Sunday, September 28, 2003

Manna Chapter 6

Manna Chapter 6 is now available: Click here.

35 MPG Fleet Average
I am not a California resident, so I won't be voting in the California election. It's interesting, though, how much I know about the California gubernatorial candidates in this recall election and how much I hear about their positions. Because of its timing and novelty, there is a chance I know more about the California candidates for governor than I did about the North Carolina candidates in the last election.

On the radio this morning they were interviewing one of the candidates -- Garrett Gruener -- and he threw out a very interesting factoid. He said that if the fleet average MPG rating for U.S. cars was 35 MPG, we would have to import no oil from foreign sources. That is an amazing thing to think about. Just by changing one statistic, everything happening in the Middle East would be far less important to us.

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Low batt 2

I eventually did end up setting the timer (see Low Batt post from earlier this morning). I located the quadrant, and then the sector and was able to find the beeping device. It was under a coat in the corner next to the garage door. It was a Motorola TalkAbout walkie-talkie -- the kids were playing with them yesterday, and one of the kids must have left one of them on. It's batteries were about dead.

What's up with that? It has three AA batteries in it. Now those batteries are dead, and we'll have to replace them, which costs $1 to $2. Yet some Motorola pagers can work for five months off of a single AAA battery, and that's 10-year-old technology. Why can't that pager technology (or something similar) get put into a TalkAbout walkie-talkie? With three AA batteries instead of one AAA battery, You could leave it on for 3 years without ever draining the batteries.

Low batt

There's something in the kitchen area chirping right now. It only chirps every 10 minutes. I imagine that it is a "low battery" chirp, but I've never heard this particular chirp before so I cannot imagine which device is having a problem. It's not any of the 3 cell phones in the house, or any of the cordless phones, or any of the PDAs -- they are all accounted for. This has been going on for several hours. At this point I have rounded up and moved all the devices that could potentially be it (10 of them), along with my wife's purse and the kids' backpacks, into my office. Yet the chirp continues in the kitchen every 10 minutes.

So what do I do? Do I have set a timer, wait for the 9 minute mark, go stand in the kitchen and wait for the thing to beep so I can fix its location to a quadrant? Then wait 10 more minutes more to try to get it down to a sector in that quadrant? I want to be able to walk in the kitchen and say, "OK, Who's beeping???" and have the device say, "It's me! please save me before I die!" so that you can find it. Or something. There has to be a better way...

Friday, September 26, 2003

Why do we hide wholesale prices?

There is a new Economic Thought Question available: Why do we hide wholesale prices?

Thursday, September 25, 2003

When I got home this evening, there was a big blue nylon bag attached to the front door.

The bag measures about 2 feet by 3 feet. Attached to the bag is a price list for drycleaning with Typical prices:Etc.

There is another card attached to the bag that says, "We'll be back in your neighborhood on Saturday. We provide these bags for our customers free of charge. If you never plan on trying our service, please return our bag to your front door on saturday morning." It's a pretty nice waterproof nylon bag with a pull string that would be perfect for traveling or backpacking. I'd imagine that they lose a lot of bags this way.

So, the basic idea is that they come through the neighborhood on Monday and Thursday. If you leave the bag at your door on Monday you get your clothes back on Thursday.

I've been interested in home delivery services ever since Webvan. It will be interesting to see if this one lasts.

Radio Interview

Radio interview on Robotic Nation: Click here.

Cell Phone Outlets

I dropped my cell phone and the antenna broke off. A 3-inch piece of wire seems meaningless, but it makes a huge difference to the reception on a cell phone -- the phone was almost unusable without the antenna. I went to the nearest shopping center to find a place to get a replacement antenna.

It's surprising how many different ways there are to buy a cell phone in this one shopping center:The Verizon store is typical -- about 2,000 square feet of floor space with extensive custom fixtures, lighting, screens, pamphlets and signage to let you see all the phones they offer and help you pick the right plan. There were six employees that I could see, and there may have been others out of sight in the offices at the back. Best Buy, Circuit City and BJ's all have large displays selling you phones from a variety of carriers. At Best Buy, for example, they probably have 2,000 square of space devoted to the cell phone display and it is the very first thing you see when you walk in.

It makes you wonder how much money is being spent selling cell phones. There are seven places selling them at this one shopping center, and four of them are dedicated stores that sell nothing but cell phones. TVs are much more common than cell phones, but there are only five places to buy TVs in that same shopping center (Best Buy, Circuit City, Target, Now and BJ's). And there are no "dedicated" stores selling TVs. Cable TV and landline telephone service reach more people than cell phones, and you never see a store for cable or the phone company. You just call them on the phone and order the service.

I ended up getting the antenna fixed at the Verizon store. The new antenna cost $10 and took 3 minutes to replace. But I had to wait in line behind other people. The line for repair was next to the line where people were coming in to complain about their bills. It was interesting listening to the complaints. The basic thing was, "look, when I signed up you told me I would be paying $40 for 1,000 minutes -- what are all these extra charges???"

A friend of mine works in the cell phone industry. He said that "customer acquisition" costs $350 per customer. That is, by the time the cell phone company pays for all the advertising, employee time, retail floor space, phone subsidies, etc. to get someone to sign up for a new cell phone account, it costs $350 per subscriber. That's why most plans now have 2-year contracts -- it takes awhile to recoup $350, especially after paying for all the employees who handle billing complaints once you activate the customer. There has to be a better way...

Sunday, September 21, 2003

The Mind of a Child

My son David, age 5, brought me his latest book tonight. He likes to "write" "books". We take 8 or 10 sheets of paper and staple them to create the book. He cannot write, but he illustrates each page and then tells me the story. In some books I write down what he says. In other books, we let the pictures stand alone.

The book he brought tonight had a new feature -- a title page. I've never seen him create his own title page. Here is what it looks like:

I asked him the obvious question, "What is the title?" He carefully pointed out each "word" in the third a fourth lines, "The title is, 'How My Drill And Dominoes Beat the Best World Record.'" I know that makes no sense to you, but I won't even begin to explain what it means because it would take ten minutes. In the world David and I share, though, it makes sense. If you've ever had a five-year-old, you know what I am talking about.

Pointing to the first two lines I then asked the second obvious question, "What happened up here?" His answer: "I messed that all up. It doesn't say the right thing." To which the only possible response is, "Oh."

The thing about kids is that they are absolutely amazing. Even at age 1, even before they can talk, they are their own people. They have their own goals, their own desires, their own mental frameworks that they construct, then tear down and rebuild as they learn. With each of my children I can remember little scenes from their development as conscious beings. For example, with Johny (age 17 months now), there was a sunny day and we were out playing in the driveway. He took my finger and pulled me over to the tailgate of the van. He said, "Da!" pointing at the tailgate. "Da?" I asked. "Da!" I opened the tailgate, since that was the only obvious thing that "Da" could mean. He pointed at his sippy cup on the floor of the van and said "Da!" I handed him his sippy cup. He drank. He handed it back to me. He went back to playing. Think about everything happening in that little scene - needs assessment, goal formation, tool use, memory, planning, implementation, language, communication, trust... Kids just blown me away.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

The Brain's Memory Capacity

In this article, entitled "Brain beats all computers", is the following quote:"10 followed by 8,432 noughts" is a rather substantial amount of memory. In fact, it is impossible to get a handle on that much memory. But here's an example to help understand how much memory the brain has.

There are thought to be something like 10 to the power of 80 atoms in the entire universe as we know it. Let's round that up to 10 to the power of 100 to make things simple.

It is believed that the universe has been around for 15 billion years or so. So, since the Big Bang, there have been something like 10 to the power of 26 nanoseconds that have elapsed.

Now let's say that you wanted to record the position of one atom in the universe with nanometer precision in three dimensions. If the universe is 30 billion light years across, then there are 10 to the power of 35 or so nanometers from one side of the universe to the other. So to record the position of a single atom with nanometer precision in three dimensions, you need an array with 10 to the power of 105 locations in it.

In other words, if you had a storage device with something on the order of 10 to the power of 230 bytes of memory in it, you could store the location of every atom in the universe with nanometer precision in three dimensions for every nanosecond since the Big Bang. That's a lot of memory. If you want to bump it up to picosecond and picometer precision, it is nearly inconsequential. If you want to store the position of every quark instead of every atom, you could do that too. It could all easily fit into 10 to the power of 300 bytes of memory.

If the scientists in the article are correct, and the human brain has 10 to the power of 8,432 bytes of memory, then the human brain has enough memory to store the complete picometer/picosecond/quark history of our universe, along with 10 to the power of 8,000 or so other universes. In other words, one human brain can remember everything.

Clearly that is nuts. If the human brain has all of that memory, then why can't I remember my wife's cell phone number? Why can't I remember where I left my keys?? Why can't I remember the name of my next door neighbor??? These guys need to check their calculations...

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Two Articles has a review of the Robotic Nation series today. Click here.

I've also launched a new series of articles today -- they are called Economic Thought Questions. The first one is What if we doubled the minimum wage?


I have a friend who is very big into SL is a multi-player 3-D world on the Internet where you can build your own place and interact with other users. If you go to the site and click the "Trailer" button, you will see a short movie that shows what is possible in this environment. Personally, I don't have enough time for my first life, much less a second one, but apparently there are lots of people who are very much into the SecondLife scene.

There's also been an incredible amount of buzz around Valve's forthcoming release of the game Half Life 2, where there is so much detail and realism in the environment (including a complete physics engine) that the demos just blow you away:

See lots more Half Life 2 screen shots here, lots of demo movies here, and read reviews, etc. here.

It is an interesting coincidence that one is called Second Life and the other is called Half Life. In a couple of years, when the realism of Half Life 2 merges with massively multi-player environments like SecondLife on the Web, it will be fascinating to see what develops...

Monday, September 15, 2003

Til Death Do Us Part

This article is a fascinating look behind the scenes of one of the most widely-reported surgical procedures this year. Doctors in Singapore attempted to separate Iranian twins joined at the head:

What makes the article so interesting is the fact that it explains, in detail, exactly how far medical imaging has come -- to the point where doctors can build transparent, full-size plastic models of the patient and then practice the surgery ahead of time. It also shows what happens when things go wrong -- in this case, both twins died.


In May of 2002, Barbara Ehrenreich published her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. This book focused on the impossibility of living an American life if you are trying to do it in a minimum wage (or near minimum wage) job. Ehrenreich is a well-known author who spent a year actually trying out various jobs in the American economy like housekeeping, waitressing and working in Wal-Mart. She proved that it is impossible to make ends meet with jobs like these.

Now there's a new book out. It's called The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. This book says that if you are a middle class couple with both parents working, you may be just as bad off. The book has been reviewed in many different places, for example:This quote from Time is typical: "The Clarks' middle-class angst is shared by a generation of Americans who expected prosperity, or at least financial security, to be almost assured for the two-paycheck family. That assumption is increasingly misguided." Or this one, from MSNBC: "In fact, Ruth Ann and James probably knew plenty of families who were in just as much trouble as they were. The odds were certainly in favor of it. Over the past generation, the number of American families who have found themselves in serious financial trouble has grown shockingly large. In a world in which our neighbors seem to be doing fine and the families on television never worry about money, it is hard to grasp the breadth or depth of financial distress sweeping through ordinary suburbs, small towns, and nice city neighborhoods. "

So the question is this: If we are living in a country where it is virtually impossible to survive if you are working in minimum wage jobs, and if it is becoming impossible to survive even if both spouses are working in solidly middle-class "good" jobs, where are we headed? Is wealth concentrating so much that it becomes impossible for normal people to live in America and the economy collapses?

Here is one possible solution to consider: Reverse the concentration of wealth.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Government Information Awareness

This is an interesting site:

This is a site that is trying to gather as much information as possible on the U.S. government. Its goal is to be the "single, comprehensive, easy-to-use repository of information on individuals, organizations, and corporations related to the government of the United States of America." The basic idea is that citizens and government employees will be able to submit things they know, and this repository will hold it all.

Obviously a site like this will contain millions of pieces of information. The key is to keep all of that infomation organized so it is easy to navigate. To try it out, enter the site, select the legislative branch, select the senate, find Hilary Clinton, and then look at the list of donors. Click on one, and you can see everyone else that the donor gave money to. Click on the “New York” part of Hilary’s description and you see everyone else in NY. And so on. The part that is intriguing is the crosslinking of everything in “obvious” ways. The site's home page describes it this way: It will be interesting to see what this site looks like a year from now as it really gets rolling.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Funny Genes

There was once a time in my life when I had four dogs living with me on a 40-acre farm in the middle of nowhere. One of these dogs had been adopted from the pound. The other three showed up as scrawny strays, and they adopted me.

They were all males, and three of them were neutered. Fort was the newest arrival and I simply had not gotten around to it yet. Besides, he was such a wimp... he was never going to be getting anyone pregnant. He had this incredibly endearing/annoying habit -- Whenever he came up to the other dogs in the group, he would crouch down in a submissive way and do this rapid licking thing around their lips. I had never seen anything like it. It drove the other dogs nuts initially, but eventually they came to tolerate it.

One day a very shy female dog showed up. She was terrified of people and would not come within a hundred feet of me. But apparently she got along OK with the other dogs because she hung around for weeks. Apparently she got along with Fort very well, because she eventually had puppies. The way you could tell that Fort was the father was because several of the puppies had this same submissive rapid licking habit. It was not "nurture," because Fort was gone by the time they were born. It was "nature."

How could such a weird characteristic be inherited? Is there a gene (or combination of genes) in the dog genome that encodes for "weird submissive rapid licking behavior"? Apparently there is. And when you think about it, it makes sense that weird behaviors in dogs are inheritable. All border collies, for example, tend to be good herders. They have a set of herding behaviors wired into their brains, and that programming is inherited. So somewhere in the dog genome there is a pattern of genes that encodes for "herding behavior". People breed border collies to accentuate that pattern.

It happens in people too. For example, my father-in-law has a distinctive thing he does with his elbow when he is climbing steps. My wife inherited it and does the same thing. There's a gene, apparently, that encodes for "weird elbow thing while climbing stairs." Similarly, I once met an adopted boy whose biological father was a baseball player. The boy didn't know that, but his adoptive parents did. Even at age 6 this kid was huge and could handle a bat like you would not believe. So there is a gene or a set of genes for being able to whack a baseball out of the park.

As scientists unravel the human genome, right now they are focusing on practical things. Mostly they are trying to cure genetic diseases or find the fountain of youth, which makes sense. But after all the practical stuff gets figured out, perhaps graduate students will be doing their theses on very strange inheritable features. Like the gene that lets you whack a baseball, or the gene that makes you hold your elbow a certain way, or the gene that causes you sneeze three times in a row, or the gene that lets you invent lots of things. There are going to be some genes that really surprise us. It is when we allow parents to put all these millions of random genetic possibilities together in any combination that things will get really interesting...

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Moving Memories

The Brain family moved to a new house in July of this year. If you've moved recently, you know how interesting that process can be. The thing about moving, at least if you do a do-it-yourself move like we did, is that you end up touching every single object that you own. Twice. You touch it once when you put it into a box, and you touch it again when you take it out. I touched a lot of objects that I have not seen, or even thought about, in quite awhile. The whole process tends to bring back a flood of memories. I found old yearbooks, photographs, niknaks from trips long ago, books, postcards, unfinished projects, notes...

One of the things I came across in our move was a collection of photographs I took in college. In the collection was a set of pictures from a trip to New York city with a friend. One of those pictures startled me because it brought back a flood of memories on two dimensions -- memories of the trip and my friend, which were very happy, mixed with memories of the ultimate destiny of the building and the people who were in it, which can be overwhelming. I am sure there are millions of us who will share that same kind of experience as we remember on Thursday.

In Memoriam

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Giant Man-Made Resort Islands in Saudi Arabia

There seems to be an amazing new trend underway off the coast of Dubai, Saudi Arabia. They are starting to build incredibly large man-made resort islands. For example, this article discusses Palm Island, which will look like this:

Specs for Palm Island:
For an online sales presentation, go to Palm sales.

This is just one of many large projects getting underway in Dubai. For example:And so on... It will be fascinating to see if this trend takes off in other parts of the world.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

The Robotic Nation FAQ is now available. It answers the most common email questions from the Robotic Nation and Robotic Freedom articles.

Click here for the FAQ

See also the new CW Gallery

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Autonomous dinosaur

This new Disney dinosaur fascinates me:

This article offers several other photos. This article also has a nice description.

Disney has had animatronic creatures (e.g. the bears in Country Bear Jamboree) and animatronic people (e.g. the presidents of the United States) for decades, but this is Disney's first free-standing animatronic creature that can walk around the park and interact with visitors. The power supply is contained within the dinosaur and he is operated by two people through a wireless connection.

This is Disney's first try with free-standing animatronic creatures. It is safe to say that there will be many others. How long before you can visit a robotic Jurassic Park filled with extremely realistic, fully autonomous, actual-size T Rexes and Raptors?

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

The smartest, happiest children

It is safe to say that parents, as a general rule, want their kids to be smart. They want their kids to be happy. They want their kids to grow up to be rich. Things like that. There are parenting magazines full of tips, and stories appear in the news all the time. What if you started to assemble a list of all of the things that a parent should do to optimize a child's chances of success in today's world?

For example, in the September 1 issue of Time, there is this fascinating blurb:The implication is that kids who have no siblings do better, at least in terms of eventual net worth.

There's been a number of articles over the last week discussing the fact that older kids do better in school. For example: Age in School Determines Mental Health. The article states: "In England and Wales, the oldest children in the school year -- born in the fall months -- had much higher mental health scores than the younger children -- born in the summer months."

It's been known for a long time that kids who breastfeed are more intelligent than kids who drink formula. For example, see this article and this article.

From these three data points, you can start to develop a profile. The most successful people would be children with no siblings who were breastfed and held back a year before starting kindergarten...

It would be interesting to flesh this out with 10 or 15 other data points and create the profile of the theoretically perfect childhood in today's society.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Manna Chapter 4

Chapter 4 of the book Manna is now available -- click here.

ARCHIVES © Copyright 2003-2005 by Marshall Brain


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