Category Archives: Technology and Society

Two For The Price Of One

Glenn is kvetching about having to buy both types of HD players:

The prices have dropped enough that I might be able to buy this high-rated HD-DVD player and this Sony Blu-Ray player and not spend much, if any, more. On the other hand, the notion of having to buy two just bugs me somehow.

My preference, actually, is to buy two things if I have the room, and I can afford them. Bundling functions in a single unit might seem convenient and cost saving, but the problem with it is that if one component fails, you still have to either replace the entire thing, or at least replace the functionality of the part that failed. The old example would be a combination microwave/range. The microwave dies, and you not only have to go replace it, but you can’t find a stock replacement for it that will fit the range, so you have a permanently dead microwave in your kitchen, and have to take up space with the new one on or under the counter. Unless you go out and replace the entire stove, even though the range and conventional oven are just fine.

A more recent, and mundane example is these television/DVD combos. If the TV dies, it’s become a boat anchor, unless there’s a way to get the DVD output from it to bypass the TV. Plus, some of them (amazingly) are HDTVs, with standard DVDs (hopefully, they at least do up conversion). So you get instant obsolescence, built in! My (two-channel, thank you) stereo system still uses a separate pre-amp and power amp.

A risk analyst (like yours truly in his day job) would say that by increasing the complexity you’re increasing the probability of failure (can anyone say Space Shuttle? Apparently it really bugged NASA to have to buy both a launch vehicle and an orbital laboratory…)

But I suspect that bundling is the wave of the future, particularly as electronics continues to become less and less expensive (as living space becomes more so).

A Disruptive Technology

Three-dimensional home printers:

More importantly, prices for 3-D printing machines have been falling rapidly, reaching $20,000, and the day is foreseeable when they will fall below $1,000 and become home appliances, says Phil Anderson of the School of Theoretical and Applied Science at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

The results, he warned, could be economically “disruptive.”

“If you can make what you need in your own home quickly, then manufacturers become designers, with no need for factories, warehouses or shipping,” Anderson told LiveScience.

Given the drawbacks discussed in the article, I think that this is likely to be a gradual transition, that will allow time us to adapt.

Regulated To Death

Randall Parker writes about the biggest barrier to medical advances:

If you read the full article above you’ll learn that the first experimental subjects for a Novato California company were in Argentina – not exactly close by. I suspect this says something about medical regulation in America today. The Argentines were on hemodialysis for kidney failure and had what the report below characterized as “typical risk factors for end-stage renal disease”. You might expect regulatory agencies to grant greater freedom of action to try out new treatments on people who are looking death in face. But this company used subjects from another country. I fear excessive regulatory obstacles in the way of new treatment development are costing lots of lives.

I suspect that the FDA probably kills more people by delaying the introduction of new drugs and procedures than it saves. But it’s like protectionist policies and other interferences with the market–the jobs and businesses that aren’t created are an invisible consequence compared to existing jobs that are lost, and a bureaucrat is much more concerned about being blamed for a death that results from a new drug than one that results from its delay, because the latter is just a maintenance of the status quo.

Randall also has bad news about avian flu. It may be easier for it to mutate to affect humans than we thought.

Who Will Carry The Fusion Torch?

I can’t find any web confirmation of this on a quick search, but I am reliably informed that Bob Bussard died yesterday. I didn’t know that he was ill. I may have more thoughts later.

[Update a couple minutes later]

This isn’t my (direct) source, but this is the news from Jerry Pournelle.

[Tuesday morning update]

Well, there are certainly a lot of encomia in comments. I didn’t really know the man, myself. I met him once, a quarter of a century ago, at a monthly OASIS meeting in LA, where he gave a talk on his “fusion lightbulb” concept, and several of us had dinner with him afterward. Prior to that, I had only known him as the man after whom the interstellar ramjet was (appropriately, since he invented the concept) named. My brief experience matches that of commenters, though. He was an interesting, friendly man, who seemed to be attempting to accomplish great things for humanity.

And it’s sad that people don’t realize what humanitarians technologists can be. Most people think that humanitarians are only social-worker types. But whatever you think of him personally, Henry Ford revolutionized America, and gave mobility to the masses. Edison brought them light. Sam Walton (who was not a technologist, but a businessman), for all of the unfair demonization of his store chain, has helped the poor more than any social program, by making relatively high-quality (by the standards of a century ago) goods much more affordable to them.

More humanitarian technologists should be recognized as Norman Borlaug was. Perhaps, if polywell fusion pans out (and I have no opinion on the probability of that), Dr. Bussard will be as well, but it will be a shame that if so, it will be posthumously.

Talking Turkey About Human Spaceflight

On Friday, Russell Prechtl and George Whitesides respond to Steven Weinberg’s dissing of spaceflight in pursuit of science.

To sum up: Space settlement for species preservation, spinoffs, human spirit and human nature.

What are these worth? Depending on how long before the extinction event it could be anywhere from all of Earth’s discounted GDP to nearly nothing for species preservation assurance. If an extinction event is 1 in 26 million per year we can take our chances and still have an expectation of 99.99999% of our GDP next year. Spinoffs is weak. Human spirit is hard to quantify. How is ISS doing more for human spirit than Skylab or Mir? Human nature is more of a restatement of the human spirit argument that it is human nature to seek to raise the human spirit. But how? It’s not enough when someone says “ISS is worthless” to say “but if we don’t learn to live in space we’ll die!” We can learn to live in space with or without the ISS; what’s the difference?

I’m planning to take Steven Weinberg to lunch and see what he says to these arguments later this week. Let me know if there’s anything else I should ask him.