Reasons For Optimism 39-41

39. There are a lot of bad software patents out there that are probably restricting innovation. Stack Exchange has a new sub-site for crowd-sourcing patent applications to help find “prior art” for silly patents that aren’t really anything new. It’s hard to say how useful this will end up being, but I find two things very encouraging from a political perspective: 1) It was enabled by a small change to government patent law. 2) It was essentially the Patent Office director‘s idea.

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Reasons For Optimism 30-38

30. A federal judge has struck down the “indefinite detention” in the NDAA as unconstitutional. It’s always encouraging to see the judicial branch actually checking the legislative branch’s attempt to give the executive branch unrestrained power. The battle is far from over, though, as it sounds like the Obama administration is challenging the decision. Still, it’s a hopeful sign for now.

31. The Senate might pass a bill requiring cops to get a warrant to read your e-mail. Of course, this little bit of overdue restraint might be offset by other news like the House’s extension of other warrantless surveillance powers or the latest former NSA official to come out and claim the “US is illegally collecting huge amounts of data on his fellow citizens,” but, hey, we’ll take what we can get.

32. There have been some encouraging polls concerning upcoming ballot measures in Washington and Colorado that would legalize marijuana and regulate it similarly to alcohol, with support at 57-34 and 51-40, respectively. The second link notes that California’s 2010 measure polled at 52% and still failed, but Washington’s support looks even stronger. I continue to view this as an inevitable trend.

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Reasons For Optimism 23-29

23. Weather forecasts are becoming more accurate. No, seriously. “In 1972, the service’s high-temperature forecast missed by an average of six degrees when made three days in advance. Now it’s down to three degrees… Just 25 years ago, when the National Hurricane Center tried to predict where a hurricane would hit three days in advance of landfall, it missed by an average of 350 miles… Now the average miss is only about 100 miles.” Better forecasting means fewer cancelled trips and plans and wasted time and money, and – more importantly – fewer injuries and deaths from sudden storms (the chance of an American being killed by lightning is apparently down over 95% since 1940). The National Weather Service has always been one of my favorite parts of the federal government, and as technology improves along with their own experience, they’re more accurate and more useful than ever.

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Failed Predictions of Doom

I’m fascinated by failed predictions of the coming apocalypse. In Christian circles, Edgar C. Whisenant is legendary for his 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, and – serving as its own punchline – the sequel arguing for 1989.

I recently read Larry Burkett’s The Coming Economic Earthquake, an early 90’s warning against the huge increase in debt that was sure to cause another Great Depression by 2000. Burkett didn’t foresee the budget surplus under Clinton or the sharp drop in interest rates that would allow the debt to quadruple past the amount he considered alarming.

I also recently saw 25-year-old predictions from science fiction writers in 1987 about what life would be like in 2012; they expected technological advances, but also war, hunger, crime, disease, and too many people and not enough resources. Most of the pessimism turned out to be too pessimistic.

It’s easy to write off apocalyptic predictions by religious conservatives or science fiction authors. But the elites of society have been just as wrong. Matt Ridley has an article in Wired detailing decades of failed predictions of doom and destruction by scientists, international organizations, politicians, and more.

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Reasons For Optimism 20-22

A few advances this week in the awesome technologies that will probably change this decade…

20. A little girl with a rare disease can now use her arms thanks to a 3D printer. This is the most powerful single piece of evidence I have yet seen for my belief that 3D printing will change the world. It clearly demonstrates how someone’s life can be dramatically altered by the ability to cheaply print completely customized physical parts. It’s not clear to me whether the girl will need the exoskeleton for the rest of her life or if the assistance will enable her to developer her muscles to the point where she eventually will not need them.

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The Awesome Technologies That Will (Probably) Change This Decade

For awhile now I’ve been planning a post about some awesome technologies that will probably bring great changes to the world by the end of this decade. Azmyth recently did a similar post and inspired me to stop procrastinating on mine. So, without further ado, here is my list:

1. Driverless cars

What is it? Cars that are smart enough to drive you places safely while following all traffic laws. Also known as “autonomous” or “self-driving” car.

Why is it so cool? It will greatly reduce vehicle accidents, which still kill over 30,000 Americans each year and injure many more. (No more worries about drinking and driving. Or texting and driving.) It will also greatly reduce the opportunity cost of driving, as you’ll be able to do a lot of other things during your commute. Some folks have utopian visions of automated taxi services that reduce the need to own a vehicle or build a bigger parking lot. It could disrupt the shipping industry. It could keep all the old Baby Boomers active. I wonder if police will have fewer people to pull over.

How close are we? Google has been driving around a real prototype for a couple of years, although it’s probably not quite ready to handle all the driving conditions and complicated intersections of the American landscape (though as some say, humans are so bad at driving it’s not hard to make a computer that’s better). A few states have pre-emptively signed laws allowing driverless cars, and many manufacturers are supposed to be working on them. We’ve had cruise control for a long time, and we’re starting to see cars that can parallel park themselves and use cameras to warn you when you get too close to things. Completely reliable driverless technology is probably at least a couple years away, and even when it comes it will take awhile to trickle down from the new expensive models (unless we come up with a cheap way to convert older cars, but it seems like you need a lot of sensors – i.e. hardware – around the vehicles). But by 2020, even if we just have thousands of cars with a fancy cruise control that can stay in the lane and avoid collisions on highways, that would still be an incredibly valuable leap.

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Non-Profit Asteroid Hunting

I’ve been hoping that SpaceX’s successful commercial launch would lead to an awesome future involving the privatization of outer space, and it looks like it’s already leading to some cool new stuff.  The non-profit B612 Foundation has announced plans to launch a telescope that will scan for asteroids in our solar system and assess their potential threats to Earth.

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Where is the Climate Change Food Crisis?

For years we’ve been hearing about the looming global food crisis caused by climate change and overpopulation. But the world continues to refuse to cooperate. This morning, Bloomberg reports the world is likely to have a third consecutive record year for rice production:

Farmers will harvest 466.4 million metric tons in the 2012-2013 season, boosting stockpiles by 0.7 percent to 104.9 million tons, the largest since 2001-2002, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture…

There is enough supply to meet all the demand in the world,” said Concepcion Calpe, a senior economist at the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization, where’s she is also secretary of the Rome-based group’s inter-governmental body on rice. “There will be ground for a further slide in prices.”

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