Monday, July 28, 2008

I am at the airport, and happy to be here. 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. To listen to music. To think. To write.

I had a really nice weekend. I went to the gym both days, took care of some errands, and got in some good goofing off. Ate some tasty food. Got good sleep, except for last night, which was my own fault.

I haven’t been happy a lot lately – a lot of crankiness and frustration, mostly of my own invention. I seem to find a lot of things to agitate me these days – There’s a lot going on at work, for example, but I think some of my frustration is just me projecting my own insecurities and problems onto others. But I know some of it is continued irrationality in the workplace. Not that most other jobs would be better.

Things that have frustrated me in the last few hours:

• I forgot to change shoes for my trip and am wearing my heavy workboots instead of comfortable sneakers. I may end up being happy about this if it rains tomorrow and Wednesday as forecast.
• My Ibiza Rhapsody MP3 player isn’t playing well with Rhapsody – MP3s with album art don’t transfer the album art over. AAC files are being transcoded instead of transferring natively. The UI is very close to perfect, but that just throws its few mistakes into greater focus
• Work meetings where I can’t tell if I failed to prepare adequately or other people did.

The airport continues to evolve. Southwest has installed these ridiculously posh (by airport lobby standards) leather club chairs that have power points and USB chargers. I kept waiting for some sort of meter to pop out (“Please swipe your credit card for 5 minutes of comfortable seating and electricity”). But I guess they’re just trying to make waiting in the airport tolerable.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Birthdays and Aging

We're the last generation to grow old
Our children won't have that problem because they're so lucky
For us, being old is going to be a big problem
Who will dispose of all of us?
- 9353, "Senior Citizen Disposal Plant"

63 years ago today, the world's first atomic bomb was exploded at the Trinity site in Alamagordo, New Mexico. I am told my grandfather worked on it.

39 years ago today, the first manned mission to the Moon was launched from Cape Kennedy. Also I was born. 4 days later my newborn eyes saw the television broadcast of the landing.

Over the last 39 years technology has made some astounding advancements. In 1969 a "computer" was a room- or building-sized machine that was little more than a fast calculator. There is more computing power in an iPod now than was used for the Moon shot.

We finally have the "hang-on-a-wall" flat-screen, high-definition color televisions (telscreens?) that I heard about when I was a kid. Almost every piece of recorded music is available on-demand, and video is following close behind (funny that books, the oldest data/media format, are not yet available this way). Video games have gone from "Pong" to things that, at a glance, are barely distinguishable from HDTV broadcasts.

I grew up with rotary dial phones. I remember when the government broke up Ma Bell, and allowed MCI to start competing. Now mobile phones are not just common, they're banal. "Mail" has been replaced with "e-mail", and "e-mail" is also something completely different. As is Twitter (which is also something completely stupid, but that's another post) and all the social networking junk.

Medical science has progressed as well. While I personally am rather disenchanted with medical technology these days, medicine has come a long way. There are fantastic new drugs, ranging from anti-baldness treatments (something that was joked about when I was a kid) to better sleeping pills and advances in painkillers. Advances in medical imaging that put full-body scans within reach of anyone. Things one couldn't do at any price now available down the street.

One reason there will be so many more amputees, damaged brains, and other disabled veterans of the Bush wars is how much better doctors have gotten at saving lives. Many of these same patients would have died had they sustained their injuries in the 1991 Gulf War. Technology marches on, for better or for worse.

Medical science even found a vaccine for HPV - a virus, and a cancer-causing one at that. It's a double miracle. Yet many people are hesitant to give their children the shot to prevent it, for a variety of reasons. Some of which are the typical fear and ignorance that have caused humanity problems for thousands of years.

And now the respirocyte. Apparently a scientist is developing:
"a robotic red blood cell that, if injected into the bloodstream, would allow humans to do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath or sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for hours at a time"
Man, how cool would that be? It would revolutionize swimming and diving, at the very least. Maybe more people would walk if they didn't get winded. Marathons would be a lot easier. Presumably this could also be modified to allow breathing of oxygen-poor atmospheres - either our own soon-to-be-carbon-laden Earth or perhaps even the 95% CO2 Martian atmosphere.

That's how it starts - first people just want to improve a little bit. Like say carving up your eyes with lasers so that instead of seeing 20/150, you now see 20/15? You don't look any different, and hey, now you're "back to where you were a few years ago, maybe a little better", right?

Given technology's relentless march, where will we be in 3 or 4 more decades? I used to want to live forever. Now I'm not so sure. Certainly I want a long, healthy, and happy life. It's been a good 39 years, and I hope to have around 39 more. But our planet is already over-populated, and the numbers aren't going the right way. Should science be extending people's lives, perhaps indefinitely?

Even if the technology permits, will religion and other social/cultural biases allow it? I also believe there will be generational issues. Tattoos and earrings have become banal, too (much to my chagrin!), but to older people they still have certain connotations (I was asked to remove my earrings before testifying in front of Federal judges). What about body modification? I'm not talking about tiny metal barbells through various tissues, I'm talking about leopard spots. Or bioluminescent skin or hair. Or scales. Or built-in displays and memory.

I look forward to the future, and hope that I last long enough and that it comes fast enough that I can at least see it, if not actively participate.

Hey you kids, get off my lawn!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Car Trouble: 100 Years and Counting

Have you ever had a ride in a light blue car?
Have you ever stopped to think who's the slave and who's the master?
Have you ever had trouble with your automobile?
Have you ever had to push push push push?
Car trouble oh yeah
- "Car Trouble", Adam Ant (from "Dirk Wears White Sox")

The world recently passed the 100th birthday of the Model T - the first mass-produced and successful car. I've been thinking a lot about how quickly the world used up all the gas, and what the car has done to the planet and society.

Depending on how you score and who you believe, the first automobile to run on gasoline (primitive and nasty gasoline at that) appeared in 1875 or 1890, and various European companies were building cars during the last decade of the 19th Century.

By the early 1900s, cars were the fastest-selling transportation. Ford's Model T was the thing that really took off, though (which was a relief, as Ford's previous ventures and efforts had been failures).

Gasoline underwent substantial evolution as well. By the 1920s the world had catalytic "cracking" (which greatly improved distillation yields) and 40-60 octane. Engine technology had advanced and required higher octane and higher quality, which lead to...lead. Leaded gas - gas mixed with tetraethyl lead, some of the most toxic stuff man has ever created intentionally.

By the 1950s, lead levels had increased and octane levels had increased again. Better cracking technology again. In the mid-1970s, just 20 years later, the industry and the world agreed to stop using leaded gas for a variety of reasons (toxicity, the fact that leaded gas destroyed catalytic converters, environmental concerns).

The period from the 1920s to the 1960s also saw massive proliferation and expansion of the gas station. They popped up everywhere, offering more and more services as differentiators. The energy crisis of the 1970s more or less killed momentum here and turned gas stations into the minimal dispensing facilities we know today.

Now it's 2008. There has been minimal consumer-facing innovation in the entire gas-auto ecosystem for the last 20 years, and arguably regression - the biggest-selling American vehicles were basically bimbo trucks - fake off-road "cars" built on profitable but fuel-inefficient truck platforms. Fuel efficiency stagnated.

The world is fast running out of gas, and it's happened relatively quickly. 100 years is not very long.

But it was long enough to define America's cities, its economy, its values (family, environmental, corporate, governing), its architecture, its lifestyle. For most Americans, life without a car isn't just unthinkable, it is impossible. And without cars and trucks (and lately airplanes) today's society would quickly collapse.

Yet it has been so clearly unsustainable for so long. How can the world not be ready to move on?

I am old enough to remember pumps dispensing leaded gas. I remember cars that did not have shoulder seat belts, or had them as add-on/after-market accessories.

I also spent my primary school years during the oil crisis of the 1970s. I remember gas lines, even/odd license plate rationing, and many science classes being told in no uncertain terms that the world was running out of oil, and that was probably good anyhow because cars were poisoning the environment in just about every way one can imagine (it's not just the emissions. Think about the paint, the construction, the batteries - hell, just the tires alone are a nightmare).

My father can remember cars without seatbelts. His generation saw the maturity of the gas-auto ecosystem. That was just 50 years ago.

His father (my grandfather) would remember the first modern gasoline and gas stations, and my great-grandfather would likely have remembered the introduction of the Model T.

And now it's all but gone, in 3 generations. A short period of time in human history, and yet our entire society is dependent on it. Look around you. It's all gasoline, it's all cars and trucks. And it has to stop - there is no choice. It will stop - the gas will run out, and/or the environmental damage will cost too much to continue.

Biofuels aren't the answer. Drilling for more gas and oil isn't the answer. I'm not even sure magic fuel-free cars are the answer, as just having a car-centric society creates so many problems. Carbon emissions need to dramatically decrease. Society has to change.

I think about how much gasoline and the car affected and steered development for 100 years. About how much the Internet has changed society in just 20 years. I have yet to imagine a pleasant post-gasoline society 100 years from now. Or even 20.

It must be possible, right? I suppose (and occasionally fear) I'll be around long enough to see the beginnings of it.

And remember this:
You don't need anything after an ice cream