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Archive for September, 2012

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.  Computer Viruses.  Cyber Terrorism.  Cats being exploited for laughs.  The Information Age has given rise to a whole slew of problems but there’s another often overlooked issue as well: the limitations of data storage.  Whether it’s financial transactions, social networking feeds, sports statistics, or government records there are tremendous amounts of information being generated on a daily basis.

While not all of this data will be worth keeping around forever, Facebook feed I’m looking at you, some of it will be.  What we deem worth saving will probably vary from person to person as well it should.  While your mom wants to save precious family photos, especially that embarrassing picture of you from your first Halloween, you may want to save that manuscript you’ve spent the last five years working on.

Regardless of what we want to keep we may finally have the peace of mind of knowing that it’ll last more than just a few years.  That’s because thanks to Hitachi (http://www.engadget.com/2012/09/26/hitachi-announces-permanent-quartz-storage/) we soon may be able to keep things for our entire life times and then some for they claim to have invented quartz glass capable of preserving information for hundreds of millions of years.  Drawing your initials in drying cement suddenly doesn’t seem so cool anymore.

Assuming that this technology works and you could store a message for future archaeologists to decipher what would you say?  Is there even anything worth saving for that long?  I don’t know.  All I know is that I feel sorry for the person, four hundred million years from now, who stumbles across the piece of quartz containing all of the Jersey Shore episodes.

What would you choose to save?

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#89 – Renaissance 2.0

Are we on the verge of another Renaissance?  A cultural shift so profound that it changes the way that we think, altering the course of human history in the process?  Some would say that the Information Age and more specifically the recent mobile computing revolution has already ushered in such an era.  But I would argue that the best is yet to come.  Witness:

3D Printers:  Wired just ran a cover story about the new Maker Bot replicator (http://www.wired.com/design/2012/09/how-makerbots-replicator2-will-launch-era-of-desktop-manufacturing/) which could bring this technology from the fringe of society where it’s used just by hobbyists, tinkerers, and DIY enthusiasts and into the mainstream.  If that happens and 3D printers become as commonplace in the household as a TV set then we could be on the verge of a seismic cultural shift.  Just imagine what it would be like to print out replacement parts for broken appliances or create new toys for your kids to use.  No longer will we just be powerless consumers subject to the whims of a marketer.  Rather we’ll be the designer and consumer all at once.  A one stop shop for creativity.

With only the boundaries of our collective imaginations to limit us there’s no telling what amazing new things could be created whether it’s new toys or even pieces of art.   Could this technology be the nudge that we needed to take the next step in our cultural enlightenment?

The best part is that this isn’t the only new technology that is enabling us to tap into the left side of our brains.  Just consider the latest advances in:

Computer modeling software:   Autodesk’s plan to help anyone make anything (http://www.wired.com/business/2012/09/ff-autodesk-and-the-big-make/all/) was also just spotllighted in the most recent issue of Wired.  By creating software that provides feedback on the designs that you submit, it just became a whole lot easier to create something from the ground up.  An excerpt from the article sums it up best:

“Kowalski says that Autodesk’s consumer apps will eventually use the  same sort of technology to deliver feedback on how your design for, say, a new water bottle for hiking will perform in the real world. It may give hints on how to minimize wasted material, find subtle ways to make the bottle stronger, and give tips on how to optimize it for outputting to a 3-D printer. Better yet, it might create several variations of the design to illustrate trade-offs in efficiency, durability, and manufacturing costs. Kids could even do it for their Pinewood Derby cars, Kowalski muses. “An 8-year-old takes a photo of a car and is able to subject it to computational fluid-dynamics modeling on the screen.”

For someone like myself who has a lot of ideas for new inventions but who lacks the technological know how to put the ideas into action this software is a game changer.

However, when it comes to creating new things the latest advances in 3D printing and computer modeling software can’t compete with:

Synthetic Biology which aims to create new biological systems not found in nature.  Famed scientist Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome, has been at the forefront of this movement, and is currently trying to turn algae into a new fuel source.  While doing so would be a tremendous achievement it’s not even the tip of iceberg when it comes to the potential of this new technology.  How could it be when the underlying premise is the ability to program organisms to bend to your very will.  After all, who wants to go to Ikea and buy a chair when you can just grow one in your back yard!  But that’s not all.  With a chromosome as your canvas you can finally create your ideal pet!  Giraffe cat here I come!!!

Of course if we’re really about to enter another Reinassance then the sweeping changes to our way of thinking can’t just impact our arts and culture.  It also has to impact our way of life which is often defined by:

Education Reform:  We’ve long understood that our education system was sorely lacking and while there’s been no shortage of ideas we’ve never really been able to find a solution that really works.  Fortunately, we may finally be on the verge of a major breakthrough as advances in technology primarily the proliferation of the iPad has allowed novel new ideas such as Khan Academy, Coursera, and even CodeAcademy to thrive.  With the classroom getting flipped and higher level courses being made available online for free the barriers to receiving a great education have all but vanished.

Which means that we’re about to enter a time where anyone with the desire to learn and make themselves better can do so without restriction.  With more people in the know it’ll be easier to spread ideas and advance society.  The hallmark of any good Renaissance.

And if you consider just how easy it’s getting to do, well pretty much anything, then this has the potential to not just be a good Renaissance but a great one.  Think about it.  Anyone with a camera phone, a photo sharing app, and a Facebook account is now an amateur photographer.  If you have a Twitter account you can promote anything you want.  If you use YouTube you can broadcast anything you want.  You can even get yourself published through Amazon.  Just imagine the kind of damage that Michangelo or Da Vinci could have done with those kind of tools at their disposal.  Better yet just imagine all of the great new art, movies, and books that haven’t yet been created that await our consumption.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of major barriers that would have to be overcome before we can give rise to the dawn of a new era in human history.  Most pressing of all is trying to get through all the noise.  With so much information being created on a daily basis it’s easy to get bogged down by information overload, so it’s possible that we won’t even be able to enjoy all of the great new things being created because there will be overwhelming amounts of it.

Secondly, and this may be the biggest hurdle of all, we have to be focused on what it is that we want to accomplish.  Otherwise if we’re left to our own devices we’re just going to wind up spending all of our free time playing video games and creating iPhone apps.  Doesn’t it bother anyone else that the best and brightest minds in this country are all flocking to Silicon Valley to start a new social networking site or work on the next version of Angry Birds?  Aren’t there far greater intellectual pursuits out there?

Hopefully, those pursuits will get the attention that they deserve in the near future.  Whether it’s 3D Printing or Synthetic Biology that leads the way remains to be seen but what is certain is that we are fast approaching the dawn of a new era.  Renaissance 2.0 as it were.  And with so many tools at our disposal it’s going to be a great one.

Are we on the verge of another Renaissance?

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In my last post I talked about how I was raging mad when I found out that one of my ideas for a TV show  was already in the works by the creator of CSI, Anthony Zuiker.  After writing that post I began to lament my fate which led me to checking out Facebook.  After all, there’s nothing like interacting with friends when you need a pick me up.  Turns out though that seeing how much happier everyone else is as they announce engagements and post pictures of their baby isn’t necessarily a good thing when you’re feeling down.

However, in this particular instance I was glad that I suffered through the indignity of finding out that my two year old nephew was wearing the same shirt as me because I also came to find out that there was an event called the Great American PitchFest (https://pitchfest.com/) that just happened out in Los Angeles.  This event is like speed dating for writers as it puts writers and hollywood executives in the same room in hopes that someone can hear a pitch that leads them to the next big thing.  Considering that I was desperately seeking a way to get my ideas heard the timing of finding out about this event couldn’t have been any better.  Although I suppose that finding out about it ahead of time so that I could have actually attended would have been better.

Nonetheless, it was a step in the right direction.  But then I started thinking.  As great as the Great American PitchFest sounds what if there was a way to make it better?  What if instead of just putting writers and talent agency staffers together what if you could pair anyone who wants to pitch something with someone who would be interested in hearing the pitch?  Just imagine all of the possibilities.  A truck driver in Idaho pitching an idea for an iPhone app to a software developer.  A high school football coach pitching an idea for a new defensive scheme to a front office executive from his favorite team.  A comic book fan pitching an idea for a new character to Stan Lee.  An entrepreneur pitching his idea to a venture capitalist.

Regardless of the industry there is no shortage of people with the ideas to make it better.  What is in short supply though are the business connections needed to get these ideas into the hands of the right people.  That’s where the Bullpen (www.bullpen.com) would come into play.  This is the place where pitches go to get seen and worked on.  Eventually, a finished product emerges that is ready to enter the field of play just like in baseball.

Of course skeptics of this plan would be quick to point out that this service sounds great for the people doing the pitching but not so good for the people who have to sift through hundreds of pointless submissions in order to maybe find the one decent one that they can profit from.  Where’s the incentive for those people to sacrifice their valuable time?

In response to that criticism there are two ways to go about setting up the site.  The first way is to require the pitchers to pay a nominal fee, either for membership or for each post that they make, with the proceeds getting split up by the people who are providing the feedback.  The second way is to tap into the growing phenomenon known as a reputation economy where people willingly provide useful feedback in order to enhance their trustworthiness and reputations.  (http://www.fastcompany.com/1093675/perils-and-promise-reputation-economy)  A site like Quora where people volunteer answers to questions without getting compensated for doing so highlights this trend.  The Bullpen could be run exactly the same way.

So now that all the doubters have been silenced it’s time to get this party started before any more time is spent developing things that no one wants or before any more ideas are wasted because they couldn’t get into the right hands.  Because remember your pitch isn’t going to scratch itself.

Wouldn’t it be great if the PitchFest extended to all walks of life?

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I previously wrote about how Roku was one of the greatest ideas ever (https://greatestideaever.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/18-roku/).  And while it still does have it’s merits it turns out that the future of television is not yet set in stone.  Here’s a look at a few things currently making waves in the entertainment industry:

Interactive TV:  Thanks to Microsoft’s Kinect your living room is now a classroom as television programs such as Sesame Street are creating shows that allow your kids to interact directly with the characters in the show.  For instance, having to answer a question from the Cookie Monster about how many cookies they see on screen before the show will continue. (http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/19/tech/gaming-gadgets/interactive-tv-kinect/index.html)

Perhaps in the future other shows will become interactive too.  Can you imagine voting for American Idol by touching your screen or communicating directly with the manager of your favorite baseball team during a game?  With so many other sources of entertainment around television executives are constantly trying to figure out a way to keep eyeballs focused on their programs.  They won’t have to worry about that problem much longer if watching TV continues on this path towards becoming a truly immersive experience.

Yahoo:  The other day I was raging mad when I found out that one of my best ideas for a television show, a series about a cyber crime division of the government, was “stolen” by the creator of CSI, Anthony Zuiker.  (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/csi-anthony-zuiker-yahoo-cybergeddon-302452)

But once my anger subsided I realized that the most important thing to take away from the article was not that my idea was being taken but rather that it was being distributed on Yahoo instead of on network or cable TV or in movie theaters.  As Zuiker stated in the article, “Going wide in the traditional motion picture world is 5,000 screens and this can be 50 million screens on premiere day in multiple languages.”

To me that sounds like a game changer.  Yahoo as a movie studio.  Google eat your heart out.

Internet TV:  Speaking of watching shows through your computer why is it that we can’t watch network TV on our computers freely?  Sure, you can do so illegally through various websites which shall remain nameless or if you don’t mind waiting you can catch up the next day (Hulu) or the next year (Netflix) but why can’t we watch cable through our computers or smartphones instead of through our TV sets?  If we are paying subscribers why does the device that we choose to use even matter?

And if we’re not paying subscribers why can’t we still access the content?  Let’s take ESPN for example.  They created an app called Watch ESPN.  This enables you to watch their programming on your phone, iPad, or laptop. Sounds great right?  Wrong.  In order for it to work you must already be a paid cable subscriber.  What’s the point of that?  If I was a paid cable subscriber Id already be watching the game on my television and wouldn’t even have a need for the app.  The whole point is to be able to watch a game on my iPad while I watch something else on Roku.  If I can’t do that then this app has no value to me.  Which begs the question: why can’t I just pay ESPN directly for the right to get their service on the device of my choosing?  In fact, why can’t we just pay the networks directly for the content that they are creating?  Why do we even need cable companies anymore?

Which leads me to the one company with the ability to disrupt the industry and make it so that we can watch the shows we want, when we want to, in the manner of our choosing:  Apple.

Apple TV:  Congratulations Tim Cook.  You have the most valuable company in the World and there is huge demand for your new iPhone 5.  But enough already with the phones.  We get it.  You make a cool phone.  What you don’t make is a good television or set top box.  The time is right to change that and extend your dominance from personal computers to the entertainment industry.  Please hurry before I have to waste anymore money paying cable companies for channels I don’t want and downloading apps I can’t use.  And oh by the way when you get a chance please tell Siri that when I ask where the nearest Subway is I want information about the train not the restaurant.  Thanks.

I’ve seen the future of TV and it looks an awful lot like Sesame Street.

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#86 – Skinny the Bear

I love soda.  Not all soda mind you.  In fact, not even most sodas.  Really just Coke and Sunkist.  Especially, Sunkist.  If I was told that I was going to be marooned on a deserted island and could only bring one thing with me it would be a bottle of Sunkist. 

So I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit by and let some politician prevent me from enjoying one of the things that I love the most in this World in a quantity of my choosing.  And yet that’s exactly what I did when the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, enacted a law banning soda to be sold in cups larger than 16 ounces. 

Why the sudden change in heart?  In order to lose a little bit of weight I had recently decided to cut out soda from my diet save for the occassional splurge day.  The result?  I’ve lost 13 pounds in a little over a month.  Of course there were other dietary and exercise changes that would have an impact on the amount of weight that I’ve lost but cutting out soda was surely a step in the right direction. 

So, while I don’t agree with Bloomberg’s approach I can at least appreciate what he’s trying to do.  As could Dr. Joel A. Forman, one of the board members who approved the plan who stated in an article in the New York Times, “I can’t imagine the board not acting on another problem that is killing 5,000 people per year.” He later added, “the evidence strongly supports a relationship between sweet drinks and obesity.” 

That last comment brings me to a report that I saw last night on NBC Nightly News about obesity in America.   This report wasn’t exactly ground breaking as the cries of an upcoming obesity epidemic have been ringing for several years now.  However, this particular report did seem to resonate with me, probably since obesity and weight loss are issues that I’ve been thinking about lately on the heels of this ban going into effect in NYC and my own diet getting underway.  As such, I began to wonder if there was something that could be done to combat this issue. 

What I came up with was the idea of recylcing one of the greatest propaganda campaigns in this country’s history: Smokey the Bear.  If you are old enough to remember you’ll note that during World War II this country had a big problem dealing with Forest Fires as these fires would take valuable manpower and resources away from the war effort.  In order to bring awareness to this issue and to help prevent future fires from breaking out the government came up with an advertising campaign around Smokey the Bear.  It was a huge hit helping the government to acheive its goal. 

Now that the government has idenified obesity, especially childhood obesity, as being a serious problem that could eventually drain this country’s medical resources I think it’s time that a new propaganda campaign is unleashed to teach people about the importance of proper diet and exercise.  And I know just the man for the job: Smokey the Bear!  Only this time we’ll call him Skinny the Bear!

Only you can prevent obesity!

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As campaign season heats up I’m sure that all of the focus is going to be on the economy and foreign affairs as well it should be but there’s another hot button issue that’s just as important.  An issue that is near and dear to all of our hearts.  An issue that is eating away at this country’s prospects for future prosperity.  And no I’m not talking about who is going to be the next judge on American Idol.  I’m talking about the millions of peoples whose lives are being affected by crippling student loan debts.

If you aren’t one of these people you probably don’t think this is a big deal but when you consider that student loan debt is the leading cause of debt in this country, even more so than credit card debt or medical expenses, the severity of this issue begins to take  shape.  It is a serious issue and one that will continue to ruin people’s lives if it goes unchecked.

I should know.  I’m one of those people and as a result of my debt I was living at home in my parent’s basement until I was nearly 30 thanks to my decision to actually try to learn something and better my life at Northeastern University.  Hindsight being 20/20 I would have been better off being miserable for four years at a state school in upstate New York.  Instead I chose to receive a hands on experiential education at a well respected institution in a major city and got burned for it.  And not just because I had to live with annoying masshole Red Sox fans for four years.

Despite my best efforts to save money over the last five years I still have a long ways to go before I’m debt free.  Northeastern is a five year program mixing in classroom learning with on the job training.  Somehow my five year program turned into a twenty five year payment plan.  I wanted an experiential education.  I didn’t want my commitment to grow exponentially.

What can we do to fix this endemic?  Here are three ideas to help out those people buried under a mountain of debt:

  • Delay the start of payments:  If the lottery is a tax on the poor then it can be said that a college education is a tax on young people.  But shouldn’t we be giving this segment of our population a break instead of saddling them with debt right out of the gate before they’ve had a chance to earn any money?  Not only should students not have to repay their loans for several years but I’d go so far as to say that the government shouldn’t even tax people under 30 at all.  Give them as much time as possible to travel the World and figure out what they want to do with their lives so that when the time comes to repay their loans they will be ready for it.  And in the interim they will learn a thing or two about investing: in themselves by furthering their education, in their futures by saving money, and better yet in the future itself by taking risks, following their dreams, and eventually starting the companies that jump start the economy.
  • Absolve debt in exchange for government service:  Other countries like Israel already require  their citizens to give years of service and I think a similar program in the United States in exchange for debt forgiveness would have a lot of merit.  There’s certainly no shortage of need for help and not just in the military.  Whether it’s a public works program to build a new high speed train network or a local community clean up project there are countless ways for a citizen army to be deployed.  And that’s without even mentioning the need that the government has for qualified programmers to help ward off the threats we face everyday from cyber attacks.  How else are we supposed to equip tomorrow’s workforce today if not with the help of a call to arms from the government?
  • Offer free education in exchange for future earnings:  One plan that seems to be gaining traction within higher education circles is one in which students would receive free college tuition in exchange for a percentage of their future earnings.  This way students would never even fall into debt in the first place and would probably receive a better education in the long run since the institutions that they are attending would be emotionally invested in their success and more inclined to help their students succeed.

Are any of these solutions the end all cure for all that ails recent college graduates?  Probably not.  But at least it’s a start and at least the topic has made its way into the public discourse.  And I for one remain hopeful that the end is near.  However,  with so much else going on in the World I fear that this is the kind of issue that could get dropped onto the back burner at any moment.  Which would be a shame because student loan debt or SLD is a major problem in this country.  And we have to be careful that this SLIDE (Student Loan Is a Debt for Eternity) doesn’t turn into a downward spiral that we can’t get out of.

Feel like you are buried under a pile of student loan debt? I know the feeling….

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I just spent the last day and a half in San Diego and all I can say is wow.  For someone who likes to write it isn’t often that I find myself speechless and yet that’s exactly how I feel.  There are no words to describe how awesome and amazing this city is.  It looks like something someone created within the Sims.  Like it was just taken out of a box marked “ideal city” and plopped down on prime waterfront real estate.

It is by far the best place I’ve ever been to and this is coming from someone who just spent a week in Maui.  But despite its picturesque settings and overwhelming beauty it is not without it’s flaws.  Primarily the fact that it is located over 3,000 miles from my primary residence and that it is alas ridiculously expensive to live in.  Unless it turns out that I’m really Steve Jobs’ bastard son the chances that I will ever live there are about as high of the chances of Snooki being named Mom of the Year.  Which is to say slim to none.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way?  What if there was a way that I could live there for at least a few months out of the year? Or better yet what if I could spend a few months living in each of the great cities that this country has to offer or even that the World has to offer.  How could I accomplish this?  Through the creation of a worker exchange program of course.

If you want to know how this program would work just harken back to the days of your high school’s foreign exchange student program.  It used to be socially acceptable that we would ship out our kids to another country so that they can become more worldly and we could gain a fresh perspective from another part of the World.  And yet that same principle has shockingly never translated over to the workplace where gaining fresh perspectives are always the order of the day.  It’s baffling to me that companies, especially large corporations with offices in multiple cities, aren’t more willing to allow for a free flow exchange of workers between locales.

Obviously the downside is that you’d have to constantly train new workers but isn’t the trade off worth getting fresh ideas and more over isn’t it worth keeping your workforce energized and happy and in turn more productive?  Of course not all workers are going to want to opt into this program, especially if they have families with school age children to tie them down to an area, but there are still plenty of workers who are in their 20’s and 30’s with nothing to hold them back who would welcome the opportunity to travel more and experience new things.

I’m one such person and I would jump at the chance to spend some time in another city learning new things and meeting new people.   I find it hard to believe that it would be easier for me to travel to Israel to rediscover my “birthright” than it would be for me to travel to Chicago to discover my “workright”.    Isn’t it about time that we changed that?

San Diego, will I ever see you again?

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