Monday, April 30, 2012

Modern Day Hitchhiking

In the golden years, you often saw idealized accounts of people hitchhiking across the United States.  Or hopping on trains and riding the rails.  Those idyllic scenes have been changed over the years.  Stories of hitchhikers attacking kind motorists or motorists picking up hitchhikers for nefarious purposes percolated through our culture and now I know of very few people who would be on either side (hitcher or motorist) for their own safety.  

Our current energy crisis could be alleviated a little by hitchhiking.  I see many cars with only the driver, which is a huge waste of space.  And many places people want to go are destinations for thousands of others, making it more likely that both hitchhikers and motorists would want to go there.  If we could double the average occupancy of each car, we could save millions of driving hours a year!

It would require some very important changes.   
  • An electronic thumb of some sort (like in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), rather than using your regular thumb.  
  • The ability for hitchhikers and motorists to rate one another, similar to couch-surfing.  
  • The tipping point where both motorists and hitchhikers have a large enough pool on the other side to use the app.  
  • Cultural adaption to having strangers in your car. 
Hitchhiking, or a sanitized version of it, can make a comeback if the right minds get behind it.  In the future, community will be ever more important.  Sharing (or selling?) resources like your driving time would be a great way to spread the wealth.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Government Gridlock Consequences

Many people today are worried about the fact that politicians today can't agree upon issues.  You see articles all the time such as "Medicaid group can't agree on cuts."  If you'd like more, just do a google search.  Many people are concerned about the polarization that seems to be happening in the political system - when the Democrats and the Republicans take increasingly divergent positions - because it makes compromise almost unthinkable for the two sides.  But what does a grid-locked political system do to our world?  I've listed below several outcomes that intrigue and/or frighten me.  And it will all happen because our government can't agree on action.

Shrunken FDA

All that needs to happen to cripple the FDA is for the government to allow Prescription Drug User Fees Act (PDUFA) to lapse.  That would mean the FDA wouldn't be able to collect user fees from drug companies for expediting approvals.  Which would reduce the number of drugs coming through.  It is also a major source of funding for the agency, and would cut drastically into their activities, including inspecting food and drug companies.  

State-Level International Policy

When you think of international policy, I'm sure you think of the ability to sign treaties.  But I'm talking specifically about immigration a possible slippery slope.  If the federal government can't agree on a standard US  immigration policy, then the states will take it on themselves.  Arizona, for example, passed a bill that is targeted at curbing illegal immigration, and is on its way to the Supreme Court to hear whether it is constitutional.  If it survives, individual states could use it to take international policy away from the Federal government, which is the rightful holder of those duties.  

Unending War

We've been at war for most of the past 20 years.  The reasons why are debated, and I'm not going to get into them.  But without the government working together, it's unlikely we will ever get fully out of the unpopular conflicts in the Middle East.  A strong force keeping us involved is the inertia we've gathered during the military actions of the recent past.  That inertia is reinforced by the stalemate in the government, because its almost impossible to get a large enough majority to do something dramatic, like end a war, with 100% die-hard opposition.  

Market Volatility

Immobile law makers or regulatory agencies put strain on our markets.  And that strain is translated into volatile stock and bond prices, as speculators cause large swings in the value of market instruments.  The market actually responds favorably to final action by the government, because that reduces uncertainty and calms risk.  The less that gets done in the government, though, the more uncertainty there is as issues build up in the queue.  

I'm not a doom-sayer.  I don't think that the worst will happen in all cases.  But I do think there needs to be a change in the political landscape so we can avoid some of the consequences above.  What do you see as the biggest outcome of a fully gridlocked government?  

Monday, April 16, 2012

Overlooked Over-consumption

I've heard a lot about information overload in the past few weeks.  There was a big story on NPR about the need to filter to get quality information to help build our world view.  And their prescription was consistent with some of the current thinking on food.  In fact, the speaker adapted a saying from Michael Pollan and said "Consume news, not too much, mostly facts."  

The theme was that society is providing an unhealthy version of something (information, food) that we had evolved to prefer over traditional "healthy" consumption.  But those are just two epidemics that have come to the attention of the national media.  There have been other overload that have been less publicized and/or neatly packaged.  In fact, with the current post-industrial era, there are many other areas where we have an overload that needs to be corrected.  


Four thousand years ago, during the agricultural age, people lived their entire lives within a few miles of where they were born.  During the industrial revolution, people lived in cities near their factories.  But with the invention of air travel and proliferation of cars, people have spread out across the countryside.  They are spending hours per day traveling and their health is suffering.  Air pollution, excessive sitting, high-speed fatalities and lost time with family are increasingly large problems that are exacerbated by increased travel.  


I'm sure I'm going to get some push-back on this one.  Emotions have existed since the beginning of time.  Our ancestors were afflicted by the same range of emotions as us - everything from happiness to fear to stress to anger.  But with media (first mass, then social), we've gotten both more homogeneous and more extreme in our feelings as a culture.  Fear of communists and terrorists, anger at our economy and political system, love for cute kittens.  Emotion sells better than cold, hard facts, and today almost everything has an emotional component to its advertising, use, or value.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a consumer product that isn't associated with an emotion.  

Any Communication that's not "In Person"

In the discussion above about information, they talked about how some information is bad and you need to limit your consumption. I go further.  Any form of information transfer that was developed after agriculture is something we need to consume with care.  We are not designed for either large-scale mediums or direct communications that are missing body language and inputs for our other senses.  It's unhealthy for humans as currently evolved.  We need to balance it with a healthy dose of face-to-face personal relationships, or we isolate ourselves.  

What other overloads have you seen in our society?  If you don't see them, just think about what we have now that we didn't have 100 years ago, and I bet people are consuming way too much.  


Monday, April 9, 2012

What is a Futurist?

My first experience with a futurist was actually much older than I was aware of.  Robert Heinlein was a futurist when he wrote the future history of earth.  He envisioned the rolling roads, a longevity breeding program, and space travel.  Back to the Future 2 showed us flying cars, hover-boards, and heads-up-display glasses.  Alvin Toffler predicted something eerily similar to the current internet, mass personal power (social media, anyone?), and the increasing focus on whole-life in business. 

Not all of those came true.  Half of the items above didn't even come close, and the other half were realized in related, but not exact, versions.  Versions of the future have left people wondering why we don't have working jet packs.  They've also given us pocket computers in the form of smart phones. 

What do Futurists do?

Futurists look at the trends of the world today and try to predict what will happen in the next five, ten, twenty, or more years in the future.  Their views are not always accurate, nor are they always wrong.  The provide a MODEL of the future for us to work with.  As I've learned, "All models are wrong, and some are useful."

But what good do they bring society?

Just spouting what they've been thinking about doesn't make for a lucrative career unless you're a sci-fi writer.  Futurists provide value by hooking the right people up with the right ideas, with the intent to steer individuals toward a certain future. 

Should they be doing that?

Of course!  Why not?  No one is forcing people to listen.  They are not being secretive about their predictions (generally).  Often, I've been unable to identify any personal long-term gain from the discussions brought on by Futurists.  It requires a lot of work to be good at it, and I'm sure successful practitioners our there do it as a labor of love. 

Should I be doing that?

You should certainly be looking around and trying to figure out where it is going.  If not because you're curious, then certainly because it mitigates some of the risks you subject your family to over the generations ahead.  I don't necessarily think you should be out on a soap box, but don't live like a hermit, either. 

This is a real job?!?!?

I think it sounds like a fantastic job.  I hope some day to have the chops to put together articles as fun as the Futurists I've been reading. 

Do you have any experience with futurists?  Did you read any books that seemed to tell the future?