Tag Archives: innovation

The Wizard and the Prophet

Charles Mann, author of 1491, has a new book called The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here’s the Amazon description:

From the best-selling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493–an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment, laying the groundwork for how people in the twenty-first century will choose to live in tomorrow’s world.

In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups–Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, nonpolemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces–food, water, energy, climate change–grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.

I made my own attempt to reconcile these world views a few years ago. My conclusion was that it is theoretically possible to grow without exceeding limits, if almost all innovation that occurs is aimed at transcending those limits. In the real world, I don’t think there is any evidence our species is capable of that. What is more likely is that technology helps us grow until we come up against the limits, then we experience a setback that takes us back under the limits, then eventually we start again. We may push the limits a little further each time, but the setbacks can be long and painful enough to ruin entire human lifetimes. If I am right, we haven’t even finished the first cycle yet as a planetary civilization. Mann’s book 1491, along with Jared Diamond’s Collapse, were instrumental in helping me to realize that regional and even continental cultures have experienced major setbacks before.

January 2018 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Larry Summers says we have a better than even chance of recession in the next three years. Sounds bad, but I wonder what that stat would look like for any randomly chosen three year period in modern history.
  • The United States is involved in at least seven wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan. Nuclear deterrence may not actually the work.
  • Cape Town, South Africa is in imminent danger of running out of water. Longer term, there are serious concerns about snowpack-dependent water supplies serving large urban populations in Asia and western North America.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

the Trump infrastructure bill

The Trump infrastructure plan has apparently leaked. The upshot seems to be that states and metropolitan planning organizations, among others, can submit projects to be matched at up to 20% by the federal government. Most of the selection criteria are based on making a strong case that there is a plan to come up with the other 80%.

This sounds okay, as far as it goes, and it might get some projects over the hump that would not otherwise get built. I like the idea that metropolitan planning organizations are eligible, because they are in the best position to look at a city’s needs as a whole, across fragmented political entities and across types of infrastructure. Cities are where people live, where most of the economy happens and taxes are paid, and where people are educated and given skills and where new ideas come from that make our lives better in the long run. What I don’t really like is that economic and social benefits are given only 5% weight in the selection criteria. And even then, they are considered for an individual project in isolation, in the absence of any larger plan. In my ideal world, planning organizations would have comprehensive infrastructure plans that look at all types of infrastructure together over the long term, even including green infrastructure, and really focus on maximizing economic benefits. This would allow us to prioritize individual projects in the larger context of how the whole socioeconomic system works and not just on one “project at a time.

Still, this might be a small step in the right direction. Along with public infrastructure and some small steps to encourage capital investment, research and development in the private sector, add serious programs to address education, job skills training, and research and development in the public sector and you would have the beginnings of a long term national economic plan. Maybe toss in a revenue-neutral pollution tax for good measure.

experimental quad-copter at Boeing

Boeing has an experimental quad-copter that can lift 500 pounds. The way they describe it, this could fill a niche between shipping of huge containers and delivery of tiny parcels to your door.

This kind of vehicle may not fit into your drone delivery fantasy, but it has practicality on its side. “This starts to sound like the kind of thing that can do things in real life,” says Drew McElroy, CEO of Transfix, a trucking brokerage firm. As home deliveries have grown in popularity over the past 15 years or so, he says, shipments have gotten smaller, and more targeted. The old model—trucks haul supplies to Walmart, people drive to Walmart and bring home their shopping—is evaporating. Any vehicle that can fill in the gaps between the huge bulk shipments that move by sea and the shoebox-sized packages that come to our doors can play a role.

The other interesting thing about the article is a brief description of the R&D unit that developed this thing.

In fact, Boeing isn’t quite sure where it’s going. “It’s a concurrent exploration of a nascent market and nascent technology,” says Pete Kunz, the chief technologist for HorizonX, the Boeing skunk works-venture capital arm hybrid division ///something like that/// that built this thing (the marketing team hasn’t given it a catchy moniker yet)…

Exactly what it will carry and where it will take it remains an open question. Boeing doesn’t have any concrete plans or timelines for commercialization yet, but Logan Jones, HorizonX’s senior director, says it could tote supplies to offshore oil rigs, or any other “dull, dirty, and dangerous” work now done by helicopters, which require expensive human pilots. It could take pallets from a port to a distribution center, or from a distribution center to a store. “This won’t show up at your door,” Jones says. (This is a commercial project, but it’s easy to see potential military applications, like moving supplies around combat areas.)



2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

December 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The U.S. has lost ground relative to its peers on road deaths, and is now well below average. I noted that something similar has happened with respect to health care costs, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, drug addiction and infrastructure. Maybe a realistic goal would be to make America average again.
  • A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.
  • Daniel Ellsberg says we are very, very lucky to have avoided nuclear war so far. There are some tepid ideas for trimming the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and yet it is being upgraded and expanded as we speak. The North Korea situation is not getting better. Trump may be playing to religious fundamentalists who actually are looking forward to the Apocalypse.

Most hopeful stories:

  • Exercise may be even better for your brain than it is for your body, and exercising your body may be even better for your brain than exercising your brain itself.
  • Macroeconomic modeling is improving. So, just to pick a random example, it might be possible to predict the effects on a change in tax policy on the economy. Now all we need is politicians who are responsive to logic and evidence, and we could accomplish something. At least a few economists think the imperfect tax plan the U.S. Congress just passed might actually stimulate business capital investment enough to move the dial on productivity. The deliberate defunding of health care included in the bill is going to hurt people, but maybe not all that dramatically.
  • Moody’s introduced a new methodology for assessing climate risk in municipal bonds.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • There are life forms surviving in space right now, most likely of Earth origin. I wondered if maybe we should purposely contaminate other planets with them.
  • Microsoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.
  • Futuristic technologies keep coming along. Something vaguely like the “liquid metal” from Terminator 2 is being used for experimental aircraft parts. Vital signs might be monitored soon using a simple RFID device. A tiny electric shock of just the right size to just the right part of your brain might cure you of bad habits. And Magic Leap may finally release…something or other…in 2018.

The Best of the Best of 2017

Here’s a little feature I call the Best of the Best of. Basically I’ll link and comment on a few “2017 in review” articles I happen to come across. I’ll let all this rattle around in my brain and do a “best of” my own blog in January.

  • Worst cyberattacks of 2017 (Axios): Cyberattacks are bad, of course. This is an article about the most successfully bad ones, including hospitals, pacemakers, and Equifax. The article suggests, without providing any evidence at least in this short article, that some of these might be government hackers in North Korea, Russia, or China gathering information and probing U.S. vulnerabilities prior to a larger attack in the future.
  • The year in architecture (curbed.com). Not that I particularly care about architectural style, but the architectural press covers some planning and sustainability topics that I find interesting, A few highlights for me include Hurricane Harvey coverage, what Google Citylabs is up to in Toronto, Blade Runner 2049, a new energy-efficient Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City, timber-framed skyscrapers, and a Philadelphia rowhouse because Philadelphia rowhouses are where all the cool kids live and you don’t know what you’re missing until you buy one.
  • And for completeness, the year in landscape architecture (Huffington Post). A highlight for me was the reopening of the big fountain garden at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia. I have fond memories of visiting that garden as a kid and got a chance to see it again with my own children shortly after it reopened this year. The rest of the article is a bunch of park designs and book reviews including some touching on urban ecology.
  • Planetizen urban planning blog’s most popular posts of 2017: a few that caught my eye are a Microsoft smart city development in Arizona, Seattle discontinuing its bikeshare program, “bikelash” from angry drivers, skepticism about self-driving cars, and the never-ending debates about density, gentrification, and New Urbanism. They also have Top 10 lists of planning-related books, websites, and apps. One new website that caught my attention is called “Treepedia”.
  • 2017 MacArthur Fellows: I hadn’t heard of any individuals, but it can be interesting to see the professions and trending specialties. I count 10 artists/writers, 7 social scientists/activists (sorry to lump you guys together), 4 computer/physical scientists/mathematicians, 1 journalist, and 2 landscape architects/planners
  • Stuff that happened in the Middle East in 2017 (Lawfare): Saudi Arabia initiated some social and economic reforms, but also an internal crackdown on political rivals, aggressive diplomatic attacks on some of its neighbors and a vicious, ongoing military attack on Yemen which the U.S. is participating in. The war in Syria is apparently winding down with its government hanging on. ISIS was decisively defeated by the Iraqi and U.S. armies and no longer controls territory politically, but has “gone underground” to plot and inspire terrorist attacks around the world. The U.S. is trying to back out of the Iran nuclear deal. Kurdistan tried to declare independence and the rest of the world basically ignored it. The U.S. has also torpedoed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and gotten itself condemned by the great bulk of the United Nations. But good news: the U.S. still leads a “coalition of the willing” including “Israel, Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo”, at least until several of those blink out of existence from sea level rise (a slight irony there?).
  • The year in hate crimes (ProPublica): Somewhat unsurprisingly, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic incidents were both up in the U.S.
  • Best political long-form articles of 2017 (Longreads.com): This is a seriously deep dive into resurgent white nationalism in Europe and the U.S. If you take the plunge be sure to come back up for air.
  • Best science and technology long-form articles of 2017 (Longreads.com): The most interesting one here is on artificial intelligence augmenting human intelligence.
  • Jealousy List 2017 (Bloomberg): This is a list of articles Bloomberg writers liked in other publications. There is way too much to read here. A few interesting ones are the decline of public research universities, James Burnham’s “managerial elite”, what is going on at Snopes.com, even more white nationalism, the risk of nuclear war, Elizabeth Warren, chemical industry foxes guarding the toxic hen house at the EPA, the complete dysfunction and failure that is the U.S. health care system, the Bin Laden raid, and octopuses.
  • The Most-Read Business Stories of 2017 (Wired): A lot of these have to do with the effect of automation on jobs. Also, Amazon’s “nomadic retiree army”, guaranteed basic income, and China’s social scoring plan.
  • Best of Wired Science (Wired): Wired Science is awesome. I could spend 2018 just reading these articles from 2017. The most popular commercial species of banana is so inbred it is in serious trouble. (But, one thing I learned when I lived, worked, and traveled in Asia for awhile is that there is a whole universe of delicious bananas out there most of us have never tried. Some have seeds, don’t ship well or don’t keep well, and therefore are not commercially ideal, but are actually quite delicious.) Meat allergies might be caused by a tick. Life-extension pills, fake meat, and robot friends might all become real things.
  • 2017’s Biggest Conspiracy Theories (Snopes.com): Maybe these really were big, but I hadn’t heard of most of them. A few things I didn’t know is that this year’s killer hurricanes either were real and created by the government, or else they were fictitious and created by the government. The survivors of the Las Vegas shooting are being hunted down and murdered. Bitcoin is a creation of an evil artificial intelligence. And Obama is running a shadow government. Now, I don’t automatically discount all conspiracy theories. I figure that for every 100 conspiracy theories, one or two are probably true, so it’s good to keep an open mind, review the facts, and then reject about 99% of them.
  • Wired most-read opinion pieces (Wired): A few interesting ones are about “permanent” drought in California, the idea that a state government could just pull the plug on a private corporation like Equifax, playing the odds in sports, and criminal sentencing using algorithms.
  • Top economics commentary from Project Syndicate: Some top economists wrote about everything from why the U.S. economy, stock market, and/or dollar could be headed for a fall, to the collapses of Puerto Rico and Venezuela, to recognizing the need to compensate globalization’s losers.

what’s new with Magic Leap?

Actually, nobody knows what is new with Magic Leap. But there is supposed to be something new in 2018.

 at long last, Magic Leap has unveiled a prototype and will make its headset available with developer tools in 2018. The goggles, dubbed the Magic Leap One, come with a controller and battery pack the size of my palm, and have a steampunk vibe. They’re sleek, with bug-eyed lenses, and a Rolling Stone preview suggests they’ll be expensive. Truthfully, there’s not much more information available. Developers haven’t tried them, so it’s impossible to compare them directly to other available prototypes. But what’s distinctive about these glasses is that they exist at all—that Magic Leap has finally come forth with evidence that its technology, which until now has only been seen by those of us who have signed lengthy and complicated nondisclosure agreements, will have form.

RFID vital signs monitoring

Heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and breathing can now be monitored remotely using a simple RFID chip.

Monitoring the heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate and breath effort of a patient is critical to managing their care, but current approaches are limited in terms of sensing capabilities and sampling rates. The measurement process can also be uncomfortable due to the need for direct skin contact, which can disrupt the circadian rhythm and restrict the motion of the patient. Here we show that the external and internal mechanical motion of a person can be directly modulated onto multiplexed radiofrequency signals integrated with unique digital identification using near-field coherent sensing. The approach, which does not require direct skin contact, offers two possible implementations: passive and active radiofrequency identification tags. To minimize deployment and maintenance cost, passive tags can be integrated into garments at the chest and wrist areas, where the two multiplexed far-field backscattering waveforms are collected at the reader to retrieve the heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate and breath effort. To maximize reading range and immunity to multipath interference caused by indoor occupant motion, active tags could be placed in the front pocket and in the wrist cuff to measure the antenna reflection due to near-field coherent sensing and then the vital signals sampled and transmitted entirely in digital format. Our system is capable of monitoring multiple people simultaneously and could lead to the cost-effective automation of vital sign monitoring in care facilities.

Sounds good, as long as they don’t make us wear these walking through airport security. But come to think of it, that could definitely happen.