Sunday, December 16, 2012

Complexity, Entropy & Maintenance

This post is inline with three other posts I made here, here & here. They all touch on the exponential increase in complexity and the limits to the continuation of that complexity. This post is about an oft overlooked limit to complexity: Entropy and the maintenance required to counter it. The degree of complexity of a system increases the cost of maintenance. When you get to a point where the maintenance of a system consumes all available resources you can no longer increase the complexity of that system. There are many reasons why I believe we are at or close to that inflection point.

As a seasoned software developer I am always interested in reducing complexity. My many bad experiences with having to make changes to kludgy code have made me very conscious of writing clean, simple, easy to understand code. Anything I can do to reduce the amount of code or simplify how its put together makes my job easier latter on when I'm required to maintain or update it.

Many times you start out with bad code because of inexperienced or uncaring developers. Other times you start out well but over the years you accumulate layer upon layer of cruft from different updates, often by different programmers with different ideas on how the app should work. I have seen some legacy systems like this that were mission critical and yet over the years through the process of neglect and entropy they had reached the point of collapse. The same principle applies to any system. As it grows and adds layer upon layer it requires more and more maintenance to keep running. Once the maintenance required reaches a level that resources can no longer sustain, it collapses.

A system's complexity can be composed of not just its size or the number of its parts but more importantly the interconnectivity of those parts. As an example the internet is quite large expanding over six continents. It also has many different parts ranging from a handfull of DNS root servers to billions of individual server nodes and telecom cables. What makes this system really complex though is the interconnectivity of each of those nodes.

For all those pedantic Thermodynamic sticklers I am using the word entropy in a more general sense of the word to mean the tendency for things to go from an ordered state to a disordered state or, more specifically in this article, from a usable state to an unusable one. From my experience, it appears the more complex a system the greater the force of decay. This would also seem to be in harmony with the thermodyamic definition of entropy (S = K * LogW).

Every system exihibits this characteristic. From the virtual world where your codebase becomes more bug prone with each new feature to the real world where servers and fiber optic cable break down and malfunction with time and use. This constant decay makes a system less reliable and in some cases unsafe. Of course any system can be repaired or rebuilt. A codebase that is regularly refactured can stay clean and functional. Likewise a city that is regularly maintained can be kept clean and safe. The real dilema occurs when the complexity of your system has outgrown your ability to maintain it.

When a software department has more decaying systems than it does maintanence programmers to keep it tamed, it has reached a point where collapse is inevitable. The company has two choices at that point. Either it acquires more maintenance programmers, perhaps pulling them off of new development, or it has to reduce complexity by elliminating services. The third option, which unfortunately seems to be the one most often chosen, is to just keep limping along with decreasing reliability and squeezing more out of your programmers.

Like a sprawling legacy codebase that has reached critical mass, the U.S has reached a point where its urban infrastructure is so complex that the cost of maintenance has become too high to sustain. In some areas that have been recently built this may not be as noticable, but in older areas its painfully obvious.

A really critical area where this effect can be seen is the interstate highway system. Here in the united states life for the last 60 years or so has revolved around the automobile. So natuarally the increase in popluation along with that popluation's desire to drive anywhere at anytime has created a need for more road space to contain them. The result today is millions of miles of aging asphalt, bridges and tunnels.

The highway system is not the only aging system in the U.S. The sewer systems, the electric grid, dams, schools and government buildings especially in older cities are all decaying. Of course some of these systems are being repaired and rebuilt all the time. Unfortunately there aren't enough resources to keep all of them in safe working order. For that reson we are seeing reports like these more and more frequently:

NY Parks Close Due To Severe Budget Cuts
ND Asphalt Is Replaced By Cheaper Gravel 
America's Aging Bridges
America's Aging Electric Grid

Since there are strong indications we have reached a peak in resources of almost every kind, its only a mater of time before the force of entropy takes our civilization to greater and greater levels of disorder.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Wilderness Getaway

New River Mesa
Backpacking in the wilderness for a few days is a nice way to escape the anxiety of modern life. Its also a great way to renew your appreciation for the comforts and increased survivability modern life affords. When you are completely on your own with nothing more than what you can carry, you quickly realize that civilization and modern technology have their advantages.

One of the biggest reasons people get into trouble in the wilderness is they get themselves lost. There are no street signs in the wilderness. Having a topographic map and compass is a must if you are going into a remote area, but just having them isn't enough. You need to learn how to use them.  Here are two good videos to start you off: Compass Use & Navigation.

Be very careful when bushwhacking. Its easy to start off in a direction thinking you know where you're at and find yourself hopelessly lost. I make sure I turn around every so often and look back at where I've been. This helps me remember what the way back looks like. If you don't do this the path will look unfamiliar when you try to backtrack. Another method to help find your way back is to place visible markers like these.

Don't Out Hike Your Water.

Another big mistake people often make is underestimating the amount of water they will need. Water is an especially limiting factor in the Sonoran Desert. Water weighs 8.35 lbs per gallon and you can use 3 quarts or more a day. I personally can only carry up to about 50 lbs comfortably and I use the word comfortably loosely. If I used only the minimum 3 quarts per day (That means I didn't sweat much) 5 days of water would weigh 31 lbs. That doesn't leave much payload capacity for gear or food, So you better know where the streams or springs are if you plan on being out there for more than a few days.

Tonto Creek

You also need to contend with the weather. If you pack for warm weather and it turns cold or a sudden violent storm occurs with flash flooding you could be in big trouble and, keeping in mind the previously mentioned payload capacity, you obviously can't pack for every contingency.

Technology Can Be Wild.

Ironically enough, technology can actually make your escape from modern life a little easier. New lightweight materials for making tents and heat retaining sleeping bags can keep you dry and warm without weighing you down. High tech water filtration devices can make bad water drinkable. There are also many high tech electronic devices that are a valuable resource for making your get away from civilization a bit more civilized.

Some of the electronic devices that are nice to have include GPS navigators, pocket weather stations, altimeters and pedometers. One of the most valuable and versatile electronic devices you can have is your cell phone. If you need help and your in an area that's close enough to a tower you can call for help. Coincidentally many cell phones now have many of these other nice to have devices built in. I use a Casio Ravine 2 with G-Zone software. It has a compass, GPS with marking functionality, Sunset/rise times, tide chart, pedometer and thermometer. Its also ruggedized to withstand  a lot of abuse. In addition most phones today have a camera which is a great way to take pictures for your blog.

Mogollon Rim

I try to make sure I match the equipment I carry to the type and duration of the hike. On most hikes lasting more than a few hours and going more than a couple miles from my car, I carry a first aid kit and usually some emergency shelter equipment like a bivy tent and pocket sleeping bag with heat reflective foil. Additionally I make sure I have at least two methods for starting a fire and two methods of purifying water. Its also a good idea to carry some form of protection, even if its just bear spray and a buck knife.

Tonto National Forest
On my 2-3 day hikes I like to carry the same as the day hike but with a thicker bed roll, some dried food and at least 1 gallon of water per day I plan to be out, unless I know there is water where I'm going. I also make sure I have a jacket, beenie and scarf or shemagh for the cold night air and of course a compass and topographic map. Additionally its a good idea to have flashlights and a radio to hear weather reports. I have one that operates on hand crank and receives NOAA broadcasts. It also has a handy USB plug so I can charge my cell phone.

The More You Know The Less You Need.

Aside from good equipment the best thing to help you survive in the wilderness is knowledge. Being aware of how much water you're going to need, understanding what the clouds and wind are telling you about the coming weather or just having enough sense to know where and where not to pitch a tent, these skills are a must before leaving the safe and familiar urban environment you're accustomed to. You will also find the more you know, the less you need to carry.

Fig Spring
Much of this knowledge can be gained by reading books or listening to those who have experience in wilderness survival, I recommend reading any books by Cody Lundin, but you really do need to practice these skills and build up your physical stamina as well as your mental and emotional tolerance to being truly on your own before you attempt to venture to far from civilization.

Hiking in the mountains of central Arizona or whatever unspoiled land is near you is good physical exercise and mentally refreshing. It is a great way to get away from civilization and find some peace and quiet. A place where there's no email, no honking traffic, no smog and no obnoxious advertisements. However, If you're going to enjoy it and be safe, you better make sure you have the right equipment and know what you're getting yourself into.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lazy Gardening

With the recent crop failures and drought here in the United States food will soon be getting more expensive. In addition to this you may have noticed the declining quality of produce at your local market. These are very good reasons to begin a garden.

Gardening can be a lot of work, but it doesn't have to be.  Of course I'm not saying you're going to get something for nothing, like anything else in life the more you put into it the more you get out of it, but there are many things you can do to make it easier.

Lazy Gardeners Look for High Yield Crops
As a lazy gardener I look for plants that require minimum attention with maximum yield. A few plants that seem to fit this category are potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic and swiss chard. Swiss chard has been particularly successful. It doesn't seem to mind either the extreme heat, over 100° in the summer, or cold, below freezing in the winter. It literally grows like a weed. The second best is the sweet potatoes. I've been able to produce enough to overfill a five gallon bucket from one small tuber in three to four months.

Another way to make your garden less labor intensive is to set up drip and soaker hoses with automatic valve controls. I started with a twist timer that I would just turn as needed. It would flood the garden for an hour and shut off. This was nice because I would often turn on the water and then forget to turn it off. However getting a programmable timer is much better. Now I don't even have to think about it. Of course you'll still need to check your garden periodically to check for pests and weeds as well as making sure your watering program is set to what the plants need.

Work with Nature, Not Against It
I try not to use chemicals to control insects. After all I could buy produce from the store with petrol chemicals on them. Fortunately I don't have a big insect problem where I'm at. I do however have a bird and varmint problem. One thing you can do to protect from these is to build a cage to protect plants they most like. Another thing you can do is get a cat that can hunt. I had rodents all over the place until I got a good mouser. She got rid of the them all in about four months. For organic insect and weed control one solution would be to let chickens periodically roam through your garden. Keep in mind you don't want them to be there too long or they will start to eat your crops. They will eat the bugs first then look for leafy greens, these could be weeds or your lettuce seedlings. 

Plants also need nutrients put back into the soil. As with pest control you are way better off doing it the natural way. In fact this is probably the best principle to take away from this post: Work with nature and not against it. Working against nature is inefficient and usually ends badly.

Manure from the nearest barn yard herbivore is the best. I like to use goat since that's what I have. I usually don't even need to compost it. I just scoop it straight from the pasture and bring it to the trees or vegetables. I can work it into the soil or even leave it on top for mulch and moisture retention. Some manures like chicken are so rich in nitrogen they need to compost some before they can be used or else they will burn the plants.

One other excellent and inexpensive fertilizer, and I might add soil conditioner, is coffee grounds. You can probably get the old grounds from your local coffee shop for free and it adds valuable nutrients such as magnesium, potassium and calcium. Add to this any of your table scraps and you'll be replenishing the soil with more than just the nitrogen and other major nutrients found in chemical fertilizers. Using what's available and keeping it simple that's lazy gardening at its best.

Gardening Takes Time To Learn
Gardening takes time to learn and is very specific to your area. What works in my area where the weather is warm and dry and the soil is alkaline will not work in an area with cold, wet weather and acidic soil. This is one of the reasons you can't just pick up a gardening book and after reading it expect to be a successful gardener. You have to try different things and use what works for you. Keep in mind you will have many failures, but look at these as learning experiences rather than evidence that you can't do it.

Aside from the benefit of eating great tasting nutritious food, gardening can be very good for you physically, mentally and emotionally. Its good exercise, a nice break from the hustle bustle of daily life and it feels good to produce something from nothing but water, dirt and a little seed. Its actually what humans were designed to do - Gen 2:15.

Friday, October 12, 2012

This Is Not Your Grandpa's Paper Airplane

One of the lesser, yet still important, duties of parenting is to supply toys for your youngsters. Something inexpensive and requiring imagination like a paper airplane is good for the child's mind and your pocketbook. Paper airplanes are the kind of simple fun that seem to have just about disappeared among the younger generation. It seems that today if it doesn't use electricity and cost lots of money its not on their radar. With a little effort you may be able to avert them from the overpriced and often valueless toys to something a little more beneficial.

There are the usual paper airplanes that every school boy is familiar with like the dart and the flying wing. But its not that much harder to make something a lot more interesting. Below is a model that anyone can build and requires nothing more than one sheet of stiff paper, some glue or tape and a paper clip.

Step 1. You start with a standard 8.5" x 11" piece of paper. You then cut this piece into four equal parts.
Step 2. With one of the pieces you fold a triangular prizim. This is done by folding the paper long wise in half to make a crease and then opening it up to fold each half toward the middle. Then fold each half toward the middle again.
Step 3. With one of the remaining fourths you can now create a wing. Fold two corners down toward the middle. Then fold them over again so the next corner fold is aligned with the first.
Step 4. Take one of the remaining fourths and divide it into fourths. Use one of these fourths to create a smaller wing according to the instructions in step 3. This will be the rear stabilizer.
Step 5. The final piece you will need to create is the tail rudder. For this you can take the final forth you cut from the original 8.5" x 11" paper and fold it in half. Then cut a fin shape with a base portion you can use to attach it to the tail.
Step 6. Now that you have all the parts created you will need to assemble them. Take the fuselage with the side that was glued face down and place it on top of the wing which should have a bead of glue running down the the very center. Next glue the rear stabilizer in a similar way. Finally glue the tail rudder to the peak of the triangular fuselage with the flaps at its base. You can also insert a paper clip in the nose of the fuselage. This extra weight will balance the plane and pull it through the air.

View the video instructions here.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Invest in your kids

Investing in your kids might sound like the title of a brochure for a college or perhaps a PTA fund raiser. I am however referring not to any monetary investment, but rather to the time and energy required to create a well adjusted adult in a world gone mad.

150 years ago raising a child to be a productive, happy, God fearing citizen was a lot easier. There were less ways of finding trouble for one thing. Back then you had to really want to find trouble to get it. Now all you have to do is misspell a word in a Google search.

Many today focus on providing for their children materially. This is of course important, but what most children are lacking is not more toys or private education, but rather the attention of their parents. Instead of working those long hours to save for their college fund or that trip to Disneyland the parent's time would be better spent at home reading them bed time stories or out throwing the ball around. Its important to build this bond while they are young so that when they hit the turbulent teen years they will trust you enough to come to you when they have issues.

Parents need to repetitiously instill moral values into their children as well. This can only be done by spending large amounts of time with them. The myth of Quality Time should really be supplanted with the reality that quantity time is what's needed. Its not those fun but brief trips to the zoo or the amusement park that cause kids to open up to you. Its the hours and hours of mundane things like doing chores together, driving to the store and family dinners that give you time to converse and build trust. During these activities kids will talk and if you're listening you will hear things that will tell you how they're doing and what they're dealing with. Then you can correct problems while they're small and have the opportunity to show them you can help them with their problems. This then will enable you to instill moral values in them that will last a lifetime. Now that's a good investment.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Peak Energy

It is human nature to expect that things will continue on as they have been. As such, most people direct their life in a way that is similar to driving a car by looking in the rear view mirror. They see where they've been and expect the same in the future. The past 100 years have seen enormous increases in both technology and prosperity. Some believe this rate of growth is eternal and inexorable. In the previous post I mentioned how Moore's Law is bumping up against physical limits and how this will likely leave many expectations unfulfilled. In this post I will discuss an even more important physical limit we are about to run into. Peak Energy.

The Issue is Cheap Oil
Most everyone knows that the increase in technology has increased demand for energy, but few realize that the increase in the availability of cheap energy makes the increase in technology possible and that our current level of prosperity is completely and solely dependent on it. In fact the reality is that without abundant, easy to harvest and use energy none of the technological advances and high standard of living enjoyed in developed lands would be possible.

When it comes to cheap and easy to use energy its hard to beat hydrocarbons. They are energy dense, easy to store or transport and abundantly available. Chief among these so called fossil fuels is oil. For some uses there simply is no better alternative than liquid petroleum distillates. For example can you imagine a battery powered airliner?

If you were to overlay a graph of the worlds technological progress or gross product with the amount of oil consumed you would see a distinct correlation. The standard of living is directly tied to the availability of energy. Yes, its true the amount of oil consumed would increase with a booming economy, but its also true that you can't have a booming economy without cheap, abundant energy. The oil shocks of the 1970's and the recent peak of $147/barrel in 2008 should have made that clear. So the bottom line is the more oil there is for businesses to use the more business gets done.

How much of a difference does cheap energy make in the average persons life? Well this article indicates that the average Canadian employs about 204 energy slaves. That is to say each Canadian uses the energy equivalent of 204 people working full time to supply them with the energy they need for everything they do each day. That's a level only matched by royalty in pre-industrial times. One wonders what happens when a society accustomed to that level of power and prosperity, and further more a future that has always been more prosperous than the past, begins to slip backwards.

Its no coincidence that conventional oil production plateaued about 2005/2006 and the global economy collapsed just a few years latter. Yes, its also true that financial malfeasance and foolish lending/borrowing had a hand in disrupting the economy, but remember money is just a claim on goods and services: if there is less oil there is less everything and that has big consequences for an economy build on debt. Debt really is just paying for today with the produce of tomorrow. That works fine if tomorrow is always more productive than today.

One thing that happens when expectations aren't met is denial. I see this quite frequently especially from main stream media and those that still trust them. They like to excitedly announce huge new oil discoveries like the Bakken Shale or the Canadian Tar Sands. Sometimes they herald new techniques like fracking or horizontal drilling. These deposits and methods for extracting oil aren't new. Its just that now, due to the high cost of oil, they are profitable. This highlights the point that peak oil doesn't mean the oil is all used up, it doesn't even mean its half used up, it just means the high quality, easy to get at oil is gone.

To illustrate the problem of increasing cost lets use a common expression: Low Hanging Fruit. Imagine a tree filled with your favorite fruit. Naturally you will want to pick the fruit that requires the least amount of effort first. Once this is used up you'll reach even higher to get the next easiest. Eventually after you've exhausted most of the supply you are out on a ladder with a fruit picker reaching for those last few fruits and may eventually determine it isn't even worth the effort anymore. That aptly illustrates the situation with global oil supply. The easy oil is just about gone, so now other supplies that require elaborate techniques to recover or process are being used.

To give you an idea of how far we've come down that road; when oil was first extracted it took one barrel of oil to recover 100. Now we are averaging around 1:12. Oil shale is only 1:4. You can see where this is leading. Energy is no longer going to be cheap and when that happens the economic boom of the industrial revolution will go into reverse.

What About Alternatives?
Some claim that alternative energy sources will be ready in time to make up for the decline in hydrocarbons. They claim that wind, solar and nuclear power could replace the need for oil. Setting aside the improbability of a solar powered airliner or nuclear powered helicopters even basic electrical generation for the grid from these sources has problems.

For the record I think solar and wind power are great ideas. I personally wish I could have at least some of my power generated this way. However the reality is these technologies are still very expensive and worse yet they rely on rare earth minerals. It just isn't possible to build enough of these devices to replace the massive amount of energy we need to sustain the level of consumption we currently have let alone the increasing demand that continuous compound economic growth would create.

Some point to nuclear as the answer. After all nothing is more energy dense than matter itself. One gram of uranium 235 can produce the same amount of energy as 3 tonnes of coal. Of coarse nuclear has many problems as well. Aside from the inherent danger in dealing with fission and the radioactive waste it produces there is also a limited supply or uranium available. The estimates on peak uranium range from 1980-2035. So nuclear power is also an unreliable substitute.

What about bio-fuels, are they the answer? Well, the run up in corm prices back in 2008 showed us there are some problems there too. Ethanol, especially when produced with food crops, is both inefficient and cruel. I say cruel because when you're using food to power your SUV to the lake while people in poor countries are starving because your actions increased the price of their dietary staple, well, what else could you call that. I'm sure many don't realize they are having this effect, but its really not that hard to understand. When good farm land is used to grow corps for fuel instead of food this removes food from the international market thus raising the price and causing poorer families to go hungry.

The best option I have seen for a successful bio-fuel is algae oil. Algae grows quickly and can grow on non arable land. It can even grow in water that is polluted or saline. It can then be processed into diesel, ethanol and fertilizer. Unfortunately, like all bio-fuels, even this option still fails to produce significant returns on investment. Perhaps some day the technology will be advanced enough to make it worth the money and energy invested, but a more likely scenario is that we will just have less and it will cost more.

The Long Slow Contraction

So what are the consequences of an energy supply that not only can't keep up with growing demand, but can't even produce what it used to? Basically the inverse of the economic conditions we've seen over the last 300 years. Instead of long periods of growth with brief recessions, we will have long periods of recession and stagnation with brief spurts of recovery and growth.This will mean a decreasing standard of living for the average person as they slowly loose energy slaves.

Because of human greed there will be resource wars between nations and, especially in large contractionary periods or during supply shocks, crime and exploitation. The excesses of modern life like gas guzzling muscle cars and consumerism will give way to frugal living and a focus on essentials. Another side effect will likely be an increasing dependence on ones neighbors and community.

Cheap energy not only gives us more stuff, but also allows us to live independently in far flung suburbs where we don't depend on others and often have very little interaction with them. When half your paycheck buys the fuel needed to get to work and you can't afford to feed your family on what's left, the suburbs will become dead zones. People will begin supplementing what they get at the market with what they can grow in their yard. And neighbors will be forced to work together to survive.

Something similar to what I describe has already taken place in Cuba. The Soviets supplied Cuba with all of their petroleum as well as much of their food and fertilizer. When the USSR collapsed they lost these resources very quickly. They have since recovered due to increased trading with the United States, but for years they were almost completely on their own. The people, out of necessity, began farming in their front yards, using horses for transportation and pulled together as a community to trade what they had. This is a likely scenario when supply shocks hit the global community and business as usual is no longer possible.

Though the people of Cuba suffered greatly due to this sudden loss of energy and other resources they have benefited in many ways as well. Since nearly 80% of the food is organically grown they are now actually eating better than they used to before the crisis. Additionally before the crisis they used cars for transportation where as now many walk or ride bicycles thus reducing rates of obesity and diabetes. Add to this the reduced pollution and increased cooperation among neighbors and you can see how its not all bad news.

Really peak oil wouldn't be such a quality of life cliff if society as a whole would deal with it in a mature and equitable fashion. Of course this will never happen. Imperfect human nature will see to that. Instead of accepting the finite nature of all our resources, most people in the west seem to have a childlike magical belief that human ingenuity will always overcome any obstacles. Apparently the lessons of history like Rome, Easter Island and the Mayans have been ignored in favor of a warm fuzzy exceptionalist ideology.

For further research visit these links:

Peak Oil





Protracted Economic Contraction

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Sliding Toward The Singularity

Ray Kurzweil believes that man and machine will merge by 2045. He believes that just beyond that point in time the rate of technological change will be so fast that it will cease to be understandable, like a singularity where matter has collapsed into a single point in space. Whether any of this is true or not, one thing is obvious: the current rate of change is exponential and we are at a point on that parabolic curve where its becoming difficult to keep up. I personally find the singularity analogy very appropriate on an emotional level as well because this change seems irresistible and ominous like being sucked into a black hole.

Moores Law
Intel's co-founder Gordon E. Moore noted in 1965 that the components in integrated circuits doubled every two years. He proposed that this would continue and it has. This doubling of transistors in CPUs has lead to an increase in processing power that doubles about every 18 months. This is why today your cell phone has more processing power than the best 1965 mainframe. So what does that mean for the future? In theory it means the processing power of your lap top could fit in your wrist watch just a few years from now. In practice its not that straight forward.

Moore's Law is confined by physical limits and is already showing signs of faltering. At this time chips are being made that have widths of 20 atoms. Obviously you can't possibly go below one atom with a standard silicon chip, but realistically you can't even go below five since the heat created would be enough to melt the chip. There's also the problem of leakage in the wiring between transistors. Due to quantum probability the electron sometimes falls outside such a thin wire. For the last few years the chip makers have been using multiple cores to make up for the inability to increase processing speeds at the previous rate. This is not as good as having a single core that is faster. One reason for this is the single threaded nature of most programming. So what's next?

Intel is trying to keep the rate of progress going by using 3D chips, AKA Tri-Gate chips. These may yield some increase for a time, but in order to keep the rate of progress on track for the long run we need a completely different kind of computing. Several strategies are being explored with limited success. Some of them involve using the quantum phenomena of spin others use biological things like DNA. There's also some more immediately attainable technologies involving the use of graphene. The idea there being that by switching from silicon to materials like graphene, which carries electricity faster than silicon, far less heat is created and thus power consumed.

Power consumption is a major issue, in fact the physical limits imposed by the availability of electric power and the copper wire/fiber optic cable the net is linked together with are also showing signs of being unable to keep up with the current rate of technological proliferation. In particular the demand for multi-media is increasing so fast that it will require equally significant increases in the through put of communication networks and decreases in power consumption by servers.

Too Much Magic
It has been said that technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. Is it any wonder then that many who have witnessed this astonishing rate of technological progress believe that this rate of progress will magically continue and further solve all our problems. James Howard Kunstler’s book Too Much Magic talks at length about the unfounded optimism that people have regarding the future. When confronted with some of the real and very dire problems facing society there seems to be a common belief that the magic wand of Technology will save us. Often ideas like hydrogen cars and vertical farms are touted as solutions to the problem of resource scarcity without any thought to how these things will actually work or any regard to the arithmetic of the closed system in which we exist. Likewise with the future of computers and related technology there is an almost magical belief that the conjurers, AKA scientists and technocrats, will come up with a solution.

Many of these physical limits will likely prove impervious to technological advancement. There is only so much energy available on this planet and you can only make a wire, chip, transistor, etc so small. At some point, and I think we are there, that exponential hockey stick will curve into a plateau of diminishing returns. I personally don't think that's such a bad thing.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Interface Crazy

Lately the proliferation of connectivity and apps has gotten to the point of absurdity. I read an interesting article today, entitled The Best Interface Is No Interface, that pointed out the inefficiency and inconvenience of some of these apps. As a sample it listed the steps involved in using one such app that opens your car door:

  1. A driver approaches her car.
  2. Takes her smartphone out of her purse.
  3. Turns her phone on.
  4. Slides to unlock her phone.
  5. Enters her passcode into her phone.
  6. Swipes through a sea of icons, trying to find the app.
  7. Taps the desired app icon.
  8. Waits for the app to load.
  9. Looks at the app, and tries figure out (or remember) how it works.
  10. Makes a best guess about which menu item to hit to unlock doors and taps that item.
  11. Taps a button to unlock the doors.
  12. The car doors unlock.
  13. She opens her car door.
Wow! Now that's technological advancement. To think before this app we had to actually do the following:
  1. A driver approaches her car.
  2. Inserts her key.
  3. The car doors unlock.
  4. She opens her car door.
Boy am I glad I don't have to use those cumbersome keys anymore. Whew!

The article's point was more focused, as the title indicates, on making apps intuitive and automatic instead of relying on a cumbersome, overly complicated UI. An alternative to the car lock app sited above was shown in this video from Mercedes.

As an engineer I love this. Its superb design. As a Luddite I just imagine it breaking at some inconvenient time and not being able to open my door when I stop for gas in the middle of nowhere or roll up my window when it starts raining.

The article also sited some apps in places that just made me crack up. One such absurd place to find apps was this Samsung refrigerator.

Just in case you get a tweet or a Facebook update while you're away from your computer getting a snack now you have the social network enabled Samsung Refrigerator.

This article made me think of two videos I recently saw that made me gasp in both awe and horror. They're visions of a near future where computers are ubiquitous and they seem to know everything about us. In both of these videos there are lots of user interfaces but they're much less clumsy than most we see today. The brilliant design and engineering of the technology portrayed is what I find awe inspiring. The part about computers being a constant presence with seemingly no way to unplug to me is the horror.

A Day Made of Glass

A Day Made of Glass 2

The future portrayed in these videos looks like a place I might want to visit, but I'm quite sure I don't want to live there.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Net Negative

I love what the internet has done for information availability. When I was a kid, before there was a public internet, one of my favorite places was the library. When I was there I felt at home. I could look up just about anything and read 'til my heart was content. Today I have what could be considered the entire world's libraries at my finger tips.

History of Information Technology
In ancient times books were expensive and the knowledge they contained was only available to the privileged. One of the most famous libraries of all time was the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Scholars from all over the world would go there and research information. Often times these scholars brought new information with them that would be added to the libraries volumes. The library's founder, Ptolemy I, was said to have had the goal of filling the library with a copy or every book in existence. With an estimated inventory of around a half a million scrolls, he came very close to achieving that goal.

In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. This made books more available since it was exponentially easier to print them with movable type than copy them by hand. This facilitated the spread of knowledge and opinion, changing everything. Now nearly anyone with enough ambition could print something and spread his ideas. Even the Bible could be made available in the common language of the people. This was a huge threat to the established power structure and in large part lead to the European Reformation.

Today the internet has disrupted society in a similar way. Now literally anyone can publish his ideas just as I am now. This is changing the way people learn, get their news and communicate. Old forms of publishing from the newspaper to the handwritten letter are quickly disappearing. In some obvious ways this is very beneficial, but in other less obvious ways, some of which will not be fully understood for years to come, it is very detrimental.

Dangerous Distractions
Past improvements in information technology such as the Gutenberg press had side effects that indirectly lead to disturbances in society and even dangerous events such as religious wars, but it never directly made life more dangerous. Being able to read the Bible in your native tongue instead of having to learn a dead language is not by any stretch of the imagination hazardous to the mind or body. Likewise even reading subversive literature like Thomas Paine's Common Sense isn't going to kill anybody in and of itself.

Today's information technology however, has proven to be most deadly. Though it be true that it usually is the irresponsible use of the technology that leads to the hazard, it is hazardous non-the-less. One example many people are waking up to is texting while driving. One estimate is that around 16,000 deaths can be linked to texting and/or talking while driving. Some places have even passed laws in view of the dangers of text walking.

If that's not enough there is also growing concern about distracted doctors. This New York Times article explains how doctors and nurses are more and more distracted by tablet PCs and cell phones. True, patients are benefiting to a degree by being connected to medical records and having advanced diagnostic tools at their doctor's finger tips, but the distraction of too much information is both interfering in the human relationship with the patient and creating an information overload for the physician. In addition there are also hair raising accounts of surgeons taking personal phone calls and anesthesiologists shopping online.

Your Brain on IT
Some who use the internet and smart phones excessively have noticed a drug like affect on themselves, even to the point of feeling addicted. When giving up the use of these devices they report being anxious, feeling disconnected and an inability to coordinate basic daily activities. Unlike giving up drugs, however, the internet and the devices we use to access it are difficult to completely eliminate from our lives.

Most people know that its not especially healthy to binge on internet surfing or social media, but exactly how much harm does it do? In short, the internet is literally re-wiring our brains. There is actually a transformation in the firing pattern of our neurons that is not so beneficial. Studies have shown less activity in the prefrontal cortex. This makes us less thoughtful and adaptable and more impulsive and mechanical.

In his article Is Google Making Us Stupid, Nicholas Carr explores how the internet is making us shallower in our thinking. He makes the point that our malleable brains have adapted to reading online with all of its hyper links and RSS feeds. That's right, our brains have been re-wired to scan large volumes of information quickly at the expense of being able to concentrate on any one thing deeply. Where as in prior times people would spend hours reading a book and ruminate over its contents, thinking deeply about its meaning, we today have become merely information processors with no time or attention span for such deep thinking.

Another frightening result of this change is the loss of our creativity and even our sense of self. Because we are loosing the ability to concentrate on anything for long periods of time we are also loosing the reflection and contemplation necessary to come up with new ideas or even formulate our own opinions. Rather than reading a book with nothing more than black type on white paper and at most an illustration to distract us, leaving us with lots of time to pause and think about what the author is saying and how we feel about that, we now are confronted with pages full of links that go in all directions surrounded by blinking ads. I really think this threatens to make us all two dimensional people, broad in our knowledge with no depth of understanding, even of ourselves.

Zero Sum
Is it possible to have our cake and eat it too? Can't we have access to this vast knowledge base without loosing our depth of understanding? Will we be able to keep up with twitter feeds and still read War And Peace? Will we be able to maintain this connection to the world as a whole without loosing ourselves? Without strictly limiting the use of the internet in our lives it would seem the answer is no.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Generation Y

Generations share common traits because they share common experiences that shape their development when they are young. For the Greatest Generation WWII and The Great Depression made them self sacrificing and frugal. The Baby Boomers experienced a time of prosperity and optimism making them materialistic and confident. Generation X, the latch key kids, grew up self reliant and distrusting. Gen Y grew up in the prosperous tech boom of the mid 1980's-1990's. The ubiquity of electronics and the media they make available has made this generation the greatest consumers of digital media the world has ever seen. For most of them there has never been a time in their memory when their wasn't an internet. Being plugged into the rest of the world and in constant contact with friends and relatives is natural and normal. Their brains and bodies matured with cell phones in their ear and video game controllers in their hands.

In my previous post I talked about the over stimulation created by modern life. Generation Y has lived their entire life in this environment. Its all they know. To them the dystopia I describe may seem perfectly normal. Gen Y is usually described as being digital natives. They are very familiar with digital communication, media and technology. They are also noted for having short attention spans and a need for constant stimulation and instant feed back. I think its obvious the two traits are connected.

Instant Gratification
One of the difficulties in earlier generations dealing with Gen Y is their desire for instant gratification and feed back. For example Gen Y employees seem to need constant feed back on their performance. This is puzzling to the Baby Boomer boss because they were raised with the understanding that you did what you were told and worked hard and down the road you reaped the rewards. That just doesn't sit well with Gen Y. Gen Y is used to the instant feed back of video games and text messaging. They also are used to getting what they want, when they want it. Patience and forbearance are not in their vocabulary.

Growing up with instant messaging, and constant electronic alerts from email or social media has caused their brains to be wired for fast twitch. This allows them to keep up with the excessive volumes of information they are bombarded with, but at a cost. The cost of course is they have very little deep thinking. This leads to quick decisions based on shallow analysis that are often short sighted. It also makes them feel irritated when anything takes too long. I've even noticed this in myself sometime when my computer takes more than a few seconds to load something.

Gen Y expects everything to be as responsive as their iPhone or twitter feed. Unfortunately much of life just isn't like that. Solid human relationships, mastering skills and building a career take time. Some times these and other worthwhile things require several failed attempts before getting it right. If Gen Y quits instead of sticking with it, will they ever succeed at these important slow to be realized achievements? Maybe this is why so many of them are still living at home even into their late twenties and early thirties.

Brain Extensions
Its been said that the internet with its vast knowledge base and advanced search capability has become an extension of out brains. Some people don't even bother to remember information anymore. They just remember how to find it on Google. This is also true of finding your way around town. Many people don't learn street names or directions anymore, they just enter the address in their GPS and listen to the soothing voice say take the exit on the left. Its as though we have delegated these functions to external devices in a way similar to bodily functions like breathing and beating our heart are handled autonomicall by the brain stem, freeing our frontal cortex to contemplate questions like, "why is there air?"

For those who use it, the internet has become the largest source of transactive memory. Transactive memory is nothing new. We all rely on people we know to remember things for us. For example you may ask your spouse something like where are the spices, pruning shears, etc. Likewise a colleague at work may ask you something related to your area of expertise. I remember, as a kid, always asking my mom what a word meant or how it was spelled. In each case you often don't bother to remember the answer long term, but instead you simply remember who to ask. Today that who is Google.

Some believe this has allowed Gen Y, who's brains developed along side the internet, to learn much more. They believe that by just knowing where to find the details, rather than the details themselves, allows them to focus on the bigger picture. To some extent this is true. Really intelligent, capable people have the ability to see both the details and the big picture, zooming in and out at will. If the internet has become an extension of our nervous system allowing everyone to do this, then theoretically we will all be a little bit smarter.

One obvious problem with this is the unreliability of the information. With out making sure the details are correct our big picture could be skewed. In fact much of what's available on the internet is half truth or completely false and it is often difficult to tell without pouring over the details and fact checking. This requires significant amounts of time and effort, something Gen Y is not fond of.

A less obvious problem with this is that unused neurons get pruned. So with Gen Y using less of their brain and relying on calculators, Google and GPS to think for them, they have made themselves dependent on these systems. This strikes me as potentially retarding intelligence, not expanding it. In addition being dependent on these things for information and guidance could leave us in the dark in the event of an outage. If you've never made the effort to remember that emergency phone number or navigate to that important location your self, what do you do when your cell phone battery dies or the GPS network goes down?

A more ominous concern is the emotional reliance on things like social media and shallow online relationships. Many today, especially from Gen Y, measure self worth by how many Facebook friends they have or how many texts they receive. Its as though their whole self image and sense of being has been transferred from their control and relocated externally. As such they make themselves dependent on the availability of the technology and the fickle whims of that cyber community.

Virtual Reality
With the real world being such a depressing and stressful place, is it any wonder there is a strong demand for more and more realistic virtual realities. To answer that demand, much of our modern media is a form of virtual reality. Movies for example are a form of virtual reality. You might even notice the slight disorientation felt after watching an engrossing movie. Like wise video games and social media can be forms of virtual reality. These and other forms of media are all fantasy worlds that we can escape into and forget, at least for a while, the real world.

Generation Y is very comfortable with the virtual world and spend much of their waking hours immersed in it. In fact they often seem more comfortable in the virtual world than the real world. They will make friends with people on line, but feel uncomfortable getting close to people in person. They spend hours and hours on Farmville instead of gardening in their yard. They will spend great amounts of effort mastering their skills at some video game, but very little time building skills they need for a career. Why would one want to spend so much time and effort on something that's not even real?

The problem with virtual reality is its not reality, but it can be so deceivingly real to our senses and emotions that we can often confuse it with reality. When you are in the virtual world you have total control. Even in a video game, though you can not rewrite the rules, you can simply press the reset button. On some sites like Virtual Life you can create your own avatar to look like anything you want. You can fly or pretend to be any persona and all safely behind your computer, where if your not having fun you can just click to some other site. So what effect does growing up in a virtual (e.g. fantasy) word have on someone?

In the real world there are real and sometimes painful consequences. Personal relationships can not be handled the same way as with Facebook and chat rooms. If you are married you can't just click a button and unfriend them. If you have a dog you can't just abandon them because you're no longer having fun, like you can on NeoPets. In the real world there are far reaching implications of your actions that go beyond loosing points. If you do something stupid or dangerous in the real world, there is no reset button.

Gen Y has some advantages to previous generations in that it is more adept at traversing this new modern digital landscape, but without the perspective and ability to think deeply and patiently wait for things, they seem doomed to be unable to accomplish as much as previous generations. It would be advantageous for this and all generations to take a moderate approach to technology use. Unfortunately, from what I know of imperfect human nature, moderate use is unlikely. Instead I firmly believe that Gen Y and each succeeding generation will continue to over use technology to their detriment. Perhaps in a future post I'll discuss why I think this is guaranteed.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Diminishing Privacy

Technology destroys privacy
Technology is quickly eliminating privacy. From the iPhone that tracks your every move to the ubiquitous security cameras, it is getting harder and harder to lead an anonymous life free from prying eyes. Governments want to eliminate privacy so they can maintain power. Corporations want to do away with privacy so they can maximize their profits. Some may not mind this loss of privacy. They may even think that if you have nothing to hide why be concerned. But that's like saying if you have a nice looking body with no cellulite why wear clothes.

For governments its a control issue. maintaining and increasing power is the natural disposition of any ruler. The more controlling and paranoid the ruler the less privacy its citizens enjoy. One example of a breach of privacy caused by paranoia is the break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that was eventually traced back to staff members of president Richard M. Nixon. Totalitarian regimes like China, Iran or North Korea tend to allow their citizens very little privacy, and for good reason. These regimes create so many enemies that they would likely be toppled without keeping a close eye on everyone and nipping any opposition movements in the bud. Some regimes like the Nazi's went to the extreme of encouraging people to inform on their neighbors and even children to inform on their parents. In our modern technological world, this hardly seems necessary anymore.

Today, for a government of any country with decent internet penetration, large volumes of information are readily available. Where as in times past collecting, storing and accessing information about citizens was slow and cumbersome requiring much administration and even file space, nowadays enormous dossiers on every netizen can be collected and stored cheaply and compactly on computer disks. Now if you're a really ambitious ruler you can also canvas all your cities with video cameras like Britain. Couple this with facial recognition software and the transponder that almost everyone carries around with them everywhere they go (cell phone) and big brother is practically automated.

Because of terrorism and crime, people are so fearful they gladly hand over their privacy and freedom to feel just a little safer.They prefer being filmed on CCTV 24 hours a day to being mugged in a dark alley. They will stand in line for hours, remove their shoes and let screeners see their naked bodies in the backscatter image just to feel a little safer about flying. Whether they are any safer as a result is a whole other debate.

As far reaching as this might seem government has nothing on corporations when it comes to diminishing privacy. Google for example gathers huge amounts of data by tracking your searches. Some social networking sites like Facebook track your internet activity even after you've logged out. Credit card card companies track your purchases. Microsoft and other software companies gather data on your usage of their software. To make matters worse these databases are often combined and then sold, sometimes to unscrupulous entities or worse they are hacked and fall into the hands of criminals.

The intention of these companies seems innocent enough at first. Its usually to find out what products or services you will buy and then put ads in you inbox, mailbox or web page. Is this annoying? Sometimes. Is it evil?  Not really. However, sometimes erroneous inferences are made about you because the information being tracked is wrong or incorrect extrapolations are being made. Usually this simply results in products you have no interest in being offered to you, but sometimes it can result in big problems for the individual ranging from an undeservedly bad credit score to wrongful incarceration. This later problem can result when police or government agencies get a hold of the information and human error causes them to think X, Y & Z because you bought A,B & C.

Some feel that this loss of privacy is good, that its progressive and will unite humanity. They believe that if there's no privacy, people will be less likely to do bad things since everyone will know about it. While this may be true for some, its obvious that many of the people who commit crimes are sufficiently dimwitted enough to miss that point. How many times have we heard about people committing crimes and posting YouTube videos of it or talking about it on Facebook. Sure, this usually gets them locked up, but it didn't stop the crime and after they get out they're likely to just pick up where they left off.

The ubiquity of technology has made it very difficult to opt out of this system. Teachers post homework assignments on Facebook, which requires an account to access. Jobs are generally posted on line not in the paper, which requires an online resume. You usually can't reserve a hotel or rent a car without a credit card.  Its not impossible to avoid ending up in one of these dossier databases, but it is impractical.

Even our homes and yards are now visible through online satellite photos and Google street view. Great, now everyone world wide can see the weeds in my yard. Isn't it just a little creepy that with a few Google searches anyone can see where you live, what you do, how old you are, etc.

Technology has expanded our choices in many ways. We have hundreds of cable channels. Stores are filled with an unprecedented variety of products. Via the internet we can choose to be friends with thousands of people on any continent. However, one choice that seems to be disappearing rapidly is the choice to live a quite, private life where only the people we want to know us, do.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sensory Overload

Information Overload
The average person is overstimulated on a daily basis and this has effected the way their entire body, particularly the nervous system, works. Interestingly the overstimulation is multifaceted. It includes everything from too much information to too much sugar and constant stress often coped with by the constant intake of mood altering chemicals.

Too Much Information
The average person in developed lands is subjected to more information in a few days than Charles Ingalls would have been in his entire lifetime. You can't even take all of that in, let alone process it. You are left with no choice but to sift and slice taking in bits and pieces with very little time and attention to give any one thing. This tends to create a reactive demeanor where we just automatically react to stimuli rather than think and respond. This effect works well for advertisers who gain when we reflexively buy things we really don't need.

Actually a great deal of the overstimulation is due to the excessive advertising in our culture. Imagine your average day. You wake up and maybe watch the morning news and see commercials, you drive to work and hear commercials on the radio, you see billboards with ads, you may even see cars that have been painted to be mobile billboards. When you get to work you have to sift through spam in your inbox. There's often fliers in the break room, an employee who's selling candy bars for their kids school or perhaps an Avon rep. When you get home more TV commercials, email spam, the occasional telemarketer and junk mail. Most of the advertising is for things that we have little or no need for. If we were to give our full attention to these messages we would have time for little else. In order to survive we learn to tune much of it out.

In addition to advertising we can also get information overload from things of relative importance. At work I have constantly incoming emails, frequent text messages and phone calls as well as IM. Most of it demanding to be answered immediately. Some have social media messages to respond to and RSS feeds to read as well. There's news 'round the clock on cable channels like CNN and MSNBC. News papers, magazines and  an endless parade of books and web sites. A couple hundred years ago most people owned a few books and they often read them over and over again. Today I have so much to read that I find it hard to even finish reading something once.

Due to these conflicting demands on our time and attention, the myth of multitasking arose. I call it a myth because inherent in multitasking is the erroneous belief that you can truly do multiple things at once. Actually multitasking is less efficient than just doing one thing at a time because you are continually starting and stopping. You also usually end up doing the task more poorly because of the lack of concentration. In the end it just gives you the impression you're more productive. If you still doubt this is a myth read here.

Shock and Awe
Today people are subjected to shocking things regularly. News reports of horrors both foreign and domestic bombard us daily. Movies and TV are filled with violent scenes and explosions. Music videos and video games grow increasingly more disturbing. Celebrities like wise invent more and more outlandish ways of garnering attention. In order to cope the brain and body become desensitized. We find what used to shock us now doesn't even raise an eyebrow.

The brain reacts to stimulation by releasing neurotransmitters. The more the stimulation the more neurotransmitters are released. If one becomes overstimulated the brain learns to adjust. In order to regain balance it learns to either increase the uptake of the neurotransmitter or release less upon stimulation. This is why it requires more to feel just as stimulated. This is the same kind of mechanism that takes place when people take drugs whether its coffee or cocaine. The more you use the more your body adjusts and thus the more it takes to feel the sensation.

Overstimulated palate
Five hundred years ago the spice trade was a very lucrative business. Spices were so valuable because they were such a novelty and required shipping over long distances from where they were produced. They were one of the few really stimulating things in life. Today spices both natural and artificial are everywhere. Piquant, salty, sweet what ever your taste is, its available and usually relatively inexpensively. But what happens when the palate is continually subjected to overstimulation? It begins to become desensitized.

Sugar is so plentiful today that we are literally killing ourselves with it. Today just about everything is sweetened and its not just our palate that's becoming desensitized. When you take in sugar or starch, which converts to sugar, and it enters the blood stream your pancreas releases insulin. This is required to limit the amount of sugar in the blood as too much can be deadly. However, if you continue to trigger large releases of insulin, because of over consumption of sugar or starch, your cells will eventually become insulin resistant.

Continuous State of Emergency
With the deterioration of world conditions and the news media reporting it 24 hours a day in a hyped up style many people find themselves experiencing burn out from being in a continuous state of alert. The body's fight or flight response was designed for short term use to help us avoid harm. The stress hormones released that give us the heightened senses and reflexes are very hard on the body and we require down time to recuperate. In our modern world, filled with terrorism, crime and crisis, we don't often get that down time. This leaves us feeling drained, depressed and sometimes results in damage to our brains and organs. Is it any wonder then, that to survive, we often find ourselves becoming desensitized to these sources or stimulation.

Some people cope with this stress by taking medications or other mood altering substances. Hard drugs like cocaine or meth cause people to have a sense of well being by manipulating the dopamine levels or the receptivity to it. The problem here is that once again the body tries to restore balance and becomes desensitized to the effects. Even coffee, which when drunk occasionally can produce strong effects, eventually becomes necessary to just feel normal when consumed regularly.

Balance and Simplicity
In a world that seems to be in love with the extreme, what's really needed is balance and simplicity. To much of anything will exact a cost and impair our quality of life. The palate that is not overwhelmed with flavor can taste much more and the brain that has less to give attention to can think more deeply. A life free of overstimulation is simply healthier and happier and you might even remember more of it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Technology & Materialism

As I have stated before technology is simply the ability to do or make things. What things we choose to do or make with this ability is where the problem occurs. Materialism, that is the preoccupation and over emphasis on material objects and the comforts they provide, is more to blame for the current sick condition of both our planet and our society.

Shopping has become the national pastime and for some an addiction. Its reported that nearly 70% of the U.S. economy is consumption of consumer goods and services and it seems that the rest of the world is desperately struggling to attain that for them selves. A life focused on consumption is a vain, unhappy life indeed. Technology could have given us more time to do meaningful things that would have truly enhanced our life, however as a society we have chosen instead to have more stuff. In fact many have chosen to become slaves to this stuff by buying on credit.

The current rate of consumption in developed countries is both harmful to the environment and the soul. To the environment it is destructive primarily because it is wasteful and/or toxic. Most of the stuff that's purchased was made in a way that was economically not environmentally efficient, was purchased unnecessarily and will get thrown into a landfill or incinerator within a few months. It is damaging to the soul because it wastes our time and never truly satisfies us.

Time Saver or Time Waster
Time savings could have been the biggest benefit of technology. The ability to automate laborious and/or boring tasks so we can be free to do other more fulfilling things is a great idea. Unfortunately we have filled those free hours with more, just as laborious and/or boring, work and meaningless recreation such as excessive TV watching. 

One example of an invention that could have saved us time but doesn't is the automobile. Being able to drive anywhere you want in a climate controlled vehicle at high speed is a good thing. It should have saved us lots of time, yet how many of us spend hour after wretched hour stuck in traffic commuting to work five days a week? Ironically the recent downturn in the economy has lessened the traffic congestion due to less people commuting to work and then driving to the mall to spend their earnings. Some might conclude that we have a choice between prosperity and time. I would say that depends on how you define prosperity.

What Is True Prosperity
Most sources today would say prosperity is physical wealth, money and the stuff it can buy. The material abundance produced by technology has aided this notion's acceptance. In contrast before the industrial revolution most people knew that prosperity is more than having stuff. In fact beyond life's basic necessities it has nothing to do with how much stuff you own. True prosperity and happiness means being at peace with yourself, others and especially your creator. Having the time to think deep thoughts, bond with others and serve your creator is much more valuable than a big screen TV or an extra 1000 square feet in your house. Sadly few seem to realize this and so at an early age they step onto the treadmill and begin running until for one reason or another they are unable to keep up.

The recent downturn in the economy has caused thousands to fall off that treadmill. By force they have been made to live a simplier life, one less focused on consuming. As a result some go through what might be considered withdrawal symptoms as they are unable to treat the emptiness they feel with shopping, vacations or eating out. Others just learn to cope, hoping for a return to the days of plenty. A few though have realized the benefits of consuming less, being debt free and spending time doing things that are more healthy and fulfilling.

Time Spent Wisely
He is born. He plays and learns. He builds a home and works hard to stock it with good things. He finds a mate and produces offspring. He grows old and dies. I've just described the life of a squirrel and unfortunately many millions of human beings. How we choose to spend our time can make the difference between a vain animal like existence and a purposeful life.

Time is one thing we all have an equal amount of. Yes, some may live longer than others, but on a day to day basis we each have 24 hours, no more, no less. How should you spend it? The best way to consider the answer to that question is to think about when your time may be up. At the end of your life what will matter most to you? Will you be thinking I wish I had bought that new pair of shoes? Or possibly I wish I had spent more time at work and maybe I would have gotten that promotion? For most people at the end of their life what the wish they had most is more time. Isn't that why we go to doctors and hospitals, to buy more time?

Since a relationship with our creator and faith in his son will buy us an eternity (John 17:3) shouldn't that be our first priority? And since our happiest memories are those spent with loved ones, especially our spouse and children, shouldn't that be our second priority? Certainly its necessary to spend some time working to support ourselves and buying necessary things, but a life where working and consuming is the main focus bears a sobering resemblance to that of a squirrel.

Its Materialism Not Technology
I conclude once again its materialism and the imperfect human nature that causes us to gravitate to it that is the real problem. Technology used wisely and where it can really improve our lives is a good thing. Unfortunately technology has been misused to clutter our lives with time wasting gadgets, frustrating commutes, polluted air & water, and unnatural lifestyles that wreak havoc on everything from our nervous systems to our posture.