Category Archives: Science & Technology

Fostering the TNC Revolution

Starship robot: Now legal in Virginia.

It’s always refreshing when Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly play well together. We don’t hear about such instances very often — reporters are drawn to conflict — but I suspect they occur more frequently than we hear about.

An illuminating instance is how legislators from the two parties collaborated to create what Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, calls a “comprehensive legal framework” for Transportation Network Companies (or TNCs) popularized by Uber and Lyft.

Writing in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, McClellan detailed several bills enacted in the 2017 session with bipartisan input. If signed by the governor, the legislation will accomplish the following:

  • Lower up-front fees. TNCs will have a new option for applying for certificates. Instead of paying the existing up-front fee of $100,000 upon application, businesses can pay a $20 surcharge per record when purchasing driver transcripts. This measure will make it easier for smaller, less capitalized companies.
  • Less red tape for drivers. A requirement will be removed for TNC drivers to register personal vehicles for use as a TNC partner vehicle. State Police can recognize another state’s annual motor vehicle safety inspection in lieu of Virginia’s.
  • Brokering rides. Third-party companies will be allowed to broker TNC rides. This measure responds to a request by Richmond-area startup, UZURV, which piggybacks on Uber and Lyft by allowing passengers to reserve rides with specific drivers.
  • Robot deliveries. London-based Starship Technologies wants to make deliveries in cooler-sized robots, which can travel up to four miles (round trip) and can navigate sidewalks, shared-use paths and crosswalk. These “Electronic Personal Delivery Devices” will become legal.
  • Less red tape for property carriers. Some requirements regarding property carriers and bulk property carriers will be eliminated.

The TNC revolution will prove a fertile field for innovation, and the more Virginia does to loosen regulatory restrictions (within the bounds of protecting public safety and creating a level playing field), the more innovation we will see. Companies like Starship will set up shop in Virginia before investing in states where their service is illegal. Entrepreneurs like UZURV will spring up to build on the Uber revolution. And Virginia consumers will benefit from options they never imagined having before.

Now, if the legislature can just figure out what to do with AirBnB…

George Mason Achieves R1 Research Classification

Frank Krueger (left) is co-director of the Center for the Study of Neuro-economics. Photo credit: George Mason University.

George Mason University has received the coveted “R1” status bequeathed by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Only 115 institutions across the country earn the “highest research activity” designation.

States the cover story of the winter edition of Mason Spirit magazine:

About 20 years ago, Mason thoughtfully began building a research portfolio that ranged from public policy to the physical sciences. Mason’s total research expenditures were nearly $27 million in 1995, increasing to about $65 million in 2005, and jumping to $101 million in 2016. The university is setting its sights high and aiming or $250 million by 2025.

Bacon’s bottom line: From an economic development perspective, Mason’s climb to R1 status is a strong positive. Northern Virginia needs a strong research university to bolster the region’s biomedical and IT sectors.

From an undergraduate student perspective, however, the R&D emphasis is a mixed blessing. Stronger research programs create opportunities for some undergrads. GMU’s engineering program, for instance, has built extensive partnerships with Northern Virginia industry that makes summer internships more readily available. But boosting research is expensive — lab facilities and star faculty don’t come cheap. Building research programs puts pressure on university administrations to increase tuition. Between the 2006-07 school year and the 2015-16 school year, the cost of in-state attendance at GMU increased 57%, more than the 53% average for all of Virginia’s public, four-year schools.

The trade-offs are complicated. Which delivers more value to Virginians — economic development opportunities stemming from R&D or from lower barriers to attendance for undergraduate students? You won’t find those questions highlighted in the glossy, university magazines.

Who Needs Amazon Drones When You’ve Got a Starship Robot?

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded.

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded. The company claims the devices are “inherently safe and can navigate around objects and people.”

A robot developed by Starship Technologies, of London, can make deliveries in urban environments. Capable of carrying loads as large as two grocery bags, this “personal courier” can make deliveries of groceries, wine, flowers, whatever, within a three-mile radius. Customers can track the robot’s location location on a smart phone.

“Our delivery platform will launch a new era of instant, unscheduled delivery as well as significantly lower the costs of shipments,” says the Starship website.

Legislation allowing the use of Electric Personal Delivery Devices (EPPDs) in Virginia unanimously passed the state Senate today.  The bill marks the first statewide approval of EPDDs operating on sidewalks, shared-use paths, and crosswalks in the United States, according to a press release issued by the office of Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, who patroned the bill. A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Delegates.

“Starship Technologies is delighted with the passage of Senator DeSteph’s legislation from the Senate, and the team is excited about the opportunity to bring this technology to the Commonwealth of Virginia” said Allan Martinson, COO of Starship Technologies.  The bill was supported also by the Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia.

Governor Terry McAuliffe, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, and other Virginia officials have targeted unmanned vehicles as an economic development opportunity for the state. Drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has held up their deployment for safety reasons, but the use of ground-borne robots on public roads and sidewalks are governed by the states. Virginia also is playing a leading role in the research of driverless cars.

Impact on human settlement patterns… The Starship robot could tilt consumer preferences for urban areas over suburban. As a practical matter, the device can travel only where there are sidewalks and where development is compact. As much as I would love to order my Kroger groceries online (which I now can do) and have them delivered by a robot, there is no sidewalk in suburban Henrico County the device could travel to reach me. The street network and relatively high density of the City of Richmond would be far more suitable. In the grand scheme of things, delivery-by-robot is a small amenity. Still, it is one more reason to move from the ‘burbs into the city.

Transportation Revolution Ain’t Slowing Down

Don Perrone epitomizes the transportation revolution. Project manager at Crozet-based Perrone Robotics, he displays the innards of his self-driving car.

Don Perrone epitomizes the transportation revolution. Project manager at Crozet-based Perrone Robotics, he  displays the innards of his self-driving car. Photo credit: Daily Progress.

Just a reminder of how rapidly technology is transforming automobiles and transportation, I submit two stories published yesterday….

From the Daily Progress: Perrone Robotics, a Crozet-based software company, is testing automated and fully autonomous vehicles on Virginia roads. Although driverless cars in Virginia must be manned, the laws regulating autonomous driving are more accommodating here than in many other states. “It’s pretty much an open playing field,” said Greg Scharer, Perrone’s chief operating officer “Virginia has a ‘tabula rasa’ on [automated vehicle] legislation.”

California may be dominating the transportation revolution, but Virginia is a player. Virginia Tech runs one of the nation’s leading transportation research centers in Blacksburg. And in 2015 Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the opening of the Virginia Automated Corridors, a 70-mile network of highways and arterial roads in Northern Virginia outfitted with high-definition mapping and data acquisition systems to support automated-vehicle testing. Those assets, with a friendly legal climate, makes Virginia an attractive location for research on autonomous vehicles.

Meanwhile, an MIT study hints at what carpooling options created by companies like Uber and Lyft, can accomplish. Smart phones and algorithms can accomplish amazing things. Says lead author Daniela Rus:

Instead of transporting people one at a time, drivers could transport two to four people at once, resulting in fewer trips, in less time, to make the same amount of money. A system like this could allow drivers to work shorter shifts, while also creating less traffic, cleaner air, and shorter, less stressful commutes.

The MIT team found that 95 percent of demand would be covered by some 2,000 10-person vehicles, compared to the nearly 14,000 taxis that currently operate in New York City. The algorithm works in real-time to reroute cars based on incoming requests and can dispatch idle cars to areas with high demand, says the MIT article.

Virginia doesn’t have any localities with the population density of New York. But cut the ride-sharing trips in half or two-thirds and you still have a remarkable reduction in the number of vehicles on the road. It makes no sense to spend multi-billions on new highways and transit projects when this potential lies within our grasp.

Forget Globalization. Worry about Automation.

Automation is taking more American jobs than Mexicans are.

Automation is destroying more American jobs than Mexicans are.

Watcha gonna do… watcha gonna do… whatcha gonna do when robots come for you?

Robots aren’t science fiction. You need to start thinking about them — and so does Virginia’s political establishment.

The 2015 Oxford automation study, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation,” concluded that 47% of all U.S. jobs in 702 occupations are at “high risk” of decimation by automation. If it’s any consolation, an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study found that a mere 9% of jobs are at risk. But don’t get complacent. A 2016 McKinsey study predicts that 60% of all U.S. occupations could see 30% or more of their work activities automated.

Using the same methodology as the Oxford study, Dr. James V. Koch, an Old Dominion University economist, calculates that nearly 1.9 million jobs are at risk in Virginia — about 51% of all jobs, four percentage points higher than the national average.

Seeking refuge in a college education will not necessarily save your job from robots or artificial intelligence. A hair stylist in Harrisonburg stands better chance of surviving the job carnage wrought by our robot overlords than, say, a tax preparer in Danville.

The deciding factor, says Koch in an essay in the “2016 State of the Commonwealth Report,” sponsored by the Virginia Chamber Foundation, “is the extent to which jobs require creative and and social intelligence and the ability to manipulate as opposed to being dominated by repetitive, routine tasks capable of being learned by machines fueled by artificial intelligence.”

So, in the immortal words of 19th-century Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky, “What is to be done?”

Writes Koch:

Wise public policies in this arena should focus on “riding the wave” of technological change rather than encouraging resistance movements that are destined to prove futile. Astutely constructed public-private partnerships between governments and firms have the potential to develop programs designed to compensate and redirect job losers, who in many cases are relatively innocent victims of dynamic economic forces beyond their control.

Koch, a former Old Dominion University president, argues the state should work to increase the skills, flexibility and mobility of the workforce. By skills, he means proficiencies that count in the marketplace. “This is not the same thing as generating massive numbers of additional bachelor’s degree holders, or STEM-degree holders,” he says. “There is relatively little rigorous economic evidence available that a significant shortage of job candidates exists in STEM-related occupations.”

By flexibility, Koch means “suppleness in thinking and approach” — critical thinking. And by mobility, “wise public policy will reduce barriers that discourage people from moving geographically and/or telecommuting to jobs that may be located thousands of miles away.”

What the empirical evidence tells us, says Koch, “is that the current range of public policies is insufficient to deal with the occupational ferment that Frey and Osborne (the authors of the Oxford study) have identified. We are forewarned.”

UVa, Inova Partner in Research Initiative

Inova CEO Knox Singleton and UVa President Teresa Sullivan sign partnership deal. Photo credit: Washington Business Journal

Inova CEO Knox Singleton and UVa President Teresa Sullivan sign partnership deal. Photo credit: Washington Business Journal

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia and Inova Health System have joined forces in a $112 million partnership to launch a medical campus and a biomedical research initiative in Fairfax County. The partnership has three main components:

  • A cancer research partnership between the Inova Schar Cancer Institute and UVa. Cancer Center. The aspiration is to achieve designation by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center, which would enhance the center’s prestige and open new avenues for research funding.
  • A regional campus of the U.Va. School of Medicine, which will enable UVa. medical students to complete clerkships and post-clerkship education at Inova hospitals in Northern Virginia.
  • A research partnership to develop the Global Genomics and Bioinformatics Research Center at The Inova Center for Personalized Health.

As part of the expanded relationship, UVa’s Darden School of Business will lead a business accelerator to speed the commercialization of medical research and the incubation of companies with innovative products.

Most of the activities will take place at the Inova Center for Personalized Health on the former Exxon Mobil campus located near Inova Fairfax Hospital, Inova’s flagship hospital.

“U.Va. is one of the most prestigious research universities in the country, and Inova is one of the largest, most successful health-care systems,” Knox Singleton, CEO, Inova Health System, said in a prepared statement. “This partnership leverages the complementary strengths of two institutions committed to providing the most advanced treatments and prevention strategies to the communities we serve.”

Twenty-eight million in funding will come from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Inova will raise another $56 million, and UVa will chip in $28 million. Dr. Richard Shannon, executive vice president for health affairs at UVa, told the Daily Progress that he did not know where UVa’s share will come from, although one possible source is the university’s new Strategic Investment Fund, which is expected to throw off about $100 million annually.

Meanwhile, in western Virginia… Virginia Tech plans to absorb the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke within the next two years, according to Virginia Business. “Our school is a research-intensive medical school and to be able to identify that research you have to be part of the university. That was one of the drivers,” says Nancy Howell Agee, Carilion Clinic’s president and CEO.

Bacon’s bottom line: I am ambivalent about these developments. On the positive side, the UVa-Inova and Tech-Carilion partnerships could create the critical mass it takes to break into the biomedical big leagues. Both are targeting emerging fields of medicine in which they don’t have to compete against entrenched biomedical powerhouses. The potential exists to create important new drivers of economic growth in Northern Virginia and the Roanoke-Blacksburg regions, giving new impetus to Virginia’s lethargic economy.

Whether these partnerships can construct the research-clinical-entrepreneurial ecosystems it takes to be successful remains to be seen. Northern Virginia has a respectable (though modest by Silicon Valley standards) angel financing/venture capital sector which should be capable of supporting the commercialization of new technologies. Proximity to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., is a bonus for snagging research dollars. The Roanoke-Blacksburg area, which lacks these advantages, is more problematic.

What concerns me is how these initiatives are arising from large, lumbering not-for-profit organizations — health systems and universities — that are raising their capital not from capital markets, where their deals will be subjected to close scrutiny by investors, but from their own internal resources.

Unlike private enterprises, universities and hospitals don’t pay income taxes and they don’t pay dividends. Not-for-profit hospitals extract “surplus” revenues (what for-profit enterprises would call profit) by charging patients more than they need to. Universities extract wealth by over-charging students. In other words, it can be argued that that Inova, Carilion, UVa and Virginia Tech are building their research empires on the backs of patients and students with little accountability to the public. Hospital and university boards, far from representing the interests of patients and students, are rah-rah cheerleaders for institutional growth.

Business communities and the political establishment are cheering these initiatives as well. The lack of public debate is appalling.

Virginia Tech Makes Big Bet on Big Data


Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Tech wants another $70 million of your tax dollars. That’s a lot of money, but give Tech credit for thinking big. Its audacious plans for a $225 million Global Business and Analytics Complex could be the next big thing that elevates the university to ever greater heights of prominence. Of course, it also could represent a massive bet on a passing intellectual fad. But one way or the other, it’s BIG.

Here’s the idea: Tech wants to expand its Blacksburg campus to accommodate four new buildings — two academic and two living-learning residential communities for about 700 students. The academic buildings would become the new home of the Pamplin College of Business and house research space in Tech’s data analytics and decision sciences destination area.

“We believe that Virginia Tech can become an international leader in the complex nexus of data and decision making; where people, communities and policy meet big data analytics to produce solutions that improve the human condition,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Thanassis Rikakis, as reported by the Roanoke Star.

The dorms are expected to cost $73.5 million, which university officials say could be financed by state bonds. The academic buildings would cost about $140 million, half of which Virginia Tech would raise and the other half officials hope will come from the state.

Virginia Tech is infusing data and decision sciences into every corner of its teaching, research, and outreach, says Naren Ramakrishnan, director of Tech’s Discovery Analytics Center. “We are preparing students to be data-literate and empowering them to use the methods of data science to complement their disciplinary work. Our data analytics and decision sciences planning group draws members from engineering, sciences, business, liberal arts, humanities, and the natural resources.”

Tech’s long-term goal includes developing a health analytics complex at its Roanoke campus and a technology-focused complex in Northern Virginia.

Bacon’s bottom line: No question, Tech is tapping into a powerful economic trend. Big Data is one of the most all-pervasive forces at work in society today, and the harnessing of Big Data is one of the great challenges of government and industry. Someone has to teach this stuff — why not Virginia Tech? If Tech is an early entrant in this educational field, it could be very successful. Moreover, the economic benefits of hiring more professors and teaching more students — a lot of economic activity — could be leveraged many times over if Virginia businesses hire Pamplin graduates to reinvent their enterprises and become more globally competitive.

But that’s a lot of “ifs.” Tech wants roughly $70 million from the state to make this happen, and it will compete with Virginia’s other public universities, all of which have grand schemes of their own, for scarce funds. It doesn’t help that the General Assembly will be cutting spending, not adding to it, in the current budget cycle.

Here are some of the issues legislators need to consider:

  • How else could the state invest that $70 million? That sum is larger than the $60.8 million allocated in 2017 to economic incentive funds for industrial recruitment, small business, brownfields, enterprise zones and movies put together. Those funds, incidentally, largely benefit working class Virginians and/or economically depressed communities.
  • How much direct economic activity will the Global Business and Analytics Complex create in added payroll and other spending?
  • What will be the indirect impact, in terms of improved competitiveness of Virginia business enterprises? Is that question even possible to answer?
  • Where will the students go? If Virginia taxpayers are going to invest a massive sum in human capital, can we be assured that most graduates of this program will subsequently work for Virginia companies, enhancing their competitiveness? Or will out-of-state companies recruit them, meaning Virginia taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the human capital of our competitors?
  • How many other higher ed institutions are pursuing similar strategies? Is this the next higher-ed empire-building fad in which everyone is hypes Big Data in order to bamboozle money from alumni and taxpayers? Are Stanford, MIT, Michigan State, Georgia Tech and a dozen other prestigious institutions all pursuing the same angle? Or does Virginia Tech really, truly have a unique idea?

This is just a start. I’m sure the list of questions can be refined. The payoff is potentially very big. But Tech is asking for serious money. Legislators need to give the idea serious deliberation.

For All Its Problems, the State IT Contract Is Functioning Like It Should

Virginia state server farm in Chesterfield County. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Virginia state server farm in Chesterfield County. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

The relationship between the Virginia Information Technologies Agency and Northrup Grumman is getting nasty as the two bang heads over the alleged breaches of the $1.3 billion, 13-year contract to provide IT services to Virginia state government.

Del. John O’Bannon III, R-Henrico, called the relationship between the two “a whirlwind courtship, short honeymoon, rocky marriage, and now we’re heading to an ugly divorce,” reports Michael Martz with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Martz’s article details disputes regarding Northrup Grumman’s alleged lack of operational support for a messaging services contract assigned to a third party, licensing and maintenance support for the state’s IBM mainframe service, an increase in Microsoft licensing fees, and charges for unneeded capacity on a Unisys mainframe system. Northrup Grumman has its own beefs, claiming the state owes it $10 million. As the contract expires, the contractor has signaled its intention not to participate as prime contractor after the current expires next year.

Some might wonder if privatizing the state’s IT services, one of the major achievements of the Warner administration, was a bad idea. In actuality, the disputes simply show how incredibly complex it is managing a massive government IT operation that cobbles together legacy systems such as IBM and Unisys mainframe computers with state-of-the-art desktops and servers. Enforcing the contract makes visible issues that otherwise would have remained submerged and very possibly might have gone unaddressed.

Indeed, the system is now working as it should. The state is acting as overseer of the contract, holding Northrup Grumman accountable for living up to its terms and conditions. Under the old arrangement, there was no one to hold accountable. State IT operations were dispersed between fragmented IT fiefdoms. Responsibility was diffused; no one had effective charge. The system was antiquated, inefficient, subject to disruption and vulnerable to security breaches. The system operated by Northrup Grumman, while less than perfect, is vastly superior to what it replaced.

The big question now is what comes after the Northrup Grumman contract? Does the state look for a single vendor, or does it seek competitive bids for different chunks of state business? One huge change between 2017 and 2004 is the emergence of the Cloud. Instead of maintaining its own server farms in Chesterfield and Russell counties, the commonwealth could consider contracting out its data storage business to any one of half dozen highly competent providers — all of which have server farms here in the state. A counter-balancing consideration is the need to ensure inter-operability between different providers.

A concern I have is whether the state can afford to pay the salaries it takes to recruit the top talent to effectively manage oversight of the state’s IT architecture. The IT industry pays top salaries for the brightest minds and dangles rewards like bonuses and stock options. Who would want to work for the state, where salaries are uncompetitive and pay raises are contingent upon state budget conditions? When it comes to managing a $135 million-a-year contract (a sum that could jump to $200 million a year), a few hundred thousand dollars a year in senior executive salaries is chump change. But state law makes it impossible to hire the best people we can find.

How to Stop Worrying and Learning to Love the Nuke

Keel-laying ceremony for nuclear attack sub U.S.S. Delaware in April. Huntington Ingalls, owner of the old Newport News Shipbuilding shipyard, is one of the world's leading experts in small nuclear power plants. The ship's crew began extensive training in operating the nuclear reactor long before construction of the ship was complete.

Keel-laying ceremony for nuclear attack sub U.S.S. Delaware in April. Huntington Ingalls, owner of the old Newport News Shipbuilding shipyard, is one of the world’s leading experts in small nuclear power plants. The ship’s crew began extensive training in operating the nuclear reactor long before construction of the ship was complete.

by James A. Bacon

I don’t know what kind of future the nuclear power industry has in the United States, but whatever it is, Virginia wants to grab a piece of it.

The Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium (VNEC) and the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research (CAER) have announced a plan to join forces to bring more nuclear research dollars into Virginia and create more nuclear workforce opportunities, reports Virginia Business magazine.

VNEC was created in 2013 by the Virginia General Assembly as an independent authority with the goal of making the Commonwealth a global leader in nuclear energy. CAER’s mission is to increase competitiveness for  core, high-wage industries in the Lynchburg area around a knowledge-based research hub.

The two organizations agreed to pursue initiatives related to researching new nuclear technologies, education and training programs, and bringing nuclear-related businesses into Virginia,

“This agreement will help us ensure government, academic institutions, and private commercial entities make the most of Virginia’s capabilities for contributing to the next generation of nuclear technology and education, opening doors for additional research funding, creating opportunities for new jobs, and launching new businesses in the commonwealth,” Sama Bilbao y León, director of nuclear engineering programs at VCU and chairman of VNEC, said in a statement.

It wasn’t clear what resources will be applied to the initiative, although the article did allude to “the historical support” of the General Assembly and the Virginia Tobacco Regional Revitalization Commission as possible sources of financial backing.

VNEC has endorsed the use of nuclear power in Virginia’s electricity generation mix, stressing the need for zero CO2-emissions baseload capacity to offset the intermittent generation of solar and wind. But VNEC’s main thrust is to bolster the economic prospects of key players in the nuclear power industry including AREVA Inc. North America, a Lynchburg-based subsidiary of the French nuclear construction and services company; Babcock & Wilcox, a Lynchburg-based nuclear service firm; and Huntington Ingalls Industries, the Newport News-based builder of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers.

Bacon’s bottom line: Nuclear power has had a bad image in the United States ever since the Three Mile Island episode, not to mention the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. Moreover, the massive safety redundancies built into nuclear power plants make them incredibly expensive. But the industry is working on new technologies that might bring down costs and alleviate safety concerns, the most promising of which is a new generation of smaller reactor.

Virginia has had a good experience with nuclear. Dominion Virginia Power’s nuclear facilities in North Anna and Surry have among the best tracks records in the country. The U.S. Navy in Norfolk has operated nuclear-powered warships without incident for decades. Why not embrace the industry? Why not benefit from other peoples’ unfounded fears?

The Future (Shock) Is Now

future_shockby James A. Bacon

I love my  Microsoft Surface tablet but the darn thing doesn’t take a charge anymore, so it has been rendered useless. I can no longer access my email account and, thus, I’m out of touch with the world for the duration of my beach vacation. My apologies if communications go unanswered.

I borrowed my son’s laptop to use in blogging, but now that wretched contraption won’t take a charge! (I’m now using my wife’s laptop, which means I’m blogging on borrowed time.) Meanwhile, Facebook stopped accepting my password. When I tried to re-set the password, the security screen asked me to identify the faces of various Facebook “friends.” As it happens, I know only a small fraction of the people who have friended me, so I failed that test miserably. An in an apparently unrelated phenomenon, my gmail account booted me out as well! Aargh. I think I’ll just go work on a puzzle.

These irritations all transpired within the space of a single day, which left me gnashing my teeth and temporarily unfit for beach-time companionship. My petty travails are inconsequential to anyone but me, but they seem symptomatic of a larger malaise: Stuff just doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. We’ve got this incredible technology, and it’s  so cool that we can’t live without it, but then… it suffers from incessant glitches. Sometimes, I feel like society is headed toward one giant, Obamacare rollout-style breakdown.

Security issues are a part of the problem. Viruses, malware, spam and phishing are omnipresent threats, which means we’re required to continually update and patch our computer security. The problem gets worse over time as new technologies emerge without supplanting all of the  old ones, requiring systems to be kludged together. As the Internet of Things becomes a reality, the number of connected devices grows exponentially from billions to trillions, providing more access points and vulnerabilities for infiltrators to exploit.

Another problem is the increasing complexity of IT systems. Just as hardware is kludged together, so is software. When programs have millions of lines of code (or is it billions of lines now?), there’s more stuff to go wrong. When someone tries to link incompatible systems, the complexity — an potentially for fatal conflicts — increases exponentially.

Then there’s the human factor. I’m willing to invest time learning how to use PCs, laptops, tablets, iPhones, email, and WordPress blogging software. But there comes a point when I’m tired of learning new stuff. I don’t want  to have to learn my car’s IT interface, much less that of my stove, refrigerator, lights and front door lock. I just want to flip on the lights or turn on the ignition and have stuff work. I realize that young people have a bigger appetite for novelty than old guys like me, but there are millions of other old guys who think that the incremental improvement to our lives is just not worth the effort. There are limits to technology ubiquity that humans are cognitively capable and temperamentally willing to absorb, and I fear we’re bumping up against them.

According to Singularity theorists, advances in computing power and artificial intelligence are supposedly advancing so rapidly that mankind is capable of solving all these problems. But I don’t see it. While technology and IT are progressing at a geometric rate, I would argue that kludging, complexity, and capabilities of the malevolent are hurtling along at a slightly faster rate.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote a book, “Future Shock,” arguing that too much change was occurring too rapidly for people to adapt. That was 46 years ago. Now we’re experiencing Present Shock. It can’t end well.