Tech Titans

If you live within reach of Western civilization, it’s almost guaranteed that you have seen Microsoft’s latest major ad push for Windows 8 and the Surface. “Click in,” am I right? Anyways, it should be pretty obvious to every consumer by now that this is an unprecedented push on the part of Seattle’s tech giant to get in the tablet and mobile market. We all know that mobile is the future, and Microsoft needs all the little tablet computers of the future to be running on Windows for it to have a shot at survival. That’s the push behind Windows 8. I heard Steve Ballmer in an interview compare the release of Windows 8 and the Surface to Windows 95 as the next big game-changer from Microsoft. He better hope so. After a lost decade of failures and embarrassment, Microsoft needs this to work.

The company is putting their all into to it, too. Microsoft is hosting workshops around the world for developers who want to create apps for Windows 8 and advertising at every subway station I’ve been to in the last month. It’s so easy to take a look at what Microsoft is doing and think of them as Apple copy-cats (have you ever been to a Windows store? I thought Apple had started selling Xbox),   but I do see an opportunity for Microsoft to pick up where Apple left off. Left off, you say? Yes, I am of the mindset that Apple’s innovative engine is running on fumes without its fearless leader. Please, someone remind me what was new and different about the iPhone 5 or the iPad mini? Bigger and smaller screens, respectively is no more ground breaking than a lazy recycling of successful products.  Apple has done amazing things for the tech world by pushing the boundaries of how we interact with the digital world by making it more mobile and accessible in our daily lives. But since historically, it seems to me as though Apple’s innovations revolve around human interaction with technology, perhaps that boundary has been pushed as far as the size of the transistor will allow it for now.

This is where Microsoft, or Google, or Facebook, or any tech company with resources could step in, and they are all trying. Apple has built an infrastructure of hardware that redefined the digital realm. Now it’s time for software that harnesses that infrastructure to pull us in to the digital world and make us more productive and better connected human beings. If Microsoft is successful in moving the device-driven world to the Windows ecosystem, that is a powerful opportunity for tech to move forward with the new mobile infrastructure. Bill Gates and Microsoft understood the power of standardization of file formats and software, but what about platform? There are plenty of operating systems to choose from now, all with their respective advantages and disadvantages. I’m no fan of my PC’s sluggishness, but I prefer it to the cage of iOS. I only have faith in the future of this mobile hardware world if developers have every tool they need to make their software sing in harmony with the OS. Whichever one of the tech titans can create an open software development environment that allows as many people as possible to be as creative as possible but which functions seamlessly with the new social, local, mobile way we compute today, will win the war of the tech titans.

I think Microsoft has a shot, but they need to learn from their mistakes. The company has a good history of doing so, as we’ve seen with the acceptance of Windows 7 after Vista’s failure. Maybe Windows 9 will be a blockbuster.

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My Relationship with My Wristwatch

So much has changed. I’ve graduated from college. I’ve moved to Washington, D.C. I’m purchasing a new car. I’m applying for a Virginia dirver’s license. I have insurance. I have an apartment. I get things in regular mail, now.

It’s weird how I’ve left so much behind me in Rochester. Moving to VIrginia and starting a new job (where I’m shirking my lax Firday duties to write this post) right after graduation has forced me to transition VERY quickly from being a 22 year old in college to being a 22 year old young professional, and the contrast is stark. I can’t only complain about waking up at 7 am every day to go to an office, though, because there are definitely a lot of cool things about this new life (happy hour and payday, to name a few).

In a rare attempt to be poetic, I think the transition I’m going through is strapped to my left wrist. I never wore a watch in college; everybody just used their phone. But now I feel naked without it. I need to know exactly how many hours are left in my day to finish a task (or until I can go home). In my effort to grow up, I have literally strapped the construct of time to my body. And the sense of comfort it provides me to wear a watch is ironic because I’ll never be able to escape the passing of time. We can only ignore it. I probably didn’t wear a watch in college because it allowed me to ignore time’s passing, and that was easier than confronting the fact that I’m going to die.

Well, now I can’t ignore time because I need to use it to pay the bills, and that sucks. My wristwatch helps me stay on top of that. It helps me get through the day. It’s weird to be comforted by the passing of time because someday i’ll be 80 with no time left, but at 22 – time is on my side. I hate my wristwatch because it reminds me that I need to work. It reminds me that I need to get up in the morning. But I love my wristwatch because it reminds me that I (hopefully) have 60 years left on Earth to make the most of, and having time on my wrist will help me accomplish what I want to do before I die.

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An Encore for Live Music

This will be a brief post. I recently played what might end up being the last public show with my college band, Oddish. Needless to say, it was awesome to be on stage in front of all our friends and classmates playing our music and seeing how they enjoyed it. It’s always been awesome to play live.

It has also always been awesome to go to live shows where I’m not playing, and I’m not the only one who feels that way. It seems to me that more and more, young people are choosing to drop their hard-earned income to go to concerts and live music festivals. There is something special about seeing music performed live, something raw about musicians connecting with their audience. Maybe it’s the mic breaks. Maybe it’s the fact that audience members can see their favorite artists dancing around on stage as they play. Or maybe it’s the fact that the performance is hardly perfect compared to a recording.

I think that live music is more valuable to music lovers today that it ever was. In the age of the iPod, a few quick clicks can grant us access to an unprecedented plethora of music. But while MP3s abound, the simple fact that live music is a transient art form lends it value. The instant gratification of digital music makes live performances so much more satisfying because they don’t offer instant gratification. They require anticipation, living in the moment, and memories. Sometimes those are things that we lack too much today in our quick-paced, instant-satisfaction world.

Recordings have never been a substitute for the authenticity of a live performance. The artist’s emotional connection with the audience and the uniqueness of every performance have inherent value, and the fact that the ever more widely-available musical recordings lack these qualities only serves to encourage people to attend live music performances. Encore!

 

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Hearing an Objective Voice on Hydraulic Fracturing

I had the good fortune of stumbling onto a refreshingly objective voice on hydraulic fracturing this week. Tom Wilber, a journalist and author covering Marcellus and Utica shale gas development, gave a talk on the subject of his new book on the matter, Under the Surface. While he wasn’t much of speaker, he related a view of shale gas development that was nuanced with the collective insight of many interviews with ordinary citizens on both sides of the issue.

Now I’ve heard both sides of the matter loud and clear. It can be done safely! How are you going to protect our drinking water?! I need the extra income from signing a lease!!! WHAT IS THE REAL CARBON FOOTPRINT? Hydraulic Fracturing and natural gas development is obviously a hotly contested political battleground. Public Relations campaigns for energy companies like Chevron or Halliburton would have the public believe that hydro-fracking is ultimately harmless. They show us pictures of lush green meadows covering reclaimed drilling sites. Activists like Josh Fox, the writer and director of Gasland, paint a much uglier image of hydro-fracking. This one instead focuses on dieing pets and flammable faucets.  Both sides are exaggerated and distorted, so needless to say, I welcomed listening to the quiet, well-informed voice of an investigative journalist and author that cut right down the middle.

Tom Wilber, in his talk, drew the distinction between Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania and in New York. While in New York, with the state’s history of nature conservation, regulators have halted all permits for shale gas drilling until reviews of environmental impacts can be completed, Pennsylvania has a history of resource exploitation and has taken a “learn-to-regulate-as-we-go” approach to hydro-fracking. And despite industry claims of safety and environmentalist claims of contamination, the jury still seems (to me, at least) to be out on whether hydraulic fracturing is safe for the preservation of a beautiful and healthy environment.

As most well-informed people tend to do, Wilber did not make any definite predictions about the development of gas extraction from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations. Instead, he envisioned two possible scenarios. In the first, the price of natural gas continues to rise over the next few years. This would create a potential fortune, and the influx of cash that developers would invest in obtaining these resources would likely overcome environmental objections by promising landowners, townships, and state regulators an enormous pay-day. In this scenario, a perfect storm of high price and low environmental resistance would lead to heavy development of Marcellus and Utica shale gas in New York. In the second scenario, the price of natural gas would not rise high enough to encourage an influx of development dollars before environmental concerns became codified in regulatory law. This would permanently limit the future of hydro-fracking in New York State.

Markets and politics both behave in cycles. Cycles of price determine whether or not the gas will be worth developing. Cycles of public support for environmental protection govern the precautions that regulators will be willing to take. As the cycles fluctuate, it is most likely that some middle ground between the extreme two scenarios will be reached, but if a high price for natural gas coincides with a low point in public environmental concern, significant shale gas development could change the landscape of New York forever.

To learn more, check out Tom Wilber’s blog at tomwilber.blogspot.com or buy his book, Under the Surface.

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The Major I Wish I Had Made

At colleges with liberal curricula  like the University of Rochester, students sometimes have the opportunity to design their course of study, and those with enough foresight can even create a new major just for themselves. The titles of the majors that these people graduate with can sometimes be pretty sexy; I know someone studying “Entrepreneurship in Society”. Cool. I wasn’t focused enough as a Freshman and Sophomore to invent my own major, but I sincerely wish I had. This is an opportunity to tailor the books you read and the tests you take to be directly related to the cutting edge and to make your degree uniquely marketable for employers.

So if I could go back in time to design the perfect major for the 2012 job market, what would it be? I think I would call it something blunt like “Making Money in Digital Society”, and I have very definite reasons why.

The dot-com boom changed everything. All the newest, biggest, and sexiest companies in the past decade or so have been internet-based companies. Think Google and Amazon. And the most recent web giants are based on services in the social sphere that connect users to one another. Think Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and anything else you could call “social media”. More and more websites today are engaged in providing a suite of services to the connected consumer, and I believe that much of this trend can be attributed to how advances in telecommunications and mobile devices have shaped the expectations of the public. We expect companies to have mobile-ready websites. We expect to be able to have instant access to anything and everything in the cloud.

Digital society is connected. It is interactive. Media has become a conversation that the business world must engage in so as to not be left behind. More than anything, its necessary to provide a service to savvy consumers to get them to listen (and hopefully, buy!). While technology continues to promise new services through the Internet every few months, the fact remains that the profitability of this service economy remains tenuous. Business models still lag behind what technology can do. Pandora Radio barely makes a profit, and the only value behind Facebook’s celebrated IPO is the goodwill of its users. Many investment professionals remain wary of these companies’ revenue streams.

This is cause for concern because many Americans have gotten used to Facebook, Twitter, Pandora., and mobile apps. We like these services, and it is becoming absolutely essential for the business world to engage consumers on these platforms with further conveniences to get their message heard. Consumers can only demand so much service, though, before a breaking point. Unless providing these services is profitable, business won’t do it. Then we all lose.

To my mind, the dawn of crowd-funding, typified by websites like Kickstarter and Kiva, signals an effort to apply the multiplicity of the digital social media world to more concrete, pecuniary pursuits. I anticipate a limit to the digital media services that an economic model familiar to us can support; the corporal business entities through which consumers’ money flows into developing Internet services constrain these services’ expansion. We need new business models to continue developing the digital frontier.

Studying how to do this would be an academic dream. But sadly, no class can teach innovation. A mixture of history, economics, and political science plus a lifetime of practical experience wading through digital media might do it, though. I’m glad so much of my generation can boast such a background, because while finding a better business model for the Internet could be dramatized as a holy grail of the digital age, the fact that by its very nature this business model must symphonize billions of users prevents any one person, from creating it unilaterally, whether that person is human or corporate (thanks, your honors). This business model must evolve from the small, innovative activities of many individuals whose efforts are unconsciously coordinated by humanity’s natural desire for progress to move together toward an age in which the economy can be as egalitarian as the user-fueled Web 2.0.

Traditional forms of media are on their way out. How many people do you know who have “cut the cord” to cable? Advertising dollars are flowing in to new media on the Internet, but how can producers distribute content in a traditional way expecting traditional pay over the web when piracy prevails? Legislation against piracy aims to translate the business models that society is familiar with into the language of digital media, but these must be allowed to die. The horizon of digital media is exciting because whoever can make something like Pandora profitable will hit a gold mine.

It really pains me to say all this without providing any hint of concrete ideas on to build an innovative Internet business model. The truth is that I have no idea what to do. If I had only gotten my degree in “Making Money in Digital Society”, maybe I would have an idea. But could I really have thought of that as a Freshman? The world changes too fast to target a four-year degree like that. I’m going to ask Google about graduate programs for making money in digital society… but I only got ads! Of course.

 

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On the Endless Possibilities of Google Glass

Rather than marvel at how cool Google’s Project Glass is, it’s perhaps more interesting to imagine the potential impact of this technology on society. We can then take advantage of Google’s outreach efforts in the design process to mold the future as it is created.

Think first of how smart phones have changed the way we live on a day to day basis. Ten years ago, before I had a cell phone, I would call a friend to schedule a time to meet at a specific place. I would then wait at the arranged location until he or she showed up. When my parents bought me a cell phone five years ago, moving through social space and physical space became easier. I would call a friend before driving to her house, and instead of ringing the doorbell and suffering an awkward interaction with her father, I could just text her, “Hey, come outside” when I arrived.

At this point, though, we still only checked our email on computers and would prepare travel routes on Google Maps before leaving the home. By integrating these functions, smart phones went one step further in mobilizing our ability to navigate social and physical space. Today, it is common to make plans with friends at the last minute or to simply show up at their location using the Find My Friends app. Everyday, I leave my house with no idea how to get to where I’m going; my smart phone tells me.

Now take it one step further: complete integration of social space and physical space with experiential reality. Every friends’ face is a voice command away, and no preparation is required to navigate a foreign city. Relevant information pops up as we move through life. Communication is instant. All knowledge is accessible at all times: just google what you see in front of you. Our eyes are called the “windows to the soul” because they are essentially the choke-point for the intersection of mind of physical surroundings. Google Glass will merge physical reality with digital reality, removing the obstacles of physical space and connecting us in a way never before possible.

This brand of science-fiction-turned-reality is all ponies and sunshine. This kind of technology will increase human productivity, for sure, but it will also separate us. Do you ever find it rude when someone is typing away on a smart phone while you are talking to them? Imagine having no idea that someone who you are speaking with is viewing your most embarrassing photos on Facebook through their glasses.

By creating separate personal spheres of existence at each intersection of mind and machine, this technology can create rifts in interpersonal communication. It is common now at universities for students to bring laptops to class, and teachers welcome this as a note-taking necessity and as part of an interactive learning process. But I know from experience that the vast majority of students’ class time is spent on social media sites or mindlessly browsing the web.

As is probably the case with all new digital technologies, Google Glass offers the opportunity both for enhancing productivity and encouraging distraction. It’s a brave new world.

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Cutting the Red Tape to Deliver Offshore Wind Energy

            Every time the coalition, America’s Power, runs a TV spot proclaiming the economic benefits of clean coal technologies, it becomes easier for the average American to forget that there is an infinite source of energy flying above our heads and literally whipping us in the face: wind. Unlike coal, wind power doesn’t need special technologies to make it seem clean or safe. It is clean and abundant; according to the American Wind Energy Association, the potential for wind power in the United States is an amazing 37 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, enough to power the country 10 times over.[1]

            Unfortunately, our government’s dated regulatory policies have yet to reflect the growth potential of wind energy. While traditional fossil-fuel energy companies continue to receive generous tax breaks, a host of bureaucratic hurtles confront industry leaders erecting offshore wind turbines. In the Great Lakes region, the bottom lands on which the turbines would be built are owned by the state governments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must be commissioned to erect the structures. Before developers can move forward with the project, they must received approval from 10 different federal agencies. This regulatory model hinders innovation and growth.

            As a part of recent initiatives on the environment and renewables, the Obama administration along with five states on the Great Lakes, including New York, announced an agreement last Friday to develop a system for speeding up the regulatory review of proposed wind farms without sacrificing environmental or safety standards.[2] This is clearly a step which must be applauded, as it will not only ensure the accuracy, consistency, and efficiency of the review process, but it will encourage the development of a vast and critical resource. Administration officials estimate that the region could produce more than 700 gigawatts.

            There are currently no offshore wind farms in the Great Lakes. The New York Power Authority recently abandoned plans to have private companies place up to 200 wind turbines in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, yielding to critics’ concerns, but these concerns about wind farms ruining vistas, lowering property values, and harming wildlife are more properly applied to hydraulic fracturing operations, which are close to entering New York State. Hydraulic fracturing harms human health while offshore wind mildly impacts vacation properties, and the environmental risk of pumping chemicals underground clearly outweighs that of a wind turbine in Lake Erie. Proponents of hyrdo-fracking argue that it will create jobs, but this is not the only way to stimulate New York’s economy. The many steps necessary to construct and operate offshore wind farms can add thousands of jobs to the economy, and these will be jobs in a growing field that will make New Yorkers experts in an emerging industry. It is a shame that the administration’s regulatory focus is on mitigating the harm caused by allowing invasive drilling when it could be focused on developing an inherently clean and innovative energy source. New York State should embrace its significant wind energy resources to continue being a state that leads the nation into the future.  

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Writing a Paper on the 1973-74 Energy Crisis

For my capstone course in the History Department at the University of Rochester, I have chosen to write a research paper exploring the cultural currents of the “energy crisis” in the 1970s. I’ve spent the last two weeks reading far too many newspaper articles about gas lines, the Arab embargo, and the Carter administration, and it’s almost humorous how easy it is to predict the positions of opinion writers from 40 years ago based solely on my impression of their publication’s biases today.

I’ve been starved for time or subject matter to blog about as of late, so simply to get myself back in the habit, I’m going to give you my preliminary thesis for the paper.

The “energy crisis” was an economic, cultural, and political upset in the United states that resulted from drastic short term shocks to the world supply of crude oil. The oil embargo woke Americans up to two realities: first, dependence of foreign oil would inevitably rise and second, world fossil fuel supplies were ultimately finite. Gasoline shortages and brown-outs scared American consumers and made conservation politically salient, which was reflected in the initiatives of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to encourage conservation by consumers as a short term solution to the “crisis”.

However, Jimmy Carter’s reference to domestic efforts towards conservation and energy independence as “the moral equivalent of war” can safely be dismissed as hyperbolic, and this attitude certainly didn’t reflect public opinion. At different points in the 70s, a significant portion of Americans believed the “energy crisis” to be a product of political and corporate machinations. The reality of the “energy crisis” is that this moment of heightened political awareness of conservation, finite-supply, and energy independence issues occurred at a time when all of the ‘easy to extract’ oil was gone. The real solution to the problem was that American consumers would have to pay higher prices for fuel to support more expensive exploration and drilling technologies.

Contrary to the claims of conservation advocates, the supply of future energy did exist, it simply had yet to be developed, and once it was the so-called “energy crisis” evaporated. This period remains of interest for today’s environmentalists, however, because the questions that were raised in the 70s about finite supply of petroleum and the environmental costs of developing hard-to-get sources were accurate, but untimely. Back then, even conservative projections predicted that enough energy resources remained to power the global economy past 2030, and many placed their hopes for the future in the development of futuristic alternative energy sources such as nuclear fusion.

Perhaps today the energy issues we face are more the “moral equivalent of war” than they were when Carter spoke. 40 years later and the basic problems of industrial civilization raised during this period remain unsolved. Unfortunately, though, we don’t have the same luxury afforded previous generations: discounting the future.

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The Truth about the Energy Crisis

Energy is an enormously salient contemporary issue. From the pending lift on the ban of Hydraulic Fracking in New York State to Obama’s deferred decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, the voices yelling about the environment our energy are getting louder. Greenies point to the BP spill. Energy companies fight back in the battle for public opinion with “clean coal” tv spots that tie the issue to the economy.

No one is wrong to tie the issues of environmental protection and economic recovery. They are intrinsically linked. But…

It’s too easy to loose sight of the truth about the energy crisis: that the sun is really our only source of power. Discounting geothermal energy, all of our energy is already coming from the sun, albeit indirectly. The calories we consume were once plant matter that harnessed the sun’s power through photosynthesis, and fossil fuels are no more than extremely pressurized organic matter. The gasoline in your car is brought to you courtesy of very very old organisms that accumulated the energy through photosynthesis that is pushing you down the highway.

Humanity is lucky that Earth has an abundance of fossil fuels that have accumulated over the history of life on the planet. Harnessing their power has allowed us to build a vast modern civilization. It’s as if life on Earth has built of a cache of the sun’s energy to propel an intelligent species toward progress.

It’s time we realized, though, that the only source of energy that Earth really has is the sun. Even wind farms are harnessing energy created by climate patterns, which are created by the sun’s seasonal warming and cooling of air. I believe that the next truly great innovation of civilization will be to directly harness the sun’s energy. No reliance on organic matter. No reliance on fossil fuel energy reserves. Such a direct and efficient method of gathering energy has boundless possibilities for economic development.

First, we will start using solar panels more widely. Eventually we will plaster the Earth with them. Then someone will realize it’s more efficient to put a giant dish in orbit that always collects sunlight and transmit it in compressed microwave form to the Earth. And finally, man will truly master nature by building a Dyson Sphere around the sun.

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Democracy in its Twilight

All I could think about during my trip to our capitol was the fact that Congress has only a 9% approval rating. Seriously, what are we DOING when our representatives don’t represent us?


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