Welcome!

Important Notice! One of my duties as Piedmont Laureate is a biweekly blog. So, for the rest of 2015, I'll be posting only rarely here, usually exercise related posts that don't seem at home there. On the Piedmont Laureate blog, I'll mainly be focusing on topics related to speculative fiction. Check it out by clicking here.

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.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Million Step Journey to a Brand New World


 April 2010
 
 
April 2015
 
Last weekend, Cheryl and I drove up to Virginia. Our travels took us past places we'd visited five years earlier, on a road trip we'd taken when we first became a couple. The trip five years ago was a pleasant drive. Highway 58 through the Appalachians is a twisty road that rewards you with mile after mile of breathtaking views. Stick a camera out your window and take a random shot, and odds are good it would make a decent post card.
 
Our first road trip was purely an adventure in driving. It was a bit like watching television. We sat the whole time, looking at passing images through a sheet of glass. Save for the occasional stop to get out and stretch our legs, we didn't interact much with the environment beyond just looking at it. From our seated position, we saw hints that other people had a different experience with the surroundings. In Galax, we drove past the head of the New River Trail and saw people unloading bikes. We saw dozens of places to rent kayaks, and passed numerous entrances for trails, including the Appalachian Trail. In Damascus, we got out to take a picture of a railroad bridge that had been converted into a bike path and were almost run over by the bikes coming down the mountain on what we later learned was the Virginia Creeper Trail.
 
Zooming down the mountain on a bike sure looked like fun, but, let's face it, it was the kind of fun other people had. People who were younger, healthier, and, to be blunt, a lot thinner. Cheryl and I occasionally did hikes. We were good for a few miles along the Eno or on Occanneechee Mountain, but the hike to Moore's Wall in Hanging Rock wiped us out. As for biking, three miles around the abandoned golf course near our vacation spot in Myrtle Beach was a real work out. We liked getting outside, but liked getting back indoors to air conditioning just a tiny bit more.
 
This year when we went back to Virginia, it was a very different trip. Those places we drove past five years ago? Now, we got to experience them fully. On Saturday, we biked 50+ miles from Galax to Pulaski along the New River Trail. It took us 9 hours to make the journey, and my butt is still sore five days later, but we saw vistas that would have been forever hidden if we hadn't left our car miles behind. On Sunday, it was off to Grayson Highlands, to tackle two different hikes, one taking us up to the highest pinnacles in the park, another to take us up to the grassy ridges where wild ponies munched lazily on new spring growth.
 
Monday, we returned to the New River Trail for an 8 mile bike ride along a spur we'd skipped on Saturday. Then, on our drive home, we stopped by Hanging Rock and did two short trails we'd never done before, to the upper and lower cascades, discovering amazing waterfalls we'd passed by a dozen times without knowing what we were missing.
 
There's truly no comparison between the two trips. Five years ago, we experienced the world mainly with our eyes, and the vast majority of the things we saw had a strip of asphalt right down the center. This year, we experienced the world with six senses. We saw things we'd never have seen from a car, we heard waterfalls and birds and the crunch of leaves under our boots, we smelled blossoming trees and the lingering creosote of old rail beds. We felt the sun and the wind and the rough coolness of stone as we climbed boulders to get a better view of our surroundings. As for taste, you don't really appreciate just how good plain water tastes until you're about thirty miles in on your fifty mile bike ride. As for the sixth sense, it's proprioception, the internal sense of the positioning of your body, the relative position of all your limbs, and the amount of energy flowing to each muscle to keep you upright on a bike as you're bouncing along a rough downhill trail, or keeping you balanced as you ascend an impossibly steep wall of steps leading up to the peak of a mountain. It's not a sense that kicks in much when you're sitting on a couch, but when this sense is fully activated, I can only describe it as an acute and profound sensation that you're exactly where you're supposed to be in the world.
 
 
What changed in the intervening five years? We did. It didn't happen overnight. We didn't wake up one morning and think, hey, let's go ride 50 miles and then did it because we had the willpower. There wasn't an easy, five step plan to get us from couch potato to mountain climber. Instead, we've been on a million step plan. Results will vary based on the size of your stride, of course, but a million steps would take most people somewhere between 400 and 500 miles. To cover that in a year breaks down to roughly 8 to 10 miles per week on your feet, propelling your body forward across space with nothing but your own muscles. It's not easy at first. I won't even tell you it's easy later. Cheryl and I live a mile from where we have gym memberships, and we try to walk there when we can, but there are times when we just hop in the car, because it's too hot, or too cold, or we're just running short on time and have too much to do give up fifty minutes of our live to walking a mile there and back.
 
Fortunately, more often than not, we put on our walking shoes and hit the pavement. Every step adds up. The reward isn't just hikes in the highlands, or long bike trips between distant towns. The real reward is our triumph over those thoughts that haunted us when those bikes flew past us five years ago. I no longer feel too old to have new adventures, or too fat to accomplish amazing things. A million steps a year can reshape your body. More importantly, it will carry your mind to a brand new world.
 
 
That world is waiting. Take the first step.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

ORANGE COUNTY ARTS COMMISSION NAMES 2015 PIEDMONT LAUREATE

 
ORANGE COUNTY, NC (January 12, 2015)—The Orange County Arts Commission is pleased to announce James Maxey, a speculative fiction author from Hillsborough, as the region's 2015 Piedmont Laureate.
Mr. Maxey will appear at workshops, reading programs and speaking engagements throughout Durham, Orange and Wake counties, giving the public an opportunity to meet him and learn more about his body of work. He writes fast-paced, action-driven pulp fiction with strong emphasis on character growth and world building, dealing with larger-than-life characters adventuring in exotic worlds.
The Piedmont Laureate Program is dedicated to building a literary bridge for residents to come together and celebrate the art of writing. Co-sponsored by the Orange County Arts Commission, City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County, the program’s mission is to promote awareness and heighten appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont region. A different literary form is recognized each year– 2015 is speculative fiction.
Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature.
As Piedmont Laureate, Maxey will receive an honorarium and serve until December 31, 2015. His duties will include presenting public readings and workshops, participating at select public functions and creating at least one original activity to expand appreciation of speculative fiction. A schedule of the Laureate’s 2015 activities will be available online at www.piedmontlaureate.com
Readers who delve past the dragons and superheroes on the covers of Maxey’s books will discover stories that explore the deeper aspects of the human condition. In the course of introducing imaginary worlds, Maxey hopes to provoke readers into thinking more deeply about our own world and our shared responsibility to improve it.
Influenced by Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking, Mr. Maxey is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop where he studied with author-in-residence Harlan Ellison, and a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. He honed his craft over many years as a member of the Writer’s Group of the Triad and continues to be an active part of the Codex Writers’ online community.
For more information about James Maxey, please visit www.jamesmaxey.net
For more information about the Piedmont Laureate Program, please visit www.piedmontlaureate.com or contact Martha Shannon at 919.968.2011or mshannon@orangecountync.gov or contact any of the other sponsoring agencies.

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.