Monday, April 30, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1777 famous mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss was born.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A World In Flux

Last week I experienced something that rarely happens. I received several emails from different people that all contained the same URL. It pointed to an alarmist article about the number of manufacturing jobs that have been lost in the U.S. since the year 2000. And in one of the emails a friend asked, how will the U.S. maintain its national sovereignty if it doesn’t manufacture anything. Now I realize that there are many who will violently disagree with what I am about to say, but I feel it must be said anyway.

First of all, nations are an illusion created for the purpose of making it easier to herd people. Why are they an illusion? Because they are based on mythology, and a key part of this mythology is the illusion of independence.

We live in a world and a universe based on interconnections and interdependency. How then can any nation be independent? As to the myth of national sovereignty, disease and weather are just two examples of significant phenomena that have no respect for the imaginary lines called borders.

When Lech Walesa was asked by a reporter what toppled the Communist government in Poland he did not say a word. Instead, he pointed to a corner of the room. In that corner was a TV. He then explained that when the people of his Solidarity movement saw that their struggle was being broadcast around the world, they knew they would be victorious. Television and radio signals have no respect for petty attempts to separate the human family.

Not even North Korea, one of the most reclusive societies in the world, can control its designated national boundaries. If it could, there would not be of a quarter of a million North Koreans living illegally in China. And it is well known that for centuries there have been people in many societies who have engaged in activities that proved so called borders were not even an inconvenience.

It is obvious that at the center of all this alarmism is the fact that change is hard for most people to deal with. And this is especially true when a myth dies, because myths die hard.

The people of the U.S.S.R. woke up one day to the sobering reality that all the promises that had been made by the Communist party would never be fulfilled. The Chinese used to talk about the "iron rice bowl"; the promise that the government would make sure that they were taken care of no matter how little they worked. The bowl has been snatched away from them. The Japanese have seen their hallowed promise of lifetime employment shattered into a million pieces through downsizing at some companies and the complete collapse of others. And so it goes.

U.S. Steel used to be the largest steel producer. Then it was Nippon Steel (Japan). Then the experts thought Pohang Steel (South Korea) would be next. They were wrong. Out of nowhere came Mittal steel which basically belongs to no country because its operations are so global in nature. And what company will be next at the top of the world of steel? Who knows? In fact, a true student of change might ask if there will be a steel industry at all ten, fifteen or twenty years from now.

As to the matter of jobs, the U.S. is awash in them. However, there are no longer as many jobs around that pay well without formal schooling as there used to be. Forty years ago it was possible for a man who had never finished elementary school to go into the steel industry and find a job that would feed his family, buy a house, send his kids to college and provide a pension. Today, they won't even consider anyone without a high school diploma. And if you spent most of your high school days cutting class or taking easy, non-essential courses, you won't be able to keep a job long and other jobs will be beyond your reach.

At this moment, many jobs are going begging. There are reports of a shortage of mining engineers because young people will not go into this field, leading many colleges to shut down their programs. There are thousands of pharmacist jobs which remain unfilled. There have never been enough nurses and now many of the Baby Boom generation nurses are retiring making the shortage worse. And the same situation is happening in the teaching profession.

In light of what has happened in just the past few decades, we should all be suspicious of any individual or organization that promises us a guarantee of a smooth, comfortable, predictable path to the future. Not because they do not have the best of intentions, but because the ability of humans to predict the future is so limited.

Like it or not, we all have to learn to live in a world where there will be change, change and more change. Where interdependence is acknowledged and where we learn to listen to the better angels of our nature instead of the selfish inner voice that tells us life and economics are zero sum games. It will not be easy. But it will offer us the best chance to build the best future and a better world.

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1893 Harold Urey, Nobel laureate and discoverer of deuterium was born.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day:
Jan Oort, famous astronomer was born in 1900.
Eugene M. Shoemaker, planetary scientist was born in 1928

Friday, April 27, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day:
Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph was born in 1791.
Karl Alexander Müller, Physicist and Nobel laureate was born in 1927.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day:

John James Audubon, naturalist and illustrator was born in 1785.
Charles Richter, American geophysicist was born in 1900.
Arno Allan Penzias, Nobel prize winning physicist was born in 1933.
NASA’s Ranger 4 spacecraft impacted the Moon in 1964.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day:
Scottish astronomer James Ferguson was born in 1710.
Russian mathematician Felix Berezin was born in 1931.
Francis Crick and James D. Watson published in Nature describing the double helix structure of DNA in 1953.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1990 the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit aboard STS-31.

Monday, April 23, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1858 Max Planck, German physicist and Nobel Prize laureate, was born.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1833 Richard Trevithick, the inventor of the first working steam locomotive, passed away.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1911 Ivan Combe, the inventor of Clearasil and Odor Eaters was born.

Friday, April 20, 2007

As Delicate As The Cherry Blossom

The cherry blossom is the national flower of Japan and has been celebrated in song and literature for centuries. From the end of March through the beginning of April, the blossoms burst into existence and engulf the country in a floral tsunami that rolls from the southernmost corner of Kyushu to the northernmost reaches of Hokkaido. And then, in what seems like the blink of an eye, all traces of them are gone. Now you see them, now you don’t. And in the Japanese way of thinking, as it is with the cherry blossom, so it is with fame, fortune and human life. I could not help but think about this when reading a recent issue of Forbes where it was reported that the nation of India now has more billionaires than Japan. That gave me pause. Was it not too long ago that we were being warned that Japan was an unstoppable economic Godzilla bent on gobbling up the U.S. and the rest of the world as well? Is it possible that the Japanese century has ended barely a few years after its beginning? And if it has, are we now to be concerned that India will be the new economic behemoth on the world stage, rolling over and conquering all?

There certainly are those who would have us believe so. Whether it is in the pages of the recent bestseller, “The Earth Is Flat” or in the Wall Street Journal, there has been a rising drumbeat that is reminiscent of the Japan-as-number-one craze that swept through the U.S. media in the 70’s and 80’s. Jobs are being outsourced to India. And there is no doubt its economy is on the upswing. Hardly a day goes by without an announcement of some new business deal or technological success that involves an Indian company or business tycoon. In such an environment, it is easy to be drawn into the myth of India’s inevitable rise to economic superpower status.

However, if we take a moment to step back and look at things from a perspective other than that offered by the hype and sensationalistic claptrap that has too often become the standard in much of today’s media, we can see that it is far too early to declare victory for any country. There is a mistake that most people make when they envision the future. Instead of thinking of it as tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, they tend to think of it as today version 2.0. And such linear thinking leads down the wrong path. After all, which of the so called expert futurists predicted the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union? How many people at the end of World War II predicted that Germany and Japan would rise to become as economically successful as they have? Did the British ever imagine it possible that a savage, unsophisticated continent like North America could give rise to a nation of the power and influence of the U.S.? And had they any expectation that the penal colony they started at Botany Bay would lead to a nation as comfortable, beautiful and successful as Australia? India has split once. Might it not do so again? Is it really impossible to imagine that other divisions not yet suspected might assert themselves and shatter the national fabric of the subcontinent?

The road between the present and the future is rarely a straight one. And it is almost never smooth. Even if a nation does achieve economic greatness, it is not a permanent condition. No disrespect to the people of India or those who trumpet that country’s achievements, but the only thing that is inevitable is change. And the future always holds more possibilities than we imagine or dare to imagine.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1877 Ole Evinrude (Yes, that Evinrude!) the inventor of the outboard motor was born.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day:

Nobel laureate George Hitchings was born(1905).
Nobel laureate Joseph Goldstein was born(1940).
Nobel laureate Albert Einstein passed away(1955).

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1970 Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth.

Monday, April 16, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1867 Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

SciTech Spotlight

On this day in 1452 Leonardo da Vinci, scientist, engineer, artist, sculptor and inventor was born.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ode To Don Imus

If Imus were a rapper, he’d be basking in praise.
We'd be told to admire his ability to turn an edgy phrase.

Fellow rappers would embrace him, call him brother and friend.
The ACLU would be there too, his freedom of speech to defend.

There would be no outrage, no calls for his head.
There would only be countless invitations to talk shows instead.

He’d have a fistful of Grammies, a movie contract or two.
And the media would be enthralled and clamor for interviews.

But he’s not a rapper and a double standard reigns.
So for him there will be only endless apologies and a great deal of public pain.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

When Clean Becomes A Dirty Word

Every time I think I've seen it all, life throws me a curve. After all, who would have guessed that the word “clean” had become a four letter word? Certainly Senator Biden didn’t. I’m quite sure he thought he was heaping high praise on Senator Obama when he used it. Unfortunately, despite his years in politics, the senior senator from Delaware made the mistake of underestimating the ability of some people to make mountains out of molehills.

He is hardly to blame for this. However he must bear the responsibility for aiding them in getting away with this kind of nonsense one more time. How? By frantically casting about to apologize to just about anyone and everyone he can, the senator has shown a complete lack of ability to deal with the unexpected. He has empowered the usual suspects in their eternal quest to make all things racial. Also he has probably eliminated any possibility of being elected President.

What would have been a proper response? Perhaps something more like this; I said clean, I meant clean. Only someone who is a lover of the worst kind of racist rhetorical nonsense could make anything racially explosive out of such a positive word. There are of course those who would have made attacks and attempts to make him look like a closet racist.

However it would have been simpler to turn these aside by asking his attackers to explain, in detail, exactly in what context the word “clean” is a pejorative. It would have been interesting to see what kind of explanation the naysayers would conjure up, if any.

Let’s be clear about this. There are those who see a slight in every expression. They could make “hello” a racist verbal attack. Let’s not yield common sense to common paranoia. There are more than a few people who have difficulty listening to the better angels of their nature, but we can choose not to be among them. When we make that choice, it’s good news.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Synthetic Actors?

At the dawn of the use of digital effects in filmmaking, there was a small but vocal group of actors who fretted that this was the start of a sinister plot by studios to someday replace human performers with digital ones. The vast majority of their fellow actors dismissed this as nothing more than paranoia. Well, somewhere in Hollywood, those actors who were once labeled as paranoid are probably saying I told you so. Why? Orville Redenbacher has been raised from the dead.

Recently, a series of television commercials have featured the bowtie wearing, bespectacled magnate from Indiana who passed away more than a decade ago. Through a complex process using computer generated imagery, a fairly good simulation of the late Mr. Redenbacher can be seen touting his gourmet popcorn once again. However, the effect is not perfect. Most viewers will probably have the feeling that the face is not quite lively enough. In fact, some critics on the Internet have dubbed the character Orville Deadenbacher because of the somewhat stiff facial expressions. As they say in the world of technobabble, the process is not mature. Still, the fact remains that we are now tantalizingly close to being able to create people with realistic appearance; the holy grail of visual digital effects.

And while this new technological capability may strike fear into the hearts of the members of the Screen Actors Guild, it doesn’t take much imagination to see some of the possibilities that may come to pass as the technique is improved and coupled with software that can be fine tuned to mimic the movements of a particular individual. There could be new films featuring Humphrey Bogart, Gene Harlow or Cary Grant and perhaps even a sequel to Animal House featuring a digital doppelganger for John Belushi. Or how about a musical where Usher trades dance steps with Fred Astaire? And why should the technique be limited to actors? No doubt there are more than a few sports fanatics that would be willing to pay to see a digital dream match between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, both in their prime. On the more mundane side, won’t it be great when they can digitally reshape the mouths of performers so that they actually look like they are saying the words of the foreign language into which their movie has been dubbed?

Over time the cost of the technology will drop. When it does, it will move into the hands of video game designers and amateur film makers. And an entirely new cycle of creative visions will be unleashed. When will this happen? Well, in the words of Bogart in the cinematic classic Casablanca, ”...maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon…” Probably sooner than anyone suspects.