Monday, January 31, 2005

The inky finger

This is the famous "inky finger" from the Iraqi elections:

Dipping their fingers in ink was the technique used to prevent people from voting twice. Is it possible to get any more primitive than this?


Sunday, January 30, 2005


If there is one technology that is going to bring howls of laughter from people in the future, it is going to be the keyboard. Talk about sad!

Since we use keyboards all day every day and take them completely for granted, it is hard for us to really see how primitive keybards are. But just think about it. You have a thought in your head. You have to emit that thought one letter at a time through your fingers onto an array of buttons. And those buttons have been arranged through the QWERTY layout to be as inefficient as possible. It's nuts!

Even sadder are the little thumb keyboards that you find on some cell phones, PDAs and portable email appliances. All of your thoughts are funneled into your two thumbs. And even worse is the idea of sending an SMS message using a standard 12-button cell phone keypad. That goes beyond sad into the realm of insane in terms of inefficiency. The idea that people have to peck out a message with one finger on a keypad where every button is overloaded with 4 or more different characters is ludicrous. We will look back on it as a bad nightmare.

Fortunately we should begin to see the demise of the keyboard sooner rather than later. What, maybe ten years from now dictation software is smart enough to enter the mainstream? Twenty tops? Something like that. The keyboard will be gone for good. We will go to museums like the Smithsonian and see a keyboard in a display case... We will look at it in the same way that we look at chipped stone arrowheads -- primitive in the extreme.


Friday, January 28, 2005

Locks and keys

The next time that you walk up to the front door of your house, pay attention to what you have to do. You will reach into your pocket and grab a handful of keys (this is a major pain in the neck if you happen to be carrying a package, a bag of groceries or a small child). Then you will select one of the keys and stick it into a lock. Then you will turn the key to open the door. You've been doing this since you were a kid, and people have been doing it pretty much the same way for centuries.

This is sad. Every time I walk up to my house and go through these motions (especially if I am carrying a kid), I find myself muttering, "You idiot door -- recognize me!" Recognize me and open automatically. We interact with doors dozens of times every day. Why do they have to be so stupid?

Here's another thing. Think about all the belongings that you keep in your home or business, and how much all of those belongings are worth. We conside locks to be "secure," and we think of all of our belongings as being "safe." The funny thing about locks is that they are pathetic when it comes to security. What happens when you lose your keys? You call a locksmith and he comes over and picks your lock in a minute or less. Most criminals also know how you pick locks because lock picking is incredibly easy.

In other words, we protect thousands and thousands of dollars worth of stuff with a technology that can be picked in 60 seconds. It is amazing that the security technology used across America and around the world is so primitive and sad.

There are all sorts of disadvantages with the current lock/key system we use today:
  • As mentioned, any criminal can pick a lock in no time.

  • If you lose a key and someone else picks it up, they can walk right in.

  • If you misplace your keys (which happens about twice a week in my houshold), you can waste 10 or 15 minutes finding them.

  • If you give a key to someone else and then later regret it, you have to change all the locks in your house.

  • If you give a key to someone, that person can easily make copies of the key and give the copies to people who you would have never trusted with a key.

  • If a hundred people need access to a door (say at a business), then you have to issue 100 keys. That becomes a big logistical problem and it is expensive.
I can imagine going up to the attic in 2050, opening a box to look for something and finding an old key ring with 20 keys on it. The grandkids will look at the keys and ask, "what the heck are those???" When you tell them about locks and keys, they will laugh at this quaint and ancient practice. The reason they will laugh is because, when they walk up to any door, the door will recognize them and slide open automatically if they have access to the area (if there's an area of the house where you want to exclude the kids, you will simply tell the door to exclude the kids). There will be no keys and no doorknobs. And they will never find themselves standing outside in the rain fumbling for their keys.


Saturday, January 22, 2005

Visiting the Dentist

The next time you go to the dentist to have your teeth cleaned, think about what is going on. You lie on your back with your mouth wide open. Seated next to you is a woman dressed like a space alien (goggles, face mask, rubber gloves, tyvek biohaz suit...)(OK, maybe no tyvek, but close) and she is wielding instruments of torture. She reaches into your mouth with a scraper and a little mirror and scratches off pieces of calcified tartar one tooth at a time....

Is it possible to get any more primitive than this???? It is so sad.

It reminds me of the sort of stories you hear about "surgery" in the civil war, where the only treatment for a serious wound in an arm or leg was amputation using a saw. No anesthetic, no sterile operating theater, no antibiotics. Just cut if off and hope for the best. That was sad -- no other word for it (OK, the words disgusting and barbarous also come to mind). These were primitive people and amputation was all they had.

Today, when we go to the dentist, we are primitive people. What we have is a person reaching into our mouths with a scraper. When that doesn't work we get cavities, and we turn to a dentist with a drill. A drill of all things! And when that doesn't work, the tooth gets pulled out. This does not sound a whole lot more advanced than civil war surgery...

Dentistry really has not changed much in the past several centuries. The whole idea of "brushing your teeth" is pretty amazingly primitive, and don't even get me started on flossing. Imagine what the grandkids will have to say about that -- "What, you had to thread a piece of STRING through your TEETH every day??? That's totally insane!". By 2050 the entire profession, I pray, will be largely eliminated. Someone will come up with a pill or a spray or a mouthwash that completely eliminates the bacteria that cause tartar/plaque.

When we tell our grandkids about dentistry in the early 21st century, they will either a) throw up or b) laugh with disgust. Common exclamations will be things like, "The woman reached into your mouth with a scraper and did WHAT???" or, "He drilled right into your TOOTH???? Didn't that HURT????"


Tuesday, January 18, 2005


The next time that you are out and about, notice how many smokers you see. You will find them in their cars, walking down city streets, huddled outside businesses, etc. With tens of millions of smokers in the United States, smoking is ubiquitous.

Despite how common smoking is today, you can easily imagine this scene in 2050:
    Grandkid: I saw a really old movie today, and the people in this movie were lighting these white sticks and then sucking smoke out of them. What in the world was going on there???

    You: Oh... We used to call that "smoking". The white sticks were called "cigarettes."

    Grandkid: You mean lots of people did this?

    You: Yes, sure, millions and millions of people. There was once a time when half the people in the United States smoked.

    Grandkid: You must be kidding!

    You: I am not. It was a very big deal for hundreds of years.

    Grandkid: So what was the deal?

    You: It used to be that the only way to get nicotine was from a cigarette. You would light the cigarette with a match and then inhale the smoke...

    Grandkid: No! People sucked smoke into their lungs on purpose???

    You: Millions and millions of people.

    Grandkid: Didn't they get sick?

    You: Millions and millions of people got cancer and emphysema, yes.

    Grandkid: Didn't all these cigarettes cause lots of fires?

    You: Yes, they did...
When you think about sad technologies, there are few that are sadder than cigarettes. Cigarettes should probably be the SadTech poster child.

Think about what a cigarette is -- it is a drug delivery mechanism (DDM). The drug that cigarettes deliver is nicotine. As a DDM, cigarettes are pathetic because:
  1. The cigarette mixes the drug with smoke, and the smoke causes huge health problems.
  2. The person using the DDM is not the only one who receives the drug. Secondhand smoke also causes health problems.
  3. A lit cigarette has a tendency to cause accidental fires. This article points out that cigarettes are, "the leading cause of fatal fires in the U.S., causing one of every four fire deaths."
Considering these problems, it is interesting that the use of cigarettes as a DDM is still allowed. There are plenty of other ways to deliver nicotine, including gum, patches and even water. They all deliver nicotine without any of the health problems or the fire problems.

The other thing about these alternative DDMs is that they are invisible. If you are wearing a nicotine patch or chewing nicotine gum, no one knows that you are doing it. Because cigarettes are so obvious, they tend to advertise themselves.

You have to believe that, sometime between now and 2050, there will be enough common sense in the country to ban cigarettes. At that point, all the smokers will simply switch over to other delivery mechanisms to get their nicotine. The transition should be very easy, and all the health and safety problems with cigarettes will be gone for good.


Saturday, January 15, 2005

Trade shows

Last week I had the chance to visit CES 2005. It is an amazing event, but you have to wonder how the grandkids are going to react to the idea of a "trade show." If you think about it, CES has a lot of problems:
  • It is incredibly expensive to create a booth. The big ones cost millions of dollars and take up 10,000 square feet or so.

  • Then you have to ship and assemble the booth, and take it down at the end of the show.

  • For the attendees, you have to pay for the plane ticket to get there, then the hotel and meals while you are there, any taxi rides and entertainment, the ticket into the show plus the plane trip home. At a minimum, that's $1,000, probably more.

  • I came from the east coast, so I lost about a day total in travel time getting there and then another day coming back.

  • Between the cost and the time, it really limits the number of people who can attend.

  • And then there is the show itself. There are thousands of booths consuming 1.5 million square feet of floor space. That's more than 35 acres of booths. Think of the biggest Wal-mart SuperCenter that you have ever been in (the kind that has a full supermarket plus a full Wal-Mart, etc. in the same building) -- That's 4 acres or so, and a Super-Wal-Mart is huge. CES is equal to about 9 Super-Wal-Marts! It is so big that just getting from point A to point B becomes a problem.
From an economic standpoint, this is all pretty sad. It adds up to hundreds of millions of wasted dollars and hundreds of wasted man-years of time.

Why do people go? I think they go: a) to see all the new products in one place, and b) to be able to talk easily to knowledgeable people who understand the products. Couldn't we do replicate these two things on the Web? That would give us 90% of the value of a trade show at 5% of the cost.

Companies would set up special Web "booths" that have photos/videos/demos of the products that they want to demonstrate. Then there would be video conferencing links that let you talk to knowledgeable people from the companies in real time.

Or, if you want to go a step further, do it on the XBox. Let each company's "booth" be done in 3-D, like a first-person-shooter game. You walk around the "show" just like you walk around in Halo2 (minus the gun probably). Add in XBox Live and you can talk to the company representatives that way. It would be a whole lot easier, you could see a lot more stuff, and you could talk to a lot more people this way. Plus, no jet-lag when you get home.


Saturday, January 01, 2005

The whole idea of places "being closed"

Since today is "New Year's Day", just about everything is "closed". The malls are closed. Most retail stores are closed. Lots of Grocery stores, restaurants, theaters, libraries, post offices, museums, businesses... almost everything is closed. About the only thing open is the occasional convenience store and fast food restaurant.

When you think about it, this is incredibly sad. We are talking about trillions of dollars in real estate and inventory, all sitting completely idle and accomplishing nothing. Tens of millions of people would like to buy things today, but they cannot because everything is closed.

"Being closed" is an artifact of a human work force. It is easy to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, that every store, business, restaurant, museum, theater, etc. will be staffed not by people but by robots. Robots will never go on vacation or need a break, so everything will be open 24x7. If you need a sheet of plywood at 3AM, or want to go look through the clothing racks at the mall at midnight on Tuesday, there will be nothing to stop you -- the mall will never close.

When you sit your grandkids down and tell them how stores "in the good old days" closed every night at 9PM and did not open again until 9AM the next morning, your grandkids will laugh. "Closed???" they will exclaim, "What does that mean?"


The Premise of SadTech

Have you ever talked with a senior citizen and heard the stories? Senior citizens love to tell about how they did things "way back when." For example, I know people who, when they were kids, lived in shacks, pulled their drinking water out of the well with a bucket, had an outhouse in the back yard and plowed the fields using a mule and a hand plow. These people are still alive and kicking -- it was not that long ago that lots of people in the United States routinely lived that way.

My father used to tell stories about using his slide rule in college and on the job -- a practice immortalized in the film Apollo 13. I myself did some of my earliest computer programming using punch cards, or toggling in programs on the front panel of an IMSAI 8080.

If you go to Williamsburg you can see demonstrations of people picking seeds out of cotton by hand, then carding the cotton by hand, then spinning the cotton by hand on a spinning wheel to create a strand of yarn, then weaving that yarn by hand into cloth, and then finally sewing that cloth into a shirt using a needle and thread and a thimble.

When we look at this kind of stuff from today's perspective, it is so sad. The whole idea of spending 200 man-hours to create a single shirt is sad. The idea of typing a program one line at a time onto punch cards is sad, and Lord help you if you ever dropped the deck. The idea of pulling drinking water up from the well by the bucketful or crapping in a dark outhouse on a frigid winter night is sad. Even the thought of using the original IBM PC in 1982, with its 4.77 MHz processor, single-sided floppy disk and 16 KB of RAM is sad when you look at it just 20 years later. Now we can buy machines that are 1,000 times faster and have a million times more disk space for less than $1,000.

But think about it -- the people who used these technologies at the time thought that they were on the cutting edge. They looked upon themselves as cool, hip, high-tech people:

  • At the time, people using the 4.77 MHz IBM PC thought they were cutting edge, especially since they didn't have to load the programs in from cassette tape. Today we look back at the 4.77 MHz PC with a single floppy drive as pathetic, but in 1982 it was the cutting edge.

  • At the time, the people who spent two weeks riding to California on a steam train thought they were cutting edge. It beat the heck out of riding there in a horse-drawn stage coach. Today we look back at train travel as pathetic as we fly to California in jumbo jets.

  • The first people to buy a Model T Ford thought they were cutting edge. They would go out and crank the car by hand, and that was cool because it beat the heck out of saddling up a horse. Today we look back at the Model T as pathetic.
And so on...

The point is, at any moment in history, people thought of themselves as cool and cutting edge and modern, even though we now look back on them as primitive troglodytes. Their technologies are pathetic when compared to the technologies that we have today.

Now we come to the premise of this website. Try to project yourself forward to the year 2050. Think about how someone in 2050 will look back at the way we are living today. Think about the stories you will tell to your grandchildren and great grandchildren in 2050 about your life back at "the turn of the century." People will look at us like we are primitive troglodytes, and they will laugh at the technologies and practices that we today consider to be "modern" and "cutting edge" and "cool." Today the iPod is cool, but in 2050 it will seem pathetic and silly. The things that are the coolest today will look so sad in 2050...