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Some Words About Physics, Python And The World In General

Engineering, Politics And How To Save The World

When you ask yourself or others to make a list containing the big problems that mankind is facing, you will probably find these among them:

Note that this is an unordered list, so the position has no specific meaning. Many of these problems are tied very closely together for example: hunger and lack of clean water are often due to poverty which is often caused by the lack of education, terrorism/war and or disasters. However the point of this post is to convince you that most of these problems are technically already solved we only lack the political willpower or solution to implement the solution.

Technically Solved

Lets have a look at the overpopulation and hunger complex. Both seem to be closely linked in peoples minds. We are to many, the world can not feed so many people. At the same time we waste almost as much food in the world as is consumed in Africa (222 million tonnes wasted vs. 230 million tonnes consumed). We do not have a food production issue we have a food distribution issue combined with a quality of production issue in some developing countries. Considering that most of the food is produced and wasted in the developed countries however, mainly a distribution issue. This however means we have technically solved food production. The problem then must be poverty, if the people would have enough money they could buy the food.

So what about poverty?

Poverty is so apparent because of the distribution of wealth, the richest 1% of the people now own about 50% of the world. And the rest of the distribution is similarly unjust. As demonstrated by the hunger problem, it is not really the case that we do not have enough for everybody, we just do not know how to give it to everybody. Our attempts to do so have so far failed and ended in totalitarianism instead of communism. Please note, this is no attempt to make any claims that capitalism is inherently bad. I believe quite the opposite, that is, that capitalism has brought as very far – to where we are now – but we still need to evolve it. Nevertheless, we have plenty of ideas of how to fix the problems we have currently in capitalism. There are proposals to change the current money and banking regime and change taxation in ways to keep the rich from owning 50% of the world. Tackling these fundamentals of capitalism, money and property seems impossible (at least without pitchforks). Yet there are numerous example where it has been done before, our money regime changed last in 1971 due to decisions made by the U.S. government. After it was only introduced in the 1940. An example for seemingly impossible taxation can be found in post war Germany where the actual wealth of a people was taxed. It was officially planed as means of to redistribute wealth. And we are not speaking about small amounts: up to 50% of a persons wealth could be redistributed spread over 30 years. Imagine that. One might think that this was only possible due to Germany‘s isolated position after the war. However the law was based on a Finnish law and Finland was not at all isolated after the war. So again the conclusion could be that we technically know how to solve the problems of capitalism but we just can not implement them politically. Anyhow, wealth distribution is certainly not the only cause of poverty.

What about war and terrorism?

This is one of the things I really struggle with. Is there a technical solution to war? For many cases there actual might be one, however other conflicts seem impossible to resolve. Will the Palestinians stop to hate the Israelis once their economic situation is better? Would the Israelis allow the situation to become better? Will this end the terror? Impossible to answer. We know that there are basically no wars in modern day and age that lead to an economically better situation, so one might assume that there are no wars in capitalism but this is obviously not true. Never the less, the number of people involved in wars is on an historic low (video), so maybe capitalism is also winning on this front. Terrorism however seems to be another shoe. It seems to be the case the the western world constantly looses its battle against terrorism and the more wars we fight the more terrorists we create. And since the modern terrorism is basically founded as an answer against the wars the US and its allies are fighting in the middle east this should not surprise anyone. In other words, terrorism is the evolutionary answer to war. We can not win against it with war. However there are plenty of ideas of how to fight against it, which again we do not implement because we can not bring it on politically. So lets look at some other fields. (Note: I should link to something about this, however I don‘t feel like I have proper sources. A lot of my thinking however is based on ideas from this awesome podcast)

Diseases

There is no doubt that diseases are a problem – admittedly one I do not know much about. I know we have a problem with a shrinking number of effective antibiotics. I have seen how quickly a virus can get out of control (Ebola) and how infectious mutations (SARS/MERS) can be. However we have also seen how quickly we actually can develop a vaccination and discover even new classes of antibiotics or mechanisms of defeating harmful bacteria. So the real question might be why did we not manage to develop these things before a serious crisis was around the corner. The answer is most of the time given in the form of capitalism: it is usually not effective for a company to develop a treatment that heals quickly. If you develop a new antibiotic drug it will be given to the patient for 1-2 weeks an that is it. A vaccine is even worse, a one time shot. If you develop a new pain medication, a new cancer or depression treatment you will likely make profit from the same patient for years. You can just not sell an antibiotic so expansive that it has the same return of investment. So where do you invest your money? This makes the pharmacy industry look like bad people when in fact they are only doing the same as every other business. However we have plenty of ways to influence what the big industries are doing, it all comes down to the right incentives – as it always does in capitalism. You want to keep your patents for your most grossing drug for two years longer? No problem develop something that helps against on of the things on this list we update yearly and you can! Who can implement such a thing? Right, politicians. So what about the other big problem...

Climate Change / Availability Of Energy

This is a problem where we definitely do not have the technical solution yet right? Why in the world would everybody be working on a solutions otherwise? Wrong. I wrote at this at length in a previous post. In review: you could harvest all the energy the world needs in a 500 km square in Africa. One would need to build thermo solar power plants, which would feed the power to methane production plants. The methane production needs CO2 and Water as input. The CO2 can be taken from the air and the water might be gathered through desalinization of ocean water. The compressed methane can then be shipped or pipelined in the world to be used like conventional natural gas. Most of the infrastructure is already there, as are natural gas powered cars, buses, heating systems and power plants. The solar plants, desalination plants and even the methane plants already exist. Just to make this clear, this is not a partial solution. If implemented this will be a CO2 neutral way of supplying the world with easy to store and transport energy until the sun burns out. This could put an end to climate change. At least to further damage. Anyway, it is obviously not about to happen. Instead we have climate conference after climate conference no end insight. We also develop all kinds of fancy plans and complex infrastructure to solve it. So again, the problem is technically solved we just can not implement it politically.

But The Most Important Problem Is … !

I am more or less doing research in the energy sector. Therefore I usually argue like this: Availability of (cheap) energy is the most important problem we need to solve because it will solve all other problems. All we do is consuming energy, all things that make our life easier are consuming energy. We want everyone to have clean drinking water, no problem if we have cheap and "clean" energy we can just build a wastewater treatment plant or a desalination plant. We need more food? No problem we just build a greenhouse, temperature and light controlled and we are good. War? Mostly due to oil nowadays, once we need no oil anymore: gone. Disease? Once people do not need to care about oil and war they have more time to work on disease prevention … and so on. And you will find a lot of other very clever people arguing the same way for energy. Or for war, or poverty, or hunger …  In fact all of these problems are somehow connected, you can not solve one without the other. This does not mean that there is one root problem connecting them, they are all real problems on their own. However the connection between most of them is politics …

So Should We All Become Politicians Then?

Definitely not. While there are some former scientist in politics, some even from natural sciences, I believe not all of us are suited for a job in politics. However most researchers should radically change the view on how to do research. There is one part of science which is tasked with finding out new things about nature, sometimes very fundamental things like the particles that make up the universe, sometimes more about tiny details like how two very specific molecules interact. The another part of science however is tasked with finding solutions, often to the problems discussed here or related ones, or even completely unrelated ones. There might not always be a clear distinction between these roles and the same researcher or group may switch between both of them rapidly. However most of the time it is very clear if the outcome is a solution to a problem or a new fact about "how things work". Now every time you develop a solution to something you have to consider the politics that might be needed to implement your technical solution – because if your solution is political not possible to implement it is just not a solution. For other fields this kind of thinking has become very common, every time a new engineering solution is developed someone will check if it is cost-efficient. From the engineering standpoint this is not necessary if it technically works, the problem is solved right? Except it isn‘t because if it is not a profitable solution for a company it will not be adopted. The same is true if the solution is not feasible in a socio-political sense. Therefore in the same way engineering and many other disciplines have adopted economic theory we need to adopt socio-political thinking to test if our solutions are actual solutions to a problem not just technical ones. In many ways this means to just adopt more from economic theory than just cost calculations, because at the core economics deals with the incentives people have for making their decisions, it just happens to be the case that incentives often come in the form of money. Nevertheless incentives and rules are what politicians can use to make a difference, however very few technical solutions we have come with a bundle of incentives and rules that need to be in place in order for the solution to work right.

Examples?

To give a more concrete example, we just saw the introduction of distributed energy storage for the mass market. However the battery technology is not yet cheap enough or good enough to go off grid. But since we have a lot of solar and wind energy in certain countries, resulting in high price fluctuations for power, these batteries start to make economic sense in a way that they can be cost effective. Which is why we will most probably see them adopted in many places. Once we have enough batteries they will however begin to influence the price of electricity, because they dampen the price fluctuation we currently see, by buying power when it is cheap and selling it when it is expensive. Which means once we have enough batteries the fluctuations will reduce considerably if not vanish, which is very beneficial for society because it means energy is always available in enough magnitude. We have to remember however that these very fluctuations are what made the batteries worth buying in the first place. Economic theory now suggest that people will stop buying batteries because it is no longer profitable. The problem however is that the cost effectiveness of the batteries was calculated over many years, so once at the point that the price fluctuations begin to shrink, it is already to late for all the buyers of batteries. Economic theory again suggest that we all try to optimize our profit, how could you do that if you have bought a battery? Fairly easy, you just try to sell as late as possible when the price starts to rise, because as long as no one is selling the price will continue to rise. So there is now an incentive and a possibility in place for all the battery owners to increase the fluctuations instead of decreasing them. There are several reasons why you can not play this waiting game indefinitely, first of all at some point the grid will have a blackout. Second, the regulated power plants will kick in and supply the power needed. Third, if enough of the other players sell before you, you will not make your needed profit. While the third reason might keep the whole situation in check, by keeping everyone on its toes while waiting, it does by no means guarantee stability. Because now everyone is looking for a change in the speed of the rising price, because a slower rising price suggest the others have begun to sell. So now a slowdown might trigger an avalanche of sales, flooding the market. So instead what we need is a regulations that makes it very unlikely or downright impossible for the owners of batteries to engage in this kind of speculation, while still giving them an incentive to buy a battery helping to stabilize the power grid. It is exactly this kind of political solution that is needed for the technologies to succeed and be of value for all of society. We engineers are problem solvers, however we leave some of the toughest problems to figure out for the politicians – even though we know they fail to solve them a lot of the times. This has to change.

MATLAB is not for Science

Currently I am working a lot with MATLAB®. Actually knowing how to use MATLAB got me a job in the first place. Nevertheless I could not really overcome my dislike for it even though I become more and more accustomed to its quirks. It is not so much that the idea of MATLAB as a tool for easy and fast numerical prototyping is a bad one in it self. It is not even the case that it is a bad tool in it self. It is only that there are some parts of the execution that are just poor or a bad fit.

I held a talk about MATLAB versus my go to language Python for use in our physics department (slides in German) which was very well received but sadly did not lead to any changes yet. The worst thing about MATLAB in scientific use is that it is closed source and therefore not freely available for everyone. And its open source clone (Octave) is simply not a full replacement.

Open Source? Aren‘t you an Apple fanboy?

The bad thing about the usage of MATLAB, and all other closed source tools for science, is that they destroy what could makes computer science and science on computers such a great thing: that almost everyone has the tools to do it. To trap a single atom in a quantum well and find out how its absorption spectrum changes is an expensive experiment to setup. Simulating it on a computer is almost a trivial task nowadays.

But if the knowledge you base your own simulations on is build up with tools you do not have access to, you will have a very hard time to setup your "virtual experiment" too. Or you have to swallow the pill and buy and use the same closed source tools all over again.

I think scientist should devote themselves to use open source for all their publications, if possible in any way, because it is the nature of science to be reproducible. It is sad that we cannot do high energy particle physics in our backyard or in our lecture halls. But we have a way to make the simulations useable for everyone and we should use it.

Where MATLAB excels

And here I am, telling you that Python might be a better alternative, yet earning money programming in MATLAB. Actually I did try to convince my employer to let me use Python and got some good reasons to use MATLAB. It is more or less the same reason why large cooperation‘s use Windows and Office: it comes with a promise of service and completeness and it seams to be a carefree package. It is some kind of outsourcing. You have someone that is responsible and is not you. You have some kind of stability. And the biggest point of all: it is the go to standard in the industry (and in science). Sadly.

The Story goes like this: your company wants to develop some kind of image processing software. You need something to prototype your algorithms in that just works. MATLAB provides you with almost all the things you need. You install it on your machine and you are ready to go. Having used MATLAB for exactly this case, I must admit it is very nice to have almost anything your can whish for already implemented and very well documented bundled in an almost care free package to play around with.

Money is the solution

For a company it is more or less no problem to pay the price for a MATLAB installation (some k€), even if it is only used for a single project. For a private user the price would be nuts. There exists a student version that is priced much lower (~150€ without any toolboxes) but based on my observations is not justifiable for most students. This might be because of the availability of pirated versions (almost anyone I know has one) or the versions that are accessible on the university owned PCs.

I think the price for MATLAB is justified; it is a useful tool with a small target audience that has the financial resources to pay for it, if you look at commercial use of it. I have no idea what it costs as a university to get a campus license, but no matter what it is the price for educational users is ridiculous. Especially if you consider that a lot of the useful and important functions are bundled in so called toolboxes, which will milk some extra money out of you. Though you can argue that it lowers the price of the basic version.

To make the situation a little bit more vivid here: for a lot of courses in engineering you have to use MATLAB. And while it is usually provided by the university, you can only use it in the computer lab which are natuarly to small for the whole university and not accessible at any time and so on. (The issue can partly be solved via remote desktop access) But the plan of MathWorks is not to provide an easy way for a university to give MATLAB to its students, since they already have paid for the license, instead it wants you as a student to pay again.

Making the educational version of MATLAB free would solve the problem of the software availability as a scientific tool for everyone while providing MathWorks the advantage that it will be used even more broadly in publications, manifesting its position as the go to tool. But as it already is the go to tool there is very little incentive for MathWorks to do so other then to be nice. The only way to push them in this direction would be to build on open source languages and toolboxes to challenge this status.

Basically I have no problem with MathWorks earning money with their software. I think the situation is not there fault (even if they could solve it). I also would not argue that everything should be free for education and science. But in the case of scientific software we have an alternative, which we do not have for hardware, that would strengthen the foundation of science and therefore we should use it.

MATLAB is not for Science - follow up

I wrote in detail why I think MATLAB is a bad choice for scientific research here. Imagine my surprise when I saw a letter about the "new MATLAB licensing model" from my university in my inbox. Just some quotes translated into English:

Further notes for MATLAB users at the TU Ilmenau:

1. Close MATLAB if you do not use it for a longer period of time (longer than 30 minutes), to free the license for other users. Forgo to block a academic-license by doing pseudo calculations.

4. Examine the use of comparable commercial or free software in your department like Maple, Mathematica, R, Octave or Scilab.

Sadly they forget to mention Python/NumPy. Maybe I should offer an introduction course… 

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