Final Entry of 2012

Well, the world didn’t end (which is good, otherwise my end of world prediction would have been totally wrong).

I haven’t posted much this year. In fact, i think personal blog entries are in decline across the board. While there are some people who still write entries almost daily or at least weekly, i’m definitely not one of them. Social networking sites (ala Facebook) have pretty much supplanted the day-to-day electronic “hey, check this out”, and “ooh, i’m feeling…”, or “guess what just happened” posts.

But even so, i’ll continue to keep my blog around and i will even post to it occasionally, but mostly it’ll be for longer items or summaries of lots of littler items. If you want the day to day minutia check out my Facebook, Google+, or Twitter pages.

Here’s a great article i wanted to share. It just goes to show that we’re living in the future. It lists 12 things that happened in 2012 that could have come out of some sci-fi movies from 15-20 years ago. And these are all things that really happened this year!

I grouped these all together because they have a common theme: the merging of technology and biology in some way.

  • A Cyborg Competes Against Able-Bodied Athletes at the Olympics
  • Researchers Create a Robot With Legs That Can Run Faster Than any Human
  • Scientists Enhance the Intelligence of Primates with a Chip
  • The World’s First Cybernetic Hate Crime Occurs at a McDonalds in France
  • A Paralyzed Woman Controls a Robotic Arm Using Only Her Mind
  • Scientists Create an Artificial Retina
  • Researchers Create the First Complete Computer Model of a Living Organism
  • A Child Attends School By Sending a Robot in His Place

Forget about who’s on drugs, now it’s all about what does it mean to be human – how many implants are too many before you can’t compete? Will everyone need implants to stay competitive in high-end sporting competitions? Will that bleed over into everyday life? Job discrimination ala Gattaca if you aren’t genetically enhanced?

If we can make outselves smarter, why not chimps. Or dogs, or cats, or mice? Will they eventually be at the point where they can compete for jobs, demand rights, own property, or even publish scientific papers? And if we can do it on a chip, why bother with bioligy anyway – let’s just do it all in silicone. It’s more durable and takes less resources. Maybe we start with a chip, combine with cybernetic implants, and eventually move on to full-on brain uploads in the cloud!

When will it get to the point where new laws need to be enacted? People always fear those who are different. But maybe eventually “unenhanced humans” will be the oddballs and they’ll be the ones discrimiated against.

Doctors Communicate With a Man in a Coma
Maybe some implants will help and eventually he can control a cyborg body with just his mind.

NASA Starts to Work on a Faster-Than-Light Warp Drive
This is a serious attempt with actual NASA engineers using real (and according to them, plausible) math to achieve faster-than-life travel.

The Earth Experiences its First True Superstorm
Well, maybe not the first, but certainly the first in modern history.

The First Successful Commercial Cargo Delivery to Space Goes Off Without a Hitch
Who needs big government anymore? Maybe we will finally get to take that 2 week vacation to the moon someday (soon-ish).

The First Large-Scale Geoengineering Project is Detected Off Canada’s West Coast
This sounds like a James Bond super-villian storyline.

Self-Driving Cars Become Legal in Several States
It’ll be a while before people are ready to let the car drive itself, but every year the cars get smarter and have more features. Back-up collision detection, anti-lock breaks, off-road steering correction, self-park mode, enhanced HUD’s with relevant traffic/weather information. Slowly but inexorably they’re all moving towards self-driving with humans as simply passengers along for the ride.

Bye bye birdie!

Last night i decided to do a digital reset of sorts. Ok, well maybe it was thrust upon me because silly me forgot to do a backup before i flashed a new custom rom on my phone. ALWAYS DO A FULL BACKUP FIRST!!!!

I usually do a backup. But i’d flashed this particular rom on several previous occasions and it had always worked flawlessly. Enter Murphy and his annoying law. This was at about 11pm. You know that sinking feeling you get when something really REALLY bad has happened and you’re not sure you can fix it? Ya, that’s what i felt when i was looking at my blank screen. Welcome to “you’ve been bricked”.

After several hours of frustration (at 2am i finally gave up, resigned to having to get a new phone soon – wasn’t that going to be a fun conversation to have with the wife. $$$). But wait, the story has a happy ending. Bear with me. I crashed, and woke up early (it’s impossible to sleep in with young school aged kids in the house). And within about 30 minutes my phone was humming along nicely. Moral of the story? Well. 1st moral: ALWAYS BACKUP before you do something potentially dangerous. 2nd moral: Never try to solve complicated tech problems at 2am.

Sadly, since i hadn’t backed up recently, the best i could do was restore an older backup from 2 months ago. Which might not seem all that bad. But … 2 months of angry birds 3 star levels lost? Seriously. That’s what i was most worried about. Everything else i could either get back through “the cloud” or my other backups. But my angry birds data was irretrievably lost :(

But as the day went on and i starting bringing things back online one by one, i realized something. Probably 90% of the “stuff” i had on my phone was digital clutter that i didn’t really care about. I hightly doubt i’ll miss it (including the angry birds, angry birds rio, angry birds seasons, angry birds space, and bad piggies games that sucked so much of my time). I’m curious to see what i do end up putting back on. Liberation!

Fish vs Robots

Do Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, Babylon 5, Red Dwarf, V, and even War of the Worlds have it all wrong? If we or other aliens were to travel into space and go to other worlds, would we really be living inside of spaceships that attempt to mimic our native environment?

The following article (provocatively titled ‘Biological Intelligence is Only a Transitory Phenomenon’) suggests that the answer is no. And not just no, but “hell no, that’s just stupid, what are you thinking?” Here are some quotes from the article to give you a flavor of what they’re talking about:

any aliens exploring the universe will be AI-empowered machines. Not only are machines better able to endure extended exposure to the conditions of space, but they have the potential to develop intelligence far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe … If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.

The two scientists compared that approach [i.e. spacesuits and space ships] to “a fish taking a small quantity of water along with him to live on land.” They felt that humans should be willing to partially adapt to the environment to which they would be traveling. … “Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space,

So, are they right? Is it a silly idea to think that we want to go somewhere (let’s say Mars for arguments sake) that we aren’t adapted to, without changing outselves? Suppose we could alter our physical selves with gene thereapy, cyborg implents, etc.. so that we could live on Mars without a big bubble and/or terraforming the planet. Is that a better way to go? Or should we build the portable fish tank to take with us as we explore the cosmos? I can see arguments on both sides.

Pro fish tank: We aren’t ourselves anymore if we change. How can we be human and want what humans want if we’re part robot, part martian?

Pro fish tank: We can share all the cool things we have here with those elsewhere (be they aliens or other human visitors). You won’t be able to experience that if you haven’t brought along the right environment.

Pro post-biological: When in Rome …

Pro post-biological: If you change the place you’re going to, you might destroy whatever it was you were going there for in the first place. Disrupt the habitat, kill off the locals (intentional/unintentional), etc..

Pro post-biological: If you adapt to live in the environment you inhabit, you can experience it as it is, not via some proxy.

Pro post-biological: You don’t have to worry about the bubble cracking and all your air leaking away. You also don’t have to worrya bout too much or too little gravity or light, etc..

Pro fish tank: Space ships are cool. So are shelds, lasers, photon torpedos and cloaking devices.

Pro post-biological: Space suits are not comfortable or easy to wear, and they simply will never ever be fashionable.


Full article can be found here.

The Grid

Sparked by the recent Tron movie, i started thinking about the hyper-evolved 1980’s environment which is “The Grid”.  Couple this with an interesting podcast discussion i was listening to about how different generations are interested in different things, and i find myself with something to post. :)

Think back to when you were in your teens.  What was the cool new thing at the time?  For my generation, it was home computers.  Sure, computers had been around for decades as big giant mainframes and house-sized computers in universities and government buildings.  But it wasn’t really until the early 80’s that they became accessible to the masses through the likes of Atari, Amiga, and Commodore.  They were magical things.  The world suddenly opened up to me.  I had this little box that i could control.  I could play pixelated games in 4 colors.  I could write papers and design ascii-art banners and send them to a dot matrix printer.  It made little bleep sounds.  And the best part?  I could write my own programs to do anything i could imagine (well … limited to the sparse programming materials i could find at the time).

The home computer was a wonder.  To my parents it was a little scary.  They didn’t quite know what to do with it.  They coped, but it’s never really been a core part of their lives.  Now let’s rewind a generation.  What’s the cool thing when my parents were growing up?  Televisions in every home?  They probably thought that was the coolest thing ever.  To me, a tv is just a tv.  It’s always been there.  No big deal.  I use it, i like it, but it doesn’t inspire me.

Rewind further.  Radio.  You can actually hear what someone is saying hundreds or perhaps even thousands of miles away.  At the same time as other people all around the country!  They’re talking TO YOU.  Telling funny stories, playing old time music.  But to me (and to my parents i’d imagine), it’s just a radio.  You use it, it’s there.  Certainly not awe-inspiring like it was to the generation when it first came out.  We can go further back, but i think you get the idea.

Let’s instead move forward a bit.  My kids.  They have computers.  All around them.  I’ve got phones that are far more powerful than any computer i had growing up.  My kids have them, they use them, they’re convenient.  But so what?  They’re just things.  They don’t inspire awe or imagination.  They are inspired by other things (although i haven’t quite figured out what it is yet.  Smart phones, music players, the internet, mmorpg’s, youtube, facebook, 3d movies)?

There is no “grid” for them.  Which is why Tron is probably just another movie to people from before or after my generation.  Sure, it’s got amazing special effects.  The soundtrack rocks.  But the concept of programs that look and act like us living inside of a virtual city?  To me, it was something cool to ponder and imagine.  Could it really happen?  To my kids … ehh.  They don’t have the context of wonder that i had back in the early 80’s when PC’s were just coming into their own and the grid was an exciting and revolutionary idea.  And it makes me a little sad.  And also a little curious and excited to see what the next revolutionary awe-inspiring thing will be.

Our post human selves

“Yesterday’s posthumanism is today’s boring quotidian [everyday/commonplace].”

In reading an interesting blog post about posthumanism, the author makes several good points. First off, people seem to think of being post human as something where whoever survives the apocalypse will be turned into machine zombies or something. If you stop to think about it, “post human” is something that you can really apply to us today, if viewed from the eyes of people even a century or two ago. I mean, we’ve got these little devices that fit in our pockets that connect us to the sum total of the worlds information at the click of a button. We can travel from one end of the earth to the other in hours. And we can communicate with anyone anywhere instantly (unless you’re on AT&T, then you might drop the call, but hey…) If you’re hard of hearing or have bad eyesight? No problem. Just get a hearing aid or some glasses. If your heart is bad – we can replace that. Lose a leg? Get a new one. Can’t have a baby? Grow one “in vitro”.

Do these things mean we’re no longer human? Should you go without glasses and see the world in a ball of fuzz just so you’re more “pure” somehow? Of course not. And as time moves forward, more and more things will change, and we’ll change along with them, and we’ll still be human. Or, as Jamais Cascio puts it in his article:

We will never be posthuman, because we have always been posthuman.

“Posthuman” is a term with more weight than meaning; it’s used variously to describe people with altered genomes, people with implanted machinery, people with lifespans measured in millennia, and a whole host of descriptors that ultimately boil down to “not us, not now.”

But as augmentations move from the pages of a science fiction story to the pages of a catalog, something interesting happens: they lose their power to disturb. They’re no longer the advance forces of the techpocalypse, they’re the latest manifestation of the fashionable, the ubiquitous, and the banal. They’re normal. They’re human.

technologies that we now celebrate or decry as leading to our posthuman future … the technologies of human augmentation will lead to the collapse of society … [but] the spread of the Internet and easy communication will mean that most of us will have heard about these technologies as they develop. By the time they arrive, they’ll already be boring.

Posthumanity, from this perspective, will always be just over the horizon. Always in The Future. When the systems and augmentations we now consider to be posthuman hit the real world, they will have become simply human in scale.

That’s because augmentation – the development of systems and technologies to allow us to do and to be more than what our natural biology would allow – is intrinsic to what it means to be human. Thrown weapons expanded the range of our strength; control of fire allowed us to see in the dark; written words expanded the duration of our memories. If these all sound utterly primitive and unworthy of comment, try to imagine what it would have been like to be without them – and to find yourself competing against others equipped with them. The last hundred thousand years has been the slow history of the process of augmentation.

For the people living in a future surrounded by altered genomes, implanted machinery, and vastly extended lifespans, it will all be boringly normal. Unworthy of comment. And very, very human.

Why my bluetooth headset doesn’t like that i’m a lefty

For our anniversary last week, Luann and I decided to go out and each get a set of nice bluetooth stereo headsets for our phones.  We each had different uses in mind. She wanted some light-weight behind the ears/neck that would be good for exercising.  I wanted a nice set that would give excellent sound quality for music / sitting in a cube type setting.  After some searching, we both found what we were looking for.

After a short honeymoon with my new headphones, i started to notice a glitch.  The sound would occasionally cut out briefly.  It was intermittent and sometimes just happened once, sometimes repeatedly.  I couldn’t figure it out.  Did i get a buggy headset?  Was my phone not compatible?  I’d done my research.  These were highly recommended headphones and my phone supported all the right bluetooth specs.

I wasn’t about to give up so easily though.  I loved these things, when they worked.  So last Friday (the same day as the coke incident), i had them on and was just cleaning the kitchen (again, refer to the coke incident) when i noticed the occasional cut-out.  But it only happened when i was facing a certain way.  I didn’t even have my phone in my pocket or anything.  It was sitting on a counter a few feet away from me.  Well within the bluetooth range.

Suddenly it hit me!  My bluetooth headphones didn’t like the fact that i was left-handed.  I kid you not!  No, seriously.  Stop laughing.  It’s absolutely true, and i’ll tell you why.  Whenever my phone was on my right, it worked flawlessly.  Whenever my phone was on my left they would occasionally cut-out.  Why?  Simple.  The headphones receiver is on the right.  Yep.  A simple obstruction like my head or my body or occasionally even my hands/arms would be enough to block the signal for just a second.

This isn’t a big deal for voice when you’re on the phone, but if you’re listening to music at high bitrates, the little pops and cutouts are really annoying.

Solution: Put my phone in my RIGHT pocket rather than my left pocket.  Also, keep it on the right side of my desk at work instead of the left.

Where the web might go

All the information quoted is here from an article on this website (but that doesn’t appear to have a permalink). The premise of the article is about a guy who wants to be the next CEO of Apple. Good for him. And some bits of the article – mostly towards the front and back – talk about Apple-specific ideas. That’s not what caught my attention. What did catch my eye was his vision of where the world is headed in the next decade. It’s truly visionary and i agree – in large part – with his assessment.

In just ten years, there won’t be any more PCs or MP3 players, there won’t even be any “smart phones” or televisions as we know them today. There won’t be any operating systems for consumers, no downloadable music, no DVDs, and 100% of today’s software will be retired. We’re on the brink of the Semantic Web, a transformation as significant and different as everything we’ve built over the last forty years. The Semantic Web will slowly but surely accelerate us from the old flat innovation curve to a new, disruptive, hyperconnected future.

We’ve spent the last thirty years recreating our old paper documents and filing cabinets on hard drives – same information, just with an easier way to move it from place to place. We’ve gotten very good at integrating hard drives and memory chips into our lives, so we can see all those 19th-Century paper documents on our screens. Where we’re going, we don’t need hard drives and memory chips. Instead, we’ll have ubiquitous access to the Semantic Web. Whether it goes on your wall or in your pocket, all devices are simply “screens” that can see the semantic web, and the screens will come in all sizes, from one centimeter square to wall-size. They will wrap around you or project onto the side of your igloo. They might just be built into your glasses. Ray Ozzie calls this your device mesh.

For consumers, there will be many benefits. Your online identity will be safer and more powerful. You’ll do everything you do today from your online semantic desktop. Your calendar will hook to all your activities, so it can keep up with you automatically and work with others’ calendars to actively help you coordinate your schedule. Your resume is always up to date, and interesting job offers flow in as they are created by employers – you can adjust the flow according to your desire for a new job. Your health records will stay online under your control, and you’ll choose who gets to see them. Your financial information will all be in one place, so you can direct what happens to it. Your taxes are always prepared. Your photos go straight from your camera to the server – no memory cards to lose. You’ll access all your social networks from one place. Lose your phone? No problem – take mine and log in. Want to watch any movie ever made? Listen to music you’ve never heard but really enjoy? No problem – the Semantic Web will stream it to you, and you’ll never manage or back-up your media collection again. All your assets and ownership are under your control – you’ll be able to see every mile your car has been driven, the temperature in every room of your house, and when the next train arrives at the subway stop near you. You’ll have full information portability so you can take your account from one vendor to another. All your information will live in the cloud and be woven into every product you use. You’ll have VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) tools that put you in control. You’ll work with marketers on your terms, not theirs. Your will won’t be a paper document; it will be an executable document that can work for you long after you’re gone.

For businesses, the spaghetti of text and keywords that today serve as electronic mimics of our previous paper-and-pencil records will be replaced by meaningful, semantic documents that are like plug-and-play lego bricks: reusable modules of information that stay in one place and give your business more leverage than you can imagine.

For professionals the world will change completely. You’ll do everything from your social semantic desktop – your control room that gives you access to everything and everyone you need. We’ll see the emergence of passive commerce and passive search – where you specify exactly what you’re looking for and it will find you, rather than the other way around.

The only hesitation i have is that everything will be in the cloud. I agree that a lot of stuff should/will be there, but i’m not entirely convinced that we’ll get rid of our desktops and throw out all our hard drives. Consider gaming. That takes a lot of processing power, and if you have to do all that off-site somewhere and transfer all the data in real-time, it could be prohibitive. What about process and data intensive tasks? How much will is cost to “rent cycles” off someone’s CPU to grind away at some calculations? Will it be cheaper than just running something at home? What if there’s not enough bandwidth or the server goes down? You’ll need offline storage of critical pieces. I don’t think the OS is going away. But it will certainly transform.

Regardless, the future is coming fast and i can’t wait to see what it brings.

Why I enjoy my phone so much

I just love my phone. It’s awesome. But why doesn’t it get old after a while? You know – just become something that i use when i need it, and aside from that, it just sits there in my pocket?

I think there are several reasons for this. First is the fact that’s it’s just so useful. I mean, it does so much more than calls. It shows me weather and news, which are constantly updated. I can check movies, sports scores (like i ever do that), order tickets, find a place to eat, play a quick game, read a book, update my facebook status. So reason #1 – it’s a window into the digital world and i’m constantly using it. Thus it never gets old.

But i think, at least personally for me, the number one reason i love my phone is because i can write programs for it. I can have it do whatever i can magine. It’s my “little computer” (as Alex used to so fondly call these things when he was younger). There’s always some new frontier to be conquered. Some new thing to try and make it do. It never gets old, because i’ve never exhausted all the possibilities.

B&N: The Nook

Rumors show that Barnes & Noble is gearing up to release an e-book reader aimed directly at the Kindle. It uses an e-ink screen, has wi-fi, runs Android (i can just see all the hacks now), has an expandable sd-card slot, can download books over the air using AT&T’s network, and (here’s the killer feature) it will let you “loan” your ebooks to other Nook readers. That’s the thing that really differentiates it in my mind.

Don’t get me wrong – i love my kindle. I use it almost every day and have never had a problem. But … if i had other friends with Kindle’s and could loan books around … that would just make it all that much better. I hope that a firmware update will address this issue in the near future – especially since it looks like there’s now some competition. Bring it on!

Garmin TOPO map

I’ve got a Garmin unit that i’ve had for a few years now (60CSx). We occasionally take it out to go geocaching or on trips, but we don’t use it nearly as much now as we once did. My phone and my wife’s phone both have GPS units built in, and there are some pretty nice programs to do navigation as well as geocaching right from them. And our car has a built-in gps unit with navigation as well. But sometimes it still comes in handy.

One thing that’s really nice is the topographical maps that can be loaded on it. The only problem is that if you load multiple maps (such as street maps and topo maps), only one map shows at a time, and it’s the street map by default. In order to show the topo map you have to hide the street map.

No problem, right? Except when i actually tried to figure out how to do this, it took about 15 minutes of google searches and pouring through pdf manuals to figure it out. Talk about non obvious! Anyway, here are the steps, for future reference:

  1. view the map screen
  2. press Menu
  3. select “Setup Map” and press enter
  4. select “info” and press Menu
  5. check the option you want (such as “hide street map”)
  6. enjoy your topo maps. Be sure to show street map later to get back on the road