Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why has Manned Space Flight been Progressing so Slowly?

The sobering answer is, because most people couldn't care less.

No one has walked on the moon in 35 years. We are further away from the Apollo program than Apollo was from the great depression. Mars is a distant unknown date on NASA's calendar and private space flight amounts to little more than barn storming. The fact is spending the necessary money to explore our solar system is simply a matter of priorities and space exploration is not a priority.

Some would ask, “Why explore space at all?” The only answer this question needs is another question. Why explore anywhere? The answer to that question is going to very from person to person but as soon as you start parsing the answers you will discover something. Most people are not explorers, nor do they recognize the importance of exploration. They will tell you they don't see the point in spending money “up there”. Never mind the fact that all the money will be spent 'down here' they just don't see it.

Many would let machines explore space because it is too dangerous for humans. Don't worry they will. Machines are getting smarter all the time and if they ever surpass us in intelligence then they will inherited the destiny we thought was ours. There can only be one "first step", let it be ours, let it be human. The Universe belongs to us. For now.

Maybe the government should boost spending until private industry can take over. There are no voters in space so politicians as self serving as they are, are not going to fund space exploration. And most people being as self serving as they are, are not going to demand that their politicians spend more money on space exploration. There is a unhealthy relationship between NASA and the U.S. Government. NASA pretends to explore space and congress pretends to fund them.

Space exploration is expensive, you can't do it on the cheap. NASA still hasn't learned this lesson. They intend to retire the space shuttle and even hand the space station over to the Russians to free up funds to build the kinds of rockets we launched 30 years ago. Of course they'll lose the shuttles ability to do repair and assembly missions and the space station as a staging location but they are stuck. Congress just isn't going to come up with money for an energetic manned space program. NASA and every other space agency in the world is underfunded. If it were possible to do more with less then other countries that are talking big and spending a lot less would be going further. No one is where NASA has been because no other government is spending the money the U.S. government has in the past.

Let private industry pay for it. Private space programs are in their infancy but so far no private billionaire benefactor has decided to spend his entire fortune and go to the moon.

Would it even be possible for private business to explore space? They're are no customers in space and there aren't enough people able to drop 20 million dollars on a ride into orbit to make it pay. Let's see a 10 billion dollar a year space program would require 500 people to spend 20 million every single year and risk their life to sustain it. Nope ain't gonna' happen.

Space exploration is going to have to wait until there are literally hundreds of thousands of billionaires. Who could spend 20 million like it's pocket money. That's going to be a long long time.

Of course where there is a will there might be a way. I wonder what that way might be?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

8 Reasons Why We Haven't Been Visited by Aliens

Fermi's Paradox. Where are the Aliens?

In 1950 Enrico Fermi asked this question, more accurately he asked, “Where is everybody?” The universe is so old and large, it has been argued, that there has been plenty of time for many technologically advanced civilizations to arise and spread across the galaxy. Yet, there is no evidence of such life. Interestingly, it is this lack of evidence that is the most compelling argument against there being any other life in the universe. Enrico Fermi may have been one of the smartest people ever to live but I didn't let that discourage me from coming up with my own reasons.

More specifically I decided see how many reasons I could think of to explain why we haven't been visited by Aliens.

1.) They already did and we didn't notice. Many People believe Earth was visited by Aliens in the distant past. Sadly there is no 'conclusive' proof.

2.) There are no Aliens. It is entirely possible that we are the only examples of intelligent life in the universe. Whoopee, the Universe is all ours.

3.) The Aliens haven't found us yet. The universe could be so vast that other intelligent life just hasn't encountered us. Or conversely intelligent life could be extremely rare.

4.) They have found us, they want to surprise us and they're on the way. This one is popular in Science Fiction. We can't get to them so they gotta come to us. I hope they're friendly.

5.) Intelligent life could be self limiting. The competitive instincts of evolution causes intelligent beings to destroy each other in warfare. This one appears all to likely. Let's hope our wisdom can out pace our technology. Artificial Intelligence before nanotechnology please!

6.) They are already here but they are robots in disguise, or lizards, or something. Too weird, I let you Google this one.

7.) Aliens are deliberately avoiding contact. They may be avoiding us for our own good. Sort of like Star Fleets prime directive in Star Trek. We know form Earths history that when an advanced culture comes in contact with a more primitive one, the primitive one usually suffers. Either its culture morphs to take on the characteristics of the more advanced one or it is destroyed trying to compete. Along with the civilization that spawned it.

8.) Aliens just don't have anything to say to us. Another likely scenario. Any aliens that have existed longer than us – pick your own time frame - would be more technologically advanced. They may have enhanced their intelligence to such an extent, that they would view the universe and their place in it much differently than we do. We just may not have much in common. Humans don't spend much time talking to moss and insects and from an Alien perspective that may be just what we look like. Growing and crawling on the surface of this planet. Let's just hope they don't poke a stick in our nest.

There are many other subtle variations on these ideas but I think I got the obvious ones.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Is Science Fiction Mainstream Entertainment?

It is a commonly excepted notion that science fiction has gone mainstream. One way to gage if an idea has penetrated popular culture is to examine its prevalence in our movies and TV shows. Since science fiction movies are some of the top grossing films of all time and come out with some regularity it would be temping to call it mainstream.

I would call science fiction mainstream if its major subcategories were being well represented in our popular culture – TV shows and movies.

For the purpose of examining this question I think it would be useful to break science fiction into three main categories?

  1. Science Fantasy – Does not seek to examine the affects of technological advances but merely uses a futuristic setting to tell an entertaining story.

  1. Movies that focus on one particular advance in technology in order to gage its impact on society.

  1. The last type is more holistic and attempts to guess how we will live our lives in the future taking into consideration a panoply of scientific advances.

Are all of these different types of science fiction represented in mainstream entertainment?

Let's take a look at some popular science fiction movies and TV shows.

The Movies;

Blade Runner, The Matrix,, The Terminator, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Gattaca, Total Recall, Minority Report, Contact, RoboCop, A.I., The Truman Show, 1984, Transformers.

The TV Shows;

Star Trek, Babylon 5, V, Alien Nation, The Six Million Dollar Man, Max Head Room, The Jetson, The Wild, Wild West, Ghost in the shell.

I think this list is representative of the genre. It would be quite an effort to summarize each of these movies and TV shows in detail so I am going to be presumptuous assume familiarity on the part of the reader. For the uninitiated Google these movies and TV shows for more info.

What immediately strikes me about this list is that the TV shows do a much better job than the movies, showing how regular people might adjust their lives to advanced technologies or novel situations.

The movies on the list tend to focus in on their plot with laser like precisions giving us a myopic view of the future. Presenting it through the eyes of just a few key characters. This is an effective story telling tactic but in science fiction it is over used.

What Science fiction movies gain in focus we the viewers lose in perspective.

This is a missed opportunity, thinking about how our society will deal with culturally disruptive technologies shouldn't be limited to just a small percentage of the population. All of our lives and lively hoods are dependent on technology in increasingly overt ways. The technology we develop to make are lives easer can just as easily be turned again society as a hole. The only way we have so far been able to deal with this is through increased surveillance and reduced privacy and freedom.

A more optimistic view of how we may integrate highly advance tech into our lives is needed. Instead of stumbling forward a more conscious discussion about how we will integrate these advances into our culture needs to take place. Science fiction can be a catalyst for that discussion.

Science Fiction is the only branch of entertainment which examines how people will cope with technological advances that may drastically affect how we live our lives. As technology races ahead at ever accelerating rates, it is important that we all are conscious of the possible consequences. Many scientists were inspired by science fiction as children to pursue their chosen professions and many science fiction dreams have became reality.

Should we conclude that science fiction has gone mainstream? To shape the future we must imagine it. If the only time we see robots in our movies they are blowing things up, that may be what we get. Literally.

What makes for a good Science Fiction movie?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Television is about to be swallowed by a “True Multimedia Experience”

The Internet won't replace TV it will swallow it. Television as we know it is about 50 years old. Thats a long run for any technology but something better is emerging.

Now this doesn't mean the experience of watching video is going away, it means the experience of watching TV is going to get a lot more immersive. The experience of a TV show, we might even still call it TV, won't begin and end with any given episode. It will be surrounded by a multitude of other media.

“Multimedia is old news”, you say, “boring”. Well thats not possible you see because multimedia never happened. The vision was there but the technology wasn't. Interactive TV – boring. Full motion video in our video games – boring. Web TV - Who wants to surf the Internet on a low resolution TV, on a dial-up Internet connection – double boring.

What was needed to make multimedia really work was lots of processing power. Check, modern computers can juggle video with ease. High resolution TVs so all types of media including text is legible on screen. Check, High Definition TVs are now the standard. High penetration of broadband Internet. Check, modern broadband connections can pull down video in faster than real time. And one more thing we didn't even know we wanted, Social Networking.

Social networks don't just appeal to the technically inclined. 'Regular people' use social networks and this is what makes them so valuable. Social networks are the most efficient way for millions of people to interact, exchange ideas, and gossip about all things that interest them.

Social networking capabilities will be integrated into the websites of TV shows. Fans of TV want this level of involvement. Witness the way TV watcher have not only embraced reality TV but hang on every twist of fate befalling their favorites participants. They relish in the emotional roller coaster ride and immerse themselves in the lore of their favorite shows.

People have always enjoyed talking about what they watch on TV with their friends but the Internet brings a hole new level of interactivity. Video will only be a part of the experience. Supplemental and mini episodes, alternate endings, downloadable music, literary fiction, video games, merchandise and contests. This is a true multimedia experience. Video only experiences will be considered shallow.

Users of social networks spend more time on these sites than any other. This solves another problem. How to monetize TV shows that are streamed over the Internet. Since fans won't leave a site as soon as they are done watching a show. Targeted ads should be quite lucrative.

Much of what I have written about here has already begun but no one has pulled together all the pieces. TV production companies are still coming to grips with this change and don't quite trust this new medium.

The pull of the Internet will prove irresistible. The Internet is where the people are. So it is to the Internet they must go.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Who Owns The Electromagnetic Spectrum?

Why is the electromagnetic spectrum so valuable?

Because like land. They're not making any more of it.

The Government regulates the use of the electromagnetic spectrum for the 'public good'. With the 700 megahertz spectrum auction underway it is interesting to note that the public has very little influence in deciding how the spectrum will ultimately be used.

The condensed back story goes like this. The government began regulating electromagnetic transmissions because the electromagnetic spectrum is a limited resource. Transmitters that operate on the same frequency will interfere with one another making reliable communication on that frequency impossible. Reliable communication being in the public interest, the government established rules for its use and granted licenses to responsible parties. This system worked for many decades but over time as wireless communication became more widely used the government ran out of spectrum to grant and so the spectrum became extremely valuable.

It is now worth billions. With this much money at stake everybody wants a piece of the pie. The question of how to fairly apportion the spectrum remains an open problem. The government regulators unable to balance the many conflicting interests asked Congress allow them to auction the spectrum.

This solved the governments problem but it didn't solve 'the problem'. The problem of how to make the most efficient use of the limited electromagnetic spectrum? We could attempt to solve this problem through research and we do but some experiments can only be conducted on a large scale. There is no way to know how practical a new type of communication network might be unless you actually deploy it. Build it and see if they come. Cell phones where obviously a good idea but did anybody anticipate they would become more prevalent then land lines.

Experimentation is the only way to determine what technologies and business models are most efficient.

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with an auction but if the same old assumptions about how the spectrum will be used are used to set the rules of the auction we will get little innovation. The solution is to set aside a portion of the spectrum for open use. Let anyone broadcast on it as long as it isn't with malicious intent. No fair jamming anyone else's transmissions. Set a reasonable limit on transmitting power then get out of the way and let the market sort it out.

The resulting experimentation will not only lead to new communication technologies being developed but also novel business models.

It is understandable that those who wish to experiment with new communication methods have the toughest time raising capitol. Five billion dollars is a lot of money to gamble in a spectrum auction to test a new business model. So maverick, inventors and business men are left out of the game.

Established telecoms who win spectrum auctions are likely to use the spectrum in ways similar to their current business practice. They have proven business models and it's just good business for them to want a return on their investment in a timely manner.

This risk aversion has a price. We simply don't know what new ways of using that spectrum might be invented if a portion of it were open to disruptors. Are cell towers the best way to build out a network? Maybe a mesh network would work best? What about point to point communication with low power lasers? How about a combination of these or something else entirely? With a limited amount of spectrum available constant experimentation is what is needed but experimentation isn't enough. The spectrum must be available to test these systems on a large scale.

I'm not just talking about technological experimentation. I'm talking about cooperation between businesses and their customers - the public - to discover more efficient business models. The most efficient use of a limited resource is in everyones best interest.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Can Electronic Voting Machines Help Maintain Our Faith In Democracy?

Well the truth is, it's not the machines that are the problem, it's the people running them.

Voting irregularities are primarily caused by incompetence on the part of those responsible for running elections. It is also true that some people don't care about an honest election as much as they care about their candidate of choice 'winning'.

Democracy works because the participants believe the government to be answerable to them. Of course this belief can be undermined. Democracies can be destabilized if there are enough people who believe the government is beyond their influence. They may decide to use force and intimidation as their way to power. Incidentally civil disobedience is not destabilizing because it requires those involved to except responsibility for their actions.

Electronic voting has been proposed as a way to compensate for human incompetence or corruption. Thus maintaining our faith in the electoral process. In reality it is nothing more than a blind faith in technology. The belief that if your doing it with a computer than it must be better It's also a way for people to avoid responsibility for past mistakes, or maybe even to cover up deliberate tampering.

Fortunately there are many examples of voting districts able to conduct several recounts in a matter of days with insignificant variation in their results. It would be an elementary change for voting districts with problems to observe the best practices of more efficient ones and imitate them.

The best practice seems to be paper ballots with optical scanning machines. This combines a physically verifiable record of the election and an electronic tally. You can count the votes till the cows come home and the results are the same.

Verifiability is the foundation upon which our confidence in the electoral process is built. My candidate may not have won this time but maybe next election. If I raise some money, do some campaigning, then next election we'll win for sure. With our ideas we can't loose! Yes sir, democracy is a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

E-Book Reading Devices Need Design Changes to be Successful

Electronic Book Readers (EBRs) have been one of the holly grails of gadget lovers for decades. Why then have they remained only a moderate success despite the fact the technology has been available to produce them for quite some time? I believe the answer is that no EBR has been released to market that is sufficiently flexible to give it an advantage over paper books. Until this happens EBRs will remain a niche product for gadget lovers instead of breaking into the mainstream of our culture.

The first hurdle that EBRs need to overcome is the fact that there is nothing really wrong with paper. Paper is a perfected technology. It has high image quality and is cheap to produce. Its not a technology that needs fixing.

The second hurdle is one of perception. Book readers love the platform of the book itself. Many like the feel and smell of paper. For others its just the aesthetics of books they are in love with. The sight of a bookshelf brimming with volumes fills them with glee. But this is because they associate these sensory stimuli with the ideas between the pages.

There is nothing sacred about paper any more than there was about clay tablets when they were state of the art technology. Paper has just been the best technology for storing and distributing ideas for so long that it seems almost a betrayal to abandon it. Book lovers will abandon paper when they are convinced electronic books are superior. However this won't happen until it is actually true.

There are still major drawbacks to the current devices on the market. The two most popular EBRs on the market today are the Kindle sold by Amazon and the Sony Reader. Their limitations are typical of this product category.

Digital rights management is a serious issue with these devices. In order to prevent theft. The manufactures rapped the books they sell in copy protection. This limits how you can use the documents and actually makes them less useful than paper books in many ways. They also make it less than straight foreword to get you own documents properly formated for use on the devices.

Current EBRs don't provide sufficient ability to organize your documents on the devices. With the ability to store thousands of books, it is crucial that the user be able to quickly find the precise document he is looking for. You don't have to put a thousand books on the device but it sort of defeats the purpose of EBRs if you can't load them up with books and articles.

The EBRs on the market currently use electronic paper (e-paper) for their displays. E-paper displays do not use power when the page is static only when the page is updated. This significantly reduces power consumption but e-paper has one major deficiency. It is too much like paper. E-paper displays take about one second to refresh which is not much longer than it takes you to turn a page and start reading again. If this sounds acceptable then just imagine if the computer you are using right now took one second to update your screen every time you gave it even the slightest command. Your computer would feel frustratingly slow. This slow refresh rate would also severely limit your ability to navigate the user interface and quickly locate documents. Some would make the case that EBRs aren't computers and they should be used like books. I counter that EBRs must be more than books to replace books. They must be computers. Dedicated computers but still computers. Trying to turn a computer into a book negates the purpose of the device because we already have books. Improvements in electronic paper technology is promised but for now it is an obstacle to wide spread EBR acceptance.

I am convinced that there are just a few things companies who wish to sell these devices need to get right and EBRs would be readily accepted by book lovers.

LCD displays are the way to go, higher refresh rates allow for more interactivity. Which means a better user interface. As well as a higher contrast ratio. Power consumption need not be an issue. Reflective LCDs don't need back lights. Although back lights could be optional.

Getting your books on these devices should be as easy as getting music on an mp3 player just drag and drop nothing more complicated than that. No fooling with file conversion. EBRs must support a huge number of file formats and there is no reason why they couldn't. Open source word processors already do, and their code is free to use.

The system software of EBRs must make it easy to organize and retrieve the thousands of books and articles any avid reader, student, or professional is going to want to store on them. This is the primary advantage EBRs have over paper books and if it can't do this well then what's the point.

I want access to every book I own at all times. Just like I can access anything publicly available on the Internet within seconds. Why should my own documents be excepted?

The Electronic Book Reader is a market just waiting to explode. The iPod of electronic books is yet to be produced. All it will take is for electronic companies to realize EBRs are a tool not a gimmick.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

What makes for a good Science Fiction movie?

Ah, the question that burns like a fire in the soul of every science fiction fan. Finally we shall know the answer.

To answer this question I only need to focus on those things that are unique to science fiction movies so there will be little talk of plot and characterization. This is gonna' get a little technical so I'll start out with a few relevant concepts.

A science fiction movie contains tools or artifacts which current technology cannot duplicate. Further more these technologies are integral to the plot or setting of the story such that if removed the story would no longer logically hold together.

When the science and technology in the movie/story extrapolates form but does not violate known scientific principles this is known as Hard Science Fiction

Science Fiction Convention - Some imaginary technologies are so prevalent in science fiction that little or no explanation as to how they work is necessary for fans of the genre to suspend their disbelief, I'll list a few here. Time machines, faster than light travel, energy weapons, hover craft, and aliens. Each of these requires only the barest explanation, audiences just expect them and except them in their science fiction.

Fantasy Stories – Stories in which real scientific principle are violated and no imaginary technology is needed to do so. Characters merely have 'special' abilities, or have special knowledge which allows them to bend nature to their will.

Science Fantasy - Science Fantasy is a fantasy story in a futuristic setting. Also known as bad science fiction.

What isn't science fiction?

First one more definition. Unconventional Science Fiction Technologies – Technologies which require no machinery in order to work. Of course they are allowed but you must explain them in order for them to qualify as science fiction.. Flying, time travel, or teleportation without machines. Immortality, telekinesis, or any other sort of psychic power.

Movies in which popular science fiction conventions are not followed and there is no consistency in the effects caused by the application of the technologies in the movie are not science fiction. They are science fantasy.

Now on with the show.

What makes a science fiction movie bad?

A movie can be considered bad science fiction if the plot of the movie depends on the violation of any of the following principles.

  1. The science in the movie contradicts itself. The science in the movie contradicts known scientific principles without explanation and doesn't follow popular science fiction conventions.

  2. The science in the movie does not follow accepted science fiction conventions without explaining why.

  3. The characters in the movie are unable to draw obvious conclusions based on the scientific knowledge available to them.

Can a bad science fiction movies be entertaining? Absolutely, if the movie makers are good enough salesmen but that doesn't make them good science fiction. Star Wars anybody.

What's the difference between bad science fiction and fantasy? One might imagine the events in a science fiction movie could actually take place in the future given the advancement of technology. In other words science fiction movies have the 'pretext of plausibility'. Fantasy movies do not, they are strictly fairy tales. Therefore bad science fiction movies are not fantasy.

A few examples of bad science fiction movies.

Red Planet - Violated Rule number three. The astronauts didn't know they could breath the Martian atmosphere even though they were scientists there to study the planet.

I Robot – This one really makes no sense. The most respected robotisist in the world is being held against his will in a robotics laboratory. So he builds a super advanced robot but instead of sending the robot to the police for help, decides to talk the robot into killing him in order to draw attention to the fact that he is being held against his will. The killer robot then runs away and hides. An investigation into the murder subsequently reveals the main plot about a computer trying to take over the world. At the end of the movie they let the killer robot go because there is no law against robots killing people. This one breaks all the Rules and is unwatchable by science fiction fans.

Armageddon – A killer asteroid is headed for earth. So astronauts use a nuclear bomb to blow it apart. Of course this should have created a lot of smaller but still deadly asteroids. Rule number three violated. It was a fun movie anyway.

What makes for a good science fiction movie?

Good science fiction movies follow these principles.

  1. The technology in the movie extrapolates from but does not violate known scientific principles. This of course is hard science fiction.

  2. When known scientific principles are violated the movie explains why and how.

  3. When known scientific principles are violated without explanation the movie follows popular science fiction conventions.

Now a few good science fiction movies.

I won't say to much about these movies in case you haven't seen them. You really should see them they are superb.

Blade Runner – This movie is filled with compelling characters each one trying to discover what it means to be human. Even if they are not.

Planet of the Apes – This movie very effectively tackles racial discrimination. No not the remake, the original movie.

Forbidden Planet – This movie tackle the question of whether or not some technology is to powerful to wield. This one is dated so give it some slack.

Serenity – Originally a TV show called Firefly. Serenity is a really fun film with great characters. All though it doesn't effectively deal with the serious political issues it raises.

Finally, let's not forget the most important thing of all. A science fiction movie should be fun to watch and for that it needs to have all the other ingredients of a good movie. A compelling story to pull us in. Intriguing characters whose fate we must know, and movie makers who respect their audience and have something to say.

Is Science Fiction Mainstream Entertainment

Friday, January 18, 2008

GM's Chevy Volt, The Electric Car You'll Want

The time of electric car is fast approaching. With the demand for oil increasing faster than supply, high oil prices appear to be here to stay. Yes we could pump more oil but the worlds appetite appears insatiable. This is the type of demand that can change industries.

Let's look at the biggest user of them all. The United States uses 146 billion gallons of gasoline per year and that amount grows by about 1 percent per year. That increase may not seem like allot but that's a 11 percent increase per decade, compounded of course. So why don't don't we just drive smaller cars?

Driving fuel efficient cars will help a lot but it won't stop the growth. It takes 12 years to replace most of the cars on our roads and cars are lasting longer all the time. With an increasing population by the time we've replaced the cars we're driving now the total number of cars on our roads will have increased enough that national fuel consumption will still have increased. We need something more.

Tax gas to death, that will make people drive less. This is not likely to work. Compared to most countries America has very responsive political system. Try and raise taxes in America and people respond by voting their politicians out. The same thing happens when you try to force - encourage - people to use public transportation.

Market forces are the only things Americans seem to respond to and they respond to them in a different way than people with environmentally driven political agendas would like them to. Buy stubbornly inventing new ways to do precisely what they please.

So far the search for a solution to our oil needs has been the search for a silver bullet. An examination of any single proposal accurately discovers that it will prove inadequate. A combination of solutions however may do the trick. Here's the plan.

Use more biofuels. We're working on it. The U.S. Government recently passed a law requiring the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels per year by 2022.

Increase fuel mileage. On the way. The same legislation mandates an increase in fuel mileage standards to 35 miles per gallon. The current standards are 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.2 mpg for SUVs and trucks.

Produce pluggable hybrid cars. Coming in 2010. Pluggable hybrid cars are different than current hybrids in that they are meant to be driven primarily on battery power. Current hybrids use a gasoline engine to recharge their batteries. You can't plug them in to an electrical outlet – the mains – to recharge their batteries so they are still gasoline powered cars even if they are more fuel efficient.

The real solution is to plug them in at home or at work to recharge their batteries. No gasoline is needed. Toyota has recently demonstrated a pluggable version of the Prius. It can travel 7 miles on its batteries. This will have to improve because GM is about enter the market in big way.

GM says they will produce 60,000 Chevy Volts in 2010. The Chevy Volt is a pluggable hybrid car that can travel 40 miles on a full battery charge. The vehicles batteries can be charged in 6 hours. Which is best done at night when electricity costs are lower. This level of performance would be acceptable to most people because most cars are driven less than 30 miles per day. If the car's battery does run dry then the car switches to ordinary gasoline.

This plan looks like it just might work. With typical driving patterns, drivers of the Volt would run on battery power 80 percent of the time and fill up the fuel tank when they needed to ravel long distances. Literally, the best of both worlds. They would use dramatically less fuel without giving up the convenience of owning a vehicle. Once again it would appear predictions of the demise of the private automobile are greatly exaggerated.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Internet is just a tool, compared to The Next Big Thing

What ever comes after the Internet will blow your mind, by its overwhelming impact on society. The Internet will cease to be an end in itself and become merely a tool like the computer itself.

The evolution of technology has many patterns which have been extensively documented. The most widely known is “Moore's law” which states that the transistor density on an integrated circuit will double about every two years. Now this isn't a law of any kind, its an observation that has remained true for 40 years. It is this “law” that has propelled the electronics industry forward. But it isn't Moore's law that I want to talk about. Not directly anyway.

Now I'm going to make an observation. Similar ones have been made before but this one's just a little different. “Approximately every 20 years a different - but not necessarily new - use for the computer eclipses the others so completely that it becomes the new primary reason to own a computer.” The old uses don't go away in fact they continue to grow in value and utility but the new use is so compelling that the old uses become secondary. Here is my line of reasoning.

Computers were put to a wide variety of uses from their inception. Some uses have been more important than others and over time these uses have changed in importance relative to each other. What I am interested in is the primary use of computers at any given time during their evolution.

First came the mainframe. The mainframe was introduced in the 1950s, and became important to business in the 1960s. Primarily as a record keeping tool. For any company with thousands of employees and hundreds of thousands of customers owning one gave them an advantage in efficiency so every large business had to have one. Medium sized companies bought time on the systems of larger ones and small companies did everything the old fashioned way manually.

Note I will not examine the evolutionary advances in mainframes and minicomputers. Sense I am examining the uses of computers not the hardware itself.

Next came the personal computer. Businesses of all sizes can afford them. The personal computer was invented in the 1970s and became a useful business tool in the 1980s. It also captured the imagination of the public at the same time. But it wasn't the personal computer itself that was so important. It was the fact that computers in general had become so powerful that their real usefulness and value came to lie in another one of their abilities, 'number crunching'. It was in this period that computers were used to sift through all the data that was being stored in them. This allowed company managers to have a clearer picture of the internal state of their companies and make better decisions, this made the economy as a whole much more efficient. Millions of people bought computers for their homes but most still didn't have a compelling reason to own.

Then came the Internet. Putting a computer on the Internet changes its utility yet again, now it is primarily a communications device. Development of the Internet started in the 1960s and it has evolved continually since. But the Internet didn't enter public consciousness until the mid 1990s, and now in the 2000s it is indispensable to modern life. We couldn't run our economy without it. It allows anyone connected to it to communicate with anyone else, almost no one wants to be without it.

Now here's the punch line. The next big thing will arrive in the year 2015. It's something we use our computers for already but it's something they don't handle very well, more refinement of the software is needed, so it must wait until its time comes. The rise of this use will change the way we live, work and play. The Internet will facilitate it, as it does with so many other services but it will be bigger and more valuable than any other. More valuable than Google, more valuable than, more valuable than Myspace and Facebook combined. More valuable than Microsoft. Everybody will want it, politicians will say it's a human right and by 2025 everyone will have it.

Now the fun part. I'm going try and guess what it is. I'll probably be wrong but I won't let that stop me. Remember that whatever it is, it already exists just in a less significant form and it awaits an unknown technological breakthrough to propel it forward.

Here are some big ideas but I will only use the first one, the others are too powerful to assess their impact. We'll save those for 2035 and 2055.

  1. Natural language Interfaces - Talk to your computer conversationally. Tell your computer what you want it to do and it does it. Ask it what you want to know and it tells you. Tell it who you want to speak to and it connects you.

  1. General Artificial Intelligence. - Tell your computer what problem to solve and it solves it, no programing necessary. This one gets you to the next one in a hurry.

  1. The Singularity - Tell your computer what you want and it gives it to you and everybody has one.

These are some big ideas in fact each successive one evolves naturally out of the previous one. So they may all come true eventually but they don't speak to a particular use for your computer. Yes a lot of uses come to mind when these things are contemplated but what is 'the' use? The one that eclipses all others.

I think it's this. Educational software that really works. Sound mundane? How about this?

The fact is nobody knows how to create educational software thats truly engaging. Software so compelling that you can't tear yourself away. You forget to eat, go to the bathroom, bathe and you forget to call your mother for weeks. When you finally do come up for air. you wouldn't have wasted your time because you'll be smarter, better informed, and more productive. Sound far fetched? Well what do you get when you give a billion people accesses to the sum total of human knowledge, allow them to communicate instantly with anyone else, layer on a natural language interface that lets you speak to your computer as conversationally as another human being and it tells you anything you want to know?

The next big thing that's what and we only have to wait until 2015.

The Internet with a natural language interface makes this possible but remember the Internet is just a tool.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Buying a Video Card is too frustrating

I'm a gamer. No, really I am. But I'm more of a part time gamer. I don't spend hours every day gaming. Instead I spend hours every week gaming. On a variety of different systems including my PC. About every couple of years I face a most frustrating experience. What new graphics card to buy?

Now I like to get my moneys worth. I'm technically literate so I build my own computers and when I upgrade I do so piece meal over time. This does require a fair bit of research but I wouldn't call the experience frustrating. Yes Intel has taken to strange naming conventions with their chips, but their model numbers do indicate which CPUs you can expect to perform better than others. AMD does a much better job by putting numbers in the names their CPUs that ruffly correspond to the relative processing power of their chips and they have been doing this for years. Their graphics cards however do not get this treatment. I will acknowledge ATI and NVIDA have made efforts to give buyers some idea of the relative speed of their cards by model number but they have not been consistent.

I can't just walk into a store and buy a graphics card that will suit my needs. I can't compare the speed of my old card to a new one unless I upgrade regularly because new video cards are rarely benchmarked against low to mid range cards more than a couple of years old. I don't know how much faster my new card will be compared to my old one. And so it begins. Hours spent pouring over benchmark results. Days lurking forums for anecdotal evidence on what card will play the games I am interested in. Culminating in a splitting headache before I finally give up and just by something..

Is it just me thats having trouble with this? I don't think so.

Not all game enthusiasts are technically inclined. The popularity of game consoles is due in large part to the fact that you don't have to know a thing about its inner workings to use it. Buying a video card on the other hand takes many hours of research. Few casual gamers are going to put the necessary time in to understand the technology well enough to make an informed decision, they just want to play the games. These people represent lost sales. The industry shows no interest in them what so ever. So casual gamers are left completely out of the market, part time gamers are left pulling their hair out and the graphics card industry seemingly couldn't care less.

There are exceptions, where benchmark numbers are printed right on the front of the box. Most card makers will do this some of the time but why so infrequently. Most boxes tell you only that the card inside is gives you an incredible gaming experience. Which is totally useless.

The solution is straight forward. Model numbers should tell us approximately how fast video cards are relative to other cards from the same company not just tell what generation the card is from. NVIDIA and AMD each need to create their own benchmarking standard or just adopt existing one and print the resulting scores right on the box. Their partners should be required to do the same. A synthetic benchmark won't tell me how fast a card will run a particular game but it's not supposed to. It will tell me how the speed of one card on the shelf generally compares to another. There should be a recommended list of popular games on the back of the box telling me what games I can play with that card.

I and millions of others gamers can't be wrong. We need some help and the games are waiting. Is this really to much to ask?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Casual Gaming Revolultion

Dance Dance Revolution is a rhythm game available for most computer game consoles. It comes with a dance mat arrayed with squares that you step on in time to music. It's what's known as a casual game. That is a game that is played by people who play video games infrequently or non competitively. In resent years this type of game has been disparaged by “real gamers”. The fear has been that game development companies would begin focusing on casual games which cost less to develop but cans sell as many units as 'hard core' games, thus leaving hard core gamers with fewer of the types of games they like to play. The verdict is still out on weather or not this will happen but the impact of this category of game and gamer is now without dispute. Witness the success of the Nintendo Wii. I got to witness this phenomenon first hand this holiday season.

When my family gathered for our annual Christmas celebration I brought what I knew would be a special treat. You see in resent years we have adopted the tradition of playing some type of game at Christmas, besides all the other festivities we engage in. Computer games where strictly of the menu however because they don't appeal to most people. I believed Dance Dance Revolution would be viewed favorably even though it is a computer game because it is based around a concept everyone could understand 'dancing'. This was not a plan to turn anyone who wasn't interested into a video gamer, it was a plan to have fun. I waited until well after dinner before springing my trap – I mean setting up the game.

First my daughter who is an experienced Dance Dance Revolution player played. Others quickly grasped the concept and wanted to give it a try. Some people required a little coaxing but once they gave it a try they became big fans. There were a few people who would not play but they were of the type that refused to do anything that they thought might be embracing. My mother who has never played a video game in her life danced her heart out. My father who hasn't play a video game sense the early days of the ATARI 2600 cut a rug and most agreed this was our best Christmas party ever.

This experience has led me to make some easy observations and draw some inescapable conclusions. Casual games encourage friendly competition and comradery. Players cheer each other on rather than try and best each other. All though some people find they are more competitive than they thought. Casual games are also challenging but have very simple rules so you can learn to play them in a few minutes just by watching. Remember when playing games meant board games and every member of the family played, well casual games bring that fun back and then some.

I believe video games will soon achieve the same cultural significance as movies. Movies come in a wide range of genres which appeal to people with diverse interests, almost everyone likes movies. Similarly video games have different genres and these are continually expanding. Soon nearly everyone will claim to like some type of game and hard core gamers will not be left behind they will be viewed the same way movie buffs are viewed today, respectfully, instead of people with a strange habit. I feel more accepted already.

I don't know if Dance Dance Revolution will make an appearance again next year but something like it might. I'll let you know how it goes.