Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Project List

I have a terrible memory. Over the past few years, random ideas for projects would pop into my head and then, just as quickly, pop out. It was frustrating. So here I'm going to put my future project list into writing... mostly so I don't forget it.

Wireless Power
One of the biggest hurdles in our current state of technology is energy - particularly portable access to it. Everything from cell phones to electric automobiles is currently at the mercy of battery capacity. So the solution is simple: we kill the Batman battery.

Nikola Tesla did some fantastic work on this concept.  And that was about a hundred years ago.  It is theoretically sound.  We just need to make it happen.

I imagine it will start with portable energy stations, distributing power over a limited radius.  For example, you could drive one up to a construction site to wirelessly power lights and tools.  Eventually, though, entire cities would be energized.  Devices would be registered on the power network and electricity usage would automatically be billed to the device's owner.

The Knowledge Stream
Again, I am frustrated by my poor memory.  But modern tools like the Internet are making memory less and less important.  It's easy to do a quick search on your phone to get the answer to something.  But there are still three problems: 

1) There is still non-trivial effort involved.  You need to have a connected device.  You need to type in your query and wade through results.   

2) This is a "pull" system.  You need to make the above effort to retreive the data, which may or may not actually exist. 

3) This type of search is still, despite current efforts, more syntactic than semantic.  In other words, when we have a query, we need to guess at the keywords and hope that they lead to a relevant result.  There is still no good search engine that understands like a human would.   

The Knowledge Stream solves these three issues.  I imagine it like a constant flow of knowledge available as humankind uncovers it.  Maybe we would have implants in our brains that connect us to it (a la The Matrix), but the implementation is secondary.  Whatever the mechanism, the Stream would solve these three issues:

1) The effort to find knowledge drops dramatically, making it essentially no more difficult than accessing one of our own memories. 

2) You would now have an alternative to seeking out knowledge.  You could simply subscribe to domains that interest you and receive a feed of new knowledge as others discover and "publish" it.

3) The knowledge is not stored as text, but in a format that emulates how concepts are stored in our brains.  So "questioning" becomes simply pattern matching and "learning" becomes simply copying the resultant pattern.  (See my post "Reading is Too Serial" ... hmm ... actually I didn't write that yet.  Ok, it's coming soon.)

Granted, this is a huge undertaking.  But once it is complete, it will accelerate tremendously the pace of scientific and technological progress.

Edit Feb 20, 2012: Google is starting this 
Edit Mar 12, 2012: Getting closer to understanding memory encoding
Edit May 7, 2012: This is really gonna happen

Warp Drive
This was my original project idea.  I have listed it last because I think it will require the previous two to be functional before it becomes probable. 

I'm assuming we all are familiar with warp drive from Star Trek.  If not: it is an engine that allows for faster-than-light travel.  Given the size of our universe, warp drive will be necessary to travel in any meaningful way throughout it. 

So there's the list.  I don't want to attach time estimates to any of the projects because they would be completely arbitrary.  But I'm thinking the three could keep me busy for a thousand years at least.  Anyone want to help?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Jevons Paradox

It seems like a good idea at first glance.  Low-fat cookies.  So you buy them.  But because they low-fat, you eat more of them than you would have if they were high-fat.  So your total fat intake actually ends up being more.

This is the Jevons Paradox.

Jevons frames the concept, though, in terms of energy efficiency.  If you are running low on a resource, it seems to make sense to be more efficient in its use.  However, that increased efficiency leads to a net increase in use:

The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption.

Of course, it's not bad to increase efficiency. It often leads to reduced costs or greater output. But it won't lead to reduced consumption.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

After The Big Short, I decided I liked reading Michael Lewis.  So I read his latest.  What is the new Third World?


In Boomerang, Lewis tours the countries most decimated (so far) by the current debt crisis.  It's not that he makes light of their plights, but he does frame them within the context of their national identities:

The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2008 was more than a simple financial phenomenon: it was temptation, offering entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge.
Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers. The Greeks wanted to turn their country into a piƱata stuffed with cash and allow as many citizens as possible to take a whack at it. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish.
Michael Lewis's investigation of bubbles beyond our shores is so brilliantly, sadly hilarious that it leads the American reader to a comfortable complacency: oh, those foolish foreigners. But when he turns a merciless eye on California and Washington, DC, we see that the narrative is a trap baited with humor, and we understand the reckoning that awaits the greatest and greediest of debtor nations.

Edit: This stuff is real:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Overton Window (the concept, not the novel)

I love it when someone elegantly articulates something that we've all been thinking about...