Reasons to be Cheerful

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Reasons to be Cheerful

Postby Nathan » 10 Mar 2013, 00:26

I'm sure many of us on here have overall pessimistic predictions for the future several decades many of us will likely live to see - I may be more pessimistic than most - but in what ways do you think life in the future will be better?

One thing which cheers me up is the fact that the days of the PC left's domination of public discourse is coming to an end, and it won't be long until people not only realise the peril Western societies are in but realise that the person next to them most probably feels the same way and need no longer refrain from saying what they really think, and public opinion turns against the orthodoxy which has got us in this position. When people realise the enormity of what it is we stand to potentially lose, people will start unashamedly valuing it more, and conservatives won't be made to feel like the odd one out or as if we are the ones in the wrong. I have hope that this will probably happen before this decade is out.

Number two is the continual improvements in technology. I'm not a massive gadget fan, I don't have an iPhone or a Kindle or anything like that, but I still feel a sense of wonder at just how intelligent and creative mankind can be in finding ways to make life easier. Take this video for example - it's a laser-guided car that can drive itself, how incredible is that?!

It's curious that technology in some fields has advanced tremendously in the past few decades while in others it has even gone backwards: 30 years ago, for example, there were commercial flights across the Atlantic at above the speed of sound, and such a masterpiece of engineering as the Space Shuttle - no more, yet in the same period of time the scope and affordability of personal communications devices has improved that fast it's hard to keep up. It's difficult to tell what the next field to see dramatic improvements in technology will be, but so long as there is a market for new products somewhere in the world I don't doubt the incentive to develop new things will continue.

Thirdly, as a result of improvements in technology the past will not seem like such a foreign place to the future history fan. When watching black-and-white films I feel privileged to be among the first generations in human history to be able to hear how people spoke and see how they dressed, observe how they interacted with each other and discover what their shared cultural reference points were in films made fifty years before I was born yet which were intended solely for the audience of the day, and so have a perspective on it the director could never possibly have imagined. An insight into how past societies lived and thought is going to be more easily accessible to future generations, which can only broaden, and thus improve their perspective on life.

Take this 1936 radio interview with the most senior surviving officer on the Titanic, for example, and listen to how utterly foreign his accent sounds, even to a fellow Englishman, and marvel at the fact that wherever you may be in the world you are listening to the voice of somebody born in 1874 speaking first-hand about a famous historical event that happened long enough ago that few of us even knew anybody who could remember it.

Imagine how much more real history would feel if you could listen to an interview with a historical figure like the Duke of Wellington, hear his voice, hear him talk about his life and what made him tick and hear him introduce his favourite pieces of music. It will be a while until anybody can do that for somebody from two hundred years ago, but we can already do that with somebody like Viscount Montgomery, born in 1887.

How much more real would the lives of the great-grandparents you never knew seem if rather than the odd black-and-white, stern-looking wedding or military photo you had access to hundreds of colour photos of them, or home video footage, or even blog posts? Future generations will have this luxury should they be interested in it.
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Re: Reasons to be Cheerful

Postby Charlie » 10 Mar 2013, 14:30

When I think of reasons to be cheerful, I often think about how drastically countries and circumstances can change in a relatively short period of time.

I can think of Israel, Brazil, Hong Kong and South Korea as four good examples, but there are plenty of others. I’ll get the obvious out of the way and say that all countries have their problems. I won't mention them here though.

In the case of Israel, it’s as old as my parents are, and I like to think of both of my folks as youthful sixty-somethings! To give just one example from the modern Jewish state, look at the contributions its citizens have made to the world of technology: it’s nothing short of staggering. What they’ve built for themselves and achieved in a short space of time is incredible. No small thing of course, but it’s also the only democracy in the Middle East.

Brazil. When I was born, the country was still living under a military dictatorship. In the 90s the country had unimaginable levels of inflation. Such have been Brazil's difficulties in fact, that a Brazilian in his fifties, throughout the course of his life, will have rarely experienced anything other than political instability and crisis. Brazil was surely always doomed to be the eternal country of the future. Yet even discarding the corrupt, mostly left-wing political elite that it has and taking the economic figures with a pinch of salt, its economy is now larger than the UK’s. Is there still a big gap between the rich and the poor? Yes, of course there is, but the country is full of successful companies and industrious people making things happen. You won’t hear about these success stories on the news, because many of them are far away from the axis of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the two cities where most of the media’s attention is focused - often on the most negative aspects. But the unassuming success stories are part of the reason why the 200 million strong giant seems to have achieved so much in such a short time.

What about Hong Kong and South Korea then? Look at what they were, say 50 years ago, and look at what they are today. I probably don’t need to say any more.

For those posting from the UK, we can say that decline seems to happen just as quickly. After all, on here we often lament Britain’s sad deterioration. As we know, not many people are as good at describing and explaining the causes of our decline as Dalrymple, so when I first read this thread I also thought of Italy because of his article, The Uses of Corruption. The article dates back to 2001, so Italy’s current woes within the EU aren’t taken into account, but the piece highlights how Italy has changed so much in such a relatively short time. For me, 2 parts stand out:

Squalor, upon which British visitors to Italy used to remark with effortless and eloquent superiority, is now far more prevalent at home. The Italian population does not look nearly so gray or crushed by circumstance as the British. The shops in every small provincial town in Italy, even in Sicily, offer luxury goods of a range and quality not to be found even in the largest British cities outside London. Bari is incomparably richer and less dilapidated than Dover.


Italian municipalities have also kept their cities vibrant by capping the local taxes of small businesses, thus nurturing a variety of shops that in turn nourish many crafts, from papermaking to glass-blowing, that might otherwise have died. Thus, an uneducated man in Italy can still be a proud craftsman, while in Britain he must take a low-paid, unskilled job—if he takes a job at all.


The above examples remind me that with the right figures and the right vision, a country is capable of transforming itself in a short time. However naïve it may seem, that gives me a few reasons to be cheerful, and the belief that the UK could one day look forward to a brighter future.
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Re: Reasons to be Cheerful

Postby Caleb » 12 Mar 2013, 01:58

I think the ease of transmission of knowledge is wonderful. Sure, there's tons of garbage on the internet or on the small or large screens, but for those who want to know things, there is access to knowledge in ways that wasn't possible when I was a kid even. Many people deride Wikipedia, but it's fantastic. I have probably learnt more about history (and maybe whole other fields too) from that site than I did in my entire formal education. Then there are things like Khan Academy, TED, or Fora TV. Universities are increasingly putting free lectures online. Pretty much if you want to watch a talk about any topic, you can. Even Youtube has all sorts of great stuff. Then there are all the blogs and alternative news sites. You could spend entire months of your life just reading through sites like Zero Hedge or Simoleon Sense. Every day I get automatic emails from sites sending me anything from Chinese lessons to macro-economic and investing analysis. Then there are the apps you can get on hand held devices. All of these things are to our age what the Guttenberg printing press was to another and knowledge is not hoarded by a few people. There are myriad opportunities for people to be far dumber than ever before, but there are also myriad opportunities to be far smarter than ever before.

Another thing to be really cheerful about is that despite all of the problems the world faces, and will face (and there will be plenty more crazy stuff within our lifetimes), humanity is so much better off (on the whole) than ever before. People are being lifted out of terrible, grinding poverty and oppressive conditions. Progress will not be smooth, and certainly not for everyone, but the general trend for humanity is onwards and upwards. I know that others probably won't agree, but I think Islam, as with any other regressive ideology, is on a hiding to nothing in the long run. Slavery, sex trafficking, despotic regimes, etc. all have their days numbered. Even Africa will eventually get its act together simply because it would be stupid not to. The rising tide around the world will lift even that boat. As people become more educated and prosperous, they have less of an incentive to do the really, really stupid stuff like fighting wars, though of course, some still will.

It needs no further explanation other than to say that modern medicine is brilliant and will only get better. For those who don't eat themselves into oblivion, quality and duration of life will only increase.

I'm also extremely cheerful about cheap travel. Of course, that also means that you arrive at a place and find everyone else has too, but I've still been to awesome places and seen awesome things.
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Re: Reasons to be Cheerful

Postby Gavin » 12 Mar 2013, 17:49

Good thread. Politically, I'm optimistic that the British people are losing faith in the Conservatives and can still clearly remember what Labour did!

I also think it's great how much information is available on via the Internet. It really did revolutionise the world. I remember when I first started using it, in academic networks, in 1994 and I could see then that it was something very big. Prior to that, believe it or not, I had actually imagined something like it: I remember that as a child once or twice I imagined there could be a computer screen on my wall that could tell me anything. I just had to type in the questions. Now that's pretty much real. I think the technological advancements today are incredible. (This just makes me all the more annoyed at the tattoos, embracements of the ways of the savage, etc.)

On Wikipedia, by the way, I agree. It is certainly not useless - usually extremely informative, especially on uncontroversial matters, though (for example, the anatomy of a snail, or the atmosphere of Mars). When you look up something more social or political, like Islam, of course it has the usual liberal/left bent. It's ruled by numbers - numbers of people who have the time to spare - but it is not worthless, far from it.

Despite its serious problems, I'm very happy, and consider myself very lucky, to be living in the UK rather than many, many other countries - e.g. the usuals, North Korea, China, Iran. But also Mexico, Cuba, even Germany (with its socialism and its hampered hopes of developing a strong middle-right again), not to mention India and Africa.

I'm happy we are not in the middle of full-scale civil war, though we might be some time and (like Nathan) I wonder if we just should be and get it over with.

Personally I'm happy that I have most of the things I want or need, and that isn't really much, compared with many other people.

I'm happy to have like-minded people here to chat with, too, because it is rather hard to find intelligent people in real life who are not blindly partisan and who really try to think before they speak or write.

I think, despite the troubles, there are reasons to be positive, because people (including us) are talking about them. There are even reasons to be cheerful! Just when it is not freezing cold, and the sun comes out. When you see something nice, or some small act of kindness. My cat makes me cheerful! Frasier amuses me.

Indeed we mustn't lose sight of such things, even as we concentrate on highlighting the other things so that there are hopefully, eventually, fewer of those.
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Re: Reasons to be Cheerful

Postby Elliott » 13 Mar 2013, 23:38

I'm sorry to give a predictable answer but I think technology is, give or take a few social developments, the only good thing since 1945. In "technology", I include the material abundance which has largely come about through advances in technology.

And it continues to get better. I don't know if it will continue indefinitely. A lot is said about the generation of American engineers who were schooled in the 30s, 40s and 50s, a golden age of education which produced the engineers of NASA and IBM. I mention this because it's possible that, once that generation have gone, the younger generations will not be as capable and we will see technological advance slowing down, perhaps a lot. Be that as it may, the crucial point is that technological advance relies on education, so it's worrying that our education systems, from Chicago to Chichester, seem to be increasingly bad. There is the possible solution of self-education using the new means offered by the Internet, but that is not the same as academic rigour throughout one's formative years.

But I don't want to be a party-pooper. Clearly modern technology is very good, and it will certainly continue to improve for some years yet.

I remember when I first realised how advanced things had become. It was in late 2008, when I first used Google's Chrome browser. Up till then I had been using Internet Explorer, an abysmal browser. To go from IE 7 to Chrome 1 was like jumping forwards 10 years. Everything was better, faster, and simpler. You could select some text, right-click it and choose "search this text on Google", and a new tab would open up to do that. Then extensions became available and the exact same functionality is now available for images, and I can also double-click any word and immediately get a dictionary definition. But perhaps my favourite thing about Chrome: it updates itself automatically and silently - why, in this day and age, isn't every program doing that?!

All of these things seemed, within a few days, absolutely obvious. I couldn't believe I'd been using an antique for so long! Nowadays, I balk to recall the days when one had to actually type in "http://www.google.com" and go there before one could do a Google search... it seems absolutely ridiculous.

Chrome caused a stir and the other browsers began to up their game, most notably Internet Explorer. Now we are seeing incredible functionality being built into browsers. For example, Safari and Chrome have a fully-fledged audio synthesiser built into them now, so that multi-instrumental music can be generated live in the browser. The canvas element means that image files don't need to be downloaded and images can actually look different every time they are invoked, adding variety and spice to one's web experience. 3D rendering and visual effects are being built-in. (Adobe are cooking up more wacky stuff.) Of course, those are all cosmetic things, toys, and one might decry them on that basis were it not for the sheer range of new things they will make possible. At the same time, emerging technologies like Web Sockets and WebRTC will hugely reduce the amount of web traffic needed to do the things we do today.

Amazon's Kindle has its detractors but I think it has been a great step forward, technologically perhaps but more so culturally, because it has uncovered a way of reading books that fits with 21st century life. Already, sales of e-books are outstripping sales of paper books on Amazon, and people who perhaps wouldn't have read many books are now doing so. That can only be a good thing.

I also think the whole thing about video streaming is about to greatly improve how we watch TV and film. Netflix, previously a purveyor of other people's products, recently created their own TV drama series and beamed it, on demand, to all their subscribers. All the distribution costs of old - DVD burning, cover printing, transportation, warehousing - are eliminated, and people can watch all the episodes in their own time. That seems to be the way TV and film will go in the future and I think it will be a lot better, because it will enable people to produce dramas without being multi-million dollar corporations. Small companies will be able to make small productions, no longer bound by the "economies of scale" which make producing a rubbish thing which will appeal to 10m people more sensible than producing a good thing which will appeal to 1m people.

That kind of thing will circumvent the big, staid producers of the mass media era. In the same vein, blogging has circumvented the big, staid producers of the mass newspaper era. We have spoken about this already. Of course it's a double-edged sword; one never knows whether one is reading a load of drivel on a blog, but when the material is true, it is often truth that one does not find in the mainstream news outlets.

Then there are, of course, web forums. In general I use them for gathering information and solving problems but they are also a good way to make contacts with new people. I have done that on this forum but it has also served the, perhaps unique, function of clarifying my views on quite a few issues. I would say that it has enriched my life.

I could also talk about Facebook. Of course there are problems with it, not least the rather major "trust thing", but it is incredibly useful, not just as a way to keep in touch with people, but also as a way to record my life for posterity.

Technology, over several channels (forums, cloud storage, email, Facebook), has enabled me to show my novel to several people, one of whom in particular has been of invaluable help throughout the latter half of its creation. Our entire exchange would have been impossible only 20 years ago, and over some channels it would have been impossible even 5 years ago. But it is possible now, and it has enabled me to write a better novel.

While I am dubious about technology as a learning tool (I always reach for my revolver when I hear a young teacher saying that technology improves learning), I do think that it is a greatly "empowering" thing for people in general. It's certainly a reason to be cheerful.
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Re: Reasons to be Cheerful

Postby Gavin » 14 Mar 2013, 11:56

It's interesting to think about these browsers. I used Lynx first, then Mosaic, then Netscape, then IE, then Firefox, then Chrome. Like you, I think Chrome is the the best.

The thing is about Google, they are just so un-Microsoft. Things actually work in the quickest, most intuitive way. All of the web-apps, and the Chrome browser, are full of keyboard shortcuts. Google are fast on their feet, nimble, always coming up with new ideas, always doing things the way the customer would like them to work.

Microsoft seems to have turned into a sort of corporate dinosaur, tangled in its own red tape and meetings, trying to keep up. It needed a company as good as Google to be able to take on someone like Microsoft and get ahead, I think. I find it a pleasure to use Google's products, frankly. Apple are not bad - I like OSX well above Windows now, but generally I prefer Google, although I don't idolise either company.

I was a Flash developer for ten years so I know what you mean about the other stuff that can be done. ActionScript was my pathway to learning other programming languages. Now things have changed, like you say, and I'm getting deep into WordPress config, jQuery and PHP (I always knew HTML, XML etc as well). It certainly looks like Adobe are moving with the times too. The only problem with all this, which I was able to avoid by working in the Flash Player, is having to support legacy browsers - the web developer's nightmare! (Especially IE <9 with its poor support and quirks.) A lot of fall-back design is having to be done at the moment until developers can be sure that things like the video tag are supported (there are still copyright and patent wranglings over that to be sorted out too).

So it's a time of transition, but I suppose it is always. (These media queries in CSS are certainly a big thing though, enabling responsive design. I've been using those a lot and they have quite good legacy support.)

Back to the over-all subject, we can agree on how much technology has improved, but this does bring its challenges too, I think. For example, as everything becomes automated, what are all those people who did mundane jobs going to do? I would say to them "Get into computing, learn programming ASAP" but not all (perhaps not many) will be capable of doing that.

We also have a myriad of distractions now. You have to really focus to get things done (some people even disciplining themselves with pomodoro) timers. While most people may watch inane videos on YouTube we can also become distracted by reading about some historical event or countless other interesting things. We've had to learn self-discipline, and how to discriminate, along with the new technologies, I think.

There's also the problem, with everything becoming digital, of everything becoming free, too (books, music). A lot of companies (like Facebook) are giving away their services free too and seem to be massively over-valued while having enormous costs. Many web companies are using the Freemium model, their services being perfectly useful with no need to upgrade. Sometimes the business models don't seem to make much sense and I wonder whether we're in another big bubble. Will round after round of angel investor funding (in the millions) get a return? I suppose they think it will. If they one day decide everyone must pay even £5 a month for a service, though, then everyone will go the latest free one and it'll all start again.

Just on music alone, artists and labels are paid by YouTube for hits, just a small trickle. Spotify is making big revenues but also big losses, and it's known for paying miniscule royalties to artists. It's a whole new scene now. It's no wonder that there is so little good music about when you consider these economics. On the other hand it's all down to artists promoting themselves and retailing their own music now, all about social networking - this is scaring the big labels who now have not much of a role play and are, I gather, largely surviving now through royalties on their back catalogues.

Socially things are not entirely worse than the 1950s, of course, though in many ways they are. It is more possible to hold people to account, today, I think. Okay, granted, I'm running out of examples now!
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Re: Reasons to be Cheerful

Postby Elliott » 14 Mar 2013, 16:42

Gavin wrote:The thing is about Google, they are just so un-Microsoft. Things actually work in the quickest, most intuitive way. All of the web-apps, and the Chrome browser, are full of keyboard shortcuts. Google are fast on their feet, nimble, always coming up with new ideas, always doing things the way the customer would like them to work.

Microsoft seems to have turned into a sort of corporate dinosaur, tangled in its own red tape and meetings, trying to keep up. It needed a company as good as Google to be able to take on someone like Microsoft and get ahead, I think. I find it a pleasure to use Google's products, frankly. Apple are not bad - I like OSX well above Windows now, but generally I prefer Google, although I don't idolise either company.

It's an interesting matter and I'm not sure I know enough about the companies' culture to comment, but it seems that Microsoft is really an 1980s/90s company, whereas Google is really a 2000s/10s company. What I mean is that MS are accustomed to big press junkets for the new version of their old product, whereas Google put out new versions constantly and silently, and only have press junkets for their genuinely new products. And those products tend to be pretty interesting - just look at the Google Glass thing! By contrast, I don't think MS really know what to do. The old model of licensing software no longer works, really. Another problem they have is that, as so much of what people do on a computer moves into the web browser, the capabilities of the OS (Windows) become rather irrelevant. I think this is why they are tying new versions of Internet Explorer into new versions of Windows - you pay for the new version not for the OS, but for the browser. Of course, this model is also doomed, since Google give Chrome away for free and you don't have all the tedious downloading/installing/restarting nonsense.

The only problem with all this, which I was able to avoid by working in the Flash Player, is having to support legacy browsers - the web developer's nightmare! (Especially IE <9 with its poor support and quirks.) A lot of fall-back design is having to be done at the moment until developers can be sure that things like the video tag are supported

This site is very good for tracking browser usage. Non-HTML5 browsers (IE7+IE8) are now only used by 12% of people. If I were in charge of making a website, I would simply ignore that 12% and concentrate on making things as good as possible for the other 88%. The 12% should catch up, and suffer malfunctioning websites if they refuse to do so.

This is one reason why I think auto-updating is such a good thing, especially for web browsing programs. They, uniquely, are built to process stuff (HTML) which is constantly getting more advanced, so they should be getting more advanced too, in order to use the new tags, handle the new APIs, etc. If they don't auto-update, everyone suffers because websites can't be the best they can be.

Just to show how ridiculous it is, Microsoft actually had adverts on TV for IE9 a few months ago, by which time technology had marched on so much that IE9 was only 45% capable! Imagine paying to advertise a product which is only 45% capable, when its (free) rival is 90% capable... Microsoft should be mortified with embarrassment at how outdated their whole business model is. But, since IE doesn't auto-update, IE9 remains 45% capable, a percentage which will continually decrease as new technologies arrive which it doesn't (and will never) have, while Chrome et al integrate them automatically. The same will be true of the brand new IE10, which boasts an incredible 74% functionality, and decreasing.

Back to the over-all subject, we can agree on how much technology has improved, but this does bring its challenges too, I think. For example, as everything becomes automated, what are all those people who did mundane jobs going to do?

It's a big, big question!

There's also the problem, with everything becoming digital, of everything becoming free, too (books, music).

I think the way this will go with music is that the record (the mp3 you download) will function more as a flyer for your live performances. It'll be the live shows that musicians make their money from, not the record sales.
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Re: Reasons to be Cheerful

Postby Gavin » 14 Mar 2013, 17:06

Elliott wrote:just look at the Google Glass thing


I hadn't seen that - looks amazing. Google are so pioneering, what with mapping the earth, under the sea, the Moon(!) too.

Elliott wrote:If I were in charge of making a website, I would simply ignore that 12% and concentrate on making things as good as possible for the other 88%


Yes, I do ignore anything less than IE9 now (it sometimes depends on convincing clients though). Individuals and companies have had plenty of time to upgrade. You can build in a certain amount of graceful degredation with HTML and CSS. But if the original product was fault-ridden or if the user has done something like turn JavaScript off, then I don't cater for that.

Elliott wrote:I think the way this will go with music is that the record (the mp3 you download) will function more as a flyer for your live performances. It'll be the live shows that musicians make their money from, not the record sales.


Yes, I've thought this for some time, too. That and commissions: if artists can get their music in films, then at least somebody (the studio) pays them for it. That's assuming they're selling enough films. Mind you, I don't think cinema is under such such threat that it will disappear entirely - not for some time, anyway.
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