There is nothing new under the sun…turn, turn, turn

Unintended consequences of seawater fuel – you can afford the drive to dinner, but can’t afford the dinner

Larry Rosenthal shared a Justin Rosario post about how a U.S. Navy technological advance will bring grief to evil Republicans as Big Oil gets smaller and no one cares about the Middle East any more.

But I’m not going to talk about that. First, I’m going to talk about the technological advance itself. Rosario quotes from the International Business Times:

After decades of experiments, U.S. Navy scientists believe they may have solved one of the world’s great challenges: how to turn seawater into fuel….

The new fuel is initially expected to cost around $3 to $6 per gallon, according to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which has already flown a model aircraft on it.

While the International Business Times focuses on the new technology’s application to U.S. Navy ships, Rosario speculates – correctly – that the technology could also be put to civilian use. While he looks at good things (well, good things from his perspective), it’s wise to remember that everything has unintended consequences.


Let’s assume for the moment that the technology can be expanded from military use to civilian use, and that Big Oil companies and repressive Third World dictatorships disappear overnight, and that a vast network of fueling stations appears around the world, but that the fueling stations are all run by really really nice people who pay their employees $100 an hour while providing fuel at pre-1973 prices of 10 cents a gallon.

Everybody’s happy, right?

“Mom, can we go to Red Lobster tonight?”

“No, son.”

“But Mom, the Red Lobster is only 100 miles away, and it would only cost us a dime to drive there!”

“That’s right, son, but I can’t afford to pay $1,000 for a fish dinner tonight.”

“$1,000? Why do fish dinners cost so much, Mom?”

“Because of all the barges that are going up and down the coastline, converting seawater into fuel.”

“I remember those barges, Mom. They were a lot of them. They looked pretty cool!”

“Well, son, the fish don’t like all of those barges, so they all moved to other waters, and now the fishers aren’t catching that many fish any more. So fish dinners cost a lot more today. Back when I was a kid, I could get a fish dinner for less than it cost to buy two gallons of gas.”

“A fish dinner costing less than two gallons of gas? That’s really weird, Mom.”

Visiting an art museum with Anne

This is another post inspired by something originally shared by Loren Feldman. The article from The Independent tells of an Englishwoman who chose to end her own life:

Anne told the newspaper she felt email had taken the humanity out of human interaction, and said people were “becoming robots” sat in front of screens.

She described her horror at the rows of ready-made meals on sale in supermarkets, and her fears about the environmental impact of overcrowding and pollution.

“I find myself swimming against the current, and you can’t do that,” she said. “If you can’t join them, get off.”

As I began to read the article, I was asking myself: if Anne doesn’t like certain aspects of 21st century life, she doesn’t have to participate them. She can do whatever she wants.

Or can she, when everyone else around her is immersed in 21st century life?

Let’s say that I wanted to accompany Anne, a former art teacher, to a museum. I’d probably grumble if I had to write a letter to Anne, rather than just shooting off an email. Knowing myself, I wouldn’t even send her a letter as she understands the term; since my handwriting is atrocious, I’d just type something on a word processor, find a stamp, stick it in an envelope, and mail it. I would then prepare for my museum visit by consulting numerous online sources, probably including some “for dummies” online material.

Because of a combination of factors – these online inclinations, my cultural background, and my personality – I would treat the trip to the art museum as a goal to be accomplished. Prepare for trip. Check. Meet art expert. Check. Acquire knowledge from art expert. Check.

I obviously never knew Anne, but I suspect that her thoughts of a trip to an art museum would include the verb “savor.”

And I don’t mean “Savor. Check.”

Some of this has nothing to do with the technological revolution, but it all illustrates how we make assumptions about how society should be. You should have a smartphone. You should have an online presence. You should believe certain things if you want to work at certain places.

Farewell, Anne.

Office on iPad – two thoughts

Loren Feldman shared a link to a New York Times article about the availability of Microsoft Office on the iPad.

My first reaction was to something the Times said:

Microsoft introduced the long-awaited suite of applications, which includes Word, PowerPoint and Excel, at an event here Thursday, where the company’s new chief executive, Satya Nadella, committed to making the software work on all major computing devices, including those made by its competitors. Microsoft plans to create Office apps for tablet computers running Google’s Android operating system, too.

To some, the move is a refreshing sign of a new Microsoft, one slowly unshackling itself from an era when its major decisions were made in deference to Windows, Microsoft’s operating system. But skeptics wonder if Microsoft has waited too long, giving people who use iPads, especially business professionals, years to get used to life without it and giving an opening to start-ups and Apple’s competing products.

The tenor of the article suggested that Microsoft was doing something new.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Unlike Apple, who enforced an “Apple only” mindset until reluctantly making iTunes available for Windows, Microsoft has consistently provided products for non-Microsoft platforms. In fact, when the Macintosh was introduced in 1984, one of the featured vendors was…Microsoft.

My second reaction was based upon Loren Feldman’s reaction to the idea of leading vendors offering subscription services – or, in Feldman’s words, “[p]aying to edit a doc.” This prompted me to add a comment that reflected what I’ve been saying in this blog (and others) for years, and to offer one of my extremely accurate (or extremely inaccurate) predictions. My comment:

I strongly believe in a pendulum model in which we’ve bounced between centralized and decentralized computing over the last few decades. We’re obviously in a centralized mode now, with cloud computing all the rage and with our mobile device applications (such as Siri) heavily dependent upon centralized servers somewhere else.

Subscription models can work well in such an environment, and are obviously lucrative for the companies.

But there’s always a chance that users, spooked by the NSA and tired of the Big Data Suckers, may suddenly decide that they’d prefer to have apps and data on their own servers, under their own control, with no Amazon or Apple or Facebook or Google sticking their noses in it.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that in the next few years there will be a lot of rain on the cloud parade.

Pong was just a training exercise. It trained the entire video game industry.

I’m sure that younger people stare in disbelief when they see the computer game Pong for the first time. “That’s it?” they probably say to themselves. Compared to modern games, or even 1980s games such as PacMan, Pong is one of the most boring games in history. Yet this game not only changed the company Atari, but it created an entire videogame industry.

According to ponggame.org, Atari’s original mandate was to create games for other companies. Along the way, one employee, Allan Alcorn, created Pong as a training exercise. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell made a few tweaks and put the game in a bar. The success of the game at the bar (yes, alcohol was involved in the creation of Pong) convinced Bushnell that Atari should manufacture the game itself, rather than licensing it out.

By the time Pong’s run had ended several years later, Atari had not only sold 35,000 Pong machines, but had also sold 150,000 units to the home market.

Today, the Pong Game is considered to be the game which started the video games industry, as it proved that the video games market can produce significant revenues.

If you want to experience Pong for yourself, go here. Your computer should probably be able to handle the game’s technical demands.

Are we more vulnerable than the Ingalls family on the prairie?

The Ingalls family, immortalized in a series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, had it rough. If a disaster struck the family during a long winter, they couldn’t just dial up 911 and get relief. If one of the Ingalls kids was going blind, they couldn’t consult WebMD or Skype the Mayo Clinic.

But they did have advantages over us.

If they were sitting at home one night, reading, they didn’t have to worry about a virus sweeping through the home and stealing everything that they – and their neighbors – own. But we have to worry about such things.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool have shown for the first time that WiFi networks can be infected with a virus that can move through densely populated areas as efficiently as the common cold spreads between humans.

The team designed and simulated an attack by a virus, called Chameleon, and found that not only could it spread quickly between homes and businesses, but it was able to avoid detection and identify the points at which WiFi access is least protected by encryption and passwords.

And while the Ingalls family could be snowed in, or perhaps blown away by a tornado, they wouldn’t necessarily have to deal with a geomagnetic storm that could cripple millions of people:

Geomagnetic storms can occur with little warning. The worst geomagnetic storms are the result of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) in which billions of tons of highly charged particles from the sun’s surface shoot into space toward the Earth and disrupt the Earth’s magnetic field. A geomagnetic storm would reach Earth between fourteen and ninety-six hours, leaving little time to safeguard critical infrastructure after a CME has been detected. NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite, located a million miles from Earth, can give a 30-minutes first-warning on the severity of an incoming geomagnetic storm.

A geomagnetic storm disrupts the Earth’s magnetic field by producing geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) on the Earth’s surface, which can enter the power grid at transformer stations and move along power lines, disrupting normal operations. Wild fluctuations in voltage across power lines could cause power failure as relays try to isolate vulnerable equipment. High-voltage transformers could become overloaded and overheat, leading to permanent damage. Old high-voltage transformers nearing the end of their service lives are most vulnerable.

“Pa, the geomagnetic storm’s coming in! Secure the candles!”

“I can’t do that right now, Ma. I have to go down to the bank and find out why all our money is in China!”

April 4, 1841 – the medical and political ramifications

I recently discovered a blog called Dead Presidents when I discovered Anthony Bergen’s review of Thomas DeFrank’s book about Gerald Ford. In addition to regular posts, Bergen has written several essays over the years.

The first of these essays is entitled April 4, 1841. As Bergen notes, this is one of the most significant dates in U.S. history.

To understand the significance of April 4, 1841, you have to go back to March 4, 1841. It was inauguration day (the date wasn’t changed until the 20th century), and President William Henry Harrison was being inaugurated. He gave an inauguration speech – a LONG inauguration speech – without wearing a hat or an overcoat.

Bergen then points out what happened next. To understand this, think of a modern President. After the speech and a parade, the modern President retires to the White House, and for the next four (or eight) years, the President is shielded from the public. Not so in 1841:

What we do know is that the crush of office-seekers that all 19th-century Presidents faced during their terms exhausted the new President…

Between the exposure to the cold, the crush of office-seekers, and a subsequent downpour, the 68 year old President got pneumonia. But even then, he couldn’t get relief:

[T]he normally healthy 68-year-old President was bedridden and trying to find a quiet place within the noisy, busy, lightly-guarded White House so that he could get some rest.

Nowadays, they haul the President to Walter Reed if he’s that sick. Harrison, however, remained in the White House.

Still, the flocks of office-seekers continued barraging the White House and the new President with applications, and attempted to get past the worried doctors and feverishly worried family members in order to earn an audience with Harrison. At one point, President Harrison reportedly sighed, “These applications, will they never cease?”

On April 4, one month after his inauguration, Harrison was dead. And then the turmoil REALLY began.

Sadly, we’ve become used to having Presidents die in office, and Vice Presidents taking over. But in 1841, this had never happened before. We didn’t even know what a Vice President should be called if a President died, much less what a Vice President should do. To see how Vice President John Tyler responded to this challenge, read Bergen’s post.

A postscript – in an ironic twist, John Tyler – the man who strengthened the United States government in ways he never imagined – was subsequently elected to the Confederate States House of Representatives. He died before taking office, and therefore was not around when Andrew Johnson became President of the United States in 1865.

Unintended consequences – how the Cold War unearthed an art forgery

The “Cold War” in the second half of the twentieth century gave us more than the fitting acronym MAD (which stood for mutually assured destruction). It also gave us something known as the “bomb peak.” Agence France Press explains:

The “bomb peak” is based on radiocarbon levels released during a series of nuclear tests conducted during the Cold War, after 1955.

One of the secondary effects of these was an enormous increase in the level of radiocarbon (C-14) in the earth’s atmosphere, the [Institute for Nuclear Physicists] said.

These levels peaked towards the mid-sixties and then fell again with the signing of various international treaties banning nuclear weapons tests.

“Scientists call this phenomenon the ‘bomb peak’. As the level of radiocarbon in the atmosphere increased, it also increased at a corresponding rate in all living organisms….”

While it’s nice to know that we don’t have to worry about huge amounts of radiocarbon in the atmosphwere any more, it also turns out that this has helped to settle a mystery in the art world. Fernand Leger was a French artist who, among other things, painted a series of paintings known as the “Contraste de Formes” series. These were painted in the 1913-1914 period. An art collection in Venice – specifically, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection – acquired one of these paintings. Or did it? There was some question about whether the painting was an authentic Leger work.

But let’s go back to the “bomb peak.” Remember how it affected “all living organisms”? That also includes the plants that were used to make art canvases.

Enter the Italian nuclear physicists, who examined an unpainted portion of the canvas and determined that it was produced after 1959. Since artist Fernand Leger died in 1955, this made it extremely unlikely that he had painted the picture in question.

I don’t believe that Eisenhower or Khrushchev were thinking about art authenticity when they conducted nuclear tests, but their work helped to solve an art mystery.

Live from Stamford, it’s the Sochi Olympics!

Remember my post from last month that predicted a time when the only people at a sporting event would be the players?

That time may be closer than we think.

Of course, the idea that EVERYONE has to be at a sporting event is a relatively new concept. Back in the days that Ronald Reagan was a radio baseball announcer, he and his fellow announcers often broadcast games from a studio, heavily dependent upon a stream of information from Western Union.

That offended modern sensibilities, and companies subsequently insisted that their announcers actually attend the games that they were broadcasting. And they did; during Monday Night Football’s heyday, the arrival of Gifford, Cosell, and Meredith in an NFL city was regarding as the circus coming to town.

But now, the pendulum is swinging back a bit.

If you live outside of Los Angeles, you may think that Petros Papadakis and Matt “Money” Smith have disappeared from the radio entirely. The truth is, however, that their show – initially local, then national – has gone local again. And on Thursday’s local show, Papadakis was talking about his Sunday night television partner, Fred Roggin, who had left Los Angeles to cover the Olympics. But Roggin hadn’t gone to Sochi, Russia – he had gone to Stamford, Connecticut.

Roggin, however, is a host, and hosts are usually broadcasting from some studio or another. It’s not like the Sochi Olympic play-by-play announcers were going to be in faraway Connecticut, would they?

Well, actually…

“We have a team in Stamford that will be grabbing event highlights, interviews with athletes, medals ceremonies, feature stories, amazing finishes,” [NBC Sports editorial VP Tom] Seeley said. “They will produce about 100 clips a day, long-form replays plus short-form clips of three to five minutes.”

It also means curling coverage, live from Russia and Stamford….

During curling competition in Sochi, video “will be coming to Stamford over digital paths,” [NBC Sports engineering VP Tim] Canary said. “The matches will come with natural sound, but the voicing will be done in Stamford. We will put curling experts in an announce booth and they will do play-by-play. So viewers will be hearing a call done in Stamford for a match being played in Russia.”

Unfortunately, these announcers will not be supported by Western Union.

When knowledge expands

A recent Mel Kleiman post began as follows:

Human knowledge is now doubling every 3.7 years. This means 50 percent of what you now know will be out of date in less than four years.

Let’s focus on the second word of that post. When Kleiman says that knowledge is doubling, is his definition of “knowledge” equivalent to my own?

To clarify, I have consistently used a four-step model from Sujatha Das that discusses data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Clearly data is always expanding, but is actual knowledge expanding?

Based upon Kleiman’s example, I suspect that we are using the same definition of knowledge.

Just to bring it home, let’s imagine you need open heart surgery. How would you like to have it performed by someone who hadn’t learned anything new about the procedure in the past 48 months?

Open heart surgery requires knowledge. (But it also requires wisdom.)

If knowledge is truly doubling that quickly, this has significant ramifications for how things are done – and, as Kleiman notes, who we get to do these things.

An uncomfortable paragraph

Nathan Rabin has written an essay that begins with the following paragraph:

The blond, slight, hockey-obsessed Canadian teenager flirts outrageously with the camera, knowing full well that it is his greatest friend and professional asset. The young man is not just handsome, he’s downright pretty, with a delicate, androgynous beauty that drives the teenyboppers crazy but also, uncomfortably, makes him an object of erotic desire for adults as well. He’s still several years away from being able to drink legally in his adopted country of the United States but he looks much, much younger, less like a late teenager on the cusp of manhood than a boyishly handsome middle-aged lesbian.

Rabin’s essay was posted after Justin Bieber was arrested in Miami on multiple charges.

But the first paragraph (and the following one) are not about Bieber.

They are about Corey Haim, circa 1989.

Haim died 20 years after the completion of his film Me, Myself, and I – filmed after what turned out to be the first of many stints in rehab.

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