Forty years of geekitude

TRS-80 Model 1It was forty years ago this fall, in 1977, that I bought my first computer. I had little experience with computers prior to that – a few weeks working after hours on an APL system at the U of T, mostly to play games against the machine, reading a few magazine articles on the coming ‘personal’ computer wave. Nothing seriously hands-on, experience-wise, and no programming skills either. But as soon as I saw one, I had to have it. And so I bought one.

Since then, I have not been a day without one, and generally had more than just one in my home. As many as six or seven at one time, back in the early 1980s, all different brands. But that was when I was writing about them, editing computer books and writing computer manuals.

My first computer was a TRS 80, Model 1. TRS stood for Tandy Radio Shack. It was a 16KB computer (yes: that’s 16,384 bytes of memory) In comparison, my current laptop has 8GB, or 8,388,608 kilobytes: 512 times the Model 1’s amount of RAM!

It was powered by a Zilog Z-80 eight-bit processor. My current machines all run 64-bit, multi-core processors. It had no USB ports, didn’t use a mouse, and had no audio card. Smartphones today are more versatile and more powerful. But not as much fun.

Before I bought it, I debated for a week or two whether to get the TRS or the competing Commodore PET, powered by the 6502 processor. It had similar limitations in memory and input devices, but came with a green and black screen integrated with the keyboard in one unit. But the TRS was sold at a nearby Radio Shack store within walking distance, and they also offered nighttime classes to teach the basics. The PET was only sold at stores downtown, so I bought the closer one.

I had to boot it and load programs from a cassette tape player. A year or so later, I upgraded to a 64KB RAM system and dual floppy (5.25″) drives. Each floppy could hold about 160KB of programs or data. It had a standalone B & W monitor that didn’t have any graphic capability, although canny programmers used the blocks in the ASCII character set to create pseudo-graphics (a bit like today’s Dwarf Fortress game displays, but only in B&W).
Continue reading “Forty years of geekitude”

The 10 Worst?

Tin foil hat
Skeptoid just published its top-ten worst anti-science websites and I’m sure you won’t be surprised at the awardees, especially not the regulars like Mercola, Dr. Oz, Deepak Chopra and Food Babe (aka the Worst Assault on Science on the Internet). Predatory quacks, crackpots and fakirs you will easily recognize. Surprisingly, the uber-wingnut David Wolfe was absent this year.

Some of these sites sugar-coat their nonsense with pseudo-spirituality, usually some mashup of New Age codswallop and ancient mumbo-jumbo. Many ascribe their claptrap to traditional – non-medical, unproven and anti-science – practices like ayurveda or Chinese folk medicine, both of which can not only be harmful but often are damaging to other species and lifeforms. Others use rhetorical bafflegab to confuse people (Wolfe is a master at this tactic).

Having a top ten for pseudoscience and conspiracy claptrap is fun, but it’s identifying the point-oh-oh-one percent of that junk. There’s so much of it that no list – the top 100, the top 1,000 – could even scratch its infected surface. It’s hard to pick which of these hysterical charlatans and con artists should be rated among the top, they are all so despicable, foolish and greedy. Yes, greedy: they are all about the money: they have never been about your wellbeing, health or safety. Everyone of them is selling some snake oil.

Continue reading “The 10 Worst?”

Neanderthals: a love story

Squat, hairy, broad shoulders, a big nose, beetle-browed with a low forehead. As Blind Willie McTell wrote in his classic song, Statesboro Blues, “I know ain’t good lookin’, but I swear I’m some sweet woman’s angel child.” That line might have been written for early Neanderthal cousins. First described as dim-witted and brutish, our more recent assessment of them is far less critical, especially of their tool-making and culture.

But even the most complimentary of modern descriptions still make them out to be rather lumpish, heavyset characters. Barrel-chested. Robust, we call them today. Big brains, though, and better eyesight than we have. Nice personalities, too, I bet.

And it seems some of our own ancestors loved them for it. You never know what makes the heart strings sing, after all.

Humans and Neanderthals had sex. But was it for love? That’s the title of a recent article on Vox by Brian Resnick. It addresses the complexities behind human-Neanderthal coupling.

And couple they did. The results of which are bound within us, wrapped into our DNA even now: between one and four percent of our genetic strands are from Neanderthal sources.* And they had about 97% of their DNA in common with ours. Who’s your daddy now?

(That Neanderthal DNA is most likely responsible for our plucky immune system, by the way…)

Resnick asks, And asks, “Could a human and a Neanderthal fall in love?” And I reply, “Why not?”
Continue reading “Neanderthals: a love story”

Flat earthers? Must be a spoof…

Flat earth and the BibleAt first, I thought a story on Tech.mic titled “Meet the People Who Believe the Earth Is Flat” was satire. You know, a parody of those zany conspiracy theorists who believe in such nonsense as chemtrails, gluten-free, the government staged the 9/11 attacks, homeopathy, vaccines cause autism, Trump is a good presidential candidate, astrology, creationism, climate change is a hoax, Collingwood Council has ethics, and the rest of the rampant silliness and stupidity that haunts the Net.

And it would be easy to write: wingnuts are almost too easy to lampoon. But no one can really believe the earth is flat, can they? I mean, come on: how stupid do you have to be? It’s gotta be a spoof.

Flat earth belief – or more properly, platygeism – goes beyond mere gullibility into the realm of a self-induced ignorance coma. As Rational Wiki succinctly puts it:

It is probably impossible for any single example to fully disprove flat-earthism, simply because there is always an ad hoc explanation for any given, apparently-contradictory phenomenon. However, it’s quite difficult for a flat-earthist to explain away all of the problems with flat-earthism and maintain a consistent theory, mostly because the “evidence” they provide is circumstantial, and generally pulled out of their asses.

But the article referenced a Facebook group, sites and some YouTube videos. A lot of them. If it’s a spoof, it’s a convoluted one with lots of seemingly disparate players. As conspiracies go, this one is easily debunked.

And they weren’t the sort of economic “flat earth” believers Thomas Friedman referenced in his book. Nor are they the metaphorical “flat earther” that Trump supporters are often described as. These are the mythical Dark Ages* sort of flat-earther dressed in New Age clothes. You know, the no-science, no-logic, no-education, superstitious piffle sort of believer with access to the internet. The kind that increasingly populate the dark corners of the web to grow conspiracies and wingnut ideas in the dark.

As I read, I started to get worried. This didn’t look spoofish at all. It looked frighteningly real. As if these people actually believed against all reason, all science, all geography, all physics and all astronomy that, yes indeed, we do live on a flat surface. As if these people were actually the most stupid on the planet and proud of it.

Continue reading “Flat earthers? Must be a spoof…”

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.
Continue reading “Transcendance”

The Postmortal

Grim reaperMortality. We all get it. It’s the one one incurable ailment all humans succumb to without a chance of succor. Mortality is always 100% fatal. No medicine, no therapy, no diet cure or magic pill. But as you read this, scientists are researching, seeking clues to unlock the mystery and, potentially, cure us of aging,of death by mortality. And they might achieve it.

Having officially reached the two-thirds mark in my life this past weekend (based on my family history, my health and my lifestyle…), mortality is more often in my own thoughts these days. Not morbidly so, but certainly more common than when I was half my age. So when I picked up Drew Magary’s novel, The Postmortal (Penguin Books, London, 2011), I was intrigued by the subject: immortality.

What if a simple, easily administered genetic treatment could stop you from aging from this day forward? Would you take it? I suspect the answer for most folk would be an immediate yes, especially if you’re under 50.

It wouldn’t reverse anything, wouldn’t protect you from disease, cancer, liver damage or falling down the stairs. It wouldn’t protect you from the increasing number of gun nuts who can easily get automatic weapons and spray night clubs, movie theatres, hospitals, clinics, schools and churches with bullets (well, in the USA, they do it, if not always in other nations where the NRA doesn’t own the politicians…). But, barring those things, it would freeze you in time at your ‘cure age.’ You would be 39, 35, 42… or 60, 75 and even 89 for the rest of time.

Assuming that civilization doesn’t fall apart and eat itself alive as a result of this new treatment. Which, Magary suggests, it’s likely to do. Very likely. But he makes the journey to that end a compelling, entertaining and very thought-provoking read. It’s not so much a fall, but a slow stumble into the dark.

Continue reading “The Postmortal”