Star Wars 7 Is An Amazing Movie. There, I Said It.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is an amazing movie.

There, I said it.

Most publications agree with me, but several of my friends on social media and elsewhere disagree. Many have called The Force Awakens “recycled”, “too derivative”, having “zero creative ambition”, and basically being terrible, largely because they think it cribs too much from A New Hope and that it’s uninspiring. Many don’t like the characters. Many think the plot is stale. And at least one has actually said that it’s worse than the prequels.

This is all utterly bunk.

I am not going to say that The Force Awakens is some marvelous exemplar of serious cinematic quality and technique. Well, actually, it kinda is, but just not like a serious, Cannes Festival, critic type quality. That’s because Star Wars itself, while imaginative and creative, speaking to our inner children, it’s still a schlocky comic book story. Yes, it relies on deep mythological themes, but just how deep is Star Wars, really?

In other words, people have seriously missed the point about this movie, and perhaps, the series in general.

I’ve now seen The Force Awakens three times (all in 3D, I might add, and twice at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum, which has a six story tall IMAX 3D screen powered by laser beams and radness.) Now that’s it been out for two weeks, I think it’s okay to mention spoilers, so there will be some in here. To be courteous to those who haven’t seen it, I’m going to use a snippet cut here, but beyond there, spoilers abound. Tread carefully.
Continue reading Star Wars 7 Is An Amazing Movie. There, I Said It.

A Plethora of Links to End 2014

2014 is just about gone, and for the large part, I say: Good riddance. In many ways, 2014 was an awful year for civil liberties, freedom, and for people in general. Yet on the other hand, there are some positive things to report.

One of my 2015 resolutions is to stop posting so much political stuff. I know, I know – I say this almost every month, and yet it never happens. I'm going to try, though, this year, especially since I'm making the effort to make some resolutions. (I'm even going to print them out and put them up on my wall in my bedroom and in my office.) So in honor of that, I wanted to post some last political and semi-political links before the year ended, links that have been sitting on my mind:

THE BAD

2014 was a really rotten year for privacy, civil liberties, and in particular for public-police relations. For a long time I thought of writing up a list of all the issues of police overreach and brutality, but I don't have to. Radley Balko, one of the best journalists on the planet, rounded up 2014's civil liberties violations as a "Let me give some predictions for 2015" post. It's chilling to think that, in the nation that is supposedly the leader of the free world, we have so many horrible things going on – most, but not all, being conducted by state and local governments.

I mean, seizing someone's assets, then charging them with a crime, so they can't pay for their own defense? Arresting parents for letting their kids play without supervision? Claiming that your SWAT team is a private corporation and is thus immune to open records laws? Push for extrajudicial tribunals for people who may or may not commit crimes against a certain class of individuals, tribunals where "innocent until proven guilty" and the rule of law are thrown out the airlock? Punishing people who haven't been convicted of a crime?

These are not the signs of a healthy liberal democracy, they're the signs of a damaged one that needs repair, fast.

One story in particular has stood out to me. As many have defended the police in the recent incidents and stories, one thing they may have failed to notice is that even black police officers feel threatened by the "boys in blue". I think once cops are fearful of other cops, then we have indisputable proof that there is a serious problem. And yet people still ignore it. Read the link above for a maddening, frustrating look at what is wrong with policing today. (That one really grinds my gourd, because I think it will be ignored by most.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, in 2014 progressives became nattering nabobs of negativity – or, in other words, conservatives. reason magazine highlights how 2014 heralded the return of "Neo-Victorianism", and I'm thankful that Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote that article because I've been struggling to find the right word for this new trend. It's the trend of using coercion and bullying to enforce a set of social norms, mostly deployed by feminists, it seems. The four major areas are increasing art censorship, a hysteria over sex-trafficking (that trampled over individual rights while simultaneously punishing sex workers, many of whom don't think they're victims and like their jobs, thank you very much), a dragging out of hate speech to absurd lengths that means you shouldn't say anything that could potentially offend anyone at any time, and a trend of treating women as dainty little flowers that need to be coddled and protected rather than being allowed to develop into strong and independent individuals.

It's all rather sickening. It too, is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

And let's not get me started on the various abuses by the NSA. Let's just not go there for once.

The Good

There are, however, some great things to look forward to in 2015 that continue from 2014.

The first is in terms of war and crime. Steven Pinker, a wonderful academic, details in a great article for Slate that planet Earth is actually becoming a very peaceful world. I found the article particularly interesting for the following tidbit:

But the red curve in the graph shows a recent development that is less benign: The number of wars jumped from four in 2010—the lowest total since the end of World War II—to seven in 2013. These wars were fought in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Syria. Conflict data for 2014 will not be available until next year, but we already know that four new wars broke out in the past 12 months, for a total of 11. The jump from 2010 to 2014, the steepest since the end of the Cold War, has brought us to the highest number of wars since 2000.
[…]
The 2010–2014 upsurge is circumscribed in a second way. In seven of the 11 wars that flared during this period, radical Islamist groups were one of the warring parties: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Gaza, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. (Indeed, absent the Islamist conflicts, there would have been no increase in wars in the last few years, with just two in 2013 and three in 2014.) This reflects a broader trend.

That "broader trend" being religious hostilities, with "all but two of these countries" having those hostilities being "associated with extremist Islamist groups." I always find myself on a narrow tightrope when it comes to Islamism; on the one hand, I always find conservatives are far too hostile and kneejerk when they want to just fight Muslims and bomb them; on the other hand, I think that many libertarians and leftists slide Islam's problems under the rug and prefer not to notice. Don't kid yourselves, guys: although Christianity has issues, it has largely been tamed and neutered by modernity. Islam hasn't. And Islam has got loads of problems.

But even despite that, the world is far more peaceful than the news reports make it out to be. Outside of the Middle East, we have the conflict in Ukraine – and that has basically been frozen. The drop in oil prices has crushed the Russian economy, so I don't know if Putin will continue to help his "allies" in Donetsk and Lugansk. There are conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, but to be honest I know very little about them.

Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson in The Spectator (UK) reports on how we're winning the war on disease. In 1990, diseases claimed roughly 37,500 years of life per 100,000 people; now they claim only about 26,000 (judging by my eyes on that chart.) Starvation has dropped by over ten percentage points. Infant mortality has plummeted. These are all extremely good news to hear.

The last one is a story on upcoming disruptive technologies, many of which are going to build on 2014 discoveries. I post this one because I have a bit of a quibble with the author, Vivek Wadhwa. Although I think most of his points are relatively sound, inasmuch as I, not being an expert in these areas, could judge them, his section on energy has problems. First, he leads off by saying that fracking is a harmful technology – newsflash, it isn't. Second, he says that solar power will hit grid parity by 2020, which I think is unlikely considering how expensive solar power is. (Seriously, the people I know who study energy saw a similar story by Wadwha and they claimed it hurt their brains.) Third, Wadwha claims that if we have unlimited energy,

we can have unlimited clean water, because we can simply boil as much ocean water as we want. We can afford to grow food locally in vertical farms. This can be 100 percent organic, because we won’t need insecticides in the sealed farm buildings. Imagine also being able to 3D print meat and not having to slaughter animals. This will transform and disrupt agriculture and the entire food-production industry.

Wadwha might be right about unlimited energy and unlimited clean water, but even if he is, the rest doesn't follow. Water isn't the only resource. Why would we grow food locally? It's not necessarily more efficient than growing food on larger farms elsewhere. Secondly, what about the time involved? When Wadwha says "locally," I see the localist woo argument about people growing food in their backyards. But that takes time, and who wants to waste time growing your own food when you can buy it at the store and instead spend your time going to sports events, watching TV, writing blog posts, or going on romantic getaways? Wadwha ignores that, and it hurts, both his piece and my head.

I'm also a little miffed he didn't mentioned Lockheed Martin's new fusion reactor project (more on that later), but I totally agree with him on synthetic meat – which I think will be a huge advance – and he makes good points about 3D printing, finance, and healthcare. In all areas, we're talking about some radical decentralization.

The Awesome

Okay, the last bit. The really cool stuff.

Scientists did some really cool things in 2014. I mean, some really scifi things. Quantum teleportation for instaneous communication, blood based nanites to repair your body, 3D food printers, hoverboards – 2014 was a really cool year for tech.

Meanwhile, the one news item that really made me jump was Lockheed Martin's announcement that in five years they'll have a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor. There are a lot of questions and criticisms of this, with many having doubts – but if anyone is going to deliver a power source that is clean and nearly limitless, it's going to be Lockheed Martin. And I hope it turns out correct, because I think that:

  1. It would provide enough energy to avoid the coming energy shortfalls as our iCivilization keeps getting bigger
  2. It would go a long way towards making climate change a nonissue
  3. It would go a long way towards getting the US out of the Middle East as we wouldn't have to worry about the oil reserves there
  4. It would weaken OPEC, Venezuela, and Russia (yes that's a cheap geopolitical shot but I think it's valid)
  5. A fusion rocket could get us from Earth to Mars in 30 days rather than six months
  6. It could power the warp drive that NASA is working on
  7. As energy is one of the largest input costs, this could make everything cheaper across the board by a considerable factor
  8. Bonus – Gundams.

I'm really hoping that 2015 will turn out to be even cooler.

And finally, for one last speculative item, there's a guy in Nebraska building a warp drive in his garage. Okay, okay, it's pretty far out there, man, but when you read stuff like this:

He turns around and points to the back of his garage door, where a red laser — beamed at the weight and reflected back against the door to demonstrate the movement happening in the case — drifts from its original spot. Slowly, in incremental amounts, the weight is drawn toward the V-shape motor.

You gotta wonder.

I’m With Elon: Let’s Colonize Mars

So Elon Musk wants to screw Earth and colonize Mars. Excellent, I completely agree. Let’s get started.

The interview Musk gave to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine is fantastic. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a forceful advocacy for space colonization, which is refreshing. It seems like the cause of space has languished over the past couple of decades while people want to focus on more down to Earth matters. I think they’re forgetting that many of our down to Earth matters could probably be solved by going outward and exploring new frontiers – and settling them!

My reasons are different than Musk’s, are, though. Musk seems to be afraid that, since we haven’t discovered any interstellar aliens in our searches of the night sky, something bad must have happened to all of them:

Musk has a more sinister theory [to the Fermi Paradox, basically –Jeremy]. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’

Personally, I’m more in favor of the Great Filter being life itself. Wait But Why has a great blog post on the Fermi Paradox and all of its implications, and count me as a guy who thinks that life is much harder to happen than Ross Anderson seems to think (going off what he writes in Aeon; it might be he’s just summarizing what others think and that’s not his own opinion.) I don’t look at this as a bad thing; instead, we now have the entire cosmos open to ourselves. We are the Ancients, the Precursors, the Progenitors of life in a barren and empty universe.

But not if we screw it up before we get out there.

I’m not talking about the existential fears that most people talk about. I’m not worried about nuclear war or plague or global warming killing us. To be sure, we have some problems for this century: we need to stamp out religious and ideological extremism that leads to violence; find new and renewable sources of energy to keep powering our civilization; and maybe not build artificial superintelligences in our basements. But I think these (well, to one extent or another) are all manageable. The problem I fear is one of philosophy, political science, and sociology. We need space colonization to overcome the dimming of the (classical) liberal vision.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long, long time. Well, over a year, to be more exact, but it’s been fluttering in my head for longer. The problem is that I’m finding it very hard to put it into words why we must colonize Mars – and the rest of space – to preserve classical liberalism and by extension civilization, freedom, and all those good things.

I look at the growth of government over the past century and I see it as expansion turning inwards. There is less for us to go out and explore, now. We no longer have a frontier, a Wild West where the government’s arm is distant and individuals rely on themselves. It seems very romantic, because it is very romantic – and of course, there were problems. Colonization uprooted and destroyed indigenous cultures all over the world, caused pain and suffering by bringing diseases, bloodshed, and slavery. The Wild West was not as dangerous as the Western movie genre made it out to be, but there was racism, crime, and an eye for an eye mentality in some parts. My point, being, though, was that as there was a frontier, there was an argument for freedom. Government could not expand inwards on people because there was somewhere to expand outwards.

But then the 20th century came. By now, there was nowhere left to expand to. The only uncolonized parts of our world are the Artic, the Antartic, and the bottom of the oceans – the first two being extremely inhospitable and undesirable, the latter uninhabitable until somebody decides to invent SeaQuest in the real world. (Get on that, Musk.) Now, the expanding mass of government ran up against a solid wall, and as it hit this wall it folded back in on itself and expanded back towards its center. Now it was expanding on top of itself, layering itself upon itself, burying beneath itself the seeds of liberalism and freedom. Where else could it go now but onto its own people?

We lost the frontier. On top of that, we continued to multiply. I hate thinking in this manner, but the law of supply and demand comes back to haunt me. We have all these people now, and we keeping having more, and I wonder, as supply goes up, does demand go down? It used to be you could know everyone in your community. Now, do we just look at others as statistics? Not even fully autonomous human beings? Do we think everyone around us is a p-zombie? It seems very crass on one hand – how can we apply supply and demand to people – and yet very conservative on the other – here I am talking about community and how the modern era has increased the distance between us and yadda yadda yadda. Not being that sort of conservative – or really, any conservative at all – it’s hard for me to put this into words.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to. From China, we have a couple of videos and stories of how low human life is valued:

Then there was the toddler who was run over by two vehicles and ignored by scores of passersby before finally receiving help. Again, this is from China.

These are just the two things that come to the top of my mind. I don’t know if it’s because there are a lot of people in China, if there’s something deeper in Chinese culture, or if these are really bad examples. But that is what I think of when I see rising population. Is this something we can overcome? Is it bound to happen?

Then there is the issue of running out of work for people. I know many scoff at the idea, but there is some concern of “technological unemployment”. My friend Travis Thornton has blogged about this subject before. Now personally I am all in favor of a post-scarcity economy, and I think it’s absolutely delightful that we’re heading towards one…but are we going to need a new thing to give us meaning? Why can’t that thing be a settled, terraformed Mars?

The moon terraformed, covered in blue seas, green forests, and whispy white clouds.
I have to admit, a terraformed Luna would look cool.
TerraformedMoonFromEarth“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I realize these thoughts are not entirely coherent or cogent. Like I said, I’m having difficulty putting what I’m thinking and feeling into words. That’s why I’m doing this blog post, to solicit feedback and comments and see if I’m on the right track. But essentially, what I see is that, to preserve classical liberalism, individual freedom, and a culture of the same, we need to start colonizing planets. We need to go with Musk and start doing this right now. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Mars. We should also colonize the Moon (though terraforming it would be a waste of time I think, since it doesn’t have enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, unless you paraterraform), and we should probably also build O’Neill and McKendree Cylinders. Eventually, we might even terraform Venus, build Banks Orbitals and a Ringworld (okay, fine, we can have one Halo off in the corner for all the first person shooter types) and then from there…

The galaxy will be our oyster.

But not if we get stuck here. It’s not the asteroids that will kill us, or the threat of alien invasion, or potential nuclear war or grey goo or artificial superintelligence. If anything does us in, it will be the banal overlayering of bureaucratic, authoritarian government, run by busybodies and people of little vision. Humanity needs a new frontier, and there are many out there: uninhabited, barren, lifeless, ready for us to come. We need that frontier to rekindle our spirit of freedom, and get us moving again. Take the germ of liberalism, and spread it across the stars.

That’s my vision for the future. And that means I’m right there with Elon Musk. Let’s go to Mars.

Me and the Angry Atheist: I’m On a Podcast

I am so terrible at selling myself. It’s almost embarrassing.

In any case, earlier this week I had the pleasure of joining the Angry Atheist on his podcast, the Angry Atheist Podcast. You can check it out here.

Looks like I’m moving up in the world. And yes, I do apologize to those Angry Atheist podcast listeners who have come here expecting something interesting…I’m kinda not.

The Force Is Still Strong With the Star Wars Expanded Universe

A not so long time ago, in a boardroom not all that far away…

So the news is out. The Star Wars Expanded Universe – all the books, games, comics, etc beyond the movies and the Clone Wars show – is essentially being put into storage. It will still be available, printed, and even to be used by authors and creators in the “new” timeline. Already, some fans are complaining hard about this, feeling they’re being Force choked by this decision. Things like “I invested years and lots of money into this!” are getting bandied about.

These complaints are really childish, and I actually think this is a good decision for Disney to make.

First, why the decision is good. While I certainly have my favorites from the EU canon – the X-Wing series, Young Jedi Knights, anything by Timothy Zahn, and I, Jedi all stand out – we must face the fact that a great majority of the Expanded Universe is, to put it frankly, bantha poodoo. I said as much back in January, and I just want to reiterate it more now. The Courtship of Princess Leia is as schlocky as they come, and The Crystal Star is…well, perhaps the less said about it, the better. There are many horrible Star Wrongs in the EU. In no way, shape, or form should J.J Abrams and the crew working on the next trilogy be beholden to them. I’m glad they won’t be!

But then, that’s the thing, isn’t it? The EU was always secondary canon. Even though it was canon – unlike, say, Star Trek, which basically said that it’s “extended universe” was not canon, no way, no how – it was always secondary to the two film trilogies and later on Clone Wars. (Ugh.) So even they technically were not really Star Wars. And for the vast majority of people who have watched the movies, they aren’t, because they’re not the movies. How many people read Star Wars novels? I’m sure it’s a large number, but it is nowhere near as large as the many who have watched the movies and never delved into the EU.

Now, why the complaints, in most cases, are pretty childish: because this decision in no way takes away from your enjoyment of those stories. We are dealing with a fictional universe, and you know where fictional universes live? In your mind, and in your heart. And nothing that Disney can do can take them away from those places. Sure, they may not exist in the same timeline as the new movies…however, fiction loves alternate timelines, so there is nothing saying you can’t just push the old EU to a different timeline and enjoy that. People are doing it with Star Trek, why not Star Wars?

Fact is, the Star Wars universe is one you make of it. I myself have completely disavowed anything from New Jedi Order onwards and most of the stuff set between the Exar Kun saga and the earliest “Last Days of the Old Republic” type material. (KOTOR, KOTOR II, The Old Republic, etc – all that stuff doesn’t exist for me, because it is all hilariously dumb.) Does that mean that content doesn’t exist for other fans? Of course not.

I really think fans need to get over themselves. Saying “the death of the EU hurts” is almost pathetic. Having your dog die hurts. Having a friend or family member hurts. Losing a job hurts. A company making a change in what novels it will accept as a backstory to a movie series doesn’t hurt, and if does you may be overly attached. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but come on. I love fiction as much as the next guy, and I love writing it and yes I do get attached to things sometimes, but at the end of the day these are all stories that exist in your mind. (Well, until Heinlein’s pantheistic solipsism is proven correct, that is…)

It’s whiny, entitled bullshit. I see this all over the ‘Net on all sorts of topics, and when it comes to something as silly as this – yes, “silly” and Star Wars do go together in this case – it just makes me sad. Sad that people are wasting their time on this. Move on, you have more important things to do. The Expanded Universe you love will always be there for you, forever.

(And before you say “But Jeremy – shouldn’t you have more important things to do than write a blog post like this?” why yes, yes I do. Which is watch the rest of Gundam Unicorn.)

Was I right about Bitcoin?

Last year, when writing about 2014 predictions, I made the following about Bitcoin:

Bitcoin will crash

This is just a hunch, but not too long ago we saw China ban Bitcoin transactions (as well as Thailand and India, basically) and the value of Bitcoin plunged about 40%. That’s pretty damn volatile, and while I am not a monetary expert, I think that’s not good for a currency. If the value of your currency changes that much so quickly (and if you put in terms of it’s rapid growth over 2013, which I think was 50x–if you bought $100 worth in January it was worth $5,000 at the end of the year) it’s not going to be very usable.

Now I could be totally wrong about that, and also totally wrong about this, but I have a hunch Bitcoin will dramatically decrease in value next year and might go out. I think it will also bring down other cryptocurrencies, including Litecoin, Peercoin, and the so-called “Dogecoin,” which is actually real. Although it’s also hit the reputation of these cryptocurrencies already…

Of course, everyone is ranting about the bankruptcy and shutdown of one of the largest Bitcoin exchanges, Mt. Gox, in Tokyo. There have also been major thefts and hacks elsewhere. Roughly $400 million worth of Bitcoin has been stolen and disappeared, amounting to somewhere around 6% (if I’ve read correctly) of the entire global Bitcoin supply. Meanwhile, Bitcoin has plunged from a price of $1,200 last November to about $573 as of this writing.

The concern over Mt. Gox and the ripple effects it’s collapse is having are making some wonder if this is the end of Bitcoin itself:

Documents purportedly leaked from the company lay out the scale of the problem. An 11-page “Crisis Strategy Draft” published on the blog of entrepreneur and Bitcoin enthusiast Ryan Selkis says that 740,000 bitcoins are missing from Mt. Gox, which roughly translates to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of losses, although figures are fuzzy given Bitcoin’s extreme volatility.

“At the risk of appearing hyperbolic, this could be the end of Bitcoin, at least for most of the public,” the draft said.

In a post to his blog, Selkis said that the document was handed to him by a “reliable source” and that several people close to the company had confirmed the figures. Reached by phone, he declined further comment. The Japanese government, meanwhile, has not announced any formal investigation.

Not all agree, however:

Now that what’s left of Mt. Gox’s credibility has been shredded, the company is unlikely to rebound even with a bailout from investors or other members of the Bitcoin community. That leaves the question of what comes next. A host of funded exchanges are ready to take its place. But for an exchange to regain users’ trust after the fall of Gox, it will need new transparency standards and safeguards, some of which have already been proposed.

Others see currency exchanges as a gap technology that the Bitcoin economy is poised to move beyond. Once people are being paid in Bitcoin and spending money in Bitcoin, there won’t be as much need to buy it for cash, which is the primary function of an exchange. “These large exchanges that are international and global are more important in the early stages of Bitcoin when we need price discovery,” says Jon Matonis, director of the Bitcoin Foundation. “You don’t need them in the long run because in a true Bitcoin economy you’ll have a closed-loop system.”

There are precedents for Bitcoin bailouts, as when the Polish exchange Bitomat accidentally erased all its customers’ bitcoins. Mt. Gox bought the company and reimbursed its customers. But a bailout of Mt. Gox would be contrary to Bitcoin’s libertarian ethos and it doesn’t seem necessary. The price has already rebounded. A number of well-funded, reputable Bitcoin companies are standing by ready to sell the idea to the vast majority of potential users who have never used the currency or heard of Mt. Gox. And anyone who wants a bailout is likely to be shamed by the sense of self-determinism that kickstarted Bitcoin in the first place.

Personally, I find myself more with the latter viewpoint than the former. I still think Bitcoin will go out; I just don’t think it will be Mt. Gox specifically. There are going to be other things bringing it down, namely further instances of major theft and fraud and bad management. There won’t be just one issue.

I do want to slightly modify part of my above prediction, namely this:

I think it will also bring down other cryptocurrencies, including Litecoin, Peercoin, and the so-called “Dogecoin,” which is actually real.

I’m not as convinced as this as I used to be. To explain why, let’s take a quote from one of Mt. Gox’s investors:

Roger Ver, a big investor in Mt. Gox, said he did not know if he would ever get any of his lost bitcoin back.

“But the important thing to realize is that Mt. Gox is just one company using bitcoin. The bitcoin technology itself is still absolutely amazing,” he said.

“Even if one email service provider is having a problem that doesn’t mean people are going to stop using email. It’s the same with bitcoin.”

Ver is right, but he’s not expanding it far enough. Even if Bitcoin fails, it will not completely destroy the general cryptocurrency technology or concept. The way I see it now, Bitcoin is basically going to be the sacrificial lamb. It will get a lot of attention, a lot of press–and it will hit every bloody pitfall on the way up and out. Imagine, if you will, a Macross Missile Massacre heading straight for a convoy of cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin will be that ship that takes all of the blows and is destroyed, but the rest of the convoy will keep going–many damaged, perhaps a few unscathed. And the developers of these cryptocurrencies will learn from Bitcoin’s failures and push out innovations that will improve their products. (Granted, most of these cryptocurrencies, if not all, are very decentralized, so there’s no one person controlling the network, but I think the users will work out something.)

Will these cryptocurrencies replace national currencies? Barring a catastrophic global monetary collapse–which, to be fair, there is enough stupidity going on at central banks and governments around the world that we can’t definitely rule that out–I would say no. People are going to use it for speculative purposes, for liquidity, and occasionally to buy things, but for the most part I just can’t see them being used for everyday transactions by the majority of the populace. That is going to take a lot of convincing to get people to move outside their comfort zone. For better or worse, being attached to a government makes a currency look “safe”. It will take magic or tragedy to sever that thought in people’s minds.

One thing I do find interesting about all this is a concept and organization known as Mastercoin. I visited their booth at the International Students for Liberty Conference this year and was fascinated. It’s an attempt to have a sort of meta-protocol on top of the Bitcoin–and other cryptocurrencies’–protocol. It would facilitate seemless transfers between cryptocurrencies and people, and allow the development of what they term “smart contracts.” An example would be if I and someone else had a bet on what the weather would be, and I had Bitcoins and she had Litecoins. The smart contract would check the weather, and instantly transfer over the money bet from one person to the other and convert it, without us knowing what the other person has in terms of currency. But it was a lot more than that; the guy I was talking to said that it would permit the creation of infinite cryptocurrencies which could be used to support any number of things. One example was a hypothetical “Mathcoin,” which would support mathematical research. If a company accepted Mathcoin and people used it to buy things, the usage of Mathcoin–and the mining, I think–would instrinsically support mathematical research.

I’m doing it a major disservice; the Conference was a couple of weeks ago (and it gave me a nasty cough I haven’t really recovered from) and it was a very complicated subject. But it was still fascinating that people are working on this kind of stuff right now. Will it turn into anything? I have no idea. But come on, isn’t this interesting?

Still, Bitcoin…that won’t make it. Pretty sure of it.

2014 Predictions Part 2: Science & Technology

So after giving my political predictions, let’s move on to something eminently more satisfying and cool: that which is in my headline.

Online services will get crappier

Perhaps it is only me, but the past two years have seen many great online services climb up the stupid tree, then fall down it and hit every branch on the way to–well, not the ground, but maybe the bedrock.

It’s a lot of little things. Twitter retired the 1.0 API which allowed web developers to organically integrate Twitter timelines into websites; the newer 1.1 API forced a lot of people to use the bog standard Twitter widget, which isn’t very customizable and looks ugly in many environments. (There is a way around it, using JavaScript, fortunately, but it took a lot of pain to find that workaround.) Twitter also recently started auto-expanding images in Tweets; have these guys seen the sickos on there? One of them may link to Fourier’s Gangrene (and no, I will not link to that because it’s a pretty gross image.) Facebook, meanwhile, keeps futzing with the layout, as well having the page dynamically update–a great obscenity generator when you’re in the middle of writing a comment and the whole page moves. (And let’s just not get started on the privacy crap.) Youtube implements DASH, preventing a video from actually loading and making it freeze all the time. And then Google+…

…just keeps being Google+, I guess.

Oh, and the rampant advertising…

It used to be that these services was useful, interesting, fun, and were only mildly annoying. But I’ve noticed that, especially in the last 18 months-2 years, they’ve gone downhill. I suspect a huge part of this is due to IPO’s, at least in Facebook’s and Twitter’s cases. Why? Because the incentive structure has shifted. Instead of delivering value to their users, these services are now focused on delivering value to their shareholders. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but it does lead to a lot of frustration for end users.

The thing is, these companies aren’t focused on delivering value anymore, and the shareholders, I fear, don’t realize that delivering value is the very way they make profits. In other industries, one way of making profits is by sucking up to the government teat and lobbying for special favors for yourself and special prohibitions for your opponents (affiliate link). That isn’t really viable in the social media sphere, however, at least not yet (thankfully; hopefully it will never be viable.)

Will it actually hurt these companies? To be honest…I doubt it. Yes there are always people who make #TwitterSuxSoBad and “Make Facebook Go Back To Its Old Non-Sucky Ways Group,” but they’re a minority. So I think in 2014 this trend will continue and we’ll continue to see more and more little annoyances mount. I also don’t think we’ll have any resolutions to privacy concerns from this year. While more people are aware of and upset over these things, and this will only increase next year, I doubt it will hit critical mass for anything significant to happen during the next year. Oh, sure, noises will be made to assuage folks and placate users, but anything dramatic? Not unless Google decides to unilaterally implement Lavabit-type encryption and tell everyone else to screw themselves.

Which probably wouldn’t happen.

Facebook will start to slow down

This is less of a prediction for next year and more of a prediction for 2015-2020, but what the heck, it will likely start next year. Whereas Twitter & Google will weather the various storms (controversial changes to blocking mechanisms, ending Google Reader) they’re facing, I’m far less certain about Facebook. Recently, a Business Insider writer wrote that Facebook is collapsing under it’s own weight. Milennials are dropping out of Facebook, and that doesn’t bode well for long-term viability.

I think next year we’ll see an uptick in stories about people leaving Facebook. (Lifehacker might even run an update on their old article about how to quit Facebook, or get a “minimalized” Facebook profile.) It won’t actually lead to an actual contraction in Facebook users, but growth will slow. Which will make shareholders more antsy than Barack Obama coming home after taking a selfie at a funeral with another woman.

Longer term, I think it spells doom. But then, everything ends. Facebook was launched in February 2004; it will definitely live to see it’s 10th birthday next year. When it finally goes I’m not sure; probably around 2019. Put your bets in the comments and let’s come back and see who wins.

We’ll see a 1TB solid state drive under $400

To me, this is a no-brainer, and kinda cheating because it’s so easy. Technology prices drop as people adopt these technologies; as demand increases, it becomes easier to make these things as economies of scale take over. (Distinguished economists can lambast me for what might be faulty economics.) Right now, a 1TB solid state drive (SSD) on Newegg costs between $540-$700 (there is one refurbished option for $150, but I think that must be some mistake.) These will definitely be under $400 next year, possibly as low as $320 (but not much lower than that, unless it’s part of a Newegg sale they have every three days.)

Also, we’ll probably see a 2TB SSD come out next year, probably costing around $750 at first and maybe bottoming out at $600 before the year is done.

2014 will be Linux’s year

Maybe I’m being way too optimistic, but I see a bunch of things coming together to benefit Linux.

A couple of things have been long-term developments. The first is really anecdotal, but in the past couple of years the number of people I’ve personally witnessed using Linux computers has jumped from absolute zero to about half a dozen. Granted, that’s small, and that’s just my personal experience, but it’s something. Next, there are way more Lifehacker articles on how to actually use Linux (usually Ubuntu because it’s supposedly very user friendly), and people out there are actually tinkering with this stuff. Third, Android, the most popular mobile OS in the world, is based on Linux; because of this, hardware manufacturers have had to rewrite their drivers to support the Linux kernel, and because of that Linux can now work on a lot more hardware combinations, without waiting for someone in the open source community to reverse engineer a driver. It used to be–back in 2007 when I first dabbled with Linux–that wireless was a hit and miss proposition. In 2013, I downloaded and installed Kubuntu and it worked perfectly. This is catching on and people are noticing.

Two other things, external to Linux, will help it along. The first is that, while Windows 8 is actually a great operating system, it’s also a total bust. It might actually be stalling Windows sales. In fact, Microsoft had previously announced it was ending Windows 7 sales next October; that decision has been reversed, no doubt because Windows 8 adoption has been about as real as one of the Surface commercials. Windows 7 is still a viable operating system. However, it does cost a lot of money.

And the other thing: Windows XP will finally go unsupported in April 2014. As they say on Twitter: #DOOOOOOOM.

According to NetMarketShare, on December 21st 2013, nearly a third of users were still running Windows XP. Most of those are either idiots, senior citizens and the like who can’t upgrade, or businesses with mission critical applications. (Ed Bott went over this pretty well at ZDnet.) Still, to me, that’s pretty insane that almost a third of people are using an operating system that is going to be 12 years old come next year. Granted, a huge bunch of that is in China (the above report was global) where nobody upgrades their blasted computers. Still, that’s incredible. And foolish. After April, Windows XP will be dangerous to use. Yes, there will still be security updates by third parties in the IT security business, but without official support from Redmond using XP will be dubious.

Enter Linux. While Windows 7 and 8 are costly, and can only run on modern systems (I think both require at least 2GB of RAM to operate, if I’m not mistaken), Linux is both free (usually) and runs on a wide range of hardware, including some really old stuff. Plus, because it’s open source, the code is there for anyone to see, meaning security holes are patched pretty quickly, instead of being held in secret at Microsoft’s engineering headquarters, so it’s more secure (generally, at least.) And for those who want support, there are paid support options. The most famous are probably Red Hat (whose Linux distribution is one of the major bases of the Linux family, next to Debian) and Canonical, who make Ubuntu, but Oracle and Novell also have their own Enterprise linux offerings (Oracle’s being based on Red Hat Linux.)

When XP goes down, people are going to have to move somewhere. Many are going to try Linux. And thanks to Android, Linux will work. So I think 2014 will be a good year for Linux and it might finally break out of the “only for nerds” trap it’s been living in for years. But that depends on a couple of things: good documentation, and if it comes preinstalled with Flash, MP3 codecs, and the like. If the documentation is terrible and if the free software fanatics prevent mainstream Linux distributions from coming with nonfree codecs, drivers, etc., then you can forget about any Linux gain. Nobody will go for that; they would rather pay out the nose than deal with an OS that ships without any support for their flash games or mice or monitors or printers (people still print, you know). So this is dependent on how much Linux teams work for it. If the effort is not made, the success will not happen. If the effort is made, I think Linux will see tremendous gains.

Now, what that will do I’m honestly not sure. It might make the Internet more secure….

Google+ is going to continue to have nobody on it

Sorry.

Bitcoin will crash

This is just a hunch, but not too long ago we saw China ban Bitcoin transactions (as well as Thailand and India, basically) and the value of Bitcoin plunged about 40%. That’s pretty damn volatile, and while I am not a monetary expert, I think that’s not good for a currency. If the value of your currency changes that much so quickly (and if you put in terms of it’s rapid growth over 2013, which I think was 50x–if you bought $100 worth in January it was worth $5,000 at the end of the year) it’s not going to be very usable.

Now I could be totally wrong about that, and also totally wrong about this, but I have a hunch Bitcoin will dramatically decrease in value next year and might go out. I think it will also bring down other cryptocurrencies, including Litecoin, Peercoin, and the so-called “Dogecoin,” which is actually real. Although it’s also hit the reputation of these cryptocurrencies already…

There are going to be some awesome technological advances next year

We’ve seen some incredible things the past year. Soylent, dataSTICKIES, massive curved TV’s, not to mention all these really cool technologies that modern scifi is ignoring.

I have no idea what specific technologies will emerge next year. But I really think that there will be some super-cool technological advances next year, whether those guys working on building a sun in New Jersey get anywhere, or the scientist who is refining the formulae for faster-than-light travel finds something, or something completely different.

One thing is clear: 2014 is going to be cool.

GOP: Listen to Libertarians; Ignore Social Conservatives

Earlier this week, Virgina voters went to the polls and narrowly elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe–who is a veritable dirtbag–over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who is pro-life, wants to force transvaginal ultraounds, hates gays, and is a climate change denier. Meanwhile, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis picked up 6.5% of the vote as well. Naturally, this means that Republicans are blaming libertarians (and Libertarians) for this loss (while some conservatives are already blaming “ze establishment.” More on that later.)

Two major points need to be said about this. The first point is that Robert Sarvis did not cost Cuccinelli the election. Indeed, most of Sarvis’ voters, if they didn’t have Sarvis as a choice, would have either voted for McAuliffe or would have just stayed home. Indeed, one theory I have seen floated around is that he brought extra voters to the polls who may push Republican Attorney General candidate Mark Obenshain over the top against his Democratic opponent, so Republicans will have to turn around and thank the Libertarian Party (grudgingly).

As Chris Cilizza notes,  most of Sarvis’ fans would have stayed home. As Neil Stevens adds, Sarvis voters “were more interested in voting for him than they were in tipping a close election between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli.” He increased turnout and in turn highlighted a growing part of the populace: libertarians. (Even if they don’t label themselves as such.)

Here’s the second point: even if Sarvis cost the election for Cooch…

GOOD.

I wholeheartedly agree with my friend Tom VanAntwerp, who wrote:

Libertarian candidates do spoil elections for Republicans. And that’s awesome!

Republicans need to remember that they are not entitled to anyone’s vote. (Nor are Democrats, for that matter.) They have to run a solid campaign that promises what people want if they hope to win. And over time, when they do win, they have to deliver. When Libertarians draw enough voters away from Republican candidates such that they lose, they should take it as a sign that they promised the wrong things and delivered the wrong things.

The Republican reliance on social conservatism will continue to be a growing weakness, and Libertarians will exploit it. And if Republicans hate that Democrats win because Libertarians exists, then they should take the views of the libertarian swing vote more seriously.

Republicans and conservatives only pay attention to libertarians around election time–and that’s always with pathetic bullying antics and fearmongering of what would happen should the Democrat win. When libertarians protest at this, or after a Republican/conservative loses, there are always cries that libertarians need to work within the system, stop being purists, and learn to compromise. Never do these individuals admit that at no point did they or their candidate throw libertarians more than a symbolic bone. Never do they admit that they ignore libertarian philosophy and libertarian policy proposals, and just move brazenly on in their conservative worldview, never stopping to consider other viewpoints, that maybe if they want to win they have to build a coalition that includes them making some compromises to attract more voters.

Daniel Bier put it well in an October posting for The Skeptical Libertarian that “Small Government Is Popular–The GOP Isn’t.” And why is this the case? Because the GOP continues pushing social conservatism at a time when the country is becoming increasingly liberal on social matters. Gay marriage enjoys majority support, as does marijuana legalization. Huge majorities–even Republican majorities–support immigration reform, specifically reform that is more permissive than today’s miserable condition. And religiosity–as much as that is a word–has dropped to about 60% last year, while 20% of Americans have no religion. Among those under 30, that number is 1 in 3.

If the Libertarian Party is costing the GOP elections, then good. That’s a sign that Republicans and conservatives are turning off voters with their policy packages, and that if they want to win, they better start coming back to the center and actually start incorporating libertarian ideas in their platforms, campaigns, and policies. If they want libertarian support, then they’re going to actually have to start being more libertarian.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they will heed that lesson, since they’re already blaming everyone but themselves for this defeat. Earlier, I cited Jonah Goldberg’s criticism of the establishment, yet as it turns out, Tea Party groups didn’t spend a lot of money helping Cuccinelli either. That they flail around pointing fingers instead of being introspective on where they failed doesn’t bode well for conservatives learning a thing or two.

And, of course, it should be repeated: libertarians did not cost Republicans this election. But Sarvis did tap into a growing percentage of Americans who are libertarians, and this growing voter base is not interested in right-wing ideas on social issues. So maybe not today. But in the future, it will increasing start to cost Republicans. The only question is when they start to buy.

Blaming libertarians is not productive. Neither is consistently running socially conservative candidates, nor kepeing their heads in the sand. If conservative Republicans want to see where their problems are, they need to stand up, turn around, and take a long, hard look in the mirror.