Welcome!

I'm James Maxey, the author of the Dragon Age fantasy series of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed, the Dragon Apocalypse series of Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker, as well as the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Future of Energy

Several years ago, I was a guest on Stephen Euin Cobb's The Future and You and one of the topics we discussed was the likelihood of local solar power generation replacing our present system of centralized power generation via fossil fuels. I was on the show just days after visiting Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, and I'd seen how the power gets run to the island from the mainland then fed through power lines that run the length of the mostly empty highway. Cheryl and I had gone out to the beach to do some stargazing, far out from the lights of civilization, yet still the night sky was bisected by power lines. It struck me as a somewhat impractical system. Ocracoke seemed like a terrific candidate for wind, solar, and tidal power generation. Why rely on miles of vulnerable cable to deliver something so essential as electricity?

At the time, a second factor made the rise of alternate energy seem just around the corner: I thought we were getting near peak oil. A lot of people did, as little as five or six years ago. We were nowhere near peak coal, but I thought the environmental cost of coal mining was something that would increasingly limit the growth of the industry. The pictures alone would hamper mountaintop removal mining, given that we are now able to summon before and after pictures of affected landscapes with a few keystrokes on Google Maps. The logic was simple: fossil fuels would get more expensive, making alternative energy projects more cost competitive.

Of course, today the price of oil is falling, and experts are saying there's vast reserves of accessible oil under America. Presumably, the fracking techniques we're using to free up previously inaccessible oil under our landscapes can be transferred to other countries. Not so long ago, I thought we might run out of affordable oil inside of twenty years. Now, I suspect technological advances will keep oil flowing for at least a century.

My hunch is that there will be no popular political movement to limit our use of fossil fuels. There might be a few hardcore environmentalists who are viewing our falling gas prices with a sense of terror, but I suspect the vast majority of voters are pretty happy to pay less to fill up their tank, and won't be eager to vote for someone who even hints at the possibility of implementing changes that will make prices go higher.

Despite the probable abundance of oil, I suspect we'll see prices go through many boom and bust cycles in coming years. As oil gets expensive, a lot of people are going to want to drill for it. But as a lot of people drill for it, there will be a glut, and prices will fall, and people will cut back on drilling. Then, prices will rise again, and so on.

What will finally get us off the roller coaster? I still suspect solar will be increasingly cheap and easy in coming years. I don't think plug in electric cars have much a future, nor will plug in hybrids. The impracticality of having enough charging stations to let everyone in the parking lot a the mall will keep plug in vehicles from being anything more than a niche market. But, what if solar panels can be sprayed directly onto a car like paint, and your hybrid charges anytime it's in sunlight? Just sitting in the parking lot at work, it could be getting enough of a charge to get you home without having to run your gasoline engine.

I'm already seeing a lot of tablet sized solar panels in camping stores made to charge cell phones while you're out camping or hiking. As we start carrying more and more smart devices that require charging, a lot of people will be glad to carry around portable panels to keep their gear running rather than constantly be on the hunt for the next outlet. Right now, when Cheryl and I go on long hikes or bike rides, we usually carry portable batteries. But, give me a solar panel with enough power to actually charge a phone and small enough to mount on handlebars, get the price down to where it's cheaper than the portable batteries, and I'll start using it. It won't require any tax subsidies to encourage me. I want to be mobile, and I want electricity, and I'll pay a fair price to have it.

Ultimately, I think that portability is going to be the real path to ubiquity for solar power. As vast as our power grid is, it doesn't go everywhere. Neither does the sun, but it goes a lot more places than a power line. Gasoline is also portable power, of course... but it's too heavy for a person to carry around a gasoline powered generator and gallons of gas. To supply a demand for cheap, mobile electricity for today's wired users who also like being outdoors, solar cells will continuously get smaller and more efficient. My hunch is that in a decade, solar power won't just be cost competitive with fossil fuels, it will be so cheap that consumers will flock to it for the most sensible reason of all: it saves them a boatload of money.

While I think there's a consumer market for portable solar, America and Europe will probably be the last places to have widespread adoption of solar power for houses and businesses. The problem is, we became wealthy on a fossil fuel grid and there's going to be a lot of inertia that keeps a lot of the country on that grid even after better alternatives arise. You see the pattern with cell phones. In a lot of poorer countries, cell phones far outnumber landlines, because it was easier to build a few cell towers than to run lines to every building. In America, I know lots of people who still have landlines, even though they make 99% of their calls on their cell phones.

In emerging nations that don't already have a widespread electric grid, it's going to be easier to build a house with cheap solar panels and energy efficient designs that make the house self sufficient than it will be to build a reliable grid to hook the house to. In the US, it will be much more difficult to retrofit old houses to take advantage of the new technologies. My own dwelling wasn't built with a south facing roof. Turning the house 90 degrees seems like more of an expense than it's worth. But, houses built a decade from now may well incorporate maximum solar exposure into the design plans.

Saving the planet is nice, but saving money is where you'll get actual behavioral change. I'm still hoping that, in the long run, we'll collectively be cheapskates enough to leave most of the fossil fuels remaining in the ground.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Future of Books

Picking back up where I left off a month ago on my predictions, today I'm going to talk about what books might look like five years, ten years, a hundred years out.

E-book growth has recently leveled off and print books are showing resilience, for now. Still, print books do face one major obstacle, which is the continued struggle of brick and mortar bookstores. Best sellers will continue to appear in big box stores like Walmart and Target, and romance and mystery novels can still be found in grocery stores and bookstores. But less popular genres, and books without proven track records, are going to struggle to find shelf space in print.

E-books will never replace print books, but e-books will become the launching platform for most new authors. Publisher's will likely grow conservative as shelf space becomes more precious, and rather than taking a gamble on a complete unknown, they'll be looking for indy authors who've built a fan base online to move into the mainstream.

The good news is that indy authors have tools available to them that big publisher's lack. While I originally published Bitterwood through a mainstream publisher, I retained the e-book rights, and have been managing them myself. Sales were pretty good for a while, then okay, then terrible. When sales of Bitterwood fell into single digits at Amazon, I figured, oh well, I guess I might as well give it away. So, I set the price to free, and in a one month period gave away almost 45,000 copies of the e-book. This has greatly revived the sales of the other books in the series, so that in one month I've sold more copies than I had for all the previous year. Mainstream publishers, in my experience, are reluctant to chase pricing to the bottom. Once you get to free, where's the profit? But for me, the boost in readership and reviews that comes from giving away my work leads to greater sales down the line.

Of course, I know I'm not the only author discovering that there's a vast pool of readers eager to read free books. Over the next few years, I think you'll see tremendous downward pressure on the price of ebooks, especially the first books in series. You see it already in music--Amazon Prime now lets me download thousands of albums for free (or, rather, for a one time annual fee.) I'm discovering new artists I hadn't tried before who I'm now willing to pay money for. Authors will soon have a similar mix of free and paid catalogs.

Which brings me to a prediction: Within five years, you'll start seeing in-text purchases available in books. You'll be reading a free murder mystery, get involved with a character who is obviously lying, and at the end of the chapter there will be a link saying, "Want to find out what Jack was really up to when he told his wife he was working late? Read his story for only 25 cents!" Just as gamers are willing to shell out micro payments for extra lives, I predict readers will be willing to pay small amounts to get bonus material, especially on popular series.

And publishers will know with great detail the material you want to read. Many smartphones and tablets already have sensors that can detect a viewers eye movements. Amazon already knows which sections of Kindle books readers zip through, and where they get bogged down, or abandon a book altogether. Soon, e-readers tracking readers eyes will be able to report what most engages readers, and what loses their attention. Eventually, I can foresee books that rewrite themselves automatically to match the tastes of the reader. Suppose you're reading a book on quantum mechanics written for a general audience. The book sees that you're skimming over all the passages with a lot of math or highly technical terms. So, the book suppresses the math and the specialized language and explains things in more general terms. Conversely, it might sense you're bored, and know from your reading history you prefer denser, difficult prose. Moving forward, it could present you with the most advanced version of the book in it's data base.

In the future, maybe as little as ten years out, readers will read books, and the books will read them back.

But what about the more distant future? Will it still be necessary to read? Or, if I want to know the text of Beowulf, will I just be able to place a mental request to a virtual library and have the book instantly streamed into my brain? I'll be able to remember every word of the manuscript without ever having my eyes gaze upon a single line of text, either on paper or on screen. But will instant delivery of knowledge equate to learning the material, or knowing it? Or will we just be recording media, able to recite back any bit of trivia we've absorbed without actually comprehending its deeper meaning?

It's almost scary to think about. But, it was probably scary for the monks copying manuscripts with quills the first time they saw a printed book. The printed word has been quick to adapt new technologies. I can't imagine that the paper book is mankind's final, best technology for storing and spreading stories.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Fitness update: Two years later

James and Cheryl 2014
 
 James and Cheryl 2012


Endomondo Training stats as of 9-6-2014
 
Two years ago, Cheryl and I decided it was time to alter our bodies. Doing so meant altering our lives. We started using a program called MyFitnessPal* to track the calories we ate each day. A few months later, we started using a program called Endomondo to track our exercise.
 
When we first started, our primary goal was to lose weight, and MyFitnessPal was the program we thought of as most essential to achieving that end. But, something curious happened last summer, a little before we reached the one year anniversary of our weight loss plans. That summer, we started really pushing ourselves on out exercise goals. When we began in 2012, walking for one mile on a treadmill was strenuous exercise. By the summer of 2013, hikes of five to seven miles were more suited to our fitness levels, and we'd sneak in 12 or 15 mile bike rides once a week in the evening after work. This year, all the orange you see is our new biking agenda. A 12 mile ride is still a decent workout, but if we have the chance, we'd much rather sneak in a 30 mile ride, or longer. On my 50th birthday this year, we did our longest single day ride up to that point, 50 miles in a single day. A few months later, over the Memorial Day weekend, we rode 100 miles in three days. Last weekend, we decided to ride the entirety of the Neuse River Trail, plus a few side trips down spur trails, for a single day's ride of 75 miles.
 
As a result, with a bike ride yesterday, I'd tracked 1000 miles of movement for the year. Last year, I didn't reach that goal until just before Christmas. I suspect we'll see a slowdown on our activity level in the coming months due to growing shortness of days, but it seems a not unrealistic goal to reach 1200 miles this year.
 
While Cheryl and I are thinner than we once were, being thin is no longer the driving force behind our activities. We've stopped being concerned about what our bodies look like and started being obsessed with what our bodies can do. We scour websites for State Parks and greenways, looking for our next big adventure. Being fit has let us see things that would previously have been beyond our grasp. The rolling, open fields just outside of Raleigh. The beautiful wetlands near the southern end of the American Tobacco Trail. The five peaks of Hanging Rock State Park, or the remote beaches of Sandy Island, which you can't reach by car. We've kayaked down rivers lined with eagle nests, we've witnessed ospreys flying mere yards overhead with a fresh caught fish in its talons, we've had deer cross the trail in front of us so close we can almost touch them, and its' impossible to catalog all the turtles and frogs and lizards and weird bugs and neon mushrooms and exuberant flowers we've passed among. We've lingered on still water watching the sun sink over marshes, scrambled over slick rocks to feel the spray of waterfalls, and craned our necks up to the peaks of rocky mountains, knowing we'd soon be standing upon them, looking out ten, twenty, thirty miles over our surroundings, where the horizon vanished in the haze of the summer heat.

 
In  2012, before we started getting fit, we attempted a 5 mile ride on the American Tobacco Trail. I'm not talking 5 miles out and back, for 10. I mean we were just riding from Herndon Park down to the next road and back. It almost killed me. There's a very slight grade coming back up the Herndon Park, and I had to get off my bike and push it back to the car. When I reached the car, I had to rest for twenty minutes before I had the energy to load the bikes. I honestly felt worse after that ride than I did last week after 75. How could I have let myself get so out of shape? You only get one body in this life. If you don't keep it tuned up, you've no one to blame but yourself.
 
Will you ever see me posting here about riding 100 miles in a single day? Probably not. 75 might be our practical limit, since we ran out of daylight and had to ride the last three miles in the dark, where we rode through a literal whirlwind of flying, biting insects. I suppose if we attempted the trip on the spring solstice, we might conceivably have enough daylight to make it without the bug apocalypse. Similarly, a few weeks back we hiked 15 miles in a single day, and that's very likely the longest one day hike we're likely to make. 15 miles hiking is much more draining than 75 miles biking, and accomplishing it uses up most available daylight. Cheryl is getting a lot of exercise running each week, and I wonder if she'll work her way up to marathons one day. I suspect I won't; running is definitely my least favorite exercise. Up do this point, I've been driven by outdoing myself. I just biked 20 miles, can I bike 25, can I bike 30, and so on. Now that I'm reaching the upper limits of what I can accomplish in a single day, I do wonder what's next. I've been mainly doing road biking, albeit more on greenways than actual roads. Last night, I found myself looking longingly at trail bike. Perhaps there are some off-road bike adventures in my future.

*On a side note, after two years of using MyFitnessPal, both Cheryl and I have decided to stop using it. It's useful for altering your eating habits, but it's algorithms for how much you can eat produce some ridiculous numbers once you start tackling 20+ mile bike rides and 10+ mile hikes. For instance, on the day of our 75 mile bike ride, I think it said we could eat 10,000 calories. I'm not sure that's even feasible. That's 12 large McDonald's milkshakes! Or 19 Big Macs! At this point, the keys to eating well are pretty much memorized. Don't eat a lot of starches or refined sugars, eat more vegetables, fruits, and lean meats, and stay away from empty calories like potato chips or soda. If you want to run a calorie deficit to lose weight, a calorie tracking tool like MyFitnessPal is pretty swell. If you just want to maintain a healthy weight while living an active lifestyle, it's not important to follow every calorie you eat, just don't eat crap.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Prediction 4: Our Cyborg Future

A loose definition of a cyborg is a blending of a biological entity with mechanical devices that enhance strength, toughness, intelligence, etc.

By this definition, I'm already a cyborg. I don't have hardware actually embedded in my body, but, via my smartphone, I have enhanced memory and data retrieval capabilities. I have Superman like powers to zoom overhead and get an aerial view of my surroundings. (Yesterday, while we were kayaking on the Haw, we wondered how much further we had to go to reach a resting point. A quick check of Google maps showed where we were and where the  next rocky island was a half mile ahead of us.) I have communication abilities just one notch shy of telepathy. (Again, in the middle of a river, when I had my phone out to look at the map, I was also seeing email and facebook messages from friends, plus a message from the bike shop telling me my bike was ready to be picked up.)

More importantly to my health, the tiny computer I carry around helps me regulate my body. It lets me know how many calories I've eaten each day, and how many calories I should be eating in order to maintain my weight. It keeps track of how many miles I've traveled in a day, an month, a year, which gives me a motivational boost to keep moving to turn my personal odometer. I know I'll be hitting 1000 miles traveled via my own power soon, which means that I'm always planning my next opportunity to log some mile biking, hiking, or kayaking to get me closer to that goal.

I don't own a FitBit, but if I did it could keep track of not only my mileage, but my heart rate and sleeping habits. Of course, I already have technological assistance for sleeping, since I've now been using a CPAP for two full years.

The data revolution for our bodies is only beginning. Already, the technology to monitor blood sugar levels in real time is being perfected. Soon, we won't need to go to our doctor once or twice a year to get blood work done. A few simple sensors under the skin will be able to keep track of all aspects of our metabolism. Blood pressure, blood sugar, temperature, pulse... these won't be something we have to go out of our way to learn. We'll be able to access that data just by glancing at our phone. Assuming we even bother with something so crude as a phone. More likely, the data will just be floating in front of us anytime we want it, at first via devices like Google Glass, which will almost certainly soon be miniaturized into a contact lens, and later into ocular implants.

For people squeamish about the idea of implanting devices in their bodies, I suspect that cellphones will soon be miniaturized into patches that adhere to our skin.

The question is: Will all this technology actually make us healthier? Or will it just be an expensive distraction that keeps us from doing the things that really make us healthier? As mentioned, yesterday, in the middle of a river, instead of looking at the nature around me, I spent ten minutes reading my phone. I know a lot of people who spend more hours in a day on Facebook than they spend in a week on exercise.

Staying healthy into your golden years isn't all that complicated. Don't eat crap and keep active. I'm aware that formula won't prevent genetic illnesses or injuries or random diseases from striking you down, but it can forestall heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and a whole host of other medical conditions.

I'm looking forward to increasing my use of high tech health related gadgetry. I would gladly agree to implant subdermal sensors to monitor my bodily functions. A chart of how many calories I actually burn on my bike rides would be fascinating. (I'm aware my phone can only do crude estimates.) A long term trendline showing how many hours of deep sleep I'm getting each night could definitely help me choose between reading one more article on the internet at night or turning off the light and going to bed. And life and intelligence could be preserved if monitors could alert emergency personal instantly if my real time vital signs showed I'd just been in a car wreck, or were in the early stages of a stroke.

But the technological investment that has had the greatest impact on my health? A good pair of boots.

For thousands of years, we've used clothing technology to regulate our temperatures, shield us from radiation, and to protect our feet from a wide range of hazardous terrains. Our cyborg future will merely be an extension of our cyborg past.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Prediction Three: Our jobless future

I've been with my current employer for almost 19 years. I won't specify who I work for; you can see my last post for various reasons why I think it's a bad idea to publicly discuss your current employer online. But, I'm going to mention my current job obliquely because I think there's an important data point. I was present when my workplace opened its doors. At the time, we had 21 full time employees. Today, we have 7 full time employees, and the threshold for being full time is 30 hours a week, not 40.

Where did two thirds of our staff go? Part of our staff was lost due to a changing business climate. I work in an industry built around printing stuff, and print is dying. Fewer companies print catalogues or employee manuals, and marketing is done more online than via direct mail. But, we also lost a lot of need for warm bodies because our technology became more sophisticated. We used to need several cashiers on hand to manage transactions. Now, people can pay with a credit card without standing in line. Customers also don't need to come into the store to place orders. They can order stuff online, pay for it, and have it delivered without ever interacting with our store. Other jobs that were once done in house are outsourced to a larger production network that works because computer technology lets the work flow around to fill available capacity. Computers have made my workplace a lot leaner and more efficient.

You see it everywhere. When I go grocery shopping, I aim toward the self checkout lanes, since they often move faster. Here in Hillsborough, there's still one gas station that has full service attendants. I never go there, preferring to save a few cents by pumping my own gas, and save time by paying at the pump. One gas station I shop at, Sheetz, lets me order subs from a touch screen. $4 foot longs, toasted on pretzel buns, made to order, very tasty. That price point is probably possible because they don't have to pay cashiers. They've shifted some of the work load to the consumer. If the added work brings lower prices, I'm a fan.

Cheryl and I often go biking through a really nice neighborhood, and it's common to see landscaping crews working in the yard. A few weeks ago, we saw a solar powered robotic lawnmower working the front yard of one of the houses.

Robots will mow our lawns. They'll also soon be delivering our packages, or at least driving the trucks. Yes, robotic trucks will have accidents that will lead to expensive lawsuits. But, guess what? Human drivers also have accidents that lead to expensive lawsuits. Robotic truck drivers will be able to drive all night and won't ever be intoxicated distracted by phone calls. They won't have lead foots, and will get much better gas mileage than human drivers. They'll probably drive slower, obeying posted speed limits, but will make up by never needing to take lunches or pit stops to empty bladders. Once insurance companies start giving companies price breaks for using robotic drivers, humans will only be on trucks to help unload... though, of course, the technology for a truck loading and unloading robot is probably already being marketed.

Maybe you're thinking that your job is too highly skilled for you to ever be replaced by a machine. Maybe. But, I predict that within twenty years, human surgeons will be obsolete, replaced by machines far more nimble and precise, seeing what they're doing with senses far superior to human sight and touch. Sure, someone will have to build those databases and maintain them. But the educated labor forces will increasingly be drawn from countries with far lower wages.

Of course, there are some jobs that machines probably can't do as well as humans. I like to think that writing novels is one of these jobs. But, that doesn't mean I have job security in the face of ever evolving technology. E-books have already disrupted publishing, providing strong downward pressure on pricing. Now, there are services that allow you to read an unlimited number of books each month for one fixed price. Authors do get royalties if their books are read, just as musicians get some small payment if their song is streamed on Spotify. But, with all things digital, the price trends keep pushing toward free, and it's hard to make a profit when you're producing content that no one pays for. If you don't offer free books, there are tens of thousands of writers eager to be read who will gladly give away their work to build name recognition, trusting that they'll figure out how to make money at what they're doing later in the process.

I know all of this sounds a bit gloomy. However, a lot of the jobs we're losing are jobs that made more use of human bodies than human minds. The same technology that disrupts industries also opens up possibilities. Studio time for a musician used to be expensive, disturbing albums difficult and costly. Now, you can record, edit, and distribute from your home computer. The odds of making money have declined, but the cost of making yourself heard have also declined, giving more people a shot at making it big than ever before. I personally know a dozen authors who never passed the arbitrary threshold of finding a publisher willing to pay an advance on their novels who now manage catalogues of a dozen self published works, all of which are making at least some money. It's not just writers and musicians who have lower initial costs to launching a career. For almost any talent you care to develop, there are instructional videos on YouTube. While college costs sky \rocket, the amount of free and useful information increases online. And you no longer have to wait for a class to be taught every other semester in order to get the knowledge you're hungry for. The lectures and study material are probably a few keystrokes away. One day, it won't matter what degree you have, only what skills and know-how you have.

We may be on the cusp of a golden age of human creativity and productivity. Or, we may be about to spiral into an abyss where we're all so broke and depressed about a machine taking our job that we won't even leave our houses. The future will come down to a million individual decisions about how we're going to adapt and respond to our rapidly changing world. My own choice: Find some small way to improve myself each day, and keep moving forward.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Prediction Two: Privacy

Orwell was right. We now live in a world where we're constantly watched. It's not just grainy black and white footage captured by security cameras in banks and supermarkets. With a few keystrokes, I can find color photographs of tens of millions of people doing very personal things, like hanging out with friends and family, going on dates, drinking, or just goofing around. I can see wedding photos, birthday photos, and photos of people at science fiction conventions dressed in costumes that do not flatter them.

What Orwell didn't guess was that we'd be the ones recording our own lives in detail and sharing things willingly, even eagerly.

Some people are outraged by the fact that the NSA is collecting data on their phone calls, intercepting emails, and doing other sinister stuff behind your back, like seeing what you're reading on Kindle. But, we think nothing of signing contracts with corporations to gather data on us for commercial exploitation. Google searches through your emails on g-mail for keywords they can use to target you with advertising. Facebook mines your relationships and likes not just for advertising, but to identify larger trends that might prove valuable. Amazon has a pretty good guess about the next album you might purchase. When you shop at a lot of real world stores, you agree to let them keep a data base of your purchases in exchange for discounts and coupons. Instead of being creeped out that there are major corporations who know what underwear you have on, we're glad that we can buy their products at ten percent off.

We have strict laws about what medical information can be shared and who it can be shared with, but every day when I sign onto Facebook I learn that someone or their sister or their best friend has just been diagnosed with cancer. We announce who we're sleeping with by linking that we're in a relationship, and the whole world gets informed when we stop sleeping with them.

We'd never think of going to a job interview in a bathing suit, but fill web pages with photos of ourselves sunning by the pool.

Most people wouldn't like it if they were constantly followed around by police. But, most people with cell phones really appreciate that the phone company can keep track of them as they travel. With my GPS enabled smart phone, I'll sometimes be out hiking and suddenly get a text from Cheryl commenting on the scenery surrounding me, since she can watch the progress of my hike on Endomondo and see via satellite photo where I am. Rather than find this unnerving, I feel an extra sense of security knowing that I can go into remote places and not be in danger of falling and breaking a leg and languishing away where no one can find me.

Judging from the current state of things, it would seem like we didn't value privacy all that much. We'll trade it away for convenience and coupons and credit cards, for free apps and 15 seconds of fame--or 15 words on twitter.

Of course, some people do care about their privacy. They do care about the information that's available about their health, relationships, and finances. It's going to be a tough life for these people, since they will increasingly find themselves locked out of the modern economy. In an age of streaming, you won't even be able to become a TV watching recluse disconnected from the rest of the world. Netflix is going to know 1000 secrets about you by your viewing choices.

All this sharing will come with consequences. Right now, I don't think employers have yet taken full advantage of all the information that's available to them. I imagine we're heading for a day when a comprehensive web search will be routine before you can be hired. I saw a Facebook post the other day where someone reviewed an episode of Game of Thrones as being an experience comparable to anal rape. This is the sort of crazy hyperbole that can be funny between friends. But, say you're hiring for a position in a service industry. Do you want to take a chance on someone who finds rape jokes acceptable in a public forum?

Every day, I see people post strong political commentary. I post strong political commentary. Today, there are numerous examples of prominent people who have lost jobs and/or fans because of political opinions that weren't particularly radical up until the moment that they were. Every opinion we type down is going to be fair game for employers. Some of it will be a wash. If you're conservative, and applying to work in a gun store, you're in luck. A liberal applying for a job at a health food store? Probably not much of a problem. But, increasingly, we'll find that every thing we've ever put onto the internet is going to be available to employers, and I suspect we'll start seeing a new class of unemployable people. Don't like your present job and complain about it online? A potential employer is going to want to avoid working with a griper. Does posting your health woes bring waves to sympathy and support? Yay, but a potential employer might secretly consider whether its worth hiring someone still fighting cancer. It might be illegal to even consider this, but if the information is out there, I suspect not everyone will be strong enough to avoid the temptation of peeking at stuff you've made public.

I predict that as employers begin to make more aggressive use of social media data in hiring decisions, we'll see a return to an almost neo-Victorian era of politeness. We'll be aware that anything we might say online--in a public forum or even an email we assumed to be private--could become a permanent stain on our reputation. We'll recognize that, even if we try to keep our lives offline, there are a thousand people around us will cell phones aimed at us the second we do anything remotely interesting. I could be wrong, of course. It may be that baser human instincts will prevail, and fifty years from now so many people will have embarrassing photos or loudmouthed, poorly punctuated rants floating around that we'll all just shrug and figure that's part of the human condition. No one will be judged for such behavior. But, we might also see a growing machinery of outrage, interest groups ready to pounce on the slightest transgression, so that we'll all be thinking twice about what we say and do. It won't be just big brother watching. Everyone from here to the end of time will be watching.

So, watch out.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Predictions for the future (a series): 1. Climate Catastrophes

I'm heading to a science fiction convention in a few hours and will be on a few panels where I'll probably wind up talking about the future. Tonight, for instance, I have a panel on the future of artificial intelligence. Why does being a science fiction writer qualify me to talk about the future? It doesn't. All I can do is guess like everyone else. Still, the speculation is fun, and, as an author, it's often rich fuel for future stories. So, this will be the first in a series where I make predictions about how the world is going to change in coming years.

First up: Climate Change!

I admit to being on the fence as to whether or not burning fossil fuels is a significant source of warming. I am not on the fence as to whether or not humans can alter the environment unintentionally, usually with negative consequences. We've helped create deserts with careless farming and grazing practices. Our water management practices have erased countless miles of shoreline, flooded millions of square miles of previously dry land, and turned previously wet places into dry hell holes. (Google the Aral and Salton seas for examples.) Our industrial monoculture farming has destroyed native prairies, and our promiscuous use of fertilizers have created giant dead zones in the ocean where no fish can survive. Where our fertilizers haven't wiped out fish, we've helped mess up the ecosystem by overfishing, and, whether or not the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere warms it or not, it is definitely turning the oceans more acidic. Our consumer culture wipes out old growth forests and our fills our oceans with ever growing continents of plastic. To fuel it all, we bulldoze mountains flat, dig up tracts of land large enough to be seen from space, and accept the risk of contamination that goes along with drilling at sea.

I consider myself an environmentalist, and, despite my libertarian leanings, am mostly in favor of governmental practices that protect the environment, like limits on dangerous chemicals going out of smokestacks and tail pipes or tough laws against contaminating ground water.

That said, I'm not in a panic about carbon dioxide even if it does lead to significant global warming. I support things like higher fuel standards and transitioning our power grid away from coal, but for other reasons than fear of runaway warming. Do I think global warming might lead to catastrophes like powerful storms, widespread drought, and rising sea levels? Absolutely.

So what?

If you look at history, catastrophes don't seem all that apocalyptic. Consider how many major cities have been wiped by earthquakes, fires, storms, and war. If catastrophes were any real barrier to humans, there wouldn't be a Chicago or a New Orleans, there wouldn't be a San Francisco or an Atlanta. For that matter, people wouldn't live in Europe, since, statistically, it was pretty much depopulated by the plague a few centuries ago.

Of course, people do live in Europe. They also live in Charleston, SC, a city flattened multiple times by a massive earthquake, by hurricanes, and by the Civil War.

What about fears of widespread drought? I suspect there will be long term shifts in weather that will render some areas unsuitable for farming. It certainly happened in the Sahara, for instance. It may be happening in the American southwest even now. West Texas is about as bone dry as it's ever been. Yet, we aren't reading stories about the massive starvation occurring in Texas. Drought doesn't equate to death in a global economy. If food doesn't grow one place, it grows another. If you look at the IPCC maps on projected rainfall due to global warming, you'll find that for every place that is expected to see a decline in rainfalls, there are other areas projected to see an increase. Heat doesn't equal drought. Very hot places are often quite fruitful agriculturally. Buy any produce from Florida lately?

Of course, you won't be buying produce from Florida if the state's underwater thanks to rising seas. And, yes, there's a real possibility of that happening, almost overnight on a geological timescale.

Fortunately, humans don't live on geological timescales. Let's take a wildly unlikely scenario where sea levels rise ten feet in a century. That's going to suck for a lot of people who lose property. But, as a practical level, a century is plenty of time to get out of the way. Rising sea levels likely won't result in any significant loss of life, at least not measured as a percentage of the total population. Humans are pretty experienced with dealing with rising sea levels. Since the end of the last ice age, sea levels have risen by roughly 400 feet. 400 feet! Yet, somehow, humans have managed to survive this massive global flooding. It's true that, in recent centuries, sea levels have been relatively stable and many large cities have grown on our coastlines. Many currently standing buildings may be wiped out. All the evidence shows that we'll shrug, move back, and build again.

What gets rebuilt will likely be stronger and better. It used to be that hurricanes would devastate coastal cities on a frequent basis. As a resident of North Carolina, I can testify that this is a state that regularly gets walloped by big storms. It used to be that a big storm would mean massive property loss and widespread death. But, death tolls have fallen dramatically thanks to improved accuracy of storm tracking. People have learned to get out of the way of killer storms. When storms do wipe out buildings, zoning codes require the structures that replace them to have more secure foundations, better roofs, better protected utilities, etc. If global warming does bring an uptick in powerful storms, it will also bring an uptick in better constructed buildings along coastlines.

Or not. Because one reason we have so many buildings along coastlines is that governments step in to insure buildings that private companies won't. This means tax dollars subsidize construction in environmentally risky areas. The best thing the government could do to keep people from building in the areas where they are most likely to be hit by high winds and storm surges is absolutely nothing. Just stop subsidizing the insurance. Without the insurance, banks aren't going to lend money to build on coastlines. We'll have to move inland, and give our crowded coastlines a bit of breathing space.

Do I believe the world is warming? There is a tremendous amount of data showing that it is. The people who argue there hasn't been any warming in the last fifteen years are kind of missing the big picture. On the flip side, the people who get panicked by the prospect of warming are also missing the big picture. The world will change.  It would be impossible to lock our global thermostat on what it is today. The world is probably going to get hotter. It will lead to widespread flooding, widespread drought, widespread population movements.

In other words, more of the same stuff we've been putting up with since we climbed down from the trees and lit our first fire. My prediction: We'll muddle through.