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Futurism and other Nonsense

One of my primary pet peeves is the hyperbolic rhetoric of technophile futurists who are convinced mankind is on the verge of some kind of technological utopia thanks to cell phones and machine learning. I admit, I’m a curmudgeon, but sometimes it’s more than I can take. Considering the zeitgeist of the age, these sorts of posts might start appearing more regularly.

There has been a particularly egregious clickbaity article circulating on social media, and after some digging I think I found the source. I figured I’d repost the entire thing and respond to each point of ridiculousness in turn. Taken from “Udo Gollub, the CEO of 17 Minute Languages“:

Into the future
By Udo Gollub at Messe Berlin, Germany

*I just went to the Singularity University summit. Here are the key points I gathered.
Rise and Fall: In 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide. Within just a few years, their business model disappeared and they were bankrupt. What happened to Kodak will happen in a lot of industries in the next 10 years – and most people don’t see it coming. Did you think in 1998 that 3 years later you would never take pictures on paper film again?*

There is a great bit by George Carlin about one hour photo printers where he asks “how can anybody be nostalgic about a little while ago? You just saw the f–ing thing.” (Couldn’t find the original bit, working from memory). So yes, the camera industry changed very quickly, but color me bewildered by modern personal photography. I don’t understand why people take so many photos, why they have them on their phones instead of in albums, and why all these photos are so terrible. I’m looking for a few good photos to keep, preferably framed, as a connection to the past. I have three or four photos of my maternal grandmother. That’s all I need.

*Yet digital cameras were invented in 1975. The first ones only had 10,000 pixels, but followed Moore’s law. So as with all exponential technologies, it was a disappointment for a long time, before it became superior and mainstream in only a few short years. This will now happen with Artificial Intelligence, health, self-driving and electric cars, education, 3D printing, agriculture and jobs.

Welcome to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Welcome to the Exponential Age. Software and operating platforms will disrupt most traditional industries in the next 5-10 years.*

It’s important to remember the pace of change he implies. It is simply impossible for humans to keep up with this pace. Human inertia will slow some of this down, which I think will be a good thing.

*Uber is just a software tool. They don’t own any cars, but they are now the biggest taxi company in the world. Airbnb is the biggest hotel company in the world, although they don’t own any properties.*

I think the effects of the “sharing economy” are being greatly exaggerated. This tools flourished during the great recession and have continued, and that’s a good thing. However, while I may appreciate a shared ride to the airport, I don’t want to share a wardrobe or kitchen utensils.

*Artificial Intelligence: Computers become exponentially better in understanding the world. This year, a computer beat the best Go player in the world, 10 years earlier than expected. In the US, young lawyers already don’t get jobs. Because of IBM Watson, you can get legal advice, (so far for more or less basic stuff), within seconds. With 90% accuracy, compared with 70% accuracy when done by humans. So if you are studying law, stop immediately. There will be 90% fewer generalist lawyers in the future; only specialists will be needed.*

The whole AI field is a mess. Some sensationalists suggest the human species will be obsolete and our extinction is assured (humans and AI computers presumably occupy the same space in the ecosystem, and biology demands only one species can survive in each niche). Other AI specialists say AI programming and computer learning is constrained by the fact computers process information differently than humans in ways that are not well understood. I am in the camp that believes there is a qualitative difference between machines and human minds. While computers will reach the processing power of a human brain, it will never interact with the environment the way a human does, saving us from absolute obsolescence.

As for lawyers, I have to ask, when was the last time you needed legal advice? Maybe to write a will or sign real estate papers. So sure, those tasks will be automated. But if you need to face a human jury and a human judge, you’re going to need a human attorney. (I wrote about my experiences on a jury a few years ago. There’s no way a robot could have handled the complexities to the case.)

The advice is still good though, don’t go to law school. There are already enough lawyers, the school is very expensive and the pay upon graduation is surprisingly awful.

*‘Watson’ already helps nurses diagnose cancer, four times more accurately than doctors. Facebook now has pattern recognition software that can recognize faces better than humans. By 2030, computers will have become ‘more intelligent’ than humans.*

The medical profession has been in desperate need of an information technology upgrade. An AI helping doctors diagnose patients, as well as leveraging the use of statistics and data, is a positive step. The human body is incredibly complex and the base of human knowledge about the human body has exceeded the mental capacity of any living person. That said, there is no way you can replace the role of human doctors. The first problem is aggregation; on average, humans have one testical and one ovary. A human knows this is a joke, a computer doesn’t. Computers will struggle with the innate individual differences found in humans. Smoking can give teenagers lung cancer but some centenarians smoke with no ill-effect. How do you reconcile that in a computer algorithm?

I recently had a medical scare. My symptoms were associated with cancer, but after many invasive tests I was diagnosed with something innocuous. As it turned out, my symptoms didn’t quite fit my diagnosis because symptoms are irregular. They fall on a continuum and the continuum between various diseases overlap. Diseases are found in clusters. Genetics play a role. Tests are subject to error. A computer might say “there was a 20% chance you had cancer” but it took a collaborative effort between several doctors to figure out I had non-standard symptoms and get me the right diagnosis.

Let’s also say there are epistemological problems with how we define intelligence. If we’re taking just operations per second and total memory, then yes, computers will surpass humans in the coming decade. However, that’s not really what human intelligence really *is*. Humans don’t process information like computers. We have a complex web of cells, each of which is connected to thousands of other cells, synapses have hundreds of neurotransmitters and all these processes seem to be self-directed by…something. It really is quite a mystery how the human being finds meaning from the inputs given it by the senses. How can all that a human being does, including stuff like figuring out special relativity or the rules of geometry, or catching a baseball without doing calculus, be programmed?

*Cars: In 2018 the first self driving cars will be offered to the public. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted. You don’t want to own a car anymore. You will call a car on your phone; it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination. You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and you can be productive whilst driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car. It will change the cities, because we will need 90-95% fewer cars for our future needs. We can transform former parking spaces into parks. At present,1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. We now have one accident every 100,000 kms. With autonomous driving, that will drop to one accident in 10 million km. That will save a million lives each year.*

Dumb question, if no one owns a car how will there be any autonomous cars to drive you anywhere?

This autonomous car idea sounds like a variation of the Personal Rail Transit that was fashionable in some circles a decade or so ago. It’s better because there are no rails to build. However, there are still a lot of problems. First, most people need to ride at the same time, weekdays from 6am to 9am and 4pm to 7pm. This system of magically ownerless cars works great for people with irregular schedules, but the 9-5 work crowd might as well own their own vehicles. And they’ll still need a place to park their cars because demand for autonomous cars will go down precipitously outside of rush hour. In order to change this situation, you have to change the way people work and are scheduled to work. If you’re going to do that, you might as well change it so everyone telecommutes.

*Electric cars will become mainstream around and after 2020. Cities will be cleaner and much less noisy because all cars will run on electricity, which will become much cheaper.

Most traditional car companies may become bankrupt by taking the evolutionary approach and just building better cars; while tech companies (Tesla, Apple, Google) will take the revolutionary approach and build a computer on wheels. I spoke to a lot of engineers from Volkswagen and Audi. They are terrified of Tesla.*

I have no idea how the car companies are going to react to these changes. However, it still sounds like everyone at this futurist convention believed cars would still be a primary mode of transportation in the future. Maybe Google will create a smart car that does a better job spying on their passengers, but I would bet money on car companies being strong moneymakers in a world of cars.

*Insurance companies will have massive trouble, because without accidents, the insurance will become 100 times cheaper. Their car insurance business model will disappear.*

This assumes everyone rapidly gives up driving cars. More likely this will be a slow generational change. Insurance companies will have plenty of time to diversify.

*Real estate values based on proximities to work-places, schools, etc. will change, because if you can work effectively from anywhere or be productive while you commute, people will move out of cities to live in a more rural surroundings.*

Oh, that’s right, we’re not at the part where 80% of the workforce is unemployed. Author once again assumes everyone wants the same thing, in this case they apparently want to live outside of large cities. Which is weird, since people have been moving into big cities for decades now. Personally, I’d prefer a rural homestead, but until I can buy a 3D printer that makes good pho, well, you know…

*Solar energy production has been on an exponential curve for 30 years, but only now is having a big impact. Last year, more solar energy was installed worldwide than fossil. The price for solar will drop so much that almost all coal mining companies will be out of business by 2025.*

Which is fine, coal mining is a relatively minor industry in the United States now. It’s been a decades-long process and people have had plenty of time to react to the changing job market.

*Water for all: With cheap electricity comes cheap and abundant water. Desalination now only needs 2kWh per cubic meter. We don’t have scarce water in most places; we only have scarce drinking water. Imagine what will be possible if everyone can have as much clean water as they want, for virtually no cost.*

This is great, of course.

*Health: The Tricorder X price will be announced this year – a medical device (called the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that works with your phone, which takes your retina scan, your blood sample and your breath. It then analyses 54 biomarkers that will identify nearly any diseases. It will be cheap, so in a few years, everyone on this planet will have access to world class, low cost, medicine.*

And presumably they will also have access to all the misdiagnoses and mistakes inherent in trusting WebMD instead of a doctor. It’s great that diagnostic tests will be cheaper and easier to get, but I don’t see how it removes doctors from the equation. Something interesting I heard on Tyler Cowen’s podcast, access to medical care doesn’t necessarily produce better results. Amish and Christian Scientists have similar life expectancies to those of us who have access and use modern healthcare. I’ll have to delve into those studies sometime.

*3D printing: The price of the cheapest 3D printer came down from 18,000$ to 400$ within 10 years. In the same time, it became 100 times faster. All major shoe companies started printing 3D shoes. Spare airplane parts are already 3D-printed in remote airports. The space station now has a printer that eliminates the need for the large amount of spare parts they used to need in the past.

*At the end of this year, new smart phones will have 3D scanning possibilities. You can then 3D scan your feet and print your perfect shoe at home. In China, they have already 3D-printed a complete 6-storey office building. By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D-printed.*

I’m on the fence about 3D printed stuff. I need a small part for an unusual pistol, and the part costs more than the pistol is worth. It’d be great to 3D print the part instead of having an expensive paperweight. However, I’m very sure i don’t want to live in a 3D printed home. There’s an obvious lack of craftsmanship about 3d printing, and I hate cheap crap devoid of craftsmanship.

And let me say also, if 3D printing can get me a shoe that fits comfortably and lasts longer than three months, all is forgiven.

*Business opportunities: If you think of a niche you want to enter, ask yourself: “in the future, do you think we will have that?” And if the answer is yes, then work on how you can make that happen sooner. If it doesn’t work via your phone, forget the idea. And any idea that was designed for success in the 20th century is probably doomed to fail in the 21st century.*

I like to think of “serial entrepreneurship” as the modern form of subsistence living. Everyone takes every side gig they can, just to break even. So sure, everyone is going to be doing some kind of non-salaried hustle, but it’s hardly going to make anyone rich. This point just admits that the employer/employee model of making a living is about dead (which I don’t think is necessarily true, but that’s a dark pit for another time).

Another aside: I got a smartphone about a year ago. I’m a Luddite, so I was actively avoiding it but circumstances demanded I get a new phone and the smartphone was free. Regardless, I’ve had a for about a year. I don’t understand the hype. I added a bunch of apps, most of them educational, and it’s nice. But I found that I spent most of my time scrolling through facebook and checking my email. I didn’t need a device to help me check my email more often. I guess we’ll see how people are going to leverage the ubiquitous pocket computing power in the future, but I don’t see how it’s going to revolutionize anything. As for me, I’ve caught myself checking my email so often, I’ll probably just get rid of the damn phone.

*Work: 70-80% of jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be a lot of new jobs, but it is not clear that there will be enough new jobs in such a short time.

Where did that number come from? It’s well-known that driving jobs are at risk of automation in the next decade, and that’s about 45% of jobs. What else is going to disappear? Regardless, such a rapid transformation is unlikely, and we should be glad. The social unrest that would occur if 75% of the public were unemployed would be incomprehensible. During the industrial revolution, the majority of the populations in western countries went from rural agriculture to urban misery. The end result was 50 years of static wages, lower standards of living, lower quality of life, urban disease epidemics, two world wars and the rise of extremist political philosophies that resulted in the deaths of over a hundred million people outside of the world wars. When billionaires talk about Universal Basic Income, part of me wonders if they’re doing it out of self-interest.

*Agriculture: There will be a 100$ agricultural robot in the future. Farmers in 3rd world countries can then become managers of their fields instead of working in them all day. Aeroponics will need much less water. The first veal produced in a petri dish is now available. It will be cheaper than cow- produced veal in 2018. Right now, 30% of all agricultural surfaces are used for rearing cattle. Imagine if we don’t need that space anymore. There are several start-ups which will bring insect protein to the market shortly. It contains more protein than meat. It will be labelled as “alternative protein source” (because most people still reject the idea of eating insects).*

All positives. New technologies will allow more people to grow their own food on smaller and smaller plots of land. How many people will actually do that, I don’t know. From an economic perspective these changes will be difficult to predict. Having cheap robots lowers the barriers to entry, so everyone can afford to grow food commercially. This will increase demand on land, causing prices to rise. However, switching from cows to petri dish meat and insect protein will lower demand on land and demand for crops in general. Add-in all the various government subsidies and regulations and you have a mess.

*Apps: There is already an app called “moodies” which can tell the mood you are in. By 2020 there will be apps that can tell by your facial expressions if you are lying. Imagine a political debate where we know whether the participants are telling the truth and when not!*

Maybe. It’s very difficult to gauge whether a person is lying based on body language alone, and there are individual differences and contextual difficulties to deal with. Also, people can learn to lie better. A grad student I had as a teacher learned how to tell a lie and avoid detection despite being strapped into an fMRI machine. I can imagine a new industry where experts teach politicians to defeat these new technologies.

*Currencies: Many currencies will be abandoned. Bitcoin will become mainstream this year and might even become the future default reserve currency.*

These crypto-currencies are a joke. They have, in my estimation, been enjoying a rise in value thanks to speculation. Once people realize they are more devoid of value than fiat currency, they will die. I’ve never had anyone explain to me the appeal other than “computer stuff” and “anonymous transaction” both of which can be accomplished with cash. If fiat currencies fail, bitcoin will not be the saviour and it won’t matter because you’ll have lots of other problems to deal with, like war or civil unrest.

*Longevity: Right now, the average life span increases by 3 months per year. Four years ago, the life span was 79 years, now it is 80 years. The increase itself is increasing and by 2036, there will be more than a one-year increase per year. So we all might live for a long, long time, probably way beyond 100.*

This is a statistical misrepresentation. We’ve done a great job of reducing death at childbirth and death from childhood diseases. This is where a majority of the increase in life expectancy has come from. We have not appreciably increased the outbound limits of life expectancy. Basically, 0-60 years of age have seen huge gains. After 70+ years? The actuarial tables really haven’t changed. This was discussed on Tyler Cowen’s podcast with Atul Gawande

*Education: The cheapest smartphones already sell at 10$ in Africa and Asia. By 2020, 70% of all humans will own a smartphone. That means everyone will have much the same access to world class education. Every child can use Khan Academy for everything he needs to learn at schools in First World countries. Further afield, the software has been launched in Indonesia and will be released it in Arabic, Swahili and Chinese this summer. The English app will be offered free, so that children in Africa can become fluent in English within half a year.*

A lot of us have been waiting for a revolution in education. It should be here already. I’ve been self-educating on Khan Academy and studying Spanish on Duolingo for years and years now. I guess it’s personally enriching, but it hasn’t made a difference in my financial situation. I guess this is all good, but the skeptic in me doesn’t believe the hype. This goes back to the smartphone rant; yes, we all have access to an incredible vault of knowledge and endless educational opportunities. Yet, we still spend most of our time snap chatting or playing some worthless game. It’s not how many opportunities we are afforded, it’s how many we actually take.


Weekend Reading

Robot Nation:

…the workplace of today is not really that much different from the workplace of 100 years ago. Humans do almost all of the work today, just like they did in 1900. A restaurant today is nearly identical to a restaurant in 1900. An airport, hotel or amusement park today is nearly identical to any airport, hotel or amusement park seen decades ago. Humans do nearly everything today in the workplace, just like they always have. That’s because humans, unlike robots, can see, hear and understand language. Robots have never really competed with humans for real jobs because computers have never had the vision systems needed to drive cars, work in restaurants or deliver packages. All that will change very quickly by the middle of the 21st century. As CPU chips and memory systems finally reach parity with the human brain, and then surpass it, robots will be able to perform nearly any normal job that a human performs today.

A number of my friends have suggested the coming robotic/AI revolution will be similar to previous technological innovations, like the Ford factory line or the personal computer; implying that the worst case scenario is just obtuse Luddite thinking from the anti-technology crowd. I am not so sure.

Read the whole thing.

Random Link


There is no future, apparently

China's FIRST McDonald's

China’s FIRST McDonald’s (Photo credit: flickr.Marcus)

Aaron at CappyCap:

The great thing about radio, however, is that it can be syndicated or broadcasted across the nation. So when a radio station has the choice of hiring some local talent and having to pay that individual a living wage, or merely “leasing” the broadcasting rights for a nationally syndicated show for 1/10th of the cost, what do you think they’re going to do? Yes, this results in regional superstars like “Jason Lewis” or “Michael Medved” but it also results in homogeneity. Homogeneity that can be predicted, gets boring, and gets stale.

So while it may be financially beneficial to go with established, seasoned radio show hosts, it prevents any new talent, let alone, better talent from getting in. Additionally, since this more or less ensconces established talent, it also ensures this talented is aged, old, and separated from upcoming generations, and thus, markets.

It is here we have the third contributing factor to the market failure of talk radio – their inability to address younger generations.

Having ‘worked’ in talk radio for a cup of coffee and leftover cake (funny story), I can without a doubt state there is no “underclass” of talented professionals ready to step in when the current field of giants begin to fade away (the exception being sports radio, which has regional-based markets and can afford to grow the talent base). There are experienced drive-time and morning guys, there are the national guys, and some of the FM morning shows are okay, but when it comes to politics, which requires a depth of knowledge that takes years to absorb, there really is no one in the pipeline.

It’s not healthy, and it represents a form of the “hollowing out” of the American workforce people my age are intimately familiar with. There is a complete absence of leadership positions in the center of the org charts, positions where you have to lead people and make decisions with real consequences, but to a lesser degree of jeopardy and difficulty. Positions that were used, in the now-distant past, to teach the fundamentals of organizational leadership.

To be fair, there is logic to this situation: middle management tends to decrease efficiency and to attract rent-seekers, and foreign competition and slow economic growth have basically necessitated this result; the question remains, how will the transition from one generation to the next go? Yes, the Baby Boomers are holding on to their current positions because their retirement plans were forever derailed by the Great Recession, but everyone dies eventually.

We’ve abandoned the ancient form of creating new leadership through incremental increases in responsibility. I doubt very much we can say the consequences will break toward the positive. My guess is the “talent” will be imported from overseas, from the huge reserve of entrepreneurs and business leaders being created in developing nations like India and China. Which will leave many members of my generation stuck in the bottom rungs of the lower middle class. If we’re that lucky.

From the Notebook

Cover of "Chosen Prey"

Cover of Chosen Prey

– Read “Golf in the Year 2000” by J. McCullough. Originally published in the 1890’s, this little book is filled with fascinating prognostications about the future, from a golf aficionado’s perspective.  Superfast trains, PRT (seriously), live broadcasts of golf matches, etc. Some of the ideas are quaint. There’s the electric caddy that follows golfers around. Specialized drivers that can send a golf ball almost 200 yards! Other areas are very humorous. In this book, women are the drivers of politics. They hold most of the seats in Parliament (book is from the UK), they do most of the jobs; men don’t work. They just play golf. This look at feminism from the nineteenth century sits at a very odd place on the philosophical spectrum, in that area where misogyny and militant feminism overlap. A wonderful book

– Finished Introduction to Arithmetic by Nicomachus. This ancient book is on the Great Books reading list. As an introduction to math, it’s poor. There are some interesting mathematical concepts (including definitions for what constitutes a “brick” or “beam”) but this work is noteworthy for promoting the philosophy of mathematical realism (that math is more than a mere convention), numbers represent the mind of God.

– Read John Sandford’s Chosen Prey. It’s his typical book. There’s a killer. And Lucas Davenport. I really liked this book because the serial killer was an interesting sophisticate, and there wasn’t any liberal crap (Sandford has been inserting his politics more and more into his books). So far, I’ve not read a Sandford book that I’ve regretted.

– Read Hobbes’ Leviathan, Part I, as part of the Great Books reading program. In Part I, we get the famous line from Hobbes about life without civil government being “nasty, brutish and short” and “war of all against all.” We also see his materialism. But mostly, we see the inside of our eyelids. Hobbes is one of the least compelling philosophers to ever put their thoughts to paper. I can’t wait to be done with him.

– Worked through Precalculus Mathematics in a Nutshell by George F. Simmons. This handy little reference book, with brief descriptions of basic precalc math (with practice problems) was actually enjoyable to go through. I wish I had had a copy while struggling with this stuff in school. (The mathematical readings from the Great Books series started this year, so I decided to refresh my skills a bit).

Cash for Clunkers

It’s always fun to play “guess the unintended consequences” whenever some new idiocy from Washington D.C. surfaces. The Cash for Clunkers program (CFC) will give between 3500 and 4500 dollars for cars with certain conditions (like low gas mileage) when they are traded in for new cars with better gas mileage.

Some think it’s a stupid idea, I agree.

But since the program is going through it’s important to note what problems it will cause. Here are my predictions as the program evolves:

1) A great number of cars not being used regularly will be turned in for the money. These are tertiary vehicles for people who rarely use them and taking them off the street will do no good since they are, well, rarely used.

2) Poor people will try to profit on their cars. People who drive older used cars with low gas mileage typically aren’t in the market for a new car. But, people buying new cars will want to get the full $4500 trade in value and will start buying these cars from those poorer people who need money more than a car. Prices for these cars will balance where both parties profit from the sale.

3) Poor people who need a car but who can’t afford a new car will have a more difficult time finding a vehicle. The so-called “clunkers” being turned in are usable cars and an important part of the economy. Where a teenager on a fixed income could count on a vehicle in the $1000-$2000 range, now will be paying double (if he can find a car at all).

4) As the program progresses there will be a shortage of low cost, high maintenance and/or high mileage vehicles. The working poor will be hardest hit by this, being forced to spend money on more expensive newer cars or being forced to waste hours of their lives on public transportation (rather than with their families or at second jobs).

5) The shortage of “clunkers” will eventually raise the price of these vehicles above the $4,500 subsidy. Older, high mileage vehicles will no longer be traded in because they have more value to those who need to drive used cars because they can’t afford new cars.

6) Remaining clunkers will not be taken off the streets. There will be fewer cars available to the poor and they will pay more for them. Democrats will take credit for saving the environment even though the program will have no measurable impact on anything.

7) Those of us who held unto our clunkers will enjoy a sizable ROI thanks to raising prices caused by the program.

The consequences of this bill are a mixture of subsidy and price floors and it will be fun to see how many people end being hurt by this. But hey, it’s all to reduce CO2 emissions by .000001% over the next decade and save ourselves .0001 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.

Christmas Gift Guide Vol. VIII

Mad Scientists and their kind

Evil geniuses, mad scientists, nutty professors, engineers. There are many different labels for what is in essence the same phenomena: intelligent eccentricity. These people are know it alls, they have lots of gadgets and dozens of different crazy theories about how the world works (macroeconomics is one example). They have a “lab” where they can be found for hours on end tinkering with electronics or rat brains. Holding a normal conversation is typically impossible as they speak a dense technical language only tangentially associated with the vernacular. They have a disheveled appearance and rarely practice proper techniques for personal hygiene. They build Rube Goldberg machines. You’re more than likely to be electrocuted if you enter their garage.

And they’re all over the place.

The easiest way to tell if someone is one of these types of people is the robot test: Is the person interested in robots? If yes then close enough.

The first thing any Mad Scientist needs is cool stuff to put in their lab. It doesn’t need to be anything too technical, as long as it looks kinda weird and can be used in conversation. This pendulum sand thing fits the bill:

Unlike normal pendulums, like you find in grandfather clocks, two external forces are operating on the pendulum: the downward action of gravity acts upon the mass of the pendulum, and the tension on the line between the mass and the anchor point. It is the interplay between these two forces that, primarily, describe the patterns in which the mass moves.

It’s a beautiful dance, but it’s difficult to see just how elegant and complex the movement is until you find a way to see the movement in context. By sharpening the mass to a point and having it describe its path through a shallow dish of sand, you can see the track the pendulum takes on its regular rhythmic cycle. Back and forth, to and fro, the pendulum swings into gorgeous elliptical loops and whorls. This chrome Pit and Pendulum, while not as sinister as the version Poe wrote about, belongs on your desk, creating art out of science – beauty out of mathematics.
Using phrases like “conical pendulum mathematical aesthetics” make a person appear smart, a prerequisite for mad scientists.

Another choice in this same category: Random Magnetic Toy:

Designed to illustrate the chaotic and random forces that effect us all, ROMP is also just plain fun. ROMP’s swinging pendulum darts and dodges through magnetic force fields that you setup using the included magnets. These periodic energy ‘tugs’ cause the pendulum to erratically drift through the magnetic fields thus exhibiting total chaos (random systems, by nature, are unpredictable). Can you make order out of this chaos? If so, you could probably write a bestseller or do something important enough to not be sitting at your computer reading this very paragraph right now. If not, try anyways and, more importanly, have fun trying.
Get a ROMP and experience true chaos at the comfort of your desktop!

Mad Scientists also need strange gizmos and gadgets to measure things nobody cares about, thus this classic radiometer:

Way back in 1873, some dude named Sir William Crookes noticed some weirdness in a scale he built. It appeared as though some samples weighed more or less depending on if sunlight was shining on the scale. Weird! He postulated that it was the pressure of the light being exerted on the scale that modified his results.

Of course, he was totally wrong, but it was a cool idea.

See, the bulb in which the blades spin is a partial vacuum. Partial being the tricky part – another clever scientist by the name of Lebedev noticed that the effect disappeared in a hard vacuum. So, air has something to do with it. Basically, the principal is the air that hangs out by the cool side of the blade flows slowly to the warm side of the blade. That process is called thermal transpiration. Science is cool.

The ThinkGeek Radiometer looks awesome sitting on your desk or windowsill. It works great in direct sunlight, but moves pretty well even hit with a flashlight! Of course, in ThinkGeek’s own highly scientific testing, a laser, while intense, was too focused to significantly move the vanes very quickly at all. Your mileage may vary!

Most everything done by Mad Scientists serves no purpose, radiometers will help.

Another device for measuring things is this lightning detector:

Lightning is fourty-thousand to one-hundred-twenty thousand amps at three million volts and carries enough power to light a hundred watt bulb for two months. It travels at fourty-five kilometers per second and can kill you faster than rocket to the face.

It behooves you to know when a lightning storm is coming so you can find cover, or so you can channel its power into the nearest available flux-capacitor. The StrikeAlert device detects electromagnetic pulses that indicate the proximity of cloud-to-ground lightning (cloud to cloud usually doesn’t register). It will tell you whether the most recent strike is within 20-40 miles, 12-24 miles, 6-12 miles or within 6 miles. By watching how the lights move from green to yellow to red, you’ll know the storm is coming. Red to yellow to green means the storm is leaving.

Mad scientists need to do things the hard way. Sure. It’d be easy just to listen for thunder (which can be heard for miles) but why do that when you can spend money on a gadget?

And why have a watch when you can have a watch with three watches in it?

Is it a watch, or the dashboard of a sleek little sports car? A bit of both. Watch has a wood face, mineral glass crystal, quartz movement, stainless steel case, and black leather band. All three dials are working dials, so you can check the time in three different time zones and one even displays the date. Face measures 1¾” across; fits wrists from 7″—9″.

Mad Scientists are normally too busy to properly take care of plants so they need something they can’t kill:

This one-of-a-kind plant has lived on the Earth for over 290 million years and has the ability to “come back to life” (much like the undead) over and over again for hundreds of years! Simply place this seemingly dead ball of foliage in water and within hours it transforms into a vibrant green blood-sucking evergreen. Ok, we are kidding about the blood-sucking part. It’s still amazing though! It’s also great for lazy folks since you can forget to water your Dinosaur plant whenever you want! It will simply dry up and hibernate for up to fifty years and will spring to life every time it is given water.

Some Interesting Tidbits about your Dinosaur Plant:

• During the Carboniferous period these plants used to grow over 120 feet tall (bigger than a T-rex)
• When dry it curls up into a tight ball so that the wind can easily roll it to a new location or cubicle, hopefully closer to moisture.
• Retains 3% of its water when it is dehydrated.
• Grows to be about 4″
• Enjoys life so much it survived the Ice Age

Finally, a Mad Scientist needs stuff to do:

101 Outer Space Projects for the Evil Genius has everything you need to explore the universe from the comfort of your own home. Whether you’re a beginner stargazer or a more experienced astronomer, you’ll find an outstanding project to satisfy you, from model rockets and celestial maps to space robots, GPS systems, and much, much more.

Full of easy-to-follow plans and clear schematics for each project, as well as lists of materials and tools so you know exactly what’s involved before you begin, 101 Outer Space Projects for the Evil Genius provides you with all the plans, instructions, parts lists, and sources you need to:

• Use GPS systems
• Experiment with model rockets
• Navigate your way through the universe using your computer
• Build your own telescope, radio telescope, and planetarium
• Read celestial maps of heavenly bodies
• Create a Mars rover to explore your home
• Design your own International Space Station

My previous Gift Guides for Mad Scientists are timeless classics and worth a look/see.

DVD Review

Futurama: Bender’s Big Score

It’s been four years since the last Futurama episode aired and people like me have been forced to be content with reruns and DVD collections of Matt Groening’s sci-fi cartoon series. The cartoon series is set in the future and it was a platform for Groening to experiment with science fiction. Groening is an admitted sci-fi aficionado and his Futurama series was/is the most intelligent cartoon series available in the English language.

As someone who spent too much time watching and reading science fiction and not enough time socializing, I can truly appreciate what Groening accomplished in 72 episodes of Futurama. When I found out Futurama was coming back in a series of straight to DVD full length features I was rather excited. That’s just the geek in me.

To understand just how much thinking goes into the creation of Futurama one need only to listen to the DVD commentary. In it Matt Groening brings up a discussion about whether uninteresting numbers exist. It’s a difficult question to answer because if uninteresting numbers exist there would have to be a smallest uninteresting number. But, by definition the smallest interesting number would be of interest. So, technically, we can’t have uninteresting numbers. Futurama is the sort of show all young writers yearn to work for.

While I was apathetic to the plot of “Bender’s Big Score” the peripherals on the DVD make it worth owning. There is an episode of “Hypnotoad” as well as a special message from Al Gore. Apparently Futurama is now a carbon neutral production. Meh. The commentary is hilarious, Hypnotoad is awesome and this DVD is worth owning if you’re a big Futurama fan.

If you’re not a fan of the series this shouldn’t be your introduction. It’s clear from the start this is a production for the faithful, not new converts. According to the commentary the features to follow will be for a more general audience. “Bender’s Big Score” belongs to the diehards, and that’s all right with me.

Random Link o’ the Day:


Random Link o’ the Day: