Friday, October 3, 2014

The Ultimate Container Ship

How big can they build a container ship? Big enough so it can't dock in any U.S. port. Check out the video from the New York Times below. The Mary Maersk requires only 27 crewmen to operate the 1300-foot behemoth.  The automation on the bridge and in the engine room is a key part of why so there are so few crew. I can imagine a lot more unemployed seamen as ships of this size become more common. But as consumers, we love the low prices we get from cheap transportation of goods from the manufacturer to the market.

Video: Behemoth at Sea

Friday, January 10, 2014

Futures Past

Isaac Asimov
Recently, I came across a post at Open Culture that referred to an article Isaac Asimov had written for the New York Times in 1964. Asimov, a prolific writer (he published over 500 books and 90,000 letters) is best remembered for his science-fiction. His Times article was motivated by his visit to General Electric's pavilion at the New York's World Fair. If we had made so much progress in the last fifty years, what would the world be like in fifty more - in 2014? So how well did Dr. Asimov predict our lives today?

Some highlights from his article:

  • We should be living mostly underground to both stabilize our living environment and leave the surface mostly available to feed the exploding population which has grown to 6.5 billion people (our current population is actually 7.1 billion people).  (Score: Close on the population, off on the root cellars.)
  • Further population growth is being controlled mostly by limiting births (Score: Check, see link above.)
  • We are living with more gadgetry to do our mundane tasks (Score: Check).
  • We are still waiting for the robots that will simplify our lives (Score: Check). 
  • Some needs, like language translation by machine, are now commonplace (Check).
  • Our appliances are cordless and run on atomic power (Score: Only partly right. Some cordless gear but nada to atomic power).
  • Conventional highway transportation is past its peak and new levitation roads are making an appearance (Score: no points for this one).
  • Some vehicles can now get to their destinations without a driver at the controls (Score: Check. Think Google's autonomous driving vehicles).
  • We can now talk on our phones and see the person at the same time (Score: Check. Think Skype, FaceTime.)
  • Unmanned exploration vehicles have landed on Mars (Score: Check. Curiosity anyone?).
  • Our televisions are now flat screens hung on our walls (Score: Check).
  • Our routine jobs are now done better by a machine in almost every case. We are now mostly a race of machine tenders. (Score: Check. Think ATMs, scanners at checkouts).
  • All high school students are being taught computer languages and binary arithmetic. (Score: Only partly right. Certainly, students know their smart phones and Google).
  • We are suffering from a gigantic case of boredom and psychiatry is the largest medical specialty. (Score: Partial credit for this one. Most people are probably more anxious than bored. Psychiatrists are busy but no more than usual).  

Asimov concludes his article by stating:

"The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they will do more than serve a machine. Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!"

My spin might be that he was partially right about the Creative Class. Some of the most creative activity has been financial - mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations to name just two.  Unfortunately, this type of creativity managed to create a Great Recession which almost brought the world's economy to the brink of collapse.

As for the world of leisure, as he was thinking of the people of 2014 who no longer worked, perhaps he mistook enforced leisure for long-term unemployment? Work is a glorious word for those who have been able to find it after being laid off for six months or more.

I suspect that if Asimov were alive today, he would be reticent to prognosticate about 2064. The rate of technical change continues to accelerate. Predictions of our future just ten years down the road are getting more difficult.  But for all the technical change, the real drivers of our future will be the social and political issues which will reshape our landscape.  And not all change is for the better.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Art and Technology

Art and technology share common roots - creativity and imagination.  While technology expresses itself more in objects of utility, art captures and creates objects of beauty. Often, technology is not only useful but beautiful. Both technologists and artists have known this for millennia. Think of Leonardo's beautiful drawings of his many inventions.

Google continues to try to document the world and bring it to our desktop, tablet, and smartphone. One of their more recent explorations is the Google Cultural Institute which aims to bring some of the finest works of art from the world's museums to the internet. I thought it would be fitting from time-to-time to highlight a few of the art works found on the Cultural Institute website that depict the world of technology as seen by the artist. Let's start with two works from the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK.  Newcastle has long been one of the great industrial and shipping areas of the UK and it is not surprising that artists have captured this activity in their art.

Here are two examples that depict the history of Newcastle. The Tyne Bridge was modeled after the Hell Gate Bridge of 1916 in New York.

(Click on images to obtain larger view.)

On The Tyne - Shipbuilding
Thomas William Pattison

The Building of the Tyne Bridge
Edmund Montgomery O'Rourke Dickey

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 - It Was A Very Good Year

It has been almost exactly a year since my last post at the close of 2012. As my title suggests, this last year has been busy and productive but without any posts to Tech Almanac. What gives?

In 2013, I stepped away from posting in the blog to develop and complete a feature-length documentary. The subject of this documentary was not even related to technology - unless you call the Nazi's search for efficiency in the extermination of Jews and other so-called Undesirables a topic in technology.

My journey began with a conversation over dinner with new friends, Bill and Paulette Terwilliger. Paulette was born in 1942 in Paris to Jewish parents. That simple fact provides the impetus for a story of survival and heroism.  Paulette's mother, Rose, was 21-years old when she gave birth to Paulette. Rose was alone in Paris. Her husband was already in a French prison for trying to find a place of safety in the south of France for his family. Rose's parents and brothers had been arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Rose somehow escaped the ever-increasing roundups and had to make her way to safety on her own. A Catholic grandmother in a tiny village in southwest France had agreed to hide Rose and Paulette for the duration of war.   You can see a trailer for the documentary here:

The full documentary runs 82 minutes. I have submitted it to four film festivals around the country for consideration. I am hoping that at least one of them chooses to show it. I won't know until late January or early February.

Having now finished that project, I hope to find more time to return to posting here at the Tech Almanac.  I love sharing my thoughts on technology and its impacts on the world. This is not to say I won't be spending a great deal of time on new documentary projects. I already have three ideas in the hopper - one of which is even technology related! The common link between the blog and the docs is the stories and ideas that capture my attention.

Best wishes for a wonderful 2014.

Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 - A Year of Wild Weather

While weather is not exactly a technology, tracking the weather most definitely is. I am a big fan of the Weather Underground website.  If you haven't seen it, you should check it out at this link. There is also a mobile app for your smart phone that gives an abbreviated version of the data. I use it mostly for live radar in my local area.

Weather Underground produced a summation video for weather in the U.S. during 2012.  The video is worth a look.

Massive droughts, wildfires, distorted temperature patterns, tornado outbreaks, hurricanes - 2012 brought them all. Severe weather is becoming the norm rather than the exception. I think we better get used to it. There can be little doubt that our climate is changing.

Meteorological technology improvement becomes all the more critical as the weather becomes more extreme. If it were not for the early warnings provided before a tornado outbreak or Hurricane Sandy's deadly landfall, the death toll would have been much higher. NOAA's weather satellites are getting old and need to be replaced.  The Hurricane Hunter aircraft are decades old. I don't ever plan to fly into a hurricane but I surely wouldn't want to do it on one of those old birds.

Let's all hope that 2013 is a year with fewer meteorological catastrophes. We need a bit of a breather.