Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Elon Musk's Hyperloop pipe dream is anything but...

On Monday, Elon Musk, the indomitable Silicon Valley entrepreneur, unveiled his plans for a Hyperloop transportation system. The idea is to build an elevated tube from LA to SF that will transport pods full of people and cars and cargo between the 2 cities at 800 mph. Simpsons geeks everywhere, from Ogdenville to North Haverbrook, erupted in a derisive chorus of "Monorail", but the solar-powered trip will take 30 minutes and cost $20 and that's no joke. It will be cheaper, faster, safer and more environmentally friendly than any existing mode of transportation. What's not to like?

To no one's surprise, Musk's plan garnered criticism, cynicism, and outright hatred from those who shroud themselves in pragmatism and an immutable love for incremental change. USA Today says "it won't work". TIME went way out on a limb and came up with "4 reasons why it could tank". Even usually friendly voices like The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal wrote in his column that he"worr[ies] that more fully baked transportation projects might be put on hold" and that the Hyperloop "could serve as a poison dart for California's high-speed rail (CA HSR), and then nothing comes of it".  It's nice that Alexis is worried, but nobody's asking him to do anything. I wonder if he worries about the proposed high speed railway? What if budgets run over, residents protest, and politics create roadblocks. What if we are all telling our grandchildren stories about a magical rail that could have been while we fill our cars with $30/gal. gasoline? When we first started sending people to space, did anyone worry that it would distract our engineers from building faster prop planes, more practical rockets? I'm sure they did.

Even if the status quo project is successful, Musk claims the $70 billion CA HSR will be one of the most expensive and slowest bullet trains in the world, and it would only save about 90 minutes off the trip. Is that type of incremental savings worth the money and the political capital needed to pull it off? If we're going to go through all the trouble and expense, why not really push the boundaries of transportation? The Hyperloop's $6 billion budget estimate might be pie in the sky, but even if it costs 10-20 times more than estimates, it will be about as expensive as the CA HSR + overruns, but will be a quantum leap forward in public transportation ... the beginning of a new future for humanity. Wouldn't that be worth the risk?

The Hyperloop truly is the stuff of science fiction, but from the desk of Elon Musk, the man who brought us PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City, it is more than just a pipe dream (pardon the pun), it is a genuine attempt at pushing humankind forward by great leaps and bounds. There is a sense of urgency coming from Musk. The Hyperloop is now part of what's seemingly become his life's purpose - to push mankind toward becoming what Soviet Astronomer Nikolai Kardashev called a Type II civilization - a Type I civilization uses all available resources on its home planet, Type II harnesses all the energy of its star, and Type III of its galaxy.* Thinking in terms of the Kardashev scale makes one realize that even with all the glory of our iPhones and Lasik eye surgeries, we still have a lot of growing up to do as a civilization. It seems Musk is one of only a handful of humans who realize how much work we really have in front of us.

While most of the world is waiting for the next Steve Jobs (some say it's Jack Dorsey) to create the next iCandi, in Musk there is a man who is every bit as visionary but who is working on a huge problem others seem to be missing. There is no doubt that Jobs was an entrepreneur of unparalleled accomplishment in democratizing computing and revolutionizing communications, but just maybe he did such a good job on communications and computing that  it might be time to set our sites on another problem. 

The Valley is replete with world class geniuses who spend all their intellectual might innovating new ways for people to interact with screens and connect and share information with each other, and there is no shortage of VCs willing to spur them on. But I can't help but to wonder whether this app economy is really advancing our civilization. If everything new and exciting happens inside a screened box, then aren't we pouring all our eggs into one basket in every which way. Software is nice, but reality is where we actually live our lives.

In some ways it seems that Elon Musk is the lone prospector on the transportation frontier. He set up camp in an old prospecting town called San Jose and he's discovered that the mountains are full of gold, so much so that he can't manage it all by himself, and he's screaming from the mountaintops for others to join him, but they don't heed the call. For now they're all too busy playing Candy Crush Saga to notice. All they have to do is look at their own commutes and they'll realize the need for innovation in the transportation space is very real.

We put a man on the moon in 1969, but your car and mine aren't much different from the one Neil Armstrong drove to Cape Canaveral that July. Each one of us has the power of a million Apollo 11 computers in our pockets, but if we're lucky our cars get only twice the mpg's as Neil's 67 Corvette, a car that wouldn't know an mpg if it bit it in the tailpipe. Think about that, from a baseline of not even trying, we've improved fuel economy by 2-3x over the span of 50 years. Isn't it time to do better? With carbon choking the atmosphere, millions of cars choking our expressways, and angry travelers choking TSA agents, it might be time for our greatest minds to put aside their iPhone apps and start working with Musk on the problem of transportation.

Musk has stated that he started SpaceX because a future where we're exploring space is just more inspiring than one where we're not. He started Tesla because "we still haven't solved transportation" and he started SolarCity to build the infrastructure to cleanly fuel his electric cars. Isn't a future where cars are clean and long distance travel is safe, cheap and supersonic something worth being excited about? The Hyperloop is a logical next step in Musk's transportation vision, but to hear him talk about it, it's as if he wished he didn't have to take this project on at all. In some ways, it might be that our lack of imagination has foisted this burden upon Musk, and he just can't brush it aside. It's too important.

For obvious reasons Musk is loathe to start another company. Already CEO of two companies and chairman of a third, he's a bit tapped out. He probably has his hands full launching satellites and building coast to coast electric charging stations for his Teslas. But he pulled all-nighters to put together his Hyperloop plan. He didn't need to do that. I'm sure he wouldn't have done anything about the Hyperloop if not for his intense disappointment in the proposed CA High Speed Rail. We are thinking too small for him, but also too small for ourselves. Musk hopes we will heed his call to action, and start thinking huge, but if he knows anything, it's that we're still going to need his help.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hitchens and the Forbidden Fruit

I found myself watching a bunch of Christopher Hitchens YouTube clips last night and I became very sad about his death. This happens to me from time to time, where I become sad about an already dead person’s death from watching YouTube: Bill Hicks, Steve Jobs, John Lennon, MLK, JFK …. Not only was Hitch unparalleled in his intellectual fortitude,  and his ability to call upon seemingly endless historical examples with incredible detail, he was also singularly eloquent with a velveteen voice like that  actor I always try to think of … Alan Rickman. Hitch’s voice is just as soothing, but powered by a transcendent intellect. Aside from the great loss of this singular voice, I was sad for another reason.
I kept thinking about how lonely and terrified he must have been in his death. I know everyone who dies of a terminal illness must have to deal with some tremendous fear along the way ( I actually don’t know this, I assume), but most people can find some solace in their faith or beliefs when staring down the uncertainty of death. For most there is some kind of succor in the faith or hope that this is not the end and that perhaps there is something else, or even something better. But for Hitch he didn’t have that.
In Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael there is a very interesting explanation of the biblical story of the “fruit of the knowledge of good and evil". Having been raised Catholic I never understood this story. I never understood why God would punish his people for wanting to know the difference between good and evil, or its nature, or whatever else that fruit was supposed to tell us. Nor did I understand how people were supposed to know right from wrong if we didn’t know the difference between good and evil. I just could never understand that story or what it was supposed to explain.
Ishmael explains the story of the “fruit of knowledge of good and evil" not as a story that explains original sin or the need to be forgiven or the reason for Jesus’ crucifixion or anything like that, the story is actually about the sins of civilization.
The fruit story was a story that came from the oral history of nomadic tribes. When the nomads saw “civilized" people farming in the fertile crescent and working so hard for their food, they had to create this fable to explain why any people would settle and work rather than wander and reap the fruits of the land. Why weren’t they just living off the land?  The nomadic people reasoned that civilized people must have angered God by eating a forbidden fruit. As the story goes, God cast out these people from “paradise", which was the reality of a free wandering existence, and banished them to a life of toil and misery.
The knowledge of good and evil, is one of the most ironic stories Judeo-
Christians tell themselves. They tell it to themselves as a “woe is me" tale, that absolves the of their innate folly and flaws. It’s as if to say “yeah, we’re born imperfect, but we can’t help it. It just goes back a long time, and God still hasn’t forgiven us. But then 2000 years ago he sent us his son, and then he forgave us after we crucified him." Makes perfect sense. In practice the sin of the knowledge of good and evil makes much more sense. It is a sin that is carried out by every government, every religious and world leader, every priest, rabbi or sheik, every bible thumping baptist, and Koran toting Muslim. The sin they all commit is the hubris that tells them they know what God wants, which religion is correct, what will happen after death, who are sinners, who are the saints, and which people should live or die, which animals to eat, which to enslave, which streams should be damned, which islands should be built, and which forests should be denuded. Those who walk around believing they have the power to decide these things, are carrying out the sins of those who ate of the tree of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. The sin is NOT that people now have this knowledge, the sin is that many people believe they do.
Powerhouse intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens, Albert Einstein, Steven Hawking, Carl Sagan and others, are smart enough to know how very little they know. And that level of intelligence yields the same results every time, like Galileo before them, they are heathens. Men who believe in their intellect to such an extant that they no longer believe in God or religion or anything of the sort. The reason is not that they think they are so smart that they know there IS a god, it’s that they know so much about the nature of existence that they realize how silly it is to think that men 1500 - 5000 years ago had a clear enough picture of existence to actually understand it. Garden of Eden makes sense to some, Big Bang makes sense to others, but the real truth is that the Universe is so much bigger than we can see, measure, imagine, so much older than our brains are equipped to understand, and so so empty, even though it encompasses everything.
The rest of us, compared to the great thinkers of humanity are quite literally bumbling idiots. What a lonely life that must be for or intellectual giants. They know so much and know how very little the rest of us really understand. What a challenge it must be to try to explain things to us. 
Have you ever tried to explain anything to a very inexperienced and intellectually dull person. They tend to think that everything is easy to understand, easy to accomplish, and that everything that’s slightly complicated comes with instructions. Well as we all know, the big money is paid to people who know that they don’t know the answers. Anybody can read from a script, punch numbers into a calculator, or search Google, but it takes real geniuses to invent written language, calculators and Internet search algorithms. 
There is a difference between great people and the rest of us. It’s perhaps only a marginal increase in intelligence but it makes them think and act much differently. Which brings me back to Hitch. 
When Hitch was dying he did not have the luxury of telling himself comforting stories about God, heaven, seeing long lost relatives, or being reunited with his boyhood dog. He had to go into the light alone with nothing to shield him from the vast emptiness of space. Who knows what happens to us when we die. I hope Hitch is wrong, and that it’s not emptiness, but I know for a fact that it’s not pearly gates and harps and living on clouds. Maybe it’s just a dream that lasts 1/8th of second but feels like an eternity. After all time is an illusion. When it comes to the end, does it actually stop.?

Dove: blaming graphic designers for everything

Dove created a Photoshop action, which was basically a virus to make graphic designers feel guilty about Photoshopping models. In many ways, the Dove natural beauty campaign sends a much needed message to the world that it's time to stop the proliferation of unrealistic and literally unreal beauty standards.
However in this day and age it's hard not to view everything through a cynical lens. Dove's parent company, Unilever also owns Axe body spray which definitely Photoshops models, and basically promises that Maxim Hotties will fall from the sky like gumdrops whenever a bald chested boy sprays himself with cheap cologne. Look further and you'll realize that Unilever is no stranger to sending mixed messages, they also own Hellmans Mayonaisse and Slimfast. However to be fair they also own complimentary brands - Magnum Condoms and Vaseline. True story.