Thursday, March 24, 2005

Summer vacation

We were walking to the bus stop this morning and David (age 7) was all excited about summer vacation. He was talking about all the things he plans to do this summer.

Summer vacation is a great example of inertia in society. Why do we have summer vacation? According to legend, it had to do with farming. If you look back a hundred years ago, the majority of people in the U.S. worked on farms. Children were an important part of the farm labor pool. So schools let out in the summer when the farm work was most intense.

Now here we are 100 years later. Look at everything that has changed:
  • Only 2% or so of the total U.S. population now works on farms.
  • Child labor is illegal.
  • A majority of families in the U.S. have both parents working or are single-parent households, so letting the kids out of school for any length of time is a major hassle.
  • We live in a highly dynamic technological society that is largely urban.
  • There is a hundred times more information than there was a hundred years ago needing to get crammed into kids' brains.
And yet, millions of kids will be out of school for three months this summer. The entire landscape has completely changed, yet we still have this archaic system of summer vacation. And even if your kid goes to a "year round school," the kid is still out of school 12 weeks a year (in four three-week mini-summer-vacations).

It takes us decades to react to changes in our society. Very sad....


Monday, March 21, 2005


I'd like you to think for a moment about just how widespread obesity is. According to the American Obesity Association, "Approximately 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight, 60 million obese, and 9 million severely obese." In other words, about half of all adults in the U.S. are overweight, and about a quarter of all Americans are obese.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control notes that the number of obese adults in the U.S. has doubled in a decade.

Obesity is so widespread that it will actually start to shorten our life spans. According to this article, "U.S. life expectancy will fall dramatically in coming years because of obesity, a startling shift in a long-running trend toward longer lives, researchers contend in a report published Thursday."

Now consider just how easy obesity is. Basically, it is this easy:
  1. You see a piece of cake sitting on the counter.
  2. It looks yummy.
  3. So you eat it.
That's it. And poof, you have just started down the road to obesity.

Think about it. If you weigh 150 pounds, your body is only going to burn about 1,800 calories in a day. The piece of cake contains 400 calories, say. That piece of cake, therefore, contains nearly a quarter of all the calories you are "allowed" to eat in a day. A hamburger can easily contain twice that many calories. So can a couple of slices of pizza. So can a bowl of ice cream, if it is real ice cream.

So what you end up doing, if you want not to be obese, is forcing yourself not to eat all day long. The food is all around you. But every time you see food (ANY kind of food), and every time your body has the completely natural and hard-wired reaction of, "Food! EAT!" you have to override the reaction. Which obviously is quite difficult, or half of the people in the U.S. would not be fat.

I think that people in 2050 will laugh hysterically about this because it is incredibly sad. The conversation might go something like this:
    Grandkid: You mean, anything you ate made you fat???? How could you not eat????

    You: It was incredibly hard. Every time you saw food, you had to consciously think about it and tell yourself, "NO!"

    Grandkid: But how could you do that? Millions of years of evolution have wired in the "EAT!" message every time you see food. It's not like you can override a hardwired reaction that is wired into your brain. It would be like only allowing yourself to take one breath every 60 seconds or something like that.

    You: True, but that's how it was back at the turn of the century, and over half of the population was F-A-T fat.

    Grandkid: Yuck!!! Don't talk about it!
Something will have to solve this problem in the next decade or two. Either:
  • Medical science will deliver a pill that overrides the hard wiring in the brain, so that the sight of food does not trigger the "EAT!" reaction. Or...
  • Medical science will create a pill that blocks absorption of calories. Or...
  • Medical science will create a pill that causes the body not to store fat. Or...
  • Food science will create foods that taste normal but contain zero calories. Or...
  • Vertebrane will do the exercising for us so we can eat a lot more. Or...
  • Something...
Because the way we try to do it today, quite obviously, does not work at all for the majority of people. It is nearly impossible for the majority of people to override the hard-wired EAT! signal in the brain.


Saturday, March 19, 2005

Physical media

Right now we are in the process of taking our old negatives to the photo shop and having them transferred onto photo CDs. In other words, we are taking the pictures from one physical medium (film) to another (CD).

Once we have the photo CDs, however, we will copy the photos to the network. From there on we will never have to deal with physical media again. Once they are on the network, we are done. The photos will live there, in all likelihood, for eternity.

Think how much easier these photos will be to deal with once they are on the network. It will be impossible to lose them. If the house burns down, they are safe. I can share the photos instantly with anyone on the planet. They take up no space in the house.

Since the dawn of the electronic age we have had physical media to store the content. In the musical realm we have gone from wax cylinders to vinyl records to cassette tapes to CDs. In the photography realm we have gone from film to flash memory cartridges. In movies we have gone from film to video tape to DVDs. But at this moment in history, every form of physical media is under attack.

It is most obvious in the musical realm. MP3 files have replaced CDs and CDs are in the process of dying. It will not be long before all music is accessed wirelessly from the network -- even an iPod will seem passe.

The same thing is happening to DVDs. As high speed network connections proliferate, DVDs will give way to Internet streaming. Cameras are heading in the same direction as well. In the not-too-distant future, cameras will save all of their images automatically on the network via a wireless connection.

In 20 years, the notion of physical media for storing content will be dead. Everything will be stored on the Web and available instantly. People in 2050 will look back at our CDs, DVDs and memory cards and laugh, in the same way that we today look at wax cylinders.


Saturday, March 12, 2005


Think about all of the things in your life that have buttons:
  • Your cell phone
  • The radio in your car, along with the dashboard
  • Your microwave oven
  • Your camcorder and digital camera
  • And so on...
Anything electronic has bottons -- sometimes lots and lots of buttons.

All of these buttons will begin going away within the next 10 years, replaced by a speech interface. You will speak rather than pressing buttons. You will tell your microwave what to do, along with your cell phone, the car radio and so on. And these devices will talk back.

People in 2050 will look back at buttons the way we would look at a coal-fired oven or the hand crank on the front of the Model T -- hopelessly primitive.


Sunday, March 06, 2005


In today's installment of the Cathy comic strip, Cathy Guisewite hits the nail on the head when it comes to Realtors (you can see today's strip here). She points out that the Internet has completely altered the landscape when it comes to buying a house: The Internet now:
  • Allows anyone to view all of the houses currently available for sale online (including specs, photos and often video tours)
  • Allows anyone to sort those houses by price range, number of bedrooms, location and dozens of other factors
  • Allows anyone to see what the previous sale price of the house was
  • Allows anyone to see what the current tax value is
  • Allows anyone to compare prices in the neighborhood
  • Allows anyone to apply for mortgages and get very good rates
  • Allows anyone to get advice from a thousand online sources
  • Allows anyone to do title searches
  • And so on...
At the end of the strip the Realtor says, "Every aspect of your purchase can be handled from the comfort of your own computer before coming in to see me for the last critical step: Collection of our 6% commission!" And that is so true.

What makes this particular example sad is that, as with the music industry, Realtors are going to fight the inevitable every step of the way. The job of a Realtor is in the process of being rendered obsolete by technology. A Realtor's job is rapidly reducing down to unlocking the doors of the houses that you want to visit. Unlocking doors is not worth thousands of dollars. So we will come up with a far less expensive way to handle that.

The fact that the occupation of "Realtor" is going to vanish is, on the one hand, fantastic for home buyers and home sellers. But it is also depressing to some degree. Being a Realtor has been, up to this point, a decent way for a lot of people to make a living. More than one million people belong to the National Association of Realtors [ref]. Sure, there are some home buyers who will continue using Realtors, but for the most part people are not going to pay someone $10,000 to do, approximately, nothing. So... many of those one million jobs will vanish over the next five to ten years.

We will be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing, especially as the pace of robotic development accelerates. Technology will be able to replace human beings in many job categories very quickly. The Web browser was not invented until 1990. It took several years to get traction, so really the Web has only existed to any significant degree for about 10 years. In those ten years the Web has made the Realtor's job laregly obsolete, and a million people will start the process of being out of work. The Web has done the same kind of thing to travel agents. It will be interesting to see how we begin to adjust our economic models to handle large-scale job displacement like this.


Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Phone books, again

As I mentioned in the previous post on phone books, I received 15 pounds of phone books on Sunday. I was therefore extremely surprised to open my door this afternoon to find another yellow bag of phone books on the front porch. This bag contained four phone books instead of five, so I am now the proud owner of 26 pounds of paper:

All of it will end up in the recycle bin.

The term profligate waste comes to mind. This is a very sad way to transmit information.