Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Miracles you'll see in the next 50 years (written in 1950)

A fun/interesting read:

Miracles you'll see in the next 50 years (written in 1950)


Friday, September 01, 2006


You open the newspaper and yet another apartment building has burned to the ground. The cause of the fire? A candle.

Fire is one of man's earliest technologies. But today the idea of an open flame is sad. An open flame is an open invitation for problems, whether it is a candle, a burning cigarette or a log burning in the fireplace, it is a problem waiting to happen. Because the cat jumps up on the table and knocks the candle over, or the smoke falls asleep, or the log rolls out of the fireplace onto the carpet.

Our cars are currently powered by flame in the internal combustion engine, and here too flame is sad. It is an incredibly wasteful way to use fuel -- the modern ICE is only about 20% efficient.

But when will the transition occur? When will we look at candles and say, "no more"? Will it be an easy transition, or will it involve a decade of debate?


Tuesday, January 31, 2006


I was on a bike ride this weekend. I was sitting at an intersection waiting for the light to turn green. As I was waiting, a big fire truck turned into the road to my left and started heading toward the intersection with its siren wailing and all the lights flashing.

As the fire truck approached it got louder and louder. It became so loud that I reached up to hold my ears. The amount of noise coming out of the siren was deafening. The light turned green, and everyone in my lane sat there waiting for the firetruck to go through the intersection.

However, in the lane facing us, there were cars that had completely missed the firetruck's light show and siren. When the traffic light turned green, one car shot right into the intersection without a care in the world and nearly ran into the fire truck.

This is amazing if you think about it, because by this point I could nearly feel the pressure waves of sound coming from that siren. I have no idea what the decibel rating of a modern siren is, but it must be huge. Which makes sense, given that the sound of the siren has to penetrate the cabin of modern, sound-proof automobiles and overpower the sound of unmuffled Harleys.

But the fact that I was having to hold my ears to avoid deafness, while cars were moving into the intesection oblivious to the siren's sound, shows that we have reached the end of siren technology. It is time to think of a better solution. Sirens cannot get any lounder without causing local earthquakes. Sound waves simply are not the answer.

In 20 years, when robots are doing all the driving, this will be a moot point. Emergency vehicles will send wireless messages to robot drivers telling them to move out of the way seamlessly. The interesting question is, what do we do in the meantime to create an inexpensive, better solution to the problem that sirens are trying to solve?


Monday, January 02, 2006


In the 21st century, the whole idea of "guns" and "gunpowder" seems incredibly sad. Let's ignore "hunting" because there just are not that many people who officially hunt any more. Today a gun is used to do one of two things:
  1. To stop someone when that someone does something that you do not like (aka murder)

  2. To stop a group of people when they do something that you do not like (aka war)
You can make a self-defense argument, but self-defense falls into the above two categories.

Currently the technology we use is a hand cannon. The cannon hurtles a small piece of metal at high speed at the person we wish to kill.

Because we have seen so many science fiction films, we tend to think of a "blaster" or "phaser" as the next stage of development in the arms race. We also tend to think of some sort of "shield" as a way of blocking a phaser (or perhaps even small high-speed metal objects).

The question I would ask instead is this: "Is there a way to eliminate the need for murder and war?" Can human beings ever get enough control of their emotions, and develop ways of communicating with each other, and have shared concepts of right and wrong, so that the need to kill one another no long exists?


Monday, August 22, 2005

A very different way to look at the future

I found that there were a number of things that were difficult to discuss here on SadTech because, to discuss them, I needed to lay out the technological platform that would underpin them all. For example, what do I think will happen with transportation in the future? What will happen with porn? What happens with healthcare? At the core, all of these questions center on the nature of the human body in a 2050 timeframe.

By putting it all together in a book, I am able to answer these questions comprehensively. Here is the book:


Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Think about how sad our current telephone system is:
  • When you pick up the phone you get a dial tone.

  • You dial in a totally arbitrary number. And which number do you dial? The person's home? Office? Cell?

  • The phone at the other end rings. If it is plugged in, the phone will ring even if it is 3AM and you are sound asleep. Even if it is a wrong number, it rings.

  • If the person is not there, you get a generic answering machine greeting. You can leave a message if you want.

  • If the person is there, you can speak over a 3 kilohertz voice-only channel.

  • If you are on a cell phone or a long distance call you get billed by the minute.

  • And let's not even get started on telemarketing...
We take that for granted because that is the way it has always been. But look at how pathetic that is. In just 10 or 20 years it is quite likely that we see immense changes. When you pick up the phone, you will say, "Get me Tom." Your phone, or your AI secretary, will know who Tom is in your context and call him.

At the other end, you will get Tom's AI secretary. The secretary may know you, will know whether or not Tom would want to talk to you, will know which channel to communicate on with Tom (home, office, cell, computer, whatever). If Tom is asleep or busy, the secretary will not even bother him. If Tom is available, the phone will not ring -- the secretary will say, "Tom, Marshall is on the line. Do you want to take the call or would you like me to take a message?" If Tom is busy or blowing me off, I will leave a message with the secretary. If it is an emergency I will be able to tell the secretary that and interrupt Tom.

Video phones? Probably. Webcams and things like Apple's iSight make that possible and easy today. It is interesting that a long-distance video call with the iSight camera is FREE, while a normal long-distance or cell call costs money. All phone calls should be free in the not-too-distant future because of the Internet.

Going out to 2050, the idea of a telephone is a total anachronism. People will laugh at the concept. They will be meeting and greeting each other is fully immersive 3D environments all the time. It is quite likely you will be able to give your friend a hug. If Wired magazine is correct, virtual sex will be commonplace. See Manna for a description of where we end up with Vertebrane.


Monday, July 25, 2005

Operating systems

This weekend we bought Leigh a new laptop. It's your basic inexpensive laptop from HP.

From a hardware perspective, it is pretty amazing what you can get in a laptop for $650 these days: a fast processor, lots of RAM, a big hard disk, high-speed wireless networking, a nice screen, a DVD-RW drive, etc.

Plus it comes with a hardware warrantee, including 14-days "if anything goes wrong" protection and a 1-year parts and labor warrantee. The basic message is, "if we have sold you hardware that does not function properly, it is our fault, and we will fix the problem for you."

The same is not true of the operating system, and you see that when you open HP's "Getting Started" guide. What starts on page 3 is the "Protect your notebook" section. It really is quite sad.

Part one of the "Protect your notebook" section talks about viruses. It opens with this encouraging sentence: "When you use your notebook for e-mail, network or Internet access, you expose the notebook to computer viruses. Computer viruses can disable your operating system, applications or utilities, or cause them to function abnormally." The reason for this vulnerability is a poorly designed operating system. And, unlike the hardware, if something goes wrong it is YOUR problem, not the manufacturer's. To protect the operating system, you must purchase and install another piece of virus checking software, and then keep updating it every day. Even if you spend all of that time and money, things can still go wrong. If so, too bad for you. Neigher Microsoft or the virus software company will take any responsibility or do anything to help you.

Part two of the "Protect your notebook" section talks about protecting your system files. These files are essential to the operating system, but the operating system does not protect them at all. Therefore you have to keep track of them yourself. If you ever screw up, your operating system and all of its data can be irretrievably destroyed. The manual advises, "It is recommended that you manually set restore point before you add or extensively modify hardware or software. Also, you should create restore points periodically, whenever the system is performing optimally." Optimal performance, apparently, is a rare event.

Next up in the "Protect your notebook" section, it talks about protecting your privacy. The manual says, "When you use your notebook for e-mail, network or Internet access, it is possible for unauthorized persons to obtain information about your notebook and your data." Imagine if your bank said, "When you use this bank for normal banking stuff, it is possible for unauthorized persons to obtain information about your account and your data." The bank would be sued into oblivion. Not so with the operating system – it is so poorly designed that it is an open book. And that is YOUR problem. You have to "keep your operating system updated" and you must "use a firewall" to try to guard against these problems with the operating system.

Next up in the "Protect your notebook" section is a discussion about turning your notebook off properly. The operating system is so poorly designed that even the simple act of turning off your notebook (or, heaven forbid, the power goes off or the battery dies) can destroy the operating system. You are supposed to use a "standard Windows Shutdown Procedure." One would imagine, in a normal world, that the operating system would be able to handle something as common as "turning off the machine" or "experiencing a power failure" with complete indifference. But no, you can actually harm the machine by turning it off unexpectedly.

So let's say that you are willing to use the Windows Shutdown Procedure. Even this is so unreliable that the manual feels the need to address its unreliability. It says, "If your notebook does not respond (to the Windows Shutdown Procedure), try the following shutdown procedures." Then if THAT doesn't work, you are supposed to give up, cross your fingers and "press and hold the power/standby button for 5 seconds."

Note that the manual does not talk about backing up your data or spyware – two other aberrations that will waste a tremendous amount of your time as well because the operating system is so unreliable.

Then, if that is not enough, nearly the entire back half of the manual is devoted to an appendix called "System Recovery". It has sections like, "Repairing and reinstalling applications", "Repairing the operating system", "Reinstalling the operating system", Reinstalling device drivers and other software" and "Updating reinstalled software". In other words, even if you try to do everything asked of you in the "Protecting your notebook" section, shit will still happen and you will probably need to erase your hard drive and start over. In the process you will lose all of your applications, settings and data.

It is unbelievable that, in the 21st century, our operating systems are this fragile, and that it is so easy to completely destroy the operating system through no fault of your own. Just using your computer in normal ways opens you to a dozen serious vulnerabilities.

See also:


Saturday, July 16, 2005


This weekend is a typical weekend in the Brain household, and a good part of it is spent cleaning. "Cleaning" means sweeping and mopping the floors; scrubbing the bathrooms; vacuuming the carpets; helping the kids put away their puzzles, games, train sets, dinosaurs, dolls, cars, trucks, etc.; changing the linens; and generally straightening.

Then you add to that the normal daily cleaning chores like doing the dishes, cleaning the kitchen, doing the laundry, putting stuff away, etc.

And what you find is that the average American household wastes a ridiculous amount of time every week cleaning. 20 hours per week is not an unreasonable estimate of total cleaning time here at the Brain household. Keep in mind that we have four kids, but I'd bet even a childless household spends an average of 10 hours per week.

This is extremely sad because:
  1. If you take 20 hours a week and multiply by 52, you get 1,040 hours of wasted time per year. If you got paid $10 per hour for that time, it represents over $10,000 in wasted time per year -- Roughly 20 man-weeks of totally useless time.

  2. The work of cleaning has absolutely zero redeeming value. Cleaning is a TOTAL waste of time.
There are approximately 100 million households in America. If each one wastes 10 hours a week on laundry, dishes, sweeping, scrubbing and so on, that is 52 billion hours a year wasted. If that time is worth $10 an hour, that's $500 billion in wasted time every year. It is a shocking, staggering amount of totally wasted effort.

Within 20 years -- 30 years at the most -- robots will do all of this cleaning work for most people. That's why people in 2050 will look back at us in the same way that we look at people in the 1800's. In the 1800's, folks were so primitive that they were milking their own cows by hand, churning their own butter by hand, making their own soap by hand, picking and weaving their own cotton by hand and so on.

No "normal" American living today in an urban or suburban environment can imagine milking a cow or churning butter by hand. This is incredibly primitive labor in today's society. In the same way, no one in 2050 will be able to imagine the incredible amount of time that we waste cleaning today. They will laugh out loud when we tell them about getting down on our hands and knees to personally clean each toilet.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Internal combustion engines

If there is one thing that people in 2050 will be laughing out loud at, it is internal combustion engines -- the kind of engines we find now in everything from automobiles to lawn mowers. The reason why they will laugh at them is because they are so very, very sad. Think about how sad they are:
  • The most glaring problem is the waste. Something like 80% of the fuel that goes into an internal combustion engine comes out as heat rather than motion. 80% of the fuel is completely wasted, in other words.

  • Then there is the pollution - nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, soot, hydrocarbons, etc.

  • Don't forget the carbon -- something like 5 pounds of carbon is emitted for every gallon of gas consumed.

  • Then there's the noise.

  • And don't forget idling. Idling! You are sitting at a traffic light not moving at all, but the engine is still running -- still burning fuel, producing heat, making noise and spewing pollution -- for absolutely no reason. When you think about it, idling is insane. Yet every car engine has to idle.
All in all, the internal combustion engine is pathetic. Yet, even with all those problems, it is still the best we've got right now. At this moment, electric cars and fuel cells cannot compete on price, range or reliability. That is amazing, and that is why people in 2050 will be laughing so hard. To people of the future, our internal combustion engines will make us look like cave men chipping stones to make arrow heads. The engine technology that we use today is just as primitive.


Sunday, June 19, 2005


This weekend I got to see Revenge of the Sith in a theater. There were two scenes that struck me as particularly anachronistic -- the two that involved glass.

In one scene, a group of Jedi knights come to the chancellor's office to arrest him. In the office there is a huge floor-to-ceiling panoramic window. It is made of glass. One touch with a light saber and the entire thing completely shatters.

In another scene, on the glass bridge of General Grevious' ship, the General decides to break a window and escape. Apparently this is quite simple, and the window shatters just like normal glass does today.

We have glass all around us. Its advantage is transparency. But think about these important disadvantages:
  • It is incredibly heavy
  • It is fragile and easily breaks
  • When it breaks, it leaves either millions of small bits (in the case of tempered glass) or it leaves lethal shards.
The classic beer bottle knife shows just how sad glass is. You take a beer bottle, hold it by the neck, slam the bottom of the bottle on the table to shatter it, and what you are left with are several lethal shards attached to the neck that make a very effective weapon.

What we need is a transparent material that is lightweight, does not scratch easily and does not shatter. There are certain plastics that have some of these characteristics, but current plastics are not perfect. It seems likely that glass (especially in windows) will be replaced by some new material (in one of the Star Trek movies they talk about transparent aluminum), or it will be replaced in some other way. For example, high-resolution screens will simulate windows, or artificial windows will be implemented virtually through Vertebrane. People in 2050 will look back at glass in the same quaint way we look back at butter churns or wooden barrels.

[There is another thing in this movie that seemed to be particularly anachronistic -- the bed. Padme and Anakin are asleep and Anakin has a bad dream. When he wakes up we can see that they are lying in a traditional bed, complete with a headboard and sheets/blankets.

It feels like we will replace beds with something, because beds are pretty nutty. Anytime you help a friend move, you realize how nutty they are. Just try getting a king size mattress up or down a set of stairs sometime...

In all likelihood, we take up the body-free lifestyle that vite racks allow and we have no need for beds.]