Friday, January 1, 2016

Welcome to the Future

New Year’s Day is completely arbitrary – and truly necessary and important. Various days have been the beginning of a new year. The vernal and autumnal equinoxes became May Day and Hallowe’en celebrations: planting or harvest, take your pick. The Romans formerly marked the vernal equinox, but adopted the Winter Solstice from the Egyptians. Julius Caesar made January 1 the start of the New Year. The important fact is that we denote a time to evaluate and re-evaluate, to leave the losses behind and invest in the profitable returns.

It is difficult to imagine the future. The Jetsons or the Gernsback Continuum could only be projections of the known present. Space travel had been with us since Jules Verne. No one in my childhood had predicted the consequences of understanding DNA. Now we have CRISPR therapies on the horizon. CRISPR: Clustered Regularly-Interspaced  Short Palindromic Repeats are known from prokaryotic cells - the life forms that existed before the invention of the nucleus. And who knew that cancer could be contagious? (See The Scientist here.) 
Anousha Ansari and I, May 2011
 We still have no Lunar Colony.  However, introducing speakers at a BSides computer security conference here in Austin last year, I met a lawyer who has paid for her seat on a Virgin Galactic flight.

My conservative comrades have a trope they enjoy: the good old days. They were my good old days, too. We rode our bikes till dark. We made up our own games. We accepted each other on our own terms, bullies and sissies alike. No one was diagnosed AHDH. And all that…  But they were the bad old days, too. Kids disappeared off the streets and playgrounds. Kids died of diseases.  We expected a nuclear war any day, every day.

Take one measure: automobile deaths. Today as then, give or take, about 40,000 people a year die in car crashes in America. But the population was under 200 million then, and is over 300 million now. Cars are safer, ain’t no doubt.  And we drive better, having grown up in cars in the first place. We are better adapted both as consumers and producers.

Sure, in 1965, we had computers, and we had telephones, and we had cameras – but they were not the same device… and none of them listened to you sleep to tell you when you had enjoyed the best REM cycle.
Sarah Smith and I,
January 2010.

Take another measure: I have all of my teeth – well, most of them. I gave up a molar a couple of years ago. The students at the University of Michigan Dental School assured me that they would “go to heroic lengths” (their words) to save the tooth.  “Then what? I will be 85 and back in the chair with a problem. If it will not leave me with a sagging cheek, just take it out.”  But when I was a kid no one my age now had all their own teeth. None of them could do the push-ups or sit-ups or clear the mile that I did last year to earn a fitness ribbon. (My brother has a new Dacron aorta and expects to return to running marathons -- but he always outshone me...)

Utopia has a cloudy lining.  My wife has a brand new Honda Accord. When you put on the right-hand turn signal, it speaks back the last text message from your phone. Fortunately, the Honda Accord is one of the least susceptible to outside hacking.  It could be worse. 

Speaking of “susceptible” it was in the Asimov Foundation Trilogy that the homework computer corrected the kid’s spelling. We cut that short by 23,000 years…

John Kemeny Knew: We Shall Have Computed

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