In The Future

The future ‘aint what it used to be.

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Segregated vehicle lanes

December 28th, 2008 · 306 Comments

GM’s failure is a product of our demand.

The problem is not that the general public didn’t want efficient vehicles, but that the general public rarely gets on bicycles. True, bicycles may be useful in some cases for short commutes. But the larger picture is that when people ride bicycles around town, the first thing they notice is how friggen dangerous the whole process is. Trucks and cars stream by with inches to spare. Of course there is the sidewalk route, which is possibly even more dangerous, and only really useful for children.

But when that cyclist starts talking to other cyclists, the immediate demand is raised … “We need our own lanes, separated from the cars by concrete barriers.”

Hmm, dedicated lanes. Remove one lane per major roadway and suddenly you can split it into two bicycle lanes with room to spare. Add a bit of the shoulder, and suddenly you can split it into two bicycle lanes and two ultralight vehicle lanes … like electric cars, 100 mpg featherweight cars, etc..

But the public has never demanded these segregated lanes from our policy makers because we don’t want to see increased gridlock due to losing lanes. Sure, pitch the idea to your average Buick driver for 100 mpg cars, and he is all ears. But explain that 100 mpg isn’t possible without ultralight vehicles which will need dedicated lanes for safety from bread trucks and Hummers, and you’ve lost your audience.

Perhaps our elected officials should have foreseen the impending juggernaut of vehicular change and segregated those lanes whether we asked for them or not? Some did, but special lanes are still pretty rare. Policy makers just play another version of the game that GM and Ford play, they cater to demand. And the public wanted other things from its policy makers, rather than a conduit for high-efficiency vehicles.

In the end, this problem seems to boil down to sloth. It was easier to not ride a bike, which made it possible for us to ignore the problem until it got to be unignorable.

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The future death of William Shakespeare …

December 26th, 2008 · 280 Comments

Well-educated American children are well-indoctrinated of the everlasting genius of William Shakespeare’s work. We are told regularly that his work is one of the pinnacles of the written form. We eventually believe this as dispensed.  We may not read Shakespeare, we may rarely see his work performed, but we don’t doubt the concept.

Sure enough, the brainwashing eventually comes from within our ranks, as a friend or formerly-trusted associate somehow comes into contact with the deeper meanings of Shakespeare and then freshly rinses our minds to the genius of the Master’s words. Or else a dashing and bold filmmaker and acting crew lights up one of the multiplex theaters with a new interpretation, and we are then told of the genius within, if only we would be willing to forego our comedy or action-adventure for one weekend movie event.

It’s all a lie of course. Shakespeare is losing his grasp of the hearts and minds. We’re witnessing the rarification of hhis work. Sure, any good actor wants a part of one of these interpretations, a trophy for the acting shelf. But when the viewing public gets a whiff, we’re typically forced to lie. We tell the world of the genius we witnessed, perhaps remember a few memorable scraps of Shakepearian wit. Sometimes we even find our way though the increasingly-impenetrable langauge to find ourself absorbed by the human tragedy and comedy.

The properly brainwashed propograte the next generation. And then through the classrooms and film production meetings, the lie continues.

Is it really all subterfuge? Does Shakespeare really suck? No, Shakespeare is genius, as any extended study of his work shows. But his language becomes increasingly impenetrable as contemporary English evolves leaving Shakespearing English stranded on a literary Galapagos. And like most islands, the only ones able to visit are the ones who can afford the luxury of an extended vacation from the fryline at the fast-food restaurant or the stock-room at the local big box store. That is, kids on their daddy’s dime that are able to pursue advanced study, or else actors who are wealthy enough (or hungry enough) to methodize themselves into 16th-century life.

Contemporary William Shakespeare perfomances are done in one of three ways:

1. The BLT – Generally unknown performers act their little hearts out to give the Master his due. These are typically done in local theaters with slight budgets. Shakespeare is royalty-free, and it carries street-cred, which makes it idea for well-meaning cheapskates.

2. The Club Sandwich – Big name, high-salary performers are tossed into a pet project which drips with high-end set-design, cinematography, lighting design and marketing. Every media moguls have a nephew somewhere that finances one of these, in an attempt to strongarm the viewing public into a new appreciation for their Master’s work. These are usually released with great critical acclaim, but are then shown on late-night television a few years later, usually due to the over-the-top performances of one or more cast members that ruin the  effort.

3. The Tofurkey on Rye – These adaptations make an honest go of Shakespeare, and rewrite word and setting. The vehicle could be a robot wedding party in a situation comedy or two jive-talking lovers a space station. Thes use Shakespeare’s plot developments without using his language. Is that Shakespeare or some reasonable facsimile?

What will happen with the Master’s work in another few hundred years? The islands will drift futher from land, become ever more difficult to reach. The English language will continue to change until Shakespeare becomes a bit more tangible than Beowulf, but only a bit. Only the last sandwich will have a chance of survival, but it could as easily be an adaptation of Gilgamesh as it is Romeo.

But the damage is already upon us. A few hundred years ago, Shakespeare’s words captured the imaginations of wealthy and poor, bakers and kings. Today, a few very sexy actors and post-doc students with tie-less blazers.

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Was six-year-old Gretzkey good enough for the NHL?

June 12th, 2008 · 326 Comments

This morning I read an investment report that discounts photovoltatic as unworkable due to their manufacturing cost.Photovoltaics DO work, and they do produce more energy than is necessary to manufacture and transport them. They’re not common on houses yet, but they are common on sailboats and roadside hazard signs.But that’s not the whole story with photovoltaics. It doesn’t take a condensed matter physicists to recognize that amorphic solar panels are essentially giant integrated circuits. It’s silly to assume that the current state-of-the-art photovoltaic panel will not progress any further. To the contrary, I think of current photovoltaic panels the same way that I think of that old microprocessor in the Atari 400 computer I had when I was a kid. Back then, I couldn’t dream how powerful computer chips would become, and that 4k memory card on my computer seemed pretty expansive. But last month, a friend sent an 8 Gb USB memory stick to me as a gift. Who could have imagined back in 1980 that so much memory would someday be squeezed into a device the size of my pinkie?That’s where we are with photovoltaics, because unlike any other method of energy production before or since, photovoltatics are perfectly suited to take advantage of the economies of scale in chip manufacturing. We did it with computer chips and LCD screens, the next step to photovoltaic panels will yield equally impressive results. Future photovoltaic panels will be more efficient, cheaper, flexible, durable. They’ll be built into common building materials like roofing panels, siding and windows.You ‘aint seen nothing yet.Hyperbole? Are these the musings of an imaginative physicist? No. There is a reason why I’m bullish on photovoltaics, and that reason is nothing less than the Second Law of Thermodynamics.Photovoltaic panels are the first electrical energy production method in history to have ZERO phase loss. Think about it … when you make electricity with a wind generator, you have to first convert mechanical energy to electricity. With nuclear you have to convert atomic energy to heat energy (steam) which is then converted to mechanical energy (turbine) which is then converted to electricity (dynamo). Ditto with coal, gas, geothermal, etc.. All of these forms of electricity production are inherently limited by the Second Law of Thermodynamics because they require several phase conversions to make our electricity.But photovoltaics? The photon hits the panel, knocks an electron loose, which makes instant electric current. Zero phase loss. Of course, for the physicist, that’s where the fun starts, because we want to find ways of lowering the work function of the material. We want to limit phonon loss, increase collector efficiency. Engineers want to find ways to make panels cheaper, chemists want to find ways to lower the cost of the thin film coatings and improve efficiency. Metallurgists want to improve substrates.But the thing to remember here, is that photovoltaics are in their infancy. There is still relatively little research in the area compared to research programs in magnetic and electronic materials. When the number of scientists in the field quadruple, I suspect the efficiency of solar panels will double.So, still think photovoltaics can’t manufacture all of the electricity that the world needs? That’s like looking at a six-year-old Wayne Gretzky and saying that he can’t play in the NHL.Finally, how much sun is available for solar photovoltaics?The average daily solar radiation falling on 1 acre of land in the U.S. is equivalent in total energy to about 11 barrels of oil.The U.S. currently uses about 100 quads of energy each year. (A quad is 10^15 BTUs.) How much solar energy is available for use in the U.S.? About 500,000 quads.I can’t tell you much about the future, but I am quite sure I know what will make our electricity in the future.

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The future of scary tomatoes …

June 10th, 2008 · 295 Comments

Have you heard of anyone falling ill from any infected tomatoes? Yet all over the country, tomatoes are being pulled from restaurants and shelves. Why?

Is salmonella really a problem? Compared with say, 100 years ago, isn’t salmonella barely a shadow of the problem it once was?

Even during last year’s spinach scare, how many people really got sick from salmonella spinach compared to say, the same number of people in the same time frame who died from cardiac arrest and lung disorders brought about by air pollution?

Here’s what’s really happening …

These ‘scares’ in the interest of public health will continue over the next few years to get the grocery-buying public to view vegetables and fruit as a source of potential danger. That way, when the FDA decides to allow irradiation of all produce (in the interest of public health) the outcry will be somewhat easier to contain. Currently, produce shipped from other countries is sometimes irradiated (i.e. mangoes from India, see this link).

But if the nuclear industry has its way, all produce from a single cherry to an avocado to a stalk of celery will be irradiated as a means of avoiding fumigation and controlling salmonella, among other things.

Now, why would the nuclear industry want to irradiate my apple? Because it’s a profitable coproduct for something that would otherwise be a liability. Take some of the most lethal, dangerous toxic waste from your local power plant or nuclear weapons program (like Cesium 137) and rather than have to pay millions to contain it through most of its 30-year half-lives, you now have people wanting to buy the stuff from you for their local food processing factory. In a single stroke, toxic nuclear waste becomes a “valuable coproduct.”

And as otherwise intelligent Americans are now advocating the increase of nuclear power as an environmentally-sustainable power source, something will need to be done with all of this waste, since nobody has yet figured out what to do with all of the nuclear waste that has been piling up since the 1950s. Bingo! Turn it into something that industry wants to buy, and let THEM take the responsibility of safely disposing it. What could be better? If some ends up in the local landfill rather than buried thousands of feet deep in a secured salt-cavern, well c’est la vie, right? At least its better than having some terrorist get hold of the same waste and making a dirty bomb out of it.

The future of nuclear waste, as the DOE and the nuclear industry sees it is bright. (No pun intended.) They see a whole industry for nuclear waste, as it replaces all of the chemicals that we once used for killing things like germs, mold, bacteria and fruit flies. Mosquitoes bugging you? Here, hang some of this low-level nuclear waste above your garden party. Cheese got moldy after only three weeks in your fridge? No problem, this new irradiated cheese will last for twenty-three years as long as the protective sheath is not opened. Did that pint of strawberries you just bought two weeks ago go moldy before you could eat them? Future strawberries taste the same, but last for twelve months as long as the protective sheath is not opened.

And all of our studies have shown that irradiated produce is identical to non-irradiated food … err, that is, as long as you don’t look at it with a microscope and see that the irradiated cells look like a street scene from the Andromeda Strain, and the non-irradiated food still has actual, living cells, that for some annoying reason seem to do particularly well in humans that are also composed of living cells.

But we’ve solved that problem too. And we have found that the consumption of irradiated food is 100% safe! (That is, as long as it is consumed by someone who is no longer living.)

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The future of ice hockey …

June 3rd, 2008 · 275 Comments

“I don’t think anybody really watches hockey any more,” said Tiger Woods today when asked about the NHL Stanley Cup.
Hockey fans patiently and politely sit through golf news for a few tidbits of hockey, and then Woods tells us that nobody watches hockey anymore.

Nobody watches hockey?

It’s a miracle that so many people are interested in golf! Of course, its relative popularity has more to do with Nascar-like familiarity than with outright sportsmanship. Everyone who upgrades their car’s exhaust system and passes a Winnebago on the interstate is suddenly a Nascar fan. Likewise, anyone who drags a few clubs around the green and takes a client out for a loop or two is suddenly a golf fan. Why not? In their mind, they all could have been professional golfers, if their daddy would have bought them better clubs or moved closer to the course.

But hockey is obviously not that.

We love hockey — I think — precisely because we know how much better an average NHL skater is from our best day of boot hockey. We drag our kids to 6:00 am practice on a frigid January morning because of the love of the game, with 99% probability that there is no way in hell that our kid is going to go pro.

So “nobody” watches hockey, Tiger?

In 2108, when the world is a different kind of place from today, and most every golf course from 2008 has been converted to suburban housing, then swallowed by the neighboring metropolis … when this happens and golf is a computerized affair with velocity-sensing net in the neighborhood tavern …

When all of this happens, there will still be a few hundred thousand mommies and daddies that drag their kids to hockey practice on frigid January mornings, with 99% probability that their kids will never go pro.

Hockey has been through a lot since the first images of field hockey survived 4000 years from Egypt. And it seems fairly certain that field hockey is golf’s great granddaddy. But there is one thing that is undeniable — ice hockey is clearly the most international sport in North America. A typical NHL team might have skaters from Russia, Canada, U.S.A., Croatia, Norway, Sweden, Finland and a few dozen other countries where parents fight January mornings at 6:00 am. If international participation is any indication, there will be two overwhelmingly popular sports in the future, ice hockey and soccer.

So “nobody” may watch hockey in the clubhouse on the ninth hole, but the world is  paying a bit more attention to the Stanley Cup than anyone in Tiger’s house knows.

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The future of batteries …

May 1st, 2008 · 283 Comments

I’ve noticed something unusual about certain products, the batteries are sealed inside the unit. Sure, consumers hate it when they have to have the unit serviced when the battery gets weak, but manufacturers just keep doing it.

Apple has been doing this for years. The battery is sealed inside of an iPod, and now with their new Air computer, the battery is sealed inside of there as well.

It would be easy enough to just claim that Apple is simply trying to build in a little self-obsolescence, but their products don’t seem to be generally guilty of this. A twelve-year-old iMac works just fine with their new operating system. (Could you imagine trying to run a twelve-year-old PC with the newest copy of Windows?) It seems that Apple actually gets some kind of anti-capitalistic joy out of seeing their old machines still in action. And to be sure, their old machines are still in action, my wife’s yoga studio gets along fine with one of the very first iMac’s ever made as their iTunes player. My friend Rob happily computes on a first-generation iBook.

So why seal the batteries inside of the unit?

I think I’ve figured it out. It seems to be a move to in general do away with all of the old-style ports and connections in general. I suspect that future Macintosh computers will eventually do away with all of the ports, and everything from USB keys to projectors will all work wirelessly, through Bluetooth Adv, 3G or whatever fancy new wireless protocall they will have in the future.

But batteries, what gives on those? Surely even the most futuristic notebook computer will still need a power source. Why seal the thing inside of the unit?

Well, batteries are more durable and longer-lasting than they used to be, but I suspect that the real reason for sealing them inside of the unit is because current manufacturers are expecting something that will allow future batteries to stay permanently sealed inside of the unit without the need for the rare service session to replace the tired cells. But what battery never gets tired? Isn’t the nature of chemical storage that batteries wear out?

Yes. Everytime, and all the time. The laws of thermodynamics guarantee that the process of storing electricity in a chemical matrix and then extracting it again can never be perfectly efficient. No matter what, the process eventually wears down the battery.

But what if our hundred-something-year-old method of chemical-electrical storage were replaced by something wholly solid-state? Not a fantasy, that’s what capacitors do every day, and there are at least as many capacitors in the world as there are microprocessors. But capacitors just don’t have the oomph of batteries, they discharge quickly and can’t hold as much as batteries.

However unlike batteries, capacitors seem quite happy with self-improvement. Just in the last several years, the work by a relatively small number of engineers and scientists has dramatically raised the capacity of capacitors. Advanced dielectrics can now help a capacitor the size of a Cheerio store several Coulombs of charge. (A typical lightning bolt carries about 3 Coulombs of charge, although delivered much more quickly than a tiny capacitor.)

It seems likely that the revolution that benefited microprocessors and data storage is soon going to dramatically benefit capacitors. This is not a bold prediction, but rather something that already happened. Some hybrid vehicles currently use ultracapacitors rather than batteries.

And yes, a capacitor has an inherent limitation that a battery does not, that its output is variable, unlike the steady output of a battery. But this limitation can be regulated and controlled. And unlike batteries, capacitors can be charged and drained for a nearly unlimited number of cycles. Since they store the charge directly, rather than chemically, explosions and fires resulting from defects are less of an issue.

The future of batteries is to be relegated to devices that need long-term storage like flashlights, emergency beacons or starting systems. Batteries will undoubtedly also stick around for cheap toys that can’t justify the expense of a capacitor.

But devices that are recharged regularly, like phones, lawnmowers, electric drills, (like this little fella), and of course notebook computers.

Of course we might not even know when our batteries have been replaced by capacitors since they are sealed inside of the device anyway, right? But you’ll know when you charge up for the day. Instead of taking hours to get a full charge, you’ll only have to wait seconds.

So, invest in capacitors … eventually. One of my favorite capacitor manufacturers is Maxwell Technologies, and as of this writing, full-disclosure urges me to mention that I do not own any stock in Maxwell, however I have owned some in the past, and I might own some again someday.

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Four moves to rebuild the U.S. economy

March 4th, 2008 · 311 Comments

It’s natural for an economy to ebb and flow. But this time, it’s not going to break out under its own inertia as it did in the 1990s. If the economy is going to emerge healthy we need to start making moves to solve the problems that got us here in the first place.

1. Rebuild industrial infrastructure – some industries are gone, and we’re not going to get them back from Asia and Europe, but there are new industries that we can take now and it will be national suicide if we don’t hold onto them with an iron grip. (Amorphous thin films, ultracapacitors, polar dynamos, desalination, Peltier devices, piezo plastics, spherical combustion.)

2. Rebuild communications infrastructure – But do it right this time, the Eisenhower era is gone, and mixed-use roads no longer work. We need new ultralight roads for ultralight vehicles, initially taken as 80% from existing roadways, with the legacy roads relegated to existing technology, then gradually converted over to rail/ultralight. This process will pay for itself due to the lower cost of road construction and maintenance. We can no longer allow the oil industry to dictate the design of our roads.

3. Decentralize U.S. agriculture – This will not raise the cost of agriproducts, but rather change the types of foods we eat to drought tolerant grains, soil-mending plants and low-irrigation foods. The days of selling heavily subsidized water to growers in arid climates needs to end. Agribiz subsidies has taken the competitive edge away from our food industries.

4. Stop accumulating national debt – start paying it off.

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The future of inoculations …

March 2nd, 2008 · 293 Comments

 

Here’s a question that a friend recently asked of me … how could mankind have survive for millions of years without inoculations? Are they really needed?

 

This is a question that is asked more often now that some parents don’t want their children to take the forced inoculations that their schools require. Some worry about the mercury preservatives in the inoculate, others just want their children to live a natural life, even if it means getting sick.

But first off, Inoculations do work. The question is, are they necessary? Some would argue (I’m one of them) that getting sick with the flu and chicken pox is a natural process and the right way to build up the body’s immunity response.

 

Now, there is a big difference between chicken pox, flu and then diseases like smallpox and polio. Just the fact that you can waive off inoculations for smallpox or polio is a sign that we live a long way from the days when these diseases would kill hundreds of thousands of children at a pass. Thousands of children in iron lungs because of polio tends not to leave parents debating the value of inoculations. When the smallpox and polio inoculations came along, the inoculations were hailed as miracles. Certainly they saved a lot of people’s lives.

 

Back in the days before modern medicine, families typically had four, five and six children. It was possible to lose one or two children without having your hopes and dreams killed in the process. In fact, my own grandparents had four children, one of whom died from meningitis and the other from scarlet fever (I think). 

 

And it would be easy in 2008 and put down the life-saving properties of anti-inflammatory steroids, but the fact is, those steroids could have easily saved the life of my uncle that died from meningitis, and perhaps penicillin could have saved the life of my aunt that died from scarlet fever. (Both died before WWII.) Yes, I can say I don’t want to inoculate my child against some new disease du jour because I know I have the incredible safety net of modern medicine should something go terribly wrong. I mean, can’t a well-equipped hospital cure whooping cough these days? Scarlet fever? Even polio? 

 

To paraphrase every NFL radio journalist this side of the Mississippi, Modern medicine is “what it is.” And what it is is terribly effective. I hate the snot out of drugs that are not necessary for diseases that are annoyances. In fact, one of my uncles just died from having a body ravaged from the the drug methotrexate, which was given to him to help him with severe arthitis. The arthitis probably could have been treated with a variety of natural cures, but methotrexate-poisoning is something else.

 

And yet, for all of these disasters, the truth is that children just do die off en masse like they used to with the daily flavor of exotic communicable disease. That is a problem that we have solved, and for better or worse, I would like to keep it that way.

 

In the future we will inoculate against the horrible diseases, but we’ll let people get sick with things like flu as part of the complexity of life.

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The future of wristwatches

February 22nd, 2008 · 304 Comments

One of the saddest days of my boyhood happed the day my dad and I went sailing in our little styrofoam Snark in Cherry Creek Reservoir. A gust of wind caught the little sail before we had the daggerboard down all the way, and we found ourselves in the drink. I popped up to find a face-full of wet sailcloth without even a tiny pocket of air. But before I had a chance to freak out, my dad was able to pull the sail off of my face so I could get some air. We got back in the boat as best we could, paddled back to the dock try again. That was when my pop slapped his wrist, “Aw nuts, I lost my watch.”

That was the Omega DeVille that he had always promised to give to me someday, the one he was proud of, the waterproof Omega, the self-winding wonder. In a second, gone. But the days of being able to afford an Omega again were long gone by the time my dad was laid off from Martin Marietta, and by the time I scraped my paper-route money together for that little Montgomery Wards boat. After the Omega, my dad had a long string of boring, yet completely functional Timex, Casio and Citizen watches. His favorite joke was to tell me that the Omega was probably still down on the bottom of Cherry Creek Reservoir, still ticking away. The thought of watch as superhero made me more sad for its loss.

Then many years later, a few years before I was married, it seemed like the right time to buy an astounding watch, just like my dad had done. I would buy an Omega that I would never be able to afford once I was laden with wife and children. I chose the Omega Seamaster Multifunction, a gorgeous watch that I then abused the snot out of, crashing on my snakeboard, and throwing across the hallway in an argument. It was an Omega, I figured, if the watch could take a trip to the moon, then it could take anything I could give it.

But the Seamaster wasn’t the one that went to the moon. The Seamaster was a more delicate watch. Finally, last month, the watch stopped working when I crashed again, on my snakeboard. Apparently the g-forces of my hand hitting the pavement were enough to stun that watch. I would get it working again, as I always had before. But fate intervened, and before I realized it, the Omega had apparently been stolen from the inside of our house. (Long story, don’t ask.)

And now I sit In The Future, writing about wristwatches.  I should do what my dad did, and get a functional digital watch for twenty bucks or so and call it a day. Or perhaps I should do what my brother-in-law the C.E.O. does, and not even bother with a watch. I always have either a cell-phone or a Palm Pilot in my pocket, what’s the point of a watch?

But the problem it seems, is that I’m a snob. Or to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have someone like me as a member. The problem is that I have a fragile ego, a shallow self-worth, a low opinion of myself, or whatever else it is that makes a rational man want to strap an exclusive, expensive watch to his wrist that will do nothing more than a $20 plastic watch, and definitely less than the modern equivalent of the pocket-watch, the ubiquitous cell-phone or Blackberry.

It’s comedy. Millions of men around the world insist on wearing expensive timepieces that have been made obsolete by the march of technology. Case in point? If you are a U.S. astronaut, you are only allowed to wear a watch that has been certified by NASA when you go on your mission. And the watches certified by NASA as being rugged enough, accurate enough and reliable enough to be mission critical? A $2,500 Omega. Oh, and also a $50 Casio or a $60 Timex.

NASA confirms it, the cheap watches do the job well enough to have a few billion dollars in hardware depending on them. Yet apparently that isn’t good enough for men like me, who insist that only the $2,500 Omega will be the proper copilot for our lives as we take a shower, drive to work, and do a controlled re-entry in the meeting room.  What it really boils down to is classism. I want that expensive watch to prove to the person with whom I do business that I am of a certain social class, worthy of that person’s attention, trust and consideration.

My character has been distilled and implanted into a wrist instrument.

How does that feel? It feels like I am even more of a shallow, worthless person. But when I look into my ‘second face’ I am engulfed by feelings of pure love, not from concentrate. I assume this is the way some women feel when they gaze into the maw of their third-finger rock, their beautiful stone. In the case of women, their feeling are amplified somehow by diamond, the perfect stone made even more perfect by the jeweler’s grind stone. And in our case, the feeling is amplified by a tiny world of mechanical and electronic wizardry, whirring away in its hermetically-sealed world that lives atop our wrists. Surely this must be a feeling similar to the one of creation, no?

Now, how can the future rob us of these pure feelings? Answer … the future won’t rob us of them, there will be watches galore in the future, and they will contain our cellular phones, our Bluetooth connection, our PDAs, and our digital cameras. They will even show the time. Then there will be me and my ilk, the hopeless snobs, or perhaps the purveyors or fine Horology. And for me and my ilk will be companies that survive by manufacturing and selling us the wares we need to achieve self-realization. There will still be mechanically-sprung watches on wrists and there will be classism.

Many lovely things will happen in the future, but people will always feel the need to feel superior to people they hate and people they love. And so in the future, there will be watches.

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The future of Girl Scout Cookies

February 17th, 2008 · No Comments

It’s that time of the year again. Only this year, instead of just buying a few boxes at the door, we have a Girl Scout sales agent living under our roof, and the kitchen in filled with boxes of these cookies. For every person that we can’t find to complete their purchase, Mommy and Daddy are buying another box.

But they’re high-quality cookies, seemingly made with better ingredients than your standard supermarket cookie. They compare favorably with Pepperidge Farms or Peek Freans, which are like Pepperidge Farms, but for Britains and Canadians. And it makes sense that they would be high-quality cookies, they only get one time a year to make an impression. But more importantly, they get to bypass much of the overhead of conventional cookie companies. They can use a skeletal distribution network and marketing network, because Girl Scouts has tapped into the one of the most powerful marketing networks the world has ever known … millions of girls.

I am a physicist, so I did a little mental calculation of how many sales they see in a year, I came up with $75 milion a year. Then when I wrote this entry, I decided to Google it. I wasn’t even close, actually off by a factor of ten. Actually, Girl Scout Cookies are the number one brand of cookies in the country, annual sales $700 million. Since they seem to be receptive to market demands, like getting rid of trans-fats, I predict they will hit $1 billion in annual sales before 2015.

The nature of Girl Scout cookies has changed over the years, obviously they originally started as home-baked cookies, and then went to factory-made. But over the years, parents have been less willing to let their daughters roam around the neighborhood, and now cookie stands are set up in front of local stores and schools. Thin Mints are still around, but so are several new kinds, one of the most interesting to me is one called “Thanks a Lots”. Each cookie has “Thank you” embossed into the cookie in a different language, including Hindi, French, Spanish and some other languages I don’t recognize.

But the soul of the Girl Scout Cookie empire has remained unchanged since 1934. Namely, an army of bubbly, happy, cute girls roam the planet forcing buyers to agree to purchase several boxes of these things at some later date. I have met people who can turn down a Girl Scout with a cookie order form, but I am not one of these people. And I can perhaps imagine a theortically more efficient sales force, but it would be tought and market-specific. Perhaps it would be easier to sell to daddies if the sales force were NFL cheerleaders wearing beer hats. Perhaps it would be easier to sell to mothers if the sales force were their best-friends with a bottle of Champagne. Perhaps it would be easier to sell to grandparents if the sales force were Tony Danza clones or cops. But the end result is that for vast and nearly universal market penetration, it’s tough to improve upon an eight-something-year-old girl.

And when you consider the job responsibilities that these girls hold the equivalent overhead is staggering. I estimate a ratio of one full-time adult worker to four Girl Scouts. So there are about 3 million Girl Scouts in the U.S.A. alone. (Compare that to Mary Kay Cosmetics, with about ‘only’ 850,000 in the entire world!) That correlates to an adult cookies sales and distribution network of about 3/4 million people. This dwarfs the sales and distribution forces of any food company in the world.

Talk about ‘Girl Power’!

So what is the future of Girl Scout cookies? Clearly, organizations like the Girl Scouts will continue to need funding, and they will continue to ambitiously expand their reach. It would be a mistake to think that the Girl Scout leaders, from the troop leaders up to the National leaders would do anything OTHER than expand their cookie sales, because they have been expanding it since 1934. And in fact, the Girl Scouts now sell nuts and dried fruit part of the year … with all of health-conscious people in the world, this program seems bound to rise.

Does anyone doubt that at least once Girl Scout National leadership has not had a conference about other things that they can have their Scouts sell? Shampoo and lip balm? Dehydrated soup? Herbal teas? I am sure some of these have been considered, and apparently, there is still a contingent in the National leadership that has not yet deluded themselves into thinking that it is a good thing to turn all of their Scouts into full-time sales agents for their marketing machine. Certainly, if they did so the sales efficacy would go down.

It does seem reasonable to me that their late Autumn nut campaign will expand to include the healthier products like tea bags, dried fruit, natural energy bars and the like. I think they wouldn’t have a problem with two big sales pushes each year, and they may have reached market saturation with the cookies anyway … there are always going to be people who just don’t want tasty cookies, but will be more than willing to shell out dough for trail mix.

In all of this though, the obvious question remains … is it really a GOOD thing to have girls use up a solid chunk of their youth selling things to strangers and family? Girl Scout Leadership definitely thinks so, the cookie boxes are covered in inspirational pictures and phrases of the “Courage, Confidence and Character” ilk. From these boxes, the implication is that every girl who foolishly turns away from Girl Scouts and cookie sales is going to grow into a cowardly, shy and characterless adult. The poor child that is more interested in reading books in her treehouse or playing with her dog, rather than holding hands with other Girl Scouts and jumping off of a small hill is doomed for life we are told.

But part of being a futurist is making peace with the future. And the future, like it or not, is one where Sales is the engine of progress. The future will be one full of Girl Scouts and one of Girl Scouts selling their products. Of this we can be sure. The market will expand, and their alternative market will grow to gradually compete with conventional markets. It has already become so. Certainly the parent that buys four boxes of Thin Mints in front of the Walmart is not going to buy any more cookies inside of the store. And while I am sure Walmart is less than happy about this arrangement, they wouldn’t dare shoo away all of those Scout leaders and parents, for fear of angering potential Target or K-Mart customers. But at the same time, it is very conceivable that Walmart will not allow the Girl Scouts to sell nuts and dried fruit in the Autumn, after all enough is enough, right?

But no matter. As a species, girls have access to just about any place on Earth. I am sure that if a girl’s mommy is an engineer at NASA, then on the way to the Space Shuttle, an astronaut will be presented with the dreaded clipboard by some dangerously adorable seven-year-old wearing a tiger-print t-shirt. Girls have access to sales venues for which any multinational would give up their rich corinthian leather.

IN THE FUTURE, expect to see a lot of girls selling you things you only partially want, yet you will be powerless to resist.

LINKS

Official Girl Scout line

Andy Rooney deconstructs the Girl Scout Cookie

70,000 boxes of Girl Scout Cookies sold by one girl

Good New York Times article on the subject

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