Saturday, November 27, 2010

Top tech surprises (and disappointments)

I recently heard a radio show describing the best unanticipated technologies: thinking back to what you expected of technology back in the 1980’, what has surprised and delighted you now that it’s 2010?

It’s a great question: here’s my winners (and a few losers):

  1. telecom 1Telecommunications:  A computer that you can hold in your hand, find your location, take pictures, browse a library, anywhere, anytime, in hi-def color for almost no cost.  This matured so fast I still haven’t caught up.
  2. Personal Media:  Surrounding myself in a cocoon of my own choosing, from games and music to lectures and commentary. I can completely tailor my media to my taste and mood, from virtually infinite selection.
  3. Architecture:  Buildings have become more efficient, more livable, more stylish, more responsive.  There are so many great examples in the Netherlands, from striking skyscrapers in Rotterdam to eco-friendly homes nestled into the soggy landscape.  Architects are building in harmony with man and nature, defying the the Brutalist 60’s and their urban planning dystopias.
  4. NeuroimagingNeuroimaging:  The brain used to be a fuzzy black and white mess on x-rays: now we collect pictures of neural architectures down to the synapse and functional scans that show it all working in real-time.  If only we could pin down the conscious mind.
  5. Social Networks:  My Christmas card list was shrinking year by year as friends moved, addresses were lost, people couldn’t be bothered. Then there was Facebook, and suddenly I am densely networked with my past. time and distance both shrinking dramatically. I can’t imagine keeping in touch with distant relatives and friends any other way.
  6. Visual artsVisual Arts:  Maybe I’m new to art, but I marvel at the creativity that artists show with the new media they’ve been given.  Modern galleries can still be incomprehensible, opaque for both purpose and meaning, but they are also engagingly populated with endlessly fascinating works that spring from new technologies.
  7. Knowledge Access:  When I moved overseas, 13 boxes of books, my extended memory and portable library, tagged along. Now I can look up almost anything, at any depth, from anywhere using search engines, literature libraries, and social media.  I‘m not weighted down by a need to remember; I’m free to assemble and create.

Of course, there have been some disappointments:

  1. Mass Media:  What happened?  Death of newspapers, 300 TV channels with nothing worth watching, shrieking talk radio, shrunken glossy magazines, the 24/7 celebrity culture.  All that technology and potential, able to communicate, inform, connect, so wasted.
  2. AIArtificial Intelligence:  We couldn’t explain the mind, but we thought we could replicate it.  Today everything from speech recognition to learning systems, semantic searches and visual / narrative understanding, remain beyond our machines.  The whole field of inquiry has disappeared: will computing still take on such grand challenges?
  3. Ecology and Conservation:  In 1970, Congressman Phil Crane mocked me in a public forum for asking about the Alaska Wilderness bill.  Today, the obvious need to preserve forests, wildlife, air and water quality, and open spaces is still under attack as un-American, anti-progress, and Luddite.  How did we lose this battle?
  4. transport 2Aerospace and Transportation:  It wasn’t just commercial flights to the moon and flying cars, it was efficient, cheap, clean, fast movement of goods and people.  And it was just around the corner.  But we’re still stuck in the traffic miles from that turn.
  5. Education:  We were all going to learn in our sleep, aided by marvelous teaching machines.  But wisdom is still imparted from teacher to student, using books and whiteboards, assessed with true-false and multiple-choice, and too many children still fail.
  6. FinanceFinance:  Easy access to credit and distribution of risk have degenerated to more and more sophisticated means of rent-collecting.  The bankers got rich, innovative businesses can’t get funded.  Too much money is still made from resource hoarding and real-estate speculation, not enough from social good and small-scale economic development.
  7. Energy:  Fusion was going to make power too cheap to meter; no more damming the rivers or leveling the mountains.  Maybe next decade?

On balance, though, I love the surprises, and the things they’ve enabled in my life. 

And, no, my chosen fields of medicine and biotechnology are still neutral for me, meeting expectations but not yet really astounding me.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Back in Europe

I left snowy Seattle for, well, snowy Minneapolis, my first stop on the way back through London.  The blue skies over the northern US contrasted nicely with the sculptured snow spread across plains and mountains below.  Lovely to look at from 30,000 feed with a flat light. Still, it seems early: only November and a whole winter still ahead of us.

The flights were uneventful: No trouble from Opt-Out day, and I didn’t get a chance to refuse the scanners. It looked like fewer people were being pulled out to go through them.  I’m now 122,600 miles towards the 125,000 miles that elevates me to Delta’s top-tier status for frequent (insane) fliers.  I’m not sure what it benefits me: 125% mileage credit and free lounge access?  What I’d really like is transatlantic upgrades when I’m traveling economy.

Minneapolis was momentarily exciting.  I had a 4-hour layover so I ate a nice meal and tucked into the lounge to get some work done.  The computer was being balky and I was struggling to get mail and files loaded.  The flight left at 10I pushed it to 9:30 before packing up to stroll over to the gate.  Only I’d forgotten that I was at the remote lounge, completely across the airport from the gate.  As I swung into the concourse, the overhead pager started calling “David Hampton, your flight for Heathrow is now closing.  Report IMMEDIATELY to gate G4”.

Ack!  I started running along the moving walkways, but the bags were heavy, the dinner was to rich, and I wasn’t making good time.  The airport-wide announcement repeated every few minutes.  G18, turn right, and head along the long axis.  Blowing snow whipped past the windows: they couldn’t possibly be leaving ahead of time.  I rounded the corner at G5, the gate people were waving, I jumped through; they closed the doors behind me.

I sagged in the seat, out of breath, belongings in a tangle.  The girl next to me pretended to to notice, studying the de-icing outside. Cheez, there was still15 minutes before pushback!  I sighed and picked up my book, but fell asleep before takeoff.   Whatever it was about, I don’t want to push it that close again.

I’ve commented before that there have been a spate of books railing against lazy socialist European social models lately.  Thus, it was nice to find this new item by lefty-lawyer Thomas Geohegan subtitled “How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life”.  He mainly inestigates Germany’s Social Democratic social policies and statistics, concluding that the European model offers a valid alternative to “buy cheap, buy bulk’ US alternatives.

Thumbing through it, make Europe so livable from my perspective: overall quality of life, slower pace, cultural richness, high-grade public transport, and multicultural diversity.  Still, it’s nice to see someone put a positive spin on European social institutions, considering their pros and cons rather than just demonizing the differences.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Piled higher and deeper

Some of us remember that as an old joke defining PhD, but in Woodinville, it’s the scene outside after a night’s snowfall.  I’m on the plane back to the UK tomorrow, but got out with Wyatt (daughter’s pooch) for an early-morning walk.  The snow collects int eh evergreens in endless patterns, and the early light suffuses everything in blue light with red backlights in the sky.

We took a good long walk, clicking away.   Good thing: by afternoon it was all starting to melt.

More pix on Flickr


Seattle Snowfall 04

Monday, November 22, 2010

It’s beginning to look a lot like…


Dropped into Seattle last Saturday, and snow followed. It started this afternoon and has started snowing harder all evening.  We’ve had friends drop in who couldn’t get home with the ice and traffic snarls on the roads, get a bit of  warm drink and food, and then off  into the snow again.

The airport is a mess as well, a plane slid into the safety zone at the end of the runway.  Security was noticeably higher at the weekend, new notices that printer toner cartridges wouldn’t be permitted and additional agents at the gates doing checks.  Activists are calling for a National Opt-Out Day against the body scanners on Wednesday – the day I’m travelling back to the UK.  Should be lovely.

In the meantime, it’s a good time to chill out, stay warm, catch up on a bit of work, and brew some extra coffee. 

I talked with a friend back in Maastricht today – it sounds like the river rose remarkably earlier in the week.  Stayed in the banks through town, but threatened shoreline homes in Itteren and other outlying areas?  I remember considering an apartment there – would have been a real worry to be snowed in and get news that the place had flooded.

‘should be a wonderful winter.