the future

Meeting the President

Because of my habit of saying awkward things to famous people, I was determined not to say anything to Al Gore last week. We were in the same room because he was getting an award at the Interfaith Center of New York’s annual dinner, where I was filling out the table of a friend and donor to the center where I work. Despite my determination, at the cocktail reception I found myself turning around and suddenly shaking hands with the most famous person in the room.

As he took my hand in his, he looked right into my eyes and greeted me with respect and openness. For a long moment, I felt as if I were the only person in the room with him. It was dazzling. This is remarkable when you consider how often he has had to greet strangers. Summoning the psychic energy to do so over and over again with genuine respect, or even its convincing simulacrum, must require monastic levels of strength and discipline. I once saw the performance artist Marina Abramovic make a moving piece out of honoring strangers one by one with her full attention in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. Gore’s presence was equally striking.

I had a front row seat to his remarks later in the evening. He was introduced and humanized for the crowd by his daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. She recounted her childhood admiration of her father’s ability to balance large objects on his nose for long periods of time. He had once, she said, explained the theory of nuclear disarmament by using salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table. As a girl, she had confronted him one morning with the front page of the Washington Post, showing the picture of a woman suffering in the Bosnian conflict, and asked why America wasn’t doing more to help. That same day Gore told this story to Clinton’s national security team, kicking off a conversation that eventually changed US policy. From the surprised reaction of James Parks Morton, a Gore family friend sharing the stage with her, I surmised that this wasn’t the usual patter trotted out to personalize her father’s public appearances.

Then Gore got up and cast his spell over the room. Because of my time in the Whiffenpoofs and my work in New York’s not-for-profit galaxy, I have been to my share of fancy dinners with the 1%, and one of their tribal quirks is to talk through events where basic politeness would require silence (as when the Whiffenpoofs are singing, for example). I can’t explain this behavior, but I have come to expect it, so the silence in the room during Gore’s remarks surprised me.


My future stock pick: asteroid mining companies

I read a science-fiction novel in January which turned out to be a realistic, engineering-heavy imagining of what it would take to mine near Earth asteroids.  This was followed by an article in Science Illustrated, another in TIME, and another in National Geographic, which pretty much confirmed the big-picture engineering facts from the novel.  The takeaway: near earth asteroid mining is highly likely in the next fifteen to twenty years. And the profits will be historic, on the order of what the Spanish lugged back from the Americas during the 16th Century.  While we are unlikely to find any undiscovered civilizations (though my 11-year old self still has his fingers crossed), we are likely to find actual mountains of rare resources.

It turns out that the biggest problem with near Earth asteroid mining is getting your operation into orbit the first time.  It’s expensive, risky because of unknown tech glitches, and a PR disaster if you don’t succeed right away.  But after that, the asteroids, which are thousands of times richer in things like gold, platinum, and iridium than earth’s soil, pretty much insure that your operation pays for itself and then some.  Asteroids are even rich in water, which is the most expensive thing to transport into orbit. Combine all this with the advances currently being made in drone technology (if we can send them across thousands of miles to kill people with precision, surely we can send them across hundreds of thousands of miles to dig holes in rocks), and you’ve got yourself a plausible near-future in which entrepreneurs with enough money and ambition become some of the richest people in human history. The only thing like it I can think of, for sheer craziness and payoff, is Cortez fleeing a prison rap sheet in Cuba in 1521 and coming back a few years later richer than the King of Spain. That’s the kind of historic wealth and fame we’re talking about with whoever mines the asteroids first.

But who is crazy enough to actually spend the money to do this, you ask? James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar, The Abyss), Larry Page (Google co-founder), Elon Musk (Paypal founder),  and Jeff Bezos (Amazon), make four I can think of just off the top of my head.

And if all this sounds crazy, just think how insane the Internet sounded in 1990.  And space tech is already fifty years old.  If anything, it’s amazing this hasn’t happened already.