Order Neil Peterson's
Embracing the Edge
on Amazon today.

Or buy it at the Edge Foundation. All profits from the sale of the book go to support the mission of the Edge Foundation.

View Neil's latest traveling blogs





Neil Peterson is an affiliate member of the National Speakers Association and frequently speaks to organizations on a variety of topics. Learn more

You may contact Neil about speaking engagements at:
(206) 910-7515

The biggest names in the automotive industry want to change the way you drive – or more specifically, what you drive.  These companies hope the popularity of the hybrid – a car that operates on batteries and gasoline – could signal  the public’s willingness to embrace the fully electric car.

Electric vehicles – those powered exclusively through fuel cells or batteries – seem to be a logical next step in the evolution of American motoring.  As more emphasis is being placed on ‘greening’ every facet of our lives, some of the largest automakers are hoping to capitalize on this new trend by building highway-capable electric cars.  However, the field is not limited to these industrial giants; several smaller companies are concentrating exclusively on cleaner, reliable transportation. And this new focus in the industry has many electric car proponents excited for a return to a concept that is actually much older than we realize.

BG Electric Vehicle Introduction

The electric car was an early precursor to the gasoline-powered automobile, setting numerous land speed records and making motorized transportation a significant lifestyle change for thousands of urban dwellers in the late 1800′s. Appreciated for its ease of use and quiet operation, the electric car enjoyed popularity through the 1920′s, until Charles Kettering‘s invention of the electric starter, and the discovery of oil in Texas led to a decline in gas prices. Gasoline-fueled cars, which had been noisy, odorous, and difficult to operate, also gained market share as improvements in manufacturing led to steep price cuts, making the vehicles more affordable than their electric counterparts.

Today, rising gas prices and a fear of limited fuel resources in the future are causing us to rethink battery-powered automobiles. In contrast to vehicles run by an internal combustion engine, these cars are ideal for operating through alternative-fuel options – including solar power, making them an important addition to our eco-conscious efforts. Manufacturing and maintenance of electric cars would also mark a significant change, as they use fewer mechanical parts, and require less trips to the auto shop than their gasoline equivalents. However, the current limitations of the demonstration vehicles – namely the inability to travel at great distances, limited top cruising speeds, and the need for frequent battery charges, have slowed their release to an increasingly interested public.

An additional factor in the delay is the lack of infrastructure to support long-distance travel. While these cars are eminently suitable to city driving, engineers have yet to find a feasible way to charge the vehicles en-route. Gas stations are located in even the most rural areas, but developing a fast, convenient method of servicing electric cars is still in the planning stages, needing billions in funding before coast-to-coast trips become possible.

Battery replacement is a considered option – stations would replace depleted cells with fully charged ones for a small fee. Charging the batteries through an electric outlet is not as viable a solution – stations would have to be outfitted with a charging station that could carry a higher electrical current, and most batteries cannot receive a full charge in a short time frame. The convenience of a 10 – 15 minute gas stop could quickly turn into an hour-plus delay, if not significantly longer.

California has given the most support to promoting electric car adoption, offering charging stations at select locations in the Los Angeles area after the 1990 passing of the ZEV mandate that required car makers to actively develop and release battery-operated vehicles. Unfortunately, the industry was unable to meet the requirements, and though several thousand of electric cars were sold, the remaining stock was destroyed by the companies when the mandate was overturned.

Another crucial problem is the inability to develop a more efficient battery – one that will hold a charge for a longer duration and allow cross-country travel. Right now, fuel cells for these cars are bulky, adding unwanted weight and limiting the options for car designers, especially important in a car culture as developed as the American one.

With the big three US automakers – GM, Ford, and Daimler Chrysler – facing severe financial difficulties, it remains to be seen whether they will continue to put money into the research and development of the electric car – and to beat their foreign competitors in the race to release an economical and eco-friendly machine.  Battery-powered cars may not be rolling off the assembly lines today, but as the competition heats up – and public fervor gains ground, we may soon be looking at driving in a whole new light.  And if that weren’t enough, the administration is signalling new concerns about the dangers of runaway global warming, driven in part by carbon based emissions from automobiles.  All of these factors promise a more electric future for personal transporation.

By Neil Peterson | April 4, 2009

Statistical analysis and data mining are having their day in the sun. Over the past several years, what has been a staid and incomprehensible science has evolved into a (semi) pop culture darling as economists, government officials and business leaders around the world have started using statistics to show us surprising social truths, hidden behind the mass of numbers collected about us and stored in databases. These new analytical decision makers eschew taking action based solely on expertise or experience based intuition.  Instead they use sophisticated data mining techniques to learn more about us and what we have done, as well as predict what we are likely to do in the future.

Yale Professor, lawyer, and economist Ian Ayres explores this new numerical view of the world in his latest book, Super Crunchers: Why Thinking by Numbers is the New Way to be Smart. Ayres is asking for a departure from intuitive decision making to a data-based approach, using algorithms that are far more accurate than human predictions could ever be. And this new way of thinking could effect our lives on a profound level – from who we choose to marry or which government programs receive funding, to the type of care you will receive in a doctor’s office.

Interview with Ian Ayres, author of Super Crunchers

Customers of online retailers such as Amazon.com have relied on other user’s testimonials for years, but the game changed when Amazon realized that by recommending items, based on a person’s past purchases – in correlation with similar purchases made by others – they could drive their sales and build consumer loyalty. Netflix, the popular DVD-by-mail site, uses their data in a similar fashion, suggesting movies based on the user’s previous rentals – in tandem with the numerous ratings given by millions of other subscribers.

But this data-based prediction model is not just about sales. One of the many excellent examples in Ayres’ book is online dating service eHarmony. After studying over 5,000 married couples, eHarmony founder Neil Clark Warren developed a predictive model based on twenty-nine separate variables. Using a client questionnaire, the site seeks to pull personality characteristics that the responder may not even be consciously aware of. Using this ‘hidden’ data, and a database of past client information, eHarmony’s algorithms work to find a match that is more compatible across a greater number of aspects.

Ayres also sees great promise for the use of statistical predictions in the field of medical diagnostics. Creating a database of symptoms and diseases could expedite difficult diagnoses – potentially preventing thousands of deaths a year, as well as helping hospitals in developing new protocols to guard against post-op infections and complications.

As the technologies of data collection and data mining get more sophisticated, the amount of raw data we are collecting is overwhelming; the volume of data is so large it now has to be measured in petabytes (a “petabyte” is a quadrillion bytes).   The data is also astonishing in what it can tell us about ourselves and our probable future.  We don’t need to feel threatened by the emergence of analytics based decision making.  By asking the right questions (and Ayres insists, checking and re-checking) we can make this data work for us – and make our lives easier, safer, and more enjoyable.

Steve Jobs has a lot to celebrate.  As Chairman and CEO of Apple, Inc. Jobs has directed the company’s remarkable growth from niche-market computing to introducing a revolutionary new phone and dominating the mp3 player market. Since therelease of the iPod mp3 player in October 2001, the unit – and it’s many variations (including the Shuffle, Nano, and Mini) – has gone on to sell over 173 million worldwide, becoming the best-selling digital player in history.

Apple hasn’t stopped innovating even though with its market dominance the firm could afford to take a break.  After the runaway popularity of the AT&T-exclusive iPod phone, developers started to work on how to combine the user-friendly interface of the phone with the proven features of the iPod.  Available in 8, 16, and 32 GB models, theiPod Touch integrates touch-screen and digital player technology with internet access – giving consumers the ability to access email accounts, the iTunes store, current weather, and even a GPS-synced maps application. And it plays music too.

It can take a little while to adapt to life without the ‘click-wheel’ – the iPod design feature that distanced the player from the rest of the products on the market.  Intuitive and elegant, the ‘click-wheel’ has become such an essential part of the device that I almost wish they had included a ‘virtual’ wheel option.  After its initial set-up (which generally takes under an hour), and the slightly more time-consuming learning curve, the iPod Touch has proven itself to be, no surprise here, an excellent gadget – but one that less useful for its music-playing abilities and more for its add-ons.

As a music player, the Touch is a perfect evolution from the earlier iterations – high quality audio meets smart, sleek design (although for the stalwart, the iPod Classic is still available – with larger storage than ever before). From the home screen, your music collection is easily accessible with one touch, and there are several ways to view your library. The large, crisp album art is also a welcome addition for those of us who can still vividly recall the age when record packaging was as important as the music. And there is no longer the need to scroll through your entire collection when looking for a song or artist, as one touch on the right side of the screen will take you directly to the corresponding letter.

However, the Touch is just as compelling for all its other functions. The addition of wi-fi has transformed the product from a one-trick pony, into a versatile, on-the-go machine. I can access my web-based email, surf the web, update my calendar, watch YouTube videos and even check stock prices. And, with direct access to the iTunes store, you can download purchased music and video directly to the device, saving the step of syncing with your home computer. (Syncing music and files can sometimes be problematic fi you don’t stay up to date with the latest iTunes software.)

And, taking advantage of another iPhone feature, Touch users can also access the App store – which has an application (or app) for everything from city searches, to learning a new language. Some of the apps can only be used with the specific functions of the iPhone (i.e. the camera), but given the wide range of both free and paid programs, you’ll no doubt be able to find the right app for the job.

iPod Touch fan commercial

Like most Apple products, the iPod Touch is not cheap – all that brilliant design and name recognition comes with a price. For a 2nd Generation iPod Touch, you’ll pay from $229 for the 8GB version, to $399 for 32GB of storage. But on the whole, this product is well worth it, especially if you have not yet made the leap from simple cell phone to a smartphone that can handle the various portals of communication we use today. From responding to emails on the fly, to viewing the latest viral videos, the iPod Touch can (almost) do it all.

In a recent letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., CEO Warren Buffett – a hyper successful investor – attempted to allay fears over the current financial meltdown, urging them to “never forget that our country has faced far worse travails.” It is a lesson that can be easy to forget – and hard to believe – as the news from Wall Street continues to reflect our ongoing economic troubles.

The credit crisis, and the recent controversy over the AIG executive bonuses – paid for by taxpayer bailout money – has led to distrust in our government and the financial institutions we rely on. And while we all struggle with the ramifications of the recession, many of us are fearful that what we are actually witnessing are the early days of a depression. But is there a legitimate basis for this fear?

While the micro- and macro-causes of the Great Depression have been studied – and debated – for decades, most historians point to two crucial factors. The first being the manufacturing boom following World War I. Lulled into a sense of peacetime security, companies overextended – producing inventory in anticipation of a worldwide demand for American goods. However, with many countries facing post-war high taxes and staggering debt, the demand never showed. The inventory languished on the shelves, as did the companies and the employees who relied on them.

In addition, easily available credit allowed investors to start trading on margin, using borrowed funds which flooded the marketplace and sent stock prices soaring high above the fundamental value, hoping to sell the stocks at the higher rate. When the bottom dropped out on ‘Black Tuesday’ - October 29, 1929, as investors rushed to sell stocks whose values were plummeting, the ripples were felt in every major financial market across the world. In America, every sector of the economy was affected including manufacturing, big industry, banking institutions, and even spreading to rural farming communities.

1929 Wall Street Stock Market Crash

As the Gross National Product shrank by over 50%, unemployment rates skyrocketed, from 7 million in 1930 to over 15 million in 1932 – or roughly a quarter of the working population. With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country finally began to see the first signs of recovery, but the repercussions of the Depression would linger for decades.

So what does this mean for us today? And how worried should we be?

As in the Great Depression, our love affair with credit has created false market value – the housing bubble of the past several years, combined with the dubious lending strategies of large financial institutions, helped to siphon actual worth from the market, leaving billions of dollars of debt and a surplus of assets. Assets that are now falling in value, and leaving homeowners without the ability to pay their mortgages.

While America is seeing the highest unemployment rate since 1983, at 8.1% – or 5 million unemployed with more jobs expecting to be cut during the next few months, we are still a long way from the 25% rate seen during the peak of the Depression.

The credit crisis, and the rising unemployment rates, seem to mirror the dilemmas of the 1930′s, but it is crucial to note that this situation is not a repeat of past events. Most economists believe that only one piece of the financial market has to fail to have widespread consequences – such as we are seeing today – but note that in the years leading up to the Great Depression, it was not only one sector that failed, but two – the manufacturers’ hope for rising demand, and the inflation of the stock market. Individually, these factors would have the strength to create a recession, but it was the two factors together that spun the country – and the world – into financial ruin.\

There are no easy answers or fixes to this current financial debacle – but it might very well be our fears that are contributing to its staying power – fear of further economic collapse, or losing our homes and our jobs. This has a basis – this unexpected meltdown has caused all of us to reconsider just what is most valuable in our lives, and to be afraid of losing it.

In the midst of all this turmoil, it would serve all of us well to remember Warren Buffett’s words, that we have seen the worst, and we have recovered and prospered. Or, if you prefer the words of another famous businessman and philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, “These are days when many are discouraged. In the 93 years of my life, depressions have come and gone. Prosperity has always returned and will again.”

And he was right.