Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Does technology equal progress?

So now NASA is investigating the problems with Toyota accelerators. No kidding. They're trying to determine if solar flares may have somehow upset the electronics in the cars.

Of course, a few years back, if you had a problem with the accelerator, all you had to do is look at it. There was a cable running from the pedal to the throttle. It's either stuck or broken, or it isn't. The whole system was a half dozen or so mechanical pieces that were either obviously broken, or not.

How many hundreds of millions, dare I say billions, of dollars in research and programming/engineering time went into replacing this simple system (a few bucks worth of hardware) with high tech software? How many more millions will be spent trying to figure out what's wrong with it? Can one really say that the new system is an improvement over the old one, by any measure?

I saw a commercial the other day for a self-propelled lawn mower. Not just any self-propelled lawn mower; this one has a secondary handle that slides as you apply more or less pressure, causing the wheels to spin faster or slower. You can actually adjust the speed of the mower you're walking behind! Didn't we accomplish the same thing in the past by just walking faster or slower? Have we really gotten that lazy? "Sure, I'll walk behind this thing and hold the handle, but I'm not going to apply 5 or 6 foot pounds of force to it! I'm not Hercules!"

Audi will be testing a robotic car right here in Colorado Springs this fall. This car will drive itself right up Pikes Peak! A number of companies are working on self-driving cars. If they’re successful, one day, most people wont be familiar with how to manually operate a motor vehicle. Some type of emergency service like OnStar will be an absolute necessity, since you’d just be stuck if anything went wrong with the mechanics or the software. Yes, you’d in effect have to subscribe to your car, adding it to the ever-growing list of things you can buy, but will never really own. This is progess?

Coors has a new beer can that changes color when it’s cold. How else could you possibly know whether the beer in your hand is cold or not? Maybe next we could get socks that send out email alerts to let you know you’ve stubbed your toe.

Have you ever seen the old Saturday Night Live commercial making fun of a 3 bladed razor ad? It ends with some animation and the tag line “because you’ll believe anything”. Guess what? Gillette is coming out with a new 6 bladed razor for their “closest shave yet”. How close do we really need to shave? I think I could make do with 1980 level closeness for the rest of my life and be okay with it.

These are just a few examples suggesting more complicated doesn't necessarily mean better. How about making products that last longer instead of one’s that solve problems that don’t exist. Of course, the consumer is the driver. Money will flow into making more of whatever you buy today. So before you put that internet-ready, pickle jar safety coaster in your cart, ask yourself “Do we really need to spend any more man-hours on this one?”.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Time to get serious about Climate Change

Our climate is changing. It would be highly irregular if it didn’t. I’m not a scientist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I’ve paid enough attention to the issue over the years to conclude that obsessing about man-made carbon emissions amounts to rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic.

Earthquakes have increasingly been in the news, which may simply be because they are occurring in populated areas, rather than increasing in frequency, but that doesn’t make them any less hazardous. The northern part of China is rapidly turning to sand, which is a problem for at least half the world, as the wind picks it up and takes it as far as the western U.S.. There’s a hurricane cycle due to hit the northeastern U.S. in about 5 years that has nothing to do with your S.U.V.. It’s just that time again. Yet, we’ve built massive skyscrapers right where history tells us a major storm could make landfall (somewhere in the vicinity of Coney Island). Nobody knows when the next big earthquake will strike in California or Yellowstone, just that it will be devastating when it does.

We may not be able to prevent nature from taking its course, but we need to get better at predicting it so that we can take evasive or adaptive action. The first order of business is to take politics out of it. There’s a lot of money riding on the “carbon is the root of all evil” scenario. But any analysis of climate and geological trends that doesn’t take into account the activity of the Sun, the rotation, revolution and tilt of the Earth and other system-wide dynamics is a massive waste of time and resources.

Government would be within its purvue to examine and prepare for contingencies, including warmer climates, colder climates and geological disasters. While considering input from objective, comprehensive research is logical, advocating for one unproven theory over another is not. Real science is not subject to a vote or an opinion poll. The truth is what the truth is. Convincing people that you’re absolutely right when you’re not is not virtuous. It can be disasterous.

The carbon debate has become so polarizing that I don’t know if we can get back on the right track or not. It’s just as likely we’ll all be mounting solar panels on our sub-compacts about the time the glaciers start advancing or Yellowstone erupts.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Guns at Starbucks

Starbucks recently decided not to ban patrons from wearing their holstered guns into their coffee shops. This has upset many folks who are evidently, afraid of handguns.

One woman on a television news interview asked "If I go into a Starbucks with my child and he asks, Mommy, why is that man wearing a gun? How am I supposed to answer that?" Really? That's a tough question? How about, "Because good people carrying guns discourages bad people from using theirs."

How are we supposed to take the uber-left seriously when they suggest that children will be traumatized by the sight of a law abiding citizen carrying a holstered hand gun? If that hypothetical question really scares you as a parent, maybe you should hire a nanny, because the questions get a lot harder than that.

Friday, March 5, 2010

In pursuit of intelligent design

The Texas public school system is currently mired in debate over updating public school textbook standards. Among the issues is whether or not intelligent design should be discussed in science class along with evolution.

I don’t know that the question of intelligent design has even been pursued enough in scientific terms to warrant a chapter in a textbook. But it has always puzzled me why science has ignored the question. I’m not a scientist, but I’m a big fan of science; good science. Good science means you don’t rule out what you can’t rule out.

Let me be clear. By intelligent design, I don’t mean omnipotent being design. I mean that at least some of what we perceive as reality may have been instigated by a sentient being or beings. The problem with the religious pursuit of the possibility is that it starts with a conclusion and then seeks supporting evidence, ignoring anything contradictory. The problem with the scientific pursuit of the possibility is that it doesn’t exist.

I think its intriguing to speculate that the universe may be a program, designed and implemented by real beings. If there’s a code behind it, we may be abe to crack it. But to come at it from the right direction you have to consider it as something deliberate, not just random. The advantage of thinking in those terms is that you can approach a problem from the standpoint of the designer. Look at how some parts of the system work and extrapolate how others within the same operating system, authored by the same individual or group, might work. Then of course, you have to test your hypothesis. Another aspect of getting into this mindset is that you don’t just look at how a particular part of the system works, you ponder why. What purpose does it serve in the larger picture?

I think intelligent design could be a productive scientific pursuit if done right. First rule: no magic. Even computer code has parameters that can’t just be ignored. A reality that is much bigger than we may know is still reality. It may afford more possibilities, but it’s not magic. The main divergence from eliminating intelligent design is that you assume everything has some purpose. It may just be entertainment, but whatever it is, it’s not an accident. Second, if you come to a new conclusion, you’ve got to prove or disprove it. No jumping to conclusions. Just like any other field of science, you have to carefully design experiments to test your hypothesis and accept whatever data comes out of them. Third, you don’t get to use the old cop-out that “some things are just beyond our understanding.” It’s okay to not know what we don’t know, but that doesn’t make it unknowable.

There are several assumptions in the religious pursuit of intelligent design that have no place in a scientific pursuit. There’s no basis for the assumptions that an intelligent designer(s) is, or are superior, immortal, all-knowing or has (have) our best interest at heart. We know very little about the design itself at this point (if it is a design) never mind the nature or motivations of the author(s).

If proponents of intelligent design would like it to be a serious part of school curriculum and scientific pursuit, it must be an honest, objective and fearless pursuit. The truth is what the truth is. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it. That fact is just as true for "top scientists" as it is for the Pope and the Dali Lama.