Scanning Retrospective, No. 19

Foresight Snippets – No. 19

[Originally published] December 2001

  • The Hydrogen Economy Experiment
  • Digital Continuity and the Rosetta Disc Project
  • Back to the Future 3: 2001 — A Space Odyssey
  • NORAD Watches for Santa Claus

The Hydrogen Economy Experiment

In Snippets No. 4 (15 January 2001) and Snippets No. 5 (30 January 2001) we reported on the growing awareness of the need to move away from a dirty fossil-fuel-based economy towards a cleaner non-polluting economy. So far, the world’s response to the challenge of climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels has mostly been just talk, and an astonishing lack of commitment given what is at stake, although thankfully this appears to be changing for the better. The idea of using hydrogen as a fuel was mentioned in 1874 by Jules Verne in his book The Mysterious Island: “I believe that … hydrogen and oxygen which constitute [water], used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable. … Water will be the coal of the future.” When Bragi Årnason (Prof of Chemistry, University of Iceland) proposed the idea of a hydrogen-based economy decades ago, many thought he was crazy. Well, things change; Iceland has now adopted his 30-year plan to run the country on hydrogen energy, and Årnason, now nicknamed “Professor Hydrogen,” is something of a national hero. The public and private sectors are beginning a quest to make their country the first to be powered by an oil-free and coal-free energy system, and the island nation has committed to becoming the world’s first hydrogen economy over the next 30 years. Scientists, politicians, and business leaders have come together to put into motion this grand experiment — an experiment that may end the country’s (and the world’s) reliance on fossil fuels forever.

Sources: World Watch Institute
Gutenberg Project on-line version of The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

Digital Continuity and the Rosetta Disc Project

Recently, Swinburne hosted an international conference on the issue of digital continuity. There is a growing realisation that much of the data we currently store electronically and/or digitally may be lost forever within a matter of only a few years, owing to the obsolescence of the technology to read the storage media or to the deterioration of the storage media themselves. This potential massive loss of information has been likened to a contemporary version of the “Dark Ages”, which our distant descendants will look back on in exasperation. The same is true with the very languages we currently speak. In Snippets No. 11 (30 April 2001) we mentioned the Long Now Foundation, who are building a 10,000-year clock and library. The Long Now Foundation have decided to try to save the structure, grammar and semantics of 1,000 languages, by using what they are calling a “Rosetta Disc.” This disc, like the Rosetta Stone after which it is named, will carry multiple versions of the same text, so as to allow translation and recovery of lost languages. It has been projected that something like 50 and possibly as many as 90 percent of the world’s languages will disappear over the next century.

Sources: Swinburne Conference on Digital Continuity
Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages
The Rosetta Project

Back to the Future 3: 2001: A Space Odyssey

This is the final Snippets for 2001, so let’s take a final look at the 1968 book/film of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and examine a few more depictions from the film and compare them with current reality. (We have already done this a couple of times this year: in Snippets No. 4 (15 January) and Snippets No. 13 (June).) — (i) There is an incomplete international orbital space station operating, although nowhere near as elaborate as the one shown in the film; and, while there is as yet no Hilton Hotel onboard, there was a visit to the station by a space “tourist” this year. (ii) Unfortunately, there aren’t regularly scheduled flights to the Moon in real life and, sadly, no evidence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life has been found there. (iii) In the film, the computer HAL whipped the astronaut Frank Poole at chess very easily. In real life, on May 11 1997, an IBM computer (note the letter shifts H-I, A-B, L-M) beat the reigning world chess champion Gary Kasparov in a six-match series. (iv) The uneasy US-Russian cooperation shown in the film is very much like the current uneasy post-Cold-War relations of these two countries. (v) The technology for voice-print identification to be used as a means of security clearance has been around for about 15 years, and it is now becoming used commercially. (vi) The “space plane” taking people to the space station had TV screens in the back of the seats in front of passengers. This is becoming commonplace in commercial aviation. (vii) Giving voice commands to your computer system is starting to become common. (viii) And finally, there are indeed Zero Gravity Toilets; they are in use on the Space Shuttle and on the Space Station. Astronauts and Cosmonauts report some problems with their use, and they remain to be fully perfected. Mind you, if the instructions for using them are as complicated as those depicted in the film, then that comes as no surprise!

Sources: Google Directory for 2001: A Space Odyssey
Instructions for use of Zero Gravity Toilet

NORAD Watches for Santa Claus

In 1955, the US Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) — whose job was to watch the airspace over North America for nuclear missiles and other forms of air attack — started receiving phone calls from children asking for Santa Claus, after a mis-print in a local newspaper gave the wrong number for a “hotline” to call in order to speak directly to Santa. Instead, the number put callers through to the CONAD Commander-in-Chief’s operations “hotline.” The Director of Operations, Colonel Harry Shoup, received the first such “Santa” call. Realising what had happened, Colonel Shoup advised his staff to check radar data to see if there was any indication of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. And, indeed there were signs of Santa Claus, so children who called in were given an update on Santa’s position. In 1958, CONAD became NORAD — now known as North American Aerospace Defense Command — which has continued the tradition of tracking Santa’s progress each year. These days, a web site provides frequent updates in six languages as to Santa’s current location, obtained using detailed ground-based radar information, as well as satellite information provided by US Space Command.

Source: The Annual NORAD Tracks Santa Claus web site

Season’s Greetings from the FPU. See you next year.

Foresight Snippets are interesting, intriguing or weird things we find during our strategic scanning which may or may not have direct obvious relevance to Swinburne, but which do provide signals about what the future might be like. Brought to you by the Foresight & Planning Unit.

An archive of the Foresight Snippets and a list of Frequently Asked Questions are available at [deleted].

Copyright © 2001 FPU and Swinburne University of Technology.
Feedback is welcome. Send feedback to [deleted].

NOTE: In all the posts in this series, the original source URLs are left exactly as they were when published 20-odd years ago. This means they will almost certainly be dead links (or good ol’ 404 errors). I do not have the patience or inclination to follow-up or find any archived or re-located versions of those web pages (because, well, life is too short). But, if it really bugs you, I invite you to see if you can find archived or relocated versions of those dead-link pages. And if you do, let me know, and I’ll update these posts with due credit to your detective work.

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