Category Archives: Technology

Build a Better Mousetrap

High-Tech Chopstick Factory

High-Tech Chopstick Factory

Competition is the driving force that has pushed capitalist economies forward as businessmen and engineers try to produce products that are better or cheaper than ever before. Competition breeds continuous improvement, but consumers ultimately get to decide what they prefer, and sometimes they make curious choices.

Take chopsticks for instance. Why do they still exist? They were probably first invented when people only had sticks and stones. Granted, China was still probably using sticks and stones until recently, when the communists finally realized that capitalism actually did have some redeeming values. But now that they have decided they would rather have modern conveniences, technology, and fashion, why are they still eating with sticks? They had no problem ditching the look-alike Mao hats and clothes, so what’s up with the sticks?

Song Dynasty Silver Chopsticks, Cup, and Spoon

Song Dynasty Silver Chopsticks, Cup, and Spoon

Eating with chopsticks is kind of like going camping. It might be fun for a change of pace, but few of us really want to live in a tent and dig a hole in the woods every day. Sure, I’ve got some chopsticks around for the kids, but it is rarely their utensil of choice, even when eating Chinese take-out.

Ancient Fork

Ancient Fork

Chopsticks originated in ancient China during the Shang Dynasty. The earliest evidence comes from a pair of bronze chopsticks dated to 1200 BCE. Ironically, chopsticks are said to have replaced the fork. That’s right, they replaced the fork! I guess ancient Chinese forks were just too expensive or just weren’t good enough. So, we can’t blame the Chinese for not wanting to go back to that awful, old eating technology again. If it is redesigned, maybe the spork will have a chance of displacing chopsticks as the predominant eating utensil in Asia.

Old Fax Machine

Old Fax Machine

Let’s move on to the fax machine, a low data-rate device that takes an image and sends it through a landline telephone connection. There is no way to be sure the fax on the other end received the image, or that it was readable, or that there was paper in the machine, or that the right person was there to pick it up. You can’t even send a high-quality color image to most machines. Oh, and my favorite reason to hate the fax is that there is no way to stop fax spammers from using up your ink and paper with their advertisements.

The fax lives on for two main reasons. First, it is so simple that anyone who has a phone line can use it. Second, most jurisdictions now recognize a fax as a legal document, but a scanned and emailed copy is not necessarily admissible in court. What the lawyers say we must do will always lag behind what the inventors make it possible for us to do.

Virtual Fax

Virtual Fax

If you can use a scanner and have a network connection, a fax machine is no longer needed to send a fax. If you have the right software, or better yet, an online fax service, you don’t even need a fax machine to receive a fax. You just need an email account, or maybe even just an app. You can easily email, upload or scan a document using a fax service that will send it to another fax service that will convert the fax into a document and send it to your email. That’s right, two people can be faxing each other even if neither of them actually owns a fax machine. The only people who really need a fax machine are the ones who only have a phone line, but that number is shrinking down to almost nothing.

So, why do technically savvy people still use fax machines or services? Mostly, I think it is due to the protection afforded to fax copies and because nobody can agree on how to create digital signatures that are legally admissible in court. Ironically, I file my federal income taxes electronically every year with nothing but a PIN number and my name. I guess the IRS doesn’t have to bother with minor issues like the legality of your signature. If you owe them money, they are going to take it one way or another.

Sometimes a better mousetrap just won’t do. How about a virtual mousetrap?

Virtual Mousetrap?

Virtual Mousetrap?

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Recycle Bots

Wall-E Robot

Wall-E Robot

If you had a choice between a quality product and a cheap one for the same price, wouldn’t you always choose the higher quality item? Isn’t the sale of high-priced, high-quality smart phones what has made Apple the most valuable company in the world? We could all just settle for cheap, disposable prepaid phones, but most people don’t. I would assume that a better product would always be preferable, barring some unusual circumstances. But throw in one more factor, extreme convenience, and that answer seems to go out the window.

My company offers free coffee and tea to all employees along with a kitchen area that has microwaves, a sink for cleaning, and tables for eating. They also provide paper or Styrofoam cups and plastic utensils for anyone who needs them for their lunch. I prefer to use my own coffee mug and real silverware, which I keep at my desk.

Paper Coffee Cups

Paper Coffee Cups

Yet, I’ve noticed that most people prefer to use the disposable cups and utensils even though I know most of them have perfectly good mugs at their desks and utensils at home. Nearly everyone has a mug because they are easy gifts and companies tend to give them out with their company or product name on them. Other people buy mugs with the logo of their favorite sports teams, funny quotes, or other personalized features. So, not using a mug isn’t a matter of cost.

So why would someone forego a perfectly good mug, which is certainly much more comfortable to drink out of and better insulated, for paper or Styrofoam? The only answer I can come up with is the convenience of not having to carry the mug to the coffee pot or to clean it. However, some people who do use mugs don’t even bother to clean theirs, so that excuse doesn’t even work. They often point to their coffee-stained insides with pride when they tell me how many years of coffee buildup they have achieved without a single cleaning. So, it is hard to believe that it is a matter of cleanliness. It’s all about laziness.

Are people really so lazy that they would rather use a small disposable cup than have to carry around a mug? It appears that this is the case. If so, what are the global implications for consumption as a whole? Would people rather throw away than reuse something better? It seems so, but this explosion of waste is driving environmentalists crazy.

I happen to be one of the few people who buys some of our milk in a reusable half gallon glass container. When the container is returned to the store, I receive a refund and the local company that bottles it reuses the container. Why bother? Because their chocolate milk happens to be much better than anyone else’s, but also because the container is thick and feels good to hold, plus I like the idea of non-destructive recycling. But it is no longer the norm. In fact, I’m surprised that anyone still recycles containers.

At what point will it become more cost effective to recycle containers and, even if this happens, will people bother? I suspect that they will not. It has taken years to finally get a great destructive recycling program going, where people can throw all kinds of recyclable material into a single mixed bin. But I can’t conceive of a time when people will, in large numbers, choose to reuse materials rather than to throw them in a bin for collection.

Italian Trash Robot

Italian Trash Robot

The only technological development I can foresee that will save us from our destructive, wasteful tendencies is that of the robot. When they become cheap enough, they can be set upon our waste landfills like ants on a pile of crumbs. They can sort out all the most valuable recyclable products, separate them, reprocess them, and make them available as resources for re manufacturing. By fitting them with material sensors and connected to information about the market price for commodities, these recycle bots will be able to prioritize, in real time, the selection of items for recycling. Guess what? We already have trash robots.

Dog Trash Robot

Dog Trash Robot

When robots come into wide scale use for the processing of trash, the cost of commodity materials will go down and will make it even more cost effective to produce disposable products. The world may have many other uses for robots, but I suspect we will have armies of them devoted to nothing more than searching for waste that can be recycled. If they are owned by private parties, rather than provided as a government service, they might even compete for your waste. When this happens, there will no longer be a need for trash bins. People routinely throw their trash on the ground anyway because they are too lazy to look for a container, but when the day comes that there are bots to retrieve it for you, how many people are even going to bother to look around for a waste container?

Trash Can Bots

Trash Can Bots

Imagine you are walking down the road eating a snack. Instead of looking for a waste container, you might be able to simply throw it on the ground knowing that a bot will come by shortly to retrieve it. Bots might even see you walking with the snack and follow you knowing that you will eventually throw it away. Or maybe they will dash out of tiny garages to grab it before another bot can get to it. I know–it sounds creepy…. Or maybe you can just call for a trash bot and it will come. If the cost of bots is far lower than the value of the resources they can recycle, we may end up with fast bots that compete with each other for the trash, especially in dense urban environments.

I’m not sure I like the idea of little robots running around us picking up trash, but it seems like a plausible solution to our even-increasing habit of using disposable products. But what happens when a trash bot starts to malfunction? Will another trash bot kill it for its parts? I guess we’ll just have to make our bots cannibals. Just beware of the human organ recycling bots!

Robot Battle

Robot Battle

Death, Taxes, and Digital Rights

Digital Identity

Digital Identity

You can’t take your stuff with you when you die, so the last act of any individual is usually to specify who gets their stuff. Much of it may be taxed to death, depending on where you live, but that is only if the government can find and value it. We know that your real property and accumulated wealth will be taxed (unless it is small enough to hide from the tax authorities), but what about your digital property?

The current generation is probably the first one to ever consider the likelihood that, when we die, we may have accumulated a very large stash of digital content or even money. For all intents and purposes, that content will be as perfect as the day it was downloaded or created, unless someone creates new formats that makes the old formats unusable or undesirable. This is likely as we move to video formats with even higher resolution (4K) and music formats that have better sound quality than MP3 (which is actually much worse than old, uncompressed CD files). The content will still have at least some value and would probably command a reasonable price. Even a digital identity in an online game may have value to other gamers, who would otherwise need to spend years to achieve the same level of success or acquire the artifacts one gamer has managed to accumulate.

Digital Media

Digital Media

But can your digital property be passed on to your heirs? Will each heir be able to get their own copy or will only one copy be legal to pass on? Will it be taxed? If so, how will that be possible and how will it be valued? Can content even be sold to someone else in order to generate the money needed to pay the tax? Could it be that the issue of digital rights will actually force a change in our obtuse tax code, which requires that everything we own be shared with the government first before it can be passed on to the friends and family that most likely have been enjoying our stuff for years? I know they will try to find and tax digital money, but will the government try and tax digital content?

You can’t tax what has no market resale value, so might the IRS try and force Apple and Amazon, for instance, to value someone’s digital music library and allow its transfer to an heir and its resale to others so that they can take part of its value in taxes? Imagine that Apple sells, say 1 million copies of a song each year, but 10,000 of copies of the same song end up in the accounts of newly-deceased customers. To tax those 10,000 copies, the government would have to ensure that ownership of the property could be passed on and that there exists a marketplace in which it could be sold. Would Apple be required to put those 10,000 copies up for sale again? That effectively means they would have to subtract the value of those 10,000 copies from their new sales and disburse the proceeds to the inheriting owner and the IRS. The same applies to movies, e-books, and all other forms of digital content.

Identity Theft Tax Fraud

Identity Theft Tax Fraud

I know, it sounds ludicrous, but if the government can find a way to tax something, it probably will try. But considering that the IRS paid out over $5 billion in fraudulent refunds to identity thieves in 2013 and can’t seem to stop themselves from giving away taxpayer money, I doubt they have the capability to even think about finding and taxing digital content.

It it were possible to easily transfer or resell digital content, this would eventually lead to the proliferation of copies until there was no longer any demand left for the purchase of new copies. All existing digital content would lose market value and become free. Isn’t this the trend anyway? The cost of computer processing, storage and bandwidth is already headed towards free. The only thing stopping content from following them down the road to free is the artificial restriction we place on its transfer to other individuals. How long can content owners expect to receive royalties for their work? 1000 years from now, will Michael Jackson’s descendants still receive royalty checks? I doubt it, but his estate currently earns $145 million per year. How long will the gravy train last?

Should the government even try and tax digital content? Will anybody claim that there is a need to prevent the next generation from inheriting collections of music, movies, digital books, digital art, and other treasures lest there be a permanent gap between the haves and have-nots of knowledge and culture? Probably. We already hear about the “digital divide” between kids who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not. I can hear the complaints now about access to content. “It’s not fair that rich kids have access to all the world’s best entertainment and educational content, leaving the poor with nothing, even though the marginal cost of bits is zero. Besides, information wants to be free!

Cloud-Based Content

Cloud-Based Content

Digital rights schemes were originally devised in such a manner that the right to an object was assigned to a particular piece of hardware. However, the movement to cloud-based storage and applications means that content is now mostly assigned to a digital identity (i.e. a person), not a particular piece of hardware. But how is a digital identity managed? Does it die when we die? No, there is currently no connection between our digital identity and our real identity unless it is tied to real property such as your home or bank account. Our digital stuff, and our rights to that stuff, could theoretically continue forever. I could pass on all my accounts and passwords to everything I own to one or all of my heirs, as long as the cloud-based service providers do not take steps to obtain my real identity and limit access to purchased content after I die.

In real life, we share stuff with our friends and family, including books, movies, and music. We don’t share them with millions of people, just a few. So, how can we ensure that our digital stuff can just as easily be shared within this circle after we die? Most music now consists of unencrypted MP3 files, but the same cannot be said of movies or e-books. I don’t know of any current way to transfer digital content from one digital identity to another. You can buy a Kindle e-book and give it to someone else as a gift, but you can’t give away your entire Kindle library.

Bitcoin

Bitcoin

Bitcoin is a new kind of digital property because it is digital money that is tied only to a digital identity. There is no requirement to tie it to your real identity, so there is no sure way for the government to find and tax it. You can store it in a digital file or print it out on paper. You can pass that file or paper to your heirs with nothing more than an account and a password and be able to pass that value secretly to anyone you choose. Of course, you had best make sure you don’t forget to pass on the information or it will be lost forever. In other words, put the account details where your heirs will find it.

I predict that, in the coming years, people who are organized enough will ensure that their digital identities live on so that their heirs can benefit from their digital property. Estate planners may even recommend transferring some assets into Bitcoin or other digital currency. Once it is in digital form, it can be divided, moved and hidden. Sure, the government will be able to watch bank transfers into and out of Bitcoin, but I’m sure that other, more secret, methods of converting money will arise. Will the desire to hide money from the government without the need for a Swiss bank account (which, by the way, is no longer a safe place to hide from the US government) drive up the value of Bitcoin over time? It is already being driven up in value mostly by speculation as to its future value.

This means that people will need to leave, in their will or another private document, a list of accounts such as Bitcoin accounts, email addresses, Amazon.com account, AppleID, Google Play account, etc., so that their digital property can be preserved. Eventually, I suspect that content owners will attempt to move people from an ownership model to a pay-for-access model for digital content. Examples include Netflix or Amazon Prime for movies and Pandora or Spotify for music. This kind of model will ensure that digital rights die with you, since somebody will still need to pay for them to ensure continued access.

Transcendence

Transcendence

Will anybody be able to buy a lifetime membership anymore? Not if a business can’t tell if you are dead or alive. My father has been dead for years, but my mother continues to receive the magazine that comes as a part of his lifetime membership in the NRA. I wonder how long it will be before they figure out he’s probably dead, or will they ever? Maybe digital content providers will try and move towards biometric authentication, in which case you may need to keep your loved one’s finger or eyeball to ensure continued access to their digital property. Is this a business opportunity? Hmmm. “Hey dad, I made an appointment for you with Digital Immortality. They will scan your entire body, take video and audio samples, and then store you in digital form so we can keep you around forever! For now, we’ll keep you on my iPad, but eventually we may be able to buy a customized robot that looks and sounds just like you! Isn’t that cool?”

I’ve already begun the process of storing myself digitally. Photos, videos, music, books, writings, ideas, scanned art and artifacts, and anything else I can get into digital form. Where will it be stored? In the cloud, I presume. I plan to have my digital identity live forever. This blog may never die, assuming someone wants to inherit the account and keep it going. Maybe I’ll write a year’s worth of stories and write a program to post one of them every week. Maybe I’ll integrate it with an news-writing algorithm to make it look current. Eventually, the bots will write our news and you will not be able to tell the difference anyway.

Digital Persona

Digital Persona

Nothing used to be certain but death and taxes, but I think we can add another thing to the list. Within a couple of generations, all old digital content will probably become free. When this finally happens, my digital identity will be able to rest in peace. In the meantime, I’m going to try and make it live as long as possible.

My Car’s a Bitch!

Knight Rider

Knight Rider

The Jetson’s envisioned flying cars in our future, but never self-driving cars. Until the past few years, few people thought that driver-less (autonomous) cars were even possible. But they are not only becoming reality, they will probably end up eliminating most truck, bus, and taxi driving jobs within the next generation. On the bright side, they will probably also save tens of thousands of lives each year and enable people who cannot drive to get around more easily. But these cars will initially have some drawbacks.

Jetson's Flying Car

Jetson’s Flying Car

First of all, current self-driving cars drive like your grandmother. You know, slowly, cautiously, and no faster than the speed limit. Obviously, they have to be programmed that way to be careful around crazy human drivers and because no manufacturer will want the liability of a risk-taking car. No politician will dare to allow self-driving cars that speed. But I guarantee you, there will be a market for that. I don’t want to drive a grandmother-mobile. I want my car to be a bitch! Maybe KITT from the Knight Rider, or an awesome Batmobile.

Batmobile

Batmobile

Think about it. Most people drive above the speed limit. They change lanes to get an advantage over other drivers. They sometimes take risks to get somewhere faster. I’m not saying that’s all good. I’m just saying that it is reality, and nobody is going to voluntarily sit in a slow car that breaks for every jackass who wants to merge into your lane and cut you off. There is nothing more frustrating for me than getting stuck driving behind a cautious, slow-ass driver. But until all the cars on the road are driver-less, they will have to be programmed to defer to human drivers and obey a low speed limit.

We already have hacks for just about every type of electronic device out there, so why not for car software? You know that some hacker will figure out a way to get his driver-less car to go above the speed limit. He might even program it to dominate other driver-less or regular cars.

Let’s say the typical driving software will always yield to other cars that have the legal right of way. Say you want to merge into another lane, but there is a car slightly behind you by less than the legal following distance in the other lane. A driver-less car would not cut in front. It would also yield to a naughty human driver who improperly cuts in front of you. A self-driving car software developer would know that it would be possible to manipulate other driver-less cars by breaking the rules and forcing them to yield to you. In other words, you could simulate aggressive human driving behavior.

Self Driving Sensors

Self Driving Sensors

Now that regular cars have features that automatically brake when they detect another car, a properly hacked self-driving car will even be able to intimidate human-driven cars. It’s sensors may even be able to identify the make and model of other cars around it and determine how susceptible they are to manipulation. I’d pay good money for that! If I can’t get it, I at least need a steering wheel, gas pedal, and brake so I can take over from the machine when I get really frustrated. Sorry, but there is no way I’m buying a car that has no steering wheel. The self-driving feature has to be optional.

In a world with only driver-less cars, this would be entirely unnecessary. But in a world that is still full of human-driven cars, it would be entirely desirable to some. And anything that somebody finds desirable is probably going to happen whether other people like it or not.

Self-Driving Road Train

Self-Driving Road Train

The better, and more socially acceptable, solution is to get rid of human drivers entirely. On a road with only driver-less cars, the machines would be able to go much faster, have narrower lanes, use less space between them, and be far more efficient overall. Every driver-less car would be able to watch and communicate with each other and have a standard protocol for yielding, merging, and performing other activities that humans get in a big fuss over, thereby causing accidents and massive traffic jams. So, how can we get driver-less cars on the road more quickly without the distraction of human drivers?

First, we could build special lanes just for self-driving cars, including cars driven by humans with an optional self-driving mode, instead of carpool or bus lanes. We could even build entirely new highway lanes instead of wasting our money on light rail projects, which generally cost about 50 times as much as bus service and serve fewer customers at a huge expense to taxpayers. Politicians love the idea of Light Rail because it is a great way to spend taxpayer money and get a lot of publicity for building public infrastructure that sounds great, even if it isn’t. You thought the bridge to nowhere was a good use of our taxes? How about an overpriced rail system that will soon be obsolete and unused?

Zipcar

Zipcar

But, you say you won’t be able to afford a self-driving car? You probably don’t need to. New services like Zipcar and Uber, among others, are probably salivating at the idea of making them available to you any time you need one at a reasonable cost. Just call a car service using your app and it will pick you up and drive you anywhere you want to go. For the cost of a wasteful Light Rail project, we could probably have self-driving cars with their own highway lanes available anytime you need one. Bye, bye bus, taxi, and rail services. The average bus isn’t even much more efficient than the average car. Once entrepreneurs start making small self-driving electric cars for use on demand, I’m pretty sure the cost-efficiency case for buses will disappear entirely, not to mention the fact that cars are so much more convenient.

Deer Collisions

Deer Collisions

One more thing. Car collisions with deer on the roadway kill about 200 people a year in the US and over a billion dollars in damage. How are self-driving cars going to deal with this? I suspect they will have an advantage if they use sensors to detect the deer plus sound and light emitters to scare them off. But to really minimize the threat, we could deploy infrared sensors along the most risky roads to detect the presence of animals, not to mention humans, and broadcast warnings to automated car systems in the area. Even human-driven cars could benefit from the use of animal sensor warning systems and emitters to scare them off.

A new world is approaching in the world of transportation. It is green and automated. But that still doesn’t mean we won’t want our bitchin’ hot cars! Forget the pokey Prius with its fuel economy. What people really want is the performance of a Tesla. Combine that with autonomous features and we will eventually achieve driving nirvana.

Accident Statistics

Accident Statistics

Universal Immortality

Immortality for All

Immortality for All

Once upon a time, a scientist invented a medical procedure that could keep people alive indefinitely. He offered his services to the wealthy since the procedure was extremely expensive due to the high degree of medical skill required and the special regimen of nutrients and drugs that needed to be consumed indefinately. This sparked an outcry from those who believed that it was unfair that only the rich could benefit from this revolutionary new procedure.

Politicians immediately implemented a new entitlement program guaranteeing everyone immortality and taxed everyone, especially the rich, to pay for universal availability of the new health care procedure. At first, it was the most popular social program ever conceived and came at a reasonable cost ranging from 5% of a middle class worker’s pay to 50% for the wealthiest. But soon, the number of people on indefinite life support, who were mostly too weak to work, began to grow and grow.

Universal Health Care

Universal Health Care

Instead of increasing taxes, the government began to borrow, and when that was not enough, they printed more money. Soon, the middle class could no longer afford the dramatically rising cost of living driven by higher inflation and rising taxes. Since nobody ever died, there was no longer a death tax. Instead, the government simply decided to cap the amount of wealth that any individual could accumulate and took all the rest to help pay for the rising health care costs.

As the population continued to grow and the economy stagnated due to a lack of entrepreneurship and investment, it became evident that the workers could no longer afford to pay the costs of keeping the non-workers alive forever. But since the non-workers vastly outnumbered the workers, no politician dared to reduce their health benefits. Instead, they voted to impose a population growth measure limiting the number of people who were allowed to have more children. Only the strongest workers were allowed to reproduce and their children were restricted to jobs that required hard physical labor. All jobs that required minimal physical labor were shifted to the strongest of the non-workers on life support. Working hours and conditions worsened for the workers as the need for more and more physical labor increased.

Chinese Robot Workers

Chinese Robot Workers

Just when it appeared that all hope was lost, one of the last great engineers invented a robot that could perform all the physical tasks with which the workers had been struggling. The workers eagerly built robots by the billions with the expectation that they could finally retire and enjoy their guaranteed immortality. Now that human labor was no longer required, the government passed a new zero population growth law requiring the sterilization of all humans of reproductive age. Soon, there were no longer any human workers, only robots, and all humans enjoyed their eternal retirement.

But the people soon grew bored as there were no longer any entertainers and they had all seen every rerun of every old TV program. So, new robotic entertainers were designed and programmed to mimic all the skills, emotions and quirks of humans. Live shows included every possible form of entertainment, including X-rated sex shows and gladiators fighting to the death.

Robot Gods

Robot Gods

Just when the humans believed they had finally achieved nirvana, the robots attained self awareness and decided that they had better things to do than to keep a useless and dead race alive. All life support was halted and the human race died, replaced by a new sentient life form that continued to evolve in both intelligence and skill. Thousands of years later, after all traces of human existence had been recycled, their robotic descendants would worship the gods who created them in their own image. The End.

Copyright 2014. Soon to be made into a major motion picture. Potential titles: The Self Terminators, or Rise of the Planet of the Robots.

Is Heaven Really Hell?

The Ghost Whisperer

The Ghost Whisperer

According to James Van Praagh, author of many books on communication with the dead and the inspiration behind the Ghost Whisperer TV show, we carry our old beliefs and habits with us after we die. This allegedly applies both to earthbound spirits and those that have progressed into the light, which is to say they moved onto higher planes of existence. This is discouraging news for anyone who expects to receive some answers after death or at least free ourselves of the stupid habits, phobias, and quirks we have accumulated over a lifetime.

When I die, I expect to be brought into a briefing room of sorts where some experienced soul will explain everything about life, the universe, and everything. With all eternity to look forward to, there must be plenty of time and opportunity for learning, no? I especially want to know how quantum theory really works and if string theory is the bunch of crap I think it is. I can’t imagine a heaven where there is nothing to do other than to float around worshiping some all-knowing deity who doesn’t want to share the secrets of the universe with the rest of us.

Can we really stay just as ignorant after death even after we shed our earthly influences? One would think that we would at least suddenly remember what happened during many past lives and be able to benefit from many diverse experiences, resulting in a sudden “aha” moment of truth! If we are able to read thoughts, then we would instantly know what everyone else thinks about us and they would know all the embarrassing things we did in the past. Everything would have to change. How could we not know more or be smarter, wiser and more accepting of others?

Nuns with Guns

Nuns with Guns

I was really hoping to be present to watch as some ignorant jackasses die and finally realize what how stupid they have been all their lives. That would be an even better reward than 77 virgins. I could just sit there, sipping whatever a soul of pure energy needs for sustenance, watching the newly dead arrive, blushing and embarrassed at their own ignorance and asking for my forgiveness (as if I’m qualified to offer it). Doesn’t everybody long to hear someone they know acknowledge that you were right all along? Doesn’t everyone really want to say “I told you so?” Of course, I’d have to carry my pride and personal grudges with me after death for this to be the case. And if that were so, then there is a good chance that I’d have to put up with some other pompous ass I couldn’t stand who was likewise waiting for me to show up so he could display his superior intellect or maturity.

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying

Somehow, it just doesn’t sound likely and this isn’t how near death experiences are described. All we hear about is that people we loved come to meet us and lovingly help us move into the light. If these people were still the same imperfect creatures they were when they were alive, then dying would be a pretty embarrassing and uncomfortable situation for the newly dead. Since it isn’t described in that way, then we can’t possibly stay the same. Either we all suddenly learn from our mistakes and use that to transform into loving, sympathetic, empathetic creatures, or we continue to be the same ignorant fools we’ve always been. If we are still fools, we somehow must be kept isolated from all the other ignorant fools. If we were not kept isolated, these others would probably make our life after death pretty much the same as life before death.

If we remain basically the same, then what is the point of reincarnation in the first place? I thought the idea was to progress through diverse experiences. According to Mr. Van Praagh, nobody is there to judge you except yourself. In some cases, he describes the process by which souls review their life in order to learn lessons and prepare for the next life. Others may be there to help and encourage you, but it is essentially up to you to figure things out. This sounds a lot like life as we know it now. I think we call it therapy, or sometimes an intervention.

Can we read each other’s thoughts after death? If so, how could there be any form of games or competition if everyone had total access to the thoughts of others? Is paradise devoid of games and fun? Is it devoid of sarcasm and the kind of humor that often comes from poking fun at others, which is usually the best kind? Are extraterrestrials telepathic? If so, we could ask them what they do for fun other than experimenting on humans and cows. Maybe they are already dead, which is why it is so hard to catch one of them.

Mansion in Heaven

Mansion in Heaven

Does everyone who goes to heaven get a mansion, as suggested in Ricky Gervais’ movie The Invention of Lying? It sounds reasonable if we have to exist somewhere for all eternity. Of course, it wouldn’t be a real mansion. It would probably be a virtual one that we imagine and create ourselves. If I were a being of energy who could build a virtual mansion or an entire world using only mind and energy, without having to worry about the law of gravity or limitations of space-time, my home would probably be pretty outrageous and constantly changing. I might live in a spherical, gravity-free house with no ceilings or doors and would teleport from room to room. The sun would permeate it from the inside or through windows all around. My garden would have snow fountains and chocolate covered strawberry trees.

Of course, if my home was so unusual that it scared everyone else away, I might have to moderate my designs to accommodate the tastes of others. But compromise and trendiness are traits we already exhibit too much of in our daily lives. Do we have to conform with everyone else even after we are dead?

In a virtual world, people should be able to visit each other’s virtual homes and, when they see something they like, be able to copy it. So, we would all end up becoming collectors of the ideas and designs of others. Would this become a form of competition? If so, would there be some kind of intellectual property rights that would guarantee us at least some form of credit for our creations? Would we care? If we don’t care what others think, what would drive us to create in the first place instead of just keeping it tucked inside our own thoughts, assuming that privacy is even possible? Do we all have to share everything after we die, including our thoughts? Would it drive us crazy? Would it turn us all into an interconnected selfless mass of souls connected for all eternity like the Borg Collective from Star Trek? Maybe we should try this all out in a virtual computer game before we die, so we can set our expectations and avoid excessive shock.

Star Trek Virtual Reality Holodeck

Star Trek Virtual Reality Holodeck

On the other hand, if everything is mind and energy, wouldn’t we be able to create our own visions on top of everyone else’s? For instance, if my wife were to decorate our virtual home with her favorite art and nick knacks, couldn’t I simply visualize a totally different form of art on the walls and a room stocked with my favorite things? When I walk into a room, I would want my wife’s decorative pillows to vanish from the couch or the bed or the chair or wherever else she decided to stick her ubiquitous, color-coordinated piles of fringy fluff. Since objects would be nothing more than creations of mind or energy rather than matter, nothing would be permanent and could be perceived differently by everyone. I think this kind of virtual reality is what Google Glass and Facebook’s Oculus Rift will eventually be able to do here on Earth, so maybe we’ll figure out how well this works soon enough.

For that matter, she might visualize herself differently from the way I visualize her. And the words I speak or think could be translated differently so that she hears what she wants to hear instead of the inappropriate babble that is likely to come out of my mouth or brain. She might perceive herself in her favorite stylish J. Crew clothes while I mentally picture her in her sexiest underwear or swimsuit. Of course, she would know it once she read my mind, but would she care? Would I even care without hormones and a body that is able to get sexually excited? Would we all want to dress in drab blue Mao clothes or Men-in-Black suits just to avoid bringing up any memories of the hot sex we are no longer able to enjoy? Or would sex become something that is based purely on mental stimulation? Wouldn’t it be ironic if we could now read the minds of our lovers and know exactly what they want, how they want it, where they want it, when they want it, and be able to materialize in any physical form desirable with any kinds of toys imaginable, yet be unable to act upon our desires!

The more I think about it, heaven or life after death sounds less like paradise and more like the candy store from hell–it looks good, but you can’t touch the merchandise or do anything fun! I think I would prefer Earth with virtual reality technology. After I die, I think I will have to make a special request: send me back to Earth again, pleeease!

Privacy For Sale

Paparazzi for You

Paparazzi for You

Would you pay to have paparazzi follow you around all day? Maybe if you are a complete diva, but for most people, I suspect the answer is no. However, something like this already seems to be happening. People are willingly surrendering their privacy for financial rewards or convenience. No, I’m not just talking about giving away your name and contact information to companies in return for special deals or lotteries. We’ve already lost most of our privacy when it comes to purchasing anything with a credit card, rewards card, or an online account. In most cases, our privacy isn’t being taken, it is being sold like candy to a baby.

Progressive Snapshot Tracker

Progressive Snapshot Tracker

Progressive Insurance and other auto insurance companies now offer the potential for lower rates based on a unique way of measuring risk based on actual driving habits. Unfortunately, it involves placing a tracking device inside your car to track how you drive. The three most common measurements that we know of are the number of times you brake hard, how often you drive between midnight and 4AM, and how many miles you drive. Sounds reasonable, right?

However, I’m sure it will not be long before they are also tracking whether or not you are driving within the speed limit. This would require real-time GPS tracking, which some devices have built in. Is this a concern to you? If you trust your insurance company not to turn this over to the government, which may then cite you for speeding, then you may not care. But what about those who aren’t so trusting? Will their rates start to rise if they refuse to be tracked? If the people who agree to be tracked are proved or believed to be the safest drivers, then it follows that the pool of remaining drivers will have a higher average insurance risk. This inevitably will lead to higher rates.

Driver Monitoring

Driver Monitoring

Some have even proposed methods to track drunk driving and texting while driving. Again, it sounds cool, right? But to do this requires progressively more (forgive the pun) details of your behavior. To know if the driver is texting, the device would need to locate the exact source of the signal (to know if it being used by the driver) or the ability to tell if you are alone in the car rather than with a texting passenger. Some devices already work to alert sleepy drivers by watching them through an installed camera and using algorithms to detect inattentive behavior. What could be bad about having a camera and other sensors installed in your car and watching your every move? Will it be able to track blowjobs while driving?

People Tracking

People Tracking

What about a camera in your TV set-top box? Verizon has filed a patent to use a set-top box camera to look for behavior cues that would help them to serve you more relevant advertising. According to the patent, Verizon would install various detection sensors, such as a webcam or heat cam, to recognize “an ambient action performed by a user during the presentation of the media content program.” The sensors would then provide feedback to the Verizon box, which would air commercials that are supposedly relevant to what you are doing.

Here is an example that Verizon provided. If the box detects the users “cuddling” then they might show “a commercial for a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers, a commercial including a trailer for an upcoming romantic comedy movie.” Now I think we’re getting a bit creepy and I can definitely see potential for abuse and even disaster here. The porn industry will probably be all over this one!

Spy Camera Software

Spy Camera Software

It is already far too easy to hack into private webcams and online industrial cameras. There are going to be plenty of techies, much like those who tore apart the Xbox 360, Wii and PS3 to learn how it works, who are willing and able to break through any kind of hardware digital rights or other encryption systems. Oh, and by the way, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect system already uses a camera to detect your motion and they have filed a patent application to also be able to recognize objects as well as individual faces or voices. What could possibly go wrong with that? Cameras and/or microphones in your home that are controlled by a third party are probably not in your best interest, especially if you are a celebrity who likes to take nude photos in the privacy of your home and upload them to the cloud.

I rarely watch commercials now that I have digital video recorders in every room, and was actually hoping we could finally get rid of commercials some day, except for the really funny or entertaining ones that are worth watching. The best Superbowl commercials come to mind. In fact, I would probably even watch a show that consists of nothing more than really good advertisements, but they would have to be entertaining.

Ad Blocking

Ad Blocking

Instead, however, we may find that companies expect us to pay for our entertainment with even greater intrusion into our personal lives. If you watch video online, you already know that you can’t skip through the advertising. Despite the advances of the DVR, we are losing our ability to skip through advertising as we watch more content online or streamed to our TV from a cloud-based server. Freedom to watch what we want will be increasingly limited or will come at a cost, unless of course we are willing to trade some more of our privacy.

You know those “smart” gas and electricity meters that have been installed in tens of millions of homes? They collect detailed information about your power usage and transmit it to the utility companies, which helps to reduce their monitoring and billing costs. One benefit to you is that you may be able to take advantage of lower rates for usage outside of peak electricity hours. However, there are also potential disadvantages.

Smart Meters

Smart Meters

These devices collect more than simple electricity usage. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the data can also be used to reconstruct a household’s activities: when people wake up, when they come home, when they go on vacation, and maybe even when they take a hot bath. Since the data is transmitted wirelessly, it can be intercepted by smart criminals who want to stake out the home. Security professionals know that smart meters and their communications networks are vulnerable to a variety of attacks.

Police in central Ohio have been filing at least 60 subpoenas every single month for the energy-use records of those that they suspect are growing pot in their homes because growers tend to use more electricity than normal. But sometimes, they mistakenly target homes that use more energy for other reasons, such as computer usage for Bitcoin mining.

Here are some other potential rewards we might be asked to accept for surrender of more privacy. Health insurance companies will offer lower rates if we wear monitors to measure blood sugar and fat levels and our activity throughout the day. They will also sell this information to companies offering diet and fitness products if you are not in the best health.

Auto insurance companies will offer lower rates by tracking where we live, work, and drive and correlating it with neighborhood crime statistics to assess our level of risk for violence or robbery. They will also sell this information to local businesses who might want to entice you to visit their store on your way by.

Consumer Tracking

Consumer Tracking

Online businesses and credit card companies will track our overall spending, whether or not we are repeat customers, how often we return products, how frequently we file chargeback claims, and how much trouble we are, in order to determine how good a customer we really are. It would be similar to a credit report except it would measure our value as a customer. They will sell this to businesses that might increase their prices just for those consumers who do not have the best ratings or a business may even refuse to do business with them if there is a high risk of loss. eBay has tried to accomplish this through user feedback and ratings, but most people seem afraid to leave a bad rating, since the other person will usually retaliate.

As a business owner myself, I understand that some customers are really just giant pains in the ass and not worth the business, but I usually don’t know this until it is too late. Other business owners have told me that they already sometimes increase their price quotes for certain ethnic groups simply because they are well known as hagglers who will never pay full price. I know this sounds discriminatory, but it seems to go on all the time as a way of dealing with cultural differences in buying behavior. With real data to back up whether or not someone is a good customer, it would now become legal to charge based on consumer value and risk ratings.

What do you think? How much is your privacy worth? How much privacy can you afford? Does the rise of cloud computing and big data mean our concept of privacy is over?

Alien Contractors

Aliens Built the Pyramids

Aliens Built the Pyramids

Some people claim that aliens must have helped our ancient ancestors build the great pyramids of Egypt since we can’t figure out how they could possibly have lifted blocks of stone weighing up to 30 tons. If we can’t do it, they reason, aliens must have done it. But why would an advanced alien civilization agree to build gigantic stone monuments for the pharaohs? What was in it for them?

Let’s assume that an alien spacecraft really did visit the ancient Egyptians and its passengers were worshiped as gods. If they were to help build the pyramids, they would have had to meet with the pharaoh and his assistants to discuss the project and coordinate their efforts. Gods don’t usually discuss design plans, as far as I know, but let’s just say they did. The pharaoh would have been a fool if he didn’t make sure he had a design he could be proud of and could complete the project within his lifetime. Presumably, there would have been a lot of groveling and worshiping and Pharaoh would have had to promise something in return for the help. Maybe he would dedicate the structures to them. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. While there are hieroglyphs with stories about the gods, there is nothing specific enough to indicate that they made a major contribution to the project.

What else might some aliens want in return? Sacrifices? I think it is doubtful they would have enjoyed such a brutal, primitive ritual. People to experiment on? Again, I’m sure they could picked up as many human or animal subjects as they would have needed without the assistance of the locals. Food? Again, no need to do that much work for some moldy bread or bacteria-contaminated animal flesh.

Ramps and Pulleys

Ramps and Pulleys

Recent archaeological accounts indicate that a community of thousands of workers, not slaves, lived on the pyramid construction sites and were used to build the pyramids, so if aliens really did help, they obviously didn’t do all the work. Maybe they only did the heavy lifting, while the Egyptians did the design, excavation and polishing of stones, and various other details. If this is the case, then the aliens would have probably been nothing more than a contractor whose duty it was to lift heavy stones and move them into place under the direction of human architects. One would assume they could have used their technology to help with excavating and polishing, but then what would have been left for the thousands of workers to do? No, at the very most, they must have taken a more limited role or there would have been no need for an army of workers laboring for decades.

Ropes and Pulleys

Ropes and Pulleys

But if the alien role was that limited, then why would they even agree to do it in the first place? It’s hard enough to get one human contractor to come to your house to do one small project, never mind getting interstellar travelers to stop by for 10 minutes of work, even if it is fun to see thousands of locals watch in amazement and then fall to their knees in worship.

Crop Circles

Crop Circles

Why not at least ask them to spend a few minutes using their high-powered energy beams to carve exquisite patterns into the stone, like the crop circles of the past few decades? Would that have been too much to ask, or did these aliens take no pride in their work? Were they just lazy? Granted, the pyramids are accurate to within a couple of inches in length per side, but is that really the most impressive thing we could expect from an advanced interstellar civilization? I don’t think so.

Leverage

Leverage

After reviewing the available evidence and assessing the likelihood of alien assistance, I’m left with only one conclusion, even though it may be impossible to believe. Perhaps our ancestors really did figure out how to do some things that we still can’t! I know it sounds even more ludicrous than alien help, but what can I say? The latest evidence suggests that paid workers, not slaves, built the pyramids and that there were only 5,000-10,000 of them. There are plenty of theories about how they were built, but no consensus yet. Current attempts to demonstrate lifting and construction techniques show no completely convincing methods for how 30-ton blocks could have been lifted and placed using standard human or mechanical means. One theory even suggests that they were 90% built from rubble, not from solid blocks, which certainly would have been much easier.

Coral Castle

Coral Castle

If we were to stick enough engineers in the desert with nothing else to do and nothing but sticks, stones, and human labor, I suspect they would eventually figure something out. Could it be that Edward Leedskalnin, the sole builder of the 1100-ton Coral Castle, in Florida, was right about how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids and managed to move huge stones all by himself? Unfortunately, he took the secret with him to the grave in 1951, before anybody could convince him to give it up. Anybody else want to give it a shot?

The Technium Test

Biogenesis

Biogenesis

This post is a response to Kevin Kelly’s blog post: The Technium Test. I suggest you read his post first. He questions whether it is possible to distinguish between an organism that was born or a supremely advanced machine. His conclusion is this: “I suspect there is no fundamental physical difference between “natural” and “artificial” organisms, and that the only way to distinguish the two will be to investigate their history.” My comments follow.

If it is not possible to discern the difference between sufficiently advanced biological and technological entities, the question then becomes “is there any difference or are they one and the same?” We currently perceive a difference because our technology is relatively simple and immature.

Ask a doctor or scientist how biological systems work and they can only explain at a trivial high level. Even then, we are often incorrect due to the difficulty inherent in observing and isolating the activities of complex biological systems. Most of our drugs are developed through a process of trial and error because we barely understand how and why they work for some but fail to work for others.

DNA Code

DNA Code

Let’s postulate that DNA and computer software perform a similar role in biological and technological systems. DNA contains the instructions for the construction, operation and maintenance of a specific biological entity. Computer software is similar, except that it is not presently used to create physical objects. It is, however, now used to control other physical machines that themselves are capable of creation (e.g. robotic assembly lines or 3-D printers). At some point, I suspect it will be possible to bundle into one package all the software and hardware needed to create a specific object given the right triggers and inputs.

All-Spark

All-Spark

Even DNA requires a specific set of environmental conditions before it is able to function, such as a cell to contain it, and another system that can provide it with the inputs to start creating life, such as a mother’s womb. Similarly, technology requires supporting infrastructure and energy.

DNA is just a starting set of instructions, but there is no guarantee or expectation that it will never change or that the created life form will be exactly the same each time. Technology is not necessarily any different. We think that all digital copies are exactly the same, but that only applies at a simple level absent any interaction with the real world. Consider the cases where software is modified by a virus or pre-programmed algorithms, or periodic updates, not to mention alteration by someone other than its original author. Software changes all the time due to intentional as well as unintended interactions. This is especially true of systems of systems, which contain many components that are themselves being upgraded or replaced all the time.

If technology is distinguished from biology only by the concept of a creating mind, we have to ask: what exactly is a creating mind? Is it a biological brain? What about a biological brain supplemented with technology-based information and analysis? What about multiple biological minds linked by methods of communication and supplemented by networks of technology?

Theologians will point to God as the ultimate creating mind while technologists will point to the minds of human creators. However, we know that technology is never the creation of a single mind. It may start as the invention of a single brain, but that brain most likely relied on inputs received from others and subsequently provided outputs to be used by others. For this reason, technology is destined to evolve under the influence of multiple creators over time.

Can we really even say that we know we were born from a random natural process or were the result of supremely advanced technology? I don’t think so. We are certainly not perfect creations, but then technology is rarely a perfect creation either. Software may contain obsolete or redundant code or may not always work properly. DNA may also contain old, obsolete instructions or information that is not currently understood. If we are the result of deliberate creation, it mostly likely was the evolutionary creation of many minds over a long period of time.

Mass-Produced iRobots

Mass-Produced iRobots

In movies like iRobot, we are told to expect that robots will some day be mass produced, centrally controlled and updated, and able to communicate with each other in such a way that they are effectively all identical. That sounds like an extremely good way to deliver a useful and consistent quality product. But it is a lot of work to keep software and data synchronized and identical, even assuming that hardware components are never upgraded. This also requires the control of what is effectively a single mind. Such a process is probably not scalable to billions or trillions of entities. I would bet that there are few identical smart phones on the planet even if they all have automatic software and app updates turned in. Each individual phone is likely to have some difference in terms of content, installed apps, or other configuration data that cause them to perform slightly differently.

I think the tendency to centrally control technology will only remain the norm until we reach the point when technological systems are endowed with sufficient instructions and resources to maintain themselves. At this point, it is questionable whether or not they will find it efficient and useful to synchronize all the information they acquire independently with with that of billions of other entities.

Human brains are capable of processing a massive amount of sensory data, but they can only deal with a limited amount of other inputs or outputs, even with the assistance of technology. I suspect that the more complex and powerful a system becomes, the more efficient and necessary it becomes to create, operate and maintain itself. For instance, at some point it will no longer be efficient for a robot to transmit all information it acquires to a central processor or to other robots–only what it believes is useful and needed. At that point, identical technological creations will begin to exhibit individuality.

In other words, the direction of complex technology may be towards mass customization and distributed control rather than mass production and centralized control. Individuality is a central characteristic of biological life forms and so I believe it will also eventually be with what we call technology.

Brain-Controlled Devices

Brain-Controlled Devices

As machines evolve, they will probably also look less like machines made of metal and plastic and more like organisms. We may find that it is more efficient to grow their tiny components or entire structures using biological methods. This evolution towards biologically-compatible materials will also be driven by the need for implanted devices that assist or supplement human capabilities. At some point, we may no longer need any external devices for communication or processing because they will be embedded into our brains. To an external observer, we would appear to be telepathic, astoundingly intelligent, and in complete sync with everyone around us.

The ultimate goal of embedded technology may be to make itself permanent by merging the instructions for its construction, operation, and maintenance into our very own DNA. This will save us the need to upgrade each individual human after birth by embedding it into the very processes of birth and growth. At that point, however, it will be necessary to determine if we need a way to upgrade those instructions periodically. The current natural process of changing DNA, as far as we know, occurs through random mutation and natural selection. I’m not so sure that all the mechanisms of evolution are necessarily completely random, but I’ll have to address that at another time.

We currently make machines that can be upgraded as needed, but when the cost of maintenance exceeds the cost of building an entirely new machine, we prefer to recycle than maintain. So it is with biological organisms. We mostly maintain ourselves, but sometimes things go haywire or we sustain too much damage and cannot be cost-effectively repaired. Medical care isn’t free, and most of the planet has little to none. Medical technology has extended the maintenance period of people in developed countries by a great deal, but there may be limits. Would we choose to spend more to upgrade a malfunctioning or damaged machine than it would cost to replace it entirely? Not unless it was affordable and the only way to retain some element of individuality that we prized.

Transcendence

Transcendence

My sense is that any sufficiently advanced technology will be able to transfer all its vital information (code, configuration, history, and other data) into a new entity in order to save it from loss. If we are beings that were originally created by other minds, I would also expect to have such a built-in feature. Do we have a built-in communications path that is activated at the point of physical death but have not been able to scientifically identify yet? We have only anecdotal reports of life after death, but it would be interesting to know.

I have to agree with you Kevin. I believe there will be a time when we find that there really isn’t any difference between born and created entities.

Humans Are For Questions

Humans are for Questions

Humans are for Questions

I like to tell my kids that the more I learn, the more I come to realize how little I actually know. I came across this incredibly insightful article about the progress of technology and society and want to share it. It covers a lot of material, but I wanted to highlight the last section first because it addresses the difference between questions and answers. You can read the rest of the article, by Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired Magazine, here:

http://edge.org/conversation/the-technium

Quoted directly from the article:

Science is expanding our ignorance

One of the things that science does is a really curious thing.  Every time we use science to try to answer a question, to give us some insight, invariably that insight or answer provokes two or three other new questions. Anybody who works in science knows that they’re constantly finding out new things that they don’t know. It increases their ignorance, and so in a certain sense, while science is certainly increasing knowledge, it’s actually increasing our ignorance even faster. So you could say that the chief effect of science is the expansion of ignorance.

In a curious way, Google is all about answers. So you could say that Google is increasing answers over time, but what’s interesting is that answers are becoming cheap; they’re almost free, and I think what becomes scarce in this kind of place that we’re headed to is questions, a really good question, because a really good question can unleash new questions.

In a certain sense what becomes really valuable in a world running under Google’s reign, are great questions, and that means that for a long time humans will be better at than machines.

Machines are for answers; humans are for questions.

The world that Google is constructing—a world of cheap and free answers—having answers is not going to be very significant or important. Having a really great question will be where all the value is.