democracy is not a fragile flower still it needs cultivating. January 2021
Truth will ultimately prevail . . . ! November 2020
Education in the Covid19 World – Problem or Opportunity July 2020
It’s time to exert governance over the the Global Tech Leaders! August 2017

Posted in Digital Transformation, Governance, Personal Technology, Politics, Technology and Society, Technology Platforms | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Why listen to Bill Gates on How to Avoid a Climate Disaster!

Bill Gates is not a climate scientist. He’s not a politician. He has a “lot” of money and investments that could be seen as conflicts of interest. Why on earth should we listen to him?

This post is also available as a podcast.

We have been talking about climate change for as long as any of us can remember. Yet how much progress has been made to address the issue? We have placed a lot of responsibility on the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP), and they have met every year since 1994, but they are still talking. But how much consensus is there? We must thank Greta Thunberg for her activism and evangelizing; and she and millions of schoolchildren have been brilliant at bringing the climate issue to everyone’s attention. But have we managed to even start reducing CO2 emissions or restoring biodiversity? The straight answer is that “we” have expended a vast amount of hot air.

Some disclosure here. I have met Bill Gates twice in the noughties as part of my tech research work. Notwithstanding all the scurrilous social media conspiracies about him, Gates is simply a very, very intelligent guy with huge experience and expertise in communicating, organizing and managing solutions. I found him willing to listen closely, able to operate at broad strategic level at the same time as dealing with fine grained detail. He’s highly opinionated, decisive and an effective communicator, without being confrontational. The book very much reflects these character traits.

He starts the book with a really good way of characterizing the problem that we need to fix. He starts out by saying there are two numbers we all need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion and the second is zero. Fifty-one billion is the tons of greenhouse gases the world adds to the atmosphere every year. Zero is where that needs to get to, to avoid some very bad outcomes. But he doesn’t dwell on the bad outcomes at all. He says it will be very difficult to achieve zero; the biggest thing our world has ever had to do, but it’s eminently possible.

Gates breaks the problem into 5 categories:
Getting around – (planes, trucks, cargo ships) – 16%
Growing things (plants and animals) – 19%
Plugging in (electricity) – 27%
Making things (cement, steel, plastic) – 31%
Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling, refrigeration) – 7%

He introduces a very simple idea of the Green Premium, which I don’t believe is his idea, but he has certainly promoted heavily. The Green Premium is the differential the consumer or customer or user has to pay to adopt a green solution over a carbon emitting product or solution. So is it cheaper for the car owner to buy and run an EV compared to a conventional ICE vehicle? Or is it cheaper to generate electricity using solar than oil or gas? And what’s the end consumer impact? Gates admits that the answer is not always clear cut, for example the (low) price of gas in the USA makes EVs a difficult sale with a high green premium, whereas the reverse is true in Europe. But it’s an excellent model to start with.

Gates then spends time on each topic covering the solutions that either exist or those that it’s reasonable to assume we can innovate in the time we have. Note here, this total focus on solutions. Let’s look briefly at each of the five categories.

How We Plug In
Gates gives a good example where in the USA producing all electricity from non-emitting sources including wind, solar, nuclear, carbon capture etc is possible with a modest green premium of 1.3 to 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour. Roughly a 15% premium. The premium varies around the world and Gates discusses big issues such as China and Africa that are special cases, batteries, intermittency issues etc. He does make a fairly strong pitch for nuclear, referencing France that produces 70% of its power that way (yes really), but the key to his discourse is understanding different models for different countries with the green premium providing a good basis for developing strategy and solutions.

How we make things
For the sake of brevity Gates focuses on steel, cement, concrete and plastic. And how we use huge amounts of all of these which makes it the most polluting of all his five categories. Making steel you melt iron ore at very high temperatures in the presence of oxygen and coke (carbon). Making 1 ton of steel produces 1.8 tons of CO2. And this way we make a lot of steel very cheaply. There are other methods (generally referred to as green steel) but they are more expensive. So there’s considerable innovation needed here.
Concrete is even more difficult. In all these areas Gates covers opportunities for innovation and shows how these may have a green premium (fig below). So there’s huge research and innovation required.

How We Grow Things
In this area Gates details the problem but this is the weakest of his sections. I detect a strongly US centric approach to genetic modification, synthetic, non-fossil fuel based fertilisers and laboratory grown meat. He makes a good case for the need for innovation, but his direction would not go down well in Europe. Strikes me we Europeans should rewrite this chapter.

How We Get Around
Very interesting analysis here because the USA has very low cost of gas (diesel or petrol).
He includes several green premium analyses and uses these to suggest areas for R&D. See example below.

How We keep Cool and Stay Warm
Gates makes a strong push for heat pumps; no surprise. Also makes the very good point that while advanced countries like the USA and Japan are big users of air conditioning, as the world becomes warmer this will become a necessity in many countries particularly those nearer the equator. And this just increases the priority to decarbonize the power grids. And this makes it easy to calculate the green premium. And maybe using US based examples this looks not so easy. (below)

So Gates looks at what the premiums mean for typical US families, and again makes the case for R&D to leverage new or improved technology to make green options practical commercial options.
Gates spends a lot of time focusing on the issues in developing countries. He has great experience through his philanthropic work in health. It’s worth reading his case studies and understanding the conflicts between development aid and support and climate change. As people rise up the income ladder they do things that cause more emissions. Gates makes the point that we need innovations so the poor can improve their lot without adversely impacting the climate. And he’s very strong on arguing that the world’s poor didn’t create climate change, the first world did, but the developing nations are the ones that will suffer most.

I was struck particularly by the work of CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). Experts at CGIAR have developed large numbers of varieties of (so called) climate-smart crops and livestock. For example, maize that will survive drought conditions; other maize varieties that are resistant to pests, diseases and weeds; also new varieties of rice that are able to survive during periods of flood; and many more. I wonder the extent to which these are GM products?

The final chapter covers some interesting guidance on policy. Having reviewed some of the EU, UK and Irish legal and policy statements recently, I can see how the authors of those documents might benefit by spending some quality time reading Gates work. For example, there’s a really good section that speaks to the need to coordinate market development together with policy and technology so they work in complementary ways. Simply adopting a zero-emissions policy won’t work if you don’t have the technology or the companies willing to manufacture and able to make a profit.

We should by now be well past the talking and evangelizing stage. That we are not is deeply worrying. In this book Gates has provided a template here for all stakeholders to use. This work is far from perfect. It is strongly US centric, albeit with good coverage of the needs of developing countries. The agriculture coverage is very weak. There are some excellent techniques which should be used by everyone, such as the Green Premium, and the five areas. The focus on the 5 billion etc.
A very good read and very thought provoking.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

Bill Gates, Publisher : Allen Lane; 1st edition (16 Feb. 2021)

Posted in Carbon Footprint, Climate Change, COP26, Electric Vehicles, EV | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Have We lost the Covid19 Plot? A Case Study.

On the 15th February the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) issued an update on the risk related to the spread of new SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern in the EU/EEA. Here are some key quotes:

“Due to the increased transmissibility, the evidence of increased severity and the potential for the existing licensed COVID-19 vaccines to be partially or significantly less effective against a variant of concern (VOC), combined with the high probability that the proportion of SARS-CoV-2 cases due to B.1.1.7 (and possibly also B.1.351 and P.1) will increase, the risk associated with further spread of the SARS-CoV-2 VOCs in the EU/EEA is currently assessed as high to very high for the overall population and very high for vulnerable individuals.

Modelling analysis shows that unless Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) continue, or are strengthened in terms of compliance during the coming months, a significant increase in COVID-19-related cases and deaths in the EU/EEA should be anticipated.

Although vaccination will mitigate the effect of replacement with more transmissible variants, and seasonality could potentially reduce transmission during the summer months, easing measures prematurely will lead to a rapid increase in incidence rates, detection of severe cases and mortality.”

Whilst there is some evidence that vaccination programmes in Israel, the UK and Ireland are leading to reduced infection, it’s clear from the ECDC report that variants represent a clear and present danger. We know that mutations (and hence variants) occur where there are high numbers of cases and transmission and that levels of both are high in most countries at present. Further modifications to vaccines takes between 6 weeks and 6 months to manufacture, and that excludes production!

My conclusion is that unless we do something different now, we may lose this battle and be battling the pandemic for at least another year! I came across a report in Le Monde on South Korea that has mounted an effective campaign against the virus, without trashing citizens’ rights. The following is loosely based on the original report in French.

South Korea and Covid19:

In one year, the virus has killed only 1,400 people in South Korea, the first country to be affected after China. Researcher Eric Bidet deciphers, in a forum in the “World”, a strategy based on transparency in information and on the strict isolation of patients.
Just one year ago, the city of Daegu (2.5m inhabitants) was severely affected by Covd19. This was the first outbreak of the virus discovered outside China. Schools across the country were closed immediately and did not reopen until September. Daegu’s entire population was confined for a few weeks. One year later, Korea has just over 1,400 deaths for less than 80,000 cases of Covid-19. Yet, except for very temporary and very local measures, Korea has never confined its population or closed its borders or businesses.

How can we explain such success in the face of an epidemic which, almost everywhere else, has resulted in much more restrictive measures and considerable damage and some irremediable? First, South Korea learnt much from the MERS epidemic in 2015 ansd had put strong public health policy and management in place. Second, the relative success reflects a capacity to adapt and quickly take measures widely accepted by the population, including relaxing administrative procedures authorizing the marketing of products or devices for testing people.

Third, there was great concern for transparency of information and decision-making. Fourth there was huge emphasis and discipline placed on the isolation of patients in order to stop the spread of the virus. Having a public agency dedicated to epidemic management with broad powers has been essential.

This approach guaranteed the effectiveness of the dedicated measures, accelerated their implementation and helped generate great confidence among the population. It also helped to strengthen the legitimacy of the government, as demonstrated by the wide success of the ruling party in the parliamentary elections last spring.
Yet, except for very temporary and very local measures, Korea has never confined its population or closed its borders or businesses. We might conclude the Korean strategy offers a remarkable balance between equity and efficiency while preserving the freedoms of the greatest number of citizens.

 Casesfrom Isolation  
Daily Change521536796
Tests Performed6,303,214   
Tests Concluded6,232,494   
Positivity Rate1.4%   
Current South Korean Data as of 12am on February 18, 2021

ECDC 15th February: SARS-CoV-2  increased circulation of variants of concern and vaccine rollout in the EU/EEA, 14th update

Emerging COVID-19 success story: South Korea learned the lessons of MERS

Le Monde on South Korean Experiences (French)

Posted in Coronavirus, Covid19, lockdown, Pandemic | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

My Personal Experience Highlights How Brexit has thrown a Spanner into Smooth Running 21C Businesses

In my post of the 2nd February I reported on how I needed to get a replacement for my primary computing device – a Microsoft Surface. I won’t bore you with the details, but Microsoft agreed to take some responsibility for the problem and agreed to give me either a refurbished device or discount on a new one. I decided on a new one and they said it would be delivered in 3 days. It was very shortly thereafter I discovered the replacement would be shipped from the UK and lo and behold the shipping status revealed  “The package is delayed due to a Brexit related disruption. We are adjusting delivery plans as quickly as possible.” After two weeks I spoke to Microsoft and told them I wasn’t going to wait for the UK to hire the 50,000 (sic) customs inspectors needed to get the UK’s import export businesses back up and running. I knew there were hundreds of thousands of shipments sitting in the UK waiting to be cleared. I asked Microsoft to return the device to their warehouse and give me a refund. Then I would reorder a device from another location.

This is condensing numerous calls to the shipper UPS and Microsoft over the last few days to try to get them to talk to each other and for Microsoft to agree to refund me. In the end I went into the online order system and requested a “return”. Even though the order hadn’t been delivered to me, the order was sitting in the UPS warehouse at Stanford-le-hope, and this galvanized the system into action. UPS were notified and the status was reset to “waiting for return instructions”. So, Microsoft then told me what they were unable to previously, that my refund would happen automatically as soon as the device was received back into the Microsoft facility. It was rather obvious from these conversations that Microsoft wasn’t accustomed to shipping problems.

I then mentioned to Microsoft that I would reorder, but would make it a condition that the new device must be shipped from anywhere else but the UK. By this stage, this must have been the umpteenth Microsoft person I had spoken with, and she said. “Oh, I’m afraid we can’t do that! When we take an order there is no option to allow us to specify where the order will be fulfilled from.” In fact, the originating Microsoft location is decided by their shipper UPS, presumably to optimize shipment cost and time.

I was pretty shocked at this. I said, “So do you mean that UPS accepted my order knowing full well that it would not be delivered on time? That the initial 3 day estimate was fiction? Also if that’s the case, is UPS continuing to accept orders to be shipped from the UK to Ireland and possibly other EU countries from the UK?” The answer was equivocal. “Well all I can say is that we Microsoft do not have any control over shipment logistics at an individual order level”.

I should explain. Microsoft has a worldwide sales and support system. You call Microsoft and you can get an agent that may be located in any part of the globe. The system works; from personal experience I can say that the technical and sales expertise is excellent, and it works well. What they have done is created a global logistics system that assumes everything works smoothly. From my own experience I can tell you, no one from Microsoft came to advise me there was a problem with delivery time. Nor it must be said UPS. Microsoft clearly operated on the basis that delivery was outside their area of interest, probably because up until January 2021 the customer supply side did indeed work like clockwork.

The lesson to draw here is that if someone throws a spoke in the wheel of a huge well-oiled system, it’s highly likely that chaos will be the outcome. And indeed, a casual read of media reports (see below) on post Brexit trade confirms this.

My own experience has been purely accidental. I would never knowingly have placed an order for a relatively high value item knowing it was sourced from the UK post Brexit. And from the “Microsoft system” perspective it wasn’t relevant. But now it is.

And my experience is clearly one of at least hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of disrupted transactions. Every one of them is someone’s nightmare. However, I doubt very much that it will cost Messrs Gove and Johnson any lost sleep. And down the line it probably won’t lose them any votes either.  

For what it’s worth, I shall remain a Microsoft customer, but when I get the refund I shall use a local tech retailer. They are selling the same model for just €20 more than my discounted price from Microsoft. And I will click and collect! No shipper needed.

Irish consumers warned parcel delays from UK sites will last months

‘Can’t cope’: After Brexit, UK border customs system hits limit

Logistics giant DPD pauses U.K. to EU parcel shipments, amid post-Brexit customs chaos

Irish freight industry warns of Brexit threat to supply chains

Firms halt deliveries from UK to EU over Brexit border problems

Exports to EU down 68 per cent since Brexit, say UK hauliers

Posted in Brexit, Brexit Britain, Digital Transformation, Personal Technology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Question: What’s the Connection Between Climate Change and Brexit?

Easy, both are man-made problems, they are both slow burners and have been looming for years and they will both cause unpredictable problems that will run and run. Of course, climate change will be many orders of magnitude greater impact, but you get the idea!

At the start of the year I ordered a DVD drive from what I thought was an Irish supplier. Silly me without giving it a lot of thought, I ordered the drive from a .ie site. I was surprised when I received the delivery tracking details indicating UK origin. I was lucky that time – the value of the shipment was less than €50 and the package arrived as scheduled. Last week I had to order a new PC from Microsoft. It wasn’t planned but I had a hardware failure out of warranty, and Microsoft were good enough to accept some liability and gave me a good deal on a replacement. Speaking to the Microsoft agent she confirmed there were no shipping problems and said the delivery was confirmed for three days from order. Well the delivery didn’t happen, and when I tracked the shipment, I found it was sitting in a warehouse in the UK with a status of, “The package is delayed due to a Brexit related disruption. We are adjusting delivery plans as quickly as possible.” Three days later the status changes to delivery in three days. I’m not actually desperate for the delivery I have good backup, but I have a vision of a warehouse and supply chain in crisis mode, giving customers’ some palliative information to keep the situation from crashing altogether. Before confirming the order, I did discuss with the agent that the shipment would be free of any additional customs, tax and other charges, but that’s now in the back of my mind. And this is not a €50 purchase! See below . . .

But my problems are minor compared to what’s going on in the real world. I give you a couple of quotes from the Guardian 23rd January, . . amid claims from Boris Johnson that its people and its businesses were now free to live and trade as they wished – UK companies that export to the EU, and EU ones that send goods here, are beginning to realise that the reverse is true. And so are their customers. . . . It’s not just the British fishing crews famous musicians, . . . rather it is millions of hard-working people running, and employed in, less romantic and exotic small businesses who are feeling utterly let down and wondering if their companies will even survive.

Take Andrew Moss, managing director of small company Horizon, based in Cambridgeshire. The last three weeks, he says, have been a living nightmare. “Soft Brexit – there is no such thing. This is horrific,” he says. “We celebrated the Brexit deal with champagne over Christmas but when we woke up and realised that this car crash was happening, we thought, oh my God!” The problems he has encountered since 1 January are many, including more forms and several extra Brexit-related charges for exporting into the EU that will eat into profit margins. But even worse, he discovered from customers in Europe that they were being asked by couriers to pay VAT upfront on the goods he was sending to them – as a condition, in effect, of getting customs clearance – and the customers, unsurprisingly, were refusing. I am certainly worried I may get this message any day now, and of course, I will refuse to pay and insist on a credit from Microsoft, or better a shipment from an EU location.

Then in the last 24 hours we have heard that there are emerging problems in the Northern Ireland ports; workers involved in carrying out customs checks are coming under threat from “unknown sources”; the NI government and the EU have withdrawn their staff for safety reasons. Now this feels like it’s a political powder keg just waiting to blow. Let’s hope cool heads will prevail.

Brexit has been part of our lives for the last four years. Like Andrew Moss we might have thought it would go away, and while we would have to adjust to the new realities, this would soon settle down. We did expect some difficulties at Dover but we were reassured that this would be temporary. Little did we think there’s a whole host of issues that are going to emerge; and clearly the full extent of the turbulence is yet to be understood. We have some way to run.


Coda: The delivery date of my Microsoft shipment has now gone out to the 8th February. I spoke to Microsoft Ireland, and no surprise I was passed to a UK office who handle all Microsoft Ireland sales! That’s how close the UK and Ireland operations are. I was told a) the Brexit related shipment issues are a known problem and it will be all down to UPS. Microsoft can do nothing. and b) that the addition of VAT for EU shipments is again a known issue and that Microsoft commit to pick up that cost. When the shipper requests the VAT payment, they are asking customers to pick up the cost and they will credit back immediately. All very time consuming, and while it may not break the Microsoft bank, it might be very serious for smaller companies such as my case study above. I just wonder how long it will take before the Microsoft Ireland Sales operation broken out of the UK and established as a standalone entity in Ireland?

Posted in Brexit, Brexit Britain, Climate Change | Tagged | 1 Comment