Australia for Lunch, and Clothes That Actually Fit

Here's the 1 thing that an Air Force general, Awkwafina, and the CEO of Levis Strauss got me thinking about. Plus, 7 other things worth a click.

I’m Bill Murphy Jr. Welcome to Understandably. I write this newsletter every day, where we explore “the story behind other stories.” If you’re new here, please sign up to get it in your email, and share it with friends.

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An Air Force general—a retired lieutenant general, to be precise—gave a speech last month, and as often happens, nobody outside the military world paid attention at first.

But then word leaked about what he’d said. And people started noticing the surprising hints he dropped about some top secret military technology.

It was short on details, but the lieutenant general, Steven L. Kwast, suggested that we're a lot closer to some really big breakthroughs than most people might think.

New York to Australia for lunch

Among the promising leaps forward, according to Kwast: a technology that could “deliver any human being from any place on planet Earth to any other place in less than an hour.”

Less than an hour, the man said. New York to Australia for lunch, and then back.

It sounds far-fetched. Maybe he was being hyperbolic. But, I'm struck by three things:

  1. The degree to which Kwast insisted this is something that could quite nearly be "built today." He only retired in September; he should be up to speed, even if he maybe shouldn’t be talking about it.

  2. The fact that the U.S. government spends about $156.8 billion a year on military research and development. It can’t all go for $10,000 toilet seat covers.

  3. The simple fact that things that seem technologically impossible have a way of quickly becoming commonplace.

The Farewell

That last point keeps hitting me hard. As an example, we watched The Farewell the other night. (Good movie, highly recommended.)

The movie is basically about a young woman in New York, played by Awkwafina, and her relationship with her family, especially her grandmother in China.

But, the grandmother and granddaughter wouldn’t have had much of a relationship to begin with, except that Awkwafina's character makes a habit of calling her grandmother in Changchun, while she walks around Queens living her daily life.

Those phone calls would have been science fiction not so long ago. Now, they’re a minor plot point, hardly worth noting.

‘Sizes will go out the window’

Here’s another. Last month, I linked to a story about the CEO of Levi Strauss, Chip Bergh, who had predicted that very soon, clothes will no longer come in sizes.

“Sizes will go out the window 10 years from now,” he said. "Everyone can do their own body scan on a camera.”

That’s probably less of a big technical deal than transporting people around the world in an hour — or talking with your relatives on the other side of the world on a whim.

But it would have huge second and third order effects.

  • More online purchases, because there would be even less need to try things on in stores.

  • No more running out of items in a particular size.

  • Fewer returns, which also means less wasted inventory and delivery costs.

Not ‘going backwards’

I think this is all catching my eye, because of an argument that Peter Thiel made a little while back.

He posits that the United States is falling behind, because we’ve supposedly redefined the idea of technological innovation to focus exclusively on one area: information technology.

“We’re going backwards. People are going to have less electricity. And we’re not even noticing this because we’re stuck, glued to our cell phones all the time,” Thiel said.

And yet, line up the examples since then: the Air Force general, and 100 percent bespoke clothes, and nonchalant, instant communication almost anywhere in the world — oh, and this story about scientists in Iceland supposedly figuring out a way to combat climate change by turning carbon dioxide into stone.

There’s a lot in the world right now that can make you pessimistic.

But dare I say it? Technology just might be what saves us.

And if it doesn’t, at least our clothes will fit better.

7 other things worth a click

  1. It took 25 years, but "All I Want for Christmas" is finally at the top of the charts for the first time ever. (Buzzfeed News)

  2. Supreme Court: Homeless people can sleep on the sidewalk. (Los Angeles Times)

  3. In Japan you can hire a middle-aged man for $9 an hour to listen to you complain, do your chores, or ward off stalkers. (Business Insider)

  4. Clint Eastwood’s ‘Richard Jewell’ flops, despite rave reviews. (New York Post)

  5. This article about why smart TVs cost so little is from last year, but it's still important. (Best phrase inside: "post-purchase monetization of the TV.") (Business Insider)

  6. I don't normally link to photos of guys showing off their washboard abs, but this actor's explanation of his profound transformation is pretty amazing. (Buzzfeed News)

  7. The Navy made Harvey Milk resign for being gay. Now they’re going to name a ship after him. (The Washington Post)

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