Matt Ridley on EconTalk

Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) is the guest on the latest edition of the excellent EconTalk podcast. It’s an outstanding episode, with a clear speaker and focussed questions.


Your personal jet -pack, now on pre-order…

I said when I started this blog that I’d shy away from the flying cars and jet-packs. But that pesky ol’ thing called Progress is already making such claims look a little foolish. Yesterday, I blogged a prototype flying car/bike, picked up by the U.S. military for development. Today, a working commercial/personal jetpack.

Yes, you’ll be able to buy a personal Tomorrowland-style jet-pack next year, from the $100m company Martin Aircraft in New Zealand. They have a proven track record, test videos, and recently showed a simulator demo at the Paris air-show. The jet-pack, albeit lacking a certain Tomorrowland designer sleekness, can be yours for a mere $150,000. You can take off and land from just about anywhere.

Also in this week’s news are working robot tentacles, power exo-skeletons, holo-trucks, and (allegedly, I’m sceptical) levitating hover-boards.

Of course, it’s early days with all this stuff. As with the early days of designing what we now understand as the bicycle, we’ll no doubt see a great many weird and wonderful designs for such personal flight equipment, before someone alights on the equivalent of the Safety Bicycle + pneumatic tube tyres. But while we’re waiting, even older people may soon be flying via remote camera in the real world — I like the idea that if you want to experience flight, you stay safely on the ground in a rocker-chair while wearing a wrap-around HD holo-lens, and a controllable wi-fi linked HD drone camera does the actual dangerous flying for you. There could be some interesting weaving of augmented reality into that scenario, potentially laying either the future or the past over the real world as seen from above — akin to The Monitor in Tomorrowland.

Morgan Housel on the mystery of innovation pessimism

Morgan Housel in The Motley Fool today, on “Why It Feels Like We’re Falling Behind”. He takes an amusing and perceptive stab at trying to explain why media gloomsters are fixating on the false misconception that “American innovation has declined, and what innovation we have left isn’t meaningful.” He especially notes the failure to appreciate the time-lag effect in innovation…

“It always looks like we haven’t innovated in 10 or 20 years because it takes 10 or 20 years to notice an innovation.”

Another part of the problem, not addressed by Morgan, is that science and technology journalism is in such dire straits in the establishment media, as the recent ‘chocolate diet’ sting amply proved. Over the long-term this contributes to a wider problem — the general lack of knowledge about the world’s big mega-trends, which almost all point to a very positive future. This lack of awareness leads, for instance, to the sort of snickering we saw recently when Google’s Larry Page said recently at the Google shareholders’ meeting — and quite correctly — that…

“Any measure you make of the world, it’s getting better. … In fact, [by] quite a bit. We should be optimists and be excited about all the things we’re building and contributing to the world. It’s working.”

Page was also reported, at the same meeting, as saying that simply finding rational optimism on the real trajectory of the world was “exhausting”…

“It’s very exhausting to seek out constructive views of the longer term normally. I feel that is been true for a very long time.”

If that’s true for the head of Google, then what chance does a humble hard-pressed daily journalist have? Especially when faced daily with editors and audiences who are mired in pits of pessimism and cynicism?

Liverpool Echo newspaper turns against “staple diet of violence and mayhem”

In the UK’s gritty northern city of Liverpool the Liverpool Echo newspaper says ‘we’re getting it wrong’ on crime, and promises less…

“glorification of gangsters” and to provide more of an alternative to “the staple diet of violence and mayhem.”

What on earth were they doing glorifying gangsters in the first place? Still, it’s a welcome move, and one that other local newspapers might learn from. Let’s hope they don’t just turn to the sort of easily gathered happy-clappy good news that doesn’t sell, though. In my experience, genuine local good news needs to be dug for.

Microbes for Mars

There’s a fascinating new BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” discussion on extremophiles available now, as a one hour .mp3. In the programme’s ‘extra time’ section (.mp3 only) it was revealed that humanity owes our modern gene sequencing and splicing technology to the discovery of extremophiles, since these now play a key and irreplacable role in genetic technology. Also in the wider area of industrial biotechnology.

So humanity owes a great debt to geologists John Corliss and John Edmond, who found the first undersea extremophiles. In 1977 they piloted the submersible DSV Alvin 1.6 miles down into the mid-Atlantic to explore the Galapagos Rift, where they were the first to encountered a patch of mysterious hot manganese springs. They then adventurously piloted their craft up a strange hot ridge, not knowing what was in the darkness on the other side. Neither man expected there to be life down there, but they looked out of the heavy windows… and discovered a vast oasis of extremophiles. There were tubeworms, white crabs, purple octopus, pink fish and giant clams, and the uniquely weird micro-organisms they lived off.

It gets better, because nearly 40 years later humanity has the technology to build new extremophiles. DARPA’s new Biological Technologies Office is reportedly “Engineering the Organisms That Will Terraform Mars” and is first working out the high-speed workflows that will be needed to…

“engineer new types of extremophile organisms capable of surviving in a scarred wasteland. … And that’s where terraforming Mars comes in. With enough practice turning Earth’s damaged landscapes back into places hospitable for life, Jackson thinks we’ll have what it takes to eventually try to colonize the solar system.”