Wednesday, 6 December 2006

I Thought By Now...

The oldest religious practice to date has been found- worshiping pythons in Africa 70,000 years ago. Some of the genetic code has been discovered for male pregnancy in seahorses. It sucked to be a Neanderthal, health-wise. Birds are starting to go through some genetic drift as their songs fit to accommodate the deeper noise of city life. And NASA reveals their plans to put a base on the moon by 2024.

This last one briefly caught my eye. A guy on PBS was talking about this tonight- how there might be water there, on the sunny side of the moon there's lots of sun for nearly constant solar power, it's safer than space, it's a great training field for Mars...Sounds like a good idea. I hope they do it. But I thought they were going to do this in 1985.

It just seems like everything's slowed down. Don't you remember how there was supposed to all of this amazing scientific advancement by now, that we lived with day by day? Remember in the 60's, with the kitchen of the future- that was supposed to be here by the late 70's. We're still waiting. Oh, we can do most of it. But either it's not economical, or for reasons similar to the Tuckermobile and the EV1, it's blocked by the Powers That Be.

What was it that got us to the moon? Simply, fear. Sputnik was up there, smiling down on all of us, proof that the Communists were actually better than us. Then they sent a guy into space first, and then the first woman. (And to our eternal shame, it took us 20 years to duplicate this feat.) In fact, arguably, they were doing better than us across the board, until they also had to fight proxy wars with us continuously, and discovered they couldn't do all that and feed their people too. Might even be an argument that Communism is more successful than Capitalism as long as the world is at peace. But that of course is heresy.

Sputnik was a wake-up call. We suddenly realized the Soviets were beating us, and were doing better in us than science. This impelled us to get off our butts and start working, and learning. The Space Race was a large contributor to finally repealing the old laws going back to the Scopes Monkey Trial which mandated teaching Literal Creationism, and the beginnings of universal evolution teaching in schools throughout America. We finally realized we needed to learn science, not because it was interesting or a high pursuit, but because we could not be beaten by those who didn't know how to value materialism, capitalism, and economic growth.

But now, we just don't have that motivation. China is perhaps the biggest commercial force on the planet, or soon will be, and they've got nuclear weapons. But they only recently sent someone into space for the first time. When we aren't in a race with someone, we just don't care enough about the science.

Now, the amazing new developments are all small, in a computer, or a cell phone. Actually, they're even less noticeable- they're in the ether of the web, somewhere in between computers. We don't see the big changes. Cars are stuck without major structural changes for some 60 years now. The Big Three figured out they could change the pretty fins and colour and get enough people to keep buying new ones. Kitchen machines are not that different in basic structure from the way they were 30 years ago. Oh, there are changes, but it seems so slow. Perhaps it's that the imagination of science fiction can progress more quickly than anything real. But it also seems that we are less inspired to progress. When was the last major invention that was widespread? I don't mean a new computer program, as important and valuable as those are. But an actual three-dimensional invention, that a guy can tinker with in his back garage, fulfilling the American dream? It seems that now you need a few advanced degrees or hours in front learning Colbol to do anything significant. At least since Velcro.

Daniel Amos was one of those rare bands that did quite well in music, climbing with country music to the top of the Christian charts, but quit, realizing that they weren't being authentic for them. They changed over to New Wave, producing numerous albums after that, and never again doing well in the music charts. The sound remained steady, despite numerous name changes as well, including Daniel Amos Band and Swirling Eddies. You could count on them for good sound and biting, deep lyrics, always requiring the listener to think.

They had one song on the album "Vox Humana" called "(It's the Eighties, So Where's Our) Rocket Packs?". Prophetic as always, Daniel Amos summed up the situation well.

"I thought by now we'd walk the moon
And ride a car without no tires
And have a robot run the vacuum
And date a girl made out of wires.
No things don't change that much, do they?
We are still out of touch,
by now we should discover,
just how to love each other...
I thought by now we'd live in space,
And eat a pill instead of dinner,
And wear a gas mask on our face,
a President of female gender..."

I look forward to our base on the moon. But unless the Chinese get in on the act, or someone else like the Saudis, I don't see the U.S. being inspired enough to actually do it, even by 2024.


Joe said...

I think you pretty much answered the question. Compared to the imagination of science fiction, no, we haven't made much progress. But, when you think about how much more powerful computer chips are for their size as compared to 40 years ago, the progress is astounding. It's not sexy and it's not so obvious, but it's not so easy either.

I suspect that the flow of progress is mostly pragmatic. Which would make more money: a faster computer that can store and play your entire music collection or some fancy gadget that does a rare kitchen task a few minutes faster?

Perhaps science fiction, in addition to having an overactive imagination, had the wrong focus: saving time. Yes, computers save time, but that is not the sole object, especially since we all know that work expands to fill the time allotted. The thing with computers is that they do things that are virtually impossible for humans to do.

Not only has computer performance increased exponentially, but just look at the myriad of digital products that are available (and affordable) now: cameras, camcorders, PDAs, iPods, webcams, wireless networking, etc. The stuff I saw at ECIS that was designed for education boggled the mind (e.g., interactive whiteboards which serve as touch pads and writing tablets). I think we take a lot of stuff for granted these days.

Cars is an interesting case study. The two biggest barriers to progress are probably profitability and human inadequacy. Until cars start driving themselves (a possibility that is starting to be realized), there's not much point in increasing performance. Improving efficiency won't be economical until the price of gas stays high for a long. Flying cars would be nice, but we're just now starting to figure out how to fly planes without crashing. Beyond that, what's to do besides change body styles?

Overall, I think we're doing pretty well on the technology side, it's the human side that needs work: teaching people how to use it responsibly.

@bdul muHib said...

Computers do do things that are virtually impossible for humans to do, but they aren't alone in that. A nuclear bomb, or a large industrial crane, would be but two examples in a myriad of more powerful inventions. For a machine to help us extensively, it must either reduce the distance or increase the force- that's how we know that Work is MAD. And if it has more power than we do, it should decrease the amount of time it takes to do a task.

I think there are plenty of amazing computerized advances. But I mourn the days when a guy in his garage could make a significant non-computerized invention that could change the world. A kid once highlighted her clipboard and invented the glow-in-the-dark clipboard. Such inventions seem to be rarer and rarer. It seems we rely too much on commputers, and have forgotten that natural American driving force to explore and invent, using even just our hands. It moves inventions into the hands of specialists rather than what anyone can do if they just apply themselves enough- it makes it less democratic. And I'd suggest, it means that we as a society are losing our technological edge.

Joe said...

Ah, but computers do reduce work. Take encyclopedias for example. They also reduce time (sometimes by reducing work, sometimes for other reasons). The problem is we just add more tasks, so we don't notice.

I do agree that we have become too dependent on computers. Everybody should know how to compute standard deviations by hand, in case their calculator dies. :)

I heard stories at ECIS about schools that bought a bunch of fancy devices, which then sat unused, either because the teachers didn't know they were there, didn't know what they were for, or didn't know how to use them.

@bdul muHib said...

Low blow.

Joe said...

Thought you'd like that...Good luck today, by the way.

Thinking about what begats progress: 20+ years ago when most of our manufacturing jobs went to Asia, our textile jobs went to Latin America, and the rest of the jobs went to robots; people adapted by learning computers. Now, a lot of the computer jobs are moving to India, Morocco and Eastern Europe. Will we adapt again? To quote Dr. Ian Malcom: "Life...finds a way."

What will that way be? Who knows? I doubt if it will be a return to the age of amateur inventors. They had their place in history, but taking technology to the next level is going to require more than that. More money and more skills than the average amateur.

Truth be told, ironically, more and more US technology jobs are being filled by foreigners. Technological progress is no longer an us-versus-them situation, it is us-versus-extinction or us-versus-space, etc. Who would have thought 30 years ago that the US and Russia (among others) would be collaborating on a space station?

@bdul muHib said...

And good thing, too. After we stole from the 2/3rds world and raped it of humanity and resources, it's high time we started to give back. In truth our high standard of living is still predicated on the backs of the masses, both livin and long dead.

Joe said...

I just read the wikipedia article on Preston Tucker. The article suggests that Tucker's cars and business practices had a lot of problems, while some of his innovations were, in fact, improved upon and incorporated into other cards. Is there evidence to suggest he was a victim or that the public missed out because he went out of business? I haven't seen the movie, but it wouldn't surprise me if it has a more sympathetic portrayal.

@bdul muHib said...

We may never know the truth, but the movie is really well done, and comes down hard on the side that Tucker was a generally nice guy, wanting to do something great, and was attacked by the Big Three for reasons similar to Who Killed the Electric Car. They didn't want the competition, and feared it. This is supported by the numerous advances in the Tuckermobile that have been integrated only in recent years, or, like three headlights, are generally considered an advance but have only made it into one car on the road.

Joe said...

I don't know if this news item sheds any light on your original post...

@bdul muHib said...

I'm baa-aaack.

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