Transcendance

TranscendenceIt’s not surprising that AI replaced the biological form in the popular Frankenstein monster trope. In fact the smart-evil-machine scenario has been done so often this past decade or so that I’m more surprised any film writer or director can manage to give it some semblance of uniqueness that differs it from all the others.

Transcendence tries, tries very hard and almost makes it. But the brass ring remains out of reach. Still, it’s worth watching if you’re a scifi buff because, well, it’s scifi.* And even bad scifi is better than no scifi at all. Well, maybe not the Transformer franchise, but pretty much the rest of it.

More than that, while it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, it does use a lot of nifty sets and special effects, even if the topic isn’t all that new.

The evil robot has been with us in film for a very long time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis was the first to portray a sentient robot (the ‘Maschinenmensch’). That robot was created to “resurrect” the creator’s former lover. In Transcendence, the character of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is similarly “resurrected” but in virtual space: inside a computer. And of course he/it evolves/develops within those confines to something more than human.

Angry non-techies storm the castle with pitchforks and burn the whole place down. Well, okay it’s an underground data centre in the desert and they use artillery, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s a monster movie with CGI lipstick. And better yet, it’s in the $8 bin (with both Blu-Ray and DVD editions in the case…) at Wal Mart. But be prepared to question the premise. And a lot more.
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The birth and death of privacy

Dilbert
I was in a local grocery store recently and it was my misfortune to enter, and walk most of the same aisles at the same time as a voluble woman shopper. She spent her entire time there on her cell phone. From before she entered, through the time she collected her groceries, went through the cash register, and exited, she did not once stop talking. Loudly.

And it was a very personal, intimate conversation, as I and those in her near vicinity heard. Not intimate as in sexual, but she talked about private and personal issues, about other people, her feelings, her job, and so on. Did I mention she was loud? Loud enough to hear her clearly at the far end of the aisle.

The whole store was her audience. I saw other shoppers looking at her, some staring angrily, but she was oblivious. And that made me wonder if we have, thanks to the swell of new technologies, entirely abandoned the notion of privacy that we have slowly crafted over the past three millennia.

No we haven’t, says Neil M. Richards, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, In 2014, he published a paper on “Four Privacy Myths.” In it, he wrote:

…if we think about privacy as outdated or impossible, our digital revolution may have no rules at all, a result that will disempower all but the most powerful among us… we can no longer think about privacy as merely how much of our lives are completely secret, or about privacy as hiding bad truths from society. How we shape the technologies and data flows will have far-reaching effects for the social structures of the digital societies of the future.

It is possible, I suppose, that the woman on her phone was just an unusually rude and inconsiderate person. But I’ve seen too many similar incidents with other people to believe she is a rare example. It’s not just her lack of cell-phone manners: it was her attitude towards her personal information that caught my attention and made me research the intersection of privacy and technology.

Actually, most of our modern, Western notions of privacy are quite new, many culturally instilled only in the last 150 years. Personal privacy, as we now consider it, was not the norm before the 19th century.  (Aside from sexual privacy, which historically was preserved, but is being eroded by the vast tsunami of online pornography, including celebrity sex tapes and images…). The camera, in the late 19th century, was really the spark that lit the conversation about privacy.

Greg Ferenstein has put together a fascinating history of privacy in 46 images that shows how we developed our idea of having a private space over the ages. It’s quite enlightening.

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Books versus E-readers

Books vs ereaderBack in February, Naomi Baron wrote a piece calledReading on-screen versus on paper,” in which she compared the two reading experiences: printed books and e-readers in five areas:

  • Cost
  • Container vs content
  • Environmental impact
  • Quality of screens
  • Concentration

Baron actually looks at these as true-or-false questions, not really comparisons. She doesn’t address issues like aesthetics, tactile sense or emotional response, or the relative value of hypertext to content, nor does she tread into the science and ergonomics of reading. For that, you have to look elsewhere. Which, of course, I did.

First let me state that it is not really an us-vs-them situation: e-readers vs printed books. Both technologies co-exist quite comfortably and each has its own merits. Neither will displace the other, and our civilization cannot survive with only digital content.*

Several Pew Research studies have shown that the number of Americans owning e-readers is still modest (24 percent by the end of 2013 but 32 percent by Jan. 2014; compared with tablet ownership which was at 42 percent by 2014) and the number of adults who had read an e-book within the previous year was a mere 28 percent with only 4 percent reading e-books exclusively (up to 5 percent by 2014). That, however, is a slowly growing figure.**

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Comets, Aliens and Conspiracy Wingnuts

Image from RosettaThe European Space Agency has accomplished one of the greatest engineering and scientific achievements in human history this past week. Not only did it get a space vehicle into orbit around a comet travelling at more than 55,000 km/hr (34,000 mph), it landed a probe on the very rough surface of that comet. Outstanding, brilliant, superb… the superlatives fail me when trying to describe this event.

The Rosetta spacecraft chased Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for ten years (since March, 2004) travelling almost four billion miles (6.4 b km) to rendezvous with the small chunk of icy rock, currently about 510 million kilometres away from Earth.

The rubber-duck-shaped comet is about 2.5 miles across at its widest: a tiny body compared to even a  mid-sized asteroid, and it’s blacker than coal. Even finding it in the emptiness of space is a remarkable feat, let alone establishing an orbit around it and sending back stunning photographs. But if that isn’t incredible enough, yesterday Rosetta deployed Philae, a tiny lander, to settle on the rapidly rotating comet, to take photos and conduct experiments – a feat so remarkable it defies description.

This is the sort of scientific effort we should be celebrating worldwide, shouting about it from the rooftops. But apparently the wingnut crowd has a different view. They think it’s an alien spacecraft the ESA is secretly monitoring (with the nefarious military and secret government agencies, of course).

It took almost no time for the conspiracy theorists “identified” UFOs, towers and alien monuments, faces, radio towers and even a pyramid in the photos broadcast from the comet. The internet is polluted with this kind of nonsense.

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Testing a Homeplug-Powerline Network

DlinkI’ve had some wireless issues for quite some time now. There are dead spots in the house – a central wall has metal ducts and a gas fireplace, which are beside the laundry room with its metal-enclosed washer and dryer. About 5-6m of metal interfere with the wireless signal. The modem is attached to the cable, which comes through the north side of the house, and there are no other active cable outlets in other rooms (there are outlets for cable, but they’ve never been properly connected).

Plus the ducts and pies in the basement and the metal front door interfere with the signal out of doors, making it difficult to get good reception in a large portion of the yard – including our favourite summer sitting location; the newly rebuilt front deck.

 

And just to confound matters, my Acer Aspire laptop has the annoying habit of losing its internet connection – while all my other wireless devices are fine – although it can see other networks nearby and even connect to my modem. Just not the net.

I’ve looked at all sorts of solutions, from wireless extenders and bridge routers, to rewiring a large portion of the house to accommodate moving the cabling to allow the modem to be placed closer to the laptop. I’ve moved the modem a few times, but the reception has only improved indoors – out of doors it remains unstable.

There is often a 10-metre ethernet cable running across the floor between laptop and modem when I want to be sure my access isn’t interrupted. Susan hates it. It’s a trip hazard and looks hokey.

This week I decided to try a different approach (a suggestion from Neville on Facebook): a powerline (aka homeplug) network extender. It’s a whole area I knew nothing about before this week, except for the vague understanding that the network connects via the AC power lines in your home.

Basically you plug one adapter into a wall socket and attach it to your modem via a (shorter) ethernet cable. They you plug in a second adapter somewhere else in your house, preferably close to your computer, do whatever the device needs to establish a connection (in my case, push a button). When they connect, you plug another (shorter) cable into the adapter and your computer.

But which one? Which type, which standard, which brand, which feature set? That’s what I spent most of my past few days studying. Reading reviews, technical papers, speed tests, manufacturers’ claims. Prices range from $40 to almost $150 for the minimal two adapters. Why the difference and would it really matter to me?

In the end I went low-end rather than cutting-edge. I bought a D-Link “PowerLine AV 500 Network Starter Kit (DHP-309AV) from the local Staples store. Took all of two minutes to set it up, another minute to connect cables and my laptop was connected to the internet.

And if it proves itself in the upcoming months, I may look at the new models due out this fall to upgrade to the new AV2 standard, and get some extra ethernet ports strung around the house.

Chasing storms on Saturn

There’s a beautiful video about the Cassini mission and its images of the storms on Saturn at the New York Times website. It’s amazing to see what images and information science has given us about a planet 886 billion miles (1.4 billion kms) away and its odd collection of rings and 60 moons.

Saturn’s storms

Saturn takes 30 years to orbit the Sun and in January, 2014, began its first spring in 15 years. Until then, the northern hemisphere was shrouded in darkness and the rings tilted away from us. Now the north pole is in sunlight and the magnificent, monstrously large, hexagonal storm at its centre is clearly visible. The video makes it quite an entertaining and awe-inspiring sight.

The hexagonal shape, while unusual, is natural and has been replicated in the laboratory. It is not, as some wingnut conspiracy theorists suggest, a supernatural event, anything to do with aliens or the gates of hell (nor, as uber wingnut David Icke has suggested, is Saturn a giant, artificial broadcasting device… ).

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61mdtQDl9k8]

Cassini will be travelling right over the north pole in 2016 in its final – and perhaps most spectacular – mission, for a close-up view of the storm. You can read more about the weird hexagonal storm on the JPL website. The eye of the storm alone in 1,240 miles across (2,000 kms) and the dorm itself is estimated at 60 miles (100kms) deep.

Cassini took seven years to reach Saturn, but that’s a short time compared to New Horizons, which will reach Pluto next July, after a voyage of nine years.

In related news, the spacecraft Rosetta arrived at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last week, the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet. The images sent back so far have been breathtaking. Rosetta is in orbit 62 miles (100 kms) from the comet, but will soon lower to 31 miles (50kms) to prepare for a landing. Rosetta took ten years to reach its target.

All of this is truly exciting, inspirational stuff, isn’t it? Science never ceases to amaze and astound me.