Friday, April 29, 2005

Wires, cables and power cords

I had big computer hardware problems this week (unreliability is working overtime), so I had to pull my desktop machine out from under the desk to repair it. Here is the scene that greeted me after I removed it:

You can't help but notice the wires - the huge jumble of wires leading to and from the computer. Why are there so many wires? Here's an inventory of the wires and cables hooking to my desktop machine:
  1. The computer's power cord
  2. keyboard cable
  3. mouse cable
  4. Power cord for monitor #1
  5. VGA cable for monitor #1
  6. Power cord for monitor #2
  7. VGA cable for monitor #2
  8. Wire to the speakers
  9. Power cord for the speakers
  10. Wire from the microphone
  11. Four firewire cables for the four firewire drives
  12. Four power cords for the four firewire drives
  13. 100-base-T network cable
  14. Cable TV cable (with splitter - one side of the splitter plugs into cable modem, the other into the tuner card in the computer)
  15. Power cord for the cable modem
  16. Cord from the cable modem to the hub/router
  17. Power cord for the hub/router
  18. USB cable for the digital camera (custom plug goes into Leigh's camera)
  19. USB cable for MP3 players (with the small plug on the other end)
  20. USB cable for the USB hub
  21. Power brick/cable for the USB hub's power
  22. USB cable to the memory card reader (handles David's and Irena's cameras)
  23. USB cable for PDA cradle
  24. Power brick/cord for PDA
  25. USB cable for the scanner
  26. power cord for the scanner
  27. USB cable for the inkjet photo printer
  28. Power cord for the photo printer
  29. USB cable to the web cam
  30. SVideo cable out from the TV tuner card
  31. Sound cable out from the TV tuner card
  32. Video and sound cables in from the XBox (Feeds into TV tuner card so I don't need a TV in my office to hook to the XBox)
  33. Parallel printer cable to laser printer
  34. Power cord for the laser printer
  35. Special Firewire cable for the video camera
  36. Three power cords for the three UPSs
  37. Power cord for the power strip
  38. Probably a couple odds and ends that I am missing
If you add it all up, you can see that there are nearly 50 different cords and cables floating around under my desk, and that doesn't count the recharger for my cell phone, the recharger for the video camera, the generic battery recharger, their power strips, etc.

Let's just agree right now that this goes beyond sad - it is insane. 50 cords and cables is an insane thing to have under your desk.

Here's the dream, and how things will probably evolve over the next 10 to 20 years:
  • You buy a new printer and set it in the room.
  • It gets its power wirelessly through some sort of induction relationship with the wall
  • It connects to the computer wirelessly through a high-speed wireless network in the room.
No drivers, no configuration. It just does exactly what you expect without any effort of any sort on your part.

As you think about it more, however, you realize that all of this collapses and vanishes over the next couple of decades. It is inevitable that the "desktop computer" shrinks into a tablet-like device that you carry with you (or, ideally, that you carry inside you via Vertebrane). There is no paper, so the printers and scanners go away. There are no firewire drives because we access unlimited storage space on the internet's successor via the high-speed wireless network that exists everywhere around us. There are no UPSs because everything is running off of batteries that last for months or years. And so on.

In other words, our grandkids will look at the photo at the beginning of this post and they will laugh and laugh and laugh...


Sunday, April 24, 2005

What can happen in 25 years

I gave a presentation on robots this weekend, and in the presentation I used one of my favorite slides. The point of the slide is to say, "look at how much can change in just 25 years."

The slide has on it two images. Here is image #1:

Here is image #2:

The first image is from the game Pacman, released in 1980. At the time it was considered to be an innovative video game.

The second image is Half-Life 2, released just a few months ago. It too is considered to be an innovative video game.

These two games are separated by only 25 years, yet they look like they are from completely different planets. One is a flat, pixelated, handful-of-colors-on-a-mostly-black-screen game. The other is a photo-realistic real-time romp through an artifical world of incredible depth and detail. The two games cannot be compared. It would be like comparing a backhoe to a spoon.

Here is another example -- from a book called How It Works - The Computer. This is a typical image from the 1979 edition:

This disk drive, which is as big as a washing machine, has a removable disc pack made up of six 14-inch discs. The disc pack holds 7.25 megabytes. Today we can buy 400 gigabyte drives for $300 that, very nearly, fit in your pocket. An iPod does fit in your pocket and holds 40 GB.

Here is another example - an article called The Birth of the Notebook.

The point is, we have seen amazing change in the last 25 years. We can expect the same levels of innovation, if not more, in the next 25 years. Imagine what video games, disc drives and laptops will look like by then.

I imagine we will be beginning to see the first installations of Vertebrane and video games will be becoming completely immersive environments. I also imagine that the robots that we are interacting with in 25 years will blow Roomba away, in the same way that Half Life 2 blows Pacman away. See Robotic Nation for details.


Saturday, April 23, 2005

Light switches

As part of a remodeling project, I had the opportunity to help tear out the interior walls in a hundred-year-old house. You take a hammer and start by whacking through the plaster. There's about a dozen layers of paint, and then the plaster has hair and all kinds of other stuff mixed in. The plaster was slathered on wooden lath strips. So you strip out all the paint, plaster and lath and throw it in the wheelbarrow.

Once you break through all of that, you find that the walls are insulated with bricks. Yes, bricks. The outside walls are wooden siding, but between the plaster and the siding is a layer of roughly-mortared brick.

The most amazing part, however, was finding the pipes. All kinds of pipes, not for water but for gas. Yes, this house once had gas lighting in all the rooms, and the pipes are still there.

Today we look at all this and laugh. Horsehair??? Lath??? Bricks - for insulation??? Gas pipes??? Using gas for lighting seems amazingly dangerous.

I relate this story to show how easy it is to look at older technology and see the obvious problems with it. Troweling plaster on by hand was time-consuming. Mixing it with horse hair was gross. Insulating with bricks not only took a lot of time, but it did not work particularly well. And lighting with gas presented a host of hazards, from explosions to fires to asphyxiation.

Today's light switches are not quite that bad, but I think that in 20 years people will look at them with the same amusement we reserve for gas lighting.

The most amazing thing about a light switch is that it is totally, completely passive and dumb. What that means is:
  • If you lie down in bed and happen to forget to turn off the light, you have to get up again to flip the switch.

  • If you leave the room and forget to flip the switch, the light stays on regardless.

  • If you turn the light on at night but then the sun comes up 8 hours later and fills the room with sunshine, the light remains on despite the fact that it is no longer needed.
Then there is the fact that the light switch clamps across 14-gauge romex able to carry 15 amps, despite the fact that the light it controls only needs half an amp for an incandescent bulb, and only a tenth of an amp for an LED bulb. The amount of copper wasted in this way is astronomical.

Obviously what you would prefer is an intelligent switch, probably built into the light itself rather than the wall, that can understand your voice as well as the conditions in the room. If you walk into the room at night, the light turns on automatically. If you lie down and say "light off", it turns off. And so on.

The next time you get up out of your chair and walk out of your way to flip the light switch on the wall, think about how primitive a system this is. People will look back at this period in human history with the same quaint feeling that we have when we think about gas lights.


Saturday, April 16, 2005


For millions of years humans and our evolutionary ancestors have relied on plants and meat for our sustenance. At first we did the hunter/gather thing, and then we invented farming. Farming has been with us for thousands of years as one of mankind's earliest innovations.

It is safe to say that, within 50 years or so, farming as we know it today will be completely eliminated.

Just think about how sad farming is. We start with a huge piece of ground. We plow it up. We plant seeds. And then the problems begin:
  • If it gets too cold, the plants get frostbite and die
  • If it gets too hot, the plants bake and die
  • If there is too little water, the plants dehydrate and die
  • If there is too much rain, the plants drown and die
  • Plus there is the incredible length of time -- measured in months -- that it takes a plant to grow and bear fruit
  • Then there are the funguses...
  • And the diseases...
  • And the insects...
  • And the weeds...
  • And the animals (everything from mice to gophers to deer eating the crop)...
  • And the wind...
  • And the need for special pollinating insects...
  • And the fertilizer...
  • And the runoff...
  • And the seasons (you can't grow anything in the winter, for example)...
  • And the storage space (because the crop comes in at one time of year, rather than being spread out evenly over the course of the year)...
  • And so on...
In other words, farming is a total crap shoot. That is why farming will be completely replaced as soon as we have the technology to eliminate it. Farming is an insanely unreliable, slow and expensive way to create food.

What will replace farming? On the plant side, what we will have are machines that produce food. A plant is mostly glucose molecules chained together in different ways (sugar, starch and cellulose are all different variations on glucose chains). Our new machines will nano-assemble glucose molecules into any form imaginable. The basic inputs to a food machine will be electricity, water, nitrogen from the air, a trace mineral cartridge or two and a source of carbon. The carbon will either be extracted from the air or supplied in the form of oil, carbon granules or some other carbon feedstock.

On the meat side, the barbaric process that we use today will be replaced by machines that either grow (cellularly) or nano-manufacture the meat.

In 2050, people will look back at "farming" and "animal husbandry" as we practice it today in amazement. They will look upon us in the same way we look at Neanderthals killing mammoths with stone spears. Farming will look ridiculously primitive to people in 2050.

One of the funny things about farming is that we take it so completely for granted. It is like gravity -- we cannot imagine it going away. Even NASA scientists (who really should know better) are trapped in this mindset, believing that we will be farming on space stations and moon bases. For example, you see photos like this:

NASA's caption for the photo is: "When living millions of miles from Earth, you can't afford to have a bad crop! Scientists are using high-tech methods to find the right plant varieties and growing system to ensure reliable and efficient harvests." Please. See Leafy Green Astronauts for details.

Obviously we won't be doing that, because farming has so many huge problems. If there are ever human bodies in space for extended periods of time (which is itself doubtful), then these astronauts will use little machines that produce all the food they need in any form they can imagine. There will be no farming in space.


Friday, April 15, 2005

Tax Preparation

Since today is tax day, it is only appropriate to mention how Byzantine, archaic and sad the system of tax preparation is in the United States. This article says it all:

Americans Spend 6.6 Billion Hours on Taxes

From the article:
    People scurrying to meet tonight's tax deadline might consider this: It's taking you and your fellow Americans 6.6 billion hours to do all that paperwork. The basic tax return - the Form 1040 filed by most people every year - accounts for 1.6 billion hours. The Internal Revenue Service furnished those statistics to the White House budget office, which keeps tabs on the government's bureaucratic demands.
If you consider that, on average, an hour of someone's time is worth about $15 in America, then we are wasting roughly $100 billion on tax preparation every year.

When you consider that there are about 100 million households in the United States, it works out to roughly $1,000 in wasted time every year per household.

What is so interesting is that there are very simple changes that could be made to drastically reduce this number. Two of the most common ideas floating around include the flat tax (where everyone plays a flat percentage rate based on their income) and the national sales tax (where everyone is taxed whenever they buy something). Under either of these two proposals, tax preparation would simplify so dramatically for most people that the cost of tax preparation will reduce to zero.

Assuming that neither of those proposals ever gain enough momentum to pass, then it is clear that tax preparation and filing will be completely computerized within 10 to 20 years. Once cash is eliminated, every transaction where you earn or spend money will be traceable through things like credit card statements. All of this information will download automatically to computers which automatically calculate your taxes in real time, rather than once a year, meaning that the notion of "April 15" will completely evaporate.

Really, when you think about it, the notion of "one day a year when you file your taxes" goes all the way back to the age of paper forms and human beings doing all the work. As we eliminate paper forms and human beings from the process, it becomes real time. "Tax day" on April 15 is an incredible anachronism in the age of computers.

The grandkids will howl with laughter when we tell them about the hours and hours we wasted on tax returns, sitting at our little desks and kitchen tables with crude tools like calculators, paper forms, little paper scraps called "receipts" and so on. "Why," they will ask, "would you purposefully create a system that wasted such a gigantic amount of time? Why did you not instead spend all of that time and effort on something enjoyable and productive???" Why, indeed?


Thursday, April 14, 2005


Receipts are like cash -- very anachronistic and very sad in a modern society. Just look at a receipt and you can see how ridiculous it is:

A receipt is a little scrap of completely non-standardized paper. Even worse -- I paid for these two chocolate sundaes with a credit card. Why in the world did the record of this transaction not get transferred electronically to the credit card company, which would hold it so that I can view it on the web, download it or whatever? All the tools are at our disposal to completely eliminate receipts, but instead they proliferate.

Then you add to this the fact that you actually have to save these little scraps of paper for things like taxes, rebates and expense reports, and it is just nuts. We look like total idiots, hoarding these little scraps of paper because, if we do not, we are doomed. Good grief. It is time to eliminate receipts!

[PS - is there any coincidence in the fact that this rant appears the day before April 15???? Take a guess...]


Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Cash is so obviously sad in today's world that there in no need to spend much time on it. The idea that we would use little bits of metal and little scraps of paper to represent value in the 21st century is an obvious anachronism going back thousands of years. But, for the fun of it, let's list some of the disadvantages of cash:
  • Cash is easy to lose
  • Cash is easily stolen
  • Cash burns up in a fire
  • Cash is easy to counterfeit
  • Cash is easy to launder
  • Cash makes things like drug trafficking far easier by making the transactions impossible to track
  • Cash is a total pain in the neck (think back to the last time you tried to get a vending machine to accept a dollar bill)
  • Cash does not earn interest.
  • Cash takes up lots of space
  • Cash is difficult to transport (think about armored trucks)
  • And so on
We are already in the process of eliminating cash -- it's just amazing that it is taking so long given all of these disadvantages.


Sunday, April 10, 2005


Friday night I was driving in the dark to pick my mother up at the airport. There were a dozen things I needed to be doing -- books to read, reports to write, taxes to compute (april 15th is only a week away) and so on. But I could not do any of those things while driving. It struck me for the millionth time just how ridiculous driving is. I never feel more like a monkey than when I am driving a car.

Think about how ridiculous this activity is – it really is sad. I have one hand on the steering wheel. The other hand is on the gear shift lever. One foot is on the accelerator, and the other is on the clutch. My eyes are glued to the road because, if I take my eyes off the road for more than a second, the car will run into another car or plow through a pedestrian. My body is completely enslaved to the vehicle.

It is easy to imagine how the grandkids will look at driving:
    Grandkid: You mean, if you wanted to drive somewhere six hours away, you had to sit in that position for six solid hours???

    You: Yes. We considered it completely normal.

    Grandkid: Six solid hours of staring at a road to keep your car in your lane??? That's normal???

    You: Yes, at the time it was.

    Grandkid: What a total waste of time!!! What if you wanted to fall asleep or play a game?

    You: You had to have someone else drive.

    Grandkid: You have got to be kidding me!
The whole idea that we waste an hour or two of our lives every day imprisoned in the driver's seat really is nuts.

The "waste of time" factor is one reason why robots will be doing all the driving in the near future, but it is not the most compelling reason. The compelling reason for computer-driven cars is all the death and destruction that human drivers cause. In the United States today there are something like 40,000 fatal automobile accidents every year. If you drive 12,000 miles per year, your chances of dying on the road each year are about 1 in 5,000. We don't think about it, but that is a staggeringly high risk of death. The risk of injury in an accident is even higher. There are so many things that can go wrong if you take your eyes off the road for even a second.

The instant that we have reliable computers that can drive, humans will be forced out of the driver's seat because human drivers are so unreliable. That will be a very good thing. The new robotic cars will drive themselves door to door, drop off the passengers and then drive down the block to park themselves. You will be able to read or watch TV on your way to work and the car will do all the driving. There will be no reason to have a "driver's seat" and a steering wheel in these new vehicles, so the interior of a car can become much more functional -- the front seat can face the back of the car, and it can fold out into a bed. The automated cars will reduce traffic congestion, dramatically improve highway safety and make the drive to work much more comfortable.

This transition should be complete within 25 years. We will look back at all the time we wasted driving like a bad dream.


Friday, April 08, 2005


This morning I tried to post something to Blogger (the service that makes it possible for me to edit and publish SadTech). However, every time I tried to pull up Blogger, I would get this screen:

Blogger, apparently, is dead. It has been unreliable for about the last two months -- long delays, flakey behavior, database problems, etc.

But maybe it is not Blogger that is the problem. Maybe the operating system has become unstable. It has been about a day since my last reboot, and typically after 24 hours or so Windows XP starts getting squirrely like this. XP is certainly much better than Windows 98 was, but it is still remarkably unreliable. So, just in case, I try a reboot.

When I reboot, one thing that starts up automatically is Google Desktop Search. The problem I am having with Desktop Search is that, the instant it starts running, it accesses the hard disk continuously. This brings the computer to its knees. I have written to Google and received an automated reply back several days later telling me that I am delusional -- that Desktop Search works fine. I keep hoping it will magically fix itself because I really like it as a tool when it is working. But every day when I reboot, it reminds me that it is not working and I kill it off.

Maybe I need to try Firefox rather than IE. I use these two browsers interchangeably (I would use Firefox all the time except that it is more unreliable than IE). But when I try to pull Firefox up from the Start menu, I find this:

Inexplicably, Firefox has vanished. That's pretty unreliable.

Of course if it had been yesterday and I was unable to get to Blogger, that would have been a problem with Time Warner's high-speed cable connection. It has been failing about twice a week for the last month for reasons that are inexplicable. A service guy is supposed to be out today to look at the problem.

Last weekend, if I had been unable to get to Blogger it would have been because the whole machine was dead. The problem there was a hard disk failure. Hard disks are the most unreliable part of any computer system today.

When we get on the phone to call in for service, we often use our cell phones. But, for no apparent reason, we frequently get cut off during our cell phone calls. The unreliability of cell phones is legendary. So legendary, in fact, that Verizon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a huge ad campaign built around the tag line, "Can you hear me now?" The whole point of the ad campaign is to say, "Cell phones suck. They suck out loud. But use Verizon because our phones suck the least."

I think you can see the point -- we are surrounded by unreliable products. They are everywhere. You go to a park and the water fountains do not work. You try to start your car and the battery is dead. You use the toilet at the mall but it will not flush. You go to the airport for a flight but your plane takes off two hours late. And when you get to your destination they have lost your luggage. Every morning in most cities you find yourself at a dead standstill stuck in traffic. And so on. Unreliability is everywhere.

It is probably a pipe dream, but I would like to imagine that by 2050 things have gotten better. Your computer works all the time. So does your cell phone. So does your cable service. And so on. The amount of time that we waste on unreliable products today is sad.


Friday, April 01, 2005

Hard Disks

I had one of my hard disks fail over the weekend. When you open it up and look inside, you can see why -- a hard disc has lots of high-speed moving parts. There are the disks spinning at 7,200 RPM. There is the little read/write head flying over the disks just waiting to crash. There's the aluminum arm shuttling the read/write head across the disks to find the different tracks. It's amazing that engineers have made hard disks as reliable as they are given all of these moving parts, but the movement makes hard disks the most failure-prone part of any computer system.

Not only are hard disks fragile, but they are also incredibly slow compared to the rest of a modern PC. The processor is executing instructions at the nanosecond level. Meanwhile, the track-to-track seek time of a hard disk is measured at the millisecond level -- a million times slower. Which is sad.

The other thing about hard disks that we do not recognize is their "separation" from the rest of the system. Right now you have the CPU and RAM working at nanosecond levels. The CPU can access any point in RAM instantly. But if the CPU needs something from the disk, it sends a request out to the disk. Milliseconds later, the disk responds, and it sends the data back to the CPU through a wire that is itself remarkably slow.

Imagine how different things would be if RAM was cheaper and always remembered data (even with the power off). You would have the CPU intimately attached to a terabyte of non-volatile RAM. There would be no need for a hard disk (except possibly as a backup device in case of a catastrophic system failure). Instead of "waiting for an application to load" for several seconds from the hard disk, applications would load instantly. Boot times would be nearly instantaneous (if necessary at all -- the only reason to reboot if you have a reliable OS is because of a power failure).

If you look way back in time at the earliest computer systems (only 60 years or so ago...), you will find that one of the first successful storage devices was called the mercury delay line. Essentially you had a long pipe filled with mercury, and you would inject sound waves at one end of the pipe. It would take some time for the waves to propagate to the other end of the pipe, and that allowed you to store about 1,000 bits of data in a 5-foot-long pipe.

Today we look at a data storage technology like the mercury delay line and we laugh out loud. 1,000 bits??? 5-feet-long??? Mercury??? Sound waves??? Everything about it is wrong. People in 2050 will look back at our hard disks in exactly the same way.