Reading _Soonish_, part 3: from augmented reality to precision medicine

Today we continue our reading of Soonish, a look at some future technologies, written and illustrated by Kelly and Zack Weinersmith.  In this post we’ll explore and discuss chapters 7-9, which shift from digital technology to the life sciences by covering augmented reality, synthetic biology, and precision medicine.

Please add your thoughts, questions, answers, and more in comments, or wherever else you like.  After all, our distributed book club is working away.  Last week’s post saw a bunch of comments from a wide range of perspectives and commentators, including Kelly Weinersmith.  And Britt Watwood wrote up a fine blog post,  Keep ’em coming!

Remember that all blog posts on Soonish, including this one, are available under the single tag /soonish/.  That way you can check out previous posts and discussion for reference, and also if you come late to the schedule.


Chapter 7: Augmented Reality

Here we shift from robots to sensory technologies, focusing in on augmented reality, or AR.  The chapter begins by showing AR as virtuality reality’s inverse, then describes many current projects and likely uses, such as the DAQRI Smart Helmet:

The authors address a series of key AR concepts like registration (166) and the shift from purpose-built AR devices to smartphones (169).  They go on to explore potential problems like “diminished reality” and friction between people over what AR content can be associated with which physical locations (181-2).

Educational uses in both formal teaching and informal learning loom large (176, 183ff), which gratifies me, since I’ve been telling people about since 2001 or so.

There is also an AR app for Soonish based on a key concept from an earlier chapter:

There is also a wild and silly digression into nostrils and binasality.

PS: remember that the Digital Bodies site and team are the go-to place and people for AR, VR, and MR in education.

Chapter 8: Synthetic Biology

SoonishThis section focuses on genetic engineering and other biohacking approaches.

It begins with an introduction to DNA and RNA, then cites a series of present-day examples of helpful ways to edit biology, including gene drives (201), using bacteria to gather bodily information (203), and tricking microbes into generating fuel (208).  We’re also introduced to CRISPR (212); more on that below/in the next chapter.

We also learn about iGEM, a biohacking contest for students, which sounds awesome (216), and get updated on the possibilities of hacking extinct organisms back to life (221).

Chapter 9: Precision Medicine

Now we start to shift away from digital hardware and software to the life sciences, or from “Stuff” to… “You”, as the book proclaims in its table of contents.  This chapter addresses new ways of more precisely conducting medical treatment.

The Weindersmiths start off with how we currently derive information from the human body, including the emergent field of biomarkers (230), and what we know about genetic diseases, before plunging into CRISPR’s possibilities for editing DNA and humanity.

[T]he cool thing about CRISPR is that it’s a general tool for fixing genetic disorders.  Any disease that is caused by one or more genetic mutations should be vulnerable to this method of targeted gene edits.  If CRISPR ends up being a silver bullet for gene problems, you could fire it at Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. (237)

The chapter also dives into new cancer diagnoses and treatments (238ff), featuring uses of MicroRNA (239), T cells (242), and improved metabolic information (244-5).  Therapies might start to come down in price (254).  Ultimately, “[p]recision medicine may give us a way to bring the dreams of the age of magic and make them a reality in the age of science.” (256)

Naturally there are potential problems.  As with digital technology, governments, and businesses, precision medicine gives rise to privacy abuses and grim insurance responses (250-1).

Thoughts and questions

  1. I wonder why the Weinersmiths focused more on augmented than virtual reality.  Has VR arrived more thoroughly, or is it just less likely to have major impacts on the world?
  2. Chapter 8 briefly endorses genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for food, arguing that their benefits can be crucial for “provid[ing] more calories and vitamins to poor communities” (221).  Do you agree?
  3. While precision medicine can lead to privacy nightmares, one response is to turn control over biodata back to individuals, as with the Personal Genome project (252-3).  Is this a realistic strategy?
  4. Which of this week’s reading’s technologies strike you as most likely to benefit the world?  Also, which scare you the most?

One more thought: I’m amazed that this book manages to accessibly cover a wide range of seriously complex science while making me laugh.  A lot.

Next week we’ll complete Soonish by reading the final three chapters, namely chapters 10 (Bioprinting), 11 (Brain-Computer Interfaces), and 12 (Conclusion).

Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or on whichever Web-based platform you prefer!

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Some of this week’s stories for the future of education

As some people head off to the weekend, here are some stories that point to possible futures for education and technology.  I’d like to draw your attention to rising income inequality, internet of things problems, and the transformation of a media villain into a hero.

ITEM: The wealthiest Americans, the ones soaring away from the rest of us, have also reached down quite energetically to share some of their wealth.  Yes, philanthropic giving is on the rise, according to a new report.   And by “those wealthiest Americans” the Chronicle of Philanthropy means billionaires, the “superrich.”

The median annual giving by the 50 most generous donors last year reached $97 million — nearly double what it was in 2000, the first year The Chronicle conducted its Philanthropy 50 analysis — even after adjusting for inflation. Collectively, this group of philanthropists gave away $14.7 billion — the largest total since 2008, when the Great Recession began to strait-jacket philanthropy. It’s also the third-largest in the 18-year history of the survey.

Note the generational transition, which is very important:

The 2017 giving spree was fueled by huge donations from many relatively young major philanthropists who are still accumulating great wealth — and who are likely to make big gifts for years to come.

That has not been the case with previous Philanthropy 50 spikes, when multiple bequests or the largess of a single donor drove the number higher.

For educators – and I mean not only higher ed, but those working in museums, public libraries, and other cultural heritage organizations – this reminds us once more of the vital importance of the “superrich” for our funding purposes.  They have been important for a while; that’s just going to become more so.   Consider the implications for fundraising, recruitment, outreach…

ITEM: a Gizmodo article on an internet-of-things home, or “smarthome,” has made the rounds due to its catalog of problems.  To begin with, the authors, Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu, identify a major security problem at the ISP level, as those firms has check out an awful lot of traffic, much of which is unsecured.  So does the router:


There are plenty of basic operating problems, ranging from electrical power issues (one house didn’t have enough power outlets) to unpredictable device pinging to poor interoperability:

I had to download 14 different apps to my phone to control everything, which meant creating an account for each one of those apps. (Yes, my coffeemaker has a log-in and a very long terms of service agreement.)

Once more the vertical stacks assert themselves, staking out information stovepipes.

The article is also revelatory for the ways people imagine smarthomes.  For example, a mix of science fiction and fantasy power fantasies:

Why? Why would I do this? … It was appealing to imagine living like the Beast in the Disney movie, with animated objects around my home taking care of my every need and occasionally serenading me.

Also, the assertion of either class privilege, the aspirational American Dream, or simply dreaming oneself into the plutocracy: “Thanks to the Internet of Things, I could live in my very own tech-mediated Downton Abbey. That’s the appeal of smart homes for most people…”  i.e., it’s a dream of aristocratic power.  They aren’t thinking about living as a manor house’s waitstaff or scullery maid.

The article offers another crucial issue concerning the social unfolding of the IoT:

Getting a smart home means that everyone who lives or comes inside it is part of your personal panopticon, something which may not be obvious to them because they don’t expect everyday objects to have spying abilities.

In short, we could assess this is a technology or technology movement in its early days, and watch to see the race between its improvement curve and public patience.  We could also view it as another instance of expanding dataveillance.  Alternatively, we can see this as the vertical stack technology business model growing in new domains.

In education, we can scope out how all of this plays in residences as one model for how the IoT deploys within institutions.

Cinema break: enjoy Jaques Tati struggling with a smart home a half-century ago,

ITEM: a Buzzfeed article argues that Rupert Murdoch’s reputation is changing, which matters very much for technology.  While once many media people saw Murdoch as a crass and/or dangerous capitalist, it turns out that some are starting to favor him as a counterbalance to Facebook and Google.  “[T]he 2016 election changed everything”, argue Steven Perlberg and Mark Di Stefano.  As Murdoch properties fight Facebook and Google, they become nigh unto heroic.

This matters in terms of media – specifically, journalism – but is also important as an example of how the social media wars are largely being fought.  As I’ve written previously, the rising wave of anxiety about Silicon Valley continues to unfurl as a largely intra-elite battle.  It’s not so much about brave scholars and lone critics, but more about struggles between giant businesses and very, very wealthy people.

Villains and heroes, broken smarthomes, generous rich people: a few present currents to watch as they push into the future.  Datapoints for trends to observe carefully.

(thanks to Jesse Walker for a link)

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Updates on the New Media Consortium bankruptcy: a purchase, an intervention, and possibilities

Here’s an update on the New Media Consortium bankruptcy story (and here are my previous posts, if you’d like to catch up).  Several important things have happened over the past week.

Yesterday EDUCAUSE successfully acquired the NMC’s intellectual property.  The organization’s president, John O’Brien, posted about this last night after the court action:  “I’m pleased to share with you that today the court accepted our offer, agreeing that it was in the best interests of the organization and the NMC community.”

That purchase assigns additional NMC intellectual property to EDUCAUSE, beyond Horizon.  EDUCAUSE filed a clarification with the court, clearly naming several other assets:

All of NMC’s interest in all current, past, and archived research, publications, and completed/partially completed projects, including but not limited to the NMC Horizon Project and all ‘Horizon Reports’ all Technology Outlooks, all Strategic Briefs, and all iterations thereof…

The bankruptcy case is still proceeding, from what I can tell.  PACER lists the case as “Pending status: Awaiting Trustee’s Report”.  Outstanding debts remain, as they weren’t part of the EDUCAUSE purchase, as far as I can tell.

Also on February 14th, the Consortium For School Networking (CoSN) filed a motion asking the court to state if they were selling the K-12 Horizon Report to EDUCAUSE.  CoSN helped produce several K-12 editions (for example, the 2016 and 2017 editions).  In fact, in their view, and here I’m quoting from court filings, NMC “granted CoSN an unlimited license to use the 2016 K-12 Horizon Report in perpetuity.”  Indeed, CoSN asked the court to name that report, “including the 2016 and 2017 K-12 Horizon Reports or future reports”, as “CoSN Intellectual Property”, and also to tell EDUCAUSE not to abuse their trademark.

A few thoughts: as I’ve said elsewhere, EDUCAUSE is doing a very good thing here by saving Horizon and the other reports from either disappearing or being bought by a bad actor.  Bravo!

CoSN’s filing: I don’t know enough about that collaboration to assess the claim’s merits.  I can imagine the Horizon heritage splitting into two parts, now, with K-12 owned by CoSN (should they purchase it, or just successfully assert they own it already) and post-secondary being in EDUCAUSE’s domain.  I don’t know if other entities will follow suit to carve up other Horizon domains, such as nations or professions.

Shrinkage: it looks like the ed tech world’s professional development sphere is down one organization.  A few years ago, it lost another when NITLE (where I once worked) died.  Possibly we’re following the arc I wondered about in December, whereby the number and scale of professional organizations shrinks.

FOECast: we’re still working.  I will have an announcement about an exciting event on this front shortly.

Oh, I should probably add these disclaimers, based on some rumors going around, and on potential whispers:

  • I am not a lawyer.  I have consulted with law schools and researched the profession as part of my futures work, but have not attended a law school.  I do seek legal advice from around a dozen smart lawyers. I do know some brutal lawyer jokes. In following this story, I’m doing the best I can, and welcome all input, criticism, and advice.
  • I learn about these things through the open web, and by poking around the official PACER court documents site (which does charge me copying fees for every pdf page I examine).  This is the research anyone can do.
  • The CoSN move doesn’t connect with me, as I never worked on the K-12 reports.  I did work on Horizon for many years, and also helped produced some of the other documents now named in the suit, like the 2017 digital literacy briefing.
  • I am not an NMC employee (which would be hard to do in any case, since they’re being liquidated), nor do I attempt to represent the NMC organization or its staff or board members. (Here’s my repeated disclaimer.)

That’s all for now.  More updates as things progress.

What do you make of it all?

(via Taylor Kendall)

Posted in professional development | Tagged | 10 Comments

What if the United States decided to cancel all student debt?

What would happen if the United States decided to cancel all student debt?

A Bard College economics research team (Scott Fullwiler, Stephanie Kelton, Catherine Ruetschlin, and Marshall Steinbaum) decided to explore what such a bold near-term future could look like in “The  Macroeconomic Effects of Student Debt Cancellation” (pdf).  Their research is detailed, relying on several powerful macroeconomic models and a good amount of data.

The tl;dr result?  It’s a good idea for the country, for debtholders and non- alike.  “Student debt cancellation results in positive macroeconomic feedback effects as average households’ net worth and disposable income increase, driving new consumption and investment spending.”  They find other, noneconomic benefits as well.

Let’s break things down.

First, why would America do such a thing?  For some of us this is an obviously bright idea, but the authors do a good job of summing up the debt crisis and its problems, concluding that “the current policy of encouraging the expansion of debt-financed higher education has been a failure, and therefore a radical departure is in order.”

Second, how might it play out?

The researchers rely on two well known economic simulations, one developed by Moody’s (the U.S. Macro Forecast Model) and another generated by Yale economist Ray Fair, including the Fair-Parke app.  Both of these are new to me, and pretty fascinating.  The authors ran different simulations based on varied inputs and responses, such as taking into account how the federal Reserve might react.

Running these sims for a ten year timeline, the team found that the economy would receive a beneficial shot from freed-up money in the hands of today’s borrowers.

the income that households would have devoted to servicing their loans is now available for households to spend, save, or borrow against… [and] borrowers currently servicing student loans will feel as if their net wealth has increased…

The key result would likely be economic growth: “The most likely range for the total increase in real GDP (in 2016 dollars) is estimated to be between $861 billion and $1,083 billion for the entire 10-year period (or $86 billion to $108 billion per year, on average).”

Debt Cancellation: GDP rise

(Note the grey bars pointing down for the last few years.  The authors don’t think that’s likely. See below.)

Alongside helping GDP, debt cancellation would help reduce unemployment a little. “Unemployment rates could fall by about 0.22 to 0.36 percent- age points on average over the entire period [ten years].“  Indeed, “[p]eak job creation in the first few years following the elimination of student loan debt adds roughly 1.2 million to 1.5 million new jobs per year.”

There would be some costs, although the authors are sanguine about them.  Inflation could tick upwards, but “[i]nflationary effects appear to be small and macroeconomically insignificant. “  Interest rates might nudge up, or not: “Interest rates rise modestly, if at all.”

More significantly, the federal government would have to spend to address the cancellations, meaning a boost to the deficit and debt: “the deficit effects include increased [federal] government debt service.”   However, “[t]he cancellation’s impact on the federal government’s budget is, on average, modest, with a de cit impact of 0.65 to 0.75 percent of GDP”.  On top of that, American state governments would actually see their financial situations improve, due to the overall improvement in the general economy: “the debt cancellation leads budget positions to improve at the state level as a result of the stronger macroeconomy”.   In fact, “the improvement in state budgets offset by about one- fifth the net [federal] budgetary effects”.

Debt Cancellation: state budgets

The report goes on to generate some “additional benefits of student debt cancellation” that Moody’s and Fair don’t display, “from increases in business formation, college attainment, household formation, and credit scores, to reduced economic vulnerability for some households.”

Here’s a key detail.  The authors don’t posit harm to the private financial sector.  Instead, their assumption is that “student debt cancellation…[means]  the federal government either purchases and cancels or takes over the payments for privately owned loans.”

The paper also addresses a number of issues and concerns, including the problem of such a cancellation being regressive (wealthy people tend to own a bit more debt than do the poor), the changing nature of borrowers (now more likely to be adults), the limits of models, and so on.

There are plenty of caveats here.  The preexisting models can’t really simulate effects by age, gender, or class (“the simulated macroeconomic impacts for both models are ‘general’ or ‘average’ in the sense that they assume that the increase in net wealth and reduced debt service benefits the entire household sector, not specific components of the household sector”).  The simulations disagree with each other, Fair being more optimistic than Moody’s.  And there isn’t any political analysis here about how such a program might be implemented, or the likelihood thereof, which we can discuss.

I leave this report with two questions.  First, is the modeling correct or unrealistic?  Second, if it’s reasonably accurate… why shouldn’t we do this?

Posted in future of education, gaming | 15 Comments

Reading _Soonish_, part 2: friendly nuclear power and robots

Today we continue our reading of Soonish, a look at some future technologies, written and illustrated by Kelly and Zack Weinersmith.  In this post we’ll explore and discuss chapters 4-6, covering new forms of power, robots, and construction.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the reading schedule.  And here are all posts about Soonish to date.

Reader activity has started to appear across the web.  If you’re new to our online book club, people contribute various reactions and thoughts in various venues.  For example, a bunch of folks responded to last week’s post in comments.  Many applauded the book’s pedagogy, citing examples with approval.  Others poked into the science, wondering how applications might play out.  Delightfully, one of Soonish‘s authors, Kelly Weinersmith, wrote generously in response to other commentators.

On Twitter many comments popped up.  My favorite was this one from Joe Murphy (Kenyon College):

Please add your thoughts, questions, answers, and more in comments, on Twitter, on your blog, Google+, or wherever else you like.


4: Fusion Power

With this chapter the book shifts from technologies for space travel to those for manipulating stuff mostly on Earth, starting with a dive into what could be the next major transformation of power generation.  It takes time to explain how fusion works, using a hilarious metaphor of nerds dating, and then to show different ways that primordial power could be harnessed productively.

Projects include (“welcome to the wonderful world of ‘table top nuclear fusion'”) (!), ITER, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), and General Fusion, plus the historically fascinating Project Plowshare.  The conclusion?  Fusion is very, very hard to control, but could, if successfully wrangled, offer a wide range of benefits.

Here’s one of the videos they recommend about a successful Soviet use of an atomic weapon to create a lake:

5: Programmable Matter


Here the Weinersmiths take us into the world of being able to add software logic to physical objects.  This is one way of talking about robots, of course, but also a way of rethinking other objects as robots: paper, furniture, houses.  It’s also a different way of thinking about the Internet of Things.

Projects mentioned include Interactive Robogami, Roombots, the Animated Work Environment (AWE),  swarming little robots, Kilobots, and the splendidly named Bucket of Stuff.

Assessment: the authors seem to see a lot of work being done in this field, with some fascinating benefits, but also a large number of scary downsides.

6: Robotic Construction

This builds on (ahem) the previous chapter by emphasizing the use of software and robots to construct buildings.  Some projects here are extensions of 3d printing, such as Contour Crafting.  Others involve purpose built machines, such as robotic bricklayers, tiny robots, and drones plus tiny robots.  The chapter closes with an exploration of food printing.

Concerns about robot building tie into other concerns about automation and inequality, in addition to worries about 3d printing and waste.  The advantages connect with the refugee crisis, among other benefits.

Thoughts and questions

  1. Have you seen any academic work on these subjects, either by faculty, students, or both?
  2. Do these chapters seem more optimistic than those from last week?
  3. ” ” ” ” ” likely to be realized ” ” ” ” ” ?
  4. What questions do you have for the authors?

Next week we’ll move on to chapters 7 (Augmented Reality), 8 (Synthetic Biology), and 9 (Precision Medicine).

Remember that all blog posts on Soonish, including this one, are available under the single tag  That way you can check out previous posts and discussion for reference, and also if you come late to the schedule.

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Turning 51: entering the quinquagenarian age

Yesterday I turned 51 years old.  After writing about a milestone birthday last year, I thought I’d follow up this year.  Consider it an attempt to look at one’s life head on, or a snapshot of a certain stage in life, or an experiment in autobiography.

So where do I stand, this side of the half-century mark?  I want to look at the past year, and ahead.

51… it’s strange, as it means I am now in my fifties, in that new decade, that mode of life, that phase.  I’m not sure what to make of it.  My 30s and 40s were a bit more accessible as I waded in, being about real adulthood and middle age, respectively.  The 50s feels like my 20s, an amorphous cloud of getting older.

Talking to people also in their 50s doesn’t help much.  Around half are deeply concerned with their (as they see it) impending retirement, which doesn’t work for me.  For one, I’m still not convinced I’ll be able to retire (not enough money, the chance of social service cutbacks).  For another, these people speak longingly of their post-work (or post full time work) life, mentally withdrawing from their present concerns either implicitly or explicitly.  “Ah, I won’t have to worry about [important thing X] because I’ll be retired by them,” is a common refrain, expressed with mixture of awkwardness and delight.  I can’t connect with that, since I’m so deeply immersed in my professional life.

The other half say little about being in their 50s, and instead just keep going.  Sometimes they mention getting older as a general thing, not tied to a specific life epoch.  I feel more sympathy with this point of view, but don’t learn much.

Instead of talking with peers, I can compare the quinquagenarian reality against cultural expectations. So far some things about heading past 50 are not far removed from what I’ve been led to expect.  Others veer from the norm. Continue reading

Posted in personal | 26 Comments

A creepy discussion thread, or a fine example of web creativity

Tomorrow is my birthday, and one way I’d like to celebrate is by doing something Gothic.  Like last year, when we went to the Lizzie Borden House bed and breakfast.

(If you don’t know me well, I’ve long studied Gothic lit.  That was the subject of my dissertation, some articles, two book projects, probably the most popular class I ever taught, one chronic blog, another epic blog, etc.  The Gothic and creepy stories are also a passion my wife and I share; our first date was in a cemetery, and we hope to lead a Gothic Road Trip expedition at some point.)

So being a web-centric person, I crowdsourced a question last week on the Vermont Reddit board:

What’s the creepiest spot in Vermont? from vermont

It’s normally a fairly quiet board – recall that Vermont only has just over 600,000 people, and is not a very high tech place. But this query must have come at the right time, or hit a long-buried desire, because people really cut loose, firing off 82 comments, as of this writing.

It’s a nice example of digital creativity, digital storytelling, and of a mixture of attitudes with humor.

To begin with, many people simply answered the question with good suggestions, like Satan’s Kingdom (a weird name for a small bit of a local town), Emily’s Bridge (probably the most famous such spot in the state), the so-called Bennington Triangle (multiple disappearances),the Black Cemetery in Berlin (pronounced BER-lin), the Brunswick Springs (said to be cursed), an abandoned Air Force base, and the supposedly lethal Black Agnes statue in Montpelier.

People also offered more sarcastic answers, such as the state capitol, or simply the town of Barre, or “Food City in St Albans” (“those donuts tho” “I love Food City! It’s like shopping in 1986” “Once you get used the weird smell. And don’t forget to check dates.”).  At least one was directly about real darkness: “Basically any methadone clinic.”

Some offered their own stories: made up or recollected? Hard to say:

[–]illones1985 6 points 

43°03’48.7″N 72°32’29.2″W

heard a little girl’s voice crying for her daddy at 2am come from the direction of the coordinates. there’s also an old legend about the town where this girl died in a barn fire, i believe.

Bonus: there’s a grave in the cemetary from way back when(1700’s) that we ever only found once that had a curse written on it(something along the lines of “don’t cry on my grave or i’ll come kill you”).


One posted an observation about a local marsh, and other people chimed in to explore it.

Another is either sincere, pure fiction, or a riff on some famous creepypasta:

[–]rangerscoop 4 points 

There’s that lone staircase at the base of Mount Moosalamoo on the Green Mountain NF. That’s pretty creepy. I’ve never climbed it–the hair on the back of my neck stands on end every time I’ve been near it… the stairway is alone just to the northeast of the mountain. Don’t go there. It’s awful.

Someone mentioned Smuggler’s Notch, a major mountain pass.  I asked why, and others had fun, Vermont style:

Following up one suggestion led me to the awesomely named Popple Dungeon Road (of which Vermont has two, somehow).

Why am I sharing all of this?  Partly because it’s intrinsically entertaining, at least for certain readers.  It’s not for everyone.  Horror has always been both popular and disdained, a kind of subterranean, marginal taste.

I’m also drawing attention to this Reddit story as a positive example of people using social media for collaborative creativity.  In a time when the rage is to attack social media for enabling all kinds of terrible stuff, it’s important to recall that, at the same time, people also use it for benign, even productive purposes.

(this post is for Jim Groom)

Posted in digitalstorytelling | Tagged | 1 Comment

I am on another podcast, and it’s good

Last month I had the good fortune to be interviewed on the Research in Action podcast, produced by Oregon State University’s ECampus Research Unit.

Click here for the whole thing, or just play below:

Be sure to stick around for the bonus shout-out to Ceredwyn Alexander!

Katie Linder was the host, which was fair play, since we had her as a guest on the Future Trends Forum a few weeks ago.  Recording is on the way!

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Quick thoughts on the Falcon Heavy launch

Yesterday SpaceX conducted a test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket.  The launch was successful, and two of the three boosters returned successfully.  The payload is apparently headed towards the asteroid belt.

Here is one good video:

A few quick thoughts with my futurist’s hat on:

Geeking out To confess, I’m a longlong space nerd.  I remember as a child watching several Apollo missions on live tv, while building rockets out of Tinkertoys and Legos.  I’ve never lost this love, and carry it on as a pro-space futurist.  For me this nerdery is a combination of personal delight and professional assessment.

I usually resist generalizing from my personal experience, but there are a bunch of folks like me.  Looking forward, this might become a kind of pro-space cadre, an active minority who back such efforts thanks to our vision (or obsession).  At least one teacher celebrated the launch for passing the spacefaring torch to a new generation of kids:

The Falcon Heavy launch openly played to the space nerds.  Not only did we get Douglas Adams referenced in the payload, but said payload – a car delivered to orbit, and viewable live on YouTube (seriously) – was obviously an homage to Heavy Metal (1981)’s opening scene:

Speaking of inspired landings, the booster’s landing on tail fins?  It’s a 1950s echo, for those who recall science fiction of that era.  As some have commented, it’s a landing “like God and Robert Heinlein intended.”

The private sector and plutocracy This is a spectacular example of the private sector picking up from the public domain, at least in the United States.  As NASA continues to drift*, businesses have the opportunity to step in.  We could consider this a form of neoliberalism, especially as firms benefit from NASA and other publicly funded research, and as the federal government acquiesces.

It’s also a sign of plutocracy’s growth.  Musk, a billionaire, can make these things happen mostly because he’s interested in it.  The 21st century’s version of the Gilded Age’s “titans of industry” now have that combination of clout, independence, and social acceptance.

Note the Robert Heinlein reference above, and recall that he was an enthusiastic champion of private space exploration.  In the 1950 film Destination Moon that Heinlein helped create it’s a business that takes humans to Luna, not the government.

Will the private sector build up its lead and become the dominant force in 21st century space exploration?  Musk just called for a new space race. I can imagine SpaceX competing with nations (China) but especially other businesses, like Blue Origin, the creation of Jeff Bezos, apparently the world’s richest human.  Here’s a sign of that over on Twitter:

Will national governments catch up?  The new space race could well be a private-public competition.

More automation Although the middle boost (“center core”) failed to land successfully, note its putative destination: an autonomous ship at sea.  Having robots play major roles in a big engineering project is now par for the course.

Race and gender The cliche of space has long been that it’s primarily a male thing, with a side order of whiteness.  I’m surprised that there’s been little critique of the launch, or of SpaceX in general, from this perspective (Madeline Buxton offered one).  It’s easy enough to remember the 2014 Philae lander/sexist t-shirt story, or to find images like this from yesterday:

SpaceX launch crowd

Screengrab from video above.

So will such critique emerge, and enter the (private) space effort into the culture wars’ lists?  Already many red states celebrate space, like Alabama and Texas, where critical facilities are located.  In contrast, progressives and Democrats have disappointed me for years with their lack of space enthusiasm.  Recall, too, that space privatization really took off under Democratic president Obama. Could blue states or progressives elsewhere launch a charge to reform, restrict, or nationalize SpaceX?  Or should we instead expect a cultural revolution within the (private) space effort, echoing earlier NASA drives for gender and racial diversity?

Which brings me to…

Nationalism and internationalism I expect that the successful Falcon Heavy test fills many Americans with pride.  Taking off from Cape Canaveral’s launch pad 39 surely gave some bouts of nostalgia.  Perhaps some see this as a way for American to return to its space race leadership position, this time alongside not the USSR, but China, India, and Europe.  After all, a call to recapture national pride has long been part of the 20th century’s space race, from the United States to the Soviet Union (check this book).

Unsurprisingly, president MAGA tweeted out nationalistically:

And yet this was only partially an American effort.  Recall that Elon Musk, for all of his American business work, was born in South Africa and had (does he still have?) Canadian citizenship.  Yes, the Tesla is an American car, but it was named after a famed Serbian inventor, and launched to the tune of a British pop star, while a British science fiction writer’s slogan (“DON’T PANIC”) festooned the dashboard.  If we look at yesterday hard, we see a border-crossing event, at least among Anglophonic nations.  Perhaps this transnationalism is the next way forward for space exploration.

That’s enough for now.  What do you make of yesterday’s launch?

*Drift: yes, the robot space exploration enterprise is fantastic, as is exoplanet discovery.  Don’t get me wrong; I love ’em.  I’m instead referring to the stall for human spaceflight, and the presidentially-driven flopping around of strategic direction since 2000 (let’s go to Mars! or get an asteroid! or return to the moon! or do nothing! or go to Mars!).

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Reading blogs in 2018: thoughts and things to do

So are blogs dead in 2018, or are they a viable part of the web?

To find out I decided to exploit my friends reach out to my social networks to see what kind of blog activity they were currently up to.  I only asked about reading blogs, not writing them, because those are two very different behaviors.

Overall, blog reading is still a going concern, at least among the people who respond to my social media queries.

Breaking it down: I fired off a Twitter poll, and the results were balanced:

Twitter poll on reading blogs

So the leading consumption pattern was people reading individual blog posts, rather than following whole blogs.  They also had to be pointed in the right direction, presumably via social media, email, friends, etc.  I’m reminded of how music downloads shifted from albums to songs.

Now, I asked the same question on Facebook, and the results were fairly similar.

Do you read blogs?
A) Not at all.  (4 picked this one)
B) I read some posts, if I’m directed to them. (31)
C) I read some regularly. (14)
D) Yes, through an RSS reader. (17)

Again, people read individual posts when nudged.

I launched the same poll on Google+ (thanks to George Station for nudging me there), and the results were a bit different:

Google+ poll on blog reading

Yes, the leading response was people using RSS readers.  It might be that I have unusually geeky G+ fans, or that G+ weirdly attracts people who like the old web.

Over on LinkedIn, there were fewer responses, typically.  They reflected the G+ poll.  Out of six responses, one didn’t read blogs any longer, and was regretful. One read fewer blogs.  Four still read blogs through RSS readers, and some of them are technology professionals.  One of the latter was quite passionate:

Zach Chandler I still read blogs, and use an RSS reader (Feedly) regularly! I think FB/Twitter and other closed content networks are deleterious to the open web, and if we want to keep it open, we have to make information consumption choices that support that outcome.

What can we learn from this little experiment?

For one thing, I do terrible social science.  The n here is pathetically small, and there’s nothing randomized about the population.

If there’s anything useful, it’s that blogging still lives.  The anti-blog answers came in dead last across the platforms, even on famed blog-killer Facebook.  Some people actually use RSS, while others pick individual item’s from the blogospheric buffet.

One interesting detail: Feedly was by far the most popular RSS reader.  My choice, Digg’s Reader, was scarcely in play within this group.  An Apple tool appeared once or twice.

So what does this tell us about how to proceed in the modern web?

Well, if some of us like reading blogs, perhaps it’s worth trying as a first step to RSSify as much of your world as you can.  That doesn’t mean using RSS, necessarily, but adjusting things around you to follow that principle.

For example, we can shift our Facebook feed away from the oh-so-helpful “Top Stories” algorithm lineup to the “Most Recent” setting.  If you haven’t done it, check the top left of your Facebook home page:

Facebook settings: top stories or most recent?

Second, keep following blogs you find useful.  I’m not sure how people do that today without an RSS reader.  Maybe it’s manually checking a site in a web browser, or relying on email subscriptions.  Perhaps some use a dashboard within a blog platform, like LiveJournal or WordPress or Tumblr do.  And please share some love.  Write comments, encourage other people to read good stuff, and donate, if you can.

Third – use an RSS readerFeedly apparently works for people, so give it a try if you haven’t.  I prefer Digg’s Reader, mostly because I’m a text-y kind of person, and I also read a lot of feeds.  Or try something else.  Install your own, if you’re up for that.  Whichever you pick, see if you can follow this blog there.  Yeah, I’m repeating myself – because it’s right.

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