Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Perspective

As the new year approached last year I reflected on how I didn't readily know how long homo sapiens have been around in a post. What was most amazing to me wasn't just the 250K years of progress, but the exponential explosion that has occurred in just the last 470 years since the arrival of the Gutenberg printing press. A while after making that post I created the chart below to highlight this remarkable acceleration in the pace of innovation.



Some time later I realized that I also didn't really know the history of life, the earth, the sun, or even our place in the timeline of the universe. As a space nerd I did know that the universe was over 13 billion years old, but I had no idea where we sat in its history. After a little more Wikipedia research and some rough approximations in Power Point I created the image below that puts some of this info into view. With the universe exploding into existence some 13.7 billion years ago, it then took 8.7 billion years before our sun formed. Then in just 500 million years the earth formed, in another billion years the most simple life emerged. For the next 3.27 billion years life would evolve until the rise of the Dinosaurs, which would rule the earth for an astounding 160 million years. It would be another 65 million years before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene with our measly 250,000 years of history.



So why do I think this kind of information is so important? It's a matter of perspective. As advanced as humans are, we will never fully see reality but instead perceive it through our windows into the world. Understanding the implications of this explains a lot about human behavior. If we were to experience all of reality we'd simply be overwhelmed and unable to make sense of any of it. Instead, through the windows of our senses we sample just a piece of the world at a time. Through our collective we have extended our senses to allow us to see further into reality, be it the depths of space or the smallest of particles, yet we will always be limited to a view through a window. This shouldn't belittle our existence, but rather emphasize both our uniqueness and our belonging to something that is incomprehensibly larger than our perceptions.

As we struggle through each day to solve our problems big and small, a little perspective might help us all understand what is really important and what is really quite special in our tiny spot in the universe.

Why the $300 Verizon Droid is fantastic deal even before the rebate

I've been waiting as patiently as I could the last three years for the smart phone market to develop and I'm thrilled that my wait may finally be over. The Verizon Android based phone, the Motorola Droid is the first to deliver on all the features I've been waiting for. As I waited I never bought an mp3/media player, I didn't get a GPS, I got the most out of my 4mp point and shoot camera, I didn't get a Flip or similar mico HD camcorder, and I didn't buy a PDA. Let's see what I might have spent if I did get all these devices, and to be fair I'll only look at similar spec items. For an MP3/media player, lets go with the 4th Gen 8GB iPod nano for $120. Granted the newest can capture video for only $30 more, but this is more about being an early adopter. The Droid also has 16GB of storage, but I'm going to say that half of that will easily be consumed by other things. For GPS I chose the Magellan RoadMate 1430 with traffic for $150. Note that there is monthly fee for traffic, though I couldn't easily get a price. I'll exclude that since you'll have to have a Verizon subscription regardless. A 5mp basic point and shoot camera is pretty obsolete right now, so I'll instead go ahead and combine the camera and video functionality in the Wolverine MM100R for $100. Finally a PalmOne Zire for $150. This brings the total to $520, a full $320 more after the $100 Droid rebate. It is true that I could have had at least some of this functionality for several years now instead of waiting, but I probably would have spent even more since each device started out well over what you can get them for now. The iPhone was certainly very close to what I wanted and I was actually willing to let my Verizon contract expire, but I still wasn't quite happy with the 3G coverage and GPS aspect. When the TomTom iPhone app came out it solved one issue, but still cost even more. Now with Android 2.0 Google has rolled out a kick as turn-by-turn navigator with 3D and satellite views plus traffic and street view where available. Being web enable it's also constantly updated, no map purchases and the ability to find up to date events. Best of all, it's free. Check out the video below to see it in all its glory.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Playing for Change

A while ago I bookmarked the playing for change website. In revisiting it I found some of the episodes deeply moving, perhaps worth buying the DVD. It's a unique project producing songs with musicians around the world. Their mission of peace through music is quite the challenge, but if people of such different cultures who have never met can make something so beautiful, why can't we all? Below is my personal favorite. Stand by Me is also very good.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Liberated Thinking

I recently came across the Shai Agassi's TED talk below on his project Better Place that Charlie pointed out to me a while ago. What struck me the most wasn't just the brilliance of the idea of separating the battery cost of full electric cars, but rather his ability to overcome the typical pat on the head he received from some of the countries he approached as they said "it's fascinating that the younger generation actually thinks about these things." In the talk Shai demonstrates an exceptional ability in communicating "back of the envelope" calculations that help to put things in real perspective. While there are numerous conditionals on these kinds of estimates, it really is fundamentally necessary as we begin to think about change in terms of orders of magnitude as opposed to simple linear growth.

To further this point, if you look at the comments, on May 5th a Chinese student lamented that he had to have a friend who's English was better help him understand the video and suggested they they include subtitles in other languages. On May 6th there was an acknowledgment from one of the video editors and then in just a week the option to show subtitles with a volunteer powered translation was launched. The video currently has subtitles available in six other languages.

Ideas have become viral, spreading exponentially regardless if they are good or bad ones. Our society currently seems poorly equipped for dealing with this scale of change, yet it is also necessary for the future that we've created. I'm currently in the process of writing a proposal (aside from this procrastination) on some of my own ideas on how to handle this kind of transition, but I'll need more than just the idea. I'll have to pursue it with the same passion that drives Shai and survive the inevitable pats on the head that come with the territory.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hang on, get ready, and go

I think that from the moment mankind became self aware, we began to think about about the future as we thought it should be, and then set out to make it so. These changes might often be slow incremental improvements, but every once in a while, it is something really big. Something that sets a course that never would have happened otherwise. Language, fire, text, tools, industry, economics, phones, television, computers, the Internet, and on and on. More and more, faster and faster. Why?

I think we are about to find out. As we get glimpses of what is possible there are many folks that try and paint an image for us all. Be it in words, film, images, or song there have been many projections about 1) what the future could be, and 2) what it should be. The former is a motivator and the later must be our guide. It seems that a great deal of attention has been spent on the "what could be" lately. Yet a growing tide of people, either fed up, frightened, optimistic, or otherwise, are starting to focus on what our future really should look like. I would like to try and distill some of those views.

In my past explorations and posts I discovered many ideas about how the web would transform thinking and the world. From the likes of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Nova Spivack, Tim Berners Lee, Vannevar Bush, and Ted Nelson, the ideas came from both modern times and from before the Internet was even a possibility. The Internet and what it shall become is certainly a big part of our future, yet I've often wondered what else it would enable? It is, after all, just another tool.

I want to imagine a bit of that future and I apologize in advance if it ends up being incoherent or too disconnected. There is a lot I've envisioned over a long time and I can't seem to find any good ways to incrementally get it out.

Hang On
Life will no longer be about spending nearly all your time getting the tediousness of daily life out of the way so that you can have a few moments to do what inspires you, what you enjoy, and what you love. Food, energy, mobility, and access are givens. All the value in the world is left to discovery, innovation, and contribution. There is no need for conflict, protectionism, and envy, they will have no place in a world with a united purpose.

Technology has transformed us, is transforming us. In current times, for many in the developed world, food is a given, energy cheap, mobility in all manners, and access to an unlimited wealth of information already at your finger tips. Take a moment and imagine all the technology that makes this possible.

Now imagine it doubled over a few more times.

Get Ready
Robots will do all the mindless tasks. They will build everything we can dream up, our cars, our homes, electronics, infrastructure, everything. We must still do the dreaming though. We have to come up with the plans. When we do, it will be a symphony of actions, using all of our technology to put together plans, create funding and measures, and set into motion the great machines that will make it a reality.

Power lines will stretch over highways, extending the range of electric cars that drive themselves in a manner much more like trains, increasing the throughput of roads, while decreasing travel time and eliminating traffic and safety issues.

Food will be a distributed operation with millions of local robotic farms and greenhouses that provide fresh produce daily. As will energy with trillions of devices serving both as producers and consumers of energy. Our connectivity will be truly ubiquitous and transparent. Full high definition multi-person video conferencing reducing the need to travel, and when we do travel, we will simply declare a destination and be automatically routed and transported in the most efficient and timely manner.

Education will be a lifelong opportunity. There will be no cap on public knowledge. One will be able to learn about anything at anytime at any level of detail. Our textbook will be a giant organic collection of knowledge that will adapt to individual learning styles be it, visual, logic, experiential, repetition, or otherwise. It will be available to us anytime through tablets that have e-ink displays on one side, and full motion color on the other. They will serve our every digital need. Internet, phone, video, pictures, high resolution camera, music player, hd-video camera, gps, and computing. When you need a larger display and interface you will simply wirelessly connect to stations in our offices and commons.

Lifelong students will be able to explore any avenue of creativity, since there will be no reason to teach to mediocrity in order to have a workforce to do all the tedious and uncreative jobs. With robots studiously managing all the systematic challenges, we will finally be free to completely explore the depths of human existence.

We will have mapped out all of fundamental particles of the universe with accelerators like the LHC and generations of space telescopes past the Hubble and James Webb will have seen the dawn of time and discovered thousands of inhabitable worlds in our galaxy alone. We will have reached out into our solar system with permanent exploration of planets and moons. Space elevator tethers will make transport to and from space both a safe and efficient.

Health care will mostly be provided using sensors and robotic assisted tools in every home, allowing one to deal immediately with emergencies and preventative care. Institutions will have found treatments and cures for all systemic diseases and will carefully manage all evolving forms.

Conflicts will have long since ended and world travel, trade in music, art, food, culture, and technology will consume our international life. Population growth will have stabilized and consumption turned into an efficient system of recycling and reuse. Life on earth will thrive as pollution and our ecological impact are contained. The economy will be a vast trade in the arts, services, knowledge, and technology.

Taxes and spending will be clearly and directly tied to our priorities and needs. With all of infrastructure built and maintained by robots, education distributed and flexible, health care instant and efficient, and defense needs minimized, vast resources will be at our collective discretion to support research and projects that continually push the boundaries of our knowledge ever wider.

All of the information of our life will be neatly organized and accessible. Our interactions with the digital world will be intuitive and natural. The concept of searching will be lost to retrieving exactly what you need. Purchases will simply be what suits your requirements and can be delivered most efficiently and timely. Planning anything from travel to a meal for dinner will be effortless, freeing up vast tracks of time that we currently lose to all the mundane.

Go
At first all this may seem simply too far out to even consider, but we must begin to think beyond linear growth and start acknowledging that we are on an exponential. The advances our grandparents have seen are soon to be dwarfed by leaps that we can't even see yet. From that perspective, the above will be what is commonplace and the true innovation will be way beyond our current sense of the possible.

What is more is that versions of visions like this have been consistently told over and over throughout our history. Some have even given the moment of shift a name and devoted institutions to the concept, such as the Singularity University. Yet even with all the gloss and attention, this kind of future is not a guarantee. We still have to define it, still have to seek it, and still have to take action. It all starts by imagining the world as it should be, not as it is, or as it may be given the path we have taken in recent years.

There already have been many practical steps on everything I've mentioned in this possible future. The key is then to link these steps to our goals. We want to be free from the tyranny of daily life, we want to inspire ourselves and our children to pursue the edges of our existence, and more than anything we want life to flow on, making us all contributors to the shape and form of our universe.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Modeling Traffic

I'm approaching three years of making a 50 mile commute to work and in that time I've had a lot of time to think about how bad people are at driving cars. I've also been thinking on ways to make it better. After a truly stimulating week at the MIT Media Lab Sponsor Meeting I've been inspired to finally finish a model I've been kicking around for just about as long. As it turns out there are a number of fantastic insights. I'm going to try and put together a video because it will be a lot easier to explain, but here is the model itself.

Traffic Simulation

Simulation model Traffic Simulation created with AnyLogic - simulation software / Traffic simulation
Run the modelDeveloped with
simulation software AnyLogic

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Very Simple GDP Model

In all my free time I've been trying to put together a simple example of how to combine data with models and visualization. This is about as simple as you can get; exponential growth through a fixed rate. The US average growth over the last 219 years appears to be about 3.65% (see my earlier post on Putting the Recession in Context). What's interesting is that that every time we deviated from this average into faster growth, we seem to have fallen back. If you look at the trajectory we were on, it looks like we'll need to fall back to a GDP that is about the size it was in 2006. Now don't call me Nostradamus, but it will be interesting to see where we end up.

<applet code="us_gdp_model/Simulation$Applet.class" archive="http://mysite.verizon.net/bruceskarin/models/xjanylogic6engine.jar,http://mysite.verizon.net/bruceskarin/models/us_gdp_model.jar" width="802" height="658"> </applet>


Though that's not the point of this model anyway. In being so simple it is excluding a lot of important details about why the GDP rate has fluctuated the way it has over the last 219 years. Yet this data is available. What I'd like to see is thousands of Google Spreadsheets with data about anything and everything. People could then link the data to models to try and explain particular parts of the behavior. Be it the rise and fall of real estate markets, the steady slide in US education, or the migratory patterns of birds, I think now is the time to open source our theories on what makes things tick.

If we can explain where problems are coming from in a clear and concise manner, share it, and provide feedback then perhaps we can finally come up with better solutions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

White House Open for Questions

The White House has launched a web site for open questions that is pretty much the same as what was used for the transition. While an interesting experiment, it is unfortunate that with all promise of developing new web services, they couldn't come up with at least some improvement. My main complaint is that it is chaos. The categories are extremely broad and there are a ton of repeated questions, questions that are too broad (i.e. how are you going to fix the economy?), and many more that are just commentary. What I'd really like to see would be moderator summaries and sub categorization to organize the issues better. All of the original questions could still be linked to where moderators thought they belonged, and if a person still thought it was different then they could still appeal. It'd also be nice to allow people to submit answers or suggestions separately and follow the same process as questions.

Anyway, I've submitted a few, I'd appreciate any votes (even it's a no). To find mine, first search the Open For Questions for: research consortium

At last check, two of my questions were the only ones that used that phrase. You can then click on my name to get the rest. You do have to sign up to vote, but it only takes two seconds!

Here's Obama's sales pitch on it as well:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tim Berners-Lee on Linked Data

Tim Berners-Lee gave a pretty compelling talk on demanding linked data. Yet another call out there to turn the corner on the next generation of web technologies that are going to help us solve problems we have too long labeled as impossible.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Putting the Recession in Context

Google documents has a pretty cool gadget for looking at time-series data. Check it out below. Move the window sliders to narrow the view and then move the view over the past dips in the GDP. What was a huge drop at the time is now only a drop in the bucket. What will a big recession look like now? This is the Google Spreadsheet, with data and the gadget in a nicer larger view.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review cross posting - The Telrad

I was reading about Comet Lulin and noticed that it was going to be clear tonight. I've been looking for an excuse to break out my old eight inch Coulter Optical telescope. It really is a fine telescope, with good optics and relative portability, considering its size. It really is a shame not to put it to occasional use. If you wanted one today though, you'd have to put it together yourself.

One of the reasons I haven't taken it out is that the finder, a Telrad, wasn't working. Without it, you have to be pretty good at pointing the scope in order to find small objects. I'm obviously going to be rusty. I was about to buy a new one when I figured I should do my due diligence and at least check the switch. Sure enough, it was dead, but I was so impressed that it did still partially work after all this time, I had to write a review.

After submitting the review, it gave me the option of creating a post. A really great idea, I think. If I'm going to go through the trouble of witting a review, I might as well publish it for myself. Not that any of my friends are likely to need a good finder for their nonexistent telescope, but the idea is a good way for creating trusted reviews.

Adorama

Telrad Finder Sight

Still lighting 20 years later

Bruce Millbury, MA 2/24/2009

5 5

Pros: Easy To Use, Durable, Accurate

Best Uses: Astronomy, Terrestrial Viewing

Describe Yourself: Casual/ Recreational

After twenty years (I bought it in 1989) the potentiometer finally went, but it should be a cheap fix and I can get by with bypassing it for now.

It's a really great finder, allowing you to see your field of view within the context of the sky as opposed to through a small scope. I wouldn't want to use anything else and will certainly replace mine if it ever does go for good.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Government Online

One of Obama's transition teams, the TIGR (Technology, Innovation and Government Reform) Team makes some bold, yet good "honest sense" statements about transforming our government into a modern and efficient system through the use of new internet technology. If the new administration can pull this off, the effects are hard to imagine initially.

Think about it though.... vision, if you will, a world with no paper and yet ubiquitous and secure access to everything you need. You'd have access to all your medical files, x-rays, images, etc, control over who get's to see them and a record of who and when for every access. All of your interactions with the government could happen anytime at your convenience. People could have clear access to information on legislation, budgets, projects, public police logs, and anything else that is part of the public record. Imagine now a collection of tools (the "mashups" mentioned in the video) that allow researchers, experts, and ordinary citizens to break down the issues and come up with the best possible policies.

It would be nearly impossible and incredibly stupid to commit fraud in such a system. Politicians would have an incredible resource through this participation, and differences would have to be explained directly to the people. This isn't to say that it should be rule by the mob even a complete democracy. The role of the republic in our government is crucial to furthering innovation and progress. The very fact that we will soon be swearing in our 44th president, just 220 years after George Washington took office, says a lot about both the role of leadership and of change.

There will need to be a of lot organization and careful design to make sure things are both secure and yet appropriately open. Coordinating collaboration with such diverse groups will be challenging too, but imagine having topic moderators sponsored across universities in the U.S. and the world. These groups could provide regular updates to data, conduct workshops and conferences, develop presentations, classroom materials, and other media. Most importantly, each group will be responsible for maintaining a model of their part of world system, be it energy, economics, or local crime. These models would explain potential problems and provide tests for different policies.

In all these ideas are pretty much extensions of my Google 10 to the 100th idea which may be up for voting January 27th, 2009 if I'm lucky. Anyway, take 4 minutes and watch the video. It's a bit nerdy, but if you are familiar with the tech and where the government is now in comparison, we are talking about radical change.