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The graveyards are full of people the world could not do without.

— Elbert Hubbard, 1907, per Quote Investigator: 21 November 2011: “The Graveyards are Full of Indispensable Men”

In this time of upheaval over various sexual deviances of the rich and famous, including legislators, presidents, actors, comedians, journalists, and so forth, it is important to remember. Part of the slant against accusers has to do with the lofty positions that folks are falling from, and how comfortable they are in many lives.

We invite into our brains these characters to help guide us through the daily jungles of a hyperactive world, and like tourists in a real jungle, feel afraid to venture forth without their guiding hands and sharp machetes cutting the path.

But they are not our sacred cows. Even the greatest orators have speechwriters. Even the most spirited leaders have staffs.

Some worry about what is lost. That great art might perish under the association with a scoundrel. Let it. Food spoils, why not art? We can always have it remade, as Hollywood seems apt to do of any old film and not especially those made by power abusers. Or not, let the art endure with a sticker pointing out the misdeeds of the artist.

But whether it is on the issue of sexual misconduct or other abuses of power or just plain imbecility, we must remember that these people are replaceable in their roles. We should be glad to replace them.

As the GOP moves to pass their equivalent of comfort food, to snack away their pain in dealing with bad leadership, we must all remember their mistakes are replaceable too. The tax code can be fixed, and it will be fixed as the deficit rises and the debt with it. It is injurious and gluttonous to be sure, and it is a sick parody of something like Simpson-Bowles or any other even-handed attempt to reform the tax code, but after the drunken reverie wears off, even some Republicans will be lending a hand to fix their own mess.

We are only 49 weeks from the midterm elections.

Future of Transport as much Why as Where

Most of the concerns over the future of transportation focus on mapping today’s transportation patterns onto tomorrows infrastructure. But the why (as in why we use transportation) is important and changes the patterns completely.

When looking at how transit will change in the future we tend to think of self-driving cars (soon to be just called cars) or bullet trains (or maybe a few of us still harbor dreams of jet propulsion sneakers). But the reality isn’t as clear as these simple technology stories seem.

These stories go something like:

Cool technology struggles to become practical, gain acceptance, and then takes over the world.

But the future of moving around is as much about why you want to go somewhere as where you want to go. For example, if you’re only going because you need to buy groceries, at some point it becomes easier to just bring the groceries to you. Or if you need to meet a friend or business associate, it may be more viable to either hold a teleconversation or to meet-in-the-middle.

Of course, we already do meet halfway, and Skype and similar systems are already widely used. But in the future you might be having that conversation while you’re going somewhere else. Or you might meet your friend who is already on the train by side-boarding without the train stopping.

All of this will make destinations and journeys start to blur a bit. Where you are stops mattering as much. Unlike commutes of today, where time to destination is so important, tomorrow it won’t matter as much if you take your sweet time to get somewhere. Being late won’t hold the same sort of stigma, because being somewhere becomes less a matter of physical presence.

Being there in the decades to come will be about awareness, and thus physical presence will be increasingly devalued. That’s not to say people won’t make the trip. It’s just where they go will be more about the why. Instead of being at the meeting, they’ll go to their kid’s game (which might be a video game). They can catch the meeting on the way.

That is, the why of meeting is shared awareness, not shared breathing space. In these early days of technology, physical presence often helps ensure awareness (more or less). But in the long view, attention can be held without sitting around a conference table. The why is more important than the where.

How will it work practically? Will you get in a cab and say, “take me to the Fùchūn Teahouse?” Or will you say, “take me to a Chinese restaurant with at least 70% rating?” Or maybe you won’t get in a cab, but you’ll order food. Nah, you’re in the mood for a dining experience. But maybe you’ll order food, delivered to a dining area that doesn’t actually have food prep. Maybe it will specialize in ambiance, the experience of a shared space, and the food is your responsibility. After all, maybe you want to eat Sugar Orbs cereal in a Chinese dining atmosphere. That’s your choice.

Practicality Takes Time

Making something practical takes a lot of time and effort. The future is coming, but we must be patient.

Image of sharp and smoothed stones.
Image of sharp and smoothed stones. Original photographs by Jim Barton and Des Colhoun under CC-BY-SA-2.0 licenses.

We often see amazing scientific discoveries and readers lament, “but how long until I, in my kitchen, can smash an atom with it?” But practicality takes time.

Look at the automobile. Been around for over 100 years, and we’re still trying to get rid of some of the downsides to it, like deaths from crashes. We overhauled our entire road system for it, built more bridges and roads than ever before, and the whole thing remains a work in progress.

Electronic cigarettes are a similar story. Patents and designs for various models go back 50 years, but the modern ecig only has its origins about ten years back. And the current state-of-the-art devices are really rooted in the past five years of development. And even then, they stand to be further improved.

My go-to metaphor for this sort of thing is a sharp stone being worn down until it is smooth. Society thrives off of the process of smoothing stones out, until they fit our hands and do not cut us.

A couple of things are involved in why an advancement is not instantly realized. One is economies of scale, the notion that for a new process to be cheap enough for widespread distribution requires enough units to be produced. This is likely the bulk of the time-to-practicality issue. It encompasses several related issues:

  • Price-per-unit
  • Knowledge of the advancement
  • Adaptability of the advancement to many different products
  • Generational product planning

It needs to be cheap enough not just to justify the switchover, but to cover the cost of switching in some reasonable timeframe. The option to use the new thing has to reach a wide enough audience. It has to be adjustable to the individual products that can use it.

And it needs generational support. The new-and-expensive of today needs top tier customers, while the older-and-cheap needs lower tier customers. The consumers need to be proportioned in what is roughly a pyramid shape.

But supporting technologies are also needed. We have decent designs for hydrogen-based electric generation, but we’re still developing production and storage. In theory we will rely on hydrogen instead of batteries for anything that requires a large capacity of electric power, while traditional batteries will remain for low-power scenarios.

But it could turn out that once we have hydrogen storage down to an art, it will be easier to move hydrogen than use batteries, so where the line of high and low capacity will be drawn will take some shaking out.

And that’s the norm for competing technologies. And it’s healthy if you don’t have the sort of economic leverages that block real competition. In the case of renewables versus carbon fuels, you have those anti-capitalist behaviors blocking price competition in favor of carbon.

What these anti-capitalist practices amount to is a lag to practicality for their competitors. In extreme cases, the lag can be as long as it takes for some tectonic shift in the economic and political landscape.

There is another side to the maturation of technologies, which is a burst of overuse once a technology is sufficiently mature to be very inexpensive. We’re already seeing this with some technologies like Bluetooth, but we will likely see another wave of this as the Internet of Things becomes more mature.