Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why Silicon Valley and the Bay Area make me so depressed

Ranch houses in San Jose
I'm spending Christmas vacation with my fiancee's family in San Jose, and while I'm having a very nice time enjoying the sunshine, the whole Bay Area always makes me very pessimistic as a policy expert.

Whether you claim to care about global warming, income inequality, and/or improving public health, what you should really want to see is a huge housing boom in the Bay Area based around building new walkable urban centers. The mild climate means houses and apartments in the area need to use relatively little energy for heating and cooling. The climate also means that if new communities were built densely enough, it would be easy for people to walk or bike to work, which is both very good for the environment and for individuals' health. Finally, more housing in the area would allow more people to take advantage of the robust local economy.

Since the Bay Area is full of liberals that claim to care profoundly about these issues and highly educated tech companies that say their goals are to improve the world with things like shared economy apps and green tech, a massive push for new urbanization in the region should theoretically have huge political support here. Yet despite the money, the need, and the space being here for such a change, it is only the lack of political will holding it back. For example the very wealth city of San Jose has less than half the population density of Philadelphia and if Oakland simply had the same density as San Francisco there would be room for an extra 600,000 people in the area. In fact, the Bay Area is producing new housing at a truly pathetically slow rate. Instead, people in the area are fighting more urbanization based on nebulous, selfish goals like preferring the look of ranch houses or just not liking change.

Even in a place where the people and companies claim to care about improving the environment, people aren't willing to embrace change or just aren't capable of building the local political will to back proven solutions. That makes me very pessimistic about the ability of good policy to win.

Cobalt Slave
Please vote for Jon Walker's first sci-fi novel, Cobalt Slave on Kindle Scout

Friday, December 11, 2015

What if big brains are just too heavy to get to space?

I have an interesting possible solution to the Fermi Paradox. To put it simply, the paradox is that it seems there should be millions of planets that could support advanced life but we have seen no evidence of other advanced space faring life in our galaxy.

What if big brains are only useful on planets with significant gravity, but significant gravity makes it almost impossible for civilizations to build vehicles to escape?

Let's assume that, for the most part, the caloric cost of a large brain remains roughly the same regardless of gravity, but the cost of physically moving it would change dramatically. On Earth our gravity makes it worthwhile for many animals to expend a significant amount of calories using their brains to think before they spend calories on moving around, but low gravity could tip the balance the other way. Imagine an Earth-like planet but with half our gravity. There, using basic instincts combined with extremely quick reflexes might be the dominant strategy. With the cost of moving reduced, the value of thinking about the best action beforehand would be diminished.

On a planet with twice our gravity, it might make even more sense, in terms of evolution, to favor spending precious calories on thinking over moving. This would imply intelligent life would be far more common on larger planets, but the problem is every small increase in gravity makes it dramatically harder for intelligent life to build a rocket ship or a space elevator to get off the planet.

Maybe the Goldilocks level of gravity for the development of a space faring civilization -- heavy enough to encourage the evolution of intelligence but light enough to be able to easily build space vehicles -- is very narrow.

It is possible there are thousands or millions of civilizations out there which are effectively trapped in their gravity wells.

I recently finished my first sci-fi novel, Cobalt Slave. Please go to Kindle Scout to nominate it. It is free, and if my book is selected you will get a free copy of it!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Please help me with my first novel, Cobalt Slave

I have some exciting news! After a year of intense work I have finally finished my first science fiction novel, Cobalt Slave, and I would love your help to make it a success.

I chose to submit my book to Kindle Scout, a program through which Amazon chooses new, independent books to publish and promote. The more people who vote for a particular book, the more likely it is to be selected.

The best part is it's free to "nominate" any book, and if Cobalt Slave is selected you will get a free copy from Amazon.

Right now you can read the first several chapters of Cobalt Slave via Kindle Scout -- if you enjoy them, please nominate it. It only takes a minute to nominate a book, and your support would mean a
lot to me.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Legalizing private asteroid mining is great news for humanity

Last week President Obama took a small step which may help assure the long term survival of humanity. He signed into law the Space Act of 2015 which gives private companies the rights to keep anything they mine from an asteroid.

As long as all humans are living on Earth we risk society collapsing or even extinction from a single nuclear war, super plague, or massive meteorite strike. Having a viable human population living just off planet is the best insurance policy, but creating that would require an incredible amount of energy/money.

There are basically three ways such a massive undertaking would be funded. A government could foot the entire bill, a crazy rich individual/organization could pay to send hundreds of people into space for ideological reasons, or it could be the byproduct of a profitable private business venture.

Creating a clear legal framework for asteroid mining helps increase the chance the third option will be used. While some people left Europe for religious and ideological reasons, the big driving force behind the colonization of the New World was the search for profit. It is likely that will be the main driver behind colonizing space.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Pumpkin spice and the ultimate evil

While we are in the heart of the pumpkin spice season, it is worth thinking back to the sordid history of the spices in your latte. What we normally consider “pumpkin spice” is usually a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger all sweetened with a generous helping of sugar. It is in the pursuit of these flavors that some of the greatest acts of evil ever were committed.

The hunt for cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove in the so-called “East Indies” is what began and fueled European colonialism. To secure these spices, governments were overthrown, wars were fought, nations were destroyed, colonies built, and whole groups of people were oppressed. Empires rose and fell on the trade of these spices.

Even worse is what was done to secure sugar, part of this popular spice combination. First, the native people of the Americas were enslaved or killed to make room to grow sugar. When they proved no longer a sufficient source of forced labor to meet demand, slaves were brought from Africa. The transatlantic slave trade was primarily about obtaining sugar. Over the centuries millions of slaves were brought from Africa to the Caribbean so they could be worked to death on sugar plantations. Suffering and greed was not limited to one side of the Atlantic. The sugar-fueled slave trade helped produce a near endless state of war in parts of Africa as local slavers needed to create a constant supply of new captives to sell.

It is not an exaggeration to say at one point in time millions of people were dying so some people could enjoy the equivalent of a pumpkin spice treat. I remind you of this history not to make you feel bad about your latte but to provide an example of why at my heart I’m a techno-optimist. While there are still some issues with international farming practices, things are dramatically better than they once were. Thanks to advances in technology, millions of people can enjoy the luxury of pumpkin spiced drinks and desserts without creating massive suffering. It makes me wonder how advances in automation will make the current production of luxuries (such as our cheap t-shirts and cellphones) look horrifying and barbaric to our grandchildren.

Monday, November 2, 2015

On a personal note - Freelancing, Novel, Wedding, and Moving

There are a few big personal developments for me. I'm going to be moving to Portland, Oregon at the beginning of January and getting married at the end of February. In addition, while I've been putting the finishing touches on my first novel, I've started to do some freelance writing for different outlets.

Some of my drug policy reporting and analysis is already being featured at Massroots. Two of my articles are currently on their blog:

Five of marijuana reform’s biggest opponents

Bernie Sanders wants to end federal marijuana prohibition

As a result of all this, my futurist posts here will be a little light for the next few months, but if your organization is interested in hiring me for freelance writing or consulting, please let me know. Similarly, if you have any suggestions, ideas, hints, or opportunities for me when I get to Portland, please send them along.

Thanks for your support.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

My marijuana predictions coming true

Back in January of 2014 I published my first policy book, After Legalization: Understanding the Future of Marijuana Policy. In the book I try to predict what is likely going to happen over the next 20 years in marijuana policy. I'm going to take a moment to look back at some of the big predictions I got right and those I got wrong. So far three of my larger predictions have already come to fruition.
  1.  That Alaska and Oregon would vote to legalize marijuana in November 2014 - While not the boldest prediction at the time, the success of these two legalization campaigns was in no way guaranteed. Midterm elections tend to see lower turnout among young voters, and in 2012 the voters of Oregon rejected a different legalization ballot measure.
  2. The Liberal Party would likely win the federal Canadian election and will push for marijuana legalization in 2016 - Earlier this week, the Liberal Party won a majority in parliament, giving them free rein to implement any policy they want. Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has promised to push for legalization "right away," and we should expect a bill in 2016 or 2017.
  3. That some states would require individuals to register and pay a small fee to grow marijuana at home for personal use - I thought this strategy would be appealing to policy makers because it would allow states to get revenue from home growers and make it easier to prosecute people who are abusing home growing provisions to produce bootleg marijuana. This is exactly what the ResponsibleOhio ballot measure will do if it is approved this November. It will require people to pay a $50 registration fee if they want to grow up to four plants at home.
I have gotten a few things wrong, though. I predicted there wouldn't be a legalization measure on the local ballot in D.C. until 2020, because I thought pro-legalization groups would be worried about congressional interference otherwise. This prediction was only half right. The voters of D.C. did vote overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana use in November 2014, but in response Congress adopted a budget rider that has prevented the city government from implementing a tax-and-regulate system.

I similarly didn't expect Ohio to vote for marijuana legalization until 2020, but Ohio may actually legalize marijuana much earlier. With just a few weeks until the election, polling currently shows Issue 3 is tied 46 percent yes to 46 percent no. If Issue 3 fails, there is a good chance different legalization measures might appear on the ballot in 2020 like I initially predicted, but I would prefer not to be proven right that way.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Mars is also a harsh mistress

Warning: Spoiler alert for The Martian

I'm a big fan Andy Weir's book The Martian, and I recently saw the motion picture it inspired, which I think is one of the most faithful and enjoyable book adaptations in recent times.

For those who haven't read the book, it is the story of one astronaut who is accidentally left behind on Mars and the extraordinary efforts he needs to go through to survive. Since Earth is so far away it takes years to send help, so he needs to basically MacGyver everything in order to survive from only the supplies on hand.

One thing I love about the book is that it properly captures how Mars' distance from Earth, combined with its cold and completely inhospitable climate, make it a great setting for a dramatic story of survival. These factors also make it a really stupid place to colonize. The story really drives home that Mars has almost nothing to help a human survive besides some weak sunlight, rocks, and modest gravity.

While I strongly support limited manned missions to Mars for scientific purposes, the idea that it should become a second home to save our species from extinction is deeply misguided. If we are looking for a place to colonize, there are numerous asteroids which can be brought close to Earth, have better access to free solar power, and can be turned into rotating habitats to produce a more desirable level of artificial gravity.

*image of Martian landscape from NASA

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Have we found an alien ringworld?

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I speculated that our best chance of ever detecting intelligent alien life in the universe would come from actually seeing signs of their truly massive stellar architecture. A new paper indicates we just might already have.

Around one mature star there appears to be a highly unusual mess of objects circling it, which is very difficult to explain. From the Atlantic:

Boyajian, the Yale Postdoc who oversees Planet Hunters, recently published a paper describing the star’s bizarre light pattern. Several of the citizen scientists are named as co-authors. The paper explores a number of scenarios that might explain the pattern—instrument defects; the shrapnel from an asteroid belt pileup; an impact of planetary scale, like the one that created our moon. [...]

Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. SETI researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations, by looking for enormous technological artifacts orbiting other stars. Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.
It is most likely this pattern was caused by an extremely rare set of natural phenomena, but the small possibility that it could be the result of some type of alien ringworld or Dyson sphere is extremely intriguing.

If follow-up research does indicate this pattern is caused by something artificial, it would carry two huge implications. The first is that we are not alone in the universe. The second is that there is alien civilization which possesses technology that is thousands or even millions of years more advanced than our own to be able to create something like this.

*image of Kepler from NASA

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What is the minimum population for a modern society?

Elon Musk's push to send a million people to Mars (a plan which I think is misguided) highlights an interesting question: How many people do we need to operate a modern society?

I'm writing this article on a computer made from components that were built in a dozen different factories. In turn, these components were made from materials from all over the world. The plastics were likely made from Middle Eastern oil, copper probably came from Chile, silicon from China, lithium from Australia, chromium from South Africa, nickel from the Philippines, etc...

Currently, the modern world is built on a complex web of global trade that relies on tens of millions of people. Simply reproducing basic pieces of critical technology on a new planet would take numerous mines, refineries, and factories spread all over. Each of these factories would need to be staffed and would require local communities to provide them with basic services.

The minimum number of people a new planet would need to be capable of building computers, tractors, phones, antibiotics, and other basic necessities of modern life could easily be in the millions or tens of millions.

This creates a serious problem for any possible colony, on a new planet either in this solar system or a nearby one, with relatively few solutions:
  1. Send a truly massive number of colonists at once.
  2. Pay the expense of constantly providing a colony with new technological supplies for decades.
  3. Have colonists willing to lose access to modern technology for possibly generations until the population grows to a minimum level. (Not really viable on a planet without a breathable atmosphere.)
  4. Find a way to make necessary equipment extremely durable while the population grows.
  5. Come up with a way to make advanced technologies on a small scale using few elements, like super advanced 3D printing.
A good planetary colony proposal or science fiction story about a colonization really needs to think about how to solve this problem of scale.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Colorado's accidental experiment on legal marijuana taxes

Thanks to the unusual set of rules governing taxes in Colorado, the state is about to perform a natural experiment to test how much marijuana taxes matter to consumers. On September 16th there will be no adult use marijuana excise taxes in Colorado. From Time:

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires voter approval for new taxes. In 2013, a year after legalizing recreational pot, voters approved the 25 percent taxes. But the law requires that any new taxes be waived and refunded if overall state collections exceed projections given to voters when they approved the new taxes.

In this case, the pot taxes were projected to raise $70 million in 2014. They actually raised $58 million, but because overall tax collections that year exceeded projections, Colorado must ask voters for permission to keep the money. And to comply with the requirement that the taxes revert to zero, lawmakers settled on a short one-day tax waiver.

That day is Sept. 16, one day after the state’s books for the previous fiscal year are made final.

One of the biggest policy questions for marijuana reform is what tax rate to set. Many jurisdictions and legalization proposals are focused on trying to find the sweet spot which maximizes revenue but remains low enough to undermine the black market. So it will be very interesting to see by how much legal adult use marijuana sales increase in September and compare that with a few weeks before and after.

There is almost guaranteed to be some spike in sales during this one-day tax holiday, but it would be very informative to look at the data to try to find out why. Does it mainly come from regular customers delaying their purchases a few days for a tax break, or will a significant number of people who have been purposely using the black market to avoid taxes take advantage of this opportunity to go to the legal stores?

If the total sale of legal adult use marijuana for all of September and October simply average out to be roughly the same as other months, then it would probably be safe to conclude any spike in sales on September 16th was mainly caused by people who would have used the retail stores anyway. The net effect would be the same amount of legal weed being sold over this time period. On the other hand, if this one-day tax holiday causes an even larger spike in sales than that, it would indicate the tax holiday caused a significant number of people to at least temporarily use the legal market instead of the black market. That would suggest marijuana excise taxes need to be even lower to really drive out the black market.

Obviously, a one-day tax holiday isn't the best experiment for answering this question, but given how little data we have on legal marijuana tax policy, it deserves some serious attention.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

I've finished the first draft of a novel

I've finished a first draft of my science fiction novel, Cobalt Slave. It is a hard sci-fi story set on a new planet colonized by a slowship.

Cobalt is a trace element necessary for human life. In the story, one man realizes that by controlling the entire supply of cobalt he can control this new world. As a result, everyone on the new colony has to do what the Department of Public Health commands, or the department simply lets them die a slow, painful death by vitamin deficiency.

With the planet's irreplaceable, high tech equipment brought from Earth slowly breaking down, the new Director of the Public Health Department is forced to find new ways to maintain his power. This creates an opening for others both outside and within his government to try to seize control of the cobalt. It is a story of intrigue, backstabbing, and rebellion set in a unique world.

This project was just for fun. If you are interested in reading to give me feedback or help me get it published, let me know.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

There are unicorns out there

One thing I love about space and science fiction is the incredible number of possibilities. We suspect the universe contains around a septillion stars -- 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Even if we pessimistically assume one in every million stars contains a planet with life, that is still a quintillion planets -- 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 -- an unimaginable number of possible ecosystems.

The number is so great that if certain things are technically possible they become almost probable. Basically, any creature that we can imagine, as long as it obeys the basic laws of physics and would make at least some evolutionary sense, probably exists in some form, somewhere out there.

So on some distant planet, there is likely a species of animal that evolved to fill the same ecologic niche as equines and also have a single long horn for mating displays. There is a very good chance that in some alien forest, there are large, hairy bipeds walking around that look and act just like our mythical sasquatches. At this moment, there are probably large, scaly, winged creatures flying around looking for prey under a distant star which bear an incredible resemblance to dragons.

This is one of the things that has always drawn me science fiction over fantasy. While I won't live long enough to see if we ever find anything like the incredible creatures or worlds some of the greatest sci-fi authors have dreamed up, there is something magical knowing that probability suggests they may really exist in some form out there.

*Andromeda galaxy picture from NASA

Monday, August 10, 2015

My drug sniffing app

I have an amazing business opportunity, and I'm looking for investors. I'm creating a smartphone app that will use the sound of a police officer simply tapping against a car to determine if a vehicle might hold illegal drugs.

Naturally, you might be wondering how I was able to come up with a way to accurately detect illegal drugs with the just the mic of a simple smartphone. The answer is I haven't -- but that does not at all matter. Being able to accurately tell if a suspect might have drugs in their vehicle is simply not a concern for our justice system.

Our current system often uses so-called "drug sniffing dogs," and they are often truly terrible at their jobs. The problem is dogs aren't trying to find drugs. They are trying to make their handlers happy, and often what makes their handlers happy is getting a legal excuse to search a suspect's car. Some dogs will give the alert basically every time they are brought out to a car, regardless if there are drugs or not. Yet American courts still allow these dogs to be used as an excuse for a search.

Since it seems what our police and judicial system really wants is just a flimsy excuse to freely circumvent the 4th Amendment, there is naturally an incredible opening for innovation and tech disruption. It is dramatically cheaper and faster to program an app to indicate that illegal drugs might be present whenever it is convenient for a police officer than it is to program a dog to. Instead of spending thousands on training a dog with a horrible false-positive rate, the government could spend just $1.99 on my app with an equally bad false-positive rate. 

Too many tech companies are too focused on how to make things actually work better or faster. They have missed a real opportunity to make money helping the government do something that doesn't work.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The really important labor issue with Uber

There has been a lot of attention focused on the labor issues with Uber’s business model such as: Whether Uber drivers are actually employees or independent contractors? What the level of background checks is necessary for drivers? How should Uber cover the liability insurance of its drivers? Etc…

While these issues matter, it is important to keep in mind they are also very short-term problems. In five to ten years, they will be nonexistent. So it is even possible that by the time some of the labor lawsuits are resolved, the issues will no longer still exist.

For Uber, freelancers using their own vehicles to drive people around is not its ultimate business model -- it is only a temporary stopgap. Uber doesn't want to be a rideshare service but a ride providing service. That means providing rides at the most competitive price possible. To do that, they will need to eliminate the biggest expense: human drivers. According to reporting in Forbes, “[Steve] Jurvetson said Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told him that if Tesla cars are autonomous by 2020, Kalanick wants to buy all 500,000 that are expected to be produced.”

Services like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar will in the very near future eliminate basically all their human drivers and replace them with a fleet of self-driving cars. These services will be the first adopters of self-driving cars. None of them could afford not to, given how much cheaper self-driving cars will make providing on-demand rides.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for taxi drivers/chauffeurs was $22,820 per year in 2012. Of course, while a human driver needs to sleep and eat, a machine can work 24/7 every day of the year. So even if a self-driving system costs $70,000 initially, it would pay for itself in less than two years.

While these current legal issues with employment status and liability matter because they are affecting real people right now, these debates are comparable to discussing working conditions in the buggy whip factories right as the first Model T is being assembled.

The really important labor issue with Uber isn’t how its drivers are currently treated, but how as a society we will respond in a few years when services like Uber help eliminate half a million driver jobs in an extremely short period of time.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why colonizing Mars doesn't make sense

Imagine you were born in a deep well. Even though the bottom of the well contains everything you need to survive, you have always looked up and dreamed of escaping. Finally, after years of effort you manage to painfully claw your way out. After escaping the well, what you don’t do is look for a worse well to fall down. This is, in short, why colonizing Mars is a silly idea.

I support humans traveling to Mars for science, but colonizing it or trying to terraform it doesn’t make sense. Even though the idea is very popular in science fiction and has some big name support, like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, it has four big problems.

1) Mars is cold, dead and far away - The Earth has free air, warmth, and sources of food. Space stations at least have free power from 24-hour solar energy. Mars, on the other hand, has almost nothing going for it. There is very little atmosphere, the planet is cold, and there isn’t an ecosystem that would be of use to us. While Mars has water and other basic chemicals, the same is true of many asteroids. Mars is far from the Sun, the main source of potential power in the solar system. It receives less than half of the solar energy the Earth does. Mars is also far from the Earth, making it difficult to get anything to Mars or for anything to get back from Mars. This means any Mars colony would be a pure economic drain.

2) Contamination - We don’t yet know if there is life on Mars, but there is a really chance some might exist. If there is indigenous Martian bacteria or mold, any attempt at colonize or terraform the planet could easily destroy these potential lifeforms. That would be an almost unparrelled scientific tragedy.

3) Disaster of the commons - Terraforming Mars would create an incredible number of political/social/economic issues. Terraforming would be an expensive, long-term investment. It would be very difficult to decide who pays and who would benefit. Does anyone get to live on Mars after it is terraformed, or only people from countries/companies that paid for it? There is also the question of when to stop. Who decides to raise or lower the sea level making huge stretches of land disappear?

4) Gravity - Mars might be a reverse Goldilock -- it potentially suffers from being both too big and too small. The gravity on Mars is roughly 38 percent that of the Earth. That is high enough that it still takes a significant amount of energy to lift anything off the planet, but it could still be low enough that it could cause significant health issues. We know weightlessness causes a host of health problems for astronauts and interferes with embryonic development. How much gravity is necessary for good long-term health is an unanswered question. Martian gravity might or might not be enough to meet our needs.

Asteroids are much better alternatives

On basically every level asteroids are simply a better potential new home for humanity. We can find/bring decent-sized asteroids much closer to Earth and closer to the sun, our best potential source of energy. These asteroids could be used as a source of raw material to bring back to Earth or to build large space stations with. By mining these asteroids for precious metals that could be shipped back to Earth, we could potentially create a legitimate economic reason to start a colony in space. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement between the colonists and those on Earth, instead of a pure economic drain.

It is unlikely that asteroids contain any indigenous life, so there are no real contamination concerns.

Turning an asteroid near Earth into a decent-sized space station would be a significant investment but still less than colonizing Mars. It could also be done faster than it would take to terraform a whole planet. By going with this smaller approach, there would be fewer political/economic issues.

Finally, you can easily spin a space station to create whatever level of gravity you need. You won’t need to worry about the health problems low gravity might cause, and you don’t need to worry about building rockets powerful enough to escape a planet's gravity well.

There are strong arguments for starting off-Earth colonies. We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket and risk a mass extinction event, but that doesn’t automatically mean colonizing Mars is a good idea. There is much better real estate out there.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

We need more holidays

Fireworks4 amkI bet everyone enjoyed the 4th of July, which is why we need more federal holidays. 

Holidays are a fun reason not to work, and the simple fact is that Americans work too hard. According to Gallup, the average work week for full time employees is 47 hours. Given how difficult it would be to convince the current Congress to adopt regulations calling for mandatory vacation for workers, maybe the best hope for reducing the time Americans spend working is more federal holidays. Here are my top three suggestions:

Moon Landing Day, July 20th - How is this not already a national holiday? The Apollo 11 mission was perhaps the single greatest achievement of the United States of America. It was a proud moment not just for our country but for the entire world. In a thousand years, this achievement will still be remembered while almost everything else from the 20th century will be forgotten. This would be a perfect day to celebrate science, engineering, and what we can achieve when we work together for the greater good.

19th Amendment Day, August 18th - Americans take pride in the fact that our country was founded on the principles of freedom and democracy, but for too long over half of our population was denied the right to take part in the democratic process. The ratification of the 19th Amendment is arguably the moment when we actually became a true democracy. August 18th should be a day to celebrate democracy and women.

Mr. Rogers Day, March 20th - Mr. Rogers was an kind, caring neighbor to us all. He dedicated his life to educating children and teaching them to be better people. Generations were touched by his show. Mr. Rogers Day should be the celebration of neighbors and being more neighborly -- a day for block parties and local events.

Friday, June 26, 2015

There are no interesting moral or legal questions around cloning

Cloning is a subject that has received a fair amount of attention from the media and in fiction over the years, but it is remarkably boring from a legal and moral perspective. There really are no big unresolved legal or moral questions around the issue of possible human clones.

Cloning is simply producing a child with the exact same genetics as someone else. Thankfully, we already have clear legal precedent about how to treat people with the exact same genes as another person. Such people have existed since the beginning of humanity; we call them identical twins. Our legal system doesn’t claim identical twins have only half the rights of regular people or that one gets all the rights and the other is a nonentity. They are just both humans with all the same rights. Similarly, all major religions and moral movements see identical twins as two individuals with the same moral value as any other person. Logic dictates a cloned person would similarly just be a person with all the same rights and moral value as anyone else. So making clones to harvest their organs like in movie The Island would be just as illegal and morally reprehensible as raising regular children for the same reason. The only potentially unresolved legal questions around cloning may be issues of inherentice.

Most of the truly interesting or morally perplexing stories that involve human cloning are only interesting because they are really about other theoretical technologies -- like speeding up the aging process so a person skips childhood, moving memories/consciousness between bodies, or growing a body without a brain. Unfortunately, popular culture has often closely associated these other theoretical technologies with cloning, but they are completely separate issues. They possess basically the same more questions, with or with cloning involved.

An example of these theoretical technologies can exist completely independent of cloning is the new movie Self/Less. The moral problem of the movie comes from the ability to transfer an older person’s consciousness into a younger person. Whether that younger person happens to have your exact same genes or is a stranger is immaterial from a moral perspective. Similarly, the true moral problem with a machine that just spits out fully-formed adult soldiers (likes those in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones) is really the same regardless of whether the fully formed soldiers are technically clones or each of different genomes. The same goes with growing a mindless humanoid for organ harvesting.

The question of how we should legally or morally treat humans that are clones is an easy one, since we effectively already answered it centuries ago. It is all the other technology that is really interesting.

Monday, June 15, 2015

You are never going to get your flying car

I have bad news for you. You obviously don’t have the flying car you thought the future would bring, and you are never going to get one. The reason is that if we ever develop the technology needed to build a flying car, that would make it unnecessary.

Flying cars would only be possible if we developed truly perfect self-driving/flying automatons. Otherwise, it would be way too difficult, time consuming and dangerous. For comparison, a commercial rotorcraft license requires over 100 hours of practice, and things would be even more difficult if there weren't so few helicopters in the air at any given time. It would be dramatically more difficult if there were millions of other flying cars crowding the sky.

Most importantly, letting people fly cars would be insanely dangerous. In 2013 there were 5,687,000 automobile crashes in the United States, and of those, 1,591,000 resulted in injury and 30,057 were fatal. While that is still way too many deaths, most serious car crashes result in only broken bones. On the other hand, imagine the most common outcome of two flying cars crashing into each other at high speeds. They would instantly become metal death traps raining destruction on anything and everyone below. Travel deaths would skyrocket without perfect self-steering technology.

Yet if we have perfect self-steering technology, terrestrial cars would improve so much that flying cars wouldn't be worth it. With such technology we could outlaw human drivers, solve most traffic problems and allow cars to swiftly drive on the highways at speeds over 110 mph. By comparison, a Robinson R66 helicopter's cruising speed is 144 mph. For most traveling, the time saved from having a flying car instead of a perfect self-driving car would be minimal and not worth the numerous downsides.

Furthermore, it is a simple fact of physics that vertically lifting something up into the air will always take way more energy than rolling it along the ground. Flying cars, like helicopters currently, would be way less fuel efficient. They would also require strong engines with more complex systems (and thus would cost more), need more frequent maintenance since the consequences of malfunction in the air are far more significant, and also probably be more expensive to insure.

Barring the development of some new gravity-controlling technology, most people will never own a flying car. A few rich people might, but they basically already do since they have helicopters.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"Pew Pew" laser sounds become a sci-fi self-fulfilling prophecy

Military contractors are adding the sound effects from old sci-fi movies and television shows to their laser weapons. While laser weapons are for the most part naturally silent, you want a way for operators of these weapons to know they are on. Not knowing your laser weapon is currently firing can be very dangerous to the user. It makes sense to use a distinctive noise that people already associate with laser weapons, like the “pew pew” sound first heard in B-movies.

This means that people who criticized sci-fi movies for giving their laser weapons sound were thinking too narrowly. While the physics of the laser weapon don’t make these noises, these weapons will in the future make them as a safety measure.

This is not the first time sci-fi has created a self-fulfilling prophecy for sound or visual effects, and it won’t be the last. Rocket launch countdowns were first used in sci-fi movies as a way to visualize or provide a dramatic sound effect for the concept of merely waiting for a launch, decades before the idea was adopted by NASA.

As technology makes our world more digital and less filled with natural mechanical noise, I suspect we are going to look to movies for even more inspiration on what effects we should add to indicate something is actually working. After all, movie production companies have always been experts at giving the silent a seemingly appropriate sound, at making the invisible visible, at creating a way to see an abstract concept. That is their job.

Perhaps in the far future if we ever build a warp drive, whenever it is activated the ship’s monitors will display white streaks like in Star Trek. Even though the actual view would be complete blackness, it is a quick and obvious way to indicate to everyone on board: remember, you are in warp drive.
*By Joost J. Bakker from IJmuiden (Space Pilot X Ray GunUploaded by Oxyman) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, June 1, 2015

Self-driving trucks don't need to solve the last mile problem to change the world

The self-driving vehicle revolution will truly start with trucks and not cars. The main reason is that self-driving semi-trailer trucks don't need to solve the last mile problem to cause a dramatic industry change.

The big problem with all current self-driving vehicles is complicated city driving. While highways are well-mapped, well-paved, predictable, and among the first roads to be plowed, urban environments are much more chaotic. Jaywalkers, four-way stops, bicycles, etc. are what self-driving vehicles have the most trouble with.

A car that can drive itself on the highway but can't actually get people to their home, hotel, or restaurant without help would be only an incremental improvement, not a game changer. It makes individual driving easier but doesn't allow for something like a fully automated taxi service. On the other hand, a truck that can only drive itself on the highways would be a real game changer. While the technology is not quite there yet, it likely will be soon.

Many factories, warehouses, and distribution centers have already been built right next to the highways. Self driving trucks will probably soon be able to handle these type of routes on their own. In addition, for self-driving trucks that need to finish their long route inside an urban environment, companies could redesign their logistics so human drivers are only used for this final stretch. Picture large parking lots right next to the highways outside the cities. The trucks drive themselves to these lots and a team of local truck drivers waits there to drive them the last few miles.

Trucks also cost substantially more than cars and are driven significantly more miles. This means the benefit-to-cost ratio of adding a self-driving system to a truck is much higher. Paying an extra $10,000 so your personal car can drive itself on the highway is a big expense for what is mostly a convenience. On the other hand, a trucking company that pays an extra $10,000 for a similar system will quickly make that investment back with improved fuel economy and reduced personnel costs.

There are roughly 1.7 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers in this country. Self-driving trucks that could only handle highways would still be able to eliminate or dramatically change a huge portion of these jobs. Unlike cars, self-driving trucks don't need to be perfect before they will cause a real paradigm shift.

*I, PRA [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Three-tiered system didn't help small breweries

The magazine for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond recently published an article about the history of breweries, which seems to have gotten one very important fact wrong. It repeatedly claims the three-tiered system, which prohibited breweries from selling beer directly to customers, actually helped small breweries. From the article Bottoms Up:
As a compromise reached during the repeal, a three-tier system was adopted: Brewers would now sell their beers to an independent wholesaler who would then sell the beer to independent retailers. The introduction of a middle-man to the market structure had several effects. First, it protected retailers from pressure from larger brewers to only sell certain products. Second, it provided small brewers with better access to the consumer, as the wholesaler would provide distribution equipment, marketing, and sales expertise — costs that could be barriers to entry for many small players. [...]

But the three-tiered system that helped small brewers in some respects wasn't enough to erase the advantage held by the firms that rode out Prohibition making syrups and malts. [...]

Additionally, the three-tiered system established after Prohibition is especially valuable to small brewers for getting their products to consumers through already-established distribution networks, according to an economic impact analysis conducted at the University of Delaware for the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
This simply doesn't fit with the historic record or what small breweries are currently say. A new paper shows that the more powerful the alcohol distributors are in a state, the fewer craft breweries exist. This is why one of the biggest legislative goals of craft breweries in many states is to relax the three-tiered system in ways to allow them to sell beer directly to consumers. There is a distinct positive correlation between states relaxing the three-tiered restrictions on direct sales for small breweries and the number of craft breweries that develop there.

This article even acknowledges that the breweries dramatically shrunk for decades under the three-tiered system and the trend only dramatically turned around when states began allowing small breweries a way around the three-tiered system.  From the article: "Then, in October 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that legalized home brewing and shortly after, individual states began legalizing brewpubs — restaurant- breweries that sell 25 percent or more of their housemade beer on premise. The craft brewing segment was born."

I don't know how you could conclude the three-tiered system has on net been "valuable"  to small breweries when looking at these trends and legal history.

Why this argument matters for legal marijuana.


A proper understanding of the impact of the three-tiered system is both important to the current state of the brewing industry but also extremely important to the emerging legal marijuana industry. As states legalize marijuana, they need to decide how to regulate it. To do that well, they should have a clear understanding of how alcohol regulations shaped that industry. What regulations are adopted could determine if the industry is dominated by only a few companies or by thousands of small producers.

*Image from Brewers Association

Friday, May 22, 2015

Fearing almost-intelligent machines, or the Blob

Concerns about the potential danger of true artificial intelligence have gotten significant attention lately thanks to statements from people like Elon Musk and Bill Gates. As I have said before, I believe humanity will handle this development with appropriate precautions because the Sci Fi community has done such a great job of warning us about the dangers of rogue A.I. There is, however, a somewhat related issue that I don’t think has reached the same level of public awareness: the danger of autonomous, almost-intelligent machines which lack self awareness.

With true A.I. I believe researchers already know to be cautious as they move forward. I believe they will try to hardwire them with morality and a respect for human life. At the very least, you should be able to communicate to an A.I. using logic and reason.

With stupid autonomous machines, the same precautions might not be taken. While we still don’t fully understand human style intelligences, we seem to understand swarm intelligence even less.

Take, for example, something like a termite mound. Individually, each termite is stupid and basically follows a few basic operations. Yet with thousands of termites all following these same operations, they create a level of complexity and destructiveness you could never predict from looking at one individual insect.

Imagine a company building an autonomous machine with what they think are a few harmless basic commands to take care of a simple job. They may fail to anticipate the high orders of complexity that will emerge once they have tens of thousands of identical machines working at the same time.

I believe it is highly improbable that humanity will be seriously harmed by our own robots. That said, I think a swarm of mindless recycling nanobots that unwittingly begin taking apart humans to refine or iron is a more likely risk than the emergence of a Skynet-style evil A.I. overlord.

True tragedies more often occur because of an unforeseen set of careless mistakes, not as part of a specific plan. If A.I. is ever created, it will be part of a very conscious and focused effort, but an out-of-control swarm is something that could just emerge from a set of seemingly unimportant oversights.

I think the upcoming remake of the classic movie, the Blob, could potentially be an interesting popular culture vehicle for talking about this concern. Instead of making the Blob an alien lifeform, they could make it an out-of-control stew of nanobots.

* Sergkorn at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The simple reason marijuana legalization is inevitable

Basic demographic changes, cultural trends, and the growing financial power of the legal marijuana industry are all pushing the country towards legalization. The only development with enough importance to have a reasonable chance of reversing this momentum would be if our limited experiments with marijuana legalization turned out to be policy failures -- or at least are publicly perceived of as failures.

That is why surveys like this new one from Public Policy Polling are so important. From PPP:
Also in 2012 Washingtonians voted to legalize marijuana usage by 12 points. Now voters in the state say they support marijuana being legal by 19 points, 56/37. 77% of voters say marijuana being legal has either had a positive impact on their life or no impact at all, with likewise only 22% claiming marijuana legalization has affected them negatively. 
Adult marijuana use been legal for over two years in Washington state and recreational marijuana stores have been open for almost a year. Direct experience with legalization hasn’t turned a majority of people in Washington against it, and they clearly don’t think it has been a policy failure. While it is still possible things might change with even more time for people to experience legalization first hand, it is currently looking very good for reform advocates.

With this new piece of data, it seems increasingly clear it is not a question of if marijuana will be legalized at the federal level, just a question of when and how.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Disruption, incremental change and breaking the law

Google's Lexus RX 450h Self-Driving Car
 "Disrupt" is a popular buzzword in the tech world, but it lacks real meaning. New tech companies and products can typically fit into one of three categories:

Paradigm shifters - These are the truly rare developments that eventually create significant shifts in our whole society. One of the best early examples is the steam engine. By freeing people from the limitations of muscle or sail power, the steam engine changed the world.

A possible future paradigm shifter is self-driving cars. They have the potential to be more than just cars that are relaxing to travel in. If vehicles can drive themselves, it could eliminate the need for personal ownership of cars. Taxis would be far cheaper and more widely used, potentially freeing up huge amounts of urban space currently dedicated to parked vehicles. This could completely change the urban landscape. 

Incrementalists - Many like to think their ideas are revolutionary instead of evolutionary, but few ideas actually are. Most good ideas create only incremental improvements in society, but they are still important. Something that only slightly improves the lives of millions of people is still a significant net benefit to society and can be an extremely successful business.

One good tech example of this might be grubHub. Ordering food delivery has been a custom for decades; grubHub just made it marginally better. It has not completely changed how society interacts with food, but it has made a real improvement to an existing concept.

Rule breakers - A significant trend in the tech industry right now is "regulatory arbitrage." Effectively, a company pretends to have created real innovation, but their success mainly comes from violating the spirit of existing laws by claiming some obscure technical detail has created a new legal loophole. Sometimes these attempts to find a loophole fail. The biggest example of this is Aereo, which unsuccessfully tried to claim that by using millions of tiny antennas to retransmit broadcast television, it technically didn't function like a cable company -- and thus wasn’t subject to the same retransmission fees.

Sometimes these loopholes created by technology are found acceptable. Many of the most successful tech companies right now have combined real incremental improvement with regulatory arbitrage. Uber, for example, did improve car services with mobile payment and real-time tracking, but much of its success comes from exploiting legal loopholes exempting it from classification as a taxi company (despite behaving very similarly to one). This saves them from significant regulatory expenses. Similarly, Airbnb has made it easy for people to find places to rent, but early on it won a competitive advantage by their clients not paying hotel taxes and offering short term rents which in many places are technically illegal.

Companies that depend of exploiting loopholes, however, are always vulnerable to new court rules, counter lobbying, and the changing will of the government.

It would make for an interesting --but probably very difficult to conduct-- study to see if in the past several years the United States has seen more tech companies trying to exploit regulatory arbitrage than other first world countries given the incredible level of political gridlock in Congress. 

*By Driving_Google_Self-Driving_Car.jpg: Steve Jurvetsonderivative work: Mariordo [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How long until the National Archives helps me get high?

There are two big milestones left for the marijuana reform movement in the United States. The first is when it gets begrudging acceptance under federal law. While the Obama administration has taken a relatively hands off approach to the issue, that is not a real long term solution; the industry will never be truly protected, respected, and legitimate until it is made legal under federal law.

The second big milestone is when marijuana use by adults reaches a level of true cultural acceptance -- a point at which marijuana prohibition is looked back on by basically everyone in the government as comically stupid. It will probably be impossible to know when this exact cultural tipping point is reached, but we know what it will look like.

Earlier this year, I was at the National Archives to see their special exhibit on the history of alcohol, and in the gift shop, they were selling things to help people get drunk. There were beer mugs, wine glasses, flasks and books with delicious cocktail recipes. Everything you would need for an alcohol-fueled party was prominently displayed in the front of the store.

This is what cultural acceptance looks like: When the idea that the government should try to stop adults from using marijuana is considered so misguided and antiquated that even government museum gift shops are selling souvenir bongs.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sci Fi will save us from AI

A photo posted by Ex Machina (@exmachinamovie) on

Spoiler Alert: I’m going to give away the end of Ex Machina in this article. If you haven’t seen it already, you should since it is a very good movie. 

I deeply enjoyed the new movie Ex Machina. It did a great job dealing with the interesting issues about the future of artificial intelligence in a way that was accessible without sacrificing facts. Importantly, it was also just a very well made film with excellent acting and beautiful cinematography. I did have one problem with the end. 

It concludes with the creator of the first A.I. being murdered by his creation. It is a nice poetic end to the movie that's reminiscent of Frankenstein. The problem is it doesn’t make logical sense.

We are supposed to believe that the foremost expert on A.I. would have his only defense against one of his creations going rogue be an electronic lock. He didn’t use a manual deadbolt to lock her room. He didn’t tether her to a power source without batteries. He didn’t progam his creations with some form of Asimov’s three laws of robotics. He didn’t install a small bomb/kill switch in her that he could trigger with the press of a button or speaking a code word.

This is just silly because on this issue, the collective Science Fiction genre has succeeded. Sci Fi is best when is it preparing and warning us about things before they happen. When it comes to the potential danger of rogue A.I., we have been thoroughly warned. I suspect everyone in the country has at least seen a Terminator movie, a Matrix movie, or read one of the dozens of great Sci Fi books which have dealt with this concern.

Sci Fi writers have hammered into our collective consciousness that A.I. can be unpredictable and potentially extremely dangerous. I imagine everyone working on building the first true A.I. is going to include a manual kill switch and probably an extra dozen backup kill switches as a result.

That is why I’m relatively optimistic about A.I. -- not because I’m ignorant of the potential dangers, but because basically everyone in the tech world is aware of the potential dangers and will probably take the proper precautions.