December 31, 2011
I love countdowns. You love countdowns. Otherwise, every website in the western hemisphere -- probably the eastern one, too -- wouldn't be running them the entire month of December. Perhaps this is why I like to watch "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" and listen to "The Final Countdown."
So I have come to bring you my top 10 list of technology and science news from around the world -- and out of it. I don't have a crack team around here to help me rank items. Just my own opinions in this space. So for that reason these are in no particular order.
1) The Death of Steve Jobs. I'm typing this on my iMac using an Apple Wireless Keyboard and Apple Magic Mouse in the Safari Web browser on Mac OS 10.7 Lion with an Internet connection coming through my AirPort Extreme Base Station with my iPhone 4S charging in front of me and an iPad 2 charging behind me. So it's fairly safe to say that Steve Jobs had an impact on my life. Even if you don't own a single Apple product, you probably own something partially inspired by a Mac or iPhone. At the very least, you're reading a website designed and maintained using a lot of Mac equipment.
I have read part of the authorized biography of Jobs and see just a little bit of myself in there. But Jobs was a much better salesperson than most of the rest of us, and he had these visions that he could just stick with and believe in. This is even more amazing after he was fired by the company he founded.
Great people like Jobs don't come around all the time. Bill Gates has made a huge impact on the computer world as well, but I see it from more of a business side by just getting Windows and Internet Explorer on about every computer people used for a good decade. Impressive, but Microsoft's products never really had the "wow" factor that Apple's did, especially in the past decade -- aside from the Kinect add-on for Xbox 360. Hopefully Jobs inspired a lot of his employees to keep working the way he did. It'll take a few years to see whether that happened, but for right now I think we will see Apple keep going as it has since the introduction of the iPod.
2) First Earth-sized exoplanets discovered. It's been almost 17 years since the first exoplanet -- meaning planets outside our local solar system, if you didn't know -- was discovered. Now, we're getting closer and closer to finding what astronomers call "other Earths."
This discovery was important mainly because astronomers believe life will most likely be found elsewhere on a planet that is most similar to Earth. This is mainly because water must be in liquid form, meaning the planet must be in the habitable zone away from its star. The size is important because the more mass you have, the stronger the gravitational pull. Stronger gravity would mean a much more difficult time for life to evolve.
I don't know that we'll ever have definitive proof of life on another world in any of our lifetimes. To be just absolutely positive, we would pretty much need a picture and/or sample of it. But techniques exist that could show very good possibilities of life based on things like the presence of methane gas. Our telescopes keep on getting better, and I'm sure efforts would be sped up if an exoplanet the size of Earth was determined to have water on its surface and an orbital period -- "year" in layman terms -- about the same as ours.
3) The end of the space shuttle program. This was a sad but probably necessary result for manned spaceflight in the United States. The shuttle program suffered two fatal accidents in its 30 or so years of existence. The second one led to what is now a total retooling of manned spaceflight in America.
I'll be honest and tell you that I don't completely understand NASA's path forward from here. What I have derived from my reading is this: The U.S. is going to let private companies do most of the orbital flights and supply runs to the International Space Station, with NASA paying for astronaut rides and services. Meanwhile, NASA will use its resources to develop some monster rockets to send astronauts out of Earth's orbit and to places like the moon, asteroids and Mars.
If I'm right about this, it makes a lot of sense. The government was the only entity that could spend the amount of money to start up our space program. But now after 50 years of doing it, private companies are starting to branch out with their own ways to put men in space. But to metaphorically stop sailing our ships around an island and instead try to cross the Atlantic Ocean, NASA is focusing its hardware on boldly going where no man has gone before. I like it because we can only learn so much zipping around Earth every few months.
I was lucky enough to catch Discovery's final launch on my birthday. Making it even more special was the pilot, Eric Boe, who used to be a student of my mom's at Henderson High School. I only got to see about 10 seconds of the shuttle lifting off because of cloud cover, but I got to see it. Let me just say that if you thought college football traffic was bad, you should ask people who live around the Kennedy Space Center about those final launches.
4) Social media play key role in Arab Spring. When our country was founded, I don't think it was by coincidence that the First Amendment provided freedom of the press and freedom of speech. This is hardly something guaranteed everywhere in the world. But now the Internet, the great leveler of playing fields, has lent a hand to people across the world.
We first saw the role that social media could play in repressed countries in Iran in 2009. After an election that reeked worse than a piece of fish left in a trash can for five months, Iranians took to the streets to protest. What was different from before was the availability of social media on mobile devices, meaning information could be spread in places where print and broadcast media are tightly controlled.
Beginning in late 2010 and exploding in 2011, the Arab Spring saw the overthrow of numerous longtime dictators and/or strongmen -- Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi had ruled their countries for 40 years -- in places where you just normally don't see change.
Between this, the tea party movement and Occupy Wall Street, I think the message the world's people are sending to their leaders is "listen to us." Social media, mainly Facebook and Twitter, are allowing this message to be heard. As more people use these tools, don't be surprised to see other sweeping changes across the globe.
5) Amazon releases Kindle Fire. It took a couple of years, but someone finally came up with a tablet that I think would be worth buying not called an iPad. Four years after the first Kindle e-reader was launched, Amazon put forth a nice 1.0 product that does more than just read books.
I personally don't think I will ever buy one, but it looks like a nice addition to the tablet market. I buy Kindle books to read on my iPad because I started buying e-books before Apple started iBooks, and I really didn't feel like having books in two separate apps on my iPad. Amazon cut a few corners to get the device to its $199 price point, but that's what happens when you try to get into the low end of a market.
If you want an actual tablet, wait a month or two and get an iPad 2 once the iPad 3 is released. I saw original iPads for as little as $350 after the release of the iPad 2. The next iPad will likely be an extreme improvement with a Retina Display, but the iPad 2 display is hardly blurry. But if you want a cheaper e-reader with the ability to use Android apps and browse Web pages, the Kindle Fire looks like a good option.
6) To the cloud! 2011 was a year of cloud services. Amazon launched Cloud Player and Cloud Drive. Microsoft added cloud storage to its Xbox 360. Google added music cloud services. But the big addition has been Apple's iCloud, which allows users of Macs, iPod touches, iPhones and iPads to basically keep data and media in sync without having to think about it too much. Anchored by free me.com email addresses, this service is bananas. I can't tell you how much of a help it is to get email on my devices but getting rid of the need to mark every message as read in three or four locations.
The ability to re-download your iTunes-purchased music came before iCloud, and that is just a huge advantage in the digital world. I found out the hard way that Amazon does NOT allow this, even one day after you bought the darn album. The iTunes Match service goes a step further, allowing you access to your entire music library -- purchases from iTunes and elsewhere -- after a short setup process for just $25 a year. I have 62GB of music, which means even the iPhone and iPad with the most storage -- 64GB will not hold my entire library. But now I just need a bit of free space and I can download whatever I want.
8) Nintendo unveils first next-generation gaming console. The Nintendo Wii was a huge hit when it was released in 2006. I camped out at the Stone Mountain Best Buy to get one. The system started a huge revolution in gaming that has expanded video games way beyond the people who bought them a decade ago. My parents and one aunt and uncle own an Xbox 360. Another aunt and uncle own a Wii. For the first few years, you read countless stories about senior centers buying these to use for rehab or just to give the residents something fun to do that didn't cost a lot. A Wii remote also weighs a lot less than any bowling ball.
But the Wii is showing its age. The PlayStation 3 plays Blu-ray Discs and has HD graphics. The Xbox 360 has HD graphics and its own killer motion gaming using the Kinect sensor. So earlier this year Nintendo announced plans for a device called Wii U. It will be an HD gaming system with a controller that looks like a cross between an iPad and a classic Nintendo controller. I don't see how this is supposed to be a huge improvement since creating an HD Wii would pretty much put it on par with consoles of THIS generation, not the next ones Sony and Microsoft will release. The system is supposed to be fully unveiled in January, so maybe I will be proven wrong. But this looks like just a catch-up system and not any sort of innovation like the original Wii or Xbox 360's Kinect.
9) Verizon, Sprint get iPhone. It's hard to believe that 12 months ago you could only get an iPhone through AT&T. Now, you can get one for AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. After suffering without acceptable cellphone service at my new home for a couple of years, I was finally able to get an iPhone on Verizon. I know I wasn't the only one in that predicament, either.
10) Fukushima Daiichi disaster reminds us that nuclear energy is dangerous. Mother nature can be cruel, and she was in 2011 to the people of Japan. An earthquake and resulting tsunami caused a full meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in eastern Japan. The disaster is still ongoing and will leave a scar on a portion of Japan for a generation.
After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, this tragedy reminded us that there are no easy answers to filling our energy demands. Oil, methane and coal are abundant and seem cheap, but they release carbon dioxide and many pollutants, leading to accelerated climate change and putting poisonous chemicals in our air. Nuclear power produces no carbon dioxide and is safe when no problems occur, but problems do occur and can put the same or worse stain on an area that an oil spill can.
It is my belief that these recent events show us that our ultimate future in energy lies in solar and wind power. In one second the sun generates enough power to satisfy our energy needs at current levels for 500,000 years. Oh, if only we knew how to collect that. Imagine if solar panels were efficient enough to power your home and two electric vehicles. It's an amazing thought and should be a long-term goal of ours. Wind power has been around for centuries in one form or another, and very windy parts of our country are using it to generate power.
But those technologies aren't cheap right now, meaning we're stuck with fossil fuels and nuclear power providing most of our energy. We can only hope that incidents like the 2011 nuclear disaster continue to be very rare.
So that's my list of 10. Did I pick good ones, or did I leave something out?
Michael Buckelew is part of the digital team for SCNI, the parent company of the Gwinnett Daily Post.