By Ray Lesser
I’m standing on my head, in a slightly ecstatic meditative state, when my cell phone rings. Since I’m waiting to hear from my agent if my screenplay is being optioned, I race to answer it. Continue reading
I’m standing on my head, in a slightly ecstatic meditative state, when my cell phone rings. Since I’m waiting to hear from my agent if my screenplay is being optioned, I race to answer it. Continue reading
I used to have a job pumping gas, as did millions of other young men of my generation. For many, this was an entry-level path to becoming a mechanic, or perhaps one day, a service station owner. Continue reading
Cartoons by: Isabella Bannerman, Clay Bennett, Meg Biddle, Bizarro, Harry Bliss, Ruben Bolling, Matt Bors, Tom Cheney, Dave Coverly, J.C. Duffy, Tim Eagan, Bob Eckstein, Randy Glasbergen, Martha Gradisher, Buddy Hickerson, Jeff Hobbs, David Horsey, George Jartos, Ham Khan, Keith Knight, Mary Lawton, Carol Lay, Chris Monroe, P.S. Mueller, Joel Pett, K.A. Polzin, Hilary Price, Ted Rall, Jean Sorensen, Jen Sorensen, Mark Stivers, Tom Toles, Tom Tomorrow, P.C. Vey, Shannon Wheeler, Matt Wuerker, Zippy … and lots more!
And verily it came to pass, in a blinding flash, the Earth was cleansed of Techies. Continue reading
As the boss, I get to tell everybody at my company exactly what to do. And they get to tell me exactly where I can go.
Cartoons by: Isabella Bannerman, Bizarro, Harry Bliss, Ruben Bolling, Bruce Bolinger, Dave Coverly, Derf, Tim Eagan, Bob Eckstein, Randy Glasbergen, Martha Gradisher, George Jartos, John Jonik, Ham Khan, Keith Knight, Peter Kuper, Mary Lawton, Carol Lay, Chris Monroe, Carlos Montage, P.S. Mueller, Jack Ohman, Rina Piccolo, K.A. Polzin, Hilary Price, Ted Rall, Maria Scrivan, Andy Singer, David Sipress, Jen Sorensen, Mark Stivers, Tom Toles, Tom Tomorrow, P.C. Vey, Shannon Wheeler, Matt Wuerker, Zippy … and lots more!
When did life get to be so easy? All you need to do is push a button and POOF, anything you want suddenly appears, or unfortunately more often for me, disappears and can never again be found, no matter how long you wait on the line to talk to the tech support guy in Mumbai. Continue reading
It turns out that cows with names produce 258 liters of milk per year more than nameless corporate cows with ear-tag barcode numbers. Continue reading
Kite string theory ties everything that’s wrong with the world into one neat, impossible-to-open package. Continue reading
The future is clear to me. It’s the present that I don’t understand. Although it seems hard to imagine, listening to the daily, hourly, and minutely breaking news stories on the collapse of capitalism and the complete breakdown of civilization, a bright and amazing future will soon be upon us. Continue reading
From sub-prime mortgages to taking a wide stance in a Minneapolis airport bathroom stall, the world was filled with stories about many bad ideas during the past year. But let’s remember, there were also some really good ones. Here are a few of my favorites:
The End of Dental X-Rays
There’s finally an alternative to being covered with a lead blanket, having a sharp vinyl plate stuffed into your cheek, and being quick fried with radiation. The OCT is a new technique using a hand-held scanner and near-infrared beam, to form a 3-D picture of both your teeth and gums. Up to ten times the resolution, with none of the gagging, chromosomal damage, or Dr. Frankenstein’s lab technician cowering behind a door in the next room.
In developing a whiter cement for a new church being built in Rome, an Italian cement company accidentally discovered a cement that removes harmful pollutants from the air. When a building or road is coated with its new cement, TX Active (enhanced with titanium dioxide, which acts as a whitener, as well as a chemical catalyst), hazardous nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides are transformed into harmless nitrates or sulfates, which simply rinse off when it rains. This also keeps the surfaces especially clean. Could it be possible for cities of the future to eat their own smog? The company says their research shows that if 15 percent of the surface area of Milan were covered in TX Active, air pollution would be reduced by 50 percent.
Dead human beings would be 100 percent biode-gradable, except for the fact that most of us will be embalmed, hermetically sealed in a metal casket, placed inside a concrete grave liner, marked with a headstone destined to last for centuries, and then cared for “in perpetuity” by cemetery caretakers using the latest herbicides and chemical fertilizers to keep our graves “green.” So it’s nice to see products like Ecopod – a 100 percent biodegradable coffin made of recycled paper – finally come to market. The seedpod-shaped coffin is designed to be planted in the ground, where it can dissolve and replenish the earth with its nutrient-rich contents.
Game of Checkers Solved
After running a computer program almost nonstop for 18 years, Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada, calculated the result of every possible checkers endgame move that could be played … all 39 trillion of them. To do this he programmed a cluster of computers to play out every position involving 10 or fewer pieces. The data requirements were so high that for a while in the early ’90s, more than 80 percent of the Internet traffic in western North America was checkers data being shipped between his computers. The final result will probably not surprise anyone who has ever played the game. As with tic-tac-toe, if both players never make a mistake, every match will end in a draw. Now that he has some free time, maybe I can get Jonathan to use the power of the Internet to figure out a way to balance my checkbook.
A California company began mass-producing its PowerSheet solar cells using printing-press style machines that “print” solar panels onto sheets as thin as aluminum foil. This new process will reduce the cost of solar electricity by 90 percent, or to about the equivalent of 1/3 the cost of coal generated power. Backed by Google and the U.S. Deptartment of Energy, Nanosolar recently completed building the world’s largest solar-panel factory in San Jose. Roof shingles and window coatings that suck power out of the air may soon be as ubiquitous as rusting SUVs with “For Sale” signs in their windows.
Better than eBay, it’s freeBay! Freecycle, a web-based global recycling community, now boasts more than 4 million members in 4,100 cities, from Istanbul, Turkey to Morgantown, West Virginia. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and the group estimates that it keeps more than 300 tons of trash out of landfills every day, by having members post offers to swap or give away their unwanted surplus to each other. “Even at Salvation Army and Goodwill, you still have to pay for things,” says one member. Why pay when you can get it for free? And even if your ungrateful children don’t want to inherit your lifetime collection of mismatched bicycle parts, someone on Freecycle probably will.
I was ten years old when I first realized my ability to listen to songs in my head. I usually relied on the transistor radio to help put me to sleep, but one night my brother Alan swiped it from me, and my parents had already shut me into my darkened room and warned me not to show my face again until morning. For a while I lay in bed coming up with ways to get even with Alan. Maybe I would make one of his favorite 45s disappear. Of course he would probably retaliate by not letting me listen to any of his records, which would be bad, because the only records left to play would be Mom and Dad’s bargain bin collections by Longines Symphonette, or the soundtrack of The Pajama Game. Alan, on the other hand, had the latest Top 40 hits like “Wooly Bully,” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and “Downtown,” by Petula Clark. But the song I really wanted to hear was the current number one hit, “This Diamond Ring,” by Garry Lewis and the Playboys.
Garry Lewis was the teenage son of comedian Jerry Lewis, who I had seen many times on TV and in movies like The Nutty Professor. Garry’s song “This Diamond Ring” had rocketed to number one on the charts after his father arranged for him to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, like teen idols Elvis, The Beatles, and many others before him. Afterwards, it got so much airplay on the radio that you would practically be guaranteed to hear it on any popular station if you listened for at least a half-hour.
But I couldn’t listen because my radio was gone. Maybe I would stick leftover mashed potatoes into Alan’s shoes. If I kept it a secret, he’d never suspect it was me. Since I’d never done anything like that before, he’d probably try to beat-up my brother Dennis, instead. But what good would getting even be if I didn’t get any credit for it? While I was pondering this, something weird happened. I started to hear “This Diamond Ring” playing. Could it be coming from my radio in Alan’s room? No, the song was much too loud and precise for it to be coming from the tinny speaker of an $8 radio on the other side of the hallway. The song was so clear and overpowering it sounded like it was coming from a radio inside my brain.
This diamond ring doesn’t shine for me anymore
And this diamond ring doesn’t mean what it meant before
So if you’ve got someone whose love is tru-u-ue
Let it shine for yo-ou-ou
It was amazing! I was listening to a hit song on the radio without even having a radio in my room! Even better, I could start the song from any point I wanted, and I could play it over and over again, without being interrupted by commercials for Thom McCann Shoes or Buddy’s Carpet Cleaning. So I proceeded to have a “This Diamond Ring” marathon until finally drifting off into a blissful sleep.
This is how I discovered my ability to listen to the music inside my head. It is an ability that I believe I share with many people, but my talent may be a little more finely tuned than most because I have practiced it diligently ever since that night. I taught myself to play songs on the piano and guitar “by ear,” or really, by trying to make these instruments sound something like the songs playing in my head. I was also very good at remembering song lyrics; I could sing them in sync (though not necessarily in tune) with the original hits playing in my brain. I could also endlessly entertain myself by listening to music while I walked to school, or whenever else I wanted, even learning to turn down the volume of boring lectures by teachers and parents, and turn up the volume of the soundtrack of my life.
So I have never really understood the fascination people have with Walkmen and iPods. Why drag around that extra equipment, and go through the trouble and expense of gathering together all your favorite music into a machine when you’ve already got it in your head, available instantly whenever you want it? Then there’s the worry involved. Is someone going to try to steal my iPod? What if I lose my iPod? What if it breaks? How will I ever recover all my music?
I’ve never lost my brain, and if it breaks, I’m pretty well screwed anyway, so I’m not going to worry too much about what’ll happen to the music in there. As for podcasts, that cutting-edge insight-filled blathering by obscure personalities who would never be allowed on commercial radio, my brain features a never-ending series of podcasts on every subject imaginable. Granted, many of them are repeats, but for the most part, I agree with everything the podcaster has to say, and when I don’t, I can easily shut him up by popping in one of my favorite songs.
On the most recent Space Shuttle mission, something new happened: NASA allowed each of the astronauts to carry an iPod with them into space. That’s right, you, the American taxpayer, spent billions equipping and training these pioneers of our planet so they could go up into the vastness of outer space and experiment with re-mixing their Britney Spears playlists. Were they able to get the latest downloads via satellite from the iTunes store? I’m not sure if results of that research are in yet, but we can be sure that Apple will come out with a really cosmic ad of the iPod-wearing astronauts dancing weightlessly to “Eight Miles High,” or staring out the porthole at a crescent planet while listening to Louis Arm-strong sing “What a Wonderful World.”
Meanwhile, back on Earth, I’ll be spacing out by listening to the voices inside my head, or what I prefer to call the iPod in my brain. And if that is God trying to tell me something, then it’s by singing perfect harmony and playing outstanding licks on electric guitar.
When I went to my grocery store last week all the payment keypads in the checkout lines had been changed, and a big sign announced, “Pay With Your Finger!” Attached to the keypad was a new device, slightly bigger than a computer mouse, with a small round sensor screen that can read fingerprints.
“It’s fast, easy, secure, and free!” said the sign. The company poised to make billions by fingerprinting all my neighbors and speeding us through checkout lines everywhere is called Pay By Touch. As of mid-July, 2.4 million shoppers had already given Pay By Touch “the finger,” along with their linking bank account info. “People either love it or think it’s a sign of the coming apocalypse,” said Amer Hawatmeh, owner of a Tampa convenience store that has signed up hundreds of customers for Pay By Touch. “But to me, it’s the wave of the future.”
There are many people who are worried about the implementation of this technology besides those who believe it may be prophesied in Revelation 13:16 (“And he causeth all to receive a mark in their right hand or foreheads, that no man might buy or sell save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name … 666”). Could it be that the convenience of paying with your finger isn’t worth the trade-offs?
“The problem with all biometric identifiers is that they’re not so easy to replace,” said Lee Tien, a spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Say you lose your keys. You get another key and you change your locks, and you’re back to where you were before. If your credit card number is stolen, you get another credit card and revoke the old one. You can’t do that with biometrics. At a certain point you’re running out of fingers.”
Pay By Touch assures customers that their security is the best in the industry. They are spending millions on data security, and hire “ethical hackers” to try to break into their system, and correct any problems they might find. Pay By Touch also says not to worry that thieves might try to steal your identity by cutting off your finger to use in their machines. Because the scanners take into account the level of moisture on a person’s skin, only live fingers will work.
But experts find flaws in the company’s guarantees. “Our experience has been that most security measures can be defeated,” said Marc Rothenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He noted the story of Japanese cryptographer Tsutomu Matsumoto, who in 2005 fooled 80 percent of the fingerprint scanners he tested using molds made from Gummi Bears candy. Fingerprints can also be faked using Play-Doh or Superglue. “It simply isn’t very hard to do,” said Lee Tien.
Meanwhile, fingerprint scanners and other biometric devices are already making their way into many other areas. At Osset School in England, fingerprint scanners can tell the staff how much each child can spend on lunch, deduct it from their accounts and record what foods they choose. “Over 1,300 students have school lunches each day,” said head teacher Martin Shevill. “Clearly we want to have an efficient and quick system that will pass people through our three dining halls as effectively as possible. Also, if we or a parent are suspicious that a student isn’t eating properly, then it is quite possible to get a printout of that day, or that week, or that fortnight. Then we will be able to see that they have been eating healthy vegetables and plenty of fresh fruit.” What mom or dad wouldn’t be happy to have their kid fingerprinted in order to make sure they’re eating bananas?
Jails are also installing fingerprint recognition systems, although not always with complete success. Under the headline “Jail Biometric Glitch ‘Limited,'” the BBC reported that the Glencohil Prison’s fingerprint system may have let prisoners have access to all parts of the jail, allowing them to settle “old scores.” A prison spokesman said “the degree of sensitivity wasn’t as discriminate as it should have been,” but that prisoners only had access to certain wings of the prison. “Keys are used to access the whole prison.” Hmm. Maybe when the kids at Osset School are done with their fruit, they could be given access to certain wings of their … school. But certainly not places like the teachers’ lounge, where the chocolate covered donuts are kept.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department is already actively using the latest multi-modal readers, which recognize iris, finger, and face biometrics. “The soldiers carry them in their packs,” says Tim Johnson, of Securimetrics. “If they kick down a door in Falluja, or wherever, they can line the suspects up and check their IDs to see if they are on the database. Every prison camp in Iraq is using them for incoming and outgoing prisoners.”
Of course, biometric ID, linking a person with vast databases of personal information, isn’t just for suspected criminals. The Homeland Security Department would like to make fingerprints or iris scans part of state-issued ID cards for travelers and people collecting federal benefits. And 27 countries in Europe have already signed up for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which demands that all passports issued after October 26th must contain a machine readable chip with the passport holder’s details and a biometric identifier.
Are we coming to a time, in the near future, when you can’t travel, collect Social Security benefits, or buy a piece of fruit without being fingerprinted? “Our wait time and checkout time is one and a half minutes,” said the manager at my grocery store. “With this new system, we think we can cut that in half!” All right! Forty-five seconds more, just for me! But if I had any doubt at all whether Pay With Your Finger would become a success, I only had to look at the smiling face of the lady behind me in line. “Wow,” she said. “Is this cool or what!?”
I’ve entered my second childhood this year. Turning 50 has been a great excuse for my half-century friends and I to have dazzling parties, exotic vacations, and any number of fantasies acted upon, before we become too old to remember what it was we always wanted to do. But one of the best entertainments of the year has been revisiting the almost ancient past, the late 1950s, when we first learned to crawl, walk, and talk back to our parents.
Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, in a neighborhood filled with other kids, I remember endless hours of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, Nazis and Allies; basically any game that involved choosing up sides and then trying to capture or kill each other. We also had terrific free-for-all battles using water hoses to blast each other and throwing volleys of crabapples, acorns, buckeyes, and rotten pears at the enemies of the day.
The guy who owned the Good Humor franchise lived on our block, so not only would the Good Humor truck come around with great frequency, playing its twinkly music and dispensing ice-cream treats to all the screaming little kids, but the Good Humor man would let us ride in the truck with him around other neighborhoods and ring the bell. Lots of other guys used to drive trucks selling things, too, like the Milkman, the Produce man, and the Meat man. Nowadays I imagine how great it would be if we had a Good Handyman truck, or a Good Babysitter Bus prowling our neighborhood for business.
All my siblings were between 11 and 14 years older than me, and I got to tag along through parts of their ’50s teenage experiences (because my Mom insisted they take me with them, so she could have a few minutes of peace and quiet). We went places like the drive-in, where waitresses wearing roller skates would bring trays of hamburgers and malts that would attach to our partly rolled up car window, while we listened on the AM radio to the latest hit singles by Elvis (“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!”), and The Coasters (“Yakety Yak, Don’t Talk Back!”).
All the teenagers wanted to look cool and act cool, which for the boys meant greasing their hair with Brylcreem and wearing tight t-shirts with their cigarette packs stuck under the sleeve at their biceps, while snapping their fingers and singing four part harmonies. I have my brothers to thank for the fact that I’m not a smoker, because when I was about four years old they gave me puffs of their cigarettes until I got so sick I never wanted to smoke another cigarette again.
Without air-conditioning we spent much of the summer hanging out on various porches, where everybody in the neighborhood was given a nickname. The boy nicknamed “Sewer” because of his sewer mouth made up most of our nicknames. Sewer is now a talk-radio host in California. “Sig” (after Sigmund Freud) went on to undergo years of analysis. “Tsetse” (like the fly that causes malaria) became a doctor specializing in exotic diseases.
I was nicknamed “Ivan Skavinsky Skevar,” after a popular song, that was one of President Eisenhower’s favorites:
There are brave men in plenty, and well known to fame,
In the army that’s run by the Czar,
But the bravest of all was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skevar.
He could imitate Irving, tell fortunes by cards,
And play on the Spanish guitar.
In fact, quite the cream of the Muscovite team
Was Ivan Skavinsky Skevar.
I was given this nickname because my grandfather fled Russia to escape a 20-year induction into the Czar’s army, and, coincidentally, I was good at mimicking my father, whose name was Irving. My fortune-telling and Spanish guitar-playing abilities came later in life.
In my house, Grandpa lived in the sunroom, next to the living room, and used to smear Vick’s Vapor Rub all over his chest each night, and all over mine, too, if I complained of a sore throat, or started sniffling or sneezing. Grandpa used to make wine in five gallon clay jugs, out of elderberries or plums, and then store it in a little room under the basement steps where he could frequently be found, sampling to see if it was ready. Another room in the basement was the dark room, filled with chemicals and strange equipment, where my brother Alan sometimes printed black and white photographs, and sometimes snuck into with his girlfriend.
The technology of the ’50s was amazing. We shared a party phone line with the neighbors, so I could often pick up the receiver and listen in to one of their daughters telling the latest gossip about the seniors at her school. Or maybe that was my own sister. No matter, it was still fun to secretly listen in. I think George Bush never outgrew this stage of childhood. The phone we used back then was a black rotary dial model, which my mom continued to rent from the phone company for over 50 years, until she finally moved. The amazing thing was, even though the dial was incredibly slow, and the ring was anemic by the end, it still worked, and had much better sound than most of the phones I use nowadays.
Then there was the fun of going down to the shoe store to watch the bones wiggling inside your feet. Here’s a radio commercial from back then:
“Every parent will want to hear this important news! Now, at last, you can be certain that your children’s foot health is not being jeopardized by improperly fitting shoes. Miller Shoes is now featuring the new Adrian Fluoroscopic X-Ray Shoe Fitting machine that gives you visual proof in a second that your children’s shoes fit. The Adrian Special Shoe Fitting Machine has been awarded the famous Parent’s Magazine Seal of Commendation
The latest technology allows your Nike shoes to tell your iPod how fast you’re going or how many calories you’ve burned during your random shuffle workout. And thanks to the satellite-based Global Positioning System, originally developed by the Navy to guide their nuclear missiles to vaporize Russia, you can now use your cell phone to guide you to any McDonalds on the planet. I’m sure it won’t be long before we’re even able to use GPS to have our iPods guide us to our misplaced Nike shoes.
On the other hand, Scott Silverman, the Chairman of the VeriChip Corporation, has proposed implanting the company’s RFID tracking chip into immigrant and guest workers. Responding to President Bush’s call to know “who is in our country and why they are here,” Silverman suggested using his company’s implants to register all workers at the border, and confirm their identities at their jobs. Livestock and lab animals have been “chipped” for decades and Silverman said, “We have talked to many people in Washington about using it” for immigrants.
The near-future could be the amazing time when we do things like cure cancer. Researchers from Harvard and MIT have already designed nanoparticles with genetic chunks that can recognize the surface molecules on cancer cells. These nanoparticles can attach themselves to cancer cells, burrow inside, and then release toxins to destroy them.
On the other hand, this type of nanotechnology requires trillions of such intelligently designed devices to be effective. To create these cancer killing “nanobots” on such a scale it will probably be necessary to enable them to self-replicate. But in the same way that cancer cells are a biological self-replicate that has gone wrong, nanobot self-replication could also go wrong, leading to something called the “gray-goo scenario.”
If a self-replicating nanobot got out of control, it would need to create about 1039 copies of itself to replace the entire biomass of the planet. This could be accomplished with 130 replications, each of which would double the amount of crazed nanobots, along with the amount of destroyed biomass. If each doubling takes about 100 seconds, then the entire Earth could theoretically be turned into a gray goo of nanobots in about three and a half hours.
So what’ll it be: Will we destroy cancer, or will we destroy ourselves? Will we find our lost shoes, or will we herd immigrants around like sheep and experiment on them like lab rats?
On college campuses the kids who will need to figure these things out are trying to get smarter & by taking drugs. The use of “smart pills” is exploding, because of their supposed ability to increase concentration, focus, wakefulness, and short term memory. Legal drugs such as Adderall, originally developed for people with attention-deficit disorder, and Provigil, for narcolepsy, are suddenly hot black market items in college libraries and dorms throughout America. “You’re going to see this trend continue, not only in schools, but in business, where mental endurance matters,” said Richard Restak, a Washington neurologist. “It’s a very competitive world out there, and this gives people an edge.”
Students using these drugs have reported various side effects such as weight-loss, sleep-loss and jitters. Another unexpected result is some of the cleanest dorm rooms in college history. As one student explained, “You’ve done all your work, but you’re still focused. So you start with the bathroom, and then move on to the kitchen”
Soon drugs (initially aimed at Alzheimer’s patients) will be available that can improve memory by 20 to 50 percent. How long before users of these “brain steroids” start setting new SAT and chem finals test records? Will physics fans boo when Barry Bondobrain comes up with a unified field theory that breaks Albert Einstein’s universe?
Then there are the robots. At a recent Robot Exhibition in Tokyo a barmanbot was mixing perfect cocktails, without ever spilling a drop. Its developer reported, “We are in talks with various American hotels to have these robots serving behind the bar. They never get ill. They never get tired.” Nearby, the Actroid DER, a life-sized robot receptionist, was busy answering questions in four languages, while pointing her servo-assisted finger to help guide questioners toward their intended destinations. An elegantly attired Ballroom Dancing Robot was teaching her human partner some new steps. In the near future robots will be available to clean house, look after children, and care for the elderly. South Korea has set a goal that 100 percent of households should have a domestic robot by 2020.
Other robot uses may prove far more controversial. “People are going to be having sex with robots in the next five years,” says Dr. Henrik Christensen, chairman of the European Robotics Network. “People are willing to have sex with inflatable dolls, so initially anything that moves will be an improvement.”
Even more controversial are robots being developed for military use. The unmanned Predator aircraft is already responsible for numerous reconnaissance functions and assassinations in the Middle East. But much smaller unmanned aerial vehicles the size of bumblebees, and with similar navigational ability, are now being contemplated. Only these “bumblebees'” stings could be lethal.
Robots that behave like insects are also being developed by European researchers to create a robo-cockroach. When their matchbox-sized “insbot” is sprayed with roach pheromones, its programmed behavior is enough to convince real roaches to follow it out of their dark hiding places and into the light. Instead of having to saturate living spaces with dangerous chemicals, St. Insbot could one day lead all the roaches in Ireland out to a place where they could be easily disposed of. Then we might have a huge, drunken, roach-free celebration in Insbot’s honor.
Deadly bumblebees or saintly robo-roaches? The future gets more interesting every day.
In the future our hamburgers won ‘t come from slaughtered cattle. Instead every household will have a tabletop nanofactory, which will be easily programmed to produce almost any material we desire. If we want hamburger, we ‘ll simply tell our little factory how much of it to make for dinner, and the nanobot assemblers, using atoms as raw material, will crank out pesticide-free, hormone-free, mad-cow-safe beef, ready to grill, fry, or add to spaghetti sauce. No sentient being will suffer, no rainforests will be slashed and burned, and no methane gas will be released to destroy the ozone. The cost of manufacturing hamburgers (or any other physical product) will be reduced to pennies per pound. Although it won ‘t make it any easier to decide what to have for dinner, this low cost manufacturing process will essentially solve the problem of world hunger.
What ‘s more, based on the many scientific trend lines shown in Ray Kurzweil ‘s newest book The Singularity is Near, this amazing nanotechnology will become available within the lifetimes of most people reading this paragraph, probably by the late 2020s.
Much of the future predicted by Kurzweil ‘s book is easy to imagine. For example, we will move toward a decentralized education system where every student will have access to the highest quality teaching. Major universities are already making many courses available online, so that even students in remote areas (like Kansas) can take classes on subjects not offered by their local schools (like Evolution ). But a huge leap has been made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is currently offering 900 of its courses – half of all its course offerings – for free online. By the early 2010s, virtual reality environments “will be full immersion, very high resolution, and very convincing,” says Kurzweil. “Most colleges will follow MIT’s lead, and students will increasingly attend class virtually.”
Pretty soon that teenager who locks himself in his room with a computer and cell phone for hours a day, only surfacing occasionally for nachos and Red Bull, might become a college student doing approximately the same thing. Their room will become a virtual lab, where they can perform experiments in chemistry and particle physics, or have wild safe-sex orgies in their virtual dorms. Their room will also become a virtual classroom, where lectures will be given, simultaneously translated into any language, by the leading professors and experts in every field. No longer will parents have to come up with $30,000+ a year to provide kids with the best available college experience, they’ll just need to fix up an extra room in the basement and equip it with a shower, minifridge and Internet access.
Of course, not everyone will want to be locked away in their parents’ basement. With the advent of ubiquitous wireless Internet people will be free to go anywhere, while still remaining in contact with whatever group they are a part of. Communication displays will be built into our eyeglasses and contact lenses, with images projected directly onto our retinas. Cell phones already exist that are part of your clothing, and project sound directly to your ears, and there is an MP3 player that vibrates your skull to play music that only you can hear. So, in the future, that person on the subway who is babbling to themselves and seems to be having a spaz attack, may instead be taking part in a seminar at MIT, or a virtual dance party at the virtual frat house.
Energy production will also become decentralized. The manufacture of nanoengineered fuel cells and solar panels (at pennies per pound) will allow for almost all energy to be collected and converted where it is being used. We won’t have to worry about disruptions in our energy supply lines, or terrorists attacking oil tankers or nuclear power plants, because there won’t be any. We’ll no longer need to strip mine land for coal, or cut down forests for agriculture, fuel, or building materials either. (If we want wooden two by fours, or kitchen cabinets, our tabletop nanofactories can crank them out, pre-cut to exact measurements.) Instead people will move out of overcrowded urban areas to live and build in newly replanted forests, commuting to school or work virtually, designing and making their own clothes and furnishings out of atoms from dirt or garbage, and eating as many hamburgers as they want.
Oh, and by the way, these new back-to-the-landers might be doing such things for a long time because with advanced medical technologies people will be able to live for hundreds, or possibly thousands of years.
Is there a potential downside to this coming techno-revolution? You bet there is. (Can you say “gray goo”?) But I’ll leave that as the subject of another column. This month we can dream about the day energy efficient fuel cells can run on ordinary ethanol as demonstrated recently by researchers from St. Louis University. “We’ve run it on various types of drinkable alcohol,” said Nick Akers, a grad student who worked on the project. “It didn’t like carbonated beer and doesn’t seem fond of wine, but anything else works fine.” Hydrogen ions from the alcohol combine with oxygen in the air to produce power. The byproduct, or “exhaust” of this process is water vapor.
Hey, I’ll drink to that.
What did past generations do without lint traps in their dryers? Our lint traps may be at the forefront of the technology revolution that is tumbling away the way we live in 2006. The reason there is always so much lint in our lint traps is that they’re trapping all the lint that has existed on earth for the millions of years before traps were invented. After only a few more laundry loads, some scientists predict that our lint traps, like the rest of our environment, may become entirely lint-free. With recent advances in nanotechnology, can the end of static cling be far behind?
Another remarkable technology, sure to be ever more prevalent in the coming year, is wi-fi. It is comforting to know that now, even if I were to become homeless due to King Kong-induced hurricanes or tidal waves, I’d still be able to use my laptop computer at a variety of public coffee houses, or random sidewalk grating “hotspots” to connect to the Internet and download the latest Desperate Housewives episode, for only $1.99.
Yet, even as the newest technology propels us into the future, we can still cling patriotically to the dreams of our innocent American youth. My internal combustion engine continues to explode old Sinclair dinosaurs in order to drive Detroit pistons to spin Firestone tires and roll my Ford Model T-Rex down to the 7-11 to buy another six-pack of Bud and bag of Cheetos. If this doesn’t prove that we’re the most evolved species in the history of the Earth, then it must at least be an argument for intelligently designed ad campaigns.
The coming year will bring us more advanced and temptingly packaged technology that is certain to improve our lives right up to the point where our credit cards are completely maxed out. This will occur sometime around May 10th. After that it will be up to the Communist Chinese to lend us our dollars back so we can keep buying more of their excellently made, amazingly inexpensive, American brand name products.
• Half the Truth is often a great Lie. – Ben Franklin
• If you are not part of the solution, you must be part of the Bush Administration.
• If you always do what you always do, then you’ll always be stuck in the same do-do.
• If you are never scared, embarrassed, or confused, you must not have teenagers.
• If you believe everything you read, don’t read. – Chinese proverb
• If you can smile when things go wrong, there’s a job opening for you at FEMA.
• If you don’t know where you are going, any fool can take you there.
• If you can’t say something nice, consider a career in talk-radio.
• Just because you don’t like the way you were born doesn’t mean your mother will want to participate in you being born again.
• Beware of the young-looking dentist, or the old-looking cosmetic surgeon.
• If you don’t love, you can’t live. If you don’t live, at least buy a good insurance policy.
• If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it. On the other hand, if you lend someone $20,000 and never see them again, you may want to hire a detective.
• If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re missing the best joke there is.
• If you’re only willing to pay peanuts, you’d better enjoy working with monkeys.
• If you want a thing done well, don’t hire your cousin’s kid.
• If you want to be a leader with a large following, obey the speed limit on a winding, two-lane road. – Charles Farr
• If you want to feel rich and powerful, just visit any millionaire’s grave.
• If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, would you still reverse the charges?
• Three congressmen may keep a secret, providing two of them are dead and the third one hasn’t been offered a plea bargain by the special prosecutor.
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” – Woody Allen
Ray Kurzweil is going to live forever. And, if you can stay healthy for another 25 years, you might, too.
In his latest book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, Kurzweil lays out how the acceleration of developments in biotechnology and nanotechnology will push human life spans toward virtual immortality by the 2030s. “The killer app for nanotechnology, about twenty years away, is nanobots,” he says. “Inside our bodies and brains, nanobots will provide radical life extension by destroying pathogens and cancer cells, repairing DNA errors, destroying toxins and otherwise reversing aging processes.”
In case you missed the original Fantastic Voyage, the 1966 sci-fi movie is the story of Raquel Welch on a submarine shrunken to microscopic size (except for her breasts) whose mission is to save a diplomat who has nearly been assassinated. The microscopic submarine and crew is injected into the diplomat’s bloodstream to remove a life threatening blood clot. There’s also a lot of stuff about the CIA and the Iron Curtain and white blood cells more terrifying than Godzilla, but the important thing which Kurzweil is trying to tell anyone old enough to remember Fantastic Voyage is this: It’s all going to become true! In the not-too-distant future we’re all going to have these miniature submarines zipping around our bodies, searching out all the old Communists, and bad cholesterol, and B-movie actors, making us healthier than we’ve ever been.
Kurzweil, now 56, could be a poster child for the baby-boom generation. He’s been a fantastically successful inventor and entrepreneur, responsible for the creation of such wonders as the flatbed computer scanner, the first text-to-speech reading machine for the blind, OCR (optical character recognition) technology and music synthesizers. Now, as the result of his latest scientific insights, he’s trying to become the healthiest man on the planet. He believes he’s already given himself the body of a 40-year- old. “I’ve been reprogramming the biochemistry of my own body for 20 years. I take about 250 supplements each day and weekly intravenous therapies.” His daily routine includes drinking eight to ten glasses of alkaline water, ten cups of green tea, and peeing almost as constantly as the famous Manneken Pis boy fountain. Periodically, he tracks and “fine tunes his programming” using 40 to 50 fitness indicators, down to his “tactile sensitivity.” He’s also very careful not to tailgate, jaywalk, or eat potato salad that’s been left sitting out at a picnic. A man who plans to live forever doesn’t take a lot of chances.
But is he the prime candidate to become the world’s first death-defying immortal or is he a death-phobic hypochondriac? Throughout history men have attempted to live forever. Seventeen hundred years ago, Chinese alchemist Ko Hung believed that men could become immortal by strictly limiting their food intake. Famous 13th century English philosopher Roger Bacon believed immortality could be achieved by adopting the “Secret Arts of the Past.” Explorer Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in his quest for the Fountain of Youth. What do all these ancient purveyors of immortality have in common? They are all dead.
Kurzweil argues that all these great men were right, they just were born too soon. But those of us alive today may want to cash out our life insurance policies and postpone buying cemetery plots, because, according to Aubrey de Grey, a geneticist at Cambridge University, “life expectancy will be in the region of 5,000 years by the year 2100.”
I’m trying to imagine what the world of 7005 will look like if these guys are right. My generation, the baby boomers, have never really accepted that we’re going to get old. Maybe it’s because we won’t! We’ll still be listening to “In-A-Gada-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly on the Classic Rock station, and smoking dope out behind the garage. We’ll be skateboarding or rollerblading or hula-hooping or frisbeeing on the boardwalk, and shopping for groovy second hand clothes at the thrift stores. Wait; will clothes last 5,000 years, too? Will I just throw a handful of nanobots into the laundry to fix the holes in my tie-dyes?
How about Social Security? President Bush is worried the trust fund is going to start going broke in 20 years when the baby boomers are all retired; how’s it going to look in another 200, or 2,000 years when we’re still around, blowing our Social Security checks on more self-improvement tapes and psychic hotline calls? Can you imagine what Thanksgiving dinner is going to be like when you have to invite not just your children and grandchildren, but their children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren and Oh my God! The alimony payments could go on, literally forever!
I’m not sure most of us are really prepared to live so long. As Susan Ertz once said,”Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” If you believe in Karma and re-incarnation, you will realize that in this life on Earth you may have only achieved a level of universal enlightenment equivalent to that of a fly. Maybe in the next life you will reach the level of a butterfly. Or possibly even an Iron Butterfly.
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, baby. Don’t ya know that I love you-oo-oooo.
Baby Boomers Rock! Baby Boomers, forever! Baby Boomers, be careful what you wish for.
Scientists have been spending a great deal of time thinking about their brains lately, wondering how to make them bigger, more powerful, and ultimately like Einstein’s brain; worth preserving in a jar to be admired by future generations of brainy scientists.
Brains are important to scientists because they use them literally all day long to try to solve the mysteries of the universe, such as, “Is there life on Mars, and if so, is there some way to exploit it in order to obtain another government research grant?” Whereas the rest of us mostly use our brains as short-term storage devices to ponder things like “What was the name of the Chinese restaurant my wife told me has our take-out order?” and quandaries such as, “Is this power outage due to possible terrorist attack or did I forget to pay the electric bill again?”
Since scientists depend on their brains for their livelihood, they worry about things that might do damage to them, whereas the rest of us worry if we can pour the last pint out of the beer keg directly into our mouths, without wasting a drop. Recently, researchers at the University of Washington found that prolonged exposure to low-level magnetic fields like those generated by hair dryers, electric razors, and similar household devices can damage brain cell DNA. Furthermore, the damage appears to build up with repeated exposure over time.
This apparently confirms something many of us have suspected; people with the most elaborately coiffed hair are probably missing more than a few brain cells. And the longer they work perfecting their hairdos, the more serious the brain damage becomes. This also explains why many scientists look like wild-eyed, half-shaven maniacs. It is exactly this type of individual who has managed to maintain the greatest percentage of their gray matter, and therefore is capable of discovering many amazing things about the rest of us. Ordinary people’s continued use of household electrical appliances may also explain their willingness to continue to volunteer as subjects for science experiments.
For example, what were the 112 employees of the Wesbury United Methodist Retirement Community thinking when scientists asked them to regularly stay after work and join in a giant drumming circle? “Gee whiz, I always wanted to be in a drum group with everybody at the nursing home. Here’s my chance!” At any rate, the scientists found that after six drum circle sessions, participants experienced a 50 percent improvement in their mood, including a decrease in feelings of fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Moreover, during the year following the drumming sessions, 49 fewer employees resigned than had the previous year, which saved the nursing home $400,000 in costs associated with training new drummers.
As a parent of three, this research doesn’t surprise me. I’ve known for years of the therapeutic benefits of living in a house where the children are constantly beating on drums and pounding other percussion instruments such as tambourines, silverware, plates, tables, walls, windows, and each other’s flesh. As the result of being exposed to this constant level of invidious pounding noise, I often am able to note a 50 percent improvement in my mood, simply by walking out my front door.
Now thanks to scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany, I know how to rebuild the lost brain cells that may have been the result of too many years of child-rearing, shaving and blow-drying. Researchers there found that mastering juggling increases the amount of gray matter in the brain. No matter whether the juggling is done with balls, clubs, flaming torches, or knives, this finding has proven something that was thought impossible learning to juggle can alter the brain’s structure, and increase your hat size!
Other researchers have also been thinking hard about their brains. Dr. Marcos Frank discovered that the brain needs sleep, and that every animal, even flies, experience a state like sleep. I don’t know how late the doctor had to stay up before he caught a fly napping, but I do know that his discovery could mark the beginning of a whole new American manufacturing industry: fly pillows, pajamas, and stylish bedroom accessories.
A University of Wisconsin team found that volunteers who took part in an eight-week course on meditation had a more stimulated brain, and showed resiliency against infection. Not surprisingly, contemplating the void turns out to be more stimulating than contemplating the ABC Thursday night TV schedule. Another scientist discovered that nicotine improves memory and helps the brain repair itself. Unfortunately, while his brain was repairing itself, his lungs were turning as black as Darth Vader’s heart. Meanwhile, a study by the University of Kentucky found that breast-fed babies have an IQ three to five points higher than that of formula-fed babies.
This is about as much science research as I can cram into one column using my puny, non-scientific brain, and probably more than most readers will ever need to know about. So let’s recap what we’ve learned: A breast-fed baby who gets plenty of sleep, drums, meditates, smokes, and learns to juggle while managing to avoid small household appliances, is the most likely to climb to the top of the great brain summit, and become a scientist. If you know an individual like this, do your part in helping mankind solve the mysteries of the universe. Give them a jar full of flies or a nest of lab rats. Someday the super-intelligent, bioengineered life forms of the future will be grateful you did.
The owner of CleanFlicks video stores in Utah is suing some of Hollywood’s biggest movie directors, including Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Martin Scorcese and Steven Soderbergh, for the right to censor their movies, and then rent or sell the “cleaned up” videotapes.
CleanFlicks claims they have a First Amendment right to excise foul language, sexual content and violence from videos destined for private use. “The interest of these plaintiffs is to remove the ‘rough edges’ – the objectionable content – only for the family viewing audience,” CleanFlicks’ spokesman said. Their customers “personal sensitivities don’t allow them to view the unaltered work, but they appreciate the storyline or historical context and want to be able to view the movie, without having to listen to the ‘F’ word.”
With the advent of new technology a whole industry of do-it-yourself censorship has sprung up in America. For example, Trilogy Studios founder Breck Rice said that his company’s MovieMask software does not alter movie content, but instead masks offensive material on DVDs. “It’s like taking a Picasso home,” he said. “Other companies in our space are painting right on that masterpiece and permanently altering it. It’s been changed and it’s no longer a Picasso. We put a piece of cellophane over it; you can remove the cellophane, and it’s still the same painting.”
I’m not sure what Picasso would have thought about anti-Blue Period parents racing around museums, just ahead of their children, taping cellophane over his nudes. But the Directors Guild of America is mad enough to use the “F” word, and is countersuing CleanFlicks. “We are appalled at the proliferation of companies that bypass the copyright holder and the filmmaker and arbitrarily alter the creative expression and hard work of the many artists involved in filmmaking,” said director Steven Soderbergh, who is first vice president of the DGA. “It is unconscionable, and unethical, to take someone else’s hard work, alter it and profit from it. Would anyone even attempt to defend ripping pages out of a book, leaving the author’s name on it and then selling it?”
I guess Soderbergh never read one of Reader’s Digest’s abridged books. Or maybe he’s never watched any of the censored versions of movies that play almost constantly on network and cable TV, interrupted every five to ten minutes to sell us more sex, lies, and self-help videotapes. Whether the directors like it or not, technology will soon be available to filter out whatever the consumer wishes to. CleanFlicks Mormon customers happen to be afraid of, and upset by nudity and bad language. But Americans are filled with all sorts of fears. Afraid of terrorists? Simply edit them out of your news. Does John Ashcroft nauseate you? Slap a filter on your media input and you’ll never have to see or hear him whine again. Offended by overweight comedians? Banish John Goodman, Rosie O’Donnell, Chris Farley, and Jackie Gleason forever. Can’t stand smokers or alcoholics? Expunge them and their filthy habits.
Gone will be the days of searching for hours through the video store for something that you might like. You’ll just type in all your desires and interests and a tailor made entertainment will come streaming your way. Your TV and media viewing can become as carefully constructed as an ad in the personals for a roommate. “Seeking hot, young, professional, vegetarians, good at Bulgarian folk dances and cat grooming to solve murder-mystery on the high seas in 18th century period costumes.”
Freedom of the press used to only be for people who owned their own printing press. Now, with the advent of the internet it is possible for anyone to self-publish and have access to an audience of millions, although in practice the only way you can get millions of hits is if you’re self-publishing nude photos of Britney Spears. So, in America today, freedom of the press is for those who either own a press or have pictures of Britney Spears naked.
But that will all change soon, as those naked pictures continue to drive the demand for the various new filtering and censoring technologies. CleanFlicks got its start in 1998 by selling 1700 edited copies of Titanic. The only scene it censored was the one of Kate Winslet posing nude for an artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The holy grail of filtering software is a program that will automatically act as a parent would act, and shield children from graphic sex, violence, and bad language, while nagging them to sit up straight and finish doing their reports.
Instead, the opposite is just as likely to occur. As one movie censor software executive said, “Once software enters the marketplace, someone will figure out how to alter that program for other purposes. If a program can slap a blouse on Kate Winslet in Titanic, someone could also alter the technology to take her clothes off. And how would that play in Utah?”
Last week while Dan, my acupuncturist, was sticking needles into my eyebrows, he told me about one of his patients who had moved out of state. Recently the man called Dan for an appointment. “Oh, are you in town visiting?” asked Dan.
“No,” said the patient.
“Well, how do expect me to treat you? Are you going to send me a voodoo doll to work on?”
“No,” said the patient. “I was hoping that while I lay here on my couch, you can imagine that I’m laying there on your table, and stick needles where you think they should go. I’ll let you know if it’s helping.”
Dan was a little skeptical about this, but the man had been a good patient, and was perfectly willing to pay for this treatment. So Dan tried it. Amazingly, the treatment seemed to help his patient recover from a serious kidney infection.
“That’s great, Dan,” I told him. “You can be a pioneer in a whole new field of medicine, virtual acupuncture. You’ll get all the patients who are too squeamish to have real needles stuck into them.
Plus, think of the time and energy you’ll be saving people. They won’t have to waste gasoline, add to traffic congestion, or re-read old Yoga Today magazines in your waiting room.”
I told this story to my friend Jeff, who’s a housepainter. “Boy, I wish I could use that technique in my work. I could stay at home and keep an eye on the kids while I was painting somebody’s house.”
“Let’s try it on my house, Jeff,” I said. “Sue has been wanting to repaint our living room.”
“I just painted that last year!”
“I know, but she doesn’t like the color anymore. She thinks it’s too dark. Maybe you could virtually repaint it a lighter color. Then we wouldn’t have to disrupt the whole house again with paint fumes and furniture moving. Not to mention that annoying guy who kept taking coffee breaks and raiding my refrigerator.”
“I could still raid your refrigerator.”
“You could raid your own refrigerator, but pretend it’s mine. That way all the food will taste better.”
“I’m not sure that’s going to work.”
“Let’s just try it. What have we got to lose? But don’t tell Sue, ok? I want it to be a surprise.” So, Jeff virtually repainted our navy blue living room the lemon chiffon color that Sue had picked out of a sample book. The day he was done Sue told me she had changed her mind about painting the living room.
“It really doesn’t seem so bad, anymore. Maybe it’s because it’s spring and the light is changing, but it seems much brighter in here lately. It even smells better. Kind of lemony.”
Now I’m beginning to see a whole new world of virtual possibility:
• Virtual lawn care – Instead of having a Chemlawn truck come by once a month and spray poison on your lawn, just imagine that your lawn is healthy and full of lucious green grass.
• Virtual shopping – The complete shopping experience is available to you, and you don’t need a catalog or an internet hook-up to participate. Simply take a walk around your neighborhood, but imagine that you are at the local shopping mall. Feel free to browse, try things on, ask the sales clerk to bring out more styles and colors, or even try to bargain down the prices. When you’re satisfied with your selections give them your imaginary credit card and check out. Remember, if you get home and don’t like how things look in front of your mirror, you can always return them for a full refund.
• Virtual lawsuits – You can save $200 an hour plus a lot of time and aggravation if you take your petty grievances to a virtual lawyer. You can rant and rave about how unfair your boss, neighbor, or father-in-law is and then sue them for everything they’ve got. Your virtual lawyer is never too busy to take your calls. He’ll make motions, call witnesses, give his dramatic soliloquy to the judge and jury, and you’ll have the verdict decided before it’s time for dinner.
• Virtual cable TV – Instead of spending $40 a month and wasting hundreds of hours looking for something worthwhile to view, just sit down peacefully in a chair and imagine that you are watching the best show that has ever been written. Be sure to remember the highlights so you can share them tomorrow at the office watercooler.
• Virtual psychiatrist – the perfect person to visit if any of your friends or family ever says that you are virtually insane, which they are likely to do if they find out you’ve been trying any of the techniques recommended in this article.
It used to be that the only people worth spying on were world leaders, scientists experimenting with ways to blow up the planet, or, most frequently, Hollywood stars who were having affairs with other Hollywood stars. But now that some video cameras have shrunk to the size of a sesame seed, and sophisticated surveillance technology comes bundled with your breakfast cereal, it has become possible to spy on everyone. In fact surveillance has become so commonplace that the average New Yorker now spends more time on camera every day than Katie Couric or Tom Brokaw do.
But what if you don’t want Big Brother snooping around your life, anymore than you wanted little brother in your closet when you were 16 and talking on the phone to your girlfriend? Is there some way to grab the Big Creep by his ear and remove him in such a way that he won’t bother you again, but will also not run and try to get you in trouble with Big Mom and Big Dad? Here are some of the newest spy techniques that are being used to monitor you, and ways that you might foil them:
In New York City alone, there are over 2,400 cameras filming public space, including cameras on buildings, ATMs, traffic lights, and even restrooms. And as one expert said, “The demonstrated tendency of Closed Circuit Television operators to single out ethnic minorities for observation and to voyeuristically focus on women’s breasts and buttocks provides ample reason to avoid public surveillance cameras.” The same expert also noted the proliferation of spy-cam websites, and increasing commercial incentives for distributing closed circuit video footage to reality-based media shows like Cops and America’s Funniest Home Videos.
To foil: A new internet service called iSee was created (appliedautonomy.com/isee/). It’s kind of like Mapquest for those of us who are weirded out by the feeling of being watched constantly. The service guides people through Manhattan along routes with the fewest surveillance cameras. Of course, if you enjoy being watched, or simply want to moon the greatest number of security technicians, you can map out a path that will maximize your exposure, and increase the chances of your appearance on nationally syndicated reruns.
Spy technique: In Japan researchers at Tokyo University recently unveiled the world’s first electronically-guided cockroach. The cockroach, surgically implanted with a micro-robotic backpack that allows researchers to control its movements, is known as Robo-roach. Within a few years, similarly controlled insects carrying mini-cameras or other sensory devices could be slipping under doors for espionage.
To foil: Create your own army of radio controlled cockroaches to patrol your home, on the lookout for enemy spies. They should probably be equipped with tiny little laser guns (or spray cans of Raid) to destroy the enemy. Instead of a missile shield to protect us from nuclear weapons, the CIA will undoubtedly soon demand billions of dollars to train and equip a force of millions of roaches to protect us from enemy spies. In addition, an army of trainers will be needed, to control and maneuver the roaches in their mission of protecting and defending our most vital secrets, while seeking out the tastiest morsels of garbage. Both the men and roaches will probably be recruited from the same poor urban neighborhoods.
Spy technique: Cameras and other electronic monitoring devices so tiny they can be secretly dropped into a milkshake, so that you will swallow them. This will allow detailed tracking of your most personal health data, for purposes such as deciding whether you are a good candidate for life insurance or a new job.
To foil: Milk of Magnesia, or bean burritos from Taco Loco.
Spy technique: Thermal imaging satellite cameras, that allow the military to track the movements of troops even in the dark.
To foil: A potential 21st century food being developed for military use by a team headed by Purdue University’s Michael Ladisch, a professor of agriculture and biological engineering. The new food, a seemingly ordinary chocolate bar, contains special nutrients to change body temperature, thus making soldiers not only warmer in cold climates but also rendering them “invisible” to an enemy’s thermal-imaging equipment. Researchers are still working to solve the problems of side-effects, which included spontaneous combustion of chocoholic lab rats.
Spy technique: A television that can watch you far more carefully than you watch it. Microsoft recently announced it will be using Predictive Networks’ technology to track the viewing habits of people who use Microsoft TV interactive products. Some potential users are concerned over the prospect of being observed by their household appliances, and said they would not knowingly purchase a product that tracked their entertainment preferences. “I don’t want my TV taking notes on what I’m watching. I don’t want my kid’s game console tracking what he’s playing. I don’t want my CD player collecting data on my music collection,” said Kelley Consco, who was shopping for holiday gifts at Radio Shack. “It’s just too creepy.”
To foil: Have a sophisticated device like TIVO tape hours and hours of programming for you to watch at your leisure, zipping through commercials and anything else not worth your time. Then Microsoft, and spies like it, will never know what you’re watching, and it won’t matter anyway because the truth is you don’t have time to watch your TIVO anymore than you have time to watch your TV. Your TIVO will be stacked up with hundreds of hours of unwatched video in the same way that your living room is stacked up with hundreds of unread newspapers, magazines, and books, that you are saving for when you have the time. All these predictive, interactive spy technologies are doing is recording what we users think we’d like to watch and read, but not what we’re actually spending our time doing, which is fixing the toilet that just overflowed, and running out to the drug store for medicine for the kid who’s got a fever of 104, and answering unsolicited phone calls from people wanting us to refinance our houses, while trying to squeeze in time to maybe cook and eat something for dinner. Then finally collapsing in our beds. (Right. Not much interesting surveillance available in the bedroom, either).