This weird new snake oil can extend your life!

This weird new snake oil can extend your life!

Edit: This article was updated on Jan 25th, 2017, after an exploratory conference call with the Ambrosia, LLC, Founder. -KH

So, do you wanna live forever?

When I began writing my number one non-selling book, “Surrogate Threats,” I was motivated by the idea that advancements in medical science had put us near the cusp of consumer-accessible life extension. Even back in 2015, a growing number of very smart people were predicting near immortality within ten years. My contemplation of that possibility spawned the creation of a fictional antagonist named Ryk Marius who, obsessed with the desire to become immortal and unwilling to be constrained by regulatory brakes or cumbersome morality, developed a plausible plan for life extension using today’s (and, okay, a little bit of tomorrow’s) medical technology. As an entrepreneur, I had such great fun hashing out my antagonist’s business model and innovating through his logistics challenges, I ultimately put his company, Marius Technologies, online at Rejuvi.me.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to spending part of 2015 caught up in recurring fantasies about extracting the (mostly) legal aspects of Marius Technologies to create and fund an actual bio-tech venture. If I’d known then what I know now, I might just have done it!

The Tantalizing Business of Life Extension

My sticking points in 2015, other than a chickenshit reticence toward funding legally gray, outlandish, futurist ventures, were (1) that I didn’t think I’d be able collect quite enough funding to get my life-extension venture off the ground; and (2) that I’d have to move out of the country to get around the United States’ oppressive regulatory environment when it came to building businesses out of experimental bio-tech. Put another way, I’d pretty much have to become a full blown Bond villain to develop this world-changing therapy into a profitable business. So I was stymied.

What made it more frustrating was that I was pretty sure someone could actually pull my plan off, if those meddling kids (and, you know, the rest of the world) would just leave them (and me, and my imaginary investors) alone to do it!

I needed a way to advance the vision that the rest of the world wouldn’t consider insane, ethically dangerous, and/or shudderingly creepy. Aye, therein lay the rub!

I was stuck.

Then, a week ago, I was stunned to learn I could have worked within the current US regulatory system to offer experimental age rejuvenation services while collecting substantial revenues — even if the process ultimately didn’t work! After all, while Winston Churchill once said,

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm,”

Kevin Higgins adds, “…and, even better, with no loss of your own money!”

There WAS a way!

you-wanna-live-forever

why-yes-i-doThe inciting element in this week’s narrative was a blog post on the site Singularity Hub by Peter Diamandis titled, “Stem Cells Are Poised to Change Health and Medicine Forever.”

Buried about three-quarters of the way into that article, in a section about the four main areas of stem cell therapies to watch, was a section on parabiosis. (For those not into linking away while reading, parabiosis was the term originally coined in the 1860’s (!) for linking the circulatory systems of two creatures, one young and one aged. The resulting blood sharing was found to literally, significantly, reverse the age of virtually all bodily tissues in the older creature. More recently, parabiosis is a term used to describe a process where blood (or plasma) from young donors is provided to elder recipients. The most energetic studies of parabiosis potential today in the US are being done at Stanford, where the treatments are being explored for their potential to stop (or reverse!) the progression of Alzheimer’s. Similar studies are being pursued at many other universities and research clinics elsewhere in the world.)

It’s really not science fiction that hordes of our most advanced researchers are beginning to view aging as a disease that can be cured.

It may turn out that Ponce de Leon’s long-sought “Fountain of Youth” was circulating through the arteries of the Utes* around him all the time!

This is the part where your inner mad scientist says, “Well, wait. If learned and aggressive clinical research doctors are securing valuable (and always scarce) funding to explore whether parabiosis rejuvenates aging, Alzheimer’s-riddled brains …and a full century of parabiotic experimentation with animals has created reams of peer-reviewed findings documenting the reversal of cellular age in virtually all bodily tissues …then maybe parabiosis has a strong chance of becoming at least one part of a multi-faceted strategy to cure people of aging!”

And your inner entrepreneur says, “Holy crap — that’s one of the Holy Grails of bio-tech!” (the other, of course, is to resolve once and for all whether a European Swallow might carry a coconut)(sorry, that was obligatory after a Holy Grail reference, but I digress)crazy-enough-to-work

Meet Dr. Jesse Karmazin, MD, Founder of Ambrosia, LLC, and your Conductor on this Entrepreneurial Train to Sci-Fi Town. Because what Dr. Karmazin has figured out, which I missed back in 2015, is (1) how to offer old (and perhaps wealthy, or desperate, or both) people access to the blood of youths via transfusions of plasma (a modern day, lower-risk take on actual parabiosis), while (2) operating under FDA regulations in the US, AND (3) get the applicants to pay the cost of the clinical trial! Genius!

Karmazin realized that as part of the Federal Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 (one of many regulatory evolutions that opened up and increased transparency around clinical trials), establishing a clinical trial has become much more accessible (read: cheaper). He also pieced together two additional key allowances that made Ambrosia’s study viable: (1) (some) patient-funded clinical trials now fall under less scrutiny than they used to, and (2) the FDA doesn’t require approval for processes that are well-established, standard treatments. As you might expect, common blood transfusions (and, especially, even less-risky plasma transfusions) fall under this category!

One valuable type is genius is the ability to solve Gordian Knots of bureaucratic red tape with Alexander-like clarity.

Having found a way through the regulatory maze that I thought would require going offshore, Karmazin next had to develop a capitalization scheme — never an easy prospect when your core enabling technology (blood or plasma transfusions) isn’t protectable via patent. Because without developing a barrier to competition, finding Angel Investors, let alone Venture Capital, is a low-probability moon shot!

Still, the financial prospects were persuasive: 600 participants at $8000 USD per enrollee …comes to a cool $4.8MM in potential revenue for this study! …if you can find that many applicants.

Advancing science while making money? That’s enough to make the Pet Shop Boys sit up and take notice!

And the costs? Here’s my personal speculative back of the napkin work: The wholesale prices for getting blood tested and bio-markers reported can be found for less than a couple hundred dollars (depending on the various markers being evaluated and the accuracy desired). [Update: this may cost significantly more, given the vast number of biomarkers being tracked in this study.] You’ll need that done at least twice. And the cost of an actual unit blood plasma? Only about $61, on average. (Maybe one might pay a little more for the special order, primo stuff — like the plasma of Utes). [Update: this article’s initial calculations were based on erroneous information found online. Dr. Karmazin’s study is for an initial infusion of seven (7) units of Ute plasma, not the ~3 units originally reported.] Add in some consumables here and there and that creates estimated testing and plasma variable costs of about $1000 for each study enrollee. But, then it gets harder; you have to have a place for the participants to go for initial testing and qualifications, to receive the transfusions, and for subsequent blood draws and foll0w-up. That requires staff and office space. And, as every entrepreneur knows, fixed costs can be a bitch for a small venture (it’s why we so often start them in a garage).

[Update: At about an hour per unit of infused plasma, the seven (7) hours of clinic “seat time,” which is spread over a two-day period, will have to be factored into the variable costs.]

Enter young Dr. Karmazin’s savvy choice of business partner, Dr. Craig Wright, a longtime luminary in the field, a board-certified physician with over 30 years experience in seeing patients and working in the biopharmaceutical industry, an innovator (he holds over 15 patents), and a man with one additional important contribution: He’s already come out of retirement to open and operate an infusion clinic in Monterey, CA! With one brilliant partnership, that smashes our fixed costs flat and flattens out many of the other logistical hurdles — opening and managing clinical office space, tapping into an existent business for insurance and regulatory compliance, hiring technicians, etc. And it’s a win for Dr. Wright — his clinic is (presumably) already operating in the black; this is yet another source of (high-margin) revenue that doesn’t increase his existing fixed costs.

Work your way through the creation of a clinical trial and register it on the FDA’s clinicaltrials.gov web site, pay the requisite fee, and Voila! You’re in business!

[Update: And there’s an additional business model strength. The shortness of the clinical trial (one month) introduces opportunities for participants to come back for multiple transfusions, enabling this clinical trial to perform financially more like a therapy. That’s beautiful. As an entrepreneur, being able to sell deeper into your market, tapping satisfied customers, is usually a more profitable course than having to acquire new customers for additional revenues (assuming your therapy works).]

So, who wants a chance to feel (and perhaps actually become) younger? As a bonus, you may help advance the science of longevity, of anti-aging.

Step right up. You pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

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* “Utes” – Youths

Friday Flections: “9 Rules For Building A Successful Business” (or life).

Friday Flections: “9 Rules For Building A Successful Business” (or life).

Today’s “Friday Flection” is from the blog of Tim Ferris and conveys some sagacity from Dr. Peter Diamandis (@PeterDiamandis), who has been named one of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” by Fortune magazine. In the field of innovation, Diamandis is Chairman and CEO of the XPRIZE Foundation, best known for its $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight. Today the XPRIZE leads the world in designing and operating large-scale global competitions to solve market failures.

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Enjoy Peter’s Principles (which are very different from the “Peter Principle!”) at the below link:

Peter Diamandis’s 9 Rules For Building A Successful Business

Have a great Friday and remember — if you’re not chomping at the bit for Monday morning to roll around, your life’s parabola might need some flexing!

Self-Driving Steamrollers (Your Guide to a Future Featuring Autonomous Cars You May Never Buy)

Laurence Peter once said, “There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.” My second book, this one non-fiction, is now live on Amazon in ebook format. Time will tell where I as an author fall in L. Peter’s spectrum.

You can find it here: Self-Driving Steamrollers.

google-car-otto (800x444)

Don’t wait for our near future to hit you like a driverless truck with a faulty collision sensor. Your world will soon change and this book is an entertaining introduction to help you prepare.

Using easy narrative, humor, quotes, anecdotes, his business sense and Futurist’s vision, Higgins makes a compelling forecast that the age of driverless cars will be upon us and revolutionizing our world more rapidly and more drastically than most people realize. It’s not a future you should await passively! “Self-Driving Steamrollers” lays out the benefits people and companies stand to reap by planning for the sweeping changes to our environment these technologies will bring …and how much they could lose if they don’t.

“Self-Driving Steamrollers” is must read for teens, adults, and company executives, whether they’re small business owners or leading large corporations.

We Are Always Broadcasting (And It Affects Our Grades)

I’m privileged to be the parent of a great teen who’s normally a strong student and capable of pulling A’s when she applies herself. She is a sweet kid, good natured, motivated, and not prone to vitriol. But she is subject to our public school system and though her school ranks in the top 5% nationally and in the top 3% in our state, like all schools it sports its share of teachers who have, shall we say, seemingly lost their zeal for teaching.

Last semester she made the following comments about one of her classes:

I hate my Honors English teacher. Everyone else does, too.
Everyone’s trying to get out of her class (unsuccessfully).
She’s worthless. She’s lazy. All she does is…[insert criticism]. She never…[etc]…
When I ask my teacher a question, she’s so snotty to me.
If I have a question about something, I don’t feel like I can even ask because she’s just going to yell at me.
It’s not fair. My English teacher hates me.

I’m close to my child. I commiserated. We don’t often use the word “hate” in our house so clearly emotions were high. But we’ve all been there. We’ve all been frustrated by school experiences forced on us. And as students, we all blamed the teacher.

A teacher who engages you, whose teaching style you like, makes school more fun. It can make learning effortless. Or at least less tedious. Good teacher/student connections make earning A’s easier.

The converse is also true.

I was saddened by my teen’s statements. English is smack dab in my teen’s wheelhouse. She is an avid reader, well spoken, and a strong creative writer. Earning A’s in English is inarguably within her capability. Actively disliking an English course was a first.

She did poorly in that semester. Capable of getting straight A’s, she barely escaped getting a C in that class. Such GPA hits, unchecked, can become a problem for a student with their heart set on getting into the selective Big Ten University drawing many of her friends and classmates.

In commiserating with my child, being a good listener and leaving it at that, I failed my teen as a parent, as a mentor. I took the bonding opportunity but missed the opening for a teaching point.

I failed to point out that every one of my teen’s observations above were linked.

The great thing about failures is that they can be springboards to learning. Now she’s helping me with my failure and I’m helping her with hers (Yes, in this family, a low B is a failure to manage your future). So we wrote this together, hoping our experience and takeaways help others.

Here are the learning points for teens, by a teen (and her parent).

1) What you broadcast gets reflected.

Humans are social creatures. People in close proximity pick up on others’ vibes. We can tell when someone near us is bothered, sad, or angry. We can often sense honesty or its absence. We can sense respect. We can also sense disrespect or disregard. This is all because (most) humans are, by nature, empathetic.

Teens get this. They sense when someone likes or doesn’t like them, even among strangers and often without any words being spoken. The reason why might remain a puzzle, but the feeling comes through. We’re social. We’re tribal. Like pack animals of a sort. So we’re always broadcasting cues, always receiving them from others. That’s especially true when you’re a teenager in a socially dense environment, like school.

Teenagers are often only beginning to develop the experience, the skill (and for many the inclination) to conceal how they’re feeling. Their feelings and attitudes show in their faces, in their body language, in their eye contact, or lack thereof. It’s broadcast in their attentiveness, or lack thereof.

People choose how they will feel. They adopt an opinion. Then they broadcast. Everything.

That means others can read you, even if they don’t let on. You’re social. So are they. But adults have had the experience of long practice. So if you as a teen think you feel it when someone at school either likes you or not, imagine how well that sense works for someone who’s had longer than you to develop that skill at reading others, at sensing what they’re feeling.

That’s the case with teachers more than almost any other kind of adult.

Adults who spend lots of time with teens can become almost like mind readers, even if they don’t show it. They’ve seen it all. Reading students’ attitudes comes from experience. And even though a teacher may be adept at hiding what they pick up from students’ broadcasts, they’re human. It affects them.

They also have the experience to get that sense from every individual sitting in their class. Just because a student is one of thirty doesn’t mean they’re invisible, that the teacher is oblivious to their broadcasting.

Because they’re human, they are prone to reflect those broadcasts.

When we sense someone doesn’t like us or respect us, we’re likely to reflect that antipathy. It takes conscious effort not to. Teachers aren’t immune to that inclination.

Teen thought experiment: If your roles were reversed, how would you respond when someone came up to you with a question after broadcasting they thought you were worthless, that time listening to you was wasted, that you sucked at your profession? Think about that. Many people don’t, then go through life clueless about how and why others respond to them the way they do.

A smart guy named Rajiv Rohan wrote: “The moment we look at ourselves in the mirror and say – ‘I am responsible for my life experience’ – is the moment we grow up.”

We each bear responsibility for the way others respond to us. That is a tough truth.

So when the student approaches a disdained teacher, begrudged because they teach a course the student doesn’t value or for employing a teaching style the student abhors, there should be no wonder when the teacher responds with similar attitude before words are even spoken. It’s no coincidence the teacher acts like they know that student’s thoughts.

2) The attitudes you adopt, embrace, and broadcast affect your grades.

The teacher/student connection, good or bad, is a two-way street. The teacher has an obligation to impart knowledge. The student has an obligation to arrive prepared to absorb it.

But no teacher has an obligation to behave or teach their course exactly the way every student wants. That would be impossible. But every teacher will teach so that those who are willing to earn an A can do so. The proof is that some students invariably do.

The students who decide that knowledge isn’t being conveyed the way they want, expect, or demand, are making a conscious choice. It hurts only them. Students who adopt disdain for a teacher, regardless of whether that might be deserved, throw a barrier in front of their own learning. They make getting that A grade harder, perhaps impossible. That is not only because people tend to tune out things they don’t like or want to hear, but because most classes have subjective components incorporated in the final grade. So a teacher’s personal evaluation of the student comes into play when their grade is assigned.

When the student and teacher work to respect each other, when the student is attentive, engaged, and has made the effort to be interested (sometimes in spite of the teacher’s behavior), that better grade occurs naturally.

Humans are inclined to evaluate more favorably those who pay attention to what they’re saying.

Whether that seems fair does not matter. That’s how humans are. It’s true in school. It will be true when one begins a career. And it will be true for the way you evaluate the performance of those who work for you if you ever become a boss. Respect is the currency that buys productive relationships.

Colleges know this. No college admissions officer, reviewing applications, will know nor care that someone had a hard teacher, perhaps one they didn’t like, in tenth grade. Every student gets such teachers. Students with straight A’s don’t get those grades because they got lucky with easy classes and awesome teachers all the way through high school. And they don’t have them just because they’re smart.

That 3.8 or 4.0 GPA means purely that a student was observant enough to understand their one job as a student was to figure out what the teacher wanted. Then they manufactured the requisite interest, put in the required effort, and delivered it.

It bears repeating: They figured out what the teacher wanted and delivered it. That’s all one has to do.

3) A grade, a cumulative GPA, means either the student did their job or they didn’t. Nothing more.

Students with 4.0+ GPA’s earn them because they put in the work. They made the effort to invest in their own future — even when they didn’t like a course or a teacher. That’s why that GPA is a primary determinant for acceptance at many colleges. And why it’s considered important to many companies when evaluating entry-level job applicants. Not because it indicates intelligence — it doesn’t. But because it means a candidate chose to figure out what was asked, did the work, and overcame adversity instead of accepting excuses.

Conversely, lower GPA’s signal students who decided to let attitude and judgments get in the way of their own learning so often it became a pattern of behavior.

For young teens uncertain what career to pursue, applying oneself to all subjects (like ‘em or not!) is challenging. It’s hard. That’s precisely why evidence of success is valued by colleges and companies. And if you don’t know the direction your life will take — and almost no one does as a teen — you cannot yet say what you don’t need to know. So performing strongly in all subjects is the only way to keep your options open.

The good news is that people can hit reset on poor past choices.

4) Tomorrow is a new day.

Students can hit reset on their approach to classes. They can reset their regard for a teacher. It’s hard, even harder if the best way to do that is sit down with that teacher or, through actions, prove that they’ve managed that reset. But it’s doable. Best of all, it’s in their own interest.

Think ahead. Choose not to become that person who might one day realize at long last where their happiness lies, what their dream is, what they want to do with their life, only to realize they let past choices close off their options. Figure out how to respect your teachers. Try to understand their perspectives, even if you don’t know how to like them. Learning how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is a valuable life skill. But it’s worthwhile.

Your future self will thank you for it. With due respect.

With The Dawn of the Era of Self-Driving Cars Comes…More Pitfalls For Seekers?

[Another whipped-out installment of my professional development, “Unpolished and Rambling Blog-A-Week Project”]
 
I’m not at all an anxious person by nature. But being a parent to teenagers, even (especially?) good kids earning strong grades, feels way too much like watching a slow motion train wreck. I think this may be more so if you’ve been successful at creating an environment where your kids needs have always been met, if you’ve been a “good parent” and sheltered them from adversity. Here, I explore why, through the context of my personal lenses of entrepreneurialism and having known too many people who’ve never been excited by the jobs in which they spent over a third of their lives.
 
Most people hate Mondays. That’s a problem, and it’s going to get worse. I think it’s solvable.
 
We all seek. What we seek, what accomplishments we chase, often morphs over time. In my first career, as a soldier, I pursued professional competence. It was a both point of pride and required to both save and potentially take lives. Later, after having squandered a few years in corporate cubicle life before curing myself of a compulsion to work for others, I busted my ass to convert a few meager business skills and an unusual breadth of background experience into a second career as a business founder. Among the plethora of other reasons that drives anyone to hazard the risks and hassles of building their own business, I was at that time a passionate Seeker of (a) freedom from the psychological oppression of working for others and (b) personal financial independence.
 
Then I retired for awhile. Now, at mid-life (unless I embrace newly available, outlaw life-extension technologies), I seek new achievements.
 
To me, apparently, seeking = life; living without Seeking is just waiting to die.
 
There’s a platitude that says: “Life’s about the journey, not the destination.” I interpret that to mean you should drive your life in a direction that thrills and challenges you with the day-in-and-day-out of that Journey, otherwise you’re either tracking on the wrong destination or you’ve passively elected to let others steer your boat toward their dreams at the cost of your own.
 
Why would someone do that with their one and only life? I couldn’t.
 
As a result I evolved into a compulsive entrepreneur. So even when it’s not my primary professional focus, I constantly conceptualize businesses that might change the world for the better in some small way. I’m obsessively attracted to the idea of blending social good with making money. So while I’ve come out of early retirement to pursue a third (!) career by working to develop the skills necessary to make professional writing pay, I’m easily distracted by crowd funding friends’ visions, angel investing, and thought experiments about tech startups.
 
As part of that latter preoccupation, and in the context of choosing a profession, I’ve been experimenting with a framework for helping people identify, choose, then realize their dreams, despite the risk that anything I do will result in a mass-market demonstration of the futility in leading a horse to water. But my conviction is that having concrete dreams fueling one’s day-to-day energy strengthens chances of success and increases happiness. And I wish more of the people I interacted with were happier, that more of the people I know were either living their dreams or at least making remarkable, excited progress in that direction.
 
But it’s not easy figuring out your dream life and then transitioning that into accomplishment. If it were, people would be defined more by their progress toward identity fulfillment than self-classified by an occupation, a job, they actually consider a dream-killing, energy-sucking distraction forced by the need for an income source.
 
Which one of those two opposites applies to any given individual? That’s easy: If you suddenly had all the money you’d ever need and could do whatever you wanted in life, would you choose to keep your current job (or other time sink taking most your waking hours) for the next five years, or would you give your two-week’s notice so you could devote your energy to something else? Way too few people have charted their lives so that they’d choose the former. Way too many people hate proverbial Mondays — one of the surest indications you’re not working in your dream profession doing something you love.
 
I think about that common condition. Because it’s a pain point. And where there’s pain, there’s opportunity. A pent-up demand whose satisfaction could create social good (and profit).
 
Bookmark that thought: Where there’s pain there’s opportunity.
 
Sometimes, when the direct route toward happiness is obscured by malaise or inexperience, you can at least begin tracking in the right general direction by identifying and avoiding the common ruts that entangle lives and strangle joy. With introspection and a modicum of  professional development, you can at least groom yourself away from having to take jobs that will predictably lead toward diminished satisfaction with one’s work life. At the entry level, and maybe beyond, ongoing development of core skills related to your passions becomes akin to positioning yourself to fail upward. In this manner, you increase your contentment by avoiding easy paths leading to discontentment. The earlier you takes these actions, the shallower the ruts from which you must climb before finding your own True Path.
 
Simple, in theory. But applying this blinding flash of the obvious to teens (and even boys in their early twenties), whose prefontal lobes are barely buds and thus almost physiologically incapable of envisioning, let along building, complex plans for the future is no small challenge. Hence teens’ stereotypical answer to questions like: “What excites you? What profession might you be passionate about? What do you want to do with your life?”
 
“Um, I dunno.”
 
So their first job usually ends up being doing something soul-crushingly boring to their young hearts, creating and cementing the expectation that work sucks and life is what you live outside of work. But you have to accept it because employment is one of life’s necessary evils. That belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because entry into that environment encourages you to grow out of your dreams; you begin to accept pale substitutes and life goes by. Suddenly you’re old, and you wonder where you abandoned your dreams.
 
But that’s fixable, isn’t it?
 
I think so. Thus I contemplate the behaviors of young people who, through lack of any life-sustaining dream development, have either fallen, or are at risk of falling, into whatever poorly suited job their too often random, undirected searches turn up via quick trolling through parentally relayed news of help-wanted signs or path-of-least-resistance perusal of the classified help-wanted ads. That inserts kids and young adults into the teeming throngs of the discontented who, years down the line, realize they’re living for the weekend, hating Mondays, and trying to remember — or perhaps forget — once-cherished dreams. These are the myriads who default into that too common, life-interrupted fate of spending 40-50+ hours a week making a living but not a life. Because they wouldn’t or couldn’t summon the energy or hunt out the coaching to find, develop, and pursue a personal passion outside of play time.
 
Why is passion important? Because globalization, and the flattening of markets and the competition that brings. Without passions drive, mustering and sustaining the enthusiasm for the incessant skill development and its attendant competitive edge ensures mediocrity. To create stable income out of your dream, it takes passion to build your talent into top 5%…or 2%.. levels of performance. Passion is required to compete with people like you who want to live their dreams. Very, very few can do that with grinding self-discipline alone. If your energy levels aren’t passion-fueled, doing something that creates a life and not just a living becomes a bridge too far. Without the passion that ties happiness to excellence and as a result drives constant growth in expertise, you risk falling behind those with whom you must inevitably compete. It takes passion to become great, certainly the best, at something — even in niche or small markets (characteristics that are also becoming obsolete due to technology’s march).
 
Let’s bookmark that thought, too: If you’re not passionate about what you do, you’re at risk of falling behind those who are.
 
Pulling another thread into this, I think about professional options and career “opportunities” that lure the majority of people aging through their teens and twenties (or worse, their thirties). My premise is that time spent working at something that bores you, that you’re not passionate about, is lost time. So I contemplate the societal ruts whose siren songs pull those struggling under a dearth of internal motivation when it comes to identifying, developing, and pursuing a personal dream. That lack yields a low-energy approach toward charting one’s future. Then that too often creates a downward spiral which, over time, saps one’s ability to muster the kind of vigor and focus it takes to keep a dream alive long enough to fulfill. So dreams die, and people end up hating Mondays.
 
Then there’s this driver: I have teenagers, so I spend some of my idle time thinking about what kind of world my kids are going to enter once they’re booted lovingly out of the house, encouraged to seek (and hopefully complete) some amount of free (to them) higher education, and are forced to select a career — ideally one that will provide happiness and subsistence without private or public subsidy. A “failure to launch,” a growing societal trend, is not an option. It’s evidence I’ve not done my job as a parent.
 
Like most teens, mine are uninterested in such introspection. Historically, that’s par for the course for teens. I think that’s been true for ages. It was for me in my day and if you’re educated enough to accept nature being as great — or greater– influence than nurture, it’s clear that my kids are encumbered by my genes when it comes to their timely professional development. But I had workplace and environmental luxuries my kids won’t. I grew up in a less competitive labor market, in an age where tech and globalization were primitive. What’s maddening is that the Information Age, with its democratic access to the world’s information should off-set that, but rarely does. Perhaps growing up in today’s risk-averse, over-sheltering and incessantly nurturing environment makes the condition worse. Adversity and independence are the mothers of ambition and innovation, and I’m afraid I bought too far into society’s deleterious mores when it came to balancing between hover parenting and encouraging free range kids.
 
‘Nuther bookmark: Overly sheltered kids are more likely to grow up dependent on external guidance, if not outright pushing, when making early professional decisions. That guidance — especially if it’s coming from the public educational system, colleges selling their majors at a premium, or uninformed parents — is likely to be hopelessly out of date before it’s even given to the kids.
 
Want an example? How about Joe Average looking for that first job and falling into the insurance industry, or perhaps a retail position in an auto-parts store, or perhaps with a manufacturer in the auto or one of the supporting secondary parts industries. Historically, these have been stable, if not glorious jobs for those who (almost certainly) never mustered a passionate enthusiasm for something more emotionally rewarding. But, hey, it’s a living and a steady paycheck, right?
 
This is how lack of foresight like that unravels a life.
 

Here we are in Spring, 2015. Cars with increasing amounts of automation are entering the mainstream. On the mundane side, multiple manufacturers already offer cars with 360º obstruction and approaching vehicle warning, self-parking, and even collision avoidance systems that will literally take over from you and stop the car if you’re about to drive into something.

 
A recent software update for Tesla cars introduced features that enable your car to automatically change lanes for you with a simple flick of the signal stalk, automatically match the road’s speed limit based on either GPS (digitized road map data) or the car’s visual sighting of a speed limit sign as well as other self-driving functions. Autonomous cars will be here, soon.
 
Are you still thinking that sci-fi stuff is far in the future? Even now the number of states with legislation passed and on the books allowing the operation of autonomous  — another term for self-driving — cars is increasing. Google already has a car in production that has neither a steering wheel nor pedals and is testing it on public California roads. It’s been almost two years since Google reported having about a dozen cars on the road at any given time, and over 300,000 autonomous miles driven.
 
Conservative pessimists suggest that autonomous cars won’t be mainstream until 2030, but that by 2040 the concept of a driver’s license will be obsolete. Visionaries driving us into this future (heh — see what I did there?) free from idiot and distracted drivers screwing up our roadways, predict fully automated driving in five years! And by “visionaries,” we’re no longer talking futurist crackpots and starry-eyed pundits. Both Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Tesla owner Elon Musk are working aggressively toward this rapidly approaching time to market. Elon Musk, who I submit is a pretty savvy dude, has gone so far as to say that in 2015, a Tesla will be 90% capable of auto-pilot. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has predicted that they will begin selling self-driving vehicles by 2018! That’s just around the corner!
 
Coolio! It’s classic capitalism. We have sufficient infrastructure to handle the traffic, but it’s too frequently clogged by humans too lazy and ignorant to learn to drive properly, and too stupid to realize how much they endanger others with their frequent misprioritization of focus while piloting a 3500 lb, 250+ hp murder weapon. Those oblivious and unskilled people create over 11 million traffic accidents and kill 30,000 to 40,000 of their fellow countrymen a year in the US alone. It’s a pain point, and nothing creates commercial incentive (and profit) like addressing pain points, with convenience and better safety being the most low-hanging fruit!
 
So, autonomous cars are coming, and they’re going to get here fast.
 
So, I wondered, what does that mean for the heretofore mentioned young adult, who in the absence of a driving dream just sort of fell into a “stable,” if unfulfilling job in one of those previously mentioned industries?
 
Well, it’s a no-brainer that autonomous cars are going to be safer and the auto-insurance industry is looking with trepidation at the deleterious effect that self-driving cars could have on the insurance business. That’s a diplomatic way of saying parts of it are going to implode. Similarly, industries like manufacturing and retail — most notably in auto-parts — and collision repair, are all forecast to see reduced demand (read: business closures and unemployment) in an era when cars aren’t running into each other and other things willy nilly like they have for the last hundred years. So that’ll be another nail in the coffin of employment prospects for generally unskilled labor. And, poof, suddenly that young adult, who couldn’t be bothered to chart a more exciting course for his life, and obsolete job skills and is on unemployment.
 
Can he recover? Maybe. But he’s put himself, or he’s allowed well-meaning but misguided others to put him, behind the professional power curve. He’s moved out of the time of his life when that proper dream analysis and development could have given him an advantage.
 
With technology’s rate of change, an incredible number of the majors being sold by financially hungry colleges are going to be obsolete by the time gifted entries today work their way into middle management. So as a society we have to find a way to help our youth find their passion, develop their dream, and Seek a smarter, happier course through the disruption ahead.

Fixing Inequality At The Source — Primary Education

It was like living in a science fiction novel. For the first seven years, grade school bored me. I had no interest and it showed in my grades. The teachers sucked, and school was nothing more than a barrier between me and the technology (read: gaming) that really engaged me in any free time I had. Then everything changed. It was in social studies, during a semester about history, of all places. Boring, right? Well, yeah, it had been. Up until this moment.

One second I was sitting at my desk, horsing around with my buddy Tom, waiting for Mr. Higgles to walk in and begin our American History class, a thought which, once upon a time, could have put my jaw in danger from a ginormous yawn of reflexive boredom. But today we could barely retrain ourselves; we’d been hearing about today’s material from students in the classes ahead of us for literally two years and had been waiting for this section on the American revolution to begin since Fall.

Finally, Mr. Higgles appeared and the students’ focused attention spread like a wave of rapt silence as the first ones noticed him at the front of the class. A mischievous smile ghosted his lips and crinkled his eyes–Higgles loved teaching this stuff and we couldn’t help getting swept along with his enthusiasm–and he waved his hand.

Oh, holy crap. The classroom disappeared, our seats disappeared, our clothes changed, and Mr. Higgles changed!

Suddenly we were colonial soldiers, sitting on stumps, on logs, in the chill and snow-covered environs of eastern Pennsylvania, looking beyond George Washington, across the Delaware River into New Jersey, where we would march tonight to surprise the brutal, occupying forces of the Hessian General Johann Rall. We weren’t going to liberate our friends and relatives from beneath the Hessian boots this night, but we sure were going to surprise the crap out of them!

Mr. Higgles as George Washington. He was awesome!

The next two hours were branded on my memory. I played a part in the American Revolution. I kicked some Hessian butt. And I got to follow, and watch, George freakin’ Washington! The action periods as we moved through colonial America got us engaged in History like never before. But even the lecture periods had us attentive; not only did we need to get this valuable information, we had to keep an eye out for enemy spies seeking to discover our secrets!

I learned to love learning.

I’ll never forget that class and that experience…just one of the multitude that made learning come alive for me (and Tom!) in 7th grade and following years!

I spent some time musing about the possibilities for creating virtual reality classrooms a couple months ago–a couple months before Zuckerberg’s announcement of (what I believe to be) Facebook’s brilliant acquisition of Oculus VR. Here’s the skeleton:

The most important factor within a school’s control determining the quality of a student’s education is the quality of the teacher. A great teacher and an interactive environment create otherwise unparalleled student engagement and learning.

Teachers matter most. Great teachers are rare in most students’ lives. Often critical life skills remain undeveloped because students get stuck with poor teachers in their STEM (and other) classes.

Under Industrial Age Schooling paradigms and in an era of continually shrinking discretionary (education) budgets, most grade-school teachers in any given school system aren’t top-percentile educators. Nor are they incented to be. So great teachers are rare and the best ones will often find themselves venues where their abilities are better recognized and rewarded. Unfortunately, those venues aren’t accessible to the majority of grade school students.

But it doesn’t have to be that way any more.

What if every student whose family had the desire could be taught every class by the absolute best, brightest, most imaginative and most engaging teachers? How different would our children’s lives–and educations–be? What benefits might our world derive from developing that latent potential in our next generations by giving them the stronger education that creates a foundation for innovation, productivity, and happiness?

Ultimately, while I still love the idea, I don’t think this is an opportunity for a small, under-capitalized group of people. And it would be an uphill struggle against powerful institutional forces like teachers unions and others who’d fight tooth and nail for the maintenance of a crappy status quo, prioritizing their own interests over the students’.

But in the near future, a well-capitalized group comprised of people from online education community and the massively multiplayer online game industry (to handle the shared-experience networking infrastructure) will come together, perhaps backed by Bill Gates’ (or Zuckerberg’s) level of resources, and they’ll be able to overcome the financial and political forces currently dominating educational systems and in favor of systemic stagnation.

More musing:

The Environment

  • Last year, developers built software that provided an immersive (and some would say mind blowing) VR experience that worked within the previous developer-version of the Oculus Rift, though the resolution was only 720p and motion blurring and latencies caused wearer discomfort after a short time.
  • At CES this year, a new version of the Oculus Rift featured a new capability for 1080P projection, and reduced motion blurring, providing a foundation for more comfortable, longer, VR immersion.
  • Sony continues to enhance their virtual headset (HMZ-T3Q) to both improve the experience and evolve it toward supporting VR/game-play experiences), and has teased that the PS4 will support VR play.
  • The largest university in the world is University of Phoenix, a private, online, for-profit university. Unfortunately, the dated execution of the curriculum results in low graduation rates. There is no similarly sized and profitable private K-12 institution.
  • Parents in the US and many countries are decreasingly satisfied with the quality and relevance of their children’s public grade-school education, but lack the money or ability to home school or send their children to a private school.
  • Education in developing countries is recognized as one of the single most important requirements for long-term growth and global competition.

The Forecast

  • Reduced manufacturing costs of 4K displays, ever-increasing processing and accelerometer and head-tracking technology, and miniaturization will produce comfortable, extended-wear VR headsets within 2-3 years.
  • The hardware for participating in a VR experience, currently limited to inexpensive PCs will soon be available in the most popular consoles. Along with growing Internet penetration, even in remote parts of the world, we are trending toward ubiquitous accessibility to the hardware and connectivity required for (at least simple) VR interactions in massively scalable environments.
  • Haptic gloves and body suits will deepen the immersion of VR experiences (though they aren’t required for simple VR immersion, such as classroom instruction).
  • Support for and integration of these peripherals in games will drive mainstream adoption and accessible pricing, further penetrating the market with the accessories needed to participate in online VR education venues.

The Assets

  • A proven Multi-player Game Platform, capable of serving the environment and teacher tools that would allow teachers to broadcast classes to students, and configure the classroom environment to improve student immersion, improving engagement and learning.
  • A team experienced in building 3D environments, with licensable client technologies that could make creation of relatively simple 3D environments, like a virtual classroom, rapid and cost-effective.
  • A team well-versed in the demands of, and moderation of, online virtual communities (and meeting / instructional spaces).

The vision

  • First, create a destination portal where anyone could craft, rehearse, schedule, market, sell, and then present mind-blowing virtual education, or entertainment, then allow them to record, publish (and sell) those classes or diversions, instructional presentations, or even full courses, with revenues generated from student/participant sales, or ad revenue (imagine being a marketing department being able to market your product in VR to a captive audience before, or during breaks in, or after, a class!
  • Craft virtual classrooms, and provide teacher and student tools, enabling individuals, schools, or private institutions, around the world to place students (or participants) into the most effective (and inexpensive!) learning environments available.
  • Create the multi-participant tools sets that allows students to interact with teachers (or a teacher’s assistant) in a way that provides the benefit of a small classroom environment (from the student’s perceptions) to even massively scaled, auditorium (and larger!)-sized classes.
  • Partner with (or acquire) an accredited online K-12 school, or license their curriculum.
  • Extend the opportunity for the best teachers in the world to teach via VR, in a crafted environment that feels to the student like an optimum-class-size experience, regardless of the number of people in actual attendance, with the same degree of direct interaction with some of the best teachers in the world.
  • Create a model where teachers could be deployed who specialized in teaching their specific expertise, their passion–because enthusiasm for the subject matter is communicable. Even making discrete blocks of subject matter available to public schools would enhance the quality of education for most classes, allowing “guest” teachers to teach specific hours, days, or weeks of any given course.
  • Enable students to attend school by sitting in either real-time live-cast virtual classrooms, or by logging into a previously recorded/scripted class if live attendance isn’t possible.
  • Create the availability for students receive the most imaginative effective education available in the world, from the world’s best teachers, either from home, or from gathering centers/auditoriums

Thoughts

  • Gaming will both drive penetration and ubiquity, as it has so often done throughout the history of consumer PC performance.

Johnny gets up too early in the morning–guaranteeing sub-optimal learning for the first two hours–and catches a bus into his public school. There, amidst often crowded, occasionally hostile conditions, Johnny is herded through a lock-step educational process that has changed little from the early industrial era whose needs it was originally emplaced to serve. In his classes, he’s often lectured to by senior, tenured teachers who, obviously to the kids, cares little about whether or not the students are engaged or interested, hasn’t been incented or interested in updating their course for years, and doesn’t think it’s important to tie the course’s relevance into the system of tools that grade school education should be providing to students.

As we head into 2014, experts are predicting that we’re about two years away from high-resolution, astoundingly immersive, virtual reality. This winter, companes like HBO are demonstrating experiences like taking a virtual elevator up the 700′ ice wall famouslly depicted in the hit adaptation of the “Song of Ice and Fire” books in the series titled “Game of Thrones.” Despite the use of the last-generation Oculus Rfit VR headset, which sports only 720p resolution (versus the current version’s 1080p), the combination of an immersive visual experience with good sound effects is blowing people away. People “ascending” the cliff face, standing within a simple cage with the VR headset on, are literally having their fear of heights kick in as they’re taken up the 700′ cliff, then lowered again (fast enough to incite a degree of fear at coming down too hard!).

All that’s needed to craft a fully immersive experience is the visual immersion in a reasonable resolution 3D environment and a great sound system–and we’re there now. Adding in haptic peripherals like gloves or a body suit, or gyroscopically stabilized implements, and subtle control of temperature and artificial breeze, perhaps with 6-axis, omnidirectional treadmills, will enhance this experience, but aren’t as important to immersion as the caliber of the actors (or CGI MOBs). After all, we as humans can become immersed in an envrionment sitting in a chair watching a 2D presentation if it’s done right.

Marrying a VR environment with an underlying mulitplayer architecture capable of managing the interactions of a moderate-sized group of people opens the door to unparalleled educational opportunities a la VR classrooms.

Imagine if children living in inner cities, in the country, or in a completely different nation where infrastructure and education aren’t as developed as in the economically stronger 1st and 2nd world countries, had access to the absolute BEST teachers iin the world. Imagine how much better their education would be if the not only were taught by the best teachers in the world, but were taught in an environment wherre the teacher had the control over the environment to fully immerse their students into the environment, and where classroom and instructor topologies supported–encouraged!–student groupings by learning pace, for every subject.

Imagine how different the world might be within a generation.