August 16, 2004

Success: Memes or Materials?

In the midst of a post about the battle in Najaf, blogger Wretchard made a remarkable statement:

Civilization does not principally consist of bricks and mortar, but in a set of commonly accepted values and restraints. If the inhabitants of the sub-Saharan Africa and the United States could be exchanged instanteously; the one materializing in suburban homes and the other in wattle huts, the material imbalance would be reversed again within ten years, because the technology and civilization of Americans is carried in their heads and not in their possessions. There would be nothing Americans could not rebuild in Africa; and there would be nothing Africans could repair or replace in America.

This is an interesting thought experiment. What would happen if we Americans magically switched places with the population of part of the third world? The speed at which we could get things "up and running" if we found ourselves in Arabia would depend I think on how we were dispersed. If we were still together as families, and communities were still roughly intact, we could be back up and going very quickly. If we were dispersed randomly – my next door neighbor on the opposite side of the country - my wife and kids who-knows-where – it would take much longer. The Herculean task of getting families reunited would be second in priority only to basic necessities.

Assuming though that communities were moved basically intact (as much as the new geography allows), what would be our priorities?

  • Basic necessities
  • Defense
  • Economy
  • Retaking of portions or all of our old homeland

…in that order. These tasks would overlap, but this would be the rough order of our priorities.

Those that would disagree with Wretchard's conclusion – that the material imbalance would be reversed again quickly – no doubt believe that much of our success is due to our national resources. We do have abundant resources, but success hardly requires it. Japan is a good example of success based upon people rather than resources. And the Arab countries give us some evidence that material resources can actually get in the way of advancement by empowering an elite ruling class.

Ralph Peters has said that "national success is eccentric. But national failure is programmed and predictable."

Even assuming that our population could never return home (that pesky magic again) we would find a way to succeed. It would be a much different country than we live in now, but we would create another eccentric success.

North America, on the other hand, would become the same economic and intellectual pit that Arabia is now. Peters' seven failure factors would travel with the population:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information.
  2. The subjugation of women.
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion.
  6. A low valuation of education.
  7. Low prestige assigned to work.

Many Muslims seem to believe that we succeed in order to humilate them. That we might pursue happiness independent of our feelings of the Muslim world has apparently not occurred to them.

We succeed because we carry with us certain "commonly accepted values and restraints" that cull for success. A good example comes from one of our worst leaders – Nixon.

Nixon fought the release of his tapes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing Presidential privilege. The court's final decision was that such a privilege does exist, but found that Nixon's tapes fell within an exception to the privilege. In discussing his options with his attorneys it is said that Nixon was reminded that he had command of the military, and that the court has no army.

As weird and as corrupt as he was, Nixon didn't go there. His decision to dutifully obey the Court's order and turn over the incriminating tapes may have been the best and most important thing Nixon did as President. Whether he had a pardon deal with Ford or not, he still felt the "values and restraints" of our history.

Another Nixon anecdote: at some point after the crime one of the Watergate burglars, G. Gordon Liddy, reported that he went to the President and told him that he was Catholic and would, therefore, have to tell the truth if placed under oath and was also unable to commit suicide. He would, however, follow the President's order to be at a particular place at a particular time if need be. Nixon's response, according to Liddy, was "we'll not do that."

If this really happened like Liddy recounts, Nixon's response might have been closer to, "get out of my office you melodramatic kook." I guess we'll never know. Can you imagine this scene being repeated in Saddam's Iraq? "Why thank you Mr. Liddy. Does right now work for you?" BAMM!

RE COMMENTS: The spam in the comments has really gotten out of hand. If you'd like to comment to this post, please email me. If it's on topic and not spam, I'll reprint it here. Thanks.


Phil comments:

Very interesting. I have a feeling that it might take more than 10 years for America to get back on its feet if we were to be transplanted to such an environment -- not for lack of resources, but for lack of infrastructure. We're several generations in now on expecting clean water and electricity to be givens. Throw us into the wilds and the path from point A to point B might not be as easy as it once was.

I guess I'm saying we're spoiled. But we would turn it around in time.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 28, 2004

Still Number One!

For the past 10 months, Stillness has been the blogosphere's number one serialized novel of mystery, intrigue and suspense.

Here's what some of the readers are saying:

Ooh, I got a little shiver...

A week is too long to have to wait!

Terribly engaging story. Congrats.

I've never had all that much patience for serial stories (as they were being released, anyway). But I look forward to each new chapter of Stillness.

Reminds me...of John LeCarre.

More? Please?

Holy smokes, it's John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, and Douglas Adams rolled into one!

Awesome. Just awesome. You rock, Phil.

No, you rock, readers. Thanks for making Stillness number one. And for those of you who haven't yet joined the party, here's your big chance...


by Philip Bowermaster

Part I

Chapter 1, in which Reuben sees lights.

Chapter 2, in which Sergei gives advice.

Chapter 3, in which Ksenia looks at cars.

Chapter 4, in which Reuben falls.

Chapter 5, in which Reuben contends.

Chapter 6, in which Reuben recovers.

Chapter 7, in which Sergei explains some things.

Chapter 8, in which Betty explains the rest.

Chapter 9, in which Father Alexy saves the day.

Chapter 10, in which the old man speaks.

Chapter 11, in which Reuben obliges.

Part II

Chapter 12, in which Emmett goes to work.

Chapter 13, in which Frank has some news.

Chapter 14, in which Peggy opens a box.

Chapter 15, in which Emmett becomes confused.

Chapter 16, in which Rick spells things out.

Chapter 17, in which two strangers arrive.

Part III

Chapter 18, in which Celia meets Corey.

Chapter 19, in which Grace wins a game.

Chapter 20, in which Celia remembers.

Chapter 21, in which Corey wishes.

Chapter 22, in which Todd hugs back.

Chapter 23, in which an argument is settled.

Chapter 24, in which Estelle calls for help.

Chapter 25, in which Grace gets an idea.

Chapter 26, in which Corey awakens.

Part IV

Chapter 27, in which Reuben goes forth.

Chapter 28, in which Reuben gets lost.

Chapter 29, in which Hamilton lends his coat.

Chapter 30, in which Reuben plays a new game.

Chapter 31, in which Markku takes a turn.

Chapter 32, in which Sergei has some questions.

Chapter 33, in which Reuben reconsiders his past.

Chapter 34, in which Iskandar deals some cards.

Chapter 35, in which magic is discussed.

Chapter 36, in which Daphne sets terms.

Chapter 37, in which Altheus issues a warning.

Chapter 38, in which Reuben reads the stones.

Chapter 39, in which Reuben has three telephone conversations.

Chapter 40, in which Reuben and Daphne take a stroll.

Chapter 41, in which Reuben and Daphne have a drink.

Chapter 42, in which Michel blows smoke.

Chapter 43, in which Reuben discusses chess.

Posted by Phil at 07:32 PM | TrackBack

June 08, 2004

Pop Quiz!

What do regenerative braking, electrical outlets, fuel cells, and solar cells all have in common?


Time's up! Put your pencils down. If you answered "these are all potential sources of electrical energy for powering a automobile," you're correct.

Two of these sources of electricity are insufficient on their own. The laws of physics (in particular entropy) tell us that no matter how efficient we make a regenerative braking system, we will never be able to produce all of a vehicle's energy requirements in this way. It's not so much a source of energy as a way to reclaim some of the energy that we used to lose entirely. Today regenerative braking is primarily used in hybrid cars – cars that still have an internal combustion engine.

Likewise, I don't expect to see solar energy become the primary way we power vehicles either. "On a bright, sunny day, the sun shines approximately 1,000 watts of energy per square meter of the planet's surface." At present we don't have solar cells efficient enough to capture anywhere close to 1,000 watts per square meter per day. Not all days are sunny, not everyone wants an all-black car (solar cells could be made different colors but would be less efficient), and I'm guessing that there aren't enough square meters on a car to power a reasonably sized vehicle. Still, why not use this as a secondary source of power as well? In fact, why not have electric cars that are powered by solar, regenerative braking, plugging in to an electric outlet, AND fuel cells?

The answer is the battery. The battery is the weak link in an electric car. They are expensive in many ways: they're heavy and so increase the power required to move the vehicle, they're costly to manufacture, they have to be replaced every two or three years, and they are not particularly kind to the environment in disposal. Batteries also have trouble storing enough energy to give an electric car a range competitive with internal combustion cars.

This is a big reason why there has been so much excitement about the possibility of fuel cells. A hydrogen fuel cell automobile is electric, but there is no requirement for a battery array.

The folks describe a fuel cell as follows:

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity and heat in the process. It is very much like a battery that can be recharged while you are drawing power from it. Instead of recharging using electricity, however, a fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen.

So my question is whether a fuel cell can hold electricity produced outside the cell – from sources other than hydrogen conversion. If so, what are the limits to this storage capacity? If fuel cells can be charged with outside power (and I don't see why not), and the storage capacity is significant, I would expect to see fuel cell cars with regenerative braking, solar cells, and even the ability to "plug in" to an electrical outlet.

All of these technologies involve costs and benefits. Different auto companies will, no doubt, weigh these technologies differently. Consumers could have many options in the coming decades.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:32 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

May 24, 2004

There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea

It's a marker, a reminder of an event that rendered extinct 90% of the species living on Earth at the time, and paved the way for the world we know.

via Da Goddess

Posted by Phil at 08:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 20, 2004

Affordable Beauty

Randall Parker comments on some interesting recent research on fat metabolism in sheep which suggests that powerful new treatments for obesity may be on the horizon:

Think about what the future will look like once weight control becomes possible by use of safe pharmaceuticals. Obesity will become rare. Given that substantial advances are being made in our understanding of both appetite and fat cell operation and also given that the rate of advance in biotechnology as a whole is accelerating it seems most likely that 20 years from now obesity will be a rare condition and mostly will be found either in people who want to be fat for some reason (e.g. for a movie role or for an extreme cold weather sport) or who have some unusual desire to be fat.

Before obesity becomes a rare condition I expect we will first witness the near total disappearance of both corrective glasses and contact lenses. While LASIK and other technologies for reshaping lenses are making some in-roads in fixing eyesight problems the real promising advances are coming from the ability to replace aged hard lenses with soft and flexible lenses. See my previous posts on this here and here.

Stephen wrote something similar to this a while back

A once-a-day oral medication that limits absorption from the digestive tract aids the battle against obesity. It quickly becomes the most prescribed medication in the history of the country. Some predict that exercise will be abandoned in favor of pill-popping. The opposite happens as Americans get out and enjoy their healthier bodies.

Health considerations aside, the elimination of obesity and any need for corrective eyeware strikes down two of the five factors contributing to "ugliness," going by the old schoolyard definition. For those who can't remember those days, I believe a person could be branded as "ugly" for possessing any of the following characteristics:

  1. Disproportionate height-to-weight ratio

  2. Eyeglasses

  3. Buck teeth, irregular teeth, dental work

  4. Skin blemishes

  5. Unusually large nose or ears

No doubt there were others. Any facial or physiological assymetry ran the risk of being branded ugly. But I think the five listed above capture the vital 80%. For the record, I have (over the years) met four of those five criteria.

Eyeglasses were an endangered species before Lasik. From the time contact lenses were introduced, they've been on the way out. Tremendous strides in dermatology, orthodonture, and plastic surgery have brought items 3-5 under control, although still at a substantial cost. Obesity remains a tough nut to crack, addressed generally through behavorial changes, which are difficult to implement and maintain; or radical surgery, which most people would be inclined to avoid.

Nonetheless, we seem to be moving rapdily towards an age when all of these "conditions" will be "curable." Moreover, the cures promise to become decreasingly expensive and traumatic. The Age of Affordable Beauty looms. How will we distinguish ourselves in such an age? Will smaller differences become more important? Or will looks cease to matter as much to us as they have in the past?

Maybe ugly will make a comeback. Consider this passage from William Gibson's Neuromancer (from whence I appropriated the phrase "affordable beauty"):

The bartender's smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it.

Hang on to those physical imperfections, folks. They may be the stuff of tomorrow's hip, retro look.

Posted by Phil at 10:17 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

April 14, 2004

No Matter What, He's Wrong

Let's file this one under what might have been. This is required reading.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 10:30 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

March 15, 2004

The Next Ten Years: Some Speculations

Since the name of this blog is "The Speculist," perhaps I should offer some speculations from time to time. Feel free to comment on why you agree or disagree with any of this.

In the next ten years:

  • Carbon nanotubes become available in commercial quantities. They are placed in homes, cars, cables for bridges, skyscrapers. They are woven into fabric to make them bullet resistant.

  • NASA begins to plan seriously for a space elevator. An equatorial island is quietly acquired for this purpose. We return to the moon using proven Saturn V type rockets. It will be the last major NASA initiative to use rocket technology to launch from earth.

  • Scientists perfect methods of obtaining stem cells from adult humans without having to create and destroy an embryo. Scientists testify before Congress that it is critical that all Americans have stem cells banked. Democrats push for universal stem cell banking. Republicans say it will bankrupt the country and that private health insurance should help cover the cost. Health Insurance companies are of two minds. Some wait for Congress to act, others begin partially subsidizing the banking. Wealthier Americans begin banking stem cells at their own expense. Cost in the initial year is $50,000. The half-life of this cost is one year in the beginning, but the half-life itself has a half-life. By year five it costs about $100. This lower price ends the political controversy and the Universal Stem Cell Banking Act passes with a veto-proof majority. The President signs the bill calling it a giant leap forward.

  • As stem cell banking reaches 90% compliance, stem cell medicine begins to snow ball. Hardly any area of medicine remains unchanged.

  • Another branch of medicine, Native Transplant, allows scientists to grow organs from a patient's own stem cells for later transplant within the body. As a result, the field of artificial organs is basically shelved for a few years.

  • Artificial blood is perfected. Patients who have lost the ability to produce blood are now given permanent blood replacement. These patients find that the artificial blood is superior. The medical community begins discussing the idea of blood replacement within healthy individuals as an elective procedure.

  • A once-a-day oral medication that limits absorption from the digestive tract aids the battle against obesity. It quickly becomes the most prescribed medication in the history of the country. Some predict that exercise will be abandoned in favor of pill-popping. The opposite happens as Americans get out and enjoy their healthier bodies.

  • Drugs that aid the sexual performance of both men and women continue to be refined.

  • Artificial Photosynthesis devices are developed that use solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and provide fuel for both building and automotive fuel cells. Initially they are expensive and inefficient. But as costs come down and efficiency rises they are quickly adopted. Many homeowners find that the electric company is paying them every month for excess power. These payments are reduced over time as electricity becomes cheaper and as electric companies fight politically for survival. After numerous shut-downs and restructuring, the surviving power companies begin to rebound.

  • The first tentative steps are taken toward life extension. By 2014, life extension enthusiasts have reason to believe that "escape velocity" has been reached in this field – each year brings more than a year's improvement in life expectancy. Nevertheless, age reversal remains elusive.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 02:26 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

February 23, 2004

A Fisking Too Vigorous

Greyhawk over at the Mudville Gazette is fisking the daylights out of one of my favorite organizations, the Global Business Network. His point, which is true as far as it goes, is that the scenarios developed by GBN shouldn't be taken as accurate predictions of the future. The truth is that GBN has never presented its scenarios as predictions.

To operate in an uncertain world, people need to be able to reperceive—to question their assumptions about the way the world works, so they could see the world more clearly. The purpose of scenarios is to help yourself change your view of reality—to match it up more closely with reality as it is, and reality as it is going to be.

The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future.

(From The Art of the Long View. Emphasis in original.)

The scenarios are thinking execrcises. In order to "question assumptions" and get a better grip on "reality as it is," GBN usually develops a set of highly divergent scenarios. That means that the global warming doomsday scenario that the Observer article referenced was part of a set. If GBN was true to form, they did anywhere from two to four additional scenarios (not referenced), at least one of which would probably have described a future in which little or no climatological change occurs.

The author of the original article may or may not have known about the existence of additional scenarios. But had he done his homework, he would have learned enough about GBN to know that they aren't in the business of peddling doomsday predictions. Greyhawk, for all of his "the truth is out there" advice, might have done the same. Unfortunately, he took The Oberver/Guardian's word for it that these were predictions, so he researched the GBN site to collect a few nuggets that he could use to discredit Schwartz and company.

The scenario-planning technique that GBN uses is far from perfect, although it has had some remarkable successes in the past. I've been lucky enough to meet Peter Schwartz and attend one of his talks. His political opinions may be a little too "Berkeley" for my tastes, too — although actually, his group's headquarters are in Emeryville, an industrial enclave to the south of the People's Republic, which is home to hippy outfits like Siebel Systems — but by and large, politics is beside the point. GBN doesn't have a political axe to grind, at least not in the traditional sense. They would like to bring about a change in the way political discourse occurs, particularly where the future is concerned. In this instance, I think Schwartz and company would prefer that the author of the Observer piece, rather than zeroing in on one set of easily sensationalized possibilities that fall perfectly in line with his own biases, find out about the other scenarios, opening himself and his readers to multiple possible futures. Likewise, they would probably consider it helpful for Greyhawk, rather than jumping to the conclusion that GBN is an "enemy" who needs to be made to look ridiculous, consider some of the other work that they've done (not just the Oprah and War Games and Mother Earth News stuff.) Who knows? He might find that his own certainty about the future is as poorly justified as that of his opponents, and that he still might have a few things to learn...even from a group heaquartered near Berkeley.

UPDATE: Via Instapundit, Tim Blair reports just how wrong the Observer got it, inlcuding an explanatory quote from Schwartz himself:

This is very much in the spirit of thinking the unthinkable. The report that we put together for the Pentagon is an extreme scenario, in the sense that most climatologists would say that this is low probability, in the sense of it happening soon, and as pervasively. But it is the Pentagon's job to think about many cases, [including?] the worst-case scenario.

Posted by Phil at 09:05 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 10, 2004

Going the Way of the Slide Rule

My answer to this question is, "I certainly hope so. Let it die, die, die, die die!"

I suffer from a condition known as "mixed dominance." Nobody has ever heard of it, but it's easy to explain. You''ve heard of people who are ambidextrous? Well mixed dominance is the opposite. That's right, I can't use either one very well. The clinical name for this is "all thumbs."

Not only is my handwriting illegible, but it is physically painful for me to write with a pen. First my wrist cramps, then my arm, then my entire back begins to hurt.

We should keep handwriting around as an art form, but that's it. Nobody should need it in order to communicate.

Disclaimer: This rant has been brought to you by The Speculist. The opinions expressed are those of right-thinking creatures everywhere. Minor side effects are no more serious than those caused by a sugar-pill placebo. Void where prohibited.

Posted by Phil at 07:48 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 09, 2004

Energy Punditry 101

I have two possible reactions to this:

The age of oil is ending[.] The supply will soon begin to decline, precipitating a global crisis. Even if we substitute coal and natural gas for some of the oil, we will start to run out of fossil fuels by the end of the century. ''And by the time we have burned up all that fuel,'' he writes, ''we may well have rendered the planet unfit for human life. Even if human life does go on, civilization as we know it will not survive.

The first reaction is to ask whether I haven't heard this before? About thirty years ago? I remember being taught in grade school (as well as junior high) that we were going to run out of oil by about...well, now, if my memory serves.

On the other hand, I must acknowledge that predictions of the exhaustion of a finite, non-renewable energy resource — assuming we keep using it. — must inevitably come true. Yes, we will run out of oil someday. But are the time frames given above correct? Beats me.

Let's say they are correct. What, then, are we going to to do about it?

We might finally learn to harness nuclear fusion, the energy that powers the sun, or to develop better nuclear reactors, or to improve the efficiency of the power grid. But those advances will require a ''massive, focused commitment to scientific and technological research. That is a commitment we have not yet made.'' Drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and scouring the energy resources of national lands across the West might help the constituents of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and Vice President Dick Cheney's friends in the energy industry, but it won't solve the problem.

Hmmm...sticky. But wait a minute. What about hydrogen? Isn't it supposed to be part of the solution to our energy woes?

President Bush has pointed to hydrogen as the ultimate answer to our need for transportation fuels, but Goodstein correctly points out that hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is a fuel produced by using energy. We can use coal to produce it, or solar power, or something else, but it is only a way of converting energy into a form that can be used in vehicles; it doesn't do anything to ease the transition away from oil.

Okay, hold it. How's that again? Something is bothering me about that logic. I think I'll take a shot at being an energy pundit:

Gasoline is not a source of energy. It is a fuel produced by using energy.

Right? You have to pump it out of the ground. You have to refine it. You have to truck it to my local Shell station. That all takes energy, ladies and gentlemen. The way I see it, anything you can burn so's you can plug in the blender and whip up a banana daiqiri is both a fuel and an energy source. (In fact, silly me, I would be inclined to think of those two terms as being pretty much synonymous.) The real problem with hydrogen, if I understand it correctly, is that we haven't yet found efficient ways to extract or store it. And I'm not saying that those problems are easy to solve, or that we're going to solve them any time soon. But if the issue is net energy expenditure, let's talk in terms of net energy expenditure.

And don't tell me that hydrogen isn't an energy source. Talk to the hand.

Better yet, talk to the sun.

Speaking of the sun, check out this piece in The Economist on the future of thermonuclear fusion which indicates that wrong-headedness abounds on all sides of discussions about energy.

Although visionaries have long been lured to the idea of fusion because the fuel, being a constituent of water, is unlikely ever to run out, the economics of the process are dubious.

Sceptics (including this newspaper) have pointed out that workable fusion power has seemed perpetually 30 years away since the first experiments were done in the 1950s. Even if the 30-year horizon were actually true on this occasion, the discount rate over three decades, and the opportunity cost of all those billions, would probably make it uneconomic. Nor is the world in obvious need of another way to generate electricity. [Emphasis added.]

Well, there you have it folks. Anything that's been difficult or expensive to do for the past 30 years is destined to remain so forever. If the history of technological development has taught us anything, it's that these kinds of problems can't be solved. Luckily, it turns out that that whole running-out-of-oil scenario is not "obvious," so I guess there's just nothing to worry about.

Well, what do you know? Energy punditry is easy!

That does it. I'm setting up a consulting business.

Linked articles via and GeekPress, respectively.

Posted by Phil at 10:31 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 27, 2004

Encyclopedia Galactica

Anyone who has read the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov knows that the story involves a secret society — actually, a couple or three of them — dedicated to keeping galactic history on course through the predictive power of "psychohistory." Now I'm not saying there is such a group (although one would do well to keep one's eye on this bunch), but I've often wondered whether a certain resource that I use all the time might not be a stubbed-out, mock-up, draft-one version of the first deliverable that the Foundation produced: The Encyclopedia Galactica.

The Encyclopedia Galactica was Asimov's vision of a single access point for all human knowledge. Well, maybe Wikipedia isn't quite there yet, but as Dan Gilmore reports, it's about to publish its 200,000th entry.

That's a start, folks. That's definitely a start.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 07:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 26, 2004

War of the Worlds II

The Earthlings Strike Back!

Da Goddess points the way, while Citizen Smash has all the glorious details.

BTW, I love that accompanying artwork, Joanie:

Oh, dear. Now you have dis-integrated me. I do so hate being dis-integrated. You have made me very angry. Very angry indeed.

Kudos to Smash for his artwork as well. It seems to me that I've seen that photo somewhere before....

Posted by Phil at 08:15 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 12, 2004

Here's a Trend...

...that we need to nip in the bud.

"Nip it!" as Barney Fife would say, "Nip it! Nip it! Nip it! In the bud.

Posted by Phil at 10:30 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 07, 2004

The Future of Wealth

Glenn Reynolds raises some interesting points about income inequality in his latest Tech Central column:

If the rich are getting richer on a steep curve, while the rest of us are getting richer on a less-steep curve, then if you project the far enough ahead we'll have Bill Gates owning entire solar systems while the likes of me make do with a Porsche. Not exactly a tragic scenario (though I'd prefer a Bugatti) but if wealth disparities are great enough, I suppose it becomes harder to maintain civil society, as the rich will have too little in common with the rest of us.

The response, of course, is that if you project any trend far enough into the future it leads to bad scenarios -- and usually worse scenarios than the one where I have to settle for a Porsche. But such projections rarely come true. Today's rich people might get richer than the rest of us, relatively, but it's not likely to turn them into Galactic Overlords. In fact, in terms of daily life experience, I suspect that today's rich are less different from, say, ordinary upper-middle-class Americans than their counterparts were a hundred years ago, or even twenty (a point buttressed by Easterbrook's new book, The Progress Paradox), and that doesn't seem likely to change in the foreseeable future.

I've heard it argued that a typical middle class American enjoys a lifestyle as opulent (or even more so) than a typical king in the middle ages. Like life expectancy, wealth is increasing with each generation. But because of inflation and fluctuations in currency value, wealth is harder to measure across generations than something as straightforward as lifespan.

I like Glenn's idea of comparing the difference in lifestyle between the average person and the richest of the rich. If that delta could be quantifiable, it would almost certainly show a consistent downward trend over the past two hundred years.


Is it because rich just doesn't buy you as much as it used to? Just the opposite, really. Poor buys a lot more than it used to.

A good way to measure the increase in wealth across the generations is via the accumulation of stuff. It's by this measure that I can declare myself richer than, say, William the Conqueror. Actually, that's a tough one. He had more land and horses than I do, and was much better off in the precious metals department. And in terms of being able to raise armed forces, I'll have to concede that my Posse might have a hard time with the Norman invading forces. Still, I sleep in a more comfortable bed, eat better food, and have Tivo. He never got to go to Starbuck's for a Caramel Macchiato (hell, he never even got to go to Dairy Queen for a Peanut Buster Parfait), much less have a steam bath followed by an aromatherapy facial at Antoine Du Chez.

And even if some historical know-it-all wants to add a comment explaining that William actually did have access to the equivalent to any of the above, I would then point out that he was the King of Freaking England, where I'm the Guy with the Second Patchiest Lawn on the Block. Plus, I had hernia surgery a few years ago. Throw a medical condition into the mix and there's just no question as to who's better off.

I get to live like a king because there is so much more stuff than there used to be. That's why I think the lifestyle delta between average and richest-of-the-rich would be particularly interesting to track over the past 200 years. Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, the amount of stuff available to everyone (including the poorest of the poor) has increased exponentially. So even if — as Glenn points out — the richest are accumulating stuff on a much steeper slope than the rest of us, their relative edge in lifestyle is decreasing. Once you cross a certain threshold, the question of who is actually better off becomes harder and harder to determine (as it was with William the Conqueror and myself.) There are people who have much less money than Bill Gates and yet who live a much more opulent lifestyle. Who's richer? If Bill Gates owns the whole solar system but wears dorky clothes and drives a dorky car, but Glenn drives a Porsche and wears marginally less dorky almost becomes a matter of taste at that point.

About the only thing left that great wealth can buy is political influence, and even that (as Glenn explains) is becoming a shakier proposition.

Two (hypothetical) future developments promise to flatten the delta virtually out of existence. One of these is the universal assembler (third item), which uses nanotechnology to allow anybody to make — literally — anything they want, including their own univeral assembler. In addition to closing the gap between the rich and the average, this device will eliminate any remaining gap between the average and the poor. Poverty won't exist any more.

The other development is full-immersion virtual reality, which will enable anyone to experience anything. Think of that scene in the first Matrix where they arm themselves by selecting weapons from an inexhaustable warehouse containing every firearm ever conceived. Now map that capability over to things like cars and vacations and (yes) romantic partners.

Who's richer, a guy with one real Porsche or a guy with a virtual collection of every Porsche model ever built? Assuming the VR is flawless and the experience of driving the virtual cars is identical to the real thing, I'm going to say the second guy. If this capability is ever realized, the day people generally agree with my answer is the day the concept of "wealth" ceases to exist.

Posted by Phil at 08:52 AM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

January 02, 2004

10 Predictions

The holidays have slowed us down a bit in our ongoing efforts to describe what the world might be like in the future, but never fear: Zombyboy presents 10 juicy predictions for the coming year. I'll just share one:

10. The serious blogging community will continue to grow, becoming something a little more like journalism and a little less like high school.

I don't know...for some reason, neither of those alternatives sound particularly attractive. Journalism is an ism and I'm not fond of isms. On the other hand, I truly hated high school. I would propose the following:

10. The not-overly-serious blogging community will continue to grow, becoming something a little more like a huge, never-ending cocktail party with lots of interesting guests and a little less like high school.

It's just a thought.

UPDATE: Speaking of cocktails, Stephen Green has published a list of 50 predictions for the new year. I'll share just one of those:

Colorado will name the Citron martini "The Official State Cocktail."

Dream on, Steve. The official state cocktail is and always will be whatever you have handy to wash down those Rocky Mountain Oysters.

While visiting VodkaPundit, be sure to check out the most concise and accurate summation of 2003 available anywhere.

Posted by Phil at 11:50 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 25, 2003

Bursting the Wi-Fi Bubble

Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends explain whys it ain't happenning in 2004, either:

So if a hotshot from France Telecom or AT&T reads this, please read it twice -- and carefully. The universe is not limited to San Francisco or New York, where Verizon customers have free Wi-Fi access -- after they pay for other services. Nobody has found a right business model for Wi-Fi today.

But I'm sure of one thing. Paying $10 an hour for Wi-Fi access is almost twice as you pay for a movie. Would you pay $20 to see a movie? Probably not. So will you pay $10 to use a Wi-Fi connection for one hour? Certainly not.

Not surprising, really. But disappointing anyway.

Posted by Phil at 03:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 10, 2003

Our First Attempt at Global Warming

Apparently it was a success. FuturePundit Randall Parker reports:

Farming And Forest Destruction Prevented Ice Age 5000 Years Ago

In a paper published in the scientific journal Climate Change Dr. William Ruddiman argues that humanity prevented an ice age that would otherwise have begun about 4,000 or 5,000 years ago.

Both should have continued declining through the present day, leading to lower temperatures, and a new ice age should have begun 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, Dr. Ruddiman said. Instead, levels of carbon dioxide reversed 8,000 years ago and starting rising again. The decline in methane levels reversed 5,000 years ago, coinciding with the advent of irrigation rice farming.

If this argument is correct then humanity, by engaging in rice farming and deforestation, reversed a trend of decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane and, by doing so, prevented a cooling trend that would have brought on another ice age. This is a strong argument in favor of climate engineering.

Need I say it? Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 11:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 01, 2003

About Stillness

YET ANOTHER UPDATE (I thought I would put one up top rather than at the bottom for once.) Stillness, and all of the content published on the Speculist, is now subject to a creative commons license. Feel free to copy and distribute Stillness, or write a new chapter, or whatever, all subject to the stipulations outlined on the deed.

Stillness is a novel, a work of speculative fiction. It attempts to be many things: a thriller, a love story, a metaphysical meditation, a farce, all set against the backdrop of what I believe is an original way of ending the world.We'll see.

If it's been done before, I'm sure some of you will let me know.

I started publishing Stillness the same week I launched The Speculist. I'm publishing the novel in serial form, running a new chapter every week. So far I've received some very encouraging feedback. Thank you to those who have sent e-mails or written comments, especially Virginia Warren, who has been helping me out with a few typographical irregularities and Alex Alemi, who lets me know when a chapter hasn't been published on time.

My original plan was to publish 75% of the novel over the next few months. Then I would revise what I had published here and go out and land a lucrative contract for the entire book. I would leverage myself into old media (book publishing) via new media (the blog). But I've been thinking about it, and that idea stinks.

No, not because I have a problem "managing expectations." What does that term mean, anyway?

It stinks because it's only right that I share the entire novel with you, good readers. Many of you have been following fathfully along, and I think even more of you would give the book a try if you knew you were getting the whole thing. So it's decided. I'm publishing the whole novel online.

I was afraid before that I might cut into the book's commercial viability by publishing it here. But I see now that that's a mistake. If people enjoy reading the book online, the published version can serve as a "director's cut" that extends the story.

Plus, who knows? Maybe there will be sequels.

UPDATE: Rather than running a new one of these entries every week, I've decided to start using this one over and over. So feel free to comment, if you wish.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Per the comments, below, Stillness is going to be published under a Creative Commons License. More details to come.


by Philip Bowermaster

Part I

Chapter 1, in which Reuben sees lights.

Chapter 2, in which Sergei gives advice.

Chapter 3, in which Ksenia looks at cars.

Chapter 4, in which Reuben falls.

Chapter 5, in which Reuben contends.

Chapter 6, in which Reuben recovers.

Chapter 7, in which Sergei explains some things.

Chapter 8, in which Betty explains the rest.

Chapter 9, in which Father Alexy saves the day.

Chapter 10, in which the old man speaks.

Chapter 11, in which Reuben obliges.

Part II

Chapter 12, in which Emmett goes to work.

Chapter 13, in which Frank has some news.

Chapter 14, in which Peggy opens a box.

Chapter 15, in which Emmett becomes confused.

Chapter 16, in which Rick spells things out.

Chapter 17, in which two strangers arrive.

Part III

Chapter 18, in which Celia meets Corey.

Chapter 19, in which Grace wins a game.

Chapter 20, in which Celia remembers.

Chapter 21, in which Corey wishes.

Chapter 22, in which Todd hugs back.

Chapter 23, in which an argument is settled.

Chapter 24, in which Estelle calls for help.

Chapter 25, in which Grace gets an idea.

Chapter 26, in which Corey awakens.

Part IV

Chapter 27, in which Reuben goes forth.

Chapter 28, in which Reuben gets lost.

Chapter 29, in which Hamilton lends his coat.

Chapter 30, in which Reuben plays a new game.

Chapter 31, in which Markku takes a turn.

Chapter 32, in which Sergei has some questions.

Chapter 33, in which Reuben reconsiders his past.

Chapter 34, in which Iskandar deals some cards.

Chapter 35, in which magic is discussed.

Chapter 36, in which Daphne sets terms.

Chapter 37, in which Altheus issues a warning.

Posted by Phil at 06:40 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

November 17, 2003

Should Humanity Get "Fixed?"

When my piece on Scarcity and Abundance was linked by Nanodot last week, it kicked off some interesting commentary. Our friend Kadamose has chimed in with the following:

To move forward, there MUST be sacrifices - and I can't emphasize that enough. Life extension through nanotech will raise the human life span indefinitely - a lifespan of more than 10,000 years will not be uncommon. This is why it will be absolutely necessary to shut down the human reproductive system permanently. Many people think that idea is repulsive, but in all honesty, it is the ONLY option next to complete annihilation. There MUST be a limit to growth - we are just like the cells within our bodies; if we consume too much, we will use up more energy than is necessary, and overconsumption, as science is just barely proving, leads to cell death.

I don't buy this. As I pointed out in my recent interview with Nina Paley, economic and technological development have been negatively correlated with population growth over the past 50 years. This can be demonstrated consistently in Europe, the US, Asia. I expect the kinds of changes we're talking about would drastically decrease the rate of population growth. I agree that, with people living 10,000 years, the rate would likely never drop to zero. But over that period of time, I would expect that multitiudes would decide to adopt a virtual, electronic existence. We don't have to shut down the reproductive systems of the remnants of humanity if the majority have abandoned "meat space" altogether.

Besides, the galaxy is a big place, Kadamose. Even the solar system is. (As a Sichin devotee, I assume you're concerned about the other occupants of the solar system who have a prior claim on the place. But they've been advancing all this time just as we have. They may have already made the leap to virtual existence! And, of course, they may never have existed in the first place.)

Posted by Phil at 03:37 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

October 30, 2003

Life in Abundance

In a recent essay in the Globe and Mail, futurist Peter de Jager writes about the unexpected problems that result from abundance:

What do traffic jams, obesity and spam have in common?

They are all problems caused by abundance in a world more attuned to scarcity. By achieving the goal of abundance, technology renders the natural checks and balances of scarcity obsolete.

So we're fat because our bodies were designed to alternate between scarcity and abundance, and we never give them the scarcity side of the equation. All the dieting that goes on is really just an attempt to reintroduce scarcity. We have traffic jams, de Jager claims, because we have an abundance of speed, which kills the constraint of distance. (Personally, I'd be more inclined to say that traffic jams result from the combination of an abundance of cars and a scarcity of lanes.) We have spam because spammers can send out e-mail in vast quantities justified, from their perspective, by even a minuscule return.

He concludes:

Any technology which creates abundance poses problems for any process which existed to benefit from scarcity.

Let's take one of our favorite emerging technologies, life extension, and see how it might affect the interplay between scarcity and abundance.

Linear thinkers tell us that life extension will lead to extreme overpopulation and environmental catastrophe. There's already an abundance of human life on the planet and longer lifespans will only make the situation worse. But those scenarios may miss the mark because they don't take another type of abundance into consideration. In order to become widespread, life extension will have to accompany higher levels of technological and economic development. It's been observed that birth rates consistently level off, and even begin to go down, as a society develops economically. This is currently happening in some parts of India. This abundance of material development, on the other hand, might very well have a negative impact on the environment. Throughout human history, the biosphere has generally fared best where economic development has been the most scarce. But another disruptive technology, nanotech, may turn that truism on its head.

Life extension will play havoc with life insurance. Life insurance companies make their money off the scarcity of time that our lifespans represent. Longer lives will benefit the insurance companies, with people taking longer to get the death benefit or missing it altogether by outliving the policy's term. On the other hand, annuities will pay out for much longer than planned. So the advantages and disadvantages will offset, at least to some extent..

With an abundance of time in their lives, people might begin to perceive a scarcity of meaning. There's plenty of time in a 75-year lifespan for existential angst, even with everything else we have to get done in that brief interval. Think how much more meaningless and depressing the world might look to a jaded 400-year old. The scarcity of perceived meaning may lead to the development of an abundance of philosophical and religious outlooks, many more than we have today.

Organized religion, at least the kind that emphasizes an afterlife, may paradoxically take a hit from life extension technologies. I'm thinking primarily of the longer-range life extension techniques such as cryonics and personality uploading. Religions have traditionally benefited from the scarcity of afterlife options. Give people a way of achieving "life after death" without all those ethical and metaphysical requirements and a lot of them are sure to jump at it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, even for the churches (or other religious bodies) that lose members. The folks left won't be primarily interested in salvationism, what the evangelicals call "fire insurance." They'll be looking for something deeper. Thus will the sheep be separated from the goats.

All of our notions about education and careers are firmly rooted in the unspoken assumption that life is short. Our time is scarce. A few years ago, working adults rarely decided to drop everything mid-career and do something else (or go back to school.) When post-retirement-age folks would do something like this, we tended to describe it as commendable, albeit sometimes in a patronizing way. But it was regarded as foolhardy for someone in their 30's or 40's to try it. Since I've been in the workforce, I've seen perceptions of such a shift evolve to the point that it's no longer even considered "daring" (which was the second wave after foolhardy), but a fairly standard practice. So far, this evolution has occurred not so much because we're living longer, but because we're experiencing more change faster than we ever have before. There may have always been an abundance of change experienced in a single human lifespan, but even that abundant amount is increasing geometrically. As we come to tolerate greater and greater amounts of change in our lifetimes, we become increasingly intolerant of any scarcity of options. This intolerance will only increase with substantially longer lifespans. Multiple educational specializations and careers will be the norm.

For similar reasons, multiple places of residence and multiple choices of life partner will also be the norm. For many, they are already are. For all of human history, it's been understood that (religious beliefs aside) we have but one life to live. Life extension will eliminate that dreadful scarcity. An abundance of choices combined with an abundance of time means that we will all have many lives to live, should we choose to do so.

Posted by Phil at 06:44 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 28, 2003

Linear Thinking at Its Finest

A piece on global warming in today's WiredNews suggests that we may be looking at an $18 quadrillion price tag to fix the problem. But there's a cheery upside:

Luckily, most estimates of the costs of curbing global warming by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change run to just hundreds of trillions of dollars over 100 years -- a relative pin prick for a growing world economy.

Um, I'm going to say that hundreds of trillions is quite a nasty little pin prick, even if you put the word "just" in front of it. Later we get some good news:

Even the strictest constraints would brake GDP by only 4.5 percent in 2050. Quadrillions of dollars apparently evaporate because they start in 1990 dollars and get eroded by inflation.

Well, hey, that's a relief. I'm wondering how many times in the past all the nations of the world have come together and put 4.5 percent of the total global GDP to use for some constructive aim?

I'm just asking.

Pardon me if I'm a little skeptical about these cost estimates as well as the dire conclusions that lead to them. Here's some logic to chew on:

A heat wave in Europe this year killed about 15,000 people in France. About 1,300 died in a heat wave in India. There were 562 tornadoes in the United States in May, more than any month on record. Was any of that caused by humans and "dangerous"?

If so, humanity would have to start slashing the use of the fossil fuels, a backbone of the world economy from coal-fired power plants and steel mills to trucks and cars.

The 15,000 deaths in France have definitely been linked to humans. It seems that the French humans leave their elderly untended and their hospitals understaffed in August. Plus they eat a fairly dehydrating diet and have never planned what to do in case of a heat wave. Even neglected by their vacationing offspring, most of the victims would have been okay if they had consumed water and taken a cool soak in their bathtubs. If the heat wave was caused by something other than fossil fuels, slashing their use will do nothing to prevent more deaths if there is another heat wave. On the other hand, even if fossil fuels are the culprit — and there are dozens more of these heat waves in Europe in the years to come — the kinds of measures outlined above actually would be effective in preventing death.

The author of this piece (I just noticed that it came from Reuters) engages in thinking that Arnold Kling would describe as excessively linear. To reiterate a recent Kling quote:

My sense is that environmental radicals tend to be point people. This makes their long-term forecasts particularly suspect. For long-term forecasting, nonlinear thinking is best. Linear approximations may work well for forecasts one or two years ahead. Point-based thinking is rarely accurate for more than a few months in today's dynamic economy.

Oddly enough, the author of the Reuters piece seems to agree:

Even the strictest constraints would brake GDP by only 4.5 percent in 2050. Quadrillions of dollars apparently evaporate because they start in 1990 dollars and get eroded by inflation.

And the scenarios do not gauge benefits of averted climate change -- like the possibility of not having to build Dutch-style dykes -- nor examine short-cut solutions such as sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and burying it.

The trouble with these scenarios isn't just that they fail to gauge solutions; they don't even take all of the climatological risks into consideration. For example, what if over the next century, solar activity causes our planet to cool off substantially? What if human-induced global warming is the only thing that can save us? I know, it would sound silly if it was just me saying. But it isn't just me saying it.

The trouble with the future is that it can be harder to predict than a lot of experts would like to make out, especially when they're committed to a particular conclusion. So maybe we should relax a little, realizing that we don't have a clear picture of

  1. Whether the Earth is actually warming up, and if so whether this is being caused by the use of fossil fuels.
  2. What the world economy will be like in 50 years (or even five).
  3. What new technologies might be developed over that time that can prevent further environmental damage, and even repair the damage that's been done.

We need more nonlinear thinking on global warming. I don't know who's going to do it, but I doubt it will come from Reuters.

Posted by Phil at 05:28 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 24, 2003

A Great Question for Bloggers and Blogreaders

Stephen Green is asking (and answering) one of the all-time great speculative questions. I can think of three answers right off the top of my head:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

Philip K. Dick

"There is no pravda in Pravda."

Old Soviet saying.

"What do you think, sirs?"

Posted by Phil at 12:07 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The Nonlinear the Better

Via Rand Simberg, here's an excellent essay by Arnold Kling on the subject of nonlinear thinking. Reflecting on his experiences at the recent Pop!tech conference, Kling notes that nonlinear thinking is hugely important for creating models of the future. He demonstrates how it can take us in one step from 85-year lifespans to (essentially) infinite lifespans and how it can get us past worrying about catastrophes that may destroy the planet when we realize that someday we won't need Earth.

Kling says:

My sense is that environmental radicals tend to be point people. This makes their long-term forecasts particularly suspect. For long-term forecasting, nonlinear thinking is best. Linear approximations may work well for forecasts one or two years ahead. Point-based thinking is rarely accurate for more than a few months in today's dynamic economy.

That is precisely the point I made in my discussion with Nina Paley last week. Nina's rejoinder was that problems, not just solutions, can hit us in a nonlinear fashion.

As a guy who publishes his fair share of predictions (more than 75 so far and counting), I was very interested in this:

The economist Robert Solow showed what was wrong with this type of thinking thirty years ago. At that time, the "Club of Rome" had what they claimed was a complex, nonlinear model which forecast environmental catastrophe. However, because their analysis took no account of prices, technical substitution, or technological change, it was no better than a point-based tool for forecasting. One of the speakers at this year's Pop!tech, Geoffrey Ballard, pointed out that every prediction made by the Club of Rome has been false.

Ouch. That's gotts sting. On the other hand, if even one of my predictions ever comes true, I can claim that The Speculist is more accurate than the prestigious Club of Rome.


Read the whole thing. Between this essay and what I've read elsewhere, I'm very much looking forward to going to Pop!tech next year.

Posted by Phil at 10:31 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

They Sure Grow 'em Tall Down There

If the climate is right, you can grow your mountains taller.

Scientists have long recognized that the emergence of a large mountain range can produce climate change. New work indicates that the converse is also true. In a report published today in the journal Nature, researchers propose that chilly waters and dry weather helped push the Andes skyward.

Who would have guessed it?

Posted by Phil at 09:57 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 15, 2003

So Sue Me

I'm thinking about re-installing Kazaa. I let it go after the RIAA started suing people, but now it appears that not being a Kazaa user is no defense against getting sued.

Hey, if they're going to sue us anyway, we might as well get some good music out of the deal.

Posted by Phil at 08:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 09, 2003

So It's Like This

In the next hundred years or so, the Sun will cool down and the Earth along with it. The only thing that might help us stay warm would be the greenhouse effect, but we probably don't have enough oil to make it happen.

Read the whole amazing, scary thing over at FuturePundit.

Posted by Phil at 08:57 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 08, 2003

Galt's Speech Summarized

Don from Anger Management reports that reader Tom is about to start reading Ayn Rand. I am personally not an Objectivist, but I do admire some of Rand's writings and agree with her on many key points.

Anyhow, I hope Tom knows what he's getting into. Those novels are a tad on the long side. Unfortunately, I don't think the Cliff's Notes will do them justice, and there are no Classics Illustrated versions of the Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. Plus I recommend watching the movie version of the Fountainhead only after reading the book, for reasons which will become obvious after you've done both.

Having said all that, I think I can help Tom out in a big way. About two-thirds of the way through Atlas Shrugged, John Galt takes over the radio airwaves to deliver a speech. The speech rambles on for about 300 pages. That may be a bit off; I'm working from memory. Nobody ever reads the thing in its entirety.

Well, I take that back. Most people don't read it in its entirety. But I have, and I'm therefore in a position to save you some time. Here's Galt's entire speech, summarized:


I dig my own life.

We're outa here.

So long, losers!

So I'm hoping that saves you some time.

By the way, another author who has explored many of the issues that Rand did in Atlas Shrugged is Nancy Kress in her Beggars series. Plus, if this kind of thing is important to you, Kress's work is overtly science fiction, unlike Atlas Shrugged, which tries to hide the fact that it s.

Hmm. I wonder if anyone ever described Atlas Shrugged as "genre-defying?" (Okay, four times in two days is enough. I promise to stop using that term.)


Posted by Phil at 11:41 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 07, 2003

What Does this Say About Me?

If this were to happen to me, I doubt I'd be worried about the damage to my house or how close I had come to being killed. I would be too overwhelmed by how cool it was.

via Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 06:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Watch Movies at Home Using Your Television Set!

Okay, let's just consider this for a moment:

The Walt Disney Co. piqued the interest of film buffs last week when it unveiled a set-top box that comes with 100 pre-installed movies, 10 of which get replaced automatically each week with newer flicks.

The MovieBeam service, which costs $7 a month plus $2.50 to $4 for each movie watched, is designed to let movie enthusiasts avoid trips to the video store and late fees.

So far, sounds pretty good. Let's read on:

To power MovieBeam, Disney is using one-way data broadcasting, a content-delivery mechanism considered a bust in the 1980s and then again in the late 1990s as a "dot-bomb."

Rather than build their own networks or rely on more-modern methods -- like cable, satellite and broadband Internet connections -- to deliver video on demand, so-called datacasters rent analog airwaves from television and radio stations to push their products. In this case, Disney is leasing airwaves from ABC and PBS to sell movies to customers.

It will be interesting to see how this thing pans out. The WiredNews article makes an issue out of this data broadcasting technology, but I doubt the platform will have much to do with whether MovieBeam succeeds or fails.

I'm pretty sure that I, for one, would not get it. I don't see much advantage over the system I currently have, certainly not enough to make me want to put yet another box on top of my TV and shell out yet another monthly charge.

With Tivo and the satellite Dish, I already have access to hundreds of movies every month, via HBO, IFC, TCM, and AMC. If I don't mind blasting through commercial interruptions (I don't; with Tivo it's kinda fun) or having key scenes mangled or cut out (I do mind, very much) I can access many more movies via TBS, TNT, USA, BRAVO, SCI-FI, F/X, etc.

I'm sure MovieBeam's list of one hundred includes mostly recent releases, too recent to be showing even on HBO or one of the other premium channels. But I already have access to most of these movies via pay-per-view. The presumed advantage of MovieBeam is that, unlike pay-per-view, you can watch these movies any time you like. But with Tivo, you can watch pay-per-view any time you like, too. You don't have to start it at the assigned start time. You do need to know in advance that you want to watch that particular title.

That would appear to be the lone advantage of MovieBeam—support of the impulse buy. And don't get me wrong, that can be a powerful thing. I'm just saying that I wouldn't go for it.

Posted by Phil at 06:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 02, 2003

What Kind of Thinker Are You?

Take the test and find out.

Turns out that I'm an Intrapersonal Thinker, like Grahame Greene, Gandhi, and Sigmund Freud. I wouldn't have picked that one for myself if I were just browsing the list.

That list of career choices is pretty eclectic. Drama Therapist? Let me get my wife on the phone.

"Hello, sweetheart? I've got great news. I've just decided on a new career!"

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 08:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 25, 2003

Who's Minding the Freezer?

Rand Simberg has an excellent in-depth report on a move in Arizona to impose regulations on cryonics facilities. Quoth Rand:

Mr. Thomas is the head of the state Funeral Directors' board. He doesn't explain why funeral directors are competent to regulate a medical procedure, but he does describe why he wants to take control:

Mr. Thomas put aside the belief among Alcor supporters that medical scientists someday might be able to revive bodies that have been frozen for years.

“There’s no difference between cryonics and cremation,” he said. “You’re gone forever.” —

The notion that this industry would be regulated by someone who fundamentally disbelieves its premises is, as I said, frightening.

Frightening indeed. As I was just saying, I expect there will soon be a sharp increase in interest in cryonics. But the debate won't get very far if the public is kept (or willfully remains) as ignorant on this subject as they are on, say, cloning.

Posted by Phil at 03:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 19, 2003

Extreme Measures

This week's piece on the extraordinary measures we might need to take to prevent future individual acts of terrorism has generated some interesting discussion. Dave Cullen comments:

Very interesting piece. You're also only the second other person I've seen (outside law enforcement people working the case) to see Columbine for what it was, an attempted terrorist act.

How did you grasp that?

No keen insight, Dave. I just read your stuff.

It would be easy to get caught up in the semantics of what is and what isn't a terrorist act. But even without their bombs, Kleybold and Harris managed to murder 13 people that day. If "terrorism" depends on body count, they did as much damage as some of the Palestinian suicide bombers do. If it depends on whether the target community is terrorized, they achieved that, too.

I think where we hang up on classifying an incident such as this as "terrorism" is motivation. Because they're kids, we don't think of them as acting for political reasons. And if it isn't political, it isn't terrorism. As Dave explains on his site, Columbine wasn't really the "revenge of the nerds" scenario that we were initially led to believe it was. My guess is that they were more inspired by Oklahoma City than they were by previous school shootings, and that the whole thing was motivated by some grotesque urge to do something really "big and important." If so, they were not too unlike the hackers who unleash computer viruses.

But it doesn't matter.

To my original point, irrespective of what motivated the killers, we know from their actions that they were attempting to kill as many people as they possibly could. How much damage they did was limited only by the means at their disposal and their execution thereof. What would they have done if they had had access to biological weapons or a tactical nuke?

Presumably, if a big piece of Littleton had disappeared under a mushroom cloud, people wouldn't be so slow to describe the act as "terrorism."

Speaking of Oklahoma City, FastForward Posse member Karl Hallowell opines as follows:

[W]e need to be more rational about our risks. The last large terrorist attack that could be considered "individual" on US soil was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Since then the US has lost around 25,000-30,000 people a year on the highways. Certainly, the extent of damage hasn't warranted the changes forced on society. Also, I imagine if one looks at the increased risk of HIV infection in US prisons (lower now than in the past), and the increase in prison populations due to new laws passed in a post-terrorist environment, I can see a valid argument for saying that the official reaction to a terrorist attack may kill more people from AIDS than died in the original attacks.

Excellent point. However, I think if there is a real risk that large-scale terrorist acts carried out by individuals will occur, the time to start thinking about it is now, while the body count is still relatively low.

AST has a different take:

The point is, what I want from government is, first of all, keep the peace and protect my life and the lives of the rest of us. If there are killers at large, I don't get upset that I'm told to stay off the streets for a while. When everything gets back to normal, I might get peeved if the cops told me that.

What I don't want is for killers to be at large and the cops are wasting time frisking grandmas and nuns and not using every available tool in an intelligent manner to CATCH THE BAD GUYS.

The reason all this surveillance stuff doesn't worry me is that I know that I'm just not that interesting. Only a few lucky souls are. So relax.

Finally, there's a lot of interesting discussion over at FuturePundit where this all started. In particular, Trent Telenko writes that changes have already begun.

These ... threats are why anyone who is anyone in the Pentagon transformation biz has started to realize the key American military transformation of the next five years is population control. All the stuff that I am seeing about military bandwidth needs seems to be only a enabling step towards the ultimate goal of developing an "infostructure" that allows positive control of people via invasive 'chipping' ala pet I.D.s of "people/populations of interest" and wide area biometric and visual populations/vehicle tracking nets of the rest.

Non-citizens and citizen criminal parolees will be invasively chipped first as conditions of long term entry and parole release. This is an administrative law end run on a large number of civil rights laws that will pass constitutional muster given who is being chipped.

The technology is going to be deployed over seas first in support of our population control efforts in the Arab world. Europe and Israel will follow. Then we will see it here in the States.

I think we can expect to see much more on these topics in the days to come.

Posted by Phil at 06:15 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 16, 2003

Red Pill or Blue?

FuturePundit Randall Parker, picking up on an idea from Corante blogger Arnold Kling, provides some sobering thoughts on the future of terrorism:

A lot of civil libertarians see an increasing danger from technological advances that enable greater surveillance of people by their governments. What they fail to address is the problem that Arnold Kling alludes to: the danger from the lone individual who will be able to use advances in technology to kill increasingly larger numbers of people in a single act.

If we are going to be faced with growing threats from terrorism due to technological advances that make it easier to launch terrorist attacks of enormous lethality is there anything we can do about it? As I see it there are only about two major counters that can be used to sustain a defense in the long run:

  • A massive worldwide surveillance society. Sensors would be deployed throughout the world to watch for dangerous actions by individuals.
  • Reengineer human minds to make humans less dangerous.

I don't much care for either of those two options. In a science fiction story, either (or both) would be imposed by the totalitarian bad guys. Our hero would be a rugged individualist on whom the brain re-engineering didn't take. He and his band of outcasts would be working to take down the surveillance network. They would be allied with a scientist working in a secret lab on a highly infectious virus that will counteract the effects of the brain engineering.

[Wouldn't that have made a peachy dystopic potboiler back in the 1950's? If I had a time machine, I'd go back there and write it myself. Later, we would get Charlton Heston to star in the movie version.]

Part of me insists that there must be a way to protect ourselves from individual terrorism without resorting to such extreme precautions, and another part wonders what the world will be like if bitter overgrown geeks living in their parents' basement are ever able to unleash viruses more lethal than the computer variety. What atrocities would those Columbine monsters have been capable of given the right tools? Dave Cullen reminds us that the Columbine body count would have been in the hundreds had Harris and Kleybold not been such inept bomb-builders. One of the downsides to accelerating change is the rapidity with which increasingly destructive force can be placed at the fingertips of the unstable. Or of anyone, for that matter.

Maybe total surveillance and/or the forced domestication of the human species really do represent our last, best hope of survival. God help us.

The notion of re-engineering the brain puts me in mind of the fundamental choice that the characters in The Matrix (the first one) were forced to make. Red pill or blue? Continue in a fairly safe and comfortable illusion, or embrace a hard and terrifying reality? I always thought that Neo was an idiot. Joey Pants had the right idea: choose the world where everything is in soft focus and the steaks taste good. Who cares if it's "real?"

It's all very well to take that position when chatting with our friends about a movie. But Randall isn't outlining a movie plot. And the change proposed here is not one in perception of the external world. The change would actually take place inside each one of us. If I were to be re-engineered to be less dangerous, would the result still be me? How much of who I am rests in my potential for doing harm? Maybe they could wipe it out and I would still be myself, only to a lesser extent. Or maybe the procedure would be more invasive.

Who knows? The brain is still a mystery.

Maybe the result would be a person that I would not recognize as being me. He might be a good person, and would have a lot to contribute, but I would be gone. That doesn't leave much of a choice: risk being wiped out by terrorists or allow ourselves to be (effectively) wiped out for the greater good. Choose the former, and we each still have some chance of surviving. Choose the latter, and at least we can be comforted by the knowledge of how nice our replacements will be.

That surveillance network is sounding better and better.

UPDATE: We're getting closer all the time.

Posted by Phil at 10:02 AM | Comments (22) | TrackBack

September 11, 2003


This weblog is dedicated to the idea that the future is open; it is something that we can create together. I've written recently about the kinds of changes that can occur that serve as signposts dividing the past from the present, or the present from the future. In the face of those kinds of changes, it often seems that we have no choice, no say in what might happen next. Here's an image that will always haunt me, something that occurred in the final hours of the previous era.

It was September 9, 2001.

My wife and I were wrapping up our weekend in Manhattan. We had done a little shopping, eaten some good food, seen a few sights. We were on the Statue of Liberty tour boat heading back towards Battery Park. The World Trade Center loomed before us.

It's too bad, I observed, that we didn't make time to visit the observation deck on top of one of the towers. On a clear day like this, the view would be spectacular.

Maybe next time, my wife said. We had already discussed coming back with my daughter to do more sightseeing.

Sure, I said. After all, it's not like those towers are going anywhere. If those bastards couldn't take them down with their car bomb, I doubt anything will ever take them down.

I'm not sure why I said it. Earlier that day, we had walked past a small exhibit commemorating the bombing and its victims. I guess it was on my mind.

Two days later, I was home in Denver. I went downstairs to pour myself a second cup of coffee and decided (against any kind of precedent) to turn on the TV and see what the headlines were. There were the towers — the invincible towers of recent memory — now seen from a different angle, with thick, black smoke billowing out of each.

They would only be standing a short while longer.

Maybe there was no way to foresee the horrible events of that day (although others did.) But I had something to learn about making facile statements to the effect that things will work out, as well as arrogant assumptions that things will not change.

The future is open. It is something we can create together. We must continue to try to do so, with our hopes as high as ever. And our eyes wide open.

NOTE: After reading this, I want to say something about the idea of hubris. I may have been guilty of hubris in the poorly considered statements I made on the ferry. But there was no overbearing pride or presumption inherent in building the World Trade Center. The people who went to work there that day were not guilty of arrogance. Nobody had it coming to them. The events of that day did not reflect divine justice handed down from Mt. Olympus; they were the acts of psychotic murderous fanatics.

The World Trade Center was a glorious achievement. I hope that it's replacement proves to be just as glorious. Those who build it, like those who endeavor to achieve any great thing, will need to temper their ambition with caution against the harm that nature or evil men can do. But they must not, and we must not, temper our ambitions out of false humility or the fear of retribution from some deity so small and petty that he feels threatened by the works of humanity.

If we go that route — to borrow the most nauseatingly over-used phrase from the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11 — then, truly, the terrorsits will have won.

Posted by Phil at 08:25 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 10, 2003

Alternate Universe

Rand Simberg gives us a glimpse into Bizarro World. Jeez, I'm really glad I don't live there.

Posted by Phil at 06:26 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tracking the Children

They're taking what would appear to be a big step towards protecting children in the UK, opening an e-file on every child.

The children's files together with their unique e-number will be managed by local authorities in a "local information hub". The file will contain the name, address and date of birth of each child, together with the name of the school attended and whether the child is known to such agencies as the police, social services or educational welfare. Where multiple agencies are involved the file will denote which one profesional will have overall reponsibilty.

As a parent, I favor taking any reasonable steps that might make our children safer. But I think we can get into big trouble when we ask technology to solve problems that aren't technical. The article goes on...

The measures are largely the result of the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié who was battered, abused and starved to death by her carers in London in 2000. She was eight years old.

The inquiry found confusion and incompetence amongst a number of agencies that might have saved the child. Inquiry head, Lord Laming, said there were at least 12 occasions on which police, social workers or NHS staff might have intervened had they talked to one another.

Folks, putting an e-file in place isn't going to do much in the way of resolving confusion and incompetence. God forbid there should be another case like that of Victoria Climbié, but it wouldn't surprise to see the following analysis given for some future tragedy:

The inquiry found confusion and incompetence amongst a number of agencies that might have saved the child. Inquiry head, Lord Laming, said there were at least 12 occasions on which police, social workers or NHS staff might have intervened had they just looked at the e-file.

Also, there's a cynical side of me that wonders...what exactly does the British government plan on doing with these detailed records of the lives of every single person born in the country once they reach adulthood? I'm sure they'll just delete them or stop udpating them or something.


UPDATE: In an apparent effort to establish that I'm not just being paranoid, here, Posse member Robert Hinkley directs us to this report that the British government may be implementing a computer-based vehicle tracking system to generate traffic citations automatically. And if that isn't enough for you, the chairman of the British Police Superintendents Association is calling for a national database containing the DNA profile of every "man, woman, and child" in the country.

Posted by Phil at 09:54 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 09, 2003

Smart Fish

What is smart made of? I tend to assume that brain size and complexity are the determining factors in the level of intelligence a living thing displays. What, then, do we make of this this:

Fish are socially intelligent creatures who do not deserve their reputation as the dim-wits of the animal kingdom, according to a group of leading scientists. Rather than simply being instinct-driven, the group says fish are cunning, manipulative and even cultured.The scientists added: "Although it may seem extraordinary to those comfortably used to pre-judging animal intelligence on the basis of brain volume, in some cognitive domains, fishes can even be favourably compared to non-human primates."

Now this might just be hyperbole, or a kind of defensive pride deriving from affection. People can be awfully fond of fish. Just a few weeks ago, I was staying at a Resort in Estes Park, Colorado, where I failed miserably in all my attempts at trout fishing. I finally concluded that the manager of the resort, to whom I turned for angling advice, was actually trying to protect the fish from me by giving me all these bizarre tips, e.g.,

"Try corn niblets! Works every time!"

On the other hand, maybe the trout are so smart that they somehow got to the guy. Maybe he didn't even realize that these fishing tips were coming from the trout.

Even if they're not quite that smart, the notion that fish are a lot more intelligent than we thought is an intriguing one. Perhaps there are some things that we can learn about human (and even machine?) intelligence from studying them more closely.


Posted by Phil at 09:15 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 05, 2003

All Clear

Looks like the world is not going to end after all.

You can all go back to playing Lotto.

Posted by Phil at 06:39 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 03, 2003

Spamming the Ages

Here's an update on the source of the rather odd e-mail we tracked in ITF #12.

As you will all no doubt remember:

The anonymous e-mail offered $5,000 to any vendor capable of promptly delivering a collection of far-fetched gadgets for conducting time travel. Among the mysterious devices sought by the message's author were an "Acme 5X24 series time transducing capacitor with built-in temporal displacement" and an "AMD Dimensional Warp Generator module containing the GRC79 induction motor."

A fellow named Dave Hill, one of the e-mail's many recipients, decided to track down the time travelling spammer.

With a little deft Photoshop work, Hill created an online store offering a range of the sci-fi items sought by e-mailer "Bob White." In July, Hill even shipped by UPS an old hard drive motor disguised as a "warp generator" to an address provided by White.

But when White gratefully acknowledged receipt of the parts a few days later and earnestly asked for help obtaining others, Hill decided to end the stunt.

"I expected him to tell me at that point that it was all a joke, and he'd give me the punch line," said Hill. Instead, Hill began to worry that White was "a person challenged by reality and as such deserves our sympathy and support."

Hill's hunch, it turns out, was correct. An investigation has revealed that the time-travel spammer is dead serious about his quest for technology that can rewind time.

Our time traveller turns out to be something of a disappointment — a delusional spammer who sends out other messages offering bogus "cash grants." This is somewhat akin to learning that all those Nessie sightings are most likely the result of boat wakes on the surface of Loch Ness. Not really a surprise, but somehow disappointing anyway.

The spammer's father claims that his son has been bilked out of quite a bit of money by unscrupulous recipients of his e-mail. I don't doubt that part. Read the whole thing. It's quite interesting.

via Allah is in the House

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

September 02, 2003

The Big One

An asteroid is heading our way. If we collide with it, it will destroy human civilization and end life on Earth as we know it.

LONDON (Reuters) - A giant asteroid is heading for Earth and could hit in 2014, U.S. astronomers have warned British space monitors.

On impact, it could have the effect of 20 million Hiroshima atomic bombs, a spokesman for the British government's Near Earth Object Information Center told BBC radio.

But for those fearing Armageddon, don't be alarmed -- the chances of a catastrophic collision are just one in 909,000.

Now we can all be relieved except for those readers who play Lotto. If you play Lotto, and spend a lot of time fantasizing about winning the big jackpot, you should bear in mind that it is much, much more likely that this rock is going to wipe us out than it is that you're ever going to see that money.

The preceding has been a public service message from The Speculist.

Posted by Phil at 11:58 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 30, 2003

One Last Approach

Homer Hickam, former NASA engineer and author of the book Rocket Boys, (which became the movie October Sky), wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (link requires paid subscription) in which he described the shuttle program as America’s Viet Nam. Hickam takes issue with the CAIB report assertion that NASA’s flawed culture is to blame for the Columbia disaster:

I don't believe there's a NASA culture. There is, however, a Shuttle cult. It is practiced like a religion by space policy makers who simply cannot imagine an American space agency without the Shuttle. Well, I can, and it's a space agency which can actually fly people and cargoes into orbit without everybody involved being terrified of imminent destruction every time there's lift-off.

The problem, as he sees it, is the placement of the shuttle amid what he describes as " the turmoil of launch." The shuttle sits in a precarious position at launch, wedged between two solid rockets and strapped to a huge fuel tank which, as Challenger demonstrated, can explode like a massive bomb. Hickam attributes this flawed design to the mistaken belief that it would be cheaper to re-use the main shuttle rocket engine, so it needed to be a part of the orbiter.

That has not proved to be the case -- far from it -- but it has left us with a crew sitting in the most vulnerable position possible in terms of design. Simply put, had that spaceplane been on top of the stack, the destruction of Challenger and Columbia wouldn't have occurred. The CAIB ignored this flawed design and that makes their conclusions suspect: no amount of inspections or condemning another NASA generation to worry over this thing will solve it.

So let's get practical. We can't just shut the thing down. We need the Shuttle to finish the space station and also to keep the Russians and Chinese from dominating space. I'm not willing to see that occur while we dither. Human spaceflight is important to this country. But the Shuttle is as safe as you're going to get with what's in place today. Let's put some tough engineers in charge, fly it 10 more times over the next four years with hand-picked crews to finish the space station and meet our international obligations. Then close the program and replace it with expendable launchers and a shiny new spaceplane. And, this time, put it on top.

Rand Simberg has some interesting reflections on Hickam's ideas.

I wonder whether Hickam is suggesting building a whole new launch infrastructure. If NASA creates a new rocket to place our shiny new space plane in orbit, it will no doubt be smaller and less powerful than the current shuttle launch infrastructure. As Robert Zubrin has pointed out, this will mean the loss of launch capability that could send us to the moon or Mars.

I have a modest proposal. After Hickam’s final 10 shuttle launches, why don’t we plan on four more uses of that infrastructure? Using the shuttle launcher in an expendable configuration, it would take four launches to complete the first phase of the modified Mars Direct mission. Four launches could place a habitat, an ascent vehicle, a return vehicle, and a crew all in place. We would have a proof of concept mission to Mars and, if we approached it correctly, a roadmap for moving forward.

Clearly, this would involve a lot more work than just launching the rockets: someone would need to design and build the hab, the return vehicle, the ascent vehicle, and the Mars transport vehicle. Who would do it? I propose that our new space agency (or a new and improved NASA) take on that piece by administering a series of X-Prize type initiatives for private companies to design workable versions of those components. Even the re-purposing of the shuttle launch infrastructure could be accomplished by private entities. After those first four launches, we would take NASA (or its successor) completely out of the loop except for setting direction and awarding incentives. The space agency would exist only to push private space development along. The new space plane, the next space station, and the ongoing exploration of the solar system would belong almost completely to the private sector.

From there, all the private sector has to do is draw a line from winning NASA prize money to making real money from the settlement of Mars or other commercial exploitation of space. If they can somehow traverse that line (or, if you like, cross that T Relative boundary), the human settlement of space will take off fast.

Mars isn’t a necessary component of such a scenario. It’s one of many possible destinations. But it has a lot going for it. It’s resource-rich. It’s fairly close. It would be a good staging area for expeditions to the asteroids or to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. And besides, as I have alluded to frequently during this week’s festivities, Mars has a hold on the popular imagination that no other destination in the solar system can match. A mission to Mars wouldn’t just be logical, it would be exciting. It would be fun. It might very well re-awaken the spirit that drove our ancestors to cross the Atlantic in dodgy sailing vessels or the Amrican continent in vulnerable covered wagons.

That, above all, is why I think we need to set our sites on the red planet.

Posted by Phil at 12:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 14, 2003

Here Comes the Ray Gun

New Scientist reports on a development that's got to make you stop and think.

AN EXOTIC kind of nuclear explosive being developed by the US Department of Defense could blur the critical distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons. The work has also raised fears that weapons based on this technology could trigger the next arms race.

Scientists have known for many years that the nuclei of some elements, such as hafnium, can exist in a high-energy state, or nuclear isomer, that slowly decays to a low-energy state by emitting gamma rays. For example, hafnium178m2, the excited, isomeric form of hafnium-178, has a half-life of 31 years.

The hafnium explosive could be extremely powerful. One gram of fully charged hafnium isomer could store more energy than 50 kilograms of TNT. Miniature missiles could be made with warheads that are far more powerful than existing conventional weapons, giving massively enhanced firepower to the armed forces using them.

The effect of a nuclear-isomer explosion would be to release high-energy gamma rays capable of killing any living thing in the immediate area. It would cause little fallout compared to a fission explosion, but any undetonated isomer would be dispersed as small radioactive particles, making it a somewhat "dirty" bomb. This material could cause long-term health problems for anybody who breathed it in.

So it isn't really a ray-gun, it's a gamma-ray bomb. Sounds pretty nasty. Well, better we have it than they, I suppose.

Via Voyage to Arcturus

Posted by Phil at 02:13 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

August 11, 2003

We have Nothing to Fear but Joy Himself

In the process of zinging the daylights out of Bill (All this Future Stuff is Too Dangerous for Us) Joy, Scott Forbes holds forth with a truly profound observation:

People would much rather take risk to avert loss then to capture gain. And inspiring fear of uncertainty--of what nightmares may come and how to protect yourself from them--is a great purchase motivator to avoid such loss. After all--in the most reductionist sense--it is the yin-yang duality of greed and fear that govern markets and human behavior. Today, fear has the scales tipped in its favor.

While I agree that greed and fear govern markets, I'm not sure that's the duality that drives human behavior in general. I think fear and hope would be a more accurate pairing. And while fear definitely has its place, I think that being a speculist is all about doing what one can to tip the scales in the direction of hope.

Posted by Phil at 10:58 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 07, 2003

Some Restrictions Apply?

At the risk of being one of those guys who quotes himself, allow me to reiterate the following from yesterday's award-winning piece on transhumanism:

I believe the struggle that's shaping up in this world is going to take place between those who believe that we should be defined by our limits — and who have restrictive and pointless notions as to what those limits are — and those who refuse to be so defined.

Okay, so everybody knows where I stand.

Now, let's look at the commentary that's coming in on this week's Speaking of the Future interview. I spoke with Aubrey de Grey, a man who is doing serious scientific research towards developing a cure for aging.

Kadamose makes a highly provocative suggestion:

What happens when we achieve near-immortality? What about the population problem? If such methods of curing aging exist, and it is given to everyone on the planet, then the only solution to this problem is to shut the human reproductive system down...for good.

Many people would not agree with this stance, but I think immortality should come with sacrifice.

I agree with the second point. Immortality (which is not, in the strictest sense, what's on the table) will involve sacrifice. We will have to give up the poignancy and sense of drive and purpose that life's brevity currently supplies. That may sound ridiculous from this side of the chasm, but it will be very real to ourselves and our descendants when facing a vast and open-ended future. We will also have to give up many cherished notions that have carried the species through thus far. Concepts of family, tribe, and nation, in their current form, may disappear — replaced by new forms of association that we can barely imagine now.

But give up reproduction? I don't think so.

Posse ringleader Vick takes the opposite approach, and returns us to those halcyon days of Dick Lamm and the "duty to die."

Death and aging are an important part of evolution. Nothing is eternal. Life will end. Considering that, we must get the old members of the species out of the way. Leave space and food for the strong to eat and reproduce. That's what we are a lean, mean f***in'/eatin' machine.

I disagree. If I understand what Aubrey is telling us about evolution, aging is more of a by-product than a necessary component. But let's look at this space and food issue.

The potential for overpopulation is there and it must be seriously addressed. But if we're going to discuss a future development such as life extension, I think we need to take other future developments into consideration when making our plans. There is a famous (possibly apocryphal) story of a city planner in New York circa 1890 who wrote a report, reasonably extrapolated from then-current trends, that showed that by the middle part of the twentieth century, the city would be practically buried in horse manure.

Now the fact that Manhattan in the year 1960 was not deluged with poop doesn't mean that the city was totally without problems. But that "reasonable extrapolation" was not one of them. Technology had intervened, eliminating that problem and creating new ones.

I expect that overpopulation may have a lot in common with New York City's manure problem. The overall standard of living for planet earth is going up. As standard of living increases, population growth tends to slow. I believe that new technologies are going to bring about dramatic increases in worldwide standard of living levels over the next half century or so. Plus, if our life expectancy does increase tremendously, that should have an additional dampening effect on population growth rate. There is a significant correlation between countries whose citizens can expect a long life and those where the birth rate is dropping sharply.

Even so, with people taking a very long time to die and having some babies, the population will continue to grow. Probably quite dramatically. That's why we have to get off this planet.

Not all of us, just most of us. This would be a good start. Eric Drexler devotes a chapter to the idea of space settlements in Engines of Creation, now available online. A few excerpts:

Space holds matter, energy, and room enough for projects of vast size, including vast space settlements. Replicator-based systems will be able to construct worlds of continental scale, resembling Dr. O'Neill's cylinders but made of strong, carbon-based materials. With these materials and water from the ice moons of the outer solar system, we will be able to create not only lands in space, but whole seas, wider and deeper than the Mediterranean. Constructed with energy and materials from space, these broad new lands and seas will cost Earth and its people almost nothing in terms of resources. The chief requirement will be programming the first replicator, but AI systems will help with that. The greatest problem will be deciding what we want.

[R]eplicators and space resources will bring a long era in which genuine resource limits do not yet pinch us - an era when by our present standards even vast wealth will seem virtually free. This may seem too good to be true, but nature (as usual) has not set her limits based on human feelings. Our ancestors once thought that talking to someone across the sea (many months' voyage by sailing ship) would be too good to be true, but undersea cables and oversea satellites worked anyway.

The history of human advance proves that the world game can be positive-sum. Accelerating economic growth during recent centuries shows that the rich can get richer while the poor get richer. Despite population growth (and the idea of dividing a fixed pie) the average wealth per capita worldwide, including that of the Third World, has grown steadily larger. Economic fluctuations, local reversals, and the natural tendency of the media to focus on bad news - these combine to obscure the facts about economic growth, but public records show it clearly enough. Space resources and replicating assemblers will accelerate this historic trend beyond the dreams of economists, launching the human race into a new world.

All of which leads, finally, to Karl Hallowell's inventive modifications to Kadomose's shut-down-our-reproductive-capability idea:

A caveat here. There should be a way to restore the Human race even if most or all technology is destroyed in some cataclysm.

I don't think we should shut down reproduction, anyway, but potential future cataclysms are something we should take into consideration. A huge asteroid, for example, could wipe us and our technology out altogether. We will eventually have technology that will allow us to prevent this. But in the mean time, maybe we don't want to put all our egss in one basket. Or one planet, for that matter. Sustainable human settlements off the earth can mitigate the overpopulation problem and help to ensure the survival of the species.

Further discussion is encouraged.

Posted by Phil at 09:18 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 04, 2003

Privatizing the Futures Market

James Bennett traces the origins of aversion to innovation in bureaucracy, and explains how this aversion killed the idea-futures market.

America and all the world's strong civil societies are under challenge. Our opponents have been quite innovative and clever in their grisly way, working with tools of suicidal attack that we cannot copy. Victory will require innovation, a quality America and its allies have in abundance. But we cannot make use of it if innovators are forced to operate under rules originally devised to maintain the ever-normal granaries of the Ming emperors. The truly appalling aspect of this incident is that we have succeeded brilliantly in fostering innovation in government, only to have it sabotaged by a handful of cheap grandstanding politicians.

Bennett turns to another approach that several of us have been talking about.

The idea-futures market DARPA had created to improve predictive capability about Middle Eastern affairs was a classic example of the innovation it was chartered to exercise. Hopefully the idea-futures market will go forward under private auspices, but we have lost valuable time we may soon come to regret.

I'd like to see the blogosphere get behind the idea of making a privatized version of the futures market. Whether it's done offshore to avoid gambling restrictions (as Rand Simberg has suggested) or whether a legal solution can be pushed through here in the US, this is too good an idea to let go to waste. I'm open to suggestions. How do we push this thing along?

Via InstaPundit

Posted by Phil at 04:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 02, 2003

Tiny Cameras Everywhere

It was Phil Zimmermann, creator of PGP encryption software, who did a one-up on Andy Warhol by pronouncing that in the future, we will all have 15 minutes of privacy.

Few of us have a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of being surrounded by dozens or hundreds of little cameras. I know I don't. But there may be an upside to the rapid approach of the day when every waking moment of our lives will be photographed and recorded.

Consider this:

A 15-year-old boy foiled an apparent abduction attempt when he pulled out his cell phone camera and snapped photos of a man trying to lure him into a car, police said.

The teen also photographed the vehicle's license plate and gave the evidence to police, who arrested a suspect the next day.

Somehow, the tiny cameras seem a lot less threatening when it's us, the good guys, snapping the pictures. And while I want to have some semblance of privacy in my own doings, it bothers me not a whit if predatory creeps like this lose all the advantages that "privacy" has brought them.

Posted by Phil at 08:34 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 01, 2003

Now That the Idea Has Been Killed

Just watch it take off.

It's no coincidence that the WiredNews story that I linked to for ITF #9 should run so soon after the demise of the proposed futures market in terrorism. Only now, after this idea has been brought to public attention via its dismissal, are we taking the opportunity to evaluate it.

As I've said, I think there may be tremendous potential for this kind of market. Consider the case of the Irish Sports Book site where gamblers are even now attempting to make a buck from the ousting (or survival) of California Governor Gray Davis. They currently give Davis only about a 35% chance of surviving.

Those who believe Davis still will be in office at the end of the year stood to win $6 for every $4 wagered. Those betting against Davis -- selling the contract short -- would win $3.10 if he is out of office, or lose $6.90 if he bucks the odds and keeps his job.

Hal Varian, a professor of business at the University of California at Berkeley, said such online markets provide better predictions than traditional polls because cash forces a more dispassionate analysis of issues.

"You talk to a loyal Democrat they'll say, 'Oh no, Gray Davis won't be recalled.' You talked to a Republican they'll say, 'Of course, that bastard will be taken out of office,"' Varian said. "They let their emotions or their desire influence their beliefs and opinion polls are subject to that wishful thinking."

"When it is money and the market is moved by the smart players, the guys who are weighing the odds and not weighing their emotions, you get a better forecast," he continued. "You have to put your money where your mouth is."

This is the case for futures markets in a nutshell.

We need to know where things are going, and these markets seem to be a clear (and fairly accurate) way of getting a handle on that. Plus, here's an interesting twist, from an analysis by James Pethokoukis earlier this week:

But these markets seems to do pretty well even if only fake money is at stake. The Foresight Exchange, around since the mid 1990s, allows traders to make bets on terrorists attacks -- and pretty much anything else -- with pretend money. And in a study of its predictive prowess, Douglas Hubbard, a risk consultant in the IT industry, found that when the Foresight Exchange markets said an event had a 30 percent or 50 percent or 70 percent chances of happening, the outocme pretty much fit those forecasts. Ken Kittlitz, co-founder of the Foresight Exchange, told me that "even though we only use play money, people try to bet rationally because they feel inside that they have their reputations on the line."

This struck me as pretty interesting, so I decided to give it a shot. I now have an account with Foresight Exchange. They start you out with $50. So Far, I have invested in the following predictions.

  • That there will be a building taller than the Empire State Building in Manhattan (the payout on this one is driven by when it occurs.)

  • That the United States will have fewer than 20,000 active duty military personnel stationed in Germany on December 31, 2013.

  • That the US will not be nuked by the year 2010 and that President Bush will be re-elected in 2004.

Looking at these predictions, I have to wonder how the market can possibly impact their accuracy. I mean, here I am participating and I don't have any special knowledge about any of these things. I'm just a follower.

For example, the Empire State Building prediction was selling at 78, meaning that the investors collectively figure there is a 78% chance that the prediction will come true within the assigned time frame. So no way was I going to bet against that.

Likewise, the Troops Stationed in Germany prediction was trading in the high 70's. What do I know about troop deployments? Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. This is where you want your Steven Den Beste or someone of his ilk participating. Actually, in placing the bet, I was going on the idea that there are a couple of SDB's in there driving the price — with the rest of us just sort of along for the ride. Does my participation impact the accuracy of the prediction for the better or the worse? Or have no impact?

I really can't say, but I find it unlikely that it has no impact. Somehow I'm in there pushing it one way or another. And even if most of us who participate aren't experts, the predictions that we make are as good as, or better than, predictions made by any given expert.


Wait a second.

Isn't this some kind of collective intelligence we're talking about here? As a small "l" libertarian, my knee is jerking violently in reaction to any suggestion that a collective something could possibly be better than an individual anything.

Fortunately, there's money involved. That's different. That makes it a market. Even us small "l" libertarians can endorse collective behavior and decision-making if it's defined in those terms.

What a relief. That was a close one.

Finally, that last prediction I bought into is kind of a mutual fund of future events. In order to get paid, I need for Bush to be re-elected in 2004 and for us not to be nuked by 2010. Either of those events can be purchased as a stand-alone prediction. The We Get Nuked prediciton is currently selling at about 26. So there's your futures market in terrorism.

It's kind of scary if you think about it. If the Foresight Exchange really is accurate in predicting outcomes, then we could have somewhere in the neighborhood of a 25% chance of being nuked by 2010. (The selling price is based on the Yes prediction that we will be nuked; the "mutual fund" I bought into pays out on the No prediction.)

Actually, it's scary, but it isn't exactly news. I can't say for sure, but I think that had I been asked (before logging on to the exchange) what I thought the chances are of the US being nuked by 2010 — I might very well have said something along the lines of 25%.

So maybe collective intelligence is just a fancy way of saying common sense? Or even consensus? I'm not sure. What I am sure about is that I'm going to continue looking into futures markets as a way of dealing with rapid change and making the most of my future. I suspect many others will do the same.

Meanwhile, WiredNews has more on the fallout from the Futures Market controversy — it seems that John Poindexter is going to resign in light of his involvement with the futures market and the Terrorism Information Awareness system. I wonder if any markets saw this coming?

They probably did.

In retrospect, it seems like a sucker bet.

UPDATE: Rand Simberg has been putting up some very interesting stuff on this. Look here and here. I think that Caymans idea sounds like a good one. Maybe somebody just needs to talk the Foresight Exchange folks into running their little operation on a different set of servers and changing the currency to real money. Also, check out these two postings to Just One Minute (here and here) which indicate that the existing stock market has probably already been manipulated as a terrorist futures market.

Posted by Phil at 06:56 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 30, 2003

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.

Posted by Phil at 02:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 29, 2003

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.

Posted by Phil at 06:16 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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.

Posted by Phil at 12:09 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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 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.

Posted by Phil at 08:40 AM | Comments (7) | 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."

Posted by Phil at 10:09 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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