Sunday, February 27, 2005

Phone books

I opened my front door this morning and found this sitting on the front porch:

When I picked up the sack my first thought was, "Good grief, How much does this weigh???" Putting it on the scale, I found it weighing 15.2 pounds (imagine a 5-pound bag of sugar, plus a 5-pound bag of flour, plus a 5-pound bag of potatoes). When I opened the bag, here is what was inside -- five phone books:

From bottom to top it is the Raleigh White pages, The Apex/Cary White Pages, two copies of the Raleigh Yellow Pages and a mini version of the Raleigh Yellow Pages.

My second thought was, "How much longer are we going to be doing this???"

Think about the massive effort it took to deliver this stack of books to me. There are approximately 100 million households in America. There are also countless businesses and government offices that are also getting their phone books about now. Let's just call it 100 million recipients of the phone book to have a round number, and let's imagine that each recipient received five books like I did. That's 500 million books. That's an astounding number.

Let's further assume that to print, warehouse, transport and deliver each book it costs $2. That's a billion dollars spent every year. I can imagine the conversation with the grandkids in 2050 going something like this when the subject comes up:
    Grandkid: Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute. You mean to tell me that, in the year 2005, after the Web had been in existence for more than a decade and the Minitel service had been available for two decades, you were still using paper phone books???"

    You: Well, yes.

    Grandkid: In America???

    You: Yes.

    Grandkid: Wasn't America, like, the most advanced nation on the planet in 2005?

    You: Well, not quite the most advanced, but certainly in the top 10...
It's so sad when you think about it. There's the $1 billion dollars wasted printing them. There's the 1.5 billion pounds of paper -- untold square miles of forest. There's the millions of gallons of gasoline spent transporting and delivering them. All of that wasted because they could be delivered electronically in one way or another with very little cost and very little environmental impact.

And what did I do with my five brand new phone books? I tossed them in the recycling bin, of course. Who the heck uses phone books any more? You can find stuff in a tenth of the time on the Internet.

It will be interesting to see when these relics of the stone age actually phase out of our society. Will they be with us for 10 more years? Or will they hang on longer?

[PS - So why did I open my door this morning? So I could walk out and collect this other relic of the stone age that suffers from many of the same problems:

But we will save that for another day...]


Wednesday, February 23, 2005


You are looking at a sales circular in the Sunday paper when you see a real deal. It might be a laptop for $500 or a DVD burner for $50. But then you read the fine print and you realize that the laptop's price is really $900. The $500 price is what you pay after you apply for three different mail-in rebates.

As you read the fine print, what you hear in the back of your head is a primal "ug". This is the same "ug" you hear whenever you are forced to jump through hoops for no reason. Because rebates are sad. They are a place in our society where the goal is to make things as "hard and unreliable" as possible, rather than "easier and better". Rebates, as implemented today, are very, very sad.

For example, I bought a new Sony DVD burner this month. It had a $30 rebate. But to get the rebate you have to:
  • Fill out the "rebate form", which is a little slip of cash register paper (note to self -- do SadTech column on "receipts"). The form looks like this:

    You have to fill it out by hand. Besides doctor's offices, this is one of the very last places in American society where hand-written forms are still used (note to self -- do SadTech column on medical forms).

  • Find the serial number of the device. On the form above you can see that I have not filled it in yet because, foolishly, I installed the drive before I realized that I needed the serial number. So now I have to take the machine apart again to get the serial number. (note to self -- do SadTech column on having to "install" a drive)

  • Cut the UPC code out of the $%^&!@ cardboard box. Good Lord! Can it get any more primitive than this??? (note to self -- do SadTech column on UPC codes)

  • Circle the item on the sales receipt.
Then you put it all in a snail mail envelope. Then you put a stamp on the envelope (note to self -- do SadTech column on snail mail). Then you mail it in....

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

(note to self -- do SadTech column on waiting)

A lot of times you never get the rebate. That is by design. If you do get it, it usually takes about 8 weeks to arrive. And then it is often in some foreign currency, or worse a "gift card" which then forces you to go back to the store and buy something else if you actually want to access the money that you were promised.

All in all, the entire process is sad, and it is sad by design. It is a process that has been made purposefully sad in order to rip people off.

I once asked an Epson sales rep why companies use rebates and make them such a pain in the neck. His response was very simple -- only 7% of people send in the rebate form. And of them, probably only 7% get the rebate because the companies simply toss all of the rebate forms that they receive in the trash.

The question I have is, "when is this going to end?" In 2050, will we still be cutting UPC codes out of boxes and mailing them in by snail mail? When will companies actually create an honest process that reliably gives you the money you are promised?

Or better yet, why not simply lower the price by $30??? We all know the answer to that -- it would then be impossible to rip people off.

(note to self -- do SadTech column on Sunday papers and sales circulars)
(note to self -- do SadTech column on DVD burners)


Monday, February 21, 2005


My family went on vacation last week. Let's say that I would like to share highlights of my vacation with you in a 10-minute video.

If I want to share snapshots with you, the technology that we have today makes it pretty easy -- almost trivial. Video, on the other hand, is incredibly hard today. Here are the steps that I would have to go through (let's call this the "normal process"):
  1. I would shoot my raw footage with my camcorder.
  2. I would then have to upload the footage into a laptop. If I shot an hour of raw footage, it would take more than hour to upload it because I have to play the tape back through the firewire connection at the normal tape play speed. I also have to break the tape up into shots or segments as I go.
  3. Uploading an hour of footage would require that I have about 20 GB of free hard disk space on my laptop -- it has only been in the last two years that a "normal" laptop would have that much free space.
  4. Then I would have to open a video editing program and sort through all of the raw footage. I would snip out the little pieces of footage that I wanted to share with you and then connect them together. This page discusses the most rudimentary aspects of video editing. I could spend anywhere from an hour to a week doing this depending on how elaborate I want to get in the edited piece.
  5. Then I would render the file to create the final output. This process would yield a 3 to 4 GB AVI file.
  6. Today there is no good way for me to get a 3 to 4 GB file to you in any finite amount of time. Therefore I would have to encode the file to try to shrink it. I could shrink it to anywhere between 10 MB and 100 MB depending on the quality I would like for the file to have when you watch it.
  7. Then I would have to get to a place where I can upload the encoded file to the internet. Today this means that I would need to find a WiFi Hotspot. I would probably upload the file to a Web site, although I might upload it to BitTorrent to try to reduce my bandwidth costs. If I use BitTorrent, I've cut the potential audience way down, but it's the only choice I have if my home video is popular.
  8. Then you download it to your machine (either directly from my Web site or through BitTorrent) so you can watch it.
That is sad. Painfully sad. As you can see, it is a total pain in the butt for me to share home video with you today. Most likely it would take me a full day (possibly a lot more than a full day depending on how much editing I want to do) to create and transmit a 10-minute video to you.

With today's technology, there is a way for me to strip down this process a bit. I could do the following (let's call this the "streamlined process"):
  1. I could shoot the video on my digital camera. The camera will automatically create encoded MPG snippets, and I can choose between two different resolutions.
  2. I would upload the snippets to the laptop.
  3. Then the last two steps are identical -- I have to find a WiFi hotspot, upload the MPG snippets to either my Web site or BitTorrent, and you have to download them.
By doing this I completely lose the ability to edit -- there is no way to hook pieces of video together, or to edit out what I don't like, or to do anything like a voice-over or a wipe. Therefore, the resulting video would come to you in a package of little snippets largely unedited.

Neither Disney nor Sea World had WiFi hotspots that I could find. So if I wanted to get the video to you in any sort of "instantaneous" amount of time, I would probably have had to leave the park and get back to the hotel to find a decent Internet connection.

I actually have a demo here of the "MPG snippet" approach. Here are two MPG files that I recorded with my digital camera. The first is in 160 x 120 format, and the second is in 640 x 480 format:You can see that snippet 1 is a mere postage stamp of a video. It is almost useless because it is so small. However, it is one tenth the size of Snippet 2. Snippet 2 actually has enough resolution that you can blow it up to full-screen size.

You will also note that both snippets are only 5 seconds long. That means that a 10 minute video at "good" (640 x 480) resolution would take about 240 MB. That is going to be too expensive for me to serve to the "general public", forcing me to go the BitTorrent route. A better encoder on the laptop can reduce the size, but then I have to go through the whole "normal process" rather than using the "streamlined process".


And now let's talk about one other problem that isn't even on the radar today. When I was sitting in the stands watching the whale show, here is what I was looking at:

[Note that I've reduced the 2600 x 2000 pixel photo that I originally
took down to 400 x 300 pixels here, again to reduce bandwidth costs.]

What I showed you in the video snippets above was a tiny portion of the full scene I was looking at. In an ideal universe, the original video would have shot a complete 180-degree (or possible even 240-degree) swath of the scene at some kind of immense resolution like 20,000 pixels by 5,000 pixels. Then you, as the viewer, would choose where you want to focus your attention and see that part of the scene at good resolution. You might use a headset like this one so that you can focus your attention on a part of the scene in a completely natural way.

This is how humans normally "watch" an event like a whale show -- each person in the audience chooses where to focus his or her attention, rather than allowing a video producer to have total control. In other words, each audience member in the stands does his or her own editing. We do not even consider offering an option like this today -- anywhere -- because we have no way to implement it. The bandwidth requirements are simply too massive for today's technology to begin handling.

And let's not even get into the fact that a human sitting in the stands gets the additional benefit of a binocular view. To be even more realistic, we would want to be shooting (or artificially generating) two streams of 180-degree video -- one for each eye.

In an ideal universe, what would happen is that I would shoot the video in this 180-degree mode, which means that you as the viewer gets to do all of the "editing" in a completely natural way. That video would not record onto tape (video tape is sad...) -- the camera would send the video stream directly to the wireless Internet in real time, and you could view it in real time or later. And I would be able to serve it to you wirelessly for free, because bandwidth is so plentiful it is free.

When you think about all of this, you realize how truly pathetic video is today. We think that "HDTV" is cutting edge, but we have not even started to scratch the surface when it comes to realistic video viewing. People in 2050 will look back at our plasma screens of today and laugh out loud. They will have the same feeling that we have when we look at a Kinetoscope.

[The state of the art in video today is sad, yes, but here it is mostly for technological reasons. It is different from the kind of sadness discussed in the last post, where the problems could all be prevented because they are completely under human control. It simply will take time for us to develop the technology that will begin to solve the video problem. It will take awhile, for example, to develop 20,000 x 5,000 (100 megapixel) image sensors. It will take awhile before we have wireless connections that can handle 100 megapixel real-time video streaming for free. And so on...]


Friday, February 18, 2005

The Infectious Internet

It was not so long ago that the human population was routinely decimated by disease. We think of things like plague epidemics, smallpox epidemics and cholera epidemics with a combination of dismay ("How could it possibly have been so bad???") and relief ("Thank goodness we figured out how to eliminate most of these problems!!!").

One thing that triggered many of these problems was the rise of large cities. People had never really congregated so densely before. Once people packed themselves together tightly enough, germs found it much easier to spread from person to person. Until we figured out how germs worked and the basics of hygiene, we were at the mercy of these diseases.

Today we find ourselves in a similar kind of situation. In this case, thankfully, it is not leading to massive death. But it is creating massive frustration. The problem arises because, for the first time in human history, we are gathering together in large numbers in electronic spaces.

You can see how bad the problem is by looking at this very nice list of free software utilities:More than a third of the listed utilities are battling the many problems that arise when you innocently connect your computer to the Internet. Look at the first six items in the list:
  1. Best Free Web Browser - The article states, "There are several excellent alternatives but Mozilla FireFox is the stand-out pick. It's much safer than Internet Explorer, so safe in fact that many users have reported no spyware infections since they started using the product."
  2. Best Free Anti-Virus Software
  3. Best Free Adware/Spyware/Scumware Remover
  4. Best Free Anti-Scumware Utility
  5. Best Free Trojan Scanner/Trojan Remover
  6. Best Free Intrusion Prevention and Detection Utility
Add to this list:
  1. The scourge of spam email
  2. The need for hardware and software firewalls to keep out human and robotic hackers
  3. The whole problem with Zombie machines
You now have a pretty good picture of how bad things have gotten today. It is very, very sad.

People in 2050 will look back at this period in our history with the same sort of dismay and relief that we reserve for the Dark Ages. The grandkids will ask questions like, "With all of these different problems battering your machines, how could anyone possibly get any work done???" We will smile wryly and say, "Well, we just did the best we could..."

One of the things that is so sad about the Internet infection is that we actually have the power to eliminate it. It is similar to the traffic problem, where everything bad that we experience is under total human control. For example:
  • As mentioned, a better browser solves lots of problems.
  • Microsoft's operating system is the cause of most virus problems -- Linux and the Mac are largely free from the virus threat.
  • Strong laws and agressive enforcement can eliminate most spam.
  • ISP's can easily detect and cut off Zombie machines.
  • And so on...
What we lack is the will. We find ourselves at a weird place in history -- we are not yet at the tipping point where so many people are so fed up that we actually do something to solve the problems. Hopefully that tipping point will come soon.


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Unconscious devices

I got on an elevator today. I was the only one on the elevator, but the buttons had been pushed for every floor. Since I didn't want to stop on every floor going up, I ended up getting off and waiting for another elevator.

Let's assume that the elevator spent 30 seconds stopping on each floor. That elevator was out of commission for 10 minutes doing something totally useless. The reason for this wasted activity is because that elevator was an unconscious device. Some kid had gotten onto the elevator and thought it would be fun to push every button. Then the kid got off. The elevator, being completely unconscious, could not understand what had happened.

If you think about it, you realize that in the early 21st century we are absolutely surrounded by unconscious devices like this elevator -- devices that are completely stupid about what they are doing and the power they have.

Take, for example, something as simple as a stove. If you turn the stove on "High" to boil some pasta, the stove will send the maximum energy possible to the designated burner. Even if the pot boils dry and the pasta ignites, the stove does not care. The stove is totally unconscious of what it is doing and would happily burn the house down if you let it.

In January we had a unusual cold snap in North Carolina. The faucet in the backyard froze and burst, allowing hundreds of gallons of water to flow onto the lawn and then freeze before the problem was discovered. The faucet had no clue what it was doing.

If a three-year-old walks up to a TV set and turns it on, and if the previous watcher had been viewing hard-core porn, the TV is happy to play hard-core porn for the three-year-old.

Think about how stupid our cars are today. They will joyously run into buildings, bridge abutments, trees and even crowds of people without the slightest qualm. They have no clue about the damage they can so easily cause.

The ultimate example of this problem is the jets used in the September 11 attack. The planes were completely happy running into skyscrapers containing thousands of people. The planes caused billions of dollars of damage through their utter stupidity. That is incredibly sad.

People in 2050 will look back at this period in our history with amazement. Every year in the United States alone, 40,000 people die in auto accidents. Millions more are injured. Drunk drivers are a persistent problem. The grandkids in 2050 will ask, "You mean a car could run right into a pedestrian and it didn't even know what it was doing????" In 2050, every object will have a form of consciousness that keeps it from acting in completely senseless ways.

[See also Manna chapter 3.]


Monday, February 14, 2005


Since today is Valentines Day, this seems like an appropriate topic. It is a bit delicate as topics go, but let's tackle it anyway.

If you are a male who wants to control his fertility in the early years of the 21st century, you have only two choices. You can either:
  • Go get a vasectomy, or
  • Use a condom.
The former is ridiculous -- sort of like cutting off your legs because you don't feel like walking today. And the latter is unbelievably sad.

The condom is a technology that has been around for several millennia, and it is largely unchanged since its invention. The condom has three gigantic, glaring problems:
  1. When a male uses a condom, it deadens the sexual experience.
  2. When a male uses a condom, it deadens the sexual experience.
  3. When a male uses a condom, it deadens the sexual experience.
Oh yeah, and did I mention that it deadens the sexual experience? So that is four problems. Plus, you have to stop and put on the condom right in the middle of the sexual experience... What a great design idea for this technology!

All of these problems mean that males are highly unlikely to use condoms. And when males do not use condoms, condoms usually do not work. Plus, even if a male does use a condom, they have a tendency to fail on a not irregular basis by bursting or leaking. And then there is the problem that women generally do not enjoy the feel of condoms either.

All in all, you can see that condoms are one of the saddest technologies in use today!

The conversations with the grandkids around this topic ought to be a laugh-riot. We'll skip the dialog this time, but you can imagine the grandkids screaming, "You did WHAT????" toward the end of the explanation and then needing to have hernia surgery after they finish laughing.

What we would hope is that, by 2050, males and females both have conscious control over their fertility. That is, in any sexual encounter, both the male and female make a conscious decision to be fertile or not. And we would assume that this conscious control is achieved in a way that invisible, effective, safe and undetectable by both parties. This would mean that both parties would have to have consciously decided to be fertile for a pregnancy to be possible.


Thursday, February 10, 2005

Battery chargers

We are getting ready to go to Disney World. We pack all the usual stuff -- clothes, shoes, diapers, a few books to read on the plane. But in this day and age we also need to think about the electronics. And we have to think hard about them, because it's not just one or two things anymore. Here's what we are planning to take:
  • Leigh's cell phone
  • My cell phone
  • Leigh's digital camera
  • David's digital camera
  • Irena's digital camera
  • Camcorder
  • PDA
  • Laptop
  • GPS
  • MP3 player
  • CD player
  • Electric razor
I could imagine taking the little portable DVD player for the kids on the plane, but we will probably skip it.

I shudder to think what this manifest will look like when all four kids are teenagers...

Many electronic devices today require that you bring a charger. They have lithium ion or NiMH batteries built in, so you don't have a choice about the charger. This is where we get to the part that is so sad.

Look at the picture on the upper right and you can see the problem. Devices with rechargeable batteries have absolutely no standardization for the charger. In the photo, from top to bottom, what you see are the plugs for the razor, the laptop, the camcorder, Leigh's cell phone, Leigh's digital camera, my cell phone and the PDA. And as you can see, these plugs are all entirely different. It really looks as though manufacturers are trying to come up with plugs that are as bizarre as possible. The camcorder, the digital camera and the laptop all come from Sony, and not even within a single company can they agree on a standard! One Sony plug is cylindrical, one is square and one is rectangular.

And then each of those plugs attaches to a completely non-standardized wall wart or power brick. Here are the six that I will be carrying on this trip:

David's and Irena's cameras both use rechargeable AA batteries, which we will abandon so we don't have to carry the chargers (we'll use normal alkaline batteries instead). We'll also leave the car chargers for the cell phones at home.

Let me state the obvious: THIS IS NUTS! This is now, officially, nuts.

The thing that makes this so sad is fact that this problem is so easily solved. All that we need to do is agree on a standard plug size, and then agree on a standard voltage (most likely 12 volts), and then let all of the devices conform to the standard. In the same way that there is a standard 120 volt socket in the wall, there can be a standard 12 volt socket (probably two) built into every standard wall outlet. Three or four of the same little sockets can come as standard equipment in every car. It is easy to imagine power hubs in the same way that we have USB hubs today. The power cords would all be standardized around the standard 12-volt plug size and would look like this:

No more power bricks and wall warts. No more plugging-into-the-cigarette-lighter in the car. No more non-standard plugs. In the short term, this kind of standardization is long overdue.

In the 2050 time frame, it is easy to imagine that either:
  1. Batteries last a year or more between recharging, so the idea of a charger is nearly a moot point, or
  2. We have done away with wires. Some sort of inductive charging system is built into the surface of the wall and devices get their power wirelessly whenever you are in a room.
No matter what, it is certain that the way we do it today is nuts. People in the future will look back at this period in the evolution of electronics in the same way that we look back at gas lights and candles -- primitive in the extreme.


Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Germs in hospitals

Think back to the conditions of a field hospital during the Civil War. You probably envision "doctors" working in shirt sleeves wielding bloody saws. They had no concept of germs, and didn't even bother washing their hands. The guys they operated on lay on old tables or bales of hay. There was no concept of a "sterile operating theater."

Today we are of course appalled by this lack of hygiene. But it is likely that people in 2050 will look back at our hospitals today in the same way. Here's why.

I was in a hospital recently with my son. He was scheduled to have surgery, so they were getting him ready. The surgeon came to talk with us, the anesthesiologist, a number of nurses, etc. One of them was wearing little surgical booties over his shoes, and the bottom of them were black with grime.

So think about this. Why are the bottoms black? Because the floors are dirty. Why are the floors dirty? When I arrived at the hospital, I was outside. I was walking around in my Nikes with super-traction soles. I stepped in motor oil. I stepped in puddles (it was drizzling that day). I stepped in dog crap. Whatever. Then I walk in the door of the hospital. All that filth comes in with me on the bottom of my shoes. It tracks all over the floors. Surgeons and nurses walk on those same floors. Who the heck knows what kind of germs get into a hospital that way? I imagine that the same thing happens with clothing, especially kids clothing.

What is the effect of all of these germs? According to this article:
    The statistics are staggering. According to the CDC, approximately 100,000 people died of a hospital-acquired infection in 2002, though experts believe the number is actually higher.

    Dr. Barry Farr, an infectious disease expert in Charlottesville, Va., notes, “There are about two million people who acquire infections in the hospital each year and become sick. Most don’t die, but some do.”
Those are some rather amazing stats. It really is quite sad when you think about it. Two million people is a whole lot of people.

I can imagine, given those stats, that at some point we decide to get serious about germs in hospitals. At the very, very simplest level this would mean that you take off your shoes when you walk in the door! I am still stunned by this breach of hygiene. The amount of filth and disease that comes in this way must be astounding. I would imagine that other steps are taken as well. For example
  • The hospital is treated like a giant clean room facility, much like a semiconductor manufacturing plant.

  • When you come in you take off all of your clothes.

  • You shower in an antiseptic solution.

  • You wear a disposable, dust-free hospital cover-all

  • It is not too far-fetched to imagine people wearing a full face mask that covers your eyes, nose and mouth and filters your exhaled air. This would prevent a majority of germs from leaving your body. You will not exhale them, and by keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth, quite a bit of germ transfer is prevented.

  • Do we move to a full-coverage suit similar to a bio-hazard suit, where your entire body is covered? This would prevent falling hair, dead skin cells and almost all germs from getting into the air.
It is easy to imagine that many visitors won't want to go to all of this trouble, which will make video calls into hospital rooms a lot more common.

The following conversation with the grandkids will be uncomfortable:
    Grandkid: I saw an old movie yesterday, and the characters were in a hospital. They were visiting a friend and they were wearing street clothes! And running shoes! I could not believe it. That was made up, wasn't it?

    You: No, that was completely normal.

    Grandkid: Hadn't you discovered germs yet??? I thought they discovered germs in the 1800s!

    You: Well, we had discovered germs, yes. But we really didn't take them very seriously. Millions of people died of infections in the hospital.

    Grandkid: Were you blind? How could you not see all the germs coming into the hospital on people's shoes for the love of God!
And so on. They will be as appalled as we are when we think of surgery in the Civil War.


Tuesday, February 08, 2005


If there is one thing that will appall people in 2050, it is the notion of traffic. The traffic problems that we experience in the United States today are pathetic beyond belief.

The traffic that you see in the photo to the right is normal morning rush-hour traffic on Interstate 40 in Raleigh, North Carolina. It really is called "Interstate 40", and it really is supposed to be an Interstate highway flowing continuously at 65 MPH, but most normal people would refer to it instead as a parking lot. Every city in America sees exactly the same thing every single weekday morning and evening.

Think about just how sad gridlock traffic like this is:
  • It wastes a gigantic amount of time.

  • It generates an incredible amount of anger, which we now call "road rage" because it is so common.

  • It creates piles of pollution and wastes tankers full of gasoline.
How much time does it waste? Assume that one million people waste 30 minutes a day in gridlock rush-hour traffic. That is 256 man-years of wasted time per day. If you assume that one man-year is worth $30,000, that represents over $7 million in lost productivity per day.

But then you think about it -- there's more like 100 million people in the United States sitting in rush hour traffic every morning. And they are doing it 244 days per year. So we are talking about a number that approaches $200 billion per year. That is $200 billion in totally wasted time, all because we can't design our roads right. To the average commuter, personally, we are talking about something on the order of $2,000 per year in wasted time.

What is so amazing about the traffic disaster in the United States is that it is a totally man-made problem. Human beings design the road systems. Human beings drive every single car. It's not like the weather, where we are helpless in the face of massive natural forces that are way beyond our control. Humans have TOTAL control of every part of the traffic equation.

There are lots of ways to get control over the problem, but we refuse to take the needed steps. For example, at the simplest possible level, we could create laws that prevent a city from growing beyond the carrying capacity of its highway system. Once the population of the city starts to approach the carrying capacity, development would shut down. We have laws like that to control the growth of cities beyond the capacity of their sewage systems. Why not roads too? A law like that would have a big impact on the problem, because it would put the onus on developers to prevent traffic jams. Even something that simple is beyond us.

People in 2050 will not have traffic for a variety of reasons:
  • The entire transportation system will be operated by computers and robots rather than human drivers.

  • The transportation system will be far less expensive to construct and maintain, making it easier to expand to match demand.

  • People will have far fewer reasons to travel because of things like virtual reality systems.
People in 2050 will therefore look back at the traffic problems we are experiencing today with total dumbfoundment. "What????" they will ask, "You imbeciles had ZERO control over a system as important as your nation's transportation infrastructure???" And they will be right.

How could we have zero control over something this important? And yet it is a fact -- we have zero control over our transportation system. It happens because of a combination of greed, politics, herd behavior and lack of discipline. We see the effects every single morning as we drive to work, and we have only ourselves to blame for it.

[PS - Is there any chance I got stuck in traffic today??? Perhaps I am suffering from a bit of road rage??? Maaaaaybe...]


Thursday, February 03, 2005

Search Engines

Imagine going to New York City with your spouse to visit a friend. Your friend is the ultimate sophisticated urbanite who knows the ins and outs of everything trendy in New York. You ask your friend, "Where is a nice place we can go to dinner tonight?"

This is a simple request, and your friend is going to process it very naturally. He will ask you several questions. For example:
  • What kind of cuisine would you prefer?
  • What price range for the restaurant?
  • Fancy or low key? Loud or quiet? Music or not?
Then using his knowledge of the New York Restaurant Topography, and perhaps adding in a little extra information (like your current location in the city (to avoid a long cab ride), his knowledge of your personality and your spouse's, etc.) he is going to match you with a very suitable restaurant. He is going to send you to a very nice, highly rated restaurant that has wonderful food and great service. The whole transaction might take two minutes or so, and you get exactly the information you are looking for.

Compare that transaction with how today's search engines work and you can see how primitive today's search engines are. It really is quite sad. If you go to Google right now and type in the search string "New York City restaurants", you will get over 15 million results. Adding the word "French" really narrows it down -- only four million results. If you try "New York city best French restaurants" that gets you down to two million results.

What you would like, at that point, is for Google to ask you, "what are you trying to do?" Are you trying to find a restaurant for tonight? Or are you trying to compile a list of all French restaurants in New York City for a travel guide you are producing? (Or something else?) Those are completely different tasks. If it is the former, then you would like Google to query you about location, price range and atmosphere, and then give you two or three search results -- the actual pages for the couple of restaurants that are perfect for your meal tonight.

There are so many places right now where search engines fail us because they cannot read and understand text, or understand the intent of the person doing the query. For example, let's say you want to know how many teenagers there are in the United States. That's a simple question. You type in "How many teenagers are there in the U.S." What you would like Google to do is come back with a single result -- the actual number! What you get instead is... Well look at this. Here is what I got tonight:

That first one really does say, " - Police: Woman threw sex parties for teenagers" and the next one down really does say, "USAID: Earthquake and Tsunami Relief." Is that what I am looking for? Not really. None of these search results have anything to do with the number I am looking for. They are not even close.

Now imagine going further. You want a table showing the number of teenagers in the U.S. by year going back to 1950. Imagine if you could say that to the search engine, and have it actually come back with the table. Then you ask that the table show the teen population for England, Canada, Australia and the U.S. by year going back to 1950. And the search engine does it. Then you ask it to show per capita spending on education by year in the four countries. And it does it.

In 2050, it is easy to imagine that the best search engine on the planet will have not only spidered all the information on the "Internet" (whatever form that takes in 2050), but has also read and understood that information and is thus a super-intelligent source of all knowledge. It will be able to answer any question that you might have, based on the truly staggering amount of information that is available to it.

When we get to that point, the really interesting question is, "what else will this search engine be able to do?" If it has all of the world's information loaded up in its "brain", what connections, patterns and ideas will it be able to see?


Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Leigh and I have started doing our taxes, and that meant that I needed to go into an online account that I don't use very often. That, in turn, meant that I had to open up the "File of account IDs and passwords." Since I was in there I decided to count all the accounts. There are about 100 entries in the file. They include:
  • Account IDs and passwords for different email accounts.

  • Account IDs and passwords for different financial institutions.

  • Account IDs and passwords for different credit card accounts.

  • Account IDs and passwords for different servers and systems at work.

  • Account IDs and passwords for different online services (Amazon, B&N, eBay, paypal, ofoto, etc. etc. etc.)

  • Account IDs and passwords for different forums, online games, etc.

  • And many others
My wife has a file with an equal number of her own IDs and passwords. We all do. Any normal person who does lots of stuff electronically has a file like this. It starts when you get the PIN for your first ATM card and stretches out from there.

This file, of course, is absurd. It has to be on paper lest someone hack into your machine and make a copy of it. The paper copy needs to be kept in a safe, and then you need multiple copies in case someone somehow steals the safe. Lord help you if you were to ever lose the file, because you would be locked out of all sorts of things that you really do need. And Lord REALLY help you if the file ever falls into the wrong hands because of identity theft.

The thing that is so funny about all these passwords (and the reason why people in 2050 will laugh hysterically when they look back at us) is that all of these passwords and IDs are needed to say one simple thing: "I am me." All that you are doing when you type in a password is identifying yourself. But this is such an incredibly sad way to do it. Think of all the problems that our current password systems create, including:
  • First and foremost, when someone else gets ahold of your password (by looking over your shoulder, finding your wallet, hearing you speak the password on the telephone, using a keygrabber or whatever), they can masquerade as you. They can take your money, order things in your name, etc.

  • If you use an easy password, people can guess it (or use computers to crack it) and then masquerade as you.

  • When you forget a password, it is a pain to regain access.
It is possible to imagine all sorts of identification systems that do not involve the memorization of easily-stolen passwords. Biometric-based devices (fingerprint scanners, retina scanners, etc.) are the obvious choice, but there are other possibilities as well.

Just imagine having this conversation with your grandkids in 2050:
    Grandkid: You had to do what???

    You: Well, you would walk up to the machine and type in your password and then you could access your account.

    Grandkid: What if someone saw you type in your password?

    You: Well, then they could steal all of your money.

    Grandkid: You must be joking!
There will be howls of laughter all around! The password system that we use today is primitive beyond belief.