Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Science & Technology

Gingrich: Fly me to the moon

 

On Wednesday, Newt Gingrich appeared before an audience on Florida's Space Coast to extol his proposal for a permanent American colony on the moon by 2020, and his even more science-fiction plans to pass a "Northwest Ordinance for Space" that would allow Moonies to petition for status as a U.S. state once the population hit 13,000 (see video above). 

Many will be tempted to make fun of this. They might say, for example, that Gingrich's space plans are right in line with GOP energy policy because if we continue to "drill, baby, drill" with no consideration of the climate impacts, we'll need to be well versed in surviving hostile planetary environments. They might start calling Gingrich President Moonbeam, or suggesting that Newt move moonward to become the colony's leader. But I'm not going there, because as Gingrich points out, John F. Kennedy was a moon visionary too, and there's nothing wrong with dreaming big about space exploration. Plus, it reminded me of being 12.

In 1975, my favorite TV show was "Space: 1999," a space opera about a team of colonists on the moon who become unwitting galactic explorers when the moon is blasted out of Earth's orbit. It was fun and inoffensive '70s fare starring Barbara Bain, who looked pretty hot in a jumpsuit, and husband Martin Landau, and its major innovation in my mind was the development of ray guns that looked like hand staplers, allowing me to play moon colonist with my parents' Swingline. But here's the thing about that show: It actually posited a better reason why America would want to build a colony on the moon than Gingrich has.

Why did the moon in "Space: 1999" get blasted out of orbit? Because the moon was being used as a storage repository for the Earth's nuclear waste, and for reasons I don't recall, the radioactive dump exploded with such force that it sent the moon soaring out of the solar system. Five minutes' thought will expose the silliness of this notion: Can you imagine the expense of shuttling barrels of nuclear waste all the way to the moon? Or the risk of an accident that would spread radioactive waste all over Cape Canaveral? But this was sci-fi, and that was such a minor plot point in a show that was really about strange encounters with shape-shifting aliens that it was easy to take for granted.

Gingrich's candidacy, unfortunately, is not sci-fi, so he's obliged to come up with a justification for his moon plans that's at least as reasonable as the one dreamed up by a 1975 TV show's writing staff. He fails the test. His apparent reason for setting out on an eight-year, phenomenally expensive moon colony quest, even as he proposes cutting taxes and slashing other government programs, is to stick it to the Chinese. Gingrich wants America to dominate space exploration and, in the course of getting there, produce technologies that will have useful commercial and military applications, just as the Apollo program of the 1960s did. This would establish our dominance over China in these areas, just as we beat Russia on the first moon walk.

Apparently, Gingrich is recalling his days as a 12-year-old too. Back then, we were in the midst of a paranoia-fueled Cold War with the Soviet Union. The space race was born out of fears that the Soviets would surpass us in missile technology. Yet not only are we not in any such contest with the Chinese, there are much better ways to remain dominant in satellite, missile and other technologies than working to establish a moon colony -- we could invest directly in research and development of these systems, rather than the esoteric technologies needed to sustain life in a low-gravity, oxygen-free lunar environment, which doesn't really have a lot of applications here on planet Earth. Moreover, there's little evidence that the moon contains minerals or other materials worth exploiting, at least not at the expense it would require to get at them.

There is, of course, some value in continuing to research manned spaceflight to the farther reaches of the solar system and beyond, and getting back to the moon first would be a nice start. But of all the spending priorities facing the U.S. Treasury in the midst of an economic downturn, this vision isn't just "grandiose," as Gingrich himself concedes -- it's absurd.

See you on the dark side of the moon, Newt.

ALSO:

Newt's debt to Clinton

Is there really 'something' about Gingrich?

Fireworks on agenda of tonight's GOP debate

-- Dan Turner

CES: The connected living room on display

 

"Smart" is the buzzword at this week's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas -- smart TVs, smart appliances, smarting feet after two days of trekking around an oversized convention floor. I spent a few minutes Wednesday afternoon at the show's Panasonic booth chatting with a video team about all this smart stuff, along with a few other trends on display at the show.

The move toward smarter, networked devices in the home has raised the complexity bar, which has powered a countervailing trend: simplifying the way users interact with their devices. This has been a big show for voice control and gesture recognition, which are moving rapidly from video games to other forms of living-room entertainment.

It's also been a coming-out party for new TV technologies, most notably 4K displays and significantly larger OLED TVs. Watch the video for more details about these and other developments from the show.

Above, Jon Healey discusses connectivity in the home live from CES.

RELATED:

CES: Yet another rollout for mobile digital TV

TV makers offer simple ways to share content

4K TV sets make their debut, minus the hoopla

Virtual dressing room eliminates need to take off your clothes

CES 2012: Rovi lets movie fans convert DVDs to digital files for a fee

-- Jon Healey in Las Vegas

California can't afford the bullet train [Most commented]

Bullet Train
Dump California's bullet train. At least, that's the overwhelming sentiment among readers who've been responding to the board's most recent editorial, "Keep California's bullet train on track." The board wrote:

The project is unquestionably risky, far more expensive than voters were told it would be when they approved nearly $10 billion in bonds to build it in 2008, and unlikely to be finished until years later than promoters had suggested. Polls show that the public is turning against it, and if new information emerges forecasting more serious troubles, even we might be persuaded to dump it. But we're not there yet, especially because the latest report, from the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know.

Here's what readers are saying.

The state cannot afford it

This is the biggest boondoggle in CA history and should be permanently shelved.  The voters were fed a lot of baloney when the first "guestimates" came out and it turns out, as is typical of these projects, that the ridership was vastly overstated and the costs vastly understated.  The state simply cannot afford the luxury of building a high speed rail network no one uses and be stuck with billions a year in debt.  This is a virtual image of all the "city financed football stadiums" that plague the countryside with massive debts.  The very instant the pols and unions get involved, costs just triple every six months.  Brown would be nuts to allow this junk project to see the light of day.

--beecnul8r

Too much to pay for nostalgia  

This utter waste of taxpayer money can never compete with the airlines.  There is a fast Amtrak train between DC and NYC, yet the airlines fly full.  Who is going to spend 2 hrs and 40 min on a train when an airliner makes the trip in 1 hour and can take you to San Jose, Oakland or San Francisco?  It sounds like a wonderful nostalgic thing to ride the train but passenger trains are on the way out.  

--byron.m.allen

Simple economics

It's really simple. Let's say these billions and billions are spent for this boondoggle. Right now you can fly Southwest between L.A. and SF or Sacramento for $200 round trip. It takes an hour each way. Will this train, which will take several hours for the same trip be considerably less than flying? $100 round trip? $75? If the answer is no, it shouldn't be built. Also, what if you want to take a family to SF? Even if it's $100 round-trip. That's $400 for four people. So I can pay $400 to take a train that takes 3 or so hours OR, pay 1/4 the price and drive and it only takes a few hours more.

As can be seen, all it takes is someone with a basic understanding of economics to realize what folly this project is. For some reason the millions being spent by the state and consultants to study this for some reason fail to come to the same conclusion. Oh wait, it's not their money, it's the taxpayers. There's your reason folks.

--thomas35

Kill the train

This is another Government boondoggle. The costs we were sold on originally have skyrocketed way over budget. No one will ride it for what the price of a ticket would have to be. Please just kill it now. We have an enormous budget deficit. We need to quit spending, not building trains to nowhere that no one will ride. Kill it now!

--danceswithtrees

Send the bill to the fiscal fools

The Times writers and editorial staff remain consistent.  Throw billions of debt at every political issue.  There is not one high speed rail that makes a dime on earth.  The estimated $93 billion for this fiscal nightmare is just a start.  That does not even include employees, pay, benefits, infrastructure, or maintance.  There are no estimated annual costs for actual "operation."

Fiscal fools should be sent the bill if they want this.  There is no free lunch.

--tommythek50

A better way to spend the money

Do we really need yet another public project that is way over cost, will take way longer to complete than planned, and will never make money?  I work in infrastructure and believe me, that money would be much better spent rebuilding our crumbling cities.

--mr.incredible

Scrap the train; build more airports

You promoters of the bullet train are a bunch of delusional knuckleheads. Not one passenger train system IN THE WORLD can exist without being heavily subsidized by government money. In Europe the passenger trains ONLY carry 6% of the population! The train system in America, AmTrak, is subsidized by the federal government and still loses money! 

If I want to go from Southern California to San Francisco, I can hop on a plane and be there in less than an hour and for less money than it would cost to go by the proposed bullet train.
Trains are 18th Century technology. If people want to get from point A to point B fast, just build more airports!

--Lion Heart

*For clarity purposes, spelling errors in the above comments have been corrected.

RELATED:

Still on board the bullet train

Bullet train: Readers fire away

Timeline: California high-speed rail project

California's bullet train: Boondoggle or boon?

Blowback: Mend, don't end, California's bullet-train program

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: California High-Speed Rail Authority artist's rendering of a high-speed train speeding along the California coast. Credit: California High Speed Rail Authority / Associated Press

High-tech cars -- and equally high-tech security issues

Auto control center
Remember "Christine," the malevolent Plymouth Fury of book (Stephen King) and movie fame?

Guess what:  Her high-tech sister may be back, sort of.

Or maybe it's more "Car 54, Where Are You?" except this time your car can tell you where it is, and a whole lot more.

Steve Johnson of the San Jose Mercury News reported on recent studies by university researchers and security companies concerning the possibility of cyber attacks on today's brainy cars and trucks:

One found that a car's computer controls could be remotely accessed through their Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or OnStar connections, potentially enabling terrorists to simultaneously disable the brakes of numerous cars, corporate spies to eavesdrop on a motoring executive's phone calls or thieves to electronically locate, break into and start cars they've targeted to steal. Another study showed how a car's tire-pressure warning system could be wirelessly tricked into sending false alerts to drivers, which could prompt them to stop and fall prey to robbers following them.

And you thought the big high-tech motoring problem was teenagers who text.

OK, I know, it's not as if the cars can go nuts on their own. They'll have to have help -- I guess from the folks George W. Bush so memorably called "evil-doers."

But think about it. Once, you could perform many car repairs yourself. Today, you're lucky if you can find the dipstick. I mean, I was in the showroom of an exotic-car dealer a few years ago.  A mechanic was inside the car. He was tuning it. Using an Apple laptop plugged into an access port.  

So what are you going to do when your nav system says, "Sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that," after you've asked for directions to the nearest Dunkin' Donuts?

Will there be Jiffy De-Bugger places that'll de-virus your car in 30 minutes or less?  Instead of grease monkeys, will there be silicon snakes? Will used-car ads tout a vehicle as "low-mileage, one owner, no computer viruses"?

Thankfully, our government has our backs. As The Times story says:

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is aware of the potential for 'hackers' and is working with automakers to better understand what steps can and are being taken to address the problem," the agency said in a statement, adding that it has asked the National Academy of Sciences to look into the matter.

Whew.  Maybe they'll turn it over the TSA, and we can all have our cars patted down.

In the meantime, though, here are some practical steps I suggest you take:

  1. Buy an old VW Beetle. It may catch fire, but it certainly won't be vulnerable to cyber attacks.

  2. Don't give your car a pet name.  That way, when it goes crazy and you have to shoot it, you won't feel like the kid in "Old Yeller."

  3. Encourage your kids' computer use. Junior can then grow up to be either an Internet entrepreneur or an auto mechanic. Either way, he can earn a living and not have to mooch off of you or move back home.

  4. Last but not least, buy American.  For who knows what evil lurks in the minds of foreign cars' computers?

ALSO:

Photos: Driven in 2011

Car owner takes legal fight away from lawyers

The arson fires and an appreciation for L.A.'s firefighters

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Today's cars feature sophisticated computer systems that control many functions. Credit: Wieck

Year in Review: Congress' 10 biggest enemies of the Earth

River
Republicans launched an unprecedented frontal assault against environmental protections and regulations this year, prompting Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to call his chamber "the most anti-environment House in history." Here are the 10 most powerful and outspoken opponents of clean air, clean water, conservation and climate action.

10. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Thought to be the biggest lifetime recipient of oil-industry contributions in the Senate, Cornyn has rewarded Exxon-Mobil’s largesse by supporting the industry’s position on pretty much every energy or environmental issue that has ever appeared before him. That's why he, like everyone on this list, has a "0" on the League of Conservation Voters' scorecard for pro-environment votes.

9. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. A tireless advocate for opening Alaska's pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, Young was involved in one of the more entertaining name-calling spats in Congress this year when he got into a tiff over the refuge with author and professor Doug Brinkley. You can be the judge of who won by watching the video replay.

8. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista. There may have been a time when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee lived up to its name, investigating and bringing to light incidents of government waste, fraud and abuse. But I can't remember back that far. In recent decades it has served as a tool for the majority party in the House to bash and embarrass the presidential administration, at least during times such as now when the House isn't controlled by the president's party. Issa, the committee's current chairman, has turned such political gamesmanship into an art form, and has been particularly keen to attack environmental regulators and policymakers. In so doing he has turned up precious little waste or fraud, but provided plenty of political theater for those who want to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency or end subsidies for clean energy.

7. Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio. Latta has the distinction of sponsoring the most far-reaching and destructive amendment to the most egregious anti-environment bill passed by the House this year. The TRAIN Act, approved by the House in September but not expected to get through the Senate, is a breathtaking (literally) gift to polluters that creates a committee to study the costs but ignore the benefits of environmental regulation, while also blocking EPA efforts to crack down on deadly emissions from power plants. Latta's contribution is an amendment that undermines a cornerstone of the Clean Air Act, requiring the EPA to take industry costs into account when setting health-based standards. This would allow corporate polluters to overrule scientists and strikes at the heart of the polluter-pays principle that has guided environmental policy for 40 years.

6. Rep. Edward Whitfield, R-Ky. Another architect of the TRAIN wreck, Whitfield offered an amendment that would block the EPA from regulating mercury and other toxics from power plants, and from coming up with a rule on smog and soot that crosses state lines. Together, these two regulations would save an estimated 51,000 lives per year. But what are a few thousand lives when utility profits are at stake?

5. Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla. One of the most outspoken climate-change deniers in the Senate (he's renowned for calling global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people"), Inhofe is also one of the most influential Republicans in the country when it comes to environmental policy. As ranking member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, he uses his position to push for expanded oil drilling and reduce environmental regulation. Inhofe sometimes even finds himself to the right of the polluter-packed U.S. Chamber of Commerce; this summer he placed a hold on President Obama's nominee John Bryson as Commerce secretary, even though Bryson had the blessing of the Chamber, because Inhofe felt Bryson was too pro-environment.

4. Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho. Simpson has stepped to the front lines of his party's war on Mother Nature by adding dozens of anti-environment riders to must-pass budget legislation. Among other things, Simpson aims to let mountaintop coal-mining operations continue to pollute streams, prevent the EPA from regulating coal-ash disposal, and exempt pesticide sprayers from complying with the Clean Water Act.

3. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The enforcer of Republican Party discipline, Senate Minority Leader McConnell is among the key architects of his party's stance on environmental issues. In 2009, when Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was among the few Republicans willing to discuss a bipartisan climate bill with Democrats, it was McConnell who reportedly convinced him to back away. This spring he led a failed effort to block the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions and overrule its finding that climate change threatens public health -- tantamount to a statement that politicians know more about the dangers of climate change than scientists.

2. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. The House Majority Leader released a memo in late August listing the top 10 "job-destroying regulations" his party would battle in the remainder of the congressional session. Seven were environmental rules opposed by the fossil fuel industry, including restrictions on emissions from industrial boilers and cement plants, and proposed rulemaking on smog, farm soot and greenhouse gases. None of these rules really threaten jobs, but failing to approve them would certainly threaten lives.

1. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Upton is the gatekeeper for many of the disastrous anti-environment bills that have been approved or proposed in the House this year. Ironically, he was once known among his state's conservatives as "Red Fred" because of a somewhat pro-environment voting record, but a recent electoral challenge from his right changed all that. Because of his powerful position and newfound disdain for green regulation, he represents one of the biggest threats to planet Earth on planet Earth.

ALSO:

What stinks in D.C.

Ignoring a global warning

Something about 'fracking' smells funny

-- Dan Turner

Photo: A creek polluted by a sulphur mine in Nevada. Credit: Mike Harper / AP

Government: The FCC moves to shush loud commercials

Congressional Republicans often refer to the rules set by the federal government as "job-killing regulations." But one of the final regulatory thrusts of the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2010 had bipartisan support: a law aimed at stopping loud television commercials, such as the ones that made Vince (pictured above) famous.

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission translated that law into regulation, requiring broadcasters, cable TV systems and satellite operators to abide by an industry group's recommendations for limiting commercials' volume. The rule goes into effect in one year, and it allows the commission to grant exemptions of up to two years for stations or pay-TV systems that face a financial hardship.

No one likes commercials that boom out of the TV at seemingly twice the volume of the show they interrupt, so it's not surprising that the measure -- the Senate version of a House bill by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) -- passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by voice vote. The Times' editorial board was distinctly in the minority when it weighed in against the proposal, saying there was no need for a government mandate when viewers were solving the problem themselves by using digital video recorders and fast-forwarding through the ads.

I still like the idea of viewers persuading advertisers to fix the problem -- and make ads more appealing in general -- by voting with their DVRs, so to speak. And the TV industry has been responding to the criticism; as the commission noted Tuesday, "consumer complaints about loud commercials have diminished since 2009," when Eshoo introduced her bill. Consumer-electronics companies have helped out too, with TV sets and amplifiers designed to stop volume from spiking during commercial breaks.

The rule also poses a potential problem for broadcasters and pay-TV services. It holds them responsible for the volume not just of the ads they insert but also for the commercials embedded into the programming they receive from networks, syndicators and studios. That forces them to level out volume on the fly when the program is being carried live. But with as much as 95% of the commercials being embedded in programs, rather than inserted by the broadcaster or pay-TV service, the rule wouldn't have accomplished much if it hadn't applied to both kinds of ads. And the commission provided a safe harbor, saying broadcasters and pay-TV services could comply by having the source of the embedded ads certify that they met the rule's standards.

All in all, the rule short-circuits the solutions that were emerging in the market, and it increases broadcasters' compliance costs. But the bottom line is that it peeves viewers to have to adjust the volume up and down repeatedly to keep the dialogue they want to hear at roughly the same level as the commercial pitches they don't. That's why this is one rule that the anti-regulatory forces in Congress will try to undo at their peril.

RELATED:

Ads too loud? Try mute

-- Jon Healey

After the winds: In the dark with Jane Austen

Power
I have been without light and heat and hot tap water for 36 hours now -– and it feels like 36 years.

I’m trying to be philosophical and regard this as a kind of time-travel, that I’m living like Jane Austen, or the Bronte Sisters.

I’ve learned how hard it is to do any fine work by candlelight. Embroidery? My hands would wind up looking like I’d been doing some heavy petting with a porcupine. Reading? What was that word again? Does the book's hero contemplate having an abscess, or an abbess? More props to Abe Lincoln if he was able to get through the Bible and Shakespeare by the fitful light of a fireplace. That explains why his eyes look so worn out in all the photographs.

A flashlight provides passable light, but it’s so confined that you have to move either the book or the flashlight as you read. And it’s no substitute for the beautiful bright glow of a compact fluorescent bulb. In sweeping up windstorm debris, I got a splinter in my thumb, and every night-time light source is too dim for me to excavate it.  

There is of course no radio, no TV, no Internet. No wonder well brought-up young ladies were taught to sing and play the piano: someone had to provide the entertainment of an evening.

Without a refrigerator and freezer, you can’t take for granted that your food is so easily maintained in edible condition. Cooking in such poor light is a nauseating thought. Maybe that’s why the big meal of the day was so often at midday, in the daylight, when you could see what you were cooking and eating, because Lord knows what condition it was in.

Hot water is suddenly so precious, so hard to come by, the immense luxury of having a whole tub of it to bathe in unimaginable; even a half-gallon of it for a sponge-down takes a long time to heat on the gas range.

I don’t think Abraham van Helsing or Buffy the Vampire Slayer ever welcomed the daylight as much as I have.

To Misses Austen and Bronte, I doff my mobcap to you. Like the 19th century equivalent of Ginger Rogers, doing everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels, you did surpassing well.

As for Prospero’s "dark backward and abysm of time" -– he can have it.

By force of habit, I’m still walking around flicking on light switches as if they meant something. One of these days, again, they won’t. All I can do is to tell my fellow Californians that this is a dress rehearsal for the human islands the earthquake will create, when we find ourselves on our own.

These 36 hours and counting also make me admire all those Occupy L.A. people who did have warm beds and lighted rooms somewhere, and left them behind for as long as two months, to make their 99% points.

Still, they would have left a stronger odor of sanctity in their wake, rather than the whiff of the landfill, if they had departed City Hall lawn taking with them all of their trash and goods, rather than leave it for the city to clean up at civic expense.

Or the LAPD could simply have waited 24 hours, and the howling wind that’s scouring through L.A. would have effected the Occupy evacuation all by itself.

RELATED:

Singing the SoCal stormy weather day blues

Unusual weather system produces destructive winds

After the wind, a tidy Pasadena neighborhood pulls together

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Fallen power poles block Live Oak Avenue in Irwindale as crew scramble to fix the situation and put the power back on. Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times

Singing the SoCal stormy weather day blues

Downed power lines in Southern California

Where were you,

when the winds blew,

and the limbs flew?

Where were you,

when the sparks flew,

and the power went too --

and the teenagers cried:

“Now what do we do?”

Southern California's devastating windstorm toppled trees, damaged homes and cars, and knocked out power to thousands, forcing numerous schools to call off classes.  

It's the combination of those last two, frankly, that caused real headaches.

Thousands of teenagers, members of the most wired generation in history, were suddenly confronted with their worst nightmare:  Forced to be home with mom or dad, and denied the three basic necessities of life -- TVs, computers and smartphones.

That wasn't just the wind you heard shrieking.

At my house, the conversations went something like this:

Son No. 2: I need to call [blank] (name removed to protect the innocent).

Mom:  Go ahead, this phone works (points to ancient touch-tone land-line phone with a cord in living room).

Son:  But you'll be able to hear what I'm saying.

Mom:  That's right.

Or this:

Son No. 1 (after letting said phone ring 10 times):  Hello?

Dad:  Hello?

Son No. 1:  Oh, I didn't know that was our phone ringing.  I mean, I heard it ringing, but I didn't know what it was.

Dad:  That's our old land-line phone.

Son No. 1:  Yea.  You know, this is kinda cool.

Still, on a stormy day, they were among the haves:  Those with land lines. (Tell me again, oh techno wizards, how it's so '80s to keep a land line?)

Mostly, though, it was retro-day for kids and parents, with a real mid-20th century vibe.

How do you tell time when the power's out?  How about the 50-year-old grandfather clock. Or that battery-powered travel alarm. 

And what do kids do when "there's nothing to do"?

I slept in.

I read all day.

I got all my homework done in record time because there were no distractions.

I (take your pick) hung out with friends, played ultimate Frisbee or basketball, went for a walk, drove around. (The latter was especially popular because -– ever the survivalists -– kids knew that they could kill two birds with one stone:  Ditch their parents and charge their devices.)

As the day wore on, folks discovered old truths. Such as how dark it gets at 5 in the afternoon when there are no lights. And how -- even when charged -- today's high-tech devices devour power and run down batteries.

In the '60s, we turned on, tuned in and dropped out.

Today's kids just want to plug back in.

Of course, they'll get their wish.  The power will come back. Modern life will return.

Still, it was kinda, uh, what's the word? Oh yea: Cool.

RELATED:

Unusual weather system produces destructive winds

After the wind, a tidy Pasadena neighborhood pulls together

L.A. County declares emergency 

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: Felled trees and a power line at Longden Avenue at San Gabriel Boulevard. Credit: Ken Kwok / Los Angeles Times

Don't let that robot steal your job

Robots
As Internet junkies and smartphone addicts know all too well, technology has changed the way we connect with people -- for better and for worse. We may be out with our friends, for instance, but really more engaged with the person we're texting with across the country.

As technology continues to change our behavior, questions arise: Are we losing our ability to be present,  to connect with what's in front of us? Tech innovator and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain explores these questions in her new documentary "Connected." In an interview with Op-Ed columnist Patt Morrison, Shlain said we've arrived at a stage where "everyone feels they need to be more conscious of is just being plugged in all the time." She elaborates:

I'm connected to people in beautiful ways through technology -- like my mother-in-law. I'm constantly sending her videos of [her grandchildren's] cute little moments she misses in Pennsylvania. I can stay more connected with my family; I'm up to date with my friends, and that's very powerful.

Any technology -- I could tell you three really great things about it and three really bad things about it. I think we just need to be having a conversation [about the] fact that everyone's moving so quickly.

It's nothing I'm proud of, but there was an eight-year period that I smoked. Now I look back and think, "Oh my God, I can't believe I smoked in that situation -- when I woke up, or on a plane. That's so horrible." I wonder whether we're going to look back on this period and say the same thing about the way we're using technology.

For Shlain, here's the true gift that today's technology provides:

The big concern when the written word was invented was that people would lose their memory, and we certainly have lost a lot of oral tradition and culture, but we've gained so much with the written word. I believe we are in a transition period [to] a new way of understanding and sharing information. Our brains can only grow so big, so we hooked up into the computer.

One of my favorite stories about Einstein is that he was being interviewed, and at the end the reporter said, "If I have any follow-up questions, can I call you?" And Einstein went over to the bookcase and looked up his phone number [in a phone book] and gave it to the reporter. And the reporter said, "You're the smartest man in the 20th century -- how do you not know your own phone number?" And he said, "Vy fill my mind with such useless information if I know vere I can find it?" Was that why he was able to come up with the theory of relativity -- he wasn't filling his mind with useless information?

So our children come up with new ideas we can't even imagine because they're not trying to hold onto all this information. When I was in school, the person who memorized the most facts was the smartest person in the class. Now it's going to be all about re-contextualizing ideas and recombining ideas.

It's that spirit of innovation that may just revive our economy. In two separate pieces about technology's impact on the economy -- one in our Editorial pages, the other in the New York Times -- the writers come to similar conclusions: As computers and robots replace humans in the workforce, it's become increasingly vital for people to learn skills that technology can enhance but not replace.

Here's Adam Davidson in the New York Times:

Picture the advertising agency in "Mad Men," and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.

As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that "Mad Men" office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It's horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.

A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill -- things, in other words, that can't be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries.

Here's our editorial board:

Computers still aren't very good at creative tasks, such as generating ideas or finding ways to apply lessons from one experience in a totally different context. But [at the recent Techonomyconference] in Tucson, [MIT economist Andrew] McAfee asserted that "the list of things humans are demonstrably better at than computers is shrinking pretty dramatically." [Fellow MIT economist Erik] Brynjolfsson observed that about 60% of U.S. workers perform "information processing tasks," and "it's hard to think of any of those that won't be profoundly affected and possibly eliminated by these technologies."

At the same time, the ability of computers to make humans more productive is growing exponentially. Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, said at the conference that an expert animator can create only about 3 seconds' worth of a movie in a week because of the many hours spent waiting for computers to render the images in 3D. With the next generation of computers, he said, those workers will be able to animate and apply effects in real time, creating scenes 50 to 70 times as fast.

That's astounding, and it's great for DreamWorks and its animators, who can turn ideas into movies faster. The challenge for the United States -- and every other country -- is helping more people to take advantage of that leap in power rather than being left behind by it. The same could be said of any technology-fueled change in society, including the advent of commercial farming and the industrial revolution. What's different this time, Brynjolfsson and McAfee say, is that the changes brought about by the new technology are happening much, much faster.

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--Alexandra Le Tellier

Illustration by Randy Enos / For the Times

A futuristic fix for Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimers
What if Alzheimer's isn't curable? What if scientists are wasting their time trying to discover the root of the problem, rather than developing ways to treat patients so that they might live with the disease with some dignity?  The December issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease raises these questions with a new study that says more attention should be focused on extending the life of neurons. In other words, prevention and treatment rather than an all-out cure.

The Times' editorial board weighed in on the study's findings in Monday's Opinion pages, suggesting researchers keep an open mind on all fronts:

[Dr. Ming Chen at the University of South Florida ], the new study's lead author, says that for years Alzheimer's researchers have been driven by fear of the societal devastation that will be wrought by increasing numbers of dementia sufferers, and that it has led scientists down a path for a cure that doesn't exist. But fear is a powerful and often a rational motivator. It's fine to reexamine priorities. The last thing we want is for researchers to be distracted by the debate or to close off options that let them dare to pursue either a cure or a preventive strategy.

Indeed, when it comes to science, some lament a culture that fosters close-mindedness. On a recent episode  of "This American Life," for instance, cancer researcher Jonathan Brody complained that researchers spend too much time refining the same concepts rather than taking big steps forward.  He likens it to a screenwriter in Hollywood who sells out to survive. He says:

You know, I do think it's much like being in Hollywood. You might go out to Hollywood thinking that you'll be the next Kafka. And you end up writing, you know, the worst sitcom in the world, right, because you want to survive. So what happens in this country when the same thing happens with science?

For Brody, it's the frustration that only familiar concepts get funding that compelled him to team up with a music teacher to discover whether soundwaves could kill cancer cells.

So, is there a bold, out-of-the-box idea for Alzheimer's? Theodore W. Berger, a biomedical engineer at USC, might just be onto something. On a recent episode of another fantastic radio program, "Studio 360," Berger talks seriously about creating an artificial hippocampus  for people suffering from severe memory loss.

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--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo:  Patient brain scans are shown at the Alzheimer's Disease Center at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Credit:  Katja Heinemann / HBO

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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.



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