Archives for posts with tag: money

This is the second part of my overview of QED 2016. The first part is here.

The Future, Jim, but not as we know it.


Mark Stevenson is a futurologist, a term he himself is not particularly happy with.

The only qualification for futurologist is to write something with future in the title.

Mark runs a network of thinkers and gives talks and insights to different people and corporations around the world. While none of us can predict the future, it’s likely to be an interesting place. Mark’s presentation was furious, frenetic and content heavy, presenting about one new idea every 3 minutes. Every idea could have been a whole topic in itself. It was almost impossible to keep up with what was a massive stream of possibilities and directions, many of which may not come to pass, others of which might happen in an unexpected way, and others that might literally change the world.

He quoted Douglas Adams, who himself was massively future-orientated.

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams

We were shown a car, rushing around an obstacle course, with a screaming passenger inside. The passenger was screaming because the car had no driver. The technology  maturing rapidly.

Here’s the video, by the way

He talked about the 3 million truck drivers who’s livelihoods might be at stake and the insurance companies who might need to rethink their business models.

He talked about bionic limbs and Olympic games. He talked about genome sequencing advances outstripping Moore’s law. He talked about cells that never die, and how ageing might be reversed.

If people say to me “ban all GMOs”, then what do we say to diabetics?

He talked about genetically modified products that eat crude oil. He talked about extracting carbon directly from the air. He talked about the end of the oil age, the solar power revolution and a “complete solar” economy in twenty five years time. Even today, Saudi Arabia is turning its attention to solar power as the wealth generator of the future.

The Stone Age did not end for the lack of stones.

Sheikh Zaki Yamani

He talked about blockchain: an “unhackable currency”and questioned the purpose of banks.

He talked about 3-D printing at a macro and nano level and forecasted the first 3-D printed 3-D printers.

He talked about the changing definition of wealth and the extreme wastefulness of current methods of farming and food management.

The environment is starting to send back invoices.

He talked about an “Enernet”, like an internet for Energy. He talked about open-sourced drug discovery. He talked about trucks being driven on liquid air.

Then he ran out of time.


Where do you even start? The only thing he left out was the Singularity. The future might well be a scary place because of the inadequacy of our institutions and governments to keep pace with technology. He is optimistic, but there are real dangers, particularly where new technologies drive more and more wealth into fewer hands, while potentially rendering millions of unskilled workers redundant. This has been a refrain for two hundred years, but I wonder if we are moving into new realms here.

Here’s a video in the same vein featuring Mark Stevenson.

Paleo-diet eating climate deniers with chickenpox!


Next up was Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or just Dr. Karl, one of Australia’s best known science personalities. Dr Karl gave a talk on some of science’s greatest achievements starting off with some videos and pictures of his trips to the Antarctic and the Australian Outback. (Ireland and the UK look teeny tiny compared to the Australian continent – don’t rub it in, please).

The talk was wide-ranging to say the least, covering everything from vaccines to global warming to science illiteracy to the paleo-diet.

On vaccines, he had a lot to say. Australia seems to have a comprehensive program against chickenpox, whereas we are still in the dark ages on this side of the globe. While adverse effects of chickenpox are rare, they can be very serious. Stroke is a side effect, as are congenital defects when it hits pregnant women. I also didn’t realise how many people contract shingles in their lifetime – a result of chickenpox in childhood. Our governments should be doing more.

Everything, no matter how boring, always looks better under an electron microscope.

He did a great job dismissing the claims of the paleo-diet people. Some people believe that all the ills of our world, the cancer, the diabetes, the heart problems, all stem from a change in our diets around 10,000 years ago, when our species started to move away from hunter-gatherer type diets to more wheat-based diets. He discussed how this is such a simplification – different hunter gatherer groups have wildly different diets even today, and when most hunter gatherers were dead before 40 anyway, diseases of ageing would have been something of a minor problem to them. Dietitians, he says, have voted the Paleo-diet the joint worst diet of them all.

He also spoke about global warming deniers – a crafty lot indeed. They’ll take a warming curve, then select a piece of data from a larger data set that seems to suggest that warming is going down, then clap themselves on their backs for their cleverness.

Dr Karl also spoke about how IQ is getting higher each year (and no-one knows why). He also briefly discussed Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, where civilised behaviour seems to be on an upward curve. Long may it continue.

For many in the audience, we would have come these topics before, but nevertheless these are really interesting areas of discussion and activism, very well recounted by Dr. Karl.

Here’s Dr. Karl’s YouTube video “Great Moments in Science”.

Now on to Part 3

Iain M. BanksThis is the first of a series of posts that has been in the works for quite some time. It was inspired by Iain M. Banks, a writer who, in a small number of wonderful books, imagined “The Culture”: a society where technology had taken over, creating an extraordinary utopia for its inhabitants. Iain Banks died from cancer today, at the age of 59. The likes of him we may never see again.

Imagine living five hundred years from now. Looking back on our age, perhaps they will be be appalled and morbidly fascinated by the power of something most of us take for granted today: money.

Many of us spend a huge percentage of our lives working or chasing job opportunities, with one prime objective in mind: to earn as much money as we possibly can. We do it to build a future for ourselves and our families. It’s a trade-off that we make in order to live our lives. If you want nice things, if you want a tolerable retirement, then you have to work for it.

The bargain we make ensures that many of us spend the healthiest and most exciting times of our lives in an office 8 am to 6 pm, 5 to 6 days a week. Instead of being with our family and friends, we are obliged to while away the hours with people, most of whom we would not ordinarily choose to spend our free time with. We miss out on the special occasions, the children growing up, the rich friendships, the time spent with our parents as they grow older. We forsake our interests and hobbies, following instead the financial interests of strangers who are wealthier and more powerful than we could ever hope to be. While providing many benefits, work is a leading cause of stress and fatigue. Important relationships breakdown and families split apart because of it. When you think about it, it’s a strange way to live out our best years.

The ultimate objective of all this work is retirement: spending the last few years of our life without the pressures of clock-in times, deadlines or demanding bosses. By this age, however, infirmity, ill-health or bereavement may have paid a prolonged house-call. For many, retirement comes too far too late.

A fortunate few are able to retire early, in good health, with many years left to run on the clock. For many, “retirement” does not mean hours of boredom, daytime TV and too much time on the golf course. Plenty of people still lead busy lives, with one crucial difference: what they do, they do it for themselves. Freed from the need to constantly worry about money, they can spend time following pursuits that suit them, their circumstances and their personalities. It may still be work, but with far fewer downsides.

There are also examples of people who work hard, and who love every minute of what they do. They are quite happy to spend 11, 12, 13 hours a day, plus weekends, happily beavering away at what they love. For them, money does not appear to be the prime incentive. Their work defines who they are. It’s intimately linked to their sense of self: their happiness.

This also tells us something about the nature of work. If we didn’t have to work, most of us would do something anyway. If we were freed from the need to earn money, that work might be qualitatively different, more personal, more individually focused.

It’s an intriguing idea: a future where most people would be able to choose what work they do. A world where most people, by our standards today, would be considered rich; not just in the developed world, but everywhere on the planet. On the face of it, it sounds hopelessly optimistic and unrealistic. But something like this could happen. The example of modern life suggests that work is getting scarcer by the decade – or at least the type of work done by paid humans. At the same time, exciting technologies are coming into existence that may one day enable us all to have the resources we need at our fingertips  We may need to think hard about the implications of this in the coming century.

Over the last few weeks I have been reflecting on the dramatic end to the Irish boom years. The papers and radio programs can talk about little else these days. It seemed to me that we Irish lost control of ourselves, embarking on a no-holds barred journey of utter hedonism and a devil-may-care financial splurge of epic proportions.

And yes, there were excesses. I remember once meeting the wife of a builder in Co. Clare, who told me that she changed houses every 2 years. At the time, they were both living in a 4,000 square-foot pad, and they would probably build a bigger one as soon as she got bored with it.

In a more general vein, there was the epic investment in foreign properties and towering office blocks; the multiple holidays per year to far flung locations such as Mauritius and the Seychelles; the arms races between neighbours and the ubiquity of stretch limos ferrying debutantes and first holy communicants to their dates with destiny.

But despite all this, the boom years were good years: a chance to forget the day to day struggles and to approach that stage of self actualisation heralded by Maslow. Many people were permitted to set up new businesses in a wide variety of fields, from coffee shops to tree surgery to exotic footwear. The quality of everything – food, clothes, furnishings – jumped dramatically. People were better able to provide for their families and to enjoy meals and outings with their friends. Services were set up to help people to improve the quality of their lives. People could indulge themselves in their hobbies and interests. Many people worked harder than they had ever worked in their lives, fanning the flames of an entrepreneurial ethic within Irish society. For a short few years, the wolf was no longer at the door, and it felt good.

So screw it. Let’s not regret the boom years. Let’s figure out how to get ourselves back to such times as quickly as possible so that we, our families and the less fortunate in society can benefit from a bit more cash in our pockets.

As Spike Milligan once said, “money can’t buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasent form of misery”.

I’ve just noticed that if you type a phrase such as this into a Google search bar :-

convert 189.54 euro into GBP

it comes back with an answer for you straight away.


Pretty handy for an international jet setter like me, I would say.

A bunch of euro

After a prolonged period of avoiding the task of managing the domestic budget, I have finally succumbed to the pressure. I’ve spent some time over the last few days rummaging through the bank accounts and figuring out the current financial situation.

It turns out things are OK (ish), so, always the engineer, I began to figure out some way to keep an eye on expenditure that makes sense to me. What I have come up with is something quite nifty, well to me at least.

Now most of you are probably one of two types: the first type (the Surfers) don’t care too much about money: so long as there is some loot sloshing around somewhere, everything is fine and dandy. The other type (the Turfers) are ultra-organised: with discrete, and closely monitored categories for expenditure: clothes, petrol, groceries, dog shampoo, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter, that kind of thing. I firmly belong to the first group with a small proviso: I worry, every so often, about how close I am to there being no loot to slosh around. I’m a Surfer with a small “s”.

The idea of classical budgeting sends me into goosebumps. Who says I can’t buy the latest book on Japanese toe-painting because I have already overspent on my monthly Oriental Book Purchasing Budget? Gaaa!

Instead I have come up with the concept of a “run rate” – how much dosh is available to be spent on a daily basis, and how am I doing against this figure. The run rate is calculated by subtracting all non-distretionary expenditure (bills, in other words) from my monthly income (salary, wages), and then dividing this remaining amount by the number of days in the month.

I exclude bills because I don’ t have much control over them. I could, of course, decide not to pay them, but then burly people would come to my door and start stamping on my flowers. Or worse. Not nice.

So, if my monthly salary were 1000 euro, and I knew I would need to pay rent, electricity and cable next month of 400 euro, then my run rate would be 600/30 = 20 euro per day. If I go over this amount any day, that’s bad. If I can stay under it, that’s good.

That’s pretty much it. A small elaboration is where I look at my last week’s expenditure compared to the total weekly run-rate (20 euros x 7). I do that just so I don’t feel guilty about blasting money on a 180 euro book on Japanese toe painting if I so wished. (I also use a monthly run-rate, but as I said, I’m an engineer at heart).

What’s nifty about this is that I don’t need to keep too many figures in my head, and the whole analysis thing can be done on a computer in 5 minutes or less. It means I can monitor frequently how I am doing, thereby changing my spending behaviour in mid-course if that is what is required. I don’t need to wait until the end of month to start pulling out my hair. It also means I can decide very quickly if I can afford something or not.

That’s the idea anyway. The practice may be different but we’ll see.

So what about you? Are you a Surfer or a Turfer? How do you manage your budget?

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