17 questions to ask about that gee-whiz tech development

Science-fiction author David Brin explains his method of examining the future:

“The top method is simply to stay keenly attuned to trends in the laboratories and research centres around the world, taking note of even things that seem impractical or useless,” says Brin. “You then ask yourself: ‘What if they found a way to do that thing ten thousand times as quickly/powerfully/well? What if someone weaponised it? Monopolised it? Or commercialised it, enabling millions of people to do this new thing, routinely? What would society look like, if everybody took this new thing for granted?'”

Those are good questions, as far as they go. My methodology for examining new developments (especially technologies) is to ask additional questions, some with a decidedly negative slant:

  • What if it runs into legal or political problems?
  • What if it can be used by criminals?
  • What if it raises ethical or religious objections?
  • What if people prefer doing it the “old way”?
  • What if a cheaper alternative overtakes it?
  • What if it’s too expensive to make or distribute (in volume)?
  • What if it lacks the necessary ecosystem or support infrastructure?
  • What if it runs smack into a counter-trend?
  • What if entrenched interests squelch it?
  • What if it has unintended consequences?
  • What if the roll-out is botched, glitchy, underfunded, embarrassing?

And, when will it emerge from the Hype Cycle‘s “peak of inflated expectations” and “trough of disillusionment”?

Five political surprises for 2011

The Washington Post asked several political pundits: “What will be the biggest political surprise of 2011?” Here are some of the wild cards of U.S. politics this year:

  • Public-sector labor strikes and demonstrations as state/local governments cut budgets. “The same kind of protests that have rocked Paris, London and Rome could erupt in California, New York and Illinois.”
  • Efforts to repeal the big health care reform legislation will have the unintended effect of educating the public about the good things in it.
  • The consensus that marked the lame-duck congressional session will continue in the new year (e.g., the DREAM immigration act could be passed).
  • The emergence of a potentially serious third-party candidate for president in 2012.
  • President Obama will definitely end the war in Afghanistan, while Republicans will have the unpopular position of supporting open-ended commitment.

Underground storage of carbon dioxide could trigger earthquakes

There’s been some talk of storing massive amounts of carbon dioxide underground in an effort to combat global warming. But the law of unintended consequences may have other ideas. “Sequestration” may not be easy to do because of the potential for triggering small- to moderate-sized earthquakes, according to Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback. “It may not take a very big earthquake to damage the seal of an underground reservoir that has been pumped full of carbon dioxide.”

The other complication, Zoback said, is that for sequestration to make a significant contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the volume of gas injected into reservoirs annually would have to be almost the same as the amount of fluid now being produced by the oil and gas industry each year. This would likely require thousands of injection sites around the world.

Botox: Bioterrorism threat?

Researchers worry that an underground network of illicit Botox suppliers would sell the underlying toxin to terrorists hell-bent on contaminating water or food supplies. The anti-wrinkle treatment has a miniscule amount of the lethal toxin, but the same organized crime syndicates making counterfeit Botox could sell the toxin to terrorists. An al-Qaeda training manual discovered in 2001 advocated the use of botulinum toxin in terrorist attacks.

A speck of toxin smaller than a grain of sand can kill a 150-pound adult. A biologist with a master’s degree and $2,000 worth of equipment could easily make a gram of pure toxin, an amount equal to the weight of a small paper clip but enough, in theory, to kill thousands of people.

Source: “Officials fear toxic ingredient in Botox could become terrorist tool,” The Washington Post, 25 January 2010

Implications: The black market in a cosmetic treatment could lead to terrorists contaminating water or food supplies to create mass casualties. Presumably the counterfeiters would sell toxin to the highest bidder. Continue reading “Botox: Bioterrorism threat?”

10 signals and trends

Gleaned from recent press reports and other sources:

These are boom times for U.S. makers of unmanned military aircraft (drones).

Sample Lab Ltd. opened a  “marketing cafe” in Tokyo that lets trend-setting women see and test new products.

With the recession crimping legal budgets, some big companies are insisting on flat-fee payments instead of law firms’ long-standing practice of the “billable hour.”

City “water cops” are handing out citations to people caught wasting water resources in drought-stricken areas.

Lumber mills that produce woods for hardwood floors and maple cabinets have been devastated by the U.S. recession’s double whammy: the housing bust and unavailable credit.

Some hospitals find that owning up to medical errors reduces litigation and helps them learn from their mistakes.

Despite a 25-year effort to improve U.S. education, the latest high-school SAT exam scores are disappointing. Asian-American students are thriving but the SAT gap for blacks and Hispanics widens.

More than half of Somalia’s population needs humanitarian aid, the U.N. says.

Software makers are scrambling to develop cell phone safety applications that prevent texting while driving.

Inexpensive mini-reactors may be an alternative to building giant nuclear powerplants, though there are technical, financial and regulatory hurdles.