Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Some Other cool signs that progress is still possible...

==Tesla Signature One Hundred Event ==

After much anticipation and countless rumors, rivalling the unveiling of the Kamen Seguay, PayPal founder and tech-visionary Elon Musk is finally ready to show off one of his keynote projects... the Tesla Roadster. Tesla Motors is a new American car company developing fully electric vehicles that are high performance, high production, and affordable. The Roadster will first be sold in a limited set of 100 to a select group at an evening event on July 19 in Santa Monica. An all-electric car, the Roadster delivers better acceleration and handling than a Porsche Turbo, meets all U.S. safety standards, operates at twice the energy efficiency of a Prius, and has a highway range of 250 miles.

Wow. I’ve long said that we desperately need help from the portion of the billionaire caste that “gets it”... in order to save us from the half that doesn’t. Elon... along with Warren Buffett and some others.. clearly falls into the category of getting it. Let’s hope he becomes very rich (again) while doing lots of good. Because he has other plans, too.

== The New Medical Revolution==

Famed economics author and pundit John Mauldin’s recent newsletter had the following fascinating riff on progress in medical technology:

Late last century, we began to get scanning technology that was a single slice per rotation. Then it went to 4. Then in 2002-03 we saw scanning that went to 16 slices, by 2005 it was up to 64, and this year we find scanning machines that can do 256-slice rotations. We can start to see some really small parts of your body. Combine that with imaging software and doctors can start to see what's wrong with you. But we are not small enough yet. By the end of the decade, that scanner will be at 1,024.

Recognize this progression? 2-4-16-64-256-512-1024...? Does it sound like the number of transistors in a chip or the size of your computer memory? Or the speed of your computer? Or any number of things that Silicon Valley views as engineering problems?

It will not be long before they can "see" the plaque building up in your heart or veins. Long before it would be a problem. And running hand in hand with this technology is the work being done to develop drugs and targeted therapies which will remove the plaque. Right now, scans are expensive. We don't usually get one unless there is a problem. But in the very near future, those scans will be able to give you a very early warning signal about heart problems. And while in the first few years it will only be those people who can afford or whose condition dictates an expensive scan, the cost will come down. Think cellular phones.

Within ten years, a regular part of your check-up will be a full body scan. Yes, I know that full body scans have a bad reputation. And deservedly so at lower resolutions. But that will change as they become much higher resolution, as well as relatively cheap and ubiquitous. Certainly cheaper than letting a problem build up.

John goes on to recommend the latest book by Andy Kessler called The End of Medicine, subtitled "How Silicon Valley (and Naked Mice) Will Reboot Your Doctor.”

One question. Do the radical FIBMers actually believe all this has happened... and will keep on happening... amid a return to propertarian feudalism? Are socialist GAR fans unable to notice that most of this innovation occurs in the land with “the worst health care system”? Is ANYONE ready to point out that this “devil’s dichotomy” of insipid oversimplifications has nothing at all to do with what’s really going on?


Five Hot Products for the Future -- (CNN -- June 9, 2006) Trend spotting is serious business. So much so that the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto-based think tank, produces an annual 96-page 10-year forecast - an exhaustive compendium of societal and technological trends, widely regarded as the bellwether of long-range planning. But people wanted specifics, so it started giving away prescient product ideas instead.

==And From the Progressive Policy Institute==

“Pakistan is in the third year of an economic surge. The 2006 Economic Survey of Pakistan notes that Pakistani exports have nearly doubled since 2001, from $8.5 billion to nearly $17 billion. (Three big factors here: Despite troubles along the border, exports to Afghanistan -- cement, rice, wheat, light manufactures -- have risen from $100 million to $1.5 billion since 2001. At 8.4 percent, the national growth rate is closing in on those of China and India. Foreign investment is up, as are remittances from Pakistanis working abroad. Cities have added nearly six million jobs a year since 2002. Life expectancy has grown by two years since the turn of the century, and hospitals have hired 17,000 more doctors. The World Bank backs up ministerial optimism in a paper released last month; its forecast is that based upon current trends, "poverty in Pakistan is likely to fall dramatically, from the current 35.4 percent to 12.4 percent," by 2015.”

I did predict both the semi-bust of Japan and the boom of China, back when everybody thought Japan Inc would own everything in the 80s. I predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and a period of terror war with Islamic machismo. But I admit I completely missed the rise of South Asia. I just assumed it was impossible. My bad.


Fhydra said...
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Smart_AJ said...

ZAP ZP (NYSE). A California based company, who has been importing, retrofitting and distributing the Smart car for the last year, is the only car company who is selling a Chinese manufactured car in the US the 100% electric Xebra city car. It can reach speeds of up to 40 mph, has a range of up to 40 miles and takes 6-8 hours to fully recharge.

Stefan Jones said...

I hope Pakistan can pull off a (South) Korea, for our sake.

If young guys can get jobs, and see that practical education leads to even better jobs, the radical madrassas will start to empty out.

* * *

I predict that the Tesla Roadster will flop, losing out to the better marketed Edison HyperCoupe. (Ba-dum-DUM-TISSSHHHHHhhhh!)

David Brin said...

LONDON - A British banker who was questioned by U.S. authorities in connection with the Enron scandal has been found dead, British media said Wednesday.

Is anybody, ever, who is in the know, going to decide that his loyalty to civilization is more important than greed or dogma... or fear of the consequences of whistleblowing?

Yes, I am asking a lot of henchemen. But Ddid the heroes of Lexington and Bataan and UA93 face odds that were any worse?

Don Quijote said...

An all-electric car, the Roadster delivers better acceleration and handling than a Porsche Turbo, meets all U.S. safety standards, operates at twice the energy efficiency of a Prius, and has a highway range of 250 miles.

Sounds like an improved GM EV1, but will it be better than The Peugeot's Diesel Hybrid?

Considering that Pakistan has a GDP per Capita of $2400 PPP, I wouldn't be to optimistic.

P.T. Galt said...

Stefan wrote:

I predict that the Tesla Roadster will flop, losing out to the better marketed Edison HyperCoupe. (Ba-dum-DUM-TISSSHHHHHhhhh!)

Except that Tesla and Westinghouse won, which is why we use AC current instead of DC. :)

Of course, what I want to know is not when Teslas will be sold to a hundred celebrities, but when can *I* get one? As someone who is something of a fan/intrigued by Tesla (he was almost a technology-advancement rock star in his time, *ahead* of his time in many ways), to get a car named the "Tesla" that's *also* awesome for the environment? How cool is *that!*

Nicq MacDonald said...


I don't know if Pakistan can "pull a Korea", but frankly, if it can pull a Malaysia or a Thailand, I'm all for it.

Tony Fisk said...

Not quite a whistleblower, but I gather that Valerie Plame is suing Cheney (and Rove)

I've just finished re-reading Earth. The first time around, I felt it started going off the rails when Morgan is exposed, and her masters start breathing heavily. Sixteen years on, with Enron and various apocaphiles and kleptocrats dancing on the stage, it doesn't seem quite so far-fetched and melodramatic.

The words from a current riff spring to mind:

There has never been a better time than right now, to get up out of the dirt!

michael vassar said...

Can you imagine the actual Nick Tesla doing ANYTHING good for the environment? The guy wanted to transmit electricity through the air! Not exactly environmentally friendly.
Cool though. I guess he could go for something cool.

David, it looks to me like the UK is far more per-capita productive than the US in terms of medical advances.

Having learned from south Asia, what's your prognosis for Africa and the Middle East, the places that still seem impossible.

Anonymous said...

the middle East has Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain etc already so not exactly impossible, not to mention Turkey

palliard said...

The guy wanted to transmit electricity through the air!

Actually, that's called radio. And he did that. Marconi violated a number of Tesla's patents. If you're referring to the Wardenclyffe Tower... lord only knows.

Anyway, the REAL technology that will make electric cars feasible is better power storage. Something like carbon nanotude capacitors . I'm really excited about that line of research, as power storage technology has been lagging.

reason said...

What Michael Vassar said...

David perhaps you are being a bit parochial there with the claim on medical advances. You may be right but please supply some per capita figures. Lots of good things do come from the US, but then it is the biggest rich country by far.

reason said...

As regards sourcing advances, here in Germany credit for the telephone is given to Phillipp Reis, in the US to Alexander Graham Bell. I'm not going to arbitrate between them, but it looks like there is some reporting bias!

monkyboy said...


I think the biggest obstacle to making electric cars feasible is America's aging electrical grid.

Oil is easy to transport, contains a lot of energy per barrel and the infrastructure is already in place to refine it and deliver it to our cars.

A ballpark figure to convert America from oil-based to electric-based cars is around $10 trillion...almost the value of every single company in America.

Then there is the question of generating the electricy...we can burn the oil we now refine in plants...or we could add around 5000 nuclear power stations (we have about 100 now).

michael vassar said...

Anon: I know what radio is. Of course it is possible to transmit electricity through the air, but as a main method of transmission this is a REALLY bad idea in terms of efficiency, environmental impact, and little things like being able to turn lightbulbs off.
I agree that carbon nanotube capacitors are promising.
Here are some more relevant products

Stefan Jones said...

I'm going to stick my neck out here:

In addition to genuinely world-changing, practical, brilliant ideas, Tesla had ideas that were based on fundamental misunderstandings of How Things Worked.

The "radio" system he worked out wasn't quite like radio as we imagined it. He imagined the information flowing on highly charged currents through the upper atmosphere. It would have been "broadband" wireless, with many multiplexed channels. If the system would have worked at all, it would have required giant towers sticking up into the atmosphere. The success of Marconi style caught him off-guard; the idea of waves casually flowing through space was off his radar.

As mentioned uptopic, broadcasting power would have worked, but would have been horribly inefficient.

Tesla, like a lot of brilliant people, refused to listen to others, and in the end it spelled the end of his career as a useful innovator. He stubbornly refused to catch up with 20th century *physics*. He never cottened to quantum physics. He thought atomic power was impossible. In his last decades he resorted to stunts and attention-getting claims (e.g. earth-cracking resonance generators).

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

On the topic of "worst health care" ...

... the US has the best health care in the world ... if you're very rich.

If you're not, it's worse than that of pretty much every other "first world" country.

If only we had a way to encourage (medical! Not other fields at all) research to go on like it has been while simultaneously broadening the availability to the average citizen...

Andrew Smith said...
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Andrew Smith said...

I feel like the prevailing attitude of the most vociferous anti- national healthcare people (FIBMers?) is that the poor don't deserve what they can't afford.

Why isn't this true?

i.e. How do we prove to them it's wrong?

(In fact, one of their favorite things to hate is "the entitlement mentality of liberals")

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

It's hard - they've done a lot of rationalizing to justify it, some of which has grains of truth, a lot of which doesn't.

One can, on the healthcare issue, try an "appeal to greed" by noting that poor people can't afford preventative healthcare, and if the public pays for that instead, things are cheaper. But it doesn't help much.

Basically, the only way you could do it effectively would be to undermine pretty much the entire ideology by convincing them that people can be poor without "deserving it".

That's the core of the disagreement.

monkyboy said...

Or you could remind the "let them eat cake" rich that many of the poor people who prepare their food, care for their kids, care for them when they are ill or even just share an elevator with them...may be carrying a transmittable disease that could have been prevented or treated...if poor Americans could afford decent health care.

David Brin said...

This is where the left has consistently played into the right's hands. By totally misreading the American character and its attitudes.

Had Hillary Clinton, in 1993, proposed reaching a health care system in incremental stages, BY TAKING CARE OF THE NATION'S CHILDREN FIRST, no one would have dared oppose it. The rough and tumble American notion of self-reliance and deepseated suspicion of socialism (VERY justified, in some ways, given the 20th Century), is far, far weaker when it comes to kids, who cannot possibly be responsible for their own poverty, and whose potential it is clearly in the nation's interest to foster.

Had she done this, the neocons could never have had their in. BC would have had an assertive presidency and the tools used to insure kids might have by now incrementally (perhaps partially) been extended to vulnerable adults.

That act of political incompetence doomed us to the Neocon Revolution... and prevented health insurance from rising again on the political radar for 15 years.

palliard said...

This is why Hillary Clinton is a non-starter in 2008. A LOT of people realize that the one time that the whole country was willing to discuss socialized medicine, it was sacrificed on the bonfire of HER vanities. Hillary Clinton has, personally, doomed us all to f'ing HMOs.

I'm still wagering my money on Bill Richardson vs. Jeb Bush in '08.

monkyboy said...

Hehe, sure, blame Hillary.

It was all her fault.

It had nothing to do with insurance companies running Harry & Louise ads round the clock.

It had nothing to do with Democratic weasels like Joe Lieberman and Dianne Feinstein who wouldn't vote for anything that might cost them corporate money.

It had nothing to with the doctors of the AMA doing anything they could to maintain their monopoly rents.

I was one person's fault.

David Brin said...

Whether or not YOU were one person's fault (I doubt it), the simple fact is that special culpability falls on the people who should know better. HMO shills and neocon jerks and such notwithstanding, they are facts of life to be dealt with SMARTLY, not in ways that hand over to them the whole game!

Oh, some of the fiorst wave of neocons (e.g. Gingrich) were actually homo sapiens who could be negotiated with. But these were quickly swept aside by the real monsters and it's been FOURTEEN YEARS of unnecessary hell.

I do NOT pin all the blame on Hillary or the Health Care Bill. But it showed such utter arrogance and political cluelessness. And the PRACTICAL result was FEWER American kids insured than in her time... when all she had to do was reach out her hand with an incremental approach and every single one of them would be insured today.

(And a whole lot of adults, as that success let us incrementally add others.)

Stop trying to defend her with distraction. That's like saying "Don't blame the guide who led us into the canyon filled with wolves! Blame the wolves!"

What BS. Oh, I'd still prefer her over 90% of potential alternatives. But we need someone to unite us in a war against Culture War... not someone who will wage it.

monkyboy said...

I think the term "Culture War" is a distraction.

It's all about money.

How about rounding up a bunch of American kids and get them to sue the central banks of Japan and China for letting the neocons borrow trillions of dollars in their name?

As you said, Dr. Brin...few people can say no to kids.

On a side someone above noted...there is an unclosed bold tag in your post that is turning the whole blog bold. Could you please close it? It ain't the singularity, but...

Nicq MacDonald said...

As a medical association executive, I've noticed that doctors, in general, support universal healthcare, but are strongly opposed to a Canadian-style single-payer system. Most seem to advocate a means-tested insurance regime to replace Medicaid, in which people in the lowest income brackets would have their health insurance fully paid for by the government, people in middle-income brackets would recieve a subsidy, and people in the highest income brackets would have to pay for insurance themselves.

So don't blame the "money-grubbing doctors" who are already being choked by the HMOs... they WANT a universal system. Just as long as it doesn't screw them.

Stefan Jones said...

"Don't blame the guide who led us into the canyon filled with wolves! Blame the wolves!"

Um, except we're not talking about wolves.

They're members of our society who aware of their actions and should be held accountable.

They should be held more accountable than the guides because they are fully aware of what is going on. They wanted it. They are the ones who played sickening, cynical, manipulative political games.

David Brin said...

I never said that I don't want to fight the wolve! I am fighting them as hard as I can!

At the same time, I find it useful to put them in the context of ALL predatory animals. In a sense, they are simply acting out impulses that have been with all human societies since Gilgamesh. Predations and theft existed in Cor Magnon times, but it worsened as feudal hierarchies rewarded king-bandits with harems.

Today, we are effectively insane. Hence I can hardly BLAME neocon thieves for being what they are, proto-feudalists who oppose every aspect of the Enlightenment. Anyway, blaming them does not make me more effective!!!

I find that I am able to think much clearer, about how to defeat them, when I take it all less personally. Anger feels GREAT! And therefor it must be held in deep deep suspicion! Lik all indignation, it warps values and perceptions and judgment.

I cannot afford that. I must be calm and appraise every possible way to defeat these predatory beasts. These human wolves who would return us to an era of domineering priests and lords.

Hence, I save my anger and resentment (ironically!) for those on our side who are frustratingly obstinate about giving the wolves exactly what they want! I have every right to despise defenders of the Enlightenment who would leap to hand it over to OTHER WOLVES whjo happen to be on the left.

monkyboy said...

Seems like you have given up on the Enlightenment, Dr. Brin, and just view the current struggle as a battle between America's lumpen elite.

Cheer up...the good guys are winning!

Wall Street failed to get their hands on Social Security, our troops aren't dying in the mountain passes of Iran, and another roll of the electoral dice is less than 4 months away.

Fhydra said...

Woah, did monkyboy just say cheer up?

Actually, I don't know what to add. That's just odd.

Nate said...

Dr. Brin said:
Had Hillary Clinton, in 1993, proposed reaching a health care system in incremental stages, BY TAKING CARE OF THE NATION'S CHILDREN FIRST, no one would have dared oppose it. The rough and tumble American notion of self-reliance and deepseated suspicion of socialism (VERY justified, in some ways, given the 20th Century), is far, far weaker when it comes to kids, who cannot possibly be responsible for their own poverty, and whose potential it is clearly in the nation's interest to foster.

That might have worked. Maybe. But probably not. The GOP attacks Head Start and other programs for children all the time. Yelling "think of the children!" isn't a guarantee it would have worked. And all the other forces that were arrayed against any kind of universal health care would have still been there, and still fought it.

The other problem with your suggestion, Dr. Brin, is it wouldn't have addressed most of the problems with our current health care scheme. It's far from only adults in poverty that don't get served by the current health care system. Lots of middle class jobs (or at least jobs that used to be middle class) don't offer benefits of any kind. Or they don't offer them for between three months to a year until after you start working there.

Even in jobs that offer health care benefits, a lot of them change plans from year to year, as the employers change to try and save money, which means whenever they change, there's new paperwork, new eligibility, new things covered or not covered, new doctors, and so on. That's assuming the benefits don't get cut or eliminated to "cut costs" while the CEOs keep getting record bonuses.

One of the other things that makes employers offering health care ridiculous is how it cripples a lot of entrepreneurial spirit. When your health care comes from your job, especially when you have a family, how can you quit to start your own business? Or go back to school on anything other than an extremely limited part-time schedule? Heck, how can you change jobs, when there's going to be a 90 day gap when nobody's covered? What if you or your kids get sick then? By tying health care to jobs, it ties people to those same jobs.

And by having the employers provide the health care, when you lose your job, you lose your health care. About half of all bankruptcies in the US are caused by health care crises. If you get sick or injured so you can't work, and lose your job, there goes your ability to pay for the treatments you need, and there goes your savings as you try and pay, and hey, there's that same horrid bankruptcy bill passed by the rubber-stamp Republicans.

There's a lot of other problems I could get into, like the selection process of health insurance companies, who always want to try and avoid accepting anybody who might get sick, and so on, but the biggest problem with employer provided health care is it's tied to employment, with all that entails.

If there's some other mechanism than government to ensure that everyone has a minimum level of health care, I don't know what it is. It's easy enough to design a system that offers a basic level and let people buy extra coverage of whatever kind, but that brings up cries of "socialism" and "single-payer health care" and the usual lines of attack. The Democrats could fight back along some of the avenues I mentioned above, but I don't see them doing it any time soon, the GOP's carpet bombing of health care back in the Clinton days has left far too many of them gun-shy.

Rob Perkins said...

Heh. I tried preaching incrementalism with regard to legalizing gay marriage a couple of weeks ago. (One should let the Massachussetts experiment play itself out for a number of years, to see if the claims of harmlessness to larger society are true. One should let the shifted opinions of the younger demographics naturally rise to prominence over the next 20 years, etc.)

Instead of considering it, the name of Martin Luther King Jr (whose progeny is divided on whether or not he would have supported LBGT causes) was invoked, and I was called a bigot.

So much for incrementalism. Health care is no different than that issue; supporters of single-payer or any kind of reform are not speaking from the same premises as those who wish to keep the current fee system.

monkyboy said...

I don't think America does incrementalism anymore, rob.

No more savings tucked away for the future, etc.

Incrementalism, rather, is something that is done to Americans. The steady drip of our troops dying in a phony war, the slow, steady decline of real median family wages, etc.

The world's economy grew at 4.5% last year, America's grew at an anemic 3.5%...slowly but surely...we lose our place at the top.

We do like grand, empty gestures though!

Ban gays from getting married!

Blow the crap out third-world nations!

I think we'll have to rely on the Chinese for positive incrementalism from now on.

David Brin said...

Sorry about the bold face.


My sons are re-opening the issue of Lego Mindstorms RCX... a new kit for the 9 year old and the old kit for Ben.

We loaded in the Mindstorms disk into Ben's horrid HP Pavillion Media Center (Yes, I know, all Microsoft-based machines are horrid.) We then followed instructions and attached the infrared tower to a USB port and proceeded with the intro hardware tutorial...

...and cannot get the $#%#$@# tower to be recognized by the #$@#$# PC. I have plugged it into other USB ports, tried every setting. Gone onto LEGO discussion boards, downloaded a patch. Nothing works.

Do any of you know a Lego expert who could walk us through this #$##@$#@$#$!*# ?

Stefan Jones said...

A restored military jet doing stunts for an airshow at the Hillsboro Airport crashed not a mile down the road from me.

It took out three houses in a neighborhood where I walk my dog three or four times a week. Literally a block away from where I turn a corner for the home stretch.

Lots of copters in the air and emergency vehicles whizzing by. No word on casualties.

I was actually out walking the dog at the time, but I didn't find out until I visited a local grocery. I was listening to an NPR music program and I guess the news was too slow filtering in.

Stefan Jones said...


Try removing ALL USB devices and add them back one by one. There might just be some kind of conflict. Rare but possible.

Also, if you have access to another PC (even at school or some-such) try plugging in there.

Is the cable used a common type? Try swapping it for another, e.g. one used by a scanner or camera.

It is possible you got a dud unit. It does happen!

Rob Perkins said...


According to the AP report I just read, only the pilot was killed, and one firefighter was hospitalized. No others hurt.

I wonder sometimes if it makes sense to do that airshow there, now that Hillsboro is almost completely urbanized. Ah me...

Stefan Jones said...

Indeed; the airport fence is two miles down the road and there are subdivisions and office parks all along the way.

Yesterday the F-14s were screeching through tight curves a thousand feet or so over my apartment. You can imagine how the dog liked that . . .

It looks like the pilot was trying to reach an empty field (a strange left-over surrounded by suburban homes and a grocery store parking lot) but didn't quite make it. Fortunately the one house that got totally trashed was empty at the time. The owner was on her way home from a garden show. In game-nerd terms, she made a saving throw...

Anonymous said...

Try removing ALL USB devices and add them back one by one. There might just be some kind of conflict. Rare but possible.

Stefan's first guess is also mine. I recently played this game with some cheap Kodak digital cameras at the office... if the device is MIS-identified, it's difficult to convince Windows that it made a mistake. Check the Device Mangler and see if you have something with an exclamation point on it. If there is, you can try removing it, but I've had better luck removing the whole USB tree and letting it be redetected.

David Brin said...

The only thing that amazes me more than our present politics is that millions of frustrated citizens have not formed mobs with torches and descended on MSoft HQ years ago.

Must I simply remove all USB devices and then connect the tower first? Or must I uninstall all the drivers for all USB devices and then re-install all drivers?

In some parallel universe, Jobs did not hire Sculley. He listened to advice about market share. In that parallel universe, we all have vastly better computers and sofware...

... but people are far more afraid of lord-king Steve than we here are afraid of Philanthropy Bill.

There is that.

Rob Perkins said...

The reason they haven't done it is that the systems are good enough. It's just as simple as that.

They've been fighting incompatible driver issues for years, to the point now that with Vista, they're gonna require signing and testing. The malware threat profile requires it.

And frankly, speaking as someone who uses both and who loves only Apple I haven't been able to crash Windows *except* through driver compatibility problems since the release of XP Service Pack 2.

You might be running into problems with a very poorly designed USB device; Microsoft would not be the party to blame for that.

In other words, your beef is *not necessarily* with Microsoft. It's likely a confluence of problems created by the fact that one entity designed your computer, a second your operating system, and a third the shortcut assumptions made by the designers of the IR tower. If each one reads the USB spec differently...

In other other words, in spite of antitrust problems, Microsoft has taken a more *modernist* approach to computing than Apple or the arbiters of Linux, with the attendant problems when two groups come together. The fact that it works at all is something of a negotiated human miracle, if you think about it.

As to your specific problem, I'm sure you already went to , right?

In other news... if you think the desire for space travel is dead, you really ought to talk to my four year old son, who is fascinated by the whole idea still. The kids dream big, that much is not lost to us.

I may reup my aviation medical and pour money into flying just to keep them dreaming.

Nate said...

Somewhat off-topic, but I'd like to thank everyone who mentioned Eric Flint's 1632 books, I just bought the first one yesterday and finished reading it about twenty minutes ago. And just, wow.

David Brin said...


A Very BASIC Problem

After three years of frustration, my son and I have mostly solved the Basic Problem. We did it in a way that was surprising, efficient, and supremely ironic.

During all of that time - ever since Ben was in the fifth grade - I engaged in a quixotic but determined quest, searching for a simple and straightforward way to get the introductory programming language BASIC to run on either my Mac or my PC.

Why on Earth would we want to do that, in an era of glossy animation-rendering engines, game-design ogres and sophisticated avatar worlds? In order to understand our problem... and why it is also a problem for our nation and civilization... I will ask you to perform a perspective-adjustment. Let’s start by mentioning a fact that may strike you as both obvious and kind of surprising, when you think about it.

Quietly and without fanfare, or even any comment or notice by software pundits, we have drifted into a situation where almost none of the millions of personal computers in America offer a simple line-programming language. Not even the one that was a software lingua franca on nearly all machines, only a decade or so ago. In other words, you have to go to extreme effort in order to use your computer as a computer, at all.

Oh, today’s desktops and laptops offer plenty of other fancy things -- a dizzying array of sophisticated services that grow more dazzling by the week. Heck, I am part of that creative spasm, having just been awarded a patent for new ways that people can interact online, bringing onscreen some essential conversational skills that we take for granted in real life. (

Only there’s a rub. Most of these later innovations were brought to us by programmers who first honed their abilities with line programming languages like BASIC.

Yes, they mostly use higher level languages now, stacking and organizing object-oriented services, or using other hifalutin processes that come prepackaged and ready to use, the way an artist uses pre-packaged paints. (Very few of them still grind their own pigments. Should they?)

And yet, the thought processes that today’s best programmers learned at the line-coding level still serve these designers well. Moreover, here’s a key point.

Very few young people today are learning those deeper patterns; indeed, they seem to be forbidden any access to that world, at all.

Dig it, Ben has long complained that his math textbooks all featured little type it-in-yourself programs - at the end of each chapter - alongside the problem sets - offering the student a chance to try out some simple algorithm on a computer. Usually, an equation or iterative process illustrating the principle that the chapter discussed. These little TRY IT IN BASIC exercises often take just a dozen or so lines of text. The aim is to both illustrate the chapter’s topic (e.g. statistics) and to offer a little taste of programming.

Only nobody does this. No student tries these exercises. Not my son or any of his classmates. Nor anybody they know. Indeed, I would be shocked if more than a few dozen students in the whole nation actually type in those lines that are still published in countless textbooks across the land. Those who want to (like Ben) simply cannot.

Now I have been complaining about this for three years. (To the best of my knowledge, I am the only person who is complaining about it, publicly.) But whenever I mention the problem to some computer industry maven, the answer is always the same:

“There are still BASIC programs in text books?”

Dozens of Microsoft officials have given me the exact same response, when I posed the question, in passing, at various high level conferences. After taking this to be a symptom of cluelessness in the textbook industry, they then invariably talk about how obsolete BASIC is, and how many more things you can do with higher level languages. “I assure you,” they invariably add, “the newer textbooks won’t have any of those little BASIC passages in them.”

All of which is true. Absolutely! BASIC is actually quite tedious and absurd for getting done the vast array of great and ambitious goals that are typical of a modern programmer. Clearly, any kid who wants to accomplish much would not use it for very long.

But all of this entirely misses the point.

Which is that those textbook exercises were easy, effective, universal, pedagogically interesting...

...and nothing even remotely like it can be done with any language other than BASIC. Typing in a simple algorithm yourself, seeing exactly how the computer calculates and iterates -- in a manner you could duplicate with pencil and paper -- making a dot change its position on a screen, propelled by math and logic... and only by math and logic?

Priceless. As it was priceless 20 years ago.

In effect, we have allowed a situation to develop that is like a civilization devouring its seed corn. If an enemy had set out to do this thing to us... quietly arranging so that almost no school child in America can tinker with line-coding on his or her own... any reasonably patriotic person would have called it an act of war!

Am I being overly dramatic? Then consider a shift in perspective. Let me explain.


First consider the notion of programming as a series of layers. At the bottommost level is machine code. I showed my son the essentials on scratch paper, explaining the roots of Alan Turing’s “general computer” and how it was ingeniously implemented in the first four-bit integrated processor... Intel’s miraculous 1971 4004 chip ... unleashing a generation of nerdy guys to move bits around in little clusters, adding and subtracting clumps of ones and zeroes, creating the first calculators and early desktop computers like the legendary Altair.

This level of coding is still vital, but only at the realm of specialists at the big CPU houses. It is important for guys like Ben to know about machine code -- that it’s down there, like DNA in your cell -- but a bright kid doesn’t need to actually do it, in order to be computer-literate. (Ben wants to, though. Anyone know a good kit?)

The layer above that is often called Assembler, though there are many various ways that user intent can be interpreted down to the bit level without actually flicking a series of on-off switches. Sets of machine instructions are grouped, assembled and correlated with (for example) ASCII-coded commands. Some call this the “boringest” level. Think of the hormones swirling through your body. Even a glimpse puts me to sleep. But at least I know that it is there.

The third layer of this cake is the operating system of your computer. Call it BIOS and DOS, along with a lot of other names. This was where guys like Gates and Wozniak truly propelled a whole industry and way of life. By letting the new desktops communicate with their users, exchange information with storage disks and actually show stuff on a screen. Cool.

Meanwhile, the same guys were offering - at the fourth layer - a programming language that folks could use to create new software of their very own. BASIC was derived from academic research tools like beloved old FORTRAN (in which my doctoral research was coded onto punched paper cards, yeesh.) It was crude. It was dry. It was unsuitable for the world of GUI. Basic had a lot of nasty habits. But it liberated several million bright minds to poke and explore and aspire as never before.

Moreover, it was close enough to the algorithm that you could actually follow the reasoning of the machine as it made choices and followed logical pathways. Repeating this point for emphasis; you could even do it all yourself, on paper, for a few iterations, verifying that the dot on the screen was moving by the sheer power of mathematics, alone. Wow!

(Indeed, I would love to sit with my son and write Pong from scratch. The rule set -- the math -- is so simple. And he would never see the world the same, not matter how many high-level languages he then moves on to. Any IT maven who has forgotten this thrill has simply lost the spirit, the soul, that propelled this age. His younger self would disown the shell that he’s become!)

The closest parallel I can think of is the WWII generation of my father... guys for whom the ultra in high tech was automobiles. What fraction of them tore apart jalopies at home? Or at least became adept at diagnosing and repairing the always fragile machines of that era? One result of that free and happy spasm of techie fascination was utterly strategic! When the “Arsenal of Democracy” began churning out swarms of tanks and trucks and jeeps, these were sent to the front and almost overnight an infantry division might be mechanized... in the sure and confident expectation that there would be thousands of young men ready (or trainable) to maintain these tools of war. (Can your kid even change the oil nowadays? Or a tire?)

The parallel technology of the seventies generation was IT. Not every boomer soldered an Altair from a kit, or mastered the arcana of DBASE. But enough of them did, so that we got the Internet and Web. We got Moore’s Law. We got a chance to ride another great technological wave.

So, what’s the parallel hobby skill today? What tech-marvel has boys and girls enthralled, tinkering away, becoming expert in something dazzling and practical and new? Shooting ersatz aliens in HALO? Dressing up avatars in The SIMS? Oh sure, there’s creativity in creating cool movies and web pages. But except for the very few who will make New Media Films, do you see a great wave of technological empowerment coming out of all this?

Okay, I can hear the sneers. Are these the rants of a grouchy old boomer? Feh, kids today! (And get the #$#*! off my lawn!)

Fact is, I just wanted to give my son a chance to sample some of the wizardry standing behind the curtain, before he became lost in the avatar-filled and glossy-rendered streets of Oz. Like the hero in in TRON, or The Matrix, I want him to be a user who can see the lines that weave through the fabric of cyberspace. Or at least know some history about where it all came from. At the very minimum, he ought to be able to type those examples in his math books and use the computer the way it was originally designed to be used. To compute.

Hence, imagine my frustration when I discovered that it simply COULD NOT BE DONE.

Yes, yes. For three years I have heard all the rationalized answers. No kid should even want BASIC, they say. There are higher level languages like C++ (Ben starts a course in that next week!) and better education programs like Logo and Python. Hey, what about Visual Basic! Others suggested downloadable versions like q-basic, y-basic, alphabetabasic....

... and indeed, I found one that was actually easy to download, easy to turn on, and simply let us type in some of those little example programs, without demanding that we already be manual-chomping fanatics in order to even get started using the damn thing. Chipmunk Basic for the Macintosh actually started right up and let us have a little clean, algorithmic fun. Extremely limited, but helpful. All of the others... every last one of them... was either too high-level (missing the whole point!) or else far, far too onerous to figure out or use. Certainly not meant to be turn-key usable by a junior high school student! Appeals for help online proved utterly futile. Until...

...until, at last, Ben himself came up with a solution. An elegant solution of startling simplicity.

Essentially, if you can’t beat em, join em.

While trawling through eBay, one day, he came across listings for archaic 1980s-era computers like the APPLE II. “Say, Dad, didn’t you write your first novel on one of those?” He asked.

“Actually, my second. STARTIDE RISING. On an APPLE II with Integer Basic and a serial number in five digits. It got stolen, pity. But my first novel, SUNDIVER was written on this clever device called a typewrit --”

“Well, look Dad. Have you seen what it costs to buy one of those old Apples online, in its original box? Hey what could we do with it?”

“Huh?” I stared in amazement.

Then, gradually, I realized the practical possibilities.

Let’s cut to the chase. We did NOT wind up buying an Apple II. Instead (for various reasons) we bought a COMMODORE 64 (in original box) for 25$ It arrived in good shape. It took us maybe three minutes to attach an old TV. We flicked the power switch...

... and up came a command line.


Uh. Problem solved? I guess. At least far better than any other thing we’ve tried!

We are typing in programs from books, having fun making dots move (and thus KNOWING WHY the dots move, at the command of math and not magic.) There are still problems, like getting an operating system to make the 5141c disk drive work right. Most of the old floppies are unreadable. But who cares? (Ben thinks that loading programs to and from TAPE is so-cool. Whatever.) What matters is that we got over a wretched educational barrier. And NOW Ben can study C++ with a better idea where it all came from. In the nick of time.

Problem solved? Again, at one level.

And yet, can you see the irony? Are any of the masters of the information age even able to see the irony?

This is not just a matter of cheating a generation, telling them to simply be CONSUMERS of software, instead of the innovators that their uncles were. No, this goes way beyond that. In medical school, professors insist that students have some knowledge of chemistry and DNA, before they are allowed to cut open folks. In architecture, you are at least exposed to some physics.

But in the high-tech, razzle-dazzle world of software? According to the masters of IT, line coding is not a deep-fabric topic worth studying. Not a layer that lies beneath, holding up the world of object-oriented programming. Rather it is OBSOLETE! Or, at best, something to be done in Bangalore.

Or by old guys in their fifties... guaranteeing them job security, the same way that COBOL programmers were all dragged out of retirement and given new cars fulla JOLT Cola, during the Y2K crisis.


All right, here’s a challenge. Get past all the rationalizations. (Because that is what they are.) It would be trivial for Microsoft to provide a version of BASIC that kids could use, whenever they wanted, to type in all those textbook examples. Maybe with some cool tutorial suites to guide them along. It would take up a scintilla of disk space and maybe even encourage many of them to move on up. To (for example) buy Visual Basic!

Instead, we are told that “those textbooks are archaic” and that students should be doing “something else.”

Only then watch the endless bickering over what that “something else” should be! With the net result that there is no lingua franca at all! No “basic” language so common that textbook publishers can reliably use it as a pedagogical aide. Opinionated tirades for this or that replacement do not hold up if the net result is NOTHING!

No, the textbook writers and publishers aren’t the ones who are obsolete, out-of-touch and wrong. It is people who have yanked the rug out from under teachers and students all across the land.

Let me reiterate. Kids are not doing “something else” other than BASIC. Not millions of them. Not hundreds or tens of thousands of them. Hardly any of them, in fact. It is not their fault. Because some of them, like my son, really want to.

But they can’t. Not without turning into time travellers.

The way we did, by giving up (briefly) on the present and diving into the past. (I also plan to teach him how to change the oil and fix a tire!) By using the tools of a bygone era to learn more about tomorrow.

If this is a test, then Ben and I passed it, ingeniously.

In contrast, Microsoft and Apple and all the big time education-computerizing reformers of the MIT Media Lab are failing, miserably. For all of their high-flown education initiatives (like the “$100 laptop”), they seem bent on providing information CONSUMPTION devices, not tools that teach creative thinking and technological mastery. Web access for the poor would be great. Machines kids out there can understand and program themselves.. that is quite another.

They didn’t have to let this happen, the masters of IT. It would be insanely trivial to fix, to allow this little pedagogical primer to reside in our machines, ready for brief use, like a bit of fascinating history, tempting students to move on.

But instead, perhaps without ever realizing it, they have failed us. Big time.

Stefan Jones said...

"Must I simply remove all USB devices and then connect the tower first?"

If my theory is correct, that should do it. No need to reinstall drivers.

* * *

Build rockets with him, Rob!

Worst case, it's at least a hobby that makes you go outdoors once in a while.

Rob Perkins said...


Wow. You thought of it, I didn't. And it's so blindingly painfully obvious that I'll probably do it with him and his 9 year old sister (the one who asked me for the electronics kit) before school starts. Duh. Hobby store is right down the street and everything.

Thanks for the reminder!

You live in my area. If you want to participate in a launch (we'll probably build just with the A motors to start), contact me offline.


Nice essay. However, I still boggle that you went out and bought a C-64 made of real atoms when the emulators for it, the Apple ][, the Amiga, the Atari computers, and so forth, are free, easy, and duplicate the programming experience you want on either Mac or PC without any pain, including emulating the 1541 disks. I'll post links, again, if you want 'em.

Assembler and hexnut coding really has become a thing for a 300-level course in college engineering, though, because it's a lower layer thing. Just like I never had to solder my own Altair, my kids will never have to number their lines of code. I'm not animated about that, probably because I'm capable of teaching the basics with those emulators, or imparting the knowledge through some other way than textbook sidebars. (Hint: those are *very* old textbooks, I'd wager...)

As to the morality of what has happened, I believe it was an unintentional thing, driven by largest-market economics; noone wanted to program in line BASIC when the same turtle graphics commands were present in VB5 (or better yet, Borland Delphi)

The irony is that you're correct in more ways than you know. I'm a relatively high-level programmer, who doesn't care for the low-level coding required by C++, preferring C# and the rich programming frameworks of the day.

Unfortunately, at least one division of Microsoft, the Windows Media division, thinks the way you've observed, to the point where they've *entirely written out* the simple ability to take a bunch of BMP files and simply animate them at a specified framerate. Instead, one must know exactly which numbers to set in a nested data structure with no less than *45* fields, and one must do it in C++, in order for the output to be a WMV file!

I think I crossed the 1000-line mark trying to shoehorn this into their SDK. And it still doesn't work.

Ah me.

Doug S. said...

My thoughts:

Here's one place where the hobbyist can get started. Instead of just shooting monsters in some game, you can go make your own levels. Neverwinter Nights was designed with the intent of allowing players to create their own content, and includes a scripting language based on C++ to define the behavior of objects in the gameworld. And, of course, there's always the various markup and programming languages associated with building your own web page.

Finally, the TI-8X line of graphing calculators from Texas Instruments contains a built-in programming language very similar to Basic. I first used a TI-83 in my pre-calculus class in high school, and found that writing programs to automate common mathematical operations (such as solving quadratic equations) was very helpful. I also wrote a few completely useless programs that draw things on the screen, much like I did with "real" BASIC back in the day.

David Brin said...

This is all great. But in all my years raising this issue, nobody seems interested in the core fact.

THERE USED TO BE A LINGUA FRANCA... a simnple language so pervasive that you could justify putting a few lines at the ends of chapters in textbooks.

The limitations of basic are OBVIOUS! Nobody is suggesting that kids wallow there for long!


Tony Fisk said...

The 'core fact' has been a factor in the collapse of many a technologically primitive society (eg pacific islands) whenever they came into contact with Western culture.
(So why *not* use that nice, seemingly always sharp machete when stone axes break and are a pain to make, and re-make and..dang! do you do that with a machete, again?...I can't?!!, then how do you make a stone axe, pop?)

The effect can apply equally well to western civilisation. (I'm sure it's been used in several SF stories, although I can't immediately recall any.. oh yes! Sundiver, kinda!)

People are concerned about this issue, if not with your specific example, then with other forms of information loss. (See tha mad scramble to resurrect the old Pioneer telemetry data so that the observed discrepancies in location could be assessed. See the background to the Open Document Format initiative that our favourite software company is so down on)

I guess David and Ben could have settled for an emulator. Except...

10 LET $there = $light

The Matrix would still have them: there would still be the sense of some sort of magic going on between the user and the peeks and pokes.

I agree that having a fundamental feel for what is going on behind the one-way window pane is useful. I remember my ZX Spectrum with nostalgia (wrote artillery, and enthralled my nieces for hours with my version of Beetle and Ludo! I Even had fun with fractals (if left overnight... although the Mandelbrot set wasn't a huge success, as I recall!)

David, if you and your offspring (or anyone else aspiring to see how things work) *really* want to get the overalls on (assuming the mindstorm problem stays recalcitrant), you can still get assemblers. You can't get more visceral than that, and if these start quietly vanishing, then you have a point!

Still, you solved the immediate problem, in a most effective manner, and I guess Basic hits a sweet spot between seeing the nuts and bolts, and ease of use! (It would be a neat exercise converting a simple Basic program to assembler, though!)

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

Minor pedantic note: the difference between ASM and machine language is negligable.

On most (all that I'm aware of) machines, the process to translate ASM to machine code is trivial - pretty much all commands have direct translations, operands have a known encoding, etc. The hardest part would be calls to system library functions, but even that that's just because there's a lot of addresses for those and it's not as easy to find a list.