Is the Future Really "Better Than You Think"? Ask the Authors of Abundance

On an early episode of Freakonomics Radio, we interviewed Peter Diamandis, founder and CEO of the X Prize Foundation. He was a great (and inspirational) guest. Now he has written a book with journalist Steven Kotler called Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. From the flap copy:

Since the dawn of humanity, a privileged few have lived in stark contrast to the hardscrabble majority. Conventional wisdom says this gap cannot be closed. But it is closing — fast. The authors document how four forces — exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, the Technophilanthropist, and the Rising Billion — are conspiring to solve our biggest problems.

Surviving "the Tyranny of E-mail"

Like a plague of locusts, they give us no rest. They gobble our irreplaceable asset: our time. The faster we swat them away, the faster they arrive. Our modern locust plague is email.

Fortunately, I found The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox by John Freeman a week ago at the Harvard Bookstore, one of the few surviving independent bookstores in Cambridge, MA. Alas, the book was discounted to $5.99 -- which probably means that it is on remainder. That is a shame, for it is a rich and thoughtful book, mixing history, analysis, outrage, and remedy.

The beginning of wisdom, it was said, is to call things by their right names. By that venerable standard, this is a wise book.

Why Does the Kindle Feel So Much Heavier Than the Nook?

As someone in a mixed marriage -- that is, in our home we read on Kindles and Nooks (and also an iPad) -- I got a laugh out of the following e-mail. It's from a Buenos Aires reader named Pablo Untroib:

Hi guys, read your 1st book and I'm on my way to finish SuperFreakonomics, today it happened something that I thought you would be interested. First a little introduction:

Two months ago I purchased a Nook simple touch e-book reader, these gizmos aren't that popular here in Argentina compared to USA, so my wife's 1st reaction was, why you spent money on that thing? So I loaded it with some books, she likes and not a day passed then she said: this Nook is mine, you should get a new one for yourself. Strategic error on my side, I should had purchased two to start with.

A Technology Paradox

David Brooks, in his Times column today (emphasis added):

When I started covering presidential primaries, the best part was getting to know the candidates. We journalists would ride around in vans and buses with them and get an intimate look at what it’s like to endure this soul-destroying process. But the ubiquity of Web cams and tweets has ended that off-the-record culture. As the technology gets more open, the lines of political communications become more closed.

True enough, and I'm surprised that more people don't consider this paradox.

The Perils of Technology, iPad Edition

These days, I read a lot of books on an iPad 2 using the Kindle app. It is for the most part a very good experience, especially for recreational reading. As millions of others have noted, having an electronic device loaded up with a mini-library of e-books is especially valuable while traveling, which is when I do a lot of my reading.

The other day, on vacation with the family, I came across a pitfall. I was reading the old football novel North Dallas Forty (thanks to Henry for the suggestion, and all of you for other suggestions). It's pretty entertaining -- especially the race stuff and drug stuff. As it happened, my 9-year-old daughter was curled up beside me reading her book (The Doll People). She took at look at what I was reading. Her eyes immediately found a four-letter word.

Cockpit Confidential: Debunking the Autopilot Myth

This is a guest post by commercial airline pilot Patrick Smith, who writes about the hidden side of the airline industry. You can read his writing for Salon.com here.

Cockpit Confidential: The Autopilot Myth
By Patrick Smith

One evening I was sitting in economy class when our jet came in for an unusually smooth landing. “Nice job, autopilot!” yelled some knucklehead sitting behind me. Several people laughed. I winced. It was amusing, maybe, but was also wrong. The touchdown had been a fully manual one, as the vast majority of touchdowns are.

I’ve been writing about commercial aviation for nine years – a job that entails a fair bit of myth-busting. Air travel is a mysterious realm, rife with conspiracy theories, urban legends, wives’ tales and other ridiculous notions. I’ve heard it all, from “chemtrails” to the 9/11 “truthers.” Nothing, however, gets under my skin more than myths and exaggerations about cockpit automation — this pervasive idea that modern aircraft are flown by computers, with pilots on hand as little more than a backup in case of trouble. And in some not-too-distant future, we’re repeatedly told, pilots will be engineered out of the picture entirely.

Taking Risks to Improve Government: Kenya and Georgia

McKinsey is out with a new report on government innovation in Kenya and the Republic of Georgia. It's basically the story of how developing countries can harness technology to circumvent entrenched bureaucracy and make government both cheaper and more efficient.

Here are both cases in a nutshell, with a couple snippets from each:

Kenya:

Challenge: Nearly 40% of Kenyans live on less than $2 a day, and corruption is still cited as an ongoing challenge for citizens and businesses. The World Bank has reported, however, that if Kenya can sustain its recent growth rate, it's on track to become a lower-middle-income country in the next decade. And a new constitution establishes the citizen’s right to access government information—a right that must now be implemented.

Does HDTV Increase Demand for Make-up Artists?

A major technical change in TV has been the introduction of HD broadcasting and receivers. For the same price you get higher quality, so this can be viewed as a rightward change in supply. This change has affected a surprisingly related market—that for make-up artists.

Now if you’re on television, as I discovered, every single “flyaway hair” is visible. Most of my hair flew away many years ago, but what’s left might still stick out and need careful laying down by a specialist. A make-up artist tells me that demand for her services has been helped tremendously by the introduction of digital broadcasting and HD receivers.

[HT to NN]

Why Has There Been So Much Hacking Lately? Or Is It Just Reported More? A Freakonomics Quorum

You don't have to be all that sharp to see that there's a lot of hacking going on lately. As I type, Rupert Murdoch and his allies are testifying before British Parliament over the mushrooming News of the World disaster. It seems like everyone on earth is getting hacked: consultants and cops, Sony and the Senate, the IMF and Citi, and firms ranging from Lockheed Martin (China suspected) to Google (ditto) to dowdy old PBS. But is there really more hacking than usual of late, or are we just more observant?

To answer this question, we put together a Freakonomics Quorum of cyber-security and I.T. experts (see past Quorums here) and asked them the following:

Why has there been such a spike in hacking recently? Or is it merely a function of us paying closer attention and of institutions being more open about reporting security breaches?

What Will Be the Consequences of the Latest Prenatal-Testing Technologies?

Here's some big -- and good -- news on the birth-technology front, from Amy Dockser Marcus in the Wall Street Journal:

New, noninvasive blood tests are being developed for expectant mothers to find out if their babies have genetic conditions such as Down syndrome, without the risks of tests available now.

Pregnant women often opt for a prenatal test called amniocentesis that requires a needle to be inserted through the walls of the abdomen and uterus to draw a sample of the fluid surrounding the fetus. The test is uncomfortable and carries a small risk of miscarriage, as does another invasive test for genetic disorders called chorionic villus sampling, or CVS, that samples tissue from the placenta.

Now, scientists say new tests of fetal DNA sampled from a mother's blood can be used to screen for Down syndrome, which occurs in one in 691 live births and causes cognitive disabilities. The new blood tests could be performed as early as nine weeks into a pregnancy—earlier than amniocentesis—and may be available as soon as the end of this year.