Google gets more amazing

As many of you know, numbers and I don’t always get on so well. Thankfully, Google knows this and has come up with a solution. It almost makes math fun.

Google is adding functionality faster than I keep keep up with, despite the fact that like 45% of my job involves using Google to dig out facts, trends, and support for my occasionally far-fetched strategic assertions. An interesting still-in-Beta service: Google Catalogs. That’s right, if you lost that Ikea catalog, just go here and type in “Poang” and the page with your favorite chair will pop right up. It’s almost spooky.

The Up and Coming Species

There’s a lot of concern these days about so-called "white collar" jobs going overseas. It’s great to see a work force elevate itself by making a quality contribution at a great price… as long as it’s not your job that’s getting replaced.

We can point to countries that have been doing well for some time with getting overseas contracts, and we can perhaps see which countries might be on the rise. However, we need to let our thinking move beyond geo-political boundaries and see opportunities for other species to move into new roles. For example, primates are starting to do great work in software, according to Primate Programming, Inc., and their prices can’t be beat! (Of course, as a former editor, I recognize the ridiculousness of the claim that their employees have great English skills—programmers typically use terrible English.)

Some people might feel threatened by apes taking computer jobs, but I say, let them. It’s my turn to finger paint.

The Birds

Don’t tell Tippi Hedren, but crows are just as smart as we feared. As linked from memepool, the venerable journal Science shows us that they can make and use tools. This is a fairly rare ability among animals; otters use stones to break mussel shells, but this is obviously a far better-developed problem-solving ability.

And we thought Dozer was smart… maybe some trips to Home Depot would help him get more proficient with tools.

“Robotic Nation”

A really interesting link from Slashdot today. While the title is a bit geeky, Marshall Brain makes a very clear argument that advances in robotic technology will have huge impacts on employment patterns within our lifetimes. It sounds terribly sci-fi, until you realize that all those ATMs and self-service kiosks and auto-check-out lines in stores are all basically robots. And they have already eliminated millions of jobs. Brain looks at a number of sectors (manufacturing, food service, construction) that he estimates will be, for simple economic reasons, devoid of human workers by mid-century. It makes me awfully glad to be a member of the creative class–our work is the last field slated for robotic replacement. Let’s face it: when the robots start marketing to us, it’s all over. As that Jane’s Addiction song goes, “We’ll make great pets.”

Leaving aside Terminator-style doomsday scenarios, having 50% unemployment in developed countries will completely alter all of our assumptions about work, production, and citizenship. Brain’s point is that we need to start wrestling with these issues now.

One point he doesn’t touch on: perhaps by 2050, with all those robots, Americans will finally get more than 2 lousy weeks off a year. Of course, the Europeans are sure to beat us to the point where humans only have to work two weeks out of the year. Assuming the robots are kind and loving masters, it will be a great vacation.

TiVo killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?

Shortly after I asked David to marry me, I asked him if we could get a TiVo. “Yes,” he replied. “I couldn’t justify it for just myself.” “Me neither.” Another benefit of the merger.

But now, I think I want this instead. It’s basically the “but wait, there’s MORE” digital media product. It does everything but make the popcorn, and that may not be far off.

I’m all for open architecture, and hate the idea of buying something for $400 that will be obsolete in 18 months. I’m not the biggest Linux fan, but it has a real foothold in consumer electronics due to its small size, customizability, and free licensing. But those Free Software geeks are such bad branders. A penguin– so unexpected, so differentiating!

Bananas not headed for extinction

David so often corrects me with citations from snopes.com that I am really glad to get the chance to scoop him on the debunking of an alarming story he mentioned last month. David (and plenty of less reputable news sources) reported that the worldwide banana population was under threat from aggressive pathogens. As cultivated bananas have been assiduously bred from a small stock, they are essentially a monoculture and thus very vulnerable to massive blights. Luckily, the experts have allayed my fears of a bananapocalypse. And they write great headlines too. Now, if someone more botanically wise can educate me: what’s a “banana sucker?”

Cluck, suck, pluck

Ah, the joys of chicken farming. It turns out that chickens are even harder to herd than cats, and human “chicken catchers” freak out the birds they are trying to corral. One solution the inudstry tried: a giant chicken vacuum. It didn’t work as well as the prairie dog vacuum I heard tell of in my youth. Anyway, this WSJ article is funny and somewhat heartwarming… the chickens are happier, the chicken-herders are happier, and even the freaks at PETA are a little less unhinged. It strikes me as amazing that any technology borrowed from airport bagging handling systems could make anyone happy, but as long as it’s not on the editorial page, I tend to trust the Journal.

“The self-healing minefield”

DARPA, the people who thought up the Internet back in the ’60s, have a new network they’d like you to know about: the “Self-Healing Minefield”. Follow the link for a great Flash animation of what this means. The Register has this helpful story about the development, which is both more and less sinister than it sounds.

As it turns out, these are anti-tank mines, far less hated then anti-personnel mines by anti-mine activists worldwide. Anti-tank mines only trigger when a tank– not a 5-year-old years after the conflict– trips its trigger.

The self-healing bit is cool, but somehow terrifying: if the minefield is breached (i.e., a passable lane is created) the networked mines actually “hop” to new positions using rocket thrusters. In tech speak, the minefield “self-reconfigures on the fly and in real-time.” IBM talks a lot about “self-healing computers” that fix their own bugs, but somehow these mines make me think of Terminator, with its warning about the day the computers wake up and decide to reconfigure humans out of the pictures.

she bop

Says Wired News: “Giving new meaning to the term phone sex, a British company is selling software that transforms a cell phone into a sex toy.”

I hate to tell some of you it’s not yet available here in the States.