Thursday, June 26, 2008

Looking Ahead

Yeah, so another post has been long overdue. I could spend pages here reminiscing on stories of the last year, or I could just say that it was awesome and that you should ask me in person if you want to hear an interesting story, as there are a great many of them. I could talk forever about new friends, interesting professors, quirky professors, arrogant professors, heated discussions in the halls of Blanton, bureaucrats, a largely failed first salvo against unconcern and other problems in the scientific community, David laude, Alan Cline, honors program trips, my family, dorm life, Friday lunches, contraband stashes, final exams, my Google calendar, the Cockrell School of Engineering, studying, not studying, online video games, fast internet, drunken physics people, covert actions (or maybe I can’t talk about these), fusion, programming, getting away from campus, physics labs, Capitol BEST, mentoring, holidays, crazy all-night parties back home, crazy all-night parties in Austin, technology, automation, politics, society, religion, keeping Austin weird (not like it needs my help), the art and science of how people choose their seats in a classroom or lecture hall, Wikipedia, solving physics problems, the politics and backstabbing of academia, 50 minute midterms, homework, and life. There are your conversation starters; if you ever have a few days free to listen to stories, come find me.

Thanks to Gentry for the title of this post, since it fits perfectly.

So, here are a few things I hope/plan to do in the coming years.

Naturally, I’ll keep studying at UT, likely for the next 4 years. I doubt I’ll be able to get both my physics and mechanical engineering degrees in less than 5 years, and there’s a kind of remote chance I’ll also add a computer science major or minor sometime soon. Overall, though, studying and classes are kind of secondary to a lot of other things; I know I can pass any of these classes without ever actually going to the class, and I can get an A in most classes with little effort. I hope to keep working in Capitol BEST, hopefully in an increasingly visible and leading way. I’ll keep meeting with my middle schooler and keep teaching him math. I’ll keep doing all the Dean’s Scholars stuff, and hopefully the council will find me a few specific projects I can help on. Basically the only reason I’d be inclined to run for a position on the council would be if I conclude that I can significantly broaden my efforts to instigate (which is what it is, instigating) a discussion of what we do well and, more importantly, what we do badly in the scientific community. This is something where DS people could make a big difference in the long term if I can convince them that the problems really exist and are worth fixing. In general, I’m not really inclined to take an official officer or leader position in groups like DS because those official leaders are expected to do everything, and I really don’t have either the time or the interest for that.

One of the more interesting things I hope to start in my sophomore year (next year) is to find people that are better engineers or programmers than I am (although I consider myself decent at both) to work with on an automation technology demonstration. Right now, I think it would be interesting to try to build a working fast food restaurant, similar to McDonalds, that is sufficiently automated that normal operation only requires one human overseer (I’d like it to be reliable enough that even that is unnecessary, but we can take small steps). I consider that entirely technically possible, as flipping burgers and frying strips of potato aren’t at all difficult tasks. It’s also a good way to make automation technology relevant to the general population, as everyone knows about McDonalds and most people eat fast food at least once a week. It’s also something some company, like McDonalds Corporation, might be interested in buying, which is obviously an appealing possibility. Really, though, this is more about raising awareness than anything else. I’d like to generate a little media attention for this project and get a chance to make it clear to people that we’re completely capable of automating lots of low wage service and labor jobs right now. The world and the workforce need to get ready. I expect widespread service industry automation within the next 20 years or so, regardless of my efforts. We might as well do what we can to raise awareness, and make whatever money we can, while automated service is still just taking off.

After I’ve finished my undergrad degrees, I hope to find a grad school where I can complete my physics PhD while working on a fusion reactor of whichever type seems closest to commercial implementation at the time. I’d likely try to continue such work as a post doc, as being the person that makes the final, critical breakthrough necessary to commercially build and operate fusion reactors is critical to all the rest.

From there, the possibilities diverge sharply. Assuming I fail to commercialize fusion technology (the odds are strongly against me on this one), I’ll find some other interesting tech applications to work on (automation, non-lethal weapons, spaceflight, other energy sources, etc.) and settle down with a good professorship and lab somewhere. It’d be a fairly nice existence, really. I’d go on speaking out against unconcern and mismanagement of priorities in the scientific community and have plenty of time doing all the radical things I’ve proposed like taking time off to teach high school and such. I’d make sure to be the best teacher and lecturer I could be, in any capacity, high school or college. And life would go on.

Assuming I do successfully start my own energy company designing and building fusion reactors and selling their electricity (of course I’d insist on doing all of it), things will be much more exciting. I’d start out building in the United States with whatever investment and personal funds I might have available at the time, undersell the conventional electricity utilities (which shouldn’t really be hard by then, considering how fossil fuel prices are going), and grow until I feel like I’m bringing in sufficient profit from my North American market. I’d probably keep growing in the rest of the Americas first, mainly because it’s close and easy. The really exciting part of this will be developing operations in third-world countries. I’ve been convinced for a while now that what third-world countries need most is economic growth. All of the most stable countries in the world have strong and growing economies. It can’t be a matter of sending jobs “over there”; bringing the rest of the world up while bringing the developed parts down isn’t acceptable. An energy company is perfect for accomplishing all of this. I would have to develop local infrastructure to transport my equipment and fuel, support my power plants, and take care of my local workforce (employing locals in as many ways as possible is key to all this). Initially, in many areas of the world, I would also need a great deal of security for all of these operations. So long as the profits from N. America keep coming in and growing, it would be easy to pay for massive development projects in several places at once. As I start hiring and employing locals to build and maintain all this and commerce through the area (wherever that is) increases due to the big power plant and all the new infrastructure, the area would become more stable, and quality of life would unavoidably increase. Eventually, we would also earn back far more than our initial investment in the plant and infrastructure, since we would be the first ones open for business in a new market.

Naturally, with all this money and power, I’d spend some of my time and resources on my other projects. I’d have labs working on all the things I mentioned a few paragraphs ago (automation, non-lethal weapons, spaceflight, other energy sources, etc.), and I’d definitely build and sell anything these labs came up with that was marketable. I’d work directly on these things as often as possible. My second biggest priority, after developing fusion tech, would be creating new spaceflight tech. We need to start getting people off earth. There are just too many of us, and people simply won’t listen to the rational voices telling them that (which, in an interestingly vicious cycle, discourages those voices from saying anything in the first place). A breakthrough here, allowing something amazing like travel to other planets in a reasonable amount of time (yes, I want to go faster than the speed of light; I need those gravity wave researchers to figure out how to warp space and tell me about it), is far less likely than the initial breakthrough in fusion, but it would be amazing. There are few things I could be more proud of than leading the first colonists from earth to another planet.

Here’s my insightful thought for the post: let’s say you figured out how to get to other planets and found a nice, habitable one tomorrow. You can build whatever technology gets you to that planet yourself, without help, and no one else knows about the planet. Do you tell the public about your tech and the planet and let everyone go? Do you keep this all secret and somehow limit the people that can go? If the former, how do you keep the natural human tendencies toward factionalism and pointless conflict from ruining that new planet or causing interplanetary war? If the latter, how do you chose who goes? I’ve pondered such questions extensively without coming to any conclusions. I’d be interested to hear what someone else thinks.

Cool and amusing stuff

First, my user page on Wikipedia. I think it's cool; I'll be publishing an expanded version here soon.

Second, Conservapedia. Read and be amused. In particular, read the first few of their "Examples of Bias in Wikipedia", then read my neutral-but-critical assessment of some of these examples. Also, look for all the people their admins have banned for speaking against them. I'm kind of surprised I haven't been banned yet... Some of the vandalism in the pages' histories are amusing, too. Not that I condone vandalism, but we might as well be amused if it's already happened.