Author Archives: Stephen Gordon

A Tale of Two Tails…

Slide188The pace of change in the world is increasing. Therefore primary skill – the type of literacy that we need to teach – is the ability to teach oneself.

My wife and I have homeschooled our four sons. Two are still at home being homeschooled, two are in college. A particular episode with my oldest son Timothy stands out – it was about 5 years ago. A particular concept in algebra stumped him – it might have been quadratic equations. He complained that the particular online instructor poorly taught that lesson.

I didn’t even check on whether he was correct. My response to him: “So what?” You have the world at your fingertips. Find someone else to teach that concept. I was rather stern. I told him that his learning was his responsibility regardless of the quality of instruction in the particular online service we were using. That he was to become his own best professor.

With Sheralyn’s backup – I’ve been teaching that lesson with Timothy and the other three boys ever since. Timothy has since told me that his comfort level with seeking out information has become a huge competitive advantage for him versus his peers. He is doing extremely well in his engineering coursework.

I think that homeschooling unfortunately occupies both tails of the bell curve in primary education. The best prepared students are homeschooled. I think the worst prepared students probably are too.

Some of the low end results in homeschool can perhaps be excused by learning disability. The reason the parents chose to homeschool was some learning problem – that child was going to struggle regardless. And maybe a loving home environment would be best for that particular child.

But some homeschooling parents are simply not pushing education like they should. And policy makers are pointing to the Turpin child abuse story to fight homeschooling. Its far too broad a brush with which to paint the entire community. It ignores the high end results of many homeschoolers – the right tail. And it ignores the many cases of abuse and mediocre education that sometimes occur on traditional school grounds.

In the Future Everything Will Be A Coffee Shop

Phil and I ended last week’s FastForward Radio show discussing how higher education will change in the coming years. My conclusion:

Universities Will Become Coffee Shops

We’re faced with an education bubble. Tuition and other costs associated with a college education have been outpacing inflation for decades. It’s a trend that simply cannot continue. It has continued, so far, because the demand for education has proven to be somewhat inelastic. If you want a good job (the thinking went) there really wasn’t much of a choice. You went and you paid whatever price they put in front of you.

But what’s the advantage of a good job if the salary difference between that job and a non-college-level job is lost servicing student debt? It’s a reasonable question that has become more pressing as the amount of student debt required to get an education has risen.

At the same time several universities with world renown branding have begun offering online courses for free. MIT has been the pioneering institution in this. They were first to make practically all classes available online. Now they are beginning to offer some level of credential for completion of online courses through a new program they’re calling MITx.

Imagine a personnel manager at a mid-sized industrial corporation in Kansas who’s looking for a candidate with a particular set of knowledge. There are two candidates: one from the local state school with an appropriate college degree, a second with relevant MITx certificates of completion.

Let’s say all other things between the candidates are equal. Which should be chosen? It’s true that an online education is not the same as the college experience. The candidate who went to college probably enjoyed his experience more, but how much is that experience worth to a potential employer? Unless he’s a member of the same fraternity, probably not as much as the college candidate would hope.

And here’s the reality: the student debt of the college candidate controls, to some extent, his salary requirements. Since the MITx candidate appears to have the knowledge required, and has no student debt, he probably can be hired cheaper.

There is a tendency to go with the college candidate because: “that’s the way its always been done.” But cheaper ultimately wins. Repeat that story a million times over the next few years and you begin to see how the local colleges – which already are overcharging for their product – begin to suffer in favor of free programs like MITx.

Eventually you could have local campuses becoming places where MITx students seek tutoring, network, and socialize – reclaiming some of the college experience they’d otherwise have lost.

Phil thought this sounded like college as a giant coffee shop. I agree. Every education would be ad hoc. It would be student-directed toward the job market she’s aiming for.

This trend toward… coffeeshopification… is changing more than just colleges:

Book Stores Will Shrink to Coffee Shops

Ebooks are coming of age – for many reasons. You can keep your library in your pocket. You can annotate and share your thoughts within social networks. Writers can publish more directly to their audience. Once completed, the unit cost of each ebook sold is essentially $0. Those savings can (and sometimes are) passed on to the customer. Also, an ebook doesn’t have to be limited to the written word. An ebook can incorporate video, audio and other methods of presentation. Your book store is always with you and has every book ready to sell. Nothing ever goes out of print because there are no print runs.

Compare that with your local Barnes and Nobel. Those stores are huge but can accommodate only a small fraction of the titles available in the Kindle store. They require expensive real estate, buildings, and employees.

If you don’t like reading from an ereader, there are new on-demand printing options like the Espresso Book Machine that can print a book within minutes.

Between ebooks and print-on-demand, Barnes and Nobel sized stores shrink down to just their coffee shops – or maybe Starbucks takes over their business. Either way, custormers keep the experience of reading with coffee and those big comfortable chairs.

The Coffee Shop Will Displace Most Retail Shops

My Christmas shopping this year was 90% through Amazon Prime. Not having to fight the crowds and having it delivered free of charge to my home is a big plus, but as with the Kindle store, the online retail selection is much better that even the largest retail outlet.

Which is more enjoyable: Starbucks or Walmart?  For the sane: Starbucks.  So if you can accomplish your Walmart shopping at Starbucks, why do it any other way?

Also, imagine the 3D print shop of the future. You put in your order, probably from your smart phone, and then go pick it up. What does the lobby of such a business look like?  Again: a coffee shop.

Offices Become Coffee Shops… Again

We’re going back to the future: the modern office was birthed in 17th century coffee shops. Steven Johnson has argued that coffee fueled the enlightenment. It was certainly a more enlightening beverage than the previous choice of alcohol.

The need for offices grew as the equipment for mental work was developed starting in the late 19th centuries. That need appears to have peaked about 1980. It was a rare person who could afford the computers, printers, fax machines, and mailing/shipping equipment of that time.

Now a single person with $500 can duplicate most of those functions with a single laptop computer.  So the remaining function of the office is to be that place that clients know to find you… and that kids and the other distractions of home can’t.

Going forward the workplace will need the same sort of flexibility that I described for education. Groups for one project will form and then disband and then reform with new members for the next project. What will that workplace look like? Probably closer to Starbucks than Bob Par’s cubicle.

What Doesn’t Become a Coffee Shop?

I’d say the last holdout will be houses of worship, except that the church I grew up in now has a coffee shop. They buy Land of a Thousand Hills coffee to aid war ravished Rwanda, and the profits go to missions. Just as important, I suspect, is their desire to be a community hub: a place where people – most especially those who don’t normally go to church – are comfortable.

“The Well” at my home church.

What will remain other than coffee shops? Upscale retail will remain – people paying as much for the experience as for the goods purchased. Restaurants remain. Grocery stores remain.

Brick and mortar retail stores will be converted to public spaces. Multi-use space will be in increasing demand as connectivity tools allow easy coordination of impromptu events. Some large retail stores will be converted to industrial 3D printer factories. These heavy-duty fab labs will fabricate products that are too big or complicated to fabricate at home.

Fast Forward Radio – Interview with author Sonia Arrison

Author Sonia Arrison joins hosts Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon to talk about her book:


100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything,

From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith.



Is it possible that living to be 100, 150, 200 or even older will soon be the norm in some parts of the world? How will this happen? What are the implications?



Tune in and find out!


About Our Guest:

Sonia Arrison is an author and policy analyst who has studied the impact of new technologies on society for more than a decade. A Senior Fellow at the California-based Pacific Research Institute(PRI) and aorld, she is author of two previous books (Western Visions and Digital Dialog) as well as numerous PRI studies on technology issues. A frequent media contributor and guest, her work has appeared in many publications including CBS columnist for TechNewsWorld, she is author of two previous books (Western Visions and Digital Dialog) as well as numerous PRI studies on technology issues. A frequent media contributor and guest, her work has appeared in many publications including CBS MarketWatch, CNN, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall StreetJournal, and USA Today. She was also the host of a radio show called “digital dialogue” on the Voice America network and has been a repeat guest on National Public Radio, Tech TV, and CNN’s Headline News.

Often asked for advice on technology issues, Sonia has given testimony and served as an expert witness for various government committees such as the Congressional Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce and the California Commission on Internet Political Practices. She is an instructor for California’s Command College and serves on the Board of Trustees for Singularity University. MarketWatch, CNN, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. She was also the host of a radio show called “digital dialogue” on the Voice America network and has been a repeat guest on National Public Radio, Tech TV, and CNN’s Headline News.

The Atlantis has Launched… What's Next?


The final Space Shuttle launch yesterday was bittersweet. The Shuttle was the workhorse that gave us the International Space Station and an operational Hubble Space Telescope.  

shuttle accomplishments.jpg
But the Shuttle failed miserably in the goal of making spaceflight routine and cheap.  And, tragically, the shuttle did not prove to be as safe as hoped.  355 people rode the shuttle, 14 people died doing so. That’s a 4% fatality rate. That fact alone is sufficient to keep the Shuttle from being a permanent route to orbit.
Space Shuttle Discovery landing at Barksdale A...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve loved that dumpy space truck ever since I was a kid.  I watched with great interest the testing of the Enterprise, and then, on April 12, 1981, the first shuttle launch.  
In 1984 I saw the Enterprise up close at the World’s Fair in New Orleans.  Twice I witnessed shuttles flown on the back of 747′s land at Barksdale Air Force Base.
This poster resided on my bedroom wall from age 12 until I went off to college:
So perhaps you can understand the downer email I sent Phil yesterday: 
If a family’s one-and-only car is retired – and the family has no idea when they’ll have another car – wouldn’t that be considered, generally, a very bad thing for the family?
It seems sad to me that the last shuttle mission just took off and the next-gen space ship isn’t back in the hanger getting a final coat of wax.
Phil’s informed optimism wouldn’t let that stand.  He fired back:
Sure it is. It’s just not in the NASA hanger — it’s over at SpaceX.
Phil’s right:
Dragon is a spacecraft developed by SpaceX, a space transportation company based in Hawthorne, California. In December 2010, it became the first spacecraft ever placed in orbit and recovered by a private company. The first operational Dragon missions will be flown for NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Dragon is designed to carry up to seven people, or a mixture of personnel and cargo, to and from low Earth orbit. These flights will be contracted under the Commercial Resupply Services program.
Dragon’s heat shield is designed to withstand re-entry velocities from potential lunar and Martian space flights
In June 2009, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that the company planned to conduct the maiden flight of the Dragon spacecraft in 2009, and have the capsule enter service in 2010, before the scheduled final flight of the Space Shuttle.
On December 8, 2010, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying an unmanned SpaceX Dragon lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on COTS Demo Flight 1. The launch was a success, and the Dragon cleanly separated from the Falcon approximately 10 minutes after launch. Three hours of orbital maneuvering testing were conducted at an altitude of 300 kilometres (190 mi; 160 nmi) before a deorbit burn was conducted, putting the Dragon on a re-entry course that ended in a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 800 kilometres (500 mi; 430 nmi) west of Mexico’s Pacific coast.
I stand corrected. 
Like the Arms Race, the Space Race demonstrated that a government program funded by a command economy loses to a government program funded by a free economy.
Now the free economy will take the lead. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
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Would You Watch This Sport?

This commercial is awesome, hands down.  Question: would a race like this – which looks like a robot foot race around the globe – would it attract the kind of attention and spectator-love shown in this commercial?  
I’d watch.  I’d be there cheering at the finish line.
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A Note From "The Rational Optimist"

You got to love that the Kindle allows readers to write notes for books that can be retrieved at the Amazon site.  Here’s a note I wrote while reading Matt Ridley‘s “The Rational Optimist.”

“One definition of the Technological Singularity is that point at which we achieve greater than human intelligence – in a single individual. 

This author [Matt Ridley] has described an equally important Singularity in our past. We achieved greater than human intelligence collectively the moment markets started exchanging multiple items. When a farmer grew grain, he didn’t have to know the people he was going to feed. The information imbedded in even a relatively simple market is beyond the capacity of a single person to keep up with. Fortunately, no one person has to.”

And that ancient Singularity improved us – it civilized us.  We tend to find common ground with those we are connected with.  It’s usually not smart to go to war with our customers, or our suppliers.

Read “The Rational Optimist” and let us know when you do.

And that, normally, would end this post.  Except this…  You got to hate that the Kindle does not allow sharing, social network style, notes and highlights with other readers of the book.  

How cool would it be able to read a book with notes from Cory Doctorow?  Or your mother?  Or that smart guy in your history class?  Or even the bloggers at The Speculist?  And then, you add your own notes that could be passed on.

Or there could be a “best notes” option that would allow 5-star ranked notes to show up in your text regardless of who they came from.

Then, if you like a particular note writer (notist?), you could follow him or her to the next book.

Of course many people wouldn’t want to share their notes and highlights.  It would be an opt-in thing.  But Amazon is SO close to creating the next big thing.  A literary Twitter – a Facebook for people who don’t know each other out here in the real world but share interests in ideas.  

I’m not worried.  This adjacent possibility is almost certain to happen.  If Amazon’s Kindle doesn’t do it, some other eReader will.
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Top Ten Tweets; October 12, 2010

…this time Stephen chooses ten topics from his recent tweets.

  1. Robots:

  2. Space:

    • Drudge Report: Private spaceship makes 1st solo glide flight…

    • Scientific American: Mission To Mars Will Search For Lost Atmosphere

  3. Medicine:

    • Lifeboat Foundation: Atomic Medicine: Bret Kulakovich, author of “Atomic Medicine: Further Evidence of Accelerating Returns.” link

    • DISCOVER Magazine: Now that we can make designer babies, do we have an *obligation* to do so?

    • Sarah Multiverse: Berkeley Bionics had parapalegics using their new exoskeleton. Bawling like a baby.

    • Aaron Saenz: Italian Boy Receives Permanent ‘Artificial Heart’ Implant

  4. Rapid Prototyping:
    • Sean Flanagan: Full-Scale Turbo-Prop Aircraft Engine built using 3D printing.

  5. Computer Interface:

    • Sean Flanagan: Thoughtware.TV – Head-mounted display projects directly onto the retina. link

  6. Out of the Box Engineering:

    • DiscoverMag DISCOVER Magazine: OK, this green “incredible edible house” is farfetched, but pics are great. And it has “hydroponic insulating shingles”

    • MIT proposes the Boeing D Series to Reinvent the 737 for 70% greater fuel efficiency

  7. Fun Stuff:

    • io9: Death-defying wingsuit video shows what it’s like to be real-life superhero

    • Boing Boing: A Free Comic, Courtesy Dan Goldman and Tor Books

  8. Memes worth spreading:
    • Jay Oatway: Stephen Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” is a hymn to multidisciplinary creativity + open systems. link
  9. Perspective:
    • Nathan Wolfe’s Jungle Search for Viruses.

  10. Prize Winner:

    • Scientific American: Nobel Prize in Chemistry Honors Technique For Synthesizing Complex Compounds

Top Ten Tweets; October 7, 2010

…where Stephen chooses ten of his recent tweets and writes further.


    For the first time a sewage treatment plant will start producing “biomethane” that will be placed into the gas grid in England.

    Energy experts believe that 15 per cent of all gas consumed could come from human waste, sewage slurry and food thrown away by households and supermarkets.

    At least one critic has argued that this biomethane will be more expensive than gas obtained by drilling. But that’s not the point. It will be a plus as long as the value of the gas is equal to or greater than the cost of producing it. Until now Sewage treatment has not been a profit center – it costs money. If these plants can produce anything of value, it will a net savings for tax payers. Plus other gas sources can be conserved.

  2. Alexander Kruel: The Singularity Hypothesis:

    The first two questions are:

    1. What is the singularity hypothesis? What exactly is being claimed?

    2. What is the empirical content of this conjecture? Can the it be refuted or corroborated empirically, and if so, how?

    Answering these sorts of questions is a purpose of the Singularity Institute. We look forward to their response.

  3. Sydell Laura: The winners of the Nobel prize in Physics used scotch tape 2 to get thin carbon flakes off a pencil Science is marvelous!

    Its reassuring to know that not all great science requires billion-dollar funding.

  4. Another example of how to do science on the cheap: hobbiest space exploration.

    Father/son homemade space probe. An HD video camera, an iPhone, and handwarmers were the bulk of the equipment.

    Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

    This is just so cool.

  5. When complex trade started – trade with more nodes than any one person could keep track of – we experienced an ancient Singularity. This rise of a collective greater-than-human intelligence has been an engine that has modernized and civilized humanity ever since.

    …A note I wrote while reading Matt Ridley’s “Rational Optimist.”

  6. June Cohen: Are mushrooms the new plastic? Wonderful, forward-looking #TED talk on new green materials for architecture.

  7. “The whole point of astrobiology is figuring out whether Life As We Know It is the same thing as Life.”

    It may be that life will be found only in conditions similar to Earth (maybe Gliese 581g will be one of those places), or it may be that life can be found many strange environments – including the atmosphere of gas giants. We just need to know more.

  8. @nytimesscience: Neanderthal extinction may have more to do with volcanos than homo sapiens.

    Neanderthals may have just had the bad luck of living close to major volcanoes. The replacement stocks may not have been sufficient after these disasters.

  9. New Scientist: Poverty, disease, women’s rights – we have to , says Earth Institute

    Why all at once?

    Poverty is multidimensional – it involves hunger, disease and all the other things, and because of that the goals are synergistic. Every target benefits when other goals are achieved. To get children into school in poor villages, you not only need to build the schools and train the teachers, but also make sure the children are healthy and well fed enough to go to school.

  10. Roger Ebert: “The Day the Saucers Landed,” a poem by Neil Gaiman.

Top Ten Tweets: October 4, 2010

…where Stephen chooses ten of his recent tweets and writes further.

  1. billprady: The “Shelbot” was supplied by the good people at Willow Garage and was a working, practical device.

    And it was used to great comedic effect in the same Big Bang Theory episode where “The Singularity Goes Prime Time.”

    I loved how a hilariously non-plussed Steve Wozniak comments “Hey, nice telepresence device.”


  2. io9: Photos of an elephant dressing up as the bantha from Star Wars:

    elephant bantha.jpg

    bantha elephant 2.jpg

    This completely beats CGI. More pictures at the link.

  3. engineer4change: Brilliant: MIT’s H-Lab is developing small robotic planes to deliver blood samples from rural clinics to labs – cheaper, faster.

    This is one way to do it. Giving us a Dr. McCoy Medical Tricorder so that the lab can be taken into the field is another route.

  4. TEDTalks about Technology for the Senses. Example: eyeglasses that can quickly and cheaply match any prescription.

  5. wilw:
    “” a short story from @scalzi.

  6. futureaware: Fujitu computing units for a 10 petaflop supercomputer that will start running in 2012

    The future marches on, even in the midst of this recession.

  7. futureaware: After 31 Years and Hello to Faster Booting Computers in 2011 with UEFI

    Great tech for its time, but good riddance.

  8. PopMech: Future of #EV: Drivers will be able to buy what they want – not a 3-wheeler, not a golf cart: A car – Aliza Peleg, VP of Better Place

    Or most of us won’t buy them. At least not until gas gets a lot more expensive. Advances in battery technology will control.

    That, and the existence of enough bleeding edge EV guys to pay for the battery advances.

  9. ‘An early adopter is someone who pays too much for something that doesn’t work’ – Lisa Gansky.

    But the rest of the world benefits from these spoiled, impatient heroes. Their unwillingness to wait for the cheaper, perfected later version pays much of the R&D for drugs, gadgets, and other innovations that make all our lives better.

  10. tobiasbuckell: Osmos is a very soothing, peaceful game for the iPhone.

    He convinced me to risk $.99. Great game.