Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell


Posted from Culver City, California at 8:00 pm, October 24th, 2012

Despite being horrid at it, journal entries that make predictions about the future are some of my favorites to write. Thus, in keeping with a long and embarrassing tradition of ignoring better judgment and making uninformed guesses about the future, here are some thoughts about trends that might develop over the next twenty years.

To provide some perspective, think back twenty years to 1992. At that time most people didn’t know what the internet was. Pagers were the best way of contacting someone and cell phones were still almost a decade away from becoming ubiquitious. CGI was still a rarity in film, and it would be another year before Jurassic Park would stun the world with dinosaurs that were not filmed using robots or stop motion. Global warming was still an obscure theory that only a handful of climate scientists (and Al Gore) had even heard about. Even though predictions about today’s world made in 1992 would have likely been as wrong as the flying car and nuclear-powered dishwasher predictions made in 1950s science magazines, it’s still fun to make an attempt to speculate on developments over the next twenty years.


Two specific developments might vastly change energy: batteries and decentralized power generation. Currently energy can be generated, but it is hugely difficult to store efficiently and thus must be used immediately. With batteries becoming approximately eight percent more efficient each year, and assuming my math is correct, in twenty years they’ll be about five times more efficient and likely significantly cheaper. Today’s best batteries can power a car for 300 miles, so in twenty years that same battery would theoretically allow 1500 miles of range; with that kind of storage almost all non-electric motors (which are less efficient) would become obsolete, and more generally energy would move from something that must be produced on-demand into an entirely new paradigm. In addition, renewable sources like solar are also improving rapidly. Today, in places with lots of sun, solar is cost-competitive with grid electricity. Assuming a 4-5x improvement in the next two decades, combined with efficient batteries that can store energy for usage when the sun isn’t shining, and suddenly it would be more economical for individual households and businesses to have solar panels than to not have them. If that happens then usage of decentralized power skyrockets, and reliance on huge, centralized coal, oil and gas power plants (and the corresponding pollution they generate) diminishes greatly. As a wildcard, at some point (be it in ten years or a hundred) research into fusion and superconductors will yield breakthroughs that will result in essentially limitless, super-cheap, pollution-free energy.


Bionics is something that sounds scary until you realize it is already happening. Today people think nothing of pacemakers or hearing aids, and almost everyone has a cell phone that they carry at all times to keep connected to everyone else. The process of melding humans and machines is already well underway, and will only continue. In the next twenty years technology will probably become available to make bionics even more personal, including capabilities such as the ability to project a screen directly onto the retina, thus moving the functionality of a cell phone from a device in your hand to something that is actually inside of your head. With increased processing and networking speeds, having an infinite amount of data about the world projected directly into your field of vision will no doubt revolutionize how people interract with one another.

“Thinking” computers

When a person is trying to solve a problem they gather all available information, analyze it, weigh things appropriately, and then make a choice. If that choice turns out to be incorrect they can gather more data, change how existing data is weighed, or otherwise modify their thinking to make a better decision. Currently computers are far better than humans when it comes to analyzing input given a specific set of rules and data, but they aren’t good at modifying those rules or gathering more data; that’s going to change at some point in the future, and when computers can begin analyzing and solving complex problems it will have massive repercussions for quickly advancing knowledge in fields ranging from economics to politics, and especially in all facets of scientific research.

Medical advances

People often lament that medicine hasn’t cured any major disease since eradicating polio, but the medical field may be on the verge of huge advances using stem cells, or cells with properties similar to stem cells. Today if you have nerve damage (such as a spinal cord injury) there is little or nothing that can be done about it, but stem cells offer the potential to simply use your body’s existing genetic blueprints to “fix” the damage. Similar processes could be possible for creating new tissues, thus eliminating the need for organ or blood donations. These breakthroughs would affect all manner of other health and medical issues, so assuming the technology continues to advance, everything from joint pain to amputation could become as anachronous as polio is today.

YAY Spaceships!

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:05 pm, May 31st, 2012

Although it’s a little dismaying to be so excited about something that the country first did fifty years ago*, the launch by SpaceX to the space station is still a big deal. While NASA has done amazing things, the private sector is far better positioned to someday make us all into astronauts and help fulfill my childhood fantasies of looking at the earth from the other side of the clouds.

The second Falcon 9 launch (the mission prior to the most recent one) on December 8, 2010.

*This comparison is only correct insofar as the destination is still low earth orbit; the technology behind the Falcon 9 rocket is at least an order of magnitude beyond the rockets of the early 1960s.

Blame the Legos

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:41 pm, November 17th, 2011

I like the idea of building things – when I was a kid I spent hundreds of hours with Legos, in college I studied engineering, and today I waste inordinate amounts of time reading about ongoing engineering projects. Thus, because I think it’s interesting, and because I know that my mom will still love me even if everyone else is chased away by these geeky journal entries, here’s a rundown of some of the cooler projects going on today:

  • Electric Cars. Partly because of my old roommate I’ve been a follower of Tesla Motors since the beginning, but even without a personal connection it’s hard not to be excited about electric vehicles. The internal combustion engine hasn’t really changed much in 100 years, but in the next ten years a system that is smaller, more efficient, and requires far less maintenance will be a viable option. As batteries continue to improve it’s not inconceivable that we could eventually see cars that get a thousand miles to a charge, making today’s concerns about charging times and running out of electricity a non-factor and causing future generations to wonder why we were willing to deal with tailpipe emissions, gas stations, oil changes, and noisy motors.
  • The Bay Bridge East Span. Caveat: building a huge bridge with so many stakeholders is a recipe for massive cost overruns, as this project showed. Still, once a design was approved and lawsuits had run their course (the project was proposed twenty-two years ago in 1989) the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge ended up being an impressive feat of engineering. Opening in 2013 at a cost of $6.3 billion, this bridge will be two miles long, carry 270,000 cars a day, be capable of withstanding a magnitude 8.5 earthquake, last 150 years, and will be beautiful as well. Despite the crappy process that was required to actually get this bridge built, the end result is pretty spectacular.
  • New airplanes. The Boeing 787 just entered service after four years of delays, and while it may not look much different from today’s planes it’s hugely interesting under-the-hood: instead of aluminum much of the structure is carbon composites, it’s twenty percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor, and a variety of technical tweaks have gone into making it quieter and better at dealing with turbulence. The just-announced 737-MAX is a less-ambitious replacement for Boeing’s most popular model, with a planned fifteen percent improvement in fuel efficiency (amongst other changes) and a scheduled entry into service in 2017.
  • California High Speed Rail. While I’ll admit a fair amount of disappointment at how this project has been managed, the idea behind 220 mph trains linking California’s major cities is one that is about thirty years overdue. With new highways running between $2 and $16 million per lane-mile and road and airport congestion on the rise, high-speed passenger rail seems like an obvious solution, and one that the rest of the world is already implementing successfully. Hopefully California can get its act together and follow suit.
  • The Transbay Center. The Bay Area does a fairly good job with mass transit, but unlike New York City’s Grand Central Station there isn’t really a central transit hub. That changes in 2017 when a new terminal will open linking BART, MUNI, Caltrain, buses and (hopefully) high-speed rail.
  • Renewable Energy. While sadly the subject of renewable energy has become politicized of late, behind the scenes the technology has gotten really, really interesting. Solar is at the point where even without subsidies it is economically competitive in areas with a lot of sun, and with efficiency continuing to improve one can imagine a future where rooftop solar installations de-centralize the power grid, causing less need for huge central power plants. There are wind turbine models that generate as much as five megawatts, orders of magnitude more than those built in the 1980s, and that power is produced at about one-fourth of the cost of those older turbines. Similarly, energy efficiency is something to be impressed by: looking at just one example, flat screen TVs today use sixty percent less power than those manufactured in 2006.
  • Space. NASA estimates that its next-generation rocket system will cost $97 billion. For about $800 million SpaceX has already built and launched two rocket models, with a third (the Falcon Heavy) planned for testing in 2013. SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket is already capable of delivering cargo to the space station, and if successful the Falcon Heavy would be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket. There’s no guarantee that SpaceX will be successful or that their costs won’t increase, but it’s nevertheless exciting to see the future of space returning to something more like what everyone imagined it would be back when America was putting men on the moon forty years ago.

This is Mainly Filler

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:12 pm, February 28th, 2011

A handful of moderately interesting bits that may or may not be worth recording:

  • Space Shuttle Discovery is on its final mission. More than thirty years ago I remember my mother taking me to the Nashua Science Center where they gave a presentation on the great new replacement for the Apollo rocket. After one more mission that era will be over for good, which is an odd thing to consider.
  • In the world of airplanes (which are awesome) Boeing is getting ready for the first flight of the 747-8i, the world’s longest commercial airplane, and will shortly be announcing plans for the plane that will replace the 737.
  • The wicked awesome JAMWiki 1.0 was unleashed upon the world at the end of January to a roar of silence, although on February 11 apparently 5800 Kazakhis downloaded it, a new record for single-day eastern bloc installs.

And with that, February now has three journal entries. Hopefully March will yield slightly more material and the last minute panic entries can be avoided.

These are the days of miracle and wonder

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:20 pm, October 13th, 2010

With this journal now beyond its eighth birthday, one use of it that I’ve occasionally enjoyed indulging in at the expense of my twos of readers is posting thoughts about what seems important in technology, politics, or whatever; it’s fun to look back a few years later to see how trends played out versus what might have been expected at the time. For those who are bored to death by such posts, head immediately to Lolcats to avoid a geeky trend analysis.

The dotcom wave crested nine years ago, and since then it has seemed more and more likely that the next boom would be led by energy and conservation technologies. Dotcom disrupted markets by introducing new ways to do traditional tasks faster and more efficiently, offering huge value for those who adopted the new technologies. With new energy developments on the horizon offering a similar value proposition, it seems that another burst of change is inevitable. That said, here are a few specific technologies that seem like they will end up being interesting and important with respect to energy and conservation. The comments link is available should anyone else care to throw out their own thoughts.

Electric cars

While there is some attention still being given to solar cars, hydrogen cars, and hybrids, electric cars look more and more like they will be the primary automotive technology in the future. Battery storage is rapidly improving, and if trends hold then in another 5-10 years cars could be on the roads with expected ranges of 400-600 miles per charge. More importantly, however, is that electric cars make better sense from a technology standpoint than hybrids or internal combustion engines – the motors are more powerful and more efficient, and the supporting systems are simpler. An electric car doesn’t need oil changes, doesn’t have an exhaust system, has simpler cooling needs, etc. As the range issues are addressed and the cost of battery packs come down, it’s very tough to imagine anyone choosing oil changes, gas stations, and a $600 maintenance charge every 30,000 miles to something that they can just plug in at night. I’m obviously heavily influenced by JB on this issue, but while I’m not convinced Tesla will lead this trend I’m fairly certain that it’s one that’s coming in a big way.

Solar panels

Similarly, as solar panel efficiencies are improving it is becoming cost-effective for greater numbers of people to install them. While for most people the allure of solar panels is currently that they’re a “green” option, as soon as the economics of solar panels offer a cost advantage over grid power it’s tough to imagine that there wouldn’t be a rush for the mass market to install them; companies like Solar City are already pushing a sales message that is primarily based on economics rather than environmentalism. With current rates of improvement, the economic argument should be a HUGE selling point in places like Arizona and Southern California within the next several years. Should home generation become more prevalent, it is also conceivable that the need for new power plants might then be lower than current projections.

Environmental Concerns

This may be overly optimistic, but a side effect of a move to electric vehicles and solar panels would be less air pollution and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Any such benefits would obviously take time to kick in as old technologies were slowly phased out, but if (for example) 10% of vehicles are electric by 2015, and 30% are electric by 2020, air quality improvements should follow. This optimistic view isn’t an argument against trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from traditional sources, but it does give some hope that even in the absence of legislative action there may still be some chance of avoiding the worst predicted effects of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Peak Oil

Oil production rises each year to meet increased demand, but at some point there simply won’t be enough oil that can be extracted from the ground for that trend to continue. The commonly held assumption is that demand will continue to rise while supply will remain stable, causing a massive shock to economies and industrial systems. However, as electric vehicle technology improves it would seem that there will, for the first time, be a viable alternative for the most common use of oil. Since people are driven by economic factors, given the choice between a $20,000 vehicle that runs on $5.00 – $7.00 a gallon fuel, or a $30,000 vehicle that can be plugged in, fears over a depression brought about by peak oil may actually be replaced by a mini economic boom as replacement technologies are adopted.

Traffic Congestion

It’s tough to tell if today’s political environment is an anomaly or not, but at least in the US there is a dearth of sensible long-term planning as candidates look to quick-wins and uncontroversial decisions. Currently candidates in several states are campaigning against transportation projects that could produce huge long-term benefits, albeit at short-term cost. In California, a much-needed high-speed rail line is opposed by the current Republican gubernatorial candidate and will at best be delayed by myriad lawsuits from cities impacted by the proposed rail route, and at worst will end up canceled.

With so many obstacles to major changes to the existing transportation system, it seems that incremental approaches implemented at the local level are the only options to looming congestion nightmares. New York and several other cities already have implemented small-scale solutions, such as systems that allow buses to manage traffic lights to speed up bus routes. It seems logical that such “smart” traffic lights will be implemented elsewhere to optimize traffic flows. Similarly, cities will probably begin looking more at options like congestion pricing, reversible lanes, and better use of real-time traffic data for routing. While it would be great to think that large mass-transit projects will play a bigger role, it’s tough to see how such projects will be implemented, meaning that small-scale projects are likely to be the main area of growth.


While more efficient air and space travel could enable a number of new developments, this area sadly doesn’t seem poised for huge advances. With private companies like SpaceX now capable of launching payloads for a fraction of traditional costs it’s possible that additional uses for space will open up, but technology is still probably twenty years away from a cost point where really exciting changes could take place. Similarly, with more fuel efficient airplane technologies such as the Boeing 787 launching, air travel should become more pleasant, but revolutionary changes like blended wing body planes or hypersonic transports look like they’re still 30 years away from becoming a day-to-day reality.

Other Items

Water is going to become a bigger and bigger issue; if desalination doesn’t become a more prominent option then the world will face severe shortages. Assuming the energy requirements for desalination decrease and available fresh water supplies continue to be used up, the oceans should soon become a big part of the municipal water plan.

Smart grid technology is already being put in place to allow variable pricing of electricity, which should cause users to shift electricity usage and thus decrease the need for new power plants. The idea is that if electricity is more expensive when demand is high then people will defer usage until prices decrease; it’s less sensible to run the dish washer at mid-day if you can do so for half the price in the evening.

Biofuels will continue to gain attention, particularly things like cellulosic ethanol and algae fuel, but simpler technologies like electric motors, wind power, and traditional power sources may prevent them from ever being widespread. Instead, something like algae fuel production may be most useful as a way for large industrial facilities to reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously creating a commercially valuable by-product.

Rocket Man

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:05 pm, September 30th, 2008

It went mostly unnoticed by the news, but SpaceX just became the first private company to put a rocket into orbit. Their costs are significantly lower than other launch offerings, meaning that we could (finally!) be on the verge of seeing space open up to the extent that so many were predicting it would back in the ’60’s.