Monday, February 28, 2011

Exponential Growth at Sketches of Tomorrow

I just took a brief gander at the stats for this humble blog, and was gratified to see that readership has doubled each of the past three months. I started writing this blog as a way to sharpen my thinking on where the future (both short and long-term) might be heading, and never thought too much about what type of audience I would have. So thank you for reading, and for coming back!

I'd like to keep it going, and introduce the blog to new readers. So please keep sharing the links when you find something you enjoy reading, and feel free to suggest topics for future posts if there's anything on your mind.

Thanks again!


Friday, February 25, 2011

What Are Cell Phones Doing to Us?

The big study that got a lot of media attention this week was one that showed extended cell phone use causes changes in brain activity, presumably due to the proximity of its electromagnetic field. Here's the key bit:
"Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (part of the National Institutes of Health), reports Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that a cell phone's electromagnetic field can cause changes in brain activity. Specifically, she and her team found that the regions nearest to the antenna of closely held mobile devices showed higher rates of energy (or glucose) consumption."

Glucose consumption essentially means that that part of the body is working harder, and using more energy. Is that because we are stimulating the cells in such a way as they could become cancerous? Or is the brain just more active in the area near a signal? No one knows, although those who believe wireless signals cause cancer will not wait for definitive proof to validate their fears.

I highlight the study not because I think we're all about to grow iPhone shaped tumors in our brains, but because it shows how unclear we still are about how the changes we make to our environment impact the human body. When someone wants to build a dam, they have to do detailed studies and show exactly how that the development will impact the river. But if someone wants to sell us transmitting devices that we'll hold up to our ear or keep next to our reproductive organs all day, they go ahead and we figure out later if it is a problem. I think we ask too much in the case of the dam, and too little in the case of the cell phone.

And maybe we should be a bit more humble about pursuing advances in genetic engineering, bio-enhancements, and brain-computer interfaces when we can't even figure out if our phones are doing something nasty to our brains.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The USA's Rebuilding Year

I was working in Boston during the glory years of Boston sports: the Patriots won three titles, the Red Sox broke the 'curse', and the Celtics finally got back on track after a two-decade detour. While I felt happiest about the Red Sox winning it all, I was probably most invested in the Celtics' turnaround and win. I had been attending a lot of games for a few years, and in the two years before their championship they were terrible. The turnaround was dramatic, a result of GM Danny Ainge having a vision for how to turn the team around and fearlessly executing it.

For a lot of sports fans, the term 'rebuilding year' has a bad connotation: it is usually uttered when a team has no chance of winning and so is under-spending on cheap young talent. Often, the rebuilding goes nowhere, and the team stays terrible. But sometimes, a smart leader like Ainge actually does use a rebuilding year (or a few) to make dramatic changes for the better, changes which would have been impossible if they had tried to compromise in those off-years and have a decent, but not great, team.

I allowed myself to reminisce about my glory days as a Boston sports fan because I believe Barack Obama was elected in part because people sensed the need for a rebuilding year (or maybe rebuilding decade) for the country as a whole. What are "Hope and Change" but promises to change direction and do something dramatically different to move us forward? Yet I think he was incapable of truly instituting a rebuilding plan for the USA, because he's too tied to some of the old players that need to go. (One analogy driven into the ground? Check.)

Those 'players' include the public unions that are currently protesting in Wisconsin (more on that in a moment), but also the big, bulky, expensive programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that are threatening to bankrupt the country. E.J. Dionne makes the case that these programs aren't really the problem, arguing that there's plenty of money to fund the existing safety net if only we have the will to take it:
Only a body dominated by millionaires could define "shared sacrifice" as telling nurses' aides and coal miners they have to work until age 69 while sharply cutting tax rates on wealthy people. I see why conservative Republicans like this. I honestly don't get why Democrats - "the party of the people," I've heard - would come near such an idea.

I agree that cutting tax rates is a risky proposition when the deficit is so high, but raising the retirement age--for workers nowhere near retirement--is a simple acknowledgment that people now routinely live into their eighties, and we simply can't afford to have the government on the hook for providing an income and healthcare to citizens for a fifth of their lives or more. Especially if we continue to insist on inefficient government-run programs as the way to deliver those benefits.

Walter Russell Mead, my favorite blogger, has been advocating the 'rebuilding year' approach (though he's way to smart to call it that) for some time, deftly depicting the 'Blue Social Model' that has defined American government and politics for most of the last century, and why it now has to give way to a new model. He looks at the clashes in Wisconsin and sees that new model struggling to be born, while the reactionary forces of the public employee unions try to beat it back:
In the heart of Blue State America, we are seeing a challenge to some of the fundamental assumptions behind the progressive state, and we could conceivably be watching both the birth pangs of a new social model and the first big step in America’s transformation into a true 21st century economy. And ironically, while Democrats are not, to put it mildly, happy with Governor Walker’s anti-public union bill, in the medium term the Democratic Party (and others who want to see government taking on more responsibilities) will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the bill.

Why will getting rid of public employee unions ultimately help those who want a more active government? Because a more flexible, streamlined government will be able to take on the new challenges we face today, rather than repeatedly trying the same approaches that defined 'big government' in the 20th Century, and which have largely either served their purpose or failed.

I agree with Mead that the current events in Wisconsin could help usher in a new, better model, but I believe we need a leader who will boldly call for some shared sacrifice from all Americans as we construct that new model, and deal with the damage that dismantling the old model will cause. Rebuilding years are never fun while they're happening, but when they lead to victory you can look back and see that it was worth it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Obama, the Budget, and Political Calculation

After the State of the Union, I wrote that Michele Bachmann will get Obama re-elected. That bit of poorly informed speculation was based on my impression that Obama was going to attempt to make a meaningful compromise with the Republicans, which would satisfy most Americans but would be insufficient to the Tea Party, causing them to blow a gasket and split the Republican party. (I wish I had written it that succinctly at the time.)

My readers will be shocked to know that either Obama's team doesn't read this blog, or else values the advice at the price I charge for it. The budget he released recently is a defiant declaration of his intention to do nothing about our fiscal problems. By doing so, he seems to be daring the Republicans to put their neck out and suggest unpopular cuts, which means his calculation is that people don't really believe there is a budget problem, and he can win reelection by pandering to the interest groups that form the core of the Democratic Party.

Aside from my dismay at my inability to set the agenda in Washington, I have a few thoughts:

1) The politics of this situation are interesting. Yuval Levin suggests that people are not as short-sighted as Obama's approach seems to expect. I would guess that Obama's team has a lot of polling showing that we are, as a country, short-sighted and incapable of focusing on a debate as abstract and impersonal as the one over our budget. But I think his strategy fails to take into account the passion levels within the electorate. This budget, and the approach to governing it represents, will unite the factions within the Republican party, and give energy (and a larger voice) to the Tea Party. Meanwhile, his supporters will be lukewarm: yes, he didn't cut much, but he did offer to cut programs they hold dear, and the liberal blogs have been calling on him to stand and fight the Republican enemy. He had all the passion on his side last time: can he win without it?

2) Liberals like Paul Krugman are already attacking proposed cuts by the Republicans, so are some Republicans. But even Krugman is now acknowledging that something has to be done. He says:

In a better world, politicians would talk to voters as if they were adults. They would explain that discretionary spending has little to do with the long-run imbalance between spending and revenues. They would then explain that solving that long-run problem requires two main things: reining in health-care costs and, realistically, increasing taxes to pay for the programs that Americans really want.

I think his solutions ('reining in health-care costs' I would guess means further nationalizing care) are not going to be popular ones. But if both sides of the debate start saying there's a problem, and only the Republicans offer a solution, it might help them, even if the solution isn't entirely popular. If Obama's do-nothing strategy wins over voters even when every expert and pundit on both sides is saying something needs to be done, it means we've become essentially an ungovernable nation.

3) People tend to see meaning when it isn't there. And people tend to believe their opponents have a well-thought-out long term plan. But often, politicians are swept up by events, or carried along by their desire to stay popular and get re-elected, and aren't thinking more than one move ahead. Stanley Kurtz thinks Obama is a socialist, has written a book about it, and views this budget as a step closer to his imposition of socialism on the United States. Obama's definitely far to the left, and probably wishes the US functioned more like Europe. His beliefs are no doubt reflected in the budget. But I don't think he has some devious plan to manipulate the US into a socialist position: I just think he's trying to get reelected and thinks this is the way to do it.

I think it is possible, even likely, that Obama is not as smart as either his supporters or opponents think. Sure, he's very intelligent, but his reaction to the increasing budget crisis and the last election is essentially more of the same. Perhaps he just isn't visionary enough to come up with any good alternatives.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Future of Spray-On Skin

In my last post, I wrote about how an increasing number of complexities in modern society may constrain our collective ability to innovate. Whether it is the existing infrastructure that supports older technologies over newer ones, or a litigious society that exposes those doing something new and unproven to enormous financial risk, we are putting our inventors and entrepreneurs in an ever-tighter straight jacket.

Well, I found an interesting test case for the theory: spray-on skin. What's that? It sounds like some ridiculous thing I just made up? Well, then watch this video and doubt no more, my skeptical friend. For those of you who would rather not see images of severe burns, let me explain: scientists have figured out how to harvest skin cells from the remaining healthy skin on a burn victim, put them in a solution, and apply that mixture through a spray gun to encourage rapid skin growth. They have successfully demonstrated that this works in a number of cases, and it takes a fraction of the time that traditional skin grafts do.

On the surface, this seems like an easy innovation to adopt. It is easier, faster, clinically superior and (once it gets up to scale) probably cheaper than the existing options. Yet I see a number of obstacles to spray-on skin coming to a hospital near you:

1) The procedure uses stem cells, which have the taint of controversy, even though in this case the cells are harvested from the patient's skin, not embryos.
2) The gun will be a capital expense for hospitals, whereas skin grafts don't require any new capital equipment.
3) Surgeons are compensated based on set reimbursement rates for different types of procedures. Spraying on skin would need a code, which can take years. And when it gets one, it may pay physicians much less than the compensation for a skin graft procedure.
4) Skin grafts are big business (check out KCI if you don't believe me) and they are likely to vigorously oppose any disruptive new technologies in their space.

Now, all of these obstacles are surmountable, but it won't be easy. Which is why I view the spray-on skin as a test case of sorts: if it can run the gauntlet and get widespread adoption in the next few years, I will have to revise my earlier opinion and admit that our society, as imperfect as it is, still has room to identify and advance radical, life-improving innovations.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Climbing the Wrong Technological Hills

When I was a kid, I remember being told how amazing it was that the Aztecs built their great cities without the wheel, and thinking: "How the heck did they miss that one?" I couldn't fathom that millions of people had gone centuries without ever noticing that round things roll, and that could be useful for moving things around.

This article, on the development of rocketry as our means of reaching space, made me resolve to go a little easier on the Aztecs. The main point the author, Neal Stephenson, makes several times is that only a highly unlikely series of events led to the development of space-going rockets, and now we are wedded to that technology to the point that newer, better methods of getting off this planet are extremely difficult to develop.

I've always assumed, naively, that once we make discoveries in the basic sciences, that eventually we will appreciate the technological possibilities and make new and better stuff. The theoretical understanding of how to split the atom leads to fission bombs and nuclear power plants in a relatively straight line, because the rewards of technological innovation are so high. But, as the case of rocketry indicates, often technological innovation is haphazard, messy, and driven by the incidentals of history and personality.

So, my first question: how many great technologies could potentially be developed based on the theoretical knowledge we have, but aren't being created because of basic human oversight?

Then, the flip side: once a technological system is sufficiently developed, and bound up with all the other human institutions (government, the law, social expectations, finance and the like), what technologies suddenly become unappealing to develop because their adoption would depend on unlikely changes to these complex systems? I've joked before about wanting my flying car: would we have them if a flying car wouldn't lead to massive challenges to the air traffic control system, to our system of personal and corporate liability, to civic noise ordinances?

Which leads to my second question: how many great technologies will be smothered in the cradle because a society as complex as ours creates insurmountable barriers to certain types of innovation?

We've heard a lot recently about entrepreneurship being the key to revitalizing our economy. But the entrepreneur may be unable to break down the barriers to innovation erected by our laws, our systems, the past decisions of other innovators, and just plain old inertia.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Should We Fear the End of the World?

As I'm sure all my readers know, we're about a year away from the end of the world. The Mayans figured this out a long time ago, don't ya know. But I shouldn't pick on the Mayan calendar and all the hysteria around it. My own religion has a whole book about the Apocalypse, and too many people have spent big chunks of their lives worrying about when exactly the four horsemen were going to start riding. Add to that the secular speculations about global warming catastrophe, and it's clear that a huge subset of mankind can't help but speculate that our cushy existence is going to come crashing down around our heads.

It occurred to me to write about the topic of Armageddon (man, we have a lot of words for this) when I stumbled across this piece on the super-storms and mass destruction that will be unleashed by the Earth's rapidly moving magnetic field. On the face of it, the piece is absurd, and like all such pieces it takes controversial and in some cases half-baked theories and presents them as settled fact. I won't pick on the article too much: if you're interested, do a little Googling and check out what is being written elsewhere about magnetic field shifts.

What is interesting, though, is that even though most scientists don't seem to think the end is near, they do acknowledge that sometimes the Earth's magnetic field does shift or even reverse, and this will likely have serious consequences. It's just darn hard to know when this is going to happen: the geological record of past events shows the timing is highly variable. What this means is that at some point, if we don't nuke ourselves to death first, mankind probably will face one of these calamities.

Despite the thrill we get at speculating about the destruction of Earth, or at least the conditions in which civilization can endure, we generally tend to assume that life will go on as normal indefinitely, with nothing worse than the occasional earthquake or hurricane on the scale we're used to. But think of it this way: mankind's historical memory only goes back, at best, five or six thousand years. That's a blink in geological and astronomical time. If we had, say, a 1,000,000 year historical record, or perspective on disasters would probably be much different. Our distant ancestors would probably have filled volumes with their accounts of this worldwide calamity.

And, just maybe, they actually did so. Think of the Noah story. Almost every culture in that part of the world, and some in other parts as well, have an ancient flood story. Perhaps this wasn't mythological whimsy, but an attempt to record and understand something terrible that had happened during the time of ancient man. We may, as a species, find ourselves worrying about the end of the world in part because some distant ancestor survived just such an event.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

When We Look, and When We Turn Away

Abortion is one of those topics I don't much like writing about. While I have a lot of sympathy for women who find themselves pregnant and frightened, and I think it is a societal failure (and especially a failure of religious folks like myself) that they aren't given more support, I am absolutely opposed to it. And many people who share my position have written much more passionately and wisely about why it is wrong than I ever could, so I don't think my best argument would add to the debate.

However, the gruesome case of Kermit Gosnell and his revolting clinic has given me reason to think about abortion more than normal. Then I read this piece by Elizabeth Scalia, who goes by the pen name The Anchoress, highlighting the lack of media coverage given to the case. She sees in that lack of coverage a bias in the media, as she states here:
So, allow me to ask the impolitic question I have hinted at elsewhere: in choosing to look away, in choosing to under-report, in choosing to spin, minimize, excuse, and move-along when it comes to Kermit Gosnell—and to this whole subject of under-regulated abortion clinics, the debasement of women and the slaughter of living children—how are the press and those they protect by their silence any better than the Catholic bishops who, in decades past, looked away, under-reported, spun, minimized, excused, moved-along, and protected the repulsive predator-priests who have stolen innocence and roiled the community of faith?

Scalia wonders why the press has not tenaciously dug into this story, why there have not been investigations into other clinics. And while I agree with her, I think there is a pretty obvious reason, and even an understandable one. Simply put, the primary emotion evoked by the Gosnell case is not outrage, but horror.

Now, Scalia is outraged because she shares my conviction about abortion. But a lot of people have made an uneasy truce with the notion that abortion is a necessary fact of modern life, and so the reality of the thing, the notion that living things, identifiable as babies, are being dismembered is not something they ever want to face. Whereas you would search long and hard to find someone who would suggest a Catholic priest had any right or sanction to molest boys and girls. Thus, the predominant societal reaction is not to turn away in disgust, but to seek justice.

To put it another way, the Gosnell case creates what psychologists (and especially amateur psychologists like myself) call cognitive dissonance. Our instincts tell us that something horrible is happening, but our rational brains say that what is happening is not that bad, or a freak happening, or the price we pay for some greater good. I would compare it to the gruesome videos I've seen of horrible (there's that word again) slaughterhouse conditions. I react viscerally, and maybe even doubt my decision to buy beef from the store without knowing where it came from and how the animals were treated. But then I let it go, telling myself that these videos are the exception and that the meat I buy isn't adding to the problem.

T.S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." I think this is the type of thing he had in mind. The simple fact is that something disgusting, immoral, and disturbing was happening at Dr. Gosnell's clinic, and his acts were just on the far side of legality. For those of us who support the legal right to abortion, and for those of us who don't but who shirk the hard work of changing laws and minds, we simply prefer not to bear that reality.