Friday, January 29, 2010

McDonnell Takes The No Road

Gov. McDonnell is playing cutesy with the General Assembly, refusing to provide his own plan for cutting $4 billion from the budget over two years (without raising taxes), but hinting that he may yet have some "suggestions."

In other words, the Governor is counting on the legislature to reach a deadlock on budget issues. For now, he's washing his hands of the issue.

For those who (justly) criticized Tim Kaine for fiddling away on national political issues (as DNC chair) while Richmond burned, McDonnell is more of the same. We've got serious work to do in the Commonwealth, but there was McDonnell giving the GOP response to President Obama's state of the union address.

Sorry Guv, but that's not what the voters elected you for. Before trying out for a run at national politics, how about doing something here at home first.

What little McDonnell has said so far isn't too encouraging. He's given a lot of rhetoric to placing the bulk of state revenues from offshore drilling into a transportation fund, but we won't see that revenue anytime soon. Great for our grandkids--IF there is such revenue, which we won't know for quite a few more years.

Apart from that, he's proposed a mish-mash of minor bills that are part of a jobs stimulus program, but in reality are political payback to some key supporters. Just how many Virginia jobs are in the wine and filmmaking industries? This is more about rewarding millionaires.

He's also proposed adding the Lt. Governor to some commissions that oversee investment in economic development programs, which is just another way of politicizing those commissions and using them to build the Lt. Governor's "base."

Perhaps a new name is in order for Mr. McDonnell: Governor Empty Suit.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Southeast Drought: All Gone

Regular Curmudgeon readers will recall that we focused on the severe drought affecting much of the Southeast the past couple of years.

Well, the drought has been banished entirely from the Southeast--for the first time in several years, the U.S. Drought Monitor reports the region as 100% free of drought or abnormal dryness, as attested to by our boring map here (which would be various shades of yellow and red if there was any dryness persisting).

Two years ago, it was quite a different story--we had a very colorful map, as shown below.

Not only has the drought abated in the Southeast, but the recent El Nino storms battering the west coast and southwestern states has significantly eased severe drought conditions there as well.

El Nino--what's not to like?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Great Idea To Reign In Corporate Political Activity

Here's a great idea, from today's Washington Post op-ed page, for putting constitutional limits on corporate political action: "Despite Court Ruling, Congress Can Still Limit Campaign Finance."

McDonnell Proposes $50 Million In Corporate Welfare

GOP Governor Bob McDonnell is off to a fabulous start! For his first major act as governor, he's proposed $50 million in NEW spending that can only be characterized as corporate welfare.

McDonnell wants you, the taxpayer, to pony up so Virginia can support it's wine and filmmaking industries--both playgrounds to the rich (and deadbeats like the Salahi's)--and to put "development offices" in China and India. (In case you're wondering, states use these offices to provide junkets to favored lawmakers and contributors.)

Well, we were certainly wondering. We didn't realize that Virginia's economic troubles centered around wine, filmmaking and lack of interest in China and India. We thought it had to do with housing and declines in domestic demand for products and services due to the recession!

To pay for these perks, the Governor wants to reduce the state's contribution to its pension fund, use up $25 million in revenue from a recent tax amnesty, and postpone equipment spending. That still leaves him with a $2 BILLION budget hole to fill.

Get serious governor--do state employees need to face reduced pension contributions so your buddies in the wine and film "industries" in the state can further line their silken pockets!
Voters--wake up!!

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Fees" Versus Taxes

With the Virginia General Assembly struggling, under the leadership of our new Republican governor, to close a $2 billion budget gap, it's worth considering what constitutes a tax.

Gov. McDonnell has signalled a willingness to raise "fees" to meet the budget gap, but not to raise "taxes." That raises the question of what is a fee and what is a tax.

If the governor proposes putting toll booths on highways to collect revenue, that's not a "fee." It's a tax. A very inefficient and expensive tax, since it requires building toll booths, staffing them, and impeding traffic to collect the tax. A much more efficient--and fairer--way to collect the same revenue would be to raise the gasoline tax. Hey, just call it a gasoline fee!!

Typically, a "fee" is a charge levied by a government for a particular good or service that is unique to the person being charged the fee. Parsing this out is not as easy as it sounds, however.

In Arlington, we pay a fee for water, based on the amount we use; we pay a trash collection fee if we live in a single family home, but it is not based on how much trash we put out. If you take a class at a County facility, you pay a fee for the class; but the County might still subsidize some portion of the class, for example the upkeep of the facility.

A "fee" clearly is not a fee when it is used for some purpose unrelated to how the fee is collected. For example, Gov. Kaine had proposed raising the state's telephone fee, but the money raised would not be used to enhance telephone service in the state--it would go into the general fund. That's a tax.

Republicans like to rail against "taxes," but their arguments are often semantic. Our new governor argues that a down economy is not a good time to raise taxes. That's a good point. But it's also a good point that a down economy is not a good time to reduce services, especially those that assist the victims of a down economy. Nor is it a good time to raise fees.

Furthermore, the largest cost in providing government services is that of personnel. There simply is no way to reduce services in Virginia by $2 billion without firing a LOT of people. Is it a good idea to let a lot of people go when unemployment is so high? Probably not.

When some of our "conservative" friends get going on their anti-tax speeches, we like to ask a simple question: what service of government do you want to reduce or eliminate?

We rarely get an answer, other than some vague claim that the government wastes a lot of money through inefficiency. We've got news for you: the private sector wastes a lot of money through inefficiency, too. We can certainly agree that everyone on both sides of the aisle would like to eliminate fraud, waste and inefficiency, but there isn't as much of that as you think.

People do want most of the services provided by government, and for many services there is a unique constituency that will argue hard for its position. Do you want police protection? Certainly. Fire protection? Yes. Parks? Sure. Garbage collection? Absolutely. Roads? Sewers? Schools? Prisons? Libraries? Courts? We think so.

Lean budget times are useful, because they do force close examination of the various services offered, and offer opportunities to trim fat our of programs and assess priorities. In such times, however, uniform opposition to "raising taxes" is not very useful. Taxes need to reflect the level of services provided, which in turn should reflect a community consensus on those services we want from our government.

If Republicans want to do away with taxes, they can. Just charge a fee for each government service, including an "income fee" for such general services as providing a paid governor.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Is The Singularity Near?

In our last post, we explored projections by futurist Raymond Kurzweil that advances in computer technology, genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will, by 2050, enable humans to essentially become superintelligent human/machine entities capable of immortality.

Now we're going to posit some questions about those projections.

First, there are plenty of other "futurists" who dispute Kurzweil's vision. He takes them on, often convincingly, but there's still clearly plenty of room for debate. In 1950 there were highly intelligent visionaries who thought we'd be a lot more advanced by 2000 than we are, with flying cars, Martian colonies, robotic helpers and so forth.
We, of course, have made huge scientific and technological strides since 1900 and 1950. We've practically doubled human life expectancy since 1900. Imagine if we doubled it again by 2100--humans would regularly live to 150, with many approaching 200. The Curmudgeon would have a good chance of still being around in 2100. Will we have great, great, great, great grandchildren? Will Mrs. Curmudgeon still love us?
Other scientists believe it would be difficult to extend human life spans beyond those of today's oldest human, but that we could see a much larger percentage of people live to those extended lifespans. That would mean large numbers of people living to 110-115 years old, and the Curmudgeon perhaps making it to 2070 or so, to see how well Kurzweil's predictions fare.
On the other hand, we can't get anywhere any faster today than we could in 1950. Back then, you could drive a car at 70 mph--with a lot less congestion--and by 1960 you could take a jet plane at 600 mph. Both were a lot more expensive back then, however--now just about anyone in the western world can own an automobile or afford to take a jet plane flight. But we don't have supersonic flight (although we did for awhile), and the plain fact is that you can't physically get anywhere today faster than you could 50 years ago. (In Europe in Asia you can go a lot faster by train than in 1950; alas, not here in the U.S.)
But then maybe we don't need to go so far anymore, as communications technology has made huge strides, connecting the world like never before. By 2020 we should be able to have easy, affordable video communications worldwide. Maybe even in 3-D.
In any event, we can easily envision a future in which the things that are familiar to us now are better: robotic cars that zip around computer controlled highways at 150 mph; medical treatments that banish most diseases and postpone aging; nanobots that clean up pollution; household robots that do all the things we don't want to do.
But what happens when we reach two milestones that Kurzweil reasonably projects: (1) the ability, through nanotechnology, to create self-assembling nanobots capable of creating anything we can imagine by assembling atoms and molecules from scratch; and (2) artificial intelligence that is more intelligent than human intelligence?
Both pose grave risks. As Kurzweil discusses in chilling detail, it would be possible to create a nanobot capable of replicating itself, that could, in a matter of hours, consume all the organic matter on earth, turning everything into a "grey goo." (We won't go into the details, but if you want to know more, click here.) Kurzweil believes we'll be able to create defenses against this doomsday scenario. Let's assume we can. Will this really be great for everybody? We'll discuss that in a minute, but first let's look at the artificial intelligence angle.
The danger with artificial intelligence that is smarter than us (what Kurzweil calls "strong AI") is that it, too, could self-replicate and ultimately decide it has no use for humans. Kurzweil thinks we'll work that out, too, fusing them with human and machine qualities.
Our problem is this: if we succeed in creating nanobots and robots capable of solving all our problems and doing everything for us, what are humans going to do? Kurzweil never addresses this. His answer appears to be that humans will fuse with machine intelligence, live forever, create virtual worlds and enjoy virtual life while pondering ever bigger thoughts.
(Just an aside, but when we're 1000 years old, are we still going to be nagging our 970 year old children about their life choices? "What are doing with that cyborg, you know she's just taking advantage of you!")
Again, our problem is this: which humans? The way things work on our current earth is that some humans--the rich ones--acquire technology first, while others lag way behind. Are the superintelligent, immortal machinohumans going to have a use for the rest of the humans? Will android robots take humans as pets, or keep them in zoos? After all, that's what WE do with the lesser animals.
The world will certainly look different. If nanobots can manufacture food, we won't need farmers. If robots can perform all the services humans now perform--only better--we won't need humans for too many jobs. Maybe not for any. So, how does our economy work at that point?
Another problem, of course, is the way humans like to use technology against each other. Will those disaffected humans use older generation--but still lethal--robots and nanobots against the wealthier ones? Will religious zealots--ever more threatened by the advances of technology--unleash a doomsday to fulfill their own sick prophecies?
When we make advances in technology, they bring on new dangers. Sure, we think it's great when we can take out a "terrorist" in Pakistan with a remotely fired missile on a drone aircraft. But we won't think it's such a great technology when some terrorist uses a drone to fire a missile--or drop a crude bomb--into the White House or some other important institution. Yet, having invented that technology, we'll have to defend against it.
Kurzweil's view, ultimately, is utopian. The question is whether humans really want a utopia. There is some truth to the scene in the movie "The Matrix" where the "Smith" android describes what happened when they tried to program a perfect virtual reality world for humans: no one liked it; so they had to go back and create a world with conflict, despair, depression and so forth.
And while kids can be a pain in the butt (we have one doing his best right now), who wants a world without kids?
Maybe it's just because 2010 Curmudgeon can't understand what 2030 Curmudgeon, and 2050 Curmudgeon, will have come to accept as the norm--looking back on 2010 as a still primitive era. We hope we're still around to post our thoughts then--or beam them into your machine enhanced heads.

Will We Be Immortal In The Future?

We're nearing the end of our intermittent series on what the future will be like, with a two part post on the "near-distant" future, i.e., the period ending around 2050.

Obviously, looking that far ahead is perilous. To assist, we turned to Raymond Kurzweil, a "futurist" who has written a number of books about what the future may hold. His 2005 book, "The Singularity is Near," is a comprehensive look at the technological trends likely to dominate discovery over the next few decades.

Kurzweil is an optimist. We'll take the optimistic view as well. Over the long term of human history, the optimists have prevailed, albeit with some dark periods. Kurzweil might also be a utopian; many utopians have preceded him, and their visions have generally failed, so he, too, may have gone too far.

Let's start with the easier stuff. Kurzweil identifies three technologically driven trends that will dominate the first half of this century: genetics, nanotechnology, and robots, or GNR. All three are, in turn, driven by one primary factor--the exponential increase in computing power that has been going on now for several decades.

He starts by taking us on a tour of the theoretical limits of computing power, and the current state of computing technology and research. The inescapable conclusion is that we have plenty of room to push the envelope of computing power over the next few decades. He concludes that by roughly 2030 we will have computers that are capable--for the current price $1000--of equaling or exceeding the intelligence of the human brain.

It's hard to argue with Kurzweil on this one. Maybe it won't be 2030, but certainly by 2050, and maybe as early as 2025, we'll get there. At each step along the way, we're aided by the current increases in computing power, which help us figure out the next step.

Meanwhile, the expansion of computing power will drive the Big 3--GNR--to fabulous new discoveries. In genetics, we will have a complete understanding of the human genome and that of every living thing on the planet. We will master proteomics--the science of proteins, which are the building blocks of life. We will make tremendous advances in disease treatment through genetic and stem cell advances.

Those advances are significant, because, in Kurzweil's view, they will allow us older fogeys to live long enough, and healthy enough, to take advantage of additional advances in other fields, that could essentially result in immortality.

In nanotechnology, we will get to a point where we can assemble just about anything at the molecular level. Nanotechnology is a much younger field, and still a mystery to most of us. At bottom, however, it has the potential to develp technologies at the molecular level that would make most things practically "free," while providing means to maintain our bodies, eliminate pollution, etc. Nanotechnology also presents certain doomsday scenarios, which we'll discuss in the next post.

In robotics, we will achieve artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence. Kurzweil expects this to happen by 2030. Achieving this will be helped by the ability to "reverse-engineer" the human brain, a process on which we are making great strides.

Of course, we'll all be happy to have affordable, intelligent robots that can do all kinds of things for us. Whether we'll be happy to have robots smarter than us is a different matter--again, a subject for our next post.

Ultimately, Kurzweil projects that we will--in our lifetimes--have the ability to "upload" the contents of our brains into a machine entity, and that we will have the ability to live for hundreds of years, if not forever, but in a form that fuses human with machine until we become more machine than human.

This is what Kurzweil calls "the singularity"--the point at which humans possess a super-intelligence and live forever. And this will occur in our (now extended) lifetimes (certainly in those of our children).

That's pretty heavy duty stuff. It's one thing to think about lounging around (in say 2030) at the beach, in a body that is like that of a 40 year old (or younger!), enjoying life's pleasures (much of it in virtual reality) while robots and nanobots take care of everything for us. We can kind of get a grasp on that, and it doesn't sound too bad.

But being an immortal machine vastly more intelligent than today's brightest humans? Guess we'd have to be a lot more intelligent to grasp that one. Doesn't sound like heaven on earth, but maybe it will be.

It's hard to argue with Kurzweil's basic premise however: we have, today, a vast, decentralized, scientific and technological enterprise that is moving forward with astounding speed--when compared to prior centuries or even prior decades. It is unlikely that anything is going to stop those advances, or even slow them down very much. True, there are Luddite factions (like those that opposed embryonic stem cell research in the U.S.) in various places, but all they can do is slow progress in a small part of the world, not everywhere. The competition is just too great.

So, will that technology take us to some kind of utopia? We'll discuss that in a further post (this one already being rather long).

Friday, January 22, 2010

Deficit Hypocrisy

All of a sudden, the right is all abother about deficits, making symbolic gestures of opposing an increase in the federal debt ceiling.

Where were these deficit hawks during the Bush administration, when W pushed through a massive tax cut and paid for two wars and a huge Medicare drug plan with Uncle Sam's credit card?

What we have now is vintage "conservatism". When George W. Bush took office, the federal government was running a surplus, projected to total $5.6 trillion dollars over the span of what would become his administration.

Yet Bush didn't run a single year of surplus. When he handed over the reigns of government to his successor, the government was running deficits over $500 billion per year. Under the most optimistic of scenarios, there was no possible way to balance the budget over the succeeding eight years.

During the Bush years, the federal deficit expanded by $2.5 trillion--that's an $8 trillion swing from what he inherited.

We're now facing even bigger deficits, and the Obama administration, along with Congress, will have to figure out how to deal with it. But make no mistake: the problem was caused by W. Bush and his Congress. The deficit hawks squawking on Faux News didn't seem too bothered then.

Corporations Don't Vote And They Aren't People

Our Founding Fathers--of whom Sarah Palin is so fond--would be pretty surprised by yesterday's Supreme Court decision unfettering corporations (and unions) from restrictions on their political activities.

In our democracy, people vote. Corporations do not vote; indeed, they are creatures of the state. Under our constitution, corporations do have some rights, but they are not the same as those of citizens. There is no reason whatsoever why Congress cannot limit the political "rights" of corporations and unions.

Perhaps between depressing Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts and this abomination of a Supreme Court decision, folks on the left will wake up and get more active. Tea parties be damned!

(Our Constitution also doesn't provide that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass legislation.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Thank you, thank you, thank you dear readers! Just a couple hours ago we hit the 100,000 mark in "hits" at XCurmudgeon! Couldn't do it without you--hope we'll be able to continue providing content that keep you coming back.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Back To The Future

We wanted to get back to our little series on what the future will be like.

Today: what we want in a household robot.

In another 10 years or so, we should begin seeing some true household robots of the multi-tasking variety that crudely imitate humans. Current advances in computing power, artificial intelligence, minitiaration and robotics should make it possible for us to have robots capable of doing at least some household chores.

So, what do we want in such a robot? A robot that could clean up after a meal--now that would be worth paying for. Of course, that would require a robot that could clean dishes, throw away trash, put leftovers away, and wipe up after everyone's done. A robot that could do that could probably do just about everything in the house.

Doing laundry would be another nice function to have (including folding and putting away the clothes). (And finding all those missing socks!)

Vacuuming. Mowing the lawn. (Yes, there are currently robots that sort of do both; but we want a robot that will get those robots out and put them away when they're done.) Cleaning the bathroom.

A really useful function would be for our household robot to scan every item in the house, remember where it is, and retrieve it when needed. ("Robot, can you get me the plyers and find the TV remote?")

Maybe the robot could do some rudimentary cooking as well. And be a handyman. Rake leaves. Feed the cat! Trim hedges.

And do paperwork--keep track of bills and all that!

In other words, our robot is going to function like an entire staff in a mansion. (Hey, why not--it can work 24/7.)

We imagine that robots in this class are going to be expensive. But that's ok. We'd certainly pay the equivalent of what a luxury car costs today for a truly versatile robot of the future. And, like a car, we'd probably get an upgrade every few years.
Who knows, in 10 years we may be Facebook friends with our robots!
Next up (when we get time), we'll explore the more distant future--around 2040 or so, when things may get really interesting.

Did I Say I Was Going To Fix Virginia's Roads? What I Meant Was "Later"

We could've sworn that Bob McDonnell campaigned for governor on a platform that included fixing Virginia's roads a number one priority. He certainly savaged his opponent, Creigh Deeds, for not having a specific plan on transportation.

Well, surprise, surprise. Now McDonnell says the doesn't plan on addressing roads in the 2010 legislative session that is just getting underway. "There are only so many things the General Assembly and I can do well in a short period of time," the new Governor announced yesterday.

And transportation ain't one of 'em.

So much for that "plan" of his. So much for making transportation a priority. So much for you sucka's from Northern Virginia who bought his line of crap.

We're sure NEXT year the general assembly will have nothing better to do. Surely the Guv will get it done then, right.

Oh, and by the way Mr. McD.--tolls are taxes. If you impose tolls on I-95 and I-81, you're raising taxes. Only you're doing it in an expensive and inefficient way that will further slow down everyone in the state.

Rush Limbaugh Is A Jackass

But then, you already knew that, didn't you.

In case you missed it, Rush told his listeners that they needn't bother with appeals for aid to Haiti because "we've already donated to Haiti--it's called the U.S. income tax."

Pat Robertson also had some nice words of encouragement for Haitians, basically saying they deserved what they got because they made "a pact with the devil" 200 years ago when the island became independent.

Somehow, we don't think Rush and Pat would be talking this way if Haiti were a white country.

Just so we're clear, Limbaugh and Robertson should be called Hateians, not to be confused with those who deserve and sympathy and support.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Leno Should Go

Wow, NBC has really made a mess of its late night schedule, and now no one there is happy.

There's no easy way out of this for the Peacock. However, the right thing to do is to ditch Jay Leno.

Leno is, unfortunately, the primary source of the problem. When NBC decided to move Leno to the 10:00 pm prime time slot, it was not a stupid idea, although it was risky.

Leno's show was supposed to be a comedy hour. When Leno hosted the Tonight Show, we enjoyed it, on those rare nights we could afford to stay up that late. But his show in the 10:00 pm slot was simply NOT FUNNY. Indeed, it was about as lame as could be. We had an inkling of this when NBC was pro-mo'ing the show during the summer--even the ads were lame. Like a movie preview for a comedy, where not even the jokes in the preview are funny. DOA.

We have to assume that it was Leno, not the NBC suits, who managed to screw up his own show.

It was also Leno's refusal, in the first place, to move on as he had agreed five years earlier, that created this whole conundrum in the first place.

So don't penalize Conan, whose own Tonight Show gig was hurt by Leno's poor lead-in. Give Leno the boot. Yes, he'll whine and complain, and probably show up on some other network with a show--but it won't last long, because he's clearly lost his edge and most of his audience. So, NBC, take your medicine, clean house and get on with life as part of Comcast.

Marsden Wins Special Senate Race/GOP Decides To Be Silly

In an important special election yesterday, Democrat Dave Marsden won the state senate seat in the 37th district in Fairfax County, adding to the Democratic majority in the Commonwealth's upper chamber.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports today that Virginia Republicans, emboldened by their victories in November, plan to launch an updated version of the 1960's "massive resistance" movement. In the '60's, politicians across the South, trying to out-demagogue each other on race, pursued various measures of "massive resistance" to federal laws dismantling the system of racial segregation that prevailed in states like Virginia.

Now, Virginia Republicans--faced with a gaping $1-2 billion deficit, a transportation crisis, a weak economy and other problems of governance--have decided to . . . introduce a bunch of bills challenging federal authority.

One bill would make it illegal to require people to purchase health insurance; another would "declare" that the feds cannot regulate as interstate commerce any good or service produced or performed entirely in Virginia, and another would take aim at federal regulation of gun transactions in the state.

These are all quite empty symbolic gestures, as they deal with issues that are in the province of the courts--FEDERAL courts.

It's just as well, however. It gives us hope that the GOP, left to its own devices, will quickly give up the gains it made in November by being silly, instead of seriously addressing the Commonwealth's most pressing needs.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Car of the Future: 2020

Today we're continuing our series on what the future may hold by focusing on the venerable automobile.

By 2020 we should expect some major changes to the family car, which will result in quite a paradigm shift.

One change we can already see coming is the advent of the fully electric car. By 2020 we can expect that the majority of NEW cars will be fully electric as advances in battery, computer and electric motor technology revolutionize this aspect of the auto.

But that's NOT the really big change. After all, the electric car looks and feels pretty much the same as a gasoline powered vehicle, and will be marketed and sold in a similar manner.

What will be truly new will be the robot car. The technology already exists today for a vehicle to drive across the country and on urban roads without a human driver, and it has advanced rapidly in recent years. By roughly 2015 we should be seeing some prototype models of cars capable of driving themselves, and by the end of the decade there should be a few higher end models available for mass purchase.

So what's the big appeal of having a robo-car? Well, over time--in the next decade (the '20's) robo-cars should revolutionize the way we relate to the automobile. Today, there is tremendous waste because people purchase cars for their own use, then have them sit unused for about 90% (or more) of the day.

Suppose, instead, that you belonged to a collective that owned a variety of shapes and sizes of robo-cars (similar to today's car-sharing operations, like Zip-car) that would pick you up at your doorstep when you wanted, and then drop you off at the entrance of wherever you're going, and then go park itself on a remote lot until the next collective member needed it. The result would be fewer vehicles on the roads and less need for buildings to maintain expensive parking facilities. (And for homes to have wasteful 3-car garages.)

Further, you'd be picked up by the type of car you need at the moment. Many American families have a huge SUV for those relatively rare occasions when they go on a family trip, or take a gang of kids to a soccer game. Imagine if your subdivision instead was served by a collective that had a handful of SUV's for when you need them, but otherwise would send you on your work commute in a two-seater (or one-seater for that matter).

The robo-cars would be quite "smart"--they would know where you're going and be sure to be charged with enough juice to make it; they would schedule time to re-charge themselves between assignments, in off-peak driving hours.

Another benefit of robo-cars--down the road, when there are sufficient numbers--would be the ability to take them on restricted highways limited solely to robo-cars, where they could go much faster than human driven cars, because they'd all be communicating with each other and with various traffic signals. Traffic jams could be avoided because the robo's would be able to see much further ahead and adjust speeds accordingly. Indeed, in urban areas, traffic signals might be avoided altogether as robo-cars communicating with each other would adjust speeds to navigate intersections without colliding.

Of course, the biggest benefit of robo-cars is eliminating that nemesis we all face on today's roadways: the OTHER driver, that idiot who is going too fast, or too slow, or not paying attention, or not signalling, or cutting us off, or trying to cut in line. (Of course, we ourselves NEVER do these things--only other drivers.)

And what will humans do while being transported in their robo-cars? Why, they'll be doing the 2020's equivalent of texting (and maybe drinking a beer, to boot).

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Inauspicious Beginning To A New Decade

With the advent of a new decade (we'll go with the flow here--technically, the new decade begins next Jan. 1) we thought we'd do a series of posts on what the future will hold.

We'll start today with what's up for this year, which turns out not to be too much, at least if you look at the Wall Street Journal's Top 10 New Gadgets For Home and Away.

January brings us the much vaunted Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where manufacturers trot out the newest in gadgets. Based on WSJ's sampling of the top 10, we can't get too excited.

None of them is a paradigm mover like the Apple I-phone (much imitated, not yet surpassed) or the Amazon Kindle. Most are, at best, expensive extensions of existing technology. There's an improved digital photo frame. Yawn. A device for the gym to combine your workout stats with your music. along with shouting words of encouragement when it senses you need it. Sorry, but we don't need Coach interacting with our music.

We also have a very expensive flashlight with a battery that will last 20 years. Hmmm. And a portable internet radio device for $350--as if we don't already have enough portable music. And if you're really dying to get internet radio, you can shell out $1200 for a device that will integrate internet radio with your car GPS system--IF you have an i-phone too.

In the computer department, there's a small, netbook looking thingie (the Lenovo Skylight--pictured above) that tries to be a computer and a phone. Maybe this will catch on--it seems to be connected through both wi-fi and 3G networks, so might be useful to those who need full computability all the time everywhere. Chalk it up as a further step down the road to merging of phone, internet, computer and whatever else.

Sony has a touch screen device that you can set up on a counter to keep forever connected to the internet, "displaying the latest online updates for weather, traffic and sports." Have you noticed that there just isn't that much new sports, weather, traffic and stock news through the day?

Kinda cool is a 47-in. flat screen HD-TV that is about one-third of an inch thick. But this is transitional technology. We'll wait for the next holy grail: a 3-D television as thin as paper, that can be rolled up and taken anywhere. (Yes, this will be coming, but it will be a few years.)

In April, Apple--which is known for making cool technological leaps--will introduce a new tablet computer. This might well be worth getting in line for. After using our Kindle for reading, and finding it easy to transport around, we can see the possibility for a tablet that is always connected, has a touch screen, is easily portable and does cool things (kind of a big I-touch).

Soon, we'll do a post about some more interesting things you may well see by the end of the decade, and after that we'll discuss some extraordinary advances predicted to occur before 2040, after reading a book on the potential for a complete transformation of humanity in this century. We'll also do a post on what we'd like to see in a personal robot assistant (it's a lot!)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Side-Benefit of Crawling Traffic?

In Virginia, traffic deaths reached an historic low in 2009, declining to 750, the least highway fatalities in the Commonwealth since 1966, when records started being kept. While 750 is still too many, it's a big improvement from over 1000 in 2007.

It's also a remarkable figure because the number of drivers and miles driven has obviously increased significantly since 1966!

So why has this happened? A cynic--like us--would say it's because no one in Virginia can now drive fast enough to cause a fatal accident! And, there is some truth in that.

More likely, however, is the improvement in safety design of both cars and highways, and increased seat belt usage. Although innovations such as air bags, anti-lock brakes, reinforced doors, crumple zones and stability and traction control have clearly helped make driving safer, it is still true that the biggest life savers are old-fashioned seat belts.

If you read reports in the local paper of traffic fatalities, you'll often see that the person(s) who died wasn't wearing a safety harness; many times they are ejected from the car. Those wearing seat belts in the same accidents almost always survive.

Virginia is not unique--2008 had the lowest number of traffic deaths nationally since 1961 (still, an appalling 37,261 fatalities), and traffic fatalities per mile travelled (a more accurate statistical measure given increased driving) have steadily declined over the past 40 years.

Interesting, too, that 2009 marked a record low year for homicides across the nation as well.

There's a lot of speculation about the reasons for both declines (i.e., car accidents and homicides), but one we haven't seen is the possibility that medical advances have simply meant that many more people who would have died before are now saved (albeit in a maimed state).

Anyway, 2009 may have been a bad year economically, but at least it was a good year for avoiding sudden, violent death.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Kindle This!

Well, happy new year everyone! After fighting off the snow, indulging in copious holiday treats, dealing with two weeks of having the kids monopolize my computer, and travelling about the region, it's nice to get back into the old routine.

NOT. Getting up at 6:15 a.m. this morning was definitely not fun. Oh well, get used to it.

Anyway, the Curmudgeon did get one new toy over the holidays, a Kindle "e-book" reader from Amazon. A year ago, we would've thought we'd be one of the last to jump aboard the e-reader wagon, but we were wrong. And many of you will have shiny new e-readers before long, too.

Let's face it, books have had a great run, and they'll still be around for a few more years, but it's time to move on.

As a general rule, we really like the Kindle. Even with it's (separately priced) leather case, it has the weight and heft of a medium sized children's paperback book. Yet, it can store hundreds of books. No need to lug around a separate bag of books on a long holiday anymore!

What we like best is the ability to instantly download a book after deciding you want it. The other day we were reading a magazine article, which referenced a book that sounded interesting. After a quick check on the web to make sure it was something we wanted, we purchased it on the Kindle and were reading it 15 minutes later.

This is particularly useful on a trip when you suddenly finish a good book and get that panicked feeling about not having anything else to read.

If you read a lot, the Kindle will pay for itself pretty quickly (at least, if you tend to buy books). Most bestsellers on Kindle are priced at under $10, with many other books selling for less. (You can get Landstrike for $8.99, and quite a few Kindle owners have done just that.) For the Curmudgeon, that means the Kindle should pay for itself in just a few months.

The Kindle is not perfect--it's still an early generation of e-readers of the future. One problem is that it's not easy to navigate around in a non-fiction book where you might want to look at a footnote, table or some other page in an appendix. We also like to jump to the back of a book sometimes just to see how many real pages there are left to read (i.e., excluding footnotes, appendices, etc.), and you just can't do that with the Kindle. For now.

That's mainly because the Kindle is, for now, taking a physical book and tranlating it to an electronic format. In the future, we expect that e-books will be specifically designed for e-readers, with options that make them much more versatile.

A couple other drawbacks: graphics, such as maps, graphs, tables, etc., reproduce poorly on the Kindle. Again, in the future, we'll see big progress on this front. The Kindle is also all black and white, so you don't get much out of photos, but surely color is on the way!

There are some nifty features, however. You can highlight text and make notes, just like on a real book (but without the guilt!).

You can also use the Kindle to read long documents not yet in print. We had a manuscript from a friend, which we'd been slogging through on the computer. But then we learned that we could upload the Word file for it to Amazon, who for a small fee would then download it back to our Kindle in e-book form (you can avoid the fee by taking an extra step and having it sent back to your computer, where you then upload it). Once we'd uploaded the manuscript, it was a cinch to finish reading because we could take it anywhere.

Another nice feature--which we haven't tested yet, however--is the ability to subscribe to various newspapers and magazines (and blogs, but who reads those!) on the Kindle. We can see the benefits, especially when traveling, but the graphical limitations could be more annoying here.

While we expect future versions to have various new features, one of the most appealing aspects of the Kindle is it's simplicity. We were able to get going on it in a matter of minutes, with most of the operations being intuitive. So we hope they don't ruin it by making it everything for everyone. Just give us color and "HD" graphics, and we'll be pretty happy.

So what are you waiting for--go out and get yours, too!

Silly Solution To Virginia's Transportation Woes

On January 12, a handful of Fairfax County voters will go to the polls in a special election to fill the state Senate seat (District 37) vacated by Republican Ken Cucinnelli when he ascended to Attorney General.

The Republican candidate in this special election is Stephen Hunt, who would certainly be an embarassment to Northern Virginia if elected. Hunt served a term on the Fairfax Co. school board, managing to LOSE his race for re-election after making a thorough ass of himself on the Board.

Among other things, Hunt used his position to denounce homosexuality, going so far as to suggest that school principals should make gay students interact with former gays who had renounced their homosexuality. Hunt also gave a speech where he expressed his regrets about giving up his virginity before marriage (but, of course, he did it, didn't he, even though his parents probably gave him the same advice he's giving now).

Anyway, Hunt's latest suggestion--one evidently embraced by other Republicans in the state as well--is that the state's transportation woes can be magically cured by a pot of gold at the end of the offshore oil and gas leasing rainbow.

In other words, don't expect ANYTHING on the transportation front for AT LEAST 10 more years, because that is about the soonest the Commonwealth could expect to see a dime from any such royalties. And those royalties are a big IF.

First, the federal government might not sign off on the proposed leases. Second, the Navy, with its large base at Norfolk--of mighty significance to Va.'s economy--may object, or at least hold things up. Third, we don't know that there IS any significant economically recoverable reserve of oil or gas off the coast of Virginia. If there is, it will be many years before anything starts to flow, hence many years before the state sees any revenue.

[And watch what you wish for; if you've been to beaches on the Gulf Coast--in Louisiana and Texas--you know they can be pretty icky as a result of oil deposits. Just what we need is to ruin Virginia's fine coastal resorts in search of more carbon pollution.]

So, when you hear Virginia Republicans--geniuses like Hunt--say they can solve the transportation crisis without raising taxes, bear in mind that what they really mean is NOT IN OUR LIFETIMES.

Unfortunately, these special elections tend to favor Republicans, so Fairfax may just get a new embarassment in Viriginia's upper chamber.