July 31, 2003

Welcome Daily Pundit Readers

And everyone else, of course.

This blog "officially" launches on August 4th, but it's great having you all along for the big countdown. Here's a piece that kinda tells what this blog is about. Here's another. Here's more. Then sometimes I go all head-trippy.

Please have alook around, and come back soon. Thanks to Bill Quick and everyone who has added a link!

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Domino Theory

Very interesting report on Israel and nanotechnology from Howard Lovy's nanobot. Check it out.

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ITF #8

In the Future...

...potty-training accidents will be greatly reduced via hardwired interfaces to babies' brains.

via GeekPress

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Cyborg Liberation Front

The Village Voice provides an in-depth analysis of the World Transhumanist Association conference that took place last month at Yale university.

The opening debate, "Should Humans Welcome or Resist Becoming Posthuman?," raised a question that seems impossibly far over the horizon in an era when the idea of reproductive cloning remains controversial. Yet the back-and-forth felt oddly perfunctory. Boston University bioethicist George Annas denounced the urge to alter the species, but the response from the audience revealed a community of people who feel the inevitability of revolution in their bones.

It's surprising how quickly discussions about these kinds of topics becomes perfunctory. I've observed that people may be shocked upon initially hearing or reading a posthuman or Technology Singularity scenario, but they adapt to the idea pretty quickly. Maybe there is a sense of inevitability, even for the non-enthusiasts.

Which is not to say that everyone is convinced. A while back I ran across the follwoing Cullen Murphy quote (from the Atlantic) delivered by way of Charles Murtaugh:

The human organism—the corporeal thing itself, its needs and wants, its likes and dislikes, its limitations, its shape—is the most conservative force in human society

I retain considerable faith in the staying power of our pre-posthuman selves. Enhancement arrives with the audacity of Napoleon; the body responds with the inertial resistance of those two great Russian generals, January and February.

Nice imagery, that. I like to return to these words whenever I fear that I might be getting a little carried away with all this stuff. Still, I can't help but wonder: is this the humanistic wisdom it seems to be, or the early 21st century equivalent of "You can say whatever you like, young man, but long after everyone gets tired of the noise and stench of your so-called auto-mobile, people will be using horses and carriages to get around."

More from the Village Voice piece:

For now, though, the dialogue sounds like a space-age parlor game. Why should the noodlings of a relative handful of futurists matter? The easy answer, and that's not to say it isn't a true one: As with science fiction, the scenarios we imagine reflect and reveal who we are as a society today. For example, how can we continue to exploit animals when we fear the same treatment from some imagined superior race in the future?

Exactly. A good scenario provides a more focused view of what's possible, which in turn opens up our thinking such that we can create new possibilities. The possibility space that I keep referring to has as much to do with our lives in the present as it does the future.

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July 30, 2003

Five Days and Counting Down

Didn't get many of those e-mails out today. And still the launch date looms. Even so, this thing is gonna be big!

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Now That's What I Call Flying (2)

Not all designs for sail-powered spacecraft are lame. Throw a little matter/anti-matter combustion into the mix and you got yourself a pretty darn kick-ass spaceship, mister.

via the Slag Heap

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Wanna Bet?

Dave Tepper on the future's market for terrorism:

Okay, so maybe the phrase "futures market in terrorism" is poorly worded. But from the way these senators are caterwauling, you'd think no one ever made a bet on someone's life. Hillary Clinton called it a futures market in death. What the hell do you think life insurance is, you stupid nincompoop? Are we going to ban retirement annuities now, because the annuity seller is hoping for the buyer's early death? Wastrels. Asshats. Ugh!

The next drops of blood that a terrorist spills will partly be on their hands. I hope some private entrepreneur goes ahead and develops this market; if someone credibly thinks my flight home from Journalcon is going to be hijacked and is willing to bet money on that scenario, you can bet I'll want to know about that so I can make other plans.

Someone will develop this market, and it's going to be huge. As I have written elsewhere, we are all futurists now. We navigate what I call possibility space as a means of achieving certain specified outcomes and avoiding others. Outcomes that are nearer to us in this space have a higher probability; those that are further away have a lower probability. Two factors that are crucial to navigating possibility space are knowing what the probabilities are and developing the means to shift those probabilities in a favorable direction.

The bottom line is that we all want to avoid outcomes that involve suffering or death for oursleves, our families, and our friends. How this kind of information would be valued (that is to say, priced) is hard to say. But assuming that the cost of compiling this information is not prohibitively high, or that the act of sharing the information wouldn't change the probabilities so as to make it useless, the perceived value is sufficiently high to overcome any squeamishness that anyone might have about "betting on death."

UPDATE: Jeffrey Utech explains a the difference between life insurance and a future's market, making a pretty strong case that (where people's lives are concerned, anyway) a future's market seems to profit from the wrong outcome:

The futures market hopes for a person's early death. Life insurance hopes for a person's long, fruitful life.

The only way that the two are the same is that they're both betting on how long a person will live. The futures market is betting sooner rather than later, though, while life insurance is hoping it's later rather than sooner. But that's the only similarity, any other is, as they say, merely coincidental.

I guess I was thinking about something more along the lines of stock options, where you can set up either a put or a call and make money no matter which way the share price moves. The challenge here is to find a way for information on the probability of a terrorist attack to be profitable even if nobody dies. That's trickier than it sounds. It seems that you need for some attacks to occur and some people to be killed in order to estbalish the accuracy of the information.

I maintain that value of real data on the probability of a terrorist attack is unquestionable. But finding a way to create a market for that data may prove elusive.

MORE UPDATES: IntsaPundit has a good roundup on this issue. Also, check out the story in WiredNews:

[Supporters] of the project point out that gathering intelligence is often a messy business, with payoffs to unsavory characters and the elimination of potential adversaries. The futures market, ugly as it may sound, doesn't involve any of those moral compromises, said Robin Hanson, one of the earlier promoters of the concept of trading floors for ideas and a PAM project contributor. It's just a way of capturing people's collective wisdom.

"Among the many things we do for intelligence, this is one of the least reprehensible," Hanson said. "Paying people to tell us about bad things. That's intrinsic to the intelligence process."

And a trading floor could be more effective than paying off a snitch.

Indeed it could. If I were a predicting man, I might suggest that this idea isn't quite dead yet.

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Walking on Sunshine

There's an interesting piece in WiredNews this morning on the debate currently taking place about the feasability of spacecraft operating via solar sail.

The solar sail exhibit is part of Rockefeller Center's new Centennial of Flight show, which traces technological advances made in aviation during the last century.

If all goes well, Cosmos will prove that solar sails are the future of space flight, a viable technology that can allow humans to glide gracefully through space relying primarily on naturally produced propulsion instead of jet engines and fuel.

But some scientists say solar sailing is an impossible dream that defies the unbreakable laws of physics. Others insist that those very same laws of physics indicate that solar sailing is quite feasible.

Say, this whole thing kind of reminds me of the Great Assembler Debate currently taking place in the field of nanotechnology. So who's right: the Looney Tunes hobbyists who think you can sail around the solar system in a spacecraft pushed by the force of sunshine, or the constipated buzzkill realists who know it's impossible? To quote Richard Smalley (via Eric Drexler):

...when a scientist says something is possible, they're probably underestimating how long it will take. But if they say it's impossible, they're probably wrong.

So, yeah, my guess is that we'll have solar-powered spaceships sooner or later. My problem with solar sails has never been one of feasability. I've just always thought they were kind of, well, lame.

I remember first encountering the idea reading Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes when I was 10 or 11, and it left me cold even then. I guess I'm just a rocket guy at heart. I like ideas like the ramjet/scramjet. And nothing can compare to the good old-fashioned nuclear-weapon-powered-rocket.

Now that's flying.

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Carnival is Up

This week's Carnival of the Vanities is up at Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. Go check it out!

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July 29, 2003

T Minus Six Days

The big day is getting closer. Tomorrow I'm sending out e-mails asking a few blogosphere acquaintences to link the Speculist on August 4. Here's hoping I get some kind of response.

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Nano Business

Just found this blog via NanoDot. Josh Wolfe provides good insider information on the evolving nanotechnology market. He also provides a free newsletter (for general business news) and a subscription-based newsletter (for hot nanotechnology stock tips).

Two pieces that especially caught my attention:

  • A pithy and very skeptical take on the idea of building a tower that reaches into space via carbon nanotubes.
  • An article that ran in Forbes on how nanotechnology can be used to address the world's energy problems.

Solving energy problems is, of course, one of the proposed "moonshot" goals for nanotechnology. In addition to a proposal from Richard Smalley having to do with using nanotube-based "quantum wires," (which apparently wouldn't create or save any energy, just help us move the energy we've got around better), and a quick dismissal of hydrogen with a promise to say more about it later, the article describes efforts to use nanotechnology to improve current practices related to acquiring energy, to create synthetic fueld, and to faciliate solar energy.

Speaking of hydrogen (not that anyone exactly was), here is a somewhat older piece by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network. Schwartz and Randall propose that we make the cut-over to hydrogen our moonshot. Their emphasis is on the economic and environmental impact of switching to hydrogen. The role of nanotechnology is a secondary concern at best.

Their plan is very well thought out. (Schwartz is pretty much the maestro where drawing up scenarios is concerned.) The plan outlines five steps:

  1. Solve the hydrogen fuel-tank problem.
  2. Encourage mass production of fuel cell vehicles.
  3. Convert the nation's fueling infrastructure to hydrogen.
  4. Ramp up hydrogen production.
  5. Mount a public campaign to sell the hydrogen economy.

I think it would be interesting if the nanotechnology community were to get behind this plan. Nanotechnology could play a key role in the first four steps and could benefit greatly from the the fifth. It's hard to imagine a better proof-of-concept for the field than this would be.

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The Most Powerful Force?

Reason Online provides an in-depth look at a an unexpected movement, Islamic Libertarianism:

Imad A. Ahmad is the president and director of Minaret of Freedom. In books, lectures, and classes at the University of Maryland, he draws on everything from astronomy to medieval history to Murray Rothbard's economic theories to show that Islam is not only compatible with but intimately related to free speech, free religious exercise and free markets. Although Minaret of Freedom, founded in 1993, is still a tiny organization with a minuscule budget, Ahmad says the organization and its principles are attracting a growing number of followers.

Ahmad contends that Islamic civilization, as it was originally conceived and established, has more in common with Western civilization than we realize. And he makes a fairly persuasive argument to that effect:

Just as when some westerners talk about "western values" when they're really talking about universal values, I think some Muslims go around talking about Islamic values when they're really talking about universal values. They're universal values that have been articulated by Islam, but they are values for everybody whether they're Muslim or not. I think that the biggest thing for agnostic or atheist libertarians to learn from Islamic law and economics is how the experience of Muslim civilization confirms our libertarian theory. In fact, when I see people try to deny the role of Islamic teachings in the success of Islamic civilization, I propose a thought experiment: Ask yourself, as a libertarian, if you really believe that free markets and liberty are necessary to human progress, then how was it possible for the Islamic civilizations to have been so successful for so many hundreds of years? Either they were established on similar principles, and therefore prove our point, or they were established on different principles and disprove our point. As someone who firmly believes that we are correct about these things, I find it important to note that the Islamic civilization was built on those principles.

But if that's true, what went wrong? If Western civilization and Islamic civilization are founded on many of the same principles, how is it that we ended up with a Western world that is hugely successful (albiet somewhat flawed) and an Islamic world that is an unmitigated disaster — "successful" at all only by the coincidental location of oil deposits, and largely indifferent or even hostile to most of the basic freedoms that we would consider essential?

I don't have the answer to that question. Even Ahmad is forced to paint in fairly broad strokes when describing this transformation. However, in making the highly unusual claim that the Islamic injunctions against "usury" were originally aimed not at the practice of charging interest per se, but only at abusive over-charging, he describes an interesting point of divergence.

If you look at Islamic history, they had strong business, they had international trade, they had factories, science, innovation. Yet somehow they never made that final leap to an industrial revolution. And when I look at the fact that the steam engine was called Fulton's Folly, I can't help but wonder, to what degree did the availability of interest play a role in the commercialization of the steam engine? And is it possible that the Islamic prohibition on interest meant that that just wasn't gonna happen in the Muslim world?

Interesting. So what if the Islamic world had had an industrial revolution of its own (or even just participated in the one that was taking place)? We can't be certain that they would be any more free than they are now. After all, both socialism and facism showed up in the west after industrialization. But it is possible that rapid economic growth might have gone a long way towards preserving individual rights and holding back Wahhabism.

It may be apocryphal that Albert Einstein ever called compound interest "the most powerful force in the universe." (Then again, he may have said it. It seems to be one of those things that everyone "just knows" Einstein said. If anybody has a reliable reference, I would appreciate it.) But what we know he did say is still pretty compelling: "It is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time."

Einstein was impressed by the tremendous generation of wealth (or in my case, debt) that the application of a simple mathematical rule could bring about over time. But there's another kind of doubling that the application of interest apparently plays into.

In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil provides a timeline of technological development, from the dinosaurs all the way to the Technological Singularity, which marks the end of the human era. (Or, if you prefer, the beginning of the posthuman era.) A somewhat more modest version of the timeline is provided here, culminating in a computer passing the Turing test. It is Kurzweil's thesis that the doubling of computing capability that we have come to know as Moore's Law has actually been going on for a lot longer than we realized. Even those who seriously doubt Kurzweil's thesis, or who are skeptical about the Singularity (or for that matter, the Turing test) would have to agree that this chronology shows an amazing — and accelerating — rate of technological development.

One of the things that struck me as I read through the timeline the first time was when things really started to get interesting. Sure, we went into full turbo mode in the second half of the past century, but the two hundred years leading up to that were incredibly fast in comparison to any other era in human history. Of some 350 entries on the timeline, more than 300 occur after 1760. In many ways, this entire era has belonged to the West. The vast majority of the accomplishments listed were achieved in Europe or North America. How much of this monopoly can be attributed to the fact that the West overcame its relgious misgivings on charging interest, while the Islamic world still hasn't? Surely there are many, many other factors that have to be looked at. But this simple difference is compelling.

A couple more questions:

How would all these accomplishments have panned out if the Islamic world had overcome its aversion to interest? And what kind of future would we now all be facing together?

Via InstaPundit

UPDATE: Dean Esmay wonders what the LGF crowd will have to say about Minaret of Freedom. Meanwhile, Joe Katzman offers (via Egyptian author Tarek Heggy) another possible cause of the divergence: despotism.

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ITF #7

In the Future...

...science and technology will give us back all the monsters they have taken from us.

via GeekPress

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July 28, 2003

T Minus One Week

The Speculist is devoted to exploring the boundaries of the possible. Every week, readers will find:

  • Tools for making the most of the future.

  • Speculative essays on what might be.

  • Interviews with individuals who have something important to say about the future. In the first few weeks, I will be talking to a genetecist working on developing a cure for human aging, one of the founders of the field of nanotechnology, a former NASA guy who has a plan for getting us to Mars on the cheap, and a bright young woman who doesn't seem all that unusual until you realize she's a computer program.

  • Practical ideas on how to succeed in an era of accelerating change.

  • Ruminations on what might have been.

  • Coverage of interesting developments in nanotechnology, biotechnology, aritifical intelligence, space exploration, and other future-impacting areas.

  • Ponderings on things that never were.

  • Predictions (usually one a day, extrapolated from a referenced news story) of what may happen in the future

  • Other things I haven't thought of yet.

This pre-launch phase has given me a chance to nail down the look and feel of the thing, get my blogroll started, and try out a few things that will carry over once I get going for real.

The blog will officially launch on Monday, August 4, 2003. Don't miss it.

And, yes, I will continue with my unofficial postings in the mean time.

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ITF #6

In the Future...

...there will be options for parents with fat or ugly kids.

via WiredNews

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July 26, 2003

Future Roundup 07/26/03

Here's the full list of this week's predictions for the future. Three of the five seem to touch on personal freedoms — actually, four out of five if you count the freedom of children to play with robots. And come to think of it, that definitely counts. It will be interesting to see whether this trend persists in coming weeks, or whether other vital trends (such as neon-toned zoo animals) take a dominant role.

In the Future...

...it will be illegal for British teenagers make out.

...you will need to show a photo ID in order to buy batteries or a quart of milk.

...the barriers will be lifted, and children and robots will be free to play together once again.

...polar bears will come in a wide variety of colors, not just the white and purple available today.

...free speech protection will be extended to include commentary on the President's knees.

That does it for this week. Thanks for dropping by. And until next time, I'll see you in the future.

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ITF #5

In the Future...

...free speech protection will be extended to include commentary on the President's knees.

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Shirts That Stop Bullets

Earlier this week we saw the introduction of the world's smallest electric rotor. Now here's news of the production of a nano-fiber that may someday play a role in outfitting nanotechnology-equipped super-soldiers.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas have come up with a new fiber four times tougher than spider silk or twenty times more than steel. And what is the key ingredient? ScienCentral News has the answer: carbon nanotubes.

The researchers think that this fiber, which is easy to sew, could be integrated into lightweight military uniforms, protecting soldiers and giving them electronic connections. And they did some early experiments. Here is an image of the fiber woven into a fabric (Credit: Univ. of Texas at Dallas).

But as the author points out, there is one major obstacle, price. Try to buy carbon nanotubes online from Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc. and you'll see prices ranging from $500 to $900 per gram.

I don't know. Even with a healthy military budget, I'd say that price is going to have to come down.

Via Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends

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July 25, 2003

Navigating Possibility Space

This photo (source: Yahoo! news) perfectly exemplifies the strategy that I recommend for approaching the future.

Picture this...

Several Cubans are sitting around one evening talking about life. They're exhausted from another day's backbreaking labor in the heat of the sun. They've had dinner, but most of them are still pretty hungry. It seems there's never enough to eat. Maybe they've had some wine; maybe they haven't. The only thing they have in abundance is dissatisfaction. The only thing that never runs out is complaints. And they have every reason to complain, more than most of us can imagine. Poverty. Hunger. A lack of basic freedoms. Hopelessness.

One of them (we'll call him Diego*) grows restless as he endures this litany yet again. He's tired of talking about how miserable they all are. He wants to do something about it. And he has an idea, one that's been growing in the back of his mind for many weeks now.

Tonight, for the first time, decides to speak his idea out loud.

"So why do we stay here?" he asks. "It's only a short distance to Florida. Many others have gone there. We could, too."

There is some laughter, and perhaps a few murmurs of agreement.

"Don't be stupid, Diego," says one of the older men. "We'd be caught, and then we would all rot in prison. And be tortured. Does anyone here want to be tortured? And if we're not caught, the trip is dangerous. We would all most likely drown or be eaten by sharks."

"No," Diego insists, "if we plan it carefully, if we get a boat--"

"What boat?" says the older man, now angry. "Look around you, Diego. We have no boat. All we have is this old truck. Can you take us to America in this truck?"

Everyone laughs, someone changes the subject, and the matter is considered closed.

But the matter is not closed. Not by a long shot.

In considering the possibility of escape, Diego has already taken the first step in fashioning his own future. He has expanded his thought space. While the others are fixed on their day-to-day problems, Diego has asked the most fundamental of questions: what are the alternatives? And he has come up with one: we could get a boat and go to Florida.

Expanding your thought space is a tremendous step forward, but it leads to nowhere without the next step.

As the conversation shifts to other subjects, Diego sits there staring at the truck. That old green American truck, parked over there by that stack of oil drums. It runs just barely well enough to haul the occasional load of brick or stone. Of course, there's no way that truck could take them all to America. It's a joke.

And now Diego takes that second, crucial step: he expands his possibility space.

Now wait a minute, he thinks. Maybe it's not a joke. It sounds crazy, but maybe there is a way for this old truck to take us all to Florida...

Several weeks pass before Diego brings the subject up again. By the time he does, he has more than an idea. He has a sketch of how the barrels can be attached to the truck to make a boat; he has another sketch showing how a propeller can be fixed to the truck's drive shaft; he has a map; he has a tide chart; he has notes on what he's learned about where and when the patrol boats make their rounds. Diego has already expanded his thought space and his possibility space, and now he's taken the third step: he has specified an outcome.

By the time he finishes talking, everyone (even the older man) is persuaded. So Diego and his friends put this crazy plan of driving a truck from Cuba to Florida in motion, and the rest is history.

Unfortunately, this story doesn't have a happy ending. The people shown in the photo were stopped by US authorities. They were returned to Cuba; their makeshift vessel was sunk. They took a chance on freedom, and it didn't work out. Does this mean they were wrong to try?

On the contrary.

We can expand our thought space, we can expand our possibility space, we can specify an outcome, we can do everything in our power to make that outcome happen and, in the end, we are still subject to the other side of the reality that creates opportunity in the first place: there are no guarantees.But we can't know what we can do, how much is possible, what outcomes we can create, unless we try.

I think the biggest mistake these brave individuals made was that yellow canopy over the truck bed. That's probably what got the Coast Guard's attention. They may or may not have known about the US government's horrible and imbecilic "wet foot/dry foot" policy. My guess is they didn't, or that canopy would have been a different color. But all that aside, I salute Diego and his friends for their courage and their inventiveness. I hope they weather whatever unpleasant consequences of their actions they encounter back in Cuba. I hope they persist, and one day find themselves in the future they were trying to create: a future in which they are all free.

* "Diego" is not really, as far as I know, the name of any of the twelve people who were aboard the truck. Nor do I claim to have any knowledge as to how these folks actually came up with this idea. I'm just speculating, here. (See name of website.)

UPDATE: Bigwig concurs that it might be time to rethink Wet Foot/Dry Foot. Jerry over at Dean Esmay's blog has also chimed in with some thoughts.

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Seven Questions About the Future

Greetings Carnival Readers! Like the genuis that I am, I accidentally gave the wrong link for the article referenced. The actual link is:


So please come on over. Of course, if you want to stop off and read about the Seven Questions first, that will be fine, too.

- - -

One of the coming weekly features on this site is an interview with someone who has something interesting or unusual to say about the future. The interview is made up of two parts. In the first part, I ask the individual about his or her own area of expertise and explore what that tells us about the future. In the second part, I ask the seven questions shown below.

These questions weren't designed just for futurists, however. Or maybe I should say, these questions weren't designed just for professional futurists. There also for the rest of us, the non-professionals, the folks who spend a good chunk of our lives thinking about, fearing, trying to prevent, hoping for, and trying to bring about certain future outcomes. We're all futurists; we always have been. Looking ahead is an old and fundamental subroutine in the source code of human intelligence.

Only now, in an era of rapidly accelerating change, it may be time for something of a software upgrade. That's really what the Speculist is all about. I want to introduce tool sets and modes of thinking that can help us make the best possible use of the future. The Seven Questions are a tool designed to do exactly that. Let's take a look at them and think a little about what our answers to them can tell us.

  1. The present is the future relative to the past. What's the best thing about living here in the future?

    Questions one and two provide orientation. We never think about our day-to-day lives as taking place "here in the future," and yet that is precisely where we are relative to our day-to-day lives when we were children, or even a few years ago. The first question gets us focused on some positive change that has occured over the past few years, often something that we didn't expect.

  2. What's the biggest disappointment?

    Here we have the inevitable flip side to question one. What has gone wrong, or failed to go right, which has thwarted our hopes or expectations for the future? From the answers to these first two questions, we get a perspective on how the future unfolds in both positive and negative ways.

  3. Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference be between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

    The final orientation question, this one gives us a perspective on how much change we have encountered thus far in our lives and how much more we expect to see.

  4. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

    Here's a question that really shouldn't require any commentary. What big, wonderful thing do you believe will happen in the future? The reason it does require commentary is that this is not one of the questions we typically ask ourselves.

    Why not?

    Well, we want to be realistic and keep our eye on the ball. And that's all very well — you certainly won't hear me arguing against realism. But note the careful phrasing of the question: "likely (or inevitable.)" If there are wonderful developments coming down the pike that are likely (or inevitable), then it is the very picture of realism to focus some of our energy and attention on those developments.

    And by the way: yes, there are.

  5. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

    ...and what are you going to do about it?

    You want realism? Accelerating change isn't all sunshine and daisies and jetpacks. As individuals, as families, as organizations, and as nations, the failure to ask ourslves this simple question results in disaster. 9/11 proved it.

    And even if we do ask and answer this question (there were those who saw 9/11 coming), we need to be able to find alternatives and rewrite the probabilities. How we do that is, again, what the Speculist is all about.

  6. Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

    Time for a little modified realism. If we can shift the probabilities to prevent bad outcomes, can't we do the same thing to bring about good ones? "Unlikely" does not mean "impossible." It doesn't even mean "unrealistic" if you have the ability to modify the likelihood in your favor.

  7. Why is it that in the year 2003 I still don't have a flying car? When do you think I'll be able to get one?

    Despite appearances to the contrary, this question isn't really about flying cars. It's about dissatisfaction with the present relative to a better, expected future. It is often an echo of question number two, only notice the important difference. The other questions have ben asked of you. This is a question for you to ask.

    Personally, I like to get in the face of a prominent futurist and demand: "Dude, where's my flying car?"

    But you're probably interested in something else: a cure for the common cold, a city on the moon, carbo-free bread, tires that won't go flat, a 3D real-time picturephone, your own robot...world peace. Whatever it is, that's your question to ask.

    So I ask you: what's your flying car?

Feel free to have a go at the seven questions in the comments section.

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July 24, 2003

ITF #4

In the Future...

...polar bears will come in a wide variety of colors, not just the white and purple available today.

via GeekPress

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Little Goals for Nanotechnology

Maybe I got a little carried away earlier.

Maybe the announcement today of the development of the world's smallest electrical rotor does not, as I suggested, reflect a development of the BHAG scale. Perhaps this achievement is more nearly the end result of an LMUG ("el-mug"), a Little, Modest, Unassuming Goal. Glenn Reynolds provides a link to a Wired News story that lists what might be considered the fulfillment of several nanotechnological LMUGs.

One thing is for sure, you can't get to a BHAG without a lot of LMUGs along the way. And just because a goal is little and modest, that doesn't mean it's result is of small significance.

Let's return once again to the example of the first moonshot, the quintessential BHAG. Tens of thousand of technical problems had to be solved in order for this accomplishment to take place. It has often been noted that many of these developments had commercial applications of their own. Two famous examples are Tang and Velcro — which was not actually a NASA invention; it was invented in Germany in 1948 by a fellow named George de Mestral. Still, NASA's use of the handy connective strip on spacesuits certainly played a role in its later widespread commercial use. And in addition to those well-known examples, how about these?

Dozens of other so-called NASA commercial spinoffs included weather and communications satellites, miniaturized circuits, scratch-resistant eyeglasses, shock-absorbing athletic shoes and cordless power tools.

Each of these inventions, big and small, had a role to play in the eventual success of Apollo 11. Likewise, perhaps those of us who are impatient to see the first nanotech assembler, or the first nanobot, or the first cloud of utility fog should take encouragement from some of the baby steps that are currently taking place. As the Wired News article puts it:

Boosters claim that nanotech-derived products may some day cure disease, slow the aging process and eliminate pollution.

But for now, the human race will have to settle for tennis balls that keep their bounce longer, flat-panel displays that shine brighter and wrinkle-free khaki slacks that resist coffee stains.

Come to think of it, I really could use a pair of those slacks.

Posted by Phil at 11:31 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

World's Smallest Electric Rotor

An exciting headline in this morning's Nature Science Update:

Scientists have built an electric rotor 2,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Its gold blade is 300 millionths of a millimetre long. This sits atop an axle made from a multiwalled carbon nanotube - a molecule structured much like a leek. Gold electrodes at either end of the axle lash the device to a silicon chip[1.]

To think it was only a week ago that I was writing about whether the nanotechnology community needs to adopt a BHAG. The other night, I had the honor of talking to Christine Peterson, President of the Foresight Institute, and I asked her for her thoughts about a big, hairy, audacious goal for nanotechnology. Her take on it was that, whether an official goal is set or net, the big accomplishments are coming sooner or later.*

It just looks like this one came a little sooner. So, what are the implications of this development?

Zettl's nanotube rotor is easy to drive and can operate at great speed, over a wide range of temperature and chemical conditions - even in a vacuum. This lends it to a wide range of applications. Using the gold rotor blade as a mirror to direct and switch light signals rapidly is one possibility. Detecting the presence of certain chemicals attached to its blade by monitoring its resonant rotational speed is another.

This sounds pretty useful to me. Alex Zettl, who designed this rotor, says that he expects to be surprised by the kinds of applications it will soon be put to. I suspect he's right about that.

Via GeekPress

*I'll be publishing a complete interview with Ms. Peterson around the middle of next month. So keep watching this space.

UPDATES: I did some re-thinking as to whether this development, while definitely important, is really Big, Hairy, and Audacious. And here's another little and unassuming, yet still important, development.

Posted by Phil at 09:12 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 23, 2003

Man on the Run

Bigwig takes us into the mind of a guy who thought he was in trouble before, but who can now see the handwriting on the wall with absolute clarity:

He paces in the dim light, the black thing which drove him for years now gnawing from within, growing larger and harder to ignore with the passing of each moment. He issued orders earlier in the day, order after order after order, trying to drive it away with activity and rage, knowing even as he issued them that few orders would be obeyed, that few could be obeyed. He had stormed around the room, shrieking of betrayal and vengeance, to no avail. The orders flowed, people melted away, until at last he alone was left.

His sons are gone, and his hatred is a huge, swollen thing. But no matter how large his hatred grows his fears grow with it. He fears betrayal, and capture. He fears the derision and revenge of those who once groveled before him in the dust. He sees them, crowding in around him, spitting, screaming and cursing, covering him with sputum before ripping him apart with their bare hands, capering and showing off pieces of his flesh before tossing them into the sewers.

I know this is a new blog and all, but I've studied the literature and I believe the phrase that gets used in these cases is "read the whole thing."

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ITF #3

In the Future...

...the barriers will be lifted, and children and robots will be free to play together once again.

via GeekPress

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July 22, 2003

Are We Living in the Matrix?

Or maybe it would be fairer to say that our universe is a vast Holodeck.

In a detailed Scientific American article, physicist Jacob D. Bekenstein describes how our universe could be a holograph "painted on the edge" of a higher-dimensional universe:

Using anti-de Sitter spacetime, theorists have devised a concrete example of the holographic principle at work: a universe described by superstring theory functioning in an anti-de Sitter spacetime is completely equivalent to a quantum field theory operating on the boundary of that spacetime [see box above]. Thus, the full majesty of superstring theory in an anti-de Sitter universe is painted on the boundary of the universe. Juan Maldacena, then at Harvard University, first conjectured such a relation in 1997 for the 5-D anti-de Sitter case, and it was later confirmed for many situations by Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and Steven S. Gubser, Igor R. Klebanov and Alexander M. Polyakov of Princeton University. Examples of this holographic correspondence are now known for spacetimes with a variety of dimensions.

This result means that two ostensibly very different theories--not even acting in spaces of the same dimension--are equivalent. Creatures living in one of these universes would be incapable of determining if they inhabited a 5-D universe described by string theory or a 4-D one described by a quantum field theory of point particles. (Of course, the structures of their brains might give them an overwhelming "commonsense" prejudice in favor of one description or another, in just the way that our brains construct an innate perception that our universe has three spatial dimensions; see the illustration on the opposite page.)

For all my Matrix and Holodeck language, it's important to note that Bekenstein seems to be talking about a mathematical relationship that would exist naturally. But I'm not sure he addresses the issue directly. Sure a universe can be holographically painted on the edge of a different kind of universe occupying different dimensions, but how would this happen?

Who did the painting?

Maybe that's just how universes work. Perhaps the higher-level universe is just the first in an infinite series of turtles' backs.

Or maybe somebody made it happen. Perhaps some intelligence in a 5-D anti-de Sitter universe looked "up" (we're talking five dimensions, here, so I have to be cautious when talking about directions) and said to one of her associates, "Say, did you ever notice that we could put a whole little universe right there on that boundary? Wouldn't that be neat?"

And so here we all are. Not the Holodeck, not the Matrix. Just a sort of cosmological equivalent of the paint job my wife and I did on our bedroom over the weekend. To be fair, I guess putting our universe in place would have been more like installing an aquarium than like painting a room, but you get the idea.

I don't mean to be flippant. And I don't mean to suggest that it was easy. (Actually, have you ever tried to put in an aquarium?) The technology to paint a universe holographically on the edge of our own universe is far beyond our current capability. We're only coming to terms with the idea that such a relationship between universes is possible. Moreover, it might not be something that you can do from within a given universe. Maybe the ability to holographically project a 4D universe onto a 5D universe is only available in, say, a 9D universe.

For some reason, this whole idea reminds me of Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber. In the Chronicles, there was one real world, Amber, which cast an infinite number of parallel-universe "shadows." Our own universe was one of the shadows. Now, we all tend to think of our universe as being real.

I mean, obviously.

But the Amberites didn't see it that way. Shadows were just shadows; some were more like Amber than others, and were therefore more real. Others tended off in the direction of Chaos, and were therefore less real.

Perhaps that's how the higher-dimensional interior designers would view us. Interesting, even amusing, but not really real.

(via GeekPress)

Posted by Phil at 10:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #2

In the Future...

...you will need to show a photo ID in order to buy batteries or a quart of milk.

via White Rose

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July 21, 2003

What Should Have Been

ScrappleFace is usually pretty amusing, but this piece didn't strike me as being the least bit funny.

Evocative, yes.

Tragic, possibly.

Eloquent, undeniably.

But not funny. Have a glimpse of a world that should have been:

A little-known group of Islamic fundamentalists intended to hijack several airplanes and ram them into the buildings, causing untold devastation.

But thanks to the funding increases during the Clinton administration, the CIA had the resources to uncover the plot. It arrested several dozen men who currently await trial for conspiracy to attempt mass murder.

A spokesman in the CIA's New York office, located on the 99th floor of World Trade Center Two, said he his colleagues were "just doing what we're paid to do...provide reliable information to protect all Americans."

One issue I would take with Scott's scenario: in a world in which we were that on top of things ahead of time (under Clinton), it's not a foregone conclusion that Bush would now be President.

Posted by Phil at 11:10 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #1

In the Future...

...it will be illegal for British teenagers to hold hands.

(via Gweilo Diaries, via Giles Ward)

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July 20, 2003

Remember this Day

July 20, 1969:

A human being sets foot on the surface of the moon, followed shortly by another. The significance of this event cannot be overstated. And it all happened so fast. Even in the fast-forward pace of human history, it had been only a blink of an eye since the invention of the airplane and the first flight.

Via Rand Simberg, an evocative quote from Arthur C. Clarke:

When the Saturn V soars spaceward on nearly four thousand tons of thrust, it signifies more than a triumph of technology. It opens the next chapter of evolution.

No wonder that the drama of a launch engages our emotions so deeply. The rising rocket appeals to instincts older than reason; the gulf it bridges is not only that between world and world — but the deeper chasm between heart and brain.

There are a few folks out there who have not forgotten this day, who have some sense of the weight of it. Let's be among them, shall we?

Posted by Phil at 10:18 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 18, 2003

Added My BLogroll

I realize this isn't exciting news, but I'm one more step closer. Plus, this time I'm doing it via .com, so it's really going to work. Thanks, Dean, for steering me in the right direction on this.

Posted by Phil at 02:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Building Nanotechnology to Last

Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory, nor defeat.
Theodore Roosevelt, 1899

In their book Built to Last, authors Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras review the histories of 18 companies whose management style and underlying philosophy they have identified as being "visionary." The Roosevelt quote above leads off their chapter on goals. According to the authors, visionary companies set objectives that are grand and inspiring. They call these objectives Big Harry Audacious Goals, which they shorten with the nifty acronym BHAG (pronounced "bee-hag").

Collins and Porras cite a number of examples of BHAGs. An interesting example is the decision that Boeing made in 1952 to offer a jet aircraft to the commercial airline market. Fighting perceptions that their company was really a player only in the military market, and a pervading assumption that commercial aircraft would be propeller driven for the foreseeable future, the management of Boeing decided to put everything on the line and build a prototype commercial jet aircraft. The result was the 707, followed by the 727, the 737, and — somewhere along the line — a position of unshakeable dominance in the commercial airline market.

The authors contrast Boeing's performance with that of McDonnell-Douglas (part of a "control group" of non-visionary companies) during the same period. MD decided to play it safe and stick to their established market of propeller-driven aircraft. As a result of this decision, they were late entrants in the jet race and were never to catch up with Boeing.

According to Built To Last, the quintessential example of a BHAG is found not in the business world, but rather in the geopolitical arena: JFK's decision to send a man to the moon "before this decade is out."

President Kennedy and his advisers could have gone off into a conference room and drafted something like "Let's beef up our space program," or some other such vacuous statement. The most optimistic scientific assessment of the moon mission's chances for success in 1961 was fifty-fifty and most experts were, in fact, more pessimistic. Yet, nonetheless, Congress agreed (to the tune of an immediate $549 million and billions more in the following five years) with Kennedy's proclamation [.] Given the odds, such a bold commitment was, at the time, outrageous. But that's part of what made it such a powerful mechanism for getting the United States, still groggy from the 1950's and the Eisenhower era, moving vigorously forward.

Moreover, this BHAG is the reason that the U. S. was and is the only country ever to land a man on moon. Russia had a tremendous head start on us in the space race. And they had what may have been, overall, a better thought-out and more viable approach to exploring space. But they did not have a publicly decreed goal to make it to the moon by the end of the 1960's. And they never did make it. Where going to the moon is concerned, Russia will forever be McDonnell-Douglas to our Boeing.

Now I read where proponents of nanotechnology are looking for a BHAG of their own. Naturally, they take as their inspiration President Kennedy's commitment and the subsequent Apollo program. In the words of venture-capitalist Steve Jurvetsen:

"Whether conceptualized as a universal assembler, a nanoforge, or matter compiler, I think the ' moon-shot' goal for 2025 should be the realization of the digital control of matter, and all the ancillary industries, capabilities, and learning that would engender," [Jurvetson] said in an e-mail message.

The extreme miniaturization that nanotechnology will deliver could "restructure and digitize the basis of manufacturing, if such that matter becomes code," he said.

Meanwhile, for those who like their goals a little smaller, less hairy, and more unassuming, supporters of Richard (Assemblers Will Never Happen) Smalley are calling for a more modest objective: finding a solution to all of the world's energy problems.

Damn, I love this kind of stuff.

But I have to admit that the idea of a nanotechnology BHAG makes me both exhilarated and a little apprehensive. Yes, we might see the achievement of some major nanotechnology goal in a very short period of time. That's exciting. But what would happen next? That's what makes me apprehensive.

Consider what happened after our success with the Apollo program.

I remember seeing the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was a kid and accepting it as a fairly plausible projection of where we would be in our development of space travel by, say, now. There was no reason no to think so. We had just sent the first man to the moon (not 10 years after the first manned spaceflight), and 2001 was more than 30 years away. At the rate we were going, the space station with its regular Pan Am service from earth, the moon settlements, and the Discovery and its voyage to Jupiter all seemed well within the realm of the achieveable. Apollo 11 was the platform on which it could all be built.

But what happened to that platform? John McKnight, in calling for a national monument for the Apollo project, paints a pretty bleak picture:

Today, Pad 34 is rusting away, marked only by those infamous signs reading "Abandon In Place." Today, the three remaining Saturn V's serve as immense lawn jockeys on NASA land. Today, many Americans believe we never went to the Moon at all[.]

What went wrong?

Was getting to the moon the wrong goal to pursue, or did we just go about it wrong? Maybe we painted ourselves into a corner, making that first moon shot happen within 10 years, adopting strategies such as lunar orbit rendezvous — which is a good idea if you're going to the moon, but isn't a whole lot of help if you want to go anywhere else. Maybe our BHAG failed us.

But I don't think so. I can't make myself agree with those who say that going to the moon was not a good idea. Going to the moon was a great idea. It just should have been followed immediately by the next great idea, and then the next one, and then the next one. Our BHAG didn't fail us; it's just the next BHAG failed to materialize. Maybe Neil Armstrong should have said, "That was one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. And now, on to Mars."

For some reason, we followed up Apollo with Skylab and the space shuttle, which were not really that inspiring — and our unmanned missions to the planets, which were more inspiring, but were not nearly enough to get us to 2001. As the authors of Built To Last are quick to point out, a single BHAG doth not a visionary company (or space program) make. In responding to the suggestion that maybe Boeing wasn't such a visionary company, that maybe they just got lucky with the 707, Collins and Porras have this to say:

[We] would be inclined to agree, except for one thing: Boeing has a long and consistent history of committing itself to big, audacious challenges. Looking as far back as the early 1930's, we see this bold commitment behavior of Boeing when it set the goal of becoming a major force in the military aircraft market and gambled its future on the P-26 military plane and then "bet the pot" on the B-17 Flying Fortress.

And it doesn't stop there.

In 1965, Boeing made one of the boldest moves in business history: the decision to go forward with the 747 jumbo jet, a decision that nearly killed company. At the decisive board of directors meeting, Boeing Chairman William Allen responded to the comment by a board member that " if the program isn't panning out, we can always back out. "

"Back out?" stiffened Allen. "If the Boeing Company says we will build this airplane, we will build it even if it takes the resources of the entire company!"

I wonder whether this kind of spirit still drives the management of Boeing. I hope so. But it's clear that this is not the kind of thinking that drove the U.S. space program in the post-Apollo era. The management that gave us the space shuttle is more like McDonnell-Douglas and their attachment to propeller-driven aircraft then it is like Boeing and their pursuit first of the jet airliner and then of the jumbo-jet.

We need to think very carefully about the lessons that JFK and Apollo (as well as Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas) can teach us about setting a course for the development of nanotechnology. The first moon shot will remain an inspiration to us, but we should view what happened next as a cautionary tale. Maybe it isn't enough to say "We're going to build an assembler" or "We're going to build a nanoforge" or even "We're going to solve the world's energy problems." Maybe there should be a set of sequential goals, or a commitment to define the next goal while still working towards the current one. Whatever objective the nanotechnology community chooses for itself for the year 2025 (or whenever), they need to remember that that goal represents the beginning of something even more than it does the end.

UPDATE: Dean Esmay reports on a less dramatic development in the nanotechnology field. Working towards these LMUGs ("el-mugs," Little Modest Unassuming Goals) is important, too. Here's my own take on a new development (plus some thoughts on LMUGS). Here's another. Here are some more thoughts on whether solving energy problems is the appropriate BHAG.

Posted by Phil at 06:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 11, 2003

New Old Planet

We can file some of our ponderings about this development under the "what might have been" heading. The actual find: a new planet about 8 billion (appropriate Saganesque emphasis applied) years older than the rest of the planets discovered so far outside of the solar system. It's not only old and huge — about twice the size of Jupiter — it's apparently seen some action.

...it is believed the planet formed about a sunlike star near the edge of the globular cluster. Over time, the star and its planet were gravitationally captured by the pulsar, which was then a neutron star with another star as a companion. As the sunlike star was sucked into the mix, the companion star was ejected from the group. This left the sunlike star and neutron star bound to each other while the planet orbited both.

Eventually, the sunlike star burned up its fuel, bloomed into a red giant and then collapsed into a white dwarf. The neutron star, with its greater density, sucked in material from the collapsing star. This caused the neutron star to start spinning at 100 times a second and emitting radio signals, turning into a pulsar. It was the clocklike pulsing of these radio signals, picked up by radio telescopes, that led to other observations and the discovery of the complex.

The article explains how this planet's very existence calls into question assumptions astronomers have made about when and how planets formed. The current thinking is that planets showed up only after the galaxy had cycled through a generation or two of stars. These later stars (like our sun) contained more heavy materials, such as carbon, that would make it possible for planets to form. So how did this planet manage to materialize so early? I think they'll be scratching their heads over that one for a while.

And while we're asking questions, let's turn to a few that have been raised by the all the other (more than 100) supersized planets that have been discovered outside the solar system. Are they all alone out there? Could they have smaller, earthlike moons or planetary companions? Is it possible that life has formed on any of these hundreds of smaller bodies?

These questions take on a certain poignancy when applied to our new old planet. Here's why:

But when the sunlike star was pulled into orbit of the neutron star, any planets near the sun would have been destroyed. Only the gaseous planet, orbiting some two billion miles out, would have survived.

If there was intelligent life on such a planet, he said, it was destroyed as the parent sun was pulled toward the neutron star.

"They would have seen it coming..."

But could they have done anything about it?

Let's say it was happening to us, at our current level of development. The only scenario that might work would be a desperate, swing-for-the-fences, When Worlds Collide kind of approach. Say we knew we had about ten years: we might be able to slap together a small fleet of manned "space arks" that could get a few thousand of us to the moons of the gas giant. I'm not sure if we'd be safe there, though. And of course, this assumes that the moons are there and that they would have sufficient resources to sustain us.

If we knew we had fifty or a hundred years, we might have a shot at building something that would carry us out of harm's way altogether and into interstellar space. Centuries later, our descendants could conceivably wash up on some hospitable shore. I'm not saying that's easy. How would we go looking for such a "shore?" There are none that we know of. We would just have to aim ourselves at a star that has big planets, and which therefore might have little, earthlike planets, and hope for the best.

I'm going on the assumption that we would want to land on a planet. That isn't necessarily the case. Putting oursleves on a permanent, renewable space station might make more sense in either the 10-year or 100-year scenario.

But what if we had been in that situation in the year 1800? If we were 100 years out from the big smash-up, I wonder whether our astronomy would have been sufficient even to tell us this fact? Presumably, one could just look at the night sky and know something was up. Under those circumstances, it doesn't seem possible that we could have done anything at all.

So here's to the hypotehtical inhabitants of a hypothetical planet that was once a neighbor of our newly discovered (very old) planet. I hope they were farther along than us technologically. I hope they found some way out of their predicament. And if not, I hope they went out with grace and dignity and (wouldn't it be nice) the biggest party their planet ever saw. They may have passed into oblivion, leaving behind no signpost or message in a bottle to declare that once they existed. So I'm glad I thought about them, and I hope anyone who reads this takes a moment to think about them.

There may be no way to remember them, but through us they are not entirely forgotten.

Posted by Phil at 06:21 AM | Comments (0)