Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fast Forward >>> Well, Maybe

Remember the 100 MPG Carburetor?

The other day I was talking to a friend about the current events surrounding the "energy price crisis". I was trying to convince him that it was impossible for any industry to hold back innovation that would propel us forward into new paradigms and new markets - particularly if there was money to be made. I cited, for instance, the island nation of Japan. Japan imports nearly every drop of oil it consumes and despite its mass transit systems and excellent overall efficiency I would ask; is there any compelling reason why they would not bring to market new and fantastic technologies that might bring an end to the oil age? They are, after all, pioneering hybrid vehicles as we speak because, well, there is money to be made.

So, was I right?

In a recent issue of Discover magazine David Bodanis author of E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation made me question my own presumptions. Perhaps, Bodanis postulates, the economy so successful now that rocking the boat with ground breaking innovation is just too dangerous?

Bodanis ran through a litany of so-called innovations that we would tout as evidence of an unstoppable technological freight train. Upon close examination what begins to appear is that what we are actually seeing is extreme refinements of older innovations. Excluding medical and health-related technologies the pace of spectacular innovation has slowed. In fact most of us live our lives on a day by day basis much like our parents did.

A Day In The Life

Let's see, we get up in the morning to an alarm clock, hop in the shower, eat a piece of toast and get behind the wheel of a car for the comute into the office. So, far this could be any typical morning since the 40's. Now, the car itself may be more reliable and more fuel efficient (then again maybe not) but it is essentially four wheels made of rubber rolling down the pavement. It probably has an automatic transmission - so now we are up to the late 1950's. We turn on the radio and quickly tire of news, sports and weather and flip over to FM to listen to stereo music - this brings us to the late 60's. We can't find anything we like so we slip in a CD and catapult into the 90's... Well you get the picture. Getting up and getting to work for the vast majority of us is really no different than it has been for the last 50 years.

Once at work instead sidling up to a the assembly line we slink into our cubicles and turn on our computers to read our e-mails. Many of those who work in the trades and in manufacturing check in with the computer to get their workorders or production run schedules. In the old days this stuff was distributed on paper - it's just a little more efficient now.

The computer has been around for decades and the PC has been with us for over 20 years now. Sure they're faster than ever but the basic innovation behind them is the same - silicon IC chips connected by copper pressed into circuit boards. Even the user interface we call Windows or MAC was developed in the 70's by Xerox as a novelty experiment.

When we get home we have a genetically modified (which is a fancy way of creating hybridized plants and animals) dinner prepared in a microwave oven (which has been around since the 60's) and retire to the family room to watch 2-dimensional movies and game shows - or something called reality TV. Our TV's are bigger and the surround sound is really cool but it's hardly revolutionary. Now, you could point to cable and/or satellite TV and say - aha - now that's modern innovation. Well, no. Cable has been around since the 70's and satellite communications has been around for more than 40 years now. Like I said we are experiencing extreme refinements in miraculous innovations of a generation ago. Yes, even the cell phone is a refined product of basic radio-like telecommunications.

What Is Going on Then?

David Bodanis wonders if we are just in a lull before another rapid fire period in which technology makes another quantum leap. Or is the hundred MPG carburetor being locked away from us because the need for profit stability is the paramount feature in the world economy now? I hope and pray it's former...

In the nineteenth century the steam engine revolutionized society in every fashion. At the dawn of the twentith century electricity changed everything. In the 40's the war sparked countless innovations. In the 60's electronics and the physics of manufacturing materials propelled us to where we are today.

As I graduated from high school in 1980 I remember predicting that based on the massive technical leaps that had been made in my (short) lifetime that something would be invented/discovered in the 80's that would change the world. The 80's came and went and I thought I had been wrong. I wasn't wrong I just didn't recognize it for quite sometime. The PC and the birth of the Internet happened in the 80's! It could well be the most significant "innovation" since the transistor of a generation before. The PC and the Internet did not rely on something wholly new, but the coalescence of the two was pure dynamite. The Internet, of course, hasn't played itself out yet and it could, if it is not protected from special interests, be burned into irrevelancy.

If we think about the last few periods in which quantum leaps in technology occured we were living through very turbulent times. Clearly WWII was a period of turmoil. The need to manufacture massive quantities of weapons spurred process innovations. And we can't forget about the "bomb"... In the 60's and 70's, again, more turmoil - the West was forced to keep ahead of the Soviet Joneses. Today the mayhem caused by Islamic terrorism is not one that some high tech gizmo is going to resolve. In fact the preservation of the status quo and economic stability is the current mantra. In order to succeed against the medival dreams of the Islamisits we need to promote liberty and democracy - hardly the stuff of fantastic new technology.

Sunshine Ahead

Being an optimist I am betting that the next 10 years will see a paradigm shift in technology that will allow us to use more energy not less. In the end it all comes down to energy - for tens of thousands of years mankind relied on human energy to perform back breaking labor. The modern age has seen us utilize the vast resources of the Earth to power our modern lives. Soon, I can only hope, we will learn to actually harness the power of the cosmos that sheds more energy on us in a single afternoon than mankind has used in a thousand years.

I just can't believe that some insidious group of men is holding back fresh new ideas and remarkable innovations that would make this world a better place and in turn would make this same group of men lots and lots of money - and therein lies the key - money, money, money makes the world go 'round.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Science Fiction Lovers - The Rankings

I have always been a huge fan of Sci-Fi books. The genre has been around for better than a hundred years now having been pioneered by the likes of HG Wells and Jules Verne in the late 19th century. Remarkably even today Verne's and Wells' timeless stories of alien invasion and deep sea adventure continue to captivate the insatiable ranks of fandom. The books stand head and shoulders above the movies that have been made from them. There are a few exceptions but most sci-fi fans are ultimately disappointed by the efforts of Hollywood in the sci-fi arena.

Here is a list of the top 100 Sci-Fi books of all time - I have put in bold the ones I have read and I have given them my own 5 star rating guide. There are quite a number of great books that don't appear here and a number of top-notch authors (namely Ben Bova & Anne McCaffrey) who are missing all together - so we may all take umbrage with this list but it was the best I could find. One way or another we all have a lot of good reading ahead...

1 Frank Herbert Dune ****
2 Orson Scott Card Ender's Game *****
3 Isaac Asimov Foundation
4 Douglas Adams Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
5 George Orwell 1984 ****
6 Robert A Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land ***
7 Aldous Huxley Brave New World
8 Arthur C Clarke 2001: A Space Odyssey
9 Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451
10 Isaac Asimov I, Robot
11 Robert A Heinlein Starship Troopers
12 William Gibson Neuromancer
13 Larry Niven Ringworld ****
14 Philip K Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
15 H G Wells The Time Machine ****
16 Arthur C Clarke Childhood's End ****
17 Arthur C Clarke Rendezvous With Rama
18 Dan Simmons Hyperion *****
19 H G Wells The War of the Worlds ***
20 Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five
21 Orson Scott Card Speaker for the Dead
22 Joe Haldeman The Forever War
23 Robert A Heinlein The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
24 Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles
25 Neal Stephenson Snow Crash
26 Ursula K Le Guin The Left Hand of Darkness
27 Niven & Pournelle The Mote in God's Eye ****
28 Madeleine L'Engle A Wrinkle In Time
29 Orson Scott Card Ender's Shadow
30 Philip K Dick The Man in the High Castle
31 Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange
32 Frederik Pohl Gateway *****
33 Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon
34 Neal Stephenson Cryptonomicon 1999
35 Walter M Miller A Canticle for Leibowitz
36 Roger Zelazny Lord of Light
37 Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ***
38 Isaac Asimov The Caves of Steel
39 Alfred Bester The Stars My Destination
40 John Wyndham The Day of the Triffids
41 Stanislaw Lem Solaris
42 Kurt Vonnegut Cat's Cradle
43 Philip K Dick UBIK
44 Isaac Asimov The Gods Themselves
45 Mary Shelley Frankenstein
46 Michael Crichton Jurassic Park
47 Robert A Heinlein Time Enough For Love
48 Isaac Asimov The End Of Eternity
49 Kurt Vonnegut The Sirens of Titan
50 Vernor Vinge A Fire Upon the Deep
51 Alfred Bester The Demolished Man
52 Kim Stanley Robinson Red Mars
53 Niven & Pournelle Lucifer's Hammer ****
54 L Ron Hubbard Battlefield Earth *****
55 Ursula K Le Guin The Dispossessed
56 Philip José Farmer To Your Scattered Bodies Go
57 Iain M Banks Player Of Games]
58 Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale
59 Greg Bear Eon ***
60 Gene Wolfe The Shadow of the Torturer
61 Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth
62 Iain M Banks Use of Weapons
63 David Brin Startide Rising
64 John Wyndham The Chrysalids
65 Harry Harrison The Stainless Steel Rat
66 Philip K Dick The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch
67 Robert A Heinlein The Door Into Summer
68 Connie Willis Doomsday Book
69 Michael Crichton The Andromeda Strain ***
70 H G Wells The Invisible Man
71 Peter F Hamilton The Reality Dysfunction ***
72 Neal Stephenson The Diamond Age
73 William Gibson Burning Chrome
74 Arthur C Clarke The City and the Stars
75 Carl Sagan Contact **
76 Mark Twain A Connecticut Yankee in KA's Court
77 Robert Louis Stevenson Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde 78 Clifford Simak Way Station
79 Robert A Heinlein The Puppet Masters
80 David Brin The Uplift War
81 Audrey Niffenegger The Time Traveler's Wife
82 Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars
83 Ursula K Le Guin The Lathe of Heaven
84 Robert A Heinlein Citizen Of the Galaxy
85 George R Stewart Earth Abides
86 Robert A Heinlein Have Space-Suit - Will Travel ***
87 John Varley Titan ***
88 David Brin The Postman
89 C S Lewis Out of the Silent Planet
90 Philip K Dick VALIS
91 Robert A Heinlein The Past Through Tomorrow
92 Greg Bear Blood Music
93 Theodore Sturgeon More Than Human
94 William Gibson Pattern Recognition
95 Clifford Simak City
96 John Brunner Stand on Zanzibar
97 E E 'Doc' Smith Grey Lensman
98 Stanislaw Lem The Cyberiad
99 Pat Frank Alas, Babylon ****
100 Roger Zelazny This Immortal

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Time Traveler Essay: A Must Read

Please take the time to read this essay (it is admittedly quite long, but it really is worth it). It is chilling and poignant. This fictional encounter with a Time Traveler from the near future reads like a novel because it it written by a novelist who engages speculative fiction based on historical realities that he cites at the end of the piece. In the past many furturists have been off the mark by a long shot, but in my opinion the speculated future in this essay is not only possible but probable.

If you take nothing else from reading this please realize that all this navel gazing by the media and the Democrats is going to get us all killed. George W. Bush is not the enemy - he is, in fact, one of the only world leaders who gets it...

DAN SIMMONS - Time Traveler Essay

Friday, May 05, 2006

Why Won't You Die?

Socialism Keeps Hanging On

There's a scene in one of the Batman movies where Twoface (played by Tommy Lee Jones) cries out in despair "Why won't you die?!" Time after time The Batman escapes death to become the arch villan's worst nightmare - again and again. Well, it seems that the caped crusader has something in common with the ideology we know as socialism.

I am considered an ardent right-winger by the people who know me best, but what I actually am is an fanatical anti-socialist. I am as puzzled by the seemingly universal appeal of socialism as I am by those who think Meg Ryan is a fine actor. Maybe it's because the people who embrace socialism are so put off by the seeming immorality of the profit driven capitalist they see portrayed on TV and in the movies. Somehow they believe that a cradle-to-grave nanny-state is more righteous than selfish profiteering from one's own talent and hard work. In fact, it is the secular socialist that refuses to be judged in moral terms for virtually anything. We are just supposed to ignore the fact that socialism in practice is an abject failure because the socialists have nothing but the purest intentions in theory. That is, of course, the height and depth of socialist hypocrisy.

In a fascinating piece on TCS Daily Lee Harris asks "Why Isn't Socialism Dead?" Harris illustrates my previous point with apt definition of the socialist dreamer:

Utopian socialists love to dream up ideal schemes for organizing human life; they engage in wishful politics, and design all sorts of utterly impractical but theoretically perfect social systems, none of which has the slightest chance of ever being actualized in concrete reality.

The problem is that we live in the real world, not someone's fantasy of how social systems "should" be. The leftist believes that man is inherently good and will look out for the benefit of the "community" if it were not for the unfair and unjust society that capitalism has created. The rest of know that most people will look out for their own self interest when push comes to shove. It's called human nature. Europe is dying because of the self-hatred socialism produces. Follow anything commetator Mark Steyn writes on the demographic plight white Europeans find themselves in. It is the secular socialism of the me generation that will see Europea as we know disappear before the end of this century. Can American self hatred be far behind?

Bottom Line:
Markets as free from government interference as possible are the best hope for human dignity and success. Populism contains only empty promises because there is nothing to build a wealth foundation on for the average Joe. Ask yourself why the average Cuban is dirt poor and Fidel Castro has billions? For better or worse capitalism offers the most for the most.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr writes:
The market economy has created unfathomable prosperity and, decade by decade, century by century, miraculous feats of innovation, production, distribution, and social coordination. To the free market, we owe all material prosperity, all leisure time, our health and longevity, our huge and growing population, nearly everything we call life itself. Capitalism and capitalism alone has rescued the human race from degrading poverty, rampant sickness, and early death.

And Ludwig von Mises writes:
The capitalistic economic system, that is the social system based on private ownership of the means of production, is rejected unanimously today by all political parties and governments. No similar agreement may be found with respect to what economic system should replace it in the future. Many, although not all, look to socialism as the goal. They stubbornly reject the result of the scientific examination of the socialistic ideology, which has demonstrated the unworkability of socialism. They refuse to learn anything from the experiences of the Russian and other European experiments with socialism....

...an economic arrangement which is assumed to represent a compromise solution, the "middle-of-the-road" between socialism and capitalism. To be sure, there is no intent to abolish private ownership of the means of production. Private property will be permitted to continue, although directed, regulated and controlled by government and by other agents of society’s coercive apparatus. With respect to this system of interventionism, the science of economics points out, with incontrovertible logic, that it is contrary to reason, that the interventions, which go to make up the system, can never accomplish the goals their advocates hope to attain, and that every intervention will have consequences no one wanted.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr continues:
After Mises wrote this, fascism tightened its grip in Italy, and the Third Reich began its program of extreme interventionism, militarism, and protectionism in Germany. The New Deal came to the U.S., and the entire era ended in world war and holocaust. How much has changed, really, in 71 years? The hatred of markets must be countered by defenses of freedom in every generation. Our lives depend on it.

So I ask again - Socialism - Why won't you die?


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

In Search of... New Music

I am going nuts trying to find new music and new artists lately. It used to be that I could go out on the Internet to certain mp3 download sites and find something new and original that really excited me. I was primarily interested in finding high-quality unsigned artists and bands.

The best site for a while was the original MP3.com. Unfortunately once it became rock solid technologically and had developed a host of excellent services for artists and users alike it became the target of lawsuits. In particular the RIAA and a number of high profile artists came down on it like a ton of bricks.

Weakened financially by the lawsuits, MP3.com was eventually acquired by Vivendi Universal in May of 2001 for $372 million in cash and stock. Vivendi didn't understand what it had which led to difficulties growing the service and so it was eventually dismantled and sold off. All of its assets including the URL and logo were sold to CNET in 2003.

The rest of the story is very sad. It has become just another vehicle for promoting the same crap the record companies have been throwing at the radio stations for the last ten years. There have been a few sites that have tried to re-create the beauty that was MP3.com like Garageband.com and SoundClick.com . These sites, despite being well done, have not captured the imagination and frankly the quality of artists the way the original MP3.com did. To put it bluntly there is a lot of garbage out there.

In one sense having the traditional music industry weed out the junk was a valuable service but unfortunately the urban hip-hop and rap culture has so dominated the airwaves that the truly good melody-based music only occasionally eeks out.

I am just not interested in hip-hop or rap. I'm not crazy about country music either but I like some of it a lot.

I gravitate toward Power Pop, Hard Rock, Album Orientated Rock, Blues, Alternative, Progressive Rock, Power Ballads, Big Band sound and some Latin Rock and Reggae too... I have been trying to get into Christian Rock and I must say I think the "music" part is very good but the lyrics are just too sappy for me. There are a few artists that get the message across in a subtle and effective manner, but most go overboard with the hallelujahs.

That leads me to the Grand Daddy of them all - Classic Rock. I love Classic Rock, but face it, I heard it all before. I want something new.

Here a couple of new bands and artists I have come across lately:
Blue Merle
Carbon Leaf
8 Stops 7
Howie Day
Snow Patrol

Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments or e-mail me at willrocc@msn.com