Saturday, May 25, 2013

Moving day! (in blogland)

I've decided to move my blog over to Wordpress -- head on over to to keep following. I wish I could promise that the new location will encourage me to post more frequently.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Don't Hold Your Breath Waiting for the Nanobots

Since I was at most a teenager, I've considered myself a futurist. Blame it on all the sci-fi I read. I can remember countless conversations, usually with my older brother, about "what happens next," including the conversation in 2007 in which we predicted the ubiquity of cloud computing and the app economy (we didn't quite predict tablets, being still smitten with netbooks, but we definitely foresaw the end of powerful personal computers). One of the most exciting trends I was anticipating back then was the end of industrial manufacturing.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Artistry Across Media or My Three Favorite Film Adaptations

With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey due out in theaters soon (er or later), a lot of fans are debating the merits and demerits of Peter Jackson's film adaptations of Tolkien's works - a debate with which I am intimately familiar, having argued the demerits frequently and fervently in my younger, more impassioned days. I'm not going to take up that argument again (I'm getting too old for this sort of thing), but I would like to reply to one of the most common rebuttals to arguments against the films.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A point on political rhetoric

I really hate the cliche "A rising tide lifts all boats."

In economic terms, GDP growth does, in fact, provide a lot of opportunities all across the economy, but it's hardly the only economic goal worth pursuing. Specifically, the policies this cliche is often quoted to support are designed to favor yachts over dinghies.

Proposed Alternative: "A rising sea level will give some ocean-front property, and put others underwater."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Capital Gains vs. Income

I'm watching the Iowa Republican Presidential Debate right now, and one of the candidates (I believe it was Gingrich, but I was out of the room and my voice recognition isn't quite that sharp) said he supported 0% capital gains tax. It sounds great from a "let's get people investing" perspective, but does it really make sense? I don't think so. In fact, I spent a good bit of time fretting about it this morning in the shower.

With most of our production automated or offshored, the real value in the global economy is increasingly created by investment rather than labor. The role of humans, and especially Americans, is increasingly to provide volition strategy, and discretion to large sums of money. The labor that we can neither offshore nor automate is mostly low-value, low-paying service work. The entire concept of an income tax, though, is based on the foundation of a large, prosperous middle-class of wage employees. They no longer exist.

If our economy is mostly driven by entrepreneurs, investors, and businessmen, why are we still trying to run the government out of the pockets of the non-existent employees?

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Government is Still in Our Hands

One of the dominant memes in recent political commentary (at least at the popular level) as been the failure of the two-party system. The ongoing (as of July 8th) standoff in congress over the debt ceiling is indicative of a larger trend in which party interests are placed so far ahead of national interests that, in the words of Sen. Chuck Schumer, "the best way to win is hurt the country as much as possible."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

More Things That Conventional Engineering Analysis Would Never Tell You

As promised, today I'll write about our nation's food supply and how attempts to "engineer" it wound up drastically reducing the quality of our food.

Sometime in the first half of the 20th century (I'm a little fuzzy on exactly when and how it happened, but I expect that the Depression and WWII had a lot to do with it), food production and distribution reached a sort of tipping point and consumers traded fresh, natural products for processed, frozen or canned. The promise of drastically longer shelf life, lower prices, easier preparation, and year-round availability made the choice a simple one. Frozen vegetables and canned fruit replaced fresh, ground (and even instant!) coffee replaced whole beans, Jiffy Pop and later microwave popcorn replaced whole kernel, margarine and other hydrogenated oils replaced butter.

Half a century and more later, many consumers are turning back to the more natural, fresh, locally produced products for a variety of reasons. It has become known that vegetables lose a great deal of their nutritional value rather quickly after picking, and even more quickly upon cooking. Hydrogenated oils have recently been shown to contain trans-fats, practically unknown in the natural world and detrimental to human health. Consumers attitudes and preferences toward food also seem to be changing, with more emphasis being placed on quality than on convenience.

At thanksgiving last year, my grandfather was recounting the process behind a cup of coffee in his childhood: buying whole beans, roasting them, grinding them by hand at the beginning of the week, brewing them in a mesh sack in a pot. When I told him that I had begun grinding my own beans, he was mystified. Why go through so much effort when  I could just buy coffee grounds? A new generation of coffee drinkers is finally realizing that coffee loses its flavor very quickly after grinding, and opting to buy whole beans again and grind them ourselves just before drinking. Some even choose to roast their own. Improvements in "kitchen gadgets" -- countertop electric coffee grinders -- has made the process much easier and quicker than it was 70 years ago.

The case of coffee is illustrative of a much larger trend: that of decentralization or even deindustrialization. The cost and convenience benefits of mass production came at the cost of drastically reduced quality and utterly no individuality, but now these benefits are being realized at smaller scales that return some of the humanity to our products. The beauty in coffee is in the complexity of the organic molecules produced upon roasting of the beans. Their very complexity ensures them a short lifespan. Mid-century attempts to industrialize coffee roasting and grinding robbed coffee of the very thing that made it appealing to humans' complex sensory system, and the same case could be made for a wide range of food products. Now that we have tried the industrial strength approach and found its limitations, we are free to return to an older model that offers more value. When we bring back the old habits, though, we bring them back with a modern expertise and fewer of the hassles that led us away from them in the first place.