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Commentary & Analysis

Around the Web: Decade Dilemmas. Fiber Fallout. Paper Packing. Tentacle Trouble. Nifty Notebooks. Clever Keyboard. Helping Hive.

What are technology’s biggest challenges for the next decade? What are the top emerging technologies? Are natural fibers better for the environment than artificial fibers? Paper-based alternative to Bubble Wrap. The eternal struggle: eagle vs. octopus. For sale: Alaskan newspaper. Cost: $0. A teenager installs a 1,500-pound mainframe computer in his parents’ basement. A portable roll-up keyboard for smartphones and tablets. The rebirth of cursive writing? Bees as service animals. Rejoice: Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” is now online! All that and more in WhatTheyThink’s weekly miscellany.

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: December 20, 2019

Decadence

First of all, we should point out that, despite all the lists, bests, worsts, etc., that people are compiling, the 2010s do not actually end on December 31, 2019. When the BC/AD (or BCE/CE)—aka Anno Domini—dating system was created in AD 525 by Dionysius Exiguus, there was no Year 0; 1 BC was immediately followed by AD 1. As a result, the first decade AD consisted of the years 1 to 10, the second decade 11 to 20, and so on. So our current decade started January 2011 and will end in December 2020. We had this discussion at the turn of the millennium; despite everyone (including of course Prince) partying not only like it was 1999 but because it was 1999, they were all a year early.

Still, going from 1999 to 2000 did feel more momentous than 2000 to 2001—just like we are likely to be more excited by our car’s odometer flipping from 999 to 1,000 miles than 1,000 to 1,001 miles (if these kinds of things excite you, of course). And we’d rather not be party poopers (usually), so we will take a tip from the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould who argued back in the 90s that 1999 was the end of a millennium (i.e., any 1,000-year period)—not necessarily the millennium. So we’ll get into the spirit of things and commemorate the end of a decade, one that happened to begin in 2010. Call it the “Most-of-the-2010s.”

So that all said, looking to the new decade looming ahead of us, Gizmodo asks, “What are the biggest challenges technology must overcome in the next 10 years?”

the field’s got some serious kinks to work out. Some of these are hardware-related: when, for instance, will quantum computing become practical? Others are of more immediate concern. Is there some way to stop latently homicidal weirdos from getting radicalized online? Can social networks be tweaked in such a way as to not nearly guarantee the outbreak of the second Civil War? As AI advances and proliferates, how can we stop it from perpetuating, or worsening, injustice and discrimination?

They polled a wide-ranging panel of futurists, engineers, anthropologists, and experts in privacy and AI. They come up with some of the usual—and some unusual—suspects, but MIT’s Seth Lloyd has an interesting couple of suggestions: “The two greatest technological challenges of our current time are (a) good cellphone service, and (b) a battery with the energy density of extra virgin olive oil.” OK, then.

And over at Scientific American are the “top 10 emerging technologies in 2019.” What will be have to contend with in the next 10 years and probably beyond? Bioplastics, social robots, tiny microlenses, the identification of a new class of proteins that can help cure previously incurable diseases, advanced food tracking and packaging, DNA data storage, and more. It’s worth having a look at the full list.

We’re Down (and Up) with That

Hi, Fiber

Replacing plastic with natural materials is good for the environment, right? Well, too much of anything—be it natural or artificial—isn’t necessarily a good thing. As it turns out, there are more natural microfibers polluting the environment than plastic microfibers, at least in the UK, according to recent research from the University of Nottingham. “Over a 12-month period, experts from the University’s School of Geography and the Faculty of Engineering Food, Water, Waste Research Group, collected 223 samples from 10 sites from the River Trent, the River Leen and the River Soar, and four roofs of the University’s UK teaching campuses, and found that ‘natural’ textile fibres represented over 93% of the textile fibre population measured. Microplastic textile fibres, such as polyester and nylon, were absent from 82.8% of samples, whereas ‘natural’ textile fibres were absent from just 9.7% of samples.”

Natural fibers also have other environmentally deleterious properties, especially when it comes to their production. This current study—and many others—are attempting to gauge the extend to which ostensibly more sustainable alternatives to artificial fibers have unintended consequences that may make the matter moot.

Pass the Bubbly—Or Not

Do you love Bubble Wrap? Sure, we all do. (And did you know that Bubble Wrap was originally invented not for packaging, but as décor—kind of a 3D wallpaper?) Anyway, for those who need to pack fragile items but are trying to reduce the amount of plastic they use, via Core77, there is a paper-based alternative called GreenWrap.

It’s not as satisfying to pop, but since you’ve long been able to pop Bubble Wrap on your phone, it may not be a great loss.

Duly Noted

Eight Arms to Hold You

What happens if you’re a peckish bald eagle looking for some fresh seafood? You’d do well to stick to fish and avoid cephalopods, as one Canadian bald eagle had a run in with an octopus that did not go well. 

What If We Give it Away?

Do you think it would be fun own a newspaper? One in a small town in Alaska? If so, good news! Larry Persily, owner of the Skagway News in an Alaskan panhandle town of 1,000, is looking to give the paper away to a committed journalist who will keep it alive. That’s right—he will sell the paper for $0. Like most local newspapers, it’s not the most lucrative venture in the world, but then the Skagway lifestyle is not an expensive one. Still, there are challenges: “Getting to the printer requires a 125-mile drive through snow and ice over a mountain pass.” First order of business for any new owner: online file submission.

All Publishers Are Affected

All Computers Big and Small

Over at Boing Boing, Connor Krukosky, whose lifelong love of antiquated computer equipment led him, at the age of 18, to install a 1,500-pound IBM mainframe computer in his parents’ basement. “This is great, makerspiration stuff: a scrappy kid using old documents scanned and posted as PDFs to resurrect a titan from a lost, heroic age. The original cost for the machine, 10 years before, was $350,000. He spent a total of $350 buying and refurbishing it.” Check out Krukosky talking about his adventure. 

Also at Boing Boing, from one-ton-plus behemoths to a smart notepad. Rocketbook isn’t a name we’ve heard in about 20 years, but they’re apparently still around and have come out with the Everlast and Everlast Mini smart notebooks: “The book is composed of specially-treated synthetic paper that you can write on with a special Pilot FriXion pen (included). It writes smoothly and without smudging but is completely erasable with a bit of water and a wipe. The Mini, true to its name, is pocket-sized, and the pen fits snugly in a holder flap. Want to save that work? Just scan your page with the accompanying app.”

Cool idea, and it seems like the Rocketbook app has an OCR/transcription feature. Hmm.... Maybe Santa will be good to our WhatTheyThink contributors...

Roll Up!

Do you hate typing on a smartphone, or even a tablet? Wish there was a convenient, potable keyboard? If so, good news! And again at Boing Boing: a Bluetooth keyboard that rolls up. “The layout for the keyboard is a full-size five-row QWERTY format, with a matte finish and raised keys that respond nicely. If you're pulling an all-nighter, never fear. The battery life can handle up to 288 hours of work. When you're done, a magnetic sensor turns the whole thing off as soon as you roll it up.”

Is Trish Witkowski Complicit In This?

Cursive! Foiled Again!

Some of you may be old enough to remember a time when you got graded on penmanship—in grammar school, there were actual classes dedicated to cursive writing. Cursive writing has gone the way of button shoes, or even typewriters, but over at the New York Times, a spirited defense of cursive writing is coming from an unusual source: a 10-year-old. Granted, Edbert Aquino is a national handwriting champion, but still... And it turns out that legislation is afoot—at least in New Jersey—to try to bring back cursive handwriting education, and for a fairly prosaic reason: “Like many students in New Jersey, Ms. McKnight’s son had never been taught cursive writing. Tasks she considers fundamental were beyond him: autographing a yearbook; endorsing a check; signing an application.”

We’re not sure we need to revive cursive—surely people can be easily taught to sign their names—but maybe it would bring class and dignity back to interpersonal communications.

Oh, Honey...

All people respond emotionally to different things, and that is truer nowhere else than when it comes to pets and, by extension, emotional support animals. So we were only moderately surprised to read that “Prescott, Arizona man David Keller has requested that his beehive be considered a support animal and allowed entrance into businesses and other places that normally prohibit pets.” (Want to bet the guy flies Southwest?)

Now, if your BS detector has started buzzing, it is well-calibrated: he was not entirely serious; rather, he did it because he was “upset at what he considers the lax licensing around service animals.” Here’s the stinger: “Keller does not actually own a beehive, nor has he ever. But according to AZFamily, he logged on to a website called USA Service Dog Registration and was able to submit a photo of a beehive and have it listed as a trained service animal.” Further, “there is no governing body or legal authority that supervises the licensing or labeling of service animals. The site Keller used, and many like it, issue certification without any verification of the animal's training or function.”

Fair point.

Only a Prawn in Their Game

Insert own joke here: “A thief stuffed a total of 30 bags of frozen shrimp down his pants in back-to-back burglaries of a Southern California grocery store.”

You don’t even want to know where he put the cocktail sauce.

For the Birds

A Side Too Far

One of the greatest, funniest comic strips of all time was Gary Larson’s The Far Side, and anyone who went to college during the strip’s heyday (1980s and early 1990s—Larson retired in 1995) would find any number of Far Side panels cut out and taped to faculty office doors and bulletin boards. (Larson had many fans in academia, and he has had no fewer than three newly discovered species named for him, including a type of biting louse that exclusively targets owls—Strigiphilus garylarsoni. There is also a beetle called Garylarsonusand a butterfly known as Serratoterga larsoni.)

Anyway, The Far Side has been conspicuously absent online (at least officially), but the good news, via The New York Times, is that the official Far Side website now has a growing collection of Far Sides—and may even have new content, thanks to Larson’s purchase of a digital tablet. “Lo and behold, within moments I found myself having fun drawing again,” he told the Times.

The entire staff of WhatTheyThink wishes you a joyous holiday season! See you next year!

This Week in Printing, Publishing, and Media History

December 16

1775: English novelist Jane Austen born.

1901: Beatrix Potter privately publishes The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It goes on to sell over 45 million copies worldwide.

1917: British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke born.

1928: American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick born.

December 17

1790: The Aztec calendar stone is discovered at El Zócalo, Mexico City.

1892: The first issue of Vogue is published.

1903: The Wright brothers make the first controlled powered, heavier-than-air flight in the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

1937: American novelist John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces) born.

1989: The Simpsons first premieres on television with the episode “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.”

December 18

1892: Premiere performance of The Nutcracker by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

1958: Project SCORE, the world’s first communications satellite, is launched.

December 19

1776: Thomas Paine publishes one of a series of pamphlets in The Pennsylvania Journal entitled “The American Crisis.”

1843: The novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is first published. Bah!

1932: BBC World Service begins broadcasting as the BBC Empire Service.

December 20

1948: English keyboard player and producer Alan Parsons born.

1946: The film It’s a Wonderful Life is first released in New York City.

1946: Israeli-English magician, “psychic,” and spoon-mangler Uri Geller born.

1971: The international aid organization Doctors Without Borders is founded by Bernard Kouchner and a group of journalists in Paris, France.

December 21

1879: World premiere of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark.

1913: Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross,” the first crossword puzzle, is published in the New York World. The Oreo cookie had been introduced a year earlier. Coincidence? (See if we can spot the cruciverbalists out there.)

1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the world’s first full-length animated feature, premieres at the Carthay Circle Theatre.

1940: The late, great American composer, singer-songwriter, guitarist, and producer Frank Zappa born. Watch out where the huskies go.

December 22

1936: Irish science historian and author James Burke (Connections) born.

2001: Richard Reid attempts to destroy a passenger airliner by igniting explosives hidden in his shoes aboard American Airlines Flight 63; as a result, air travelers passing through security will have to take off their #$^&@! shoes in perpetuity. So thanks for that, Mr. Reid. 

 

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