Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Nifty little game engine

Stumbled across this game engine during my post-work surfing. Essentially this is a special relativity modeler, slowing down the virtual speed of light so some of the stranger, more paradoxical effects are visible in real time. There's an element of this video that verges on the 'ooh, trippy lights,' category of game demos, but I like the alternate perspective on science it offers.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Every once in awhile I'll run into a new word that will stick with me for a while. This word, hiraeth, is Welsh and represents one of those innumerable words that fall into broad category one might call 'unenglishable.'

Essentially the word is homesickness tinged with nostalgia, a wistful ache for something that wasn't ever actually experienced. There's a kind of tragic tone to the word as it often describes the feeling Welsh people feel for a homeland that was absorbed a long, long time ago into England.

Not so coincidentally, I consider myself Welsh in background. I'm a lot of things actually, Irish, Swedish, Scottish but, somehow my parent's calculation that I was at least 40% Welsh always resonated with me. Now, mind you, I never made the slightest effort to actually learn anything about my supposed homeland, allowing it to remain some hazy realm filled with scraps of hills and valleys, red dragons and an almost comically opaque language. Welsh was a homeland of the mind, an imagined, less-than-real place yearned for like a sweet dream half-forgotten.

I have that reaction to a great many things I realize, an attraction towards idealised, impossible pasts. If I'm being honest I think that at least partly explains my attraction to Star Trek. Star Trek while ostensibly about the future is really about the past. I grew up with the original series and then later The Next Generation. The dream of exploring the unknown really stuck with me and I realize now informs a great many of my subsequent decisions. I wanted to see new things, to experience modes of life, and to let all that I encountered proceed uninterrupted, unspoiled.

Also similar to my relationship with Wales, I never really invested all that much effort into learning the wider world of Star Trek's mythology. I don't go in for all of the fan-non, or obscure facets of the various incarnations of the world. It took me until this year to actually revisit the series and watch them through completely. I almost preferred to have them remain the way they were, vague and incomplete.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Long Weekend

Memorial Day is the start of the official countdown for me. I have a few more weeks of regular employment and then bring on the summer. I'm really looking forward to the two and a half months this year.

Last year I felt I made real progress making the switch from having this writing thing be a hobby to something, you know, else... I've written a half a dozen stories, gotten more or less to the rejection process, and developed a somewhat work schedule for this blog, writing stories, and then sending them out.

Still, the summer is when I get the bulk of work done. It's not too tough keeping up a regular schedule during the first half of the school year but once we get to this point the work load begins to expand exponentially. It will be nice to resume my routine of waking up at a decent hour, trundling over to the local cafe, and banging out a thousand or so words everyday. It's that routine that I've found really helps the process the most. When the product of a previous day's work is still fresh in your mind, you have something more to build from, more connections to tie together.

I'm hoping that story I've been working on for the entire spring gels together a bit better than it's on to a few more ideas I have sketched out. Recently, though, I've found myself thinking along the lines of another longer project, possibly something like a YA Space Opera. I couldn't find much along the lines of what I'm thinking other than old-school Heinlein and Asimov, which either suggests a unfilled, under-explored niche or a vast commercial graveyard. Either way, I give all of my projects the kind of audition process: prove yourself in five pages or less or get the hell out.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Watson's new gig

You might remember Watson as the black box digital Jeopardy champion from a few years back. You might have forgotten that after leaving showbiz, IBM's natural language-using super-computer turned to oncology, providing diagnosis based on user answers to questions. Now Watson is moving into the customer service industry, having been tapped to provide answers to chat, telephone, and email questions for Royal Bank of Canda, Nielson (television ratings), among other companies.

Because I do not work in a field that Watson could easily move into (for now), I can look at this development with a certain degree of dispassion. But here is more evidence that one huge industry previously dependent on human labor is about to be seriously disrupted. The point isn't that millions of telecommunications workers will suddenly be unemployed but rather that millions more will never be hired, their positions taken up by 'good-enough' intelligence of Watson.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Ship Itself

I saw Star Trek into Darkness again this weekend, same movie twice in three days, something I don't normally do. I wondered why to myself afterwards. What makes me want to see a movie again, especially back-to-back? As you might tell from my review, or possibly your own experience, the movie is good, very good in places, but certainly not the best-thing-I've-ever-seen great.

So why was I so enthralled? What was I hoping to get out of a repeat viewing?

To me it boils down to two images, one of which is a SPOILER and one of which is definitely not.

First, I loved the image of the monster crying. Benedict Cumberbatch does a phenonemal job selling a sinister and yet devoted Khan Noonien Singh. There is something so perversely right about the helpless rage he lapses into after surrendering to Kirk. He was convinced the others exiled with him had been killed and now he saw the possibility that they would be saved. The idea of these genetically, genocidal maniacs running around "continuing their work," is appalling but so is your own empathy for Khan in this moment. Khan is the beautiful monster as played by Cumberbatch: clever, manipulative, malevolent but still essentially human. That's not to slight Ricardo Montaban's take on the character obviously, but just to point out this movie's fully realized villain.

The other image I like follows the first act, immediately after the crew of the Enterprise has saved the primitive inhabitants of Nibiru. The Nibiru priest traces the silhouette of the star ship in the red sand which quick dissolves into the Enterprise racing across a field of stars on its way back to Earth. That image, of the ship and the stars is sails through, deftly expresses for me what is special about the show and the movies. The iconic NC-1701 form holds this sense of great speed and purpose, the promise of limitless exploration.

I find it difficult to be ironic about this aspect of Star Trek. In one sense, I know that the original design was inspired by stove parts and the model itself was made out of balsa wood and baling wire. I don't care. The union of saucer, nacelle and hull into a balanced organic shape evokes something that no other space ship (Star Wars, 2001, etc.) really matches. A sense of a working, functional thing with a background, a history, and an ongoing mission.

Consult the design notes on the original models and you see how some of the extremely vague notions from Gene Roddenberry got turned into the framework for the entire show. The nacelles are held outwards from the rest of the hull, suggesting engines of great power and danger. The saucer evokes something familiar and alien simultaneously: flying saucers and UFOs. The hull resembles a nuclear submarine, the aft shuttle bay the doors of a dirigible hanger. And yet when these diverse and somewhat contradictory elements get placed together something logical and terribly romantic emerges.

So yeah, I watched the show a second time and partly that was because the movie was funny and exciting and partly because when you peel away all of the 21st century spectacle, there's still something incredibly inspiring about a lone human ship setting course through all of the vast unknowns of the 23rd century.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek into Darkness review

Star Trek into Darkness poses a challenge to review without spoilers. So much of what makes it worth talking about, as a Trek fan, is bound up in the interplay between the mythology of Star Trek and the requirements of a summer blockbuster. Nevertheless, it's possible to talk about the first third of movie without getting into too much trouble so I'll start there.

J.J. Abrams' second movie opens on the planet Nibiru with James T. Kirk (again played by the very versatile and energetic Chris Pine) fleeing through a scarlet forest away from some sort of wicker ziggurant. He holds a scroll in his hand, which he informs Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban who at this point owns Bones' folksy snark) he saw the natives of the planet prostrating themselves in worship over. Overhead we see the roiling smoke of the volcano where Spock, Sulu, and Uhura (Zachary Quinto, John Cho, and Zoe Saldana) are getting ready to drop a 'cold fusion device' into an active volcano, freezing it before it destroys Nibiru (you have to smile that even with all of the lens flare embellishment, the reboot still hews to certain technobabble traditions).

None of this, the chase scenes, threatening volcano, strange alien races gets in the way of the reason why I watch Star Trek. The characters. What's pulled me into Trek since I was a kid is the vision of exploring the galaxy alongside your best friends and despite Abrams' love of twists and turns, it never loses touch with Roddenberry's youthful insistence the future could be like leaving college and joining the Peace Corps.

Not that this vision isn't challenged the second Kirk returns to Earth. Of course Kirk rescues Spock from the volcano, and manages to save the inhabitants of Nibiru. And if the Nibiru people did see the Enterprise rising out of their ocean, Kirk has no trouble saying: "who cares?" Pine's take on Kirk is absorbing and fun without really being Shatner's Kirk. As +Matthew McComb pointed out, this is Kirk as played by someone who can act. This might be a mixed blessing. Pine is able to give his Kirk a more interior life than Shatner, but that subtle reflectiveness undermines his aura of command and destiny. It would be laughable to imagine an Admiral demoting Shatner's Kirk and all-too-inevitable happening to Pine's Captain.

Fortunately Star Trek is an ensemble work, no character works alone to save the movie and here is where it can be safely said the strongest decision the reboot ever made was in casting. Zachary Quinto's Spock is an ideal foil for this more defensive and vulnerable Kirk. Where Leonard Nemoy was always able to project a certain campy dignity to Spock, Quinto shoots for a more painfully sincere, comedy straight man take on the character. This works just perfectly. Quinto's less self-aware Spock requires Pine's more self-aware Kirk, the two balance like an equation.

One of the themes of this movie appears to be consequences. Kirk's actions on Nibiru have an impact  on his career and relationships. Vulcan's destruction in the last movie has darkened the mood of Star Fleet. The admirals have become more inflexible, more regulation obsessed, and yet simultaneously more resigned to conflict and militarism. We're informed the Klingons are testing the Federation, taking over worlds on the alliance's periphery.

Just as we're adjusting to this dour tone, an explosion rips through the chrome towers of London. A figure quickly identified as a Star Fleet officer John Harrison (a utterly chilling Benedict Cumberbatch) claims responsibility although his motives are at first unclear. Star Fleet assembles to address the attack according to regulations and as Kirk quickly realizes, made themselves a convenient target. A jump ship piloted by John Harrison rakes the conference room with phaser fire, causing a great deal of mayhem and death.

Even in the first few glimpses of Harrison, I had a sense of a great potential villain. Cumberbatch, probably best known for his role on BBC's Sherlock, has an icy baritone voice matched with a psychotic's 1000-yard-stare.

Enraged by the cowardly attack, Kirk volunteers to follow Harrison to his refuge on Kronos, the Klingon homeworld. At this point the movie begins to take on the guise of a revenge film, certainly a well-established trope for summer action movies.

Which is where I got nervous. A few of the trailers made it seem as though the franchise had lost it's way. They emphasized the 'cop who doesn't care about the rules,' aspect of the story without offering a single scrap of Trek's trademark humanism. Star Trek can go dark, but it very rarely allows itself to wallow in depravity or atavism.

One of the best parts about this movie is how that revenge flick mask is constantly tugged askew. Harrison is probably the best villain in the franchise since First Contact, but he's a complicated menace with very clear motivations. In addition, Spock never let's Kirk slip into easy vengeance. Star Fleet gives the Enterprise a few guided missiles for a surgical strike on the killer.  If this was any other franchise, I would've assumed that would be that. But Star Trek remains different and I found myself gratified that an action movie can still find ways to point out obvious examples of the right thing to do.

 Maybe it's just my unfortunate viewing choices recently, but I have seen entirely too many Jack Bowers. On The Following it's gotten to the point where the first and last interrogation technique is the shooting the bad guy in the knee cap. I appreciate a movie that can look at evil in the face and still decide to show people taking the ethical and moral path.

Star Trek into Darkness is not the best action movie ever or even the best Trek movie, but it is very good. And maybe, just maybe, timely.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Real problems

Let's talk about real problems.

Not Benghazi. Not the IRS. Not even the deficit.

Lets talk about the future.

You see, the mainstream media is just beginning to awaken to the fact that something has changed over the past decade. There are no longer enough jobs for everyone and the number of employed people keeps decreasing a little bit each year. This has been happening since the turn of the century and it promises to accelerate.

Partly this stems from the nature of the workforce. Demographically, we're getting older. As people live longer, a greater percentage of the population is retired or on disability. But a share of the blame goes to technology.

At the dawn of the industrial revolution, the introduction of automation and mass production still required labor. Someone had to operate the increasingly sophisticated machines or design future machines. But we are reaching the cusp of a great wave of change. Machines are beginning to design other machines and smarter technologies are taking over jobs traditionally thought safe from automation. I've already talked about this a little bit and at the time I mostly used it to meditate upon the value of work. I offered up some suggestions to address the issue but put no stock in any of them because that wasn't really point of my essay.

However, I've noticed a subterranean movement towards one of the suggestions: Guaranteed Minimum Income. The basic idea is that society guarantees all citizens or residents of a country a certain basic income regardless of employment status or education. In the United States the idea is often referred to as 'negative income tax:' earn less than the poverty line and then receive $10,000 (or some other amount) every year.

Whatever you call it, let's be clear about what we're talking about: redistribution of wealth. When wealth from one set of the population is taken (through taxes or penalties) and then an equivalent amount of wealth is given to another set of the population, redistribution is taking place. Now I'm fine with that but in the spirit of candor, let's be clear: redistribution in any form is not exactly universally popular. When half of the population still can't see the benefit of universal health care, and makes noises about 'makers and takers,' codifying basic income is not going to be easy.

Is it worth the fight?

I was ambivalent about the proposal for a guaranteed minimum income when I first heard about it but couldn't put my finger on precisely why. I think I have it now, though. My brother passed along an article that you might have seen about the first field trials for memory implants being ready in two years. This is exciting stuff, technology like this may begin to bridge the gap between the black box between our ears and the technology we rely upon. Is it much of a leap to go from reconstructing existing memory to developing external memory. And once the idea of human memory, human experience, can be stored and replicated, could we not have increasingly accurate simulations of digital people? Simulations so perfect that it is no longer possible to dismiss 'bots,' as annoying distractions.

Let's say in the future, fifty years or even seventy five years (I don't think for a moment it will take that long, but for the sake of argument...) it is no longer possible to detect artificial personalities on the basis of conversation alone. How then would we know who was 'real' and who was digital? How would we know then who deserves that $10,000 guaranteed income and who doesn't? One could imagine swarms of 'just-good-enough' fraud bots springing into existence to claim their salary and then donating everything they own to their favorite charity, or political action group, or foreign country.

I don't think these are insurmountable problems but I am saying these are problems. As long as the media wants to start having conversations about how you continue to have a society once the jobs disappear perhaps we should make the conversation as broad as possible.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Personalized Toys

On one level, this advertisement from Disney isn't that special. I remember going to Disney way back in the late 80s and getting some custom-made plastic gewgaw that I promptly threw in the bottom of the old toy bin as soon as we returned home. I also had mugs with my dogs face on it and I'm sure everyone has given at least one 'Build-A-Bear' stuffed animal or engraved knickknack from "Things Remembered." However, I do think 3D printing offers up something new.

For one thing, the 11 year old version of me would have gone insane for this kind of thing. Just in the interest of honesty, that needs to be said. But I also know that the possibilities of this technology would have been just as compelling. With a little tinkering, you could imagine actual action figures with a real person's face on them or stuff animals with stylized rendering of a real pet. I'm not sure everyone would want this, but you have to imagine there would be some kind of market for it.

The only problem is that I'm not sure this future really involves toy stores as we know them. Once the price comes down for commercial 3D printers, a lot of this stuff will probably be bought as a design from a service like Amazon and simply rendered at home.

The other question is whether or not having children play with their own rendered images is a good thing.  Creative play bringing a person's own identity into the mix adds a dimension of immersion. However, one has to wonder if our culture isn't already raising an impressive number of narcissistic individuals swept up in their own exquisitely tailored mental terrariums.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Some obviously great ideas

Saw this video a couple of days ago and thought its genius was self-evident.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Just in

Preview for Ender's Game. Enjoy.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Work: What's it Good For?

I love my job.

Okay? I love going to work each day and teaching what I know about ancient history to middle school students. I like the challenge of my job and like taking small steps every day to be better at what I do. I'm one of those very lucky people that has the job they would have picked. If I won the lottery tomorrow I really would go to work the next day.

In other words, I'm lucky and I know it.

However, a question has been pressing on my mind more and more recently. Why do we have to work? Clearly, until artificial intelligence progresses, someone needs to be in a classroom helping and encouraging young learners. So I have a few more years of relatively stable employment. But that's just not the case for every industry.

Think about it. Manufacturing jobs are moving back to the states, but they're being filled by robots. Craigslist employs 35 people, makes a respectable amount of money, and has destroyed the market for classified ads across the country. There are search programs sophisticated enough to do most of the legal discovery process once employing legions of paralegals. The idea of technology rendering jobs and businesses obsolete is nothing new. However the speed at which entire industries find themselves irrelevant continues to accelerate.

So, I'll ask the question again. Why is that a problem? Why can't we accept that more and more people now living simply don't have any feasible way to get a full-time job. 6.7 million Americans have left the job market since 2007, and the labor participation rate is at an all-time low of 63.3%. Any study you read will tell you that the longer this subset of the population goes without a job, the less likely they will ever find a job. Perhaps we should move away from ensuring everyone has a job and making sure that people can survive?

I know, I know. You probably have the same answer I do, which is: people need to work. People who don't work lack direction in their lives and probably have trouble finding meaning in their lives. There's something noble about work. I've heard it all.

I'm just not sure I believe it anymore. I want to keep working for as long as they let me but I know for many people that's just not an option anymore. As the pace of innovation increases, more and more of a person's professional life gets spent training for every-shorter periods of employment. At some point you have to wonder, is it really worth all of this preparation just for a chance at the brass ring?

So what do we do? Hand out a guaranteed income to make sure the economy functions in much the same way it always has? That's sort of like using socialism to prop up capitalism. Do we move towards a new economy derived from social networks and crowd-sourcing? It's difficult to imagine what this would look like, if it's even feasible. There are myriads of possibilities, in varying degrees of likelihood.

Maybe we do nothing. The rich stay rich, increasingly the only beneficiaries of the capitalist game. The poor rely of every smaller government entitlements, supplementing their quality of life with goods created cheaply from technologies such as 3D printing.

I don't know. My point is, I wish someone would start asking a very simple question:

Why do we all have to work?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

L'Homme de Fer

First, and I think you should keep this in mind, Iron Man is a fun action movie directed by guy, Sean Black, well-known for fun action movies (Lethal Weapon being the prime example). It has a pleasingly asymmetrical plot, lots of impressive SFX, and veritable police line-up of despicable villains. It doesn't do anything particularly new and its big "twist" is fairly low-key. As a matter of fact, the entire movie seems like an elaborate exercise in establishing the proper scale of an action movie.

Right off the bat, Tony Stark (played with with a bit more roiling pathology than his last time out in the Avengers) listens calmly as his friend and fellow exoskeleton pilot Col. James Rhodes explains a series of bombings ascribed to an arch-terrorist The Mandarin. Stark suggests the problem is one for the President and the military rather than the Avengers and the Shield Organization. The suggestion here is that Iron Man is concerned with threats of a truly global scale, not the terrorist of the week. Then Stark rushes outside in a full-blown panic attack.

You see, one of the smartest things about this movie is how it picks up on the near-death experience Stark suffered at the climax of last summer's Avengers. In an effort to seal off a worm-hole funneling alien invaders into New York City, Iron Man flew between worlds to deliver a nuclear warhead. The resulting explosion sent him tumbling lifelessly back to Earth and even at the end of the movie, Stark seemed shocked by his own mortality.

In Iron Man 3, Stark is suffering from bouts of anxiety and insomnia, conditions exasperated by an ongoing exoskeleton building binge. By this point, Stark is on his 42nd version of the suit, and is examining how to create a suit that can disassemble itself and fly independently to link with him. The lack of sleep and manic bouts of engineering has added stress to his relationship with Pepper Potts, long-time assistant and current SO.

Perhaps because of this added stress, Stark makes an ill-advised revenge threat against The Mandarin when one of his attacks results in the injury to his friend Happy. Within short order, Stark's mansion is under assault from rockets launched by helicopters.

This gives way to one of the movie's two great scenes of spectacular mayhem. I watched Iron Man 3 in full IMAX, and the rapid structural failure of Iron Man's cantilevered mansion is truly cataclysmic on a three story screen. One thing that really shows how far CGI has come in recent years is watching the seamless integration of the actors' movement tracked to the larger scale disintegration of the building in front of a typically epic California sunset.

Another appealing aspect to this movie and honestly the one that stuck in my head far longer than I thought it might, is this question of Stark's role as a hero. Iron Man unquestionably saves people and does typically altruistic things. However, and this has been an aspect to the character from the first movie, he does these things in the full light of day. "I am Iron Man," has a very different meaning in these movies than the masked vigilante of Batman saying essentially the same thing. Bruce Wayne's pronouncement is the threat of the unknown, Stark's is a fairly brave recognition of the truth.

After all, it's not like Stark couldn't keep to the shadows. The government  was more than happy to provide an alibi and cover story for him. Stark already chose to tell his enemies where to find him a long time before he gave them his actual address. And while Iron Man and Tony Stark kill an awful lot of people in this movie they do so in view of the public. Perhaps no one other than another Avenger could really hold Stark accountable for his actions but it's not like he hides what he does. The movie takes the time to draw parallels between Tony Stark's self-aggrandizement and the movie's villains need for control and power. Really the only difference is that Stark is all too happy to remove his mask to take credit and blame for his actions and The Mandarin finds elaborate ways to hide his true identity.

The Iron Man movies seem to suggest that what really separates a hero from a villain isn't so much the methods or motives but the willingness to submit to public scrutiny.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Glass more than half full

Forty percent.

That's the number of Americans that would be willing to trade more of their civil liberties for security in the wake of the Boston Bombings according to a recent CNN/Time poll.

Now, I've seen other numbers that are more encouraging and some that are less but the overall public reaction to the bloody terrorist attack on April 15th was muted and somber. Maybe a moment should be observed about what hasn't happened in the two weeks since the attack.

No general outcry for more profiling, more wiretapping, more exceptions to basic liberties. No drum beat of more foreign adventures oversea or support for Russia to invade Chechnya. No blind panic.

The reaction to the Tsarnaev's successful plot has been far from perfect. The 'voluntary' lock-down of Watertown and other parts of Greater Boston is troubling. I'd also like to know whether or not Dzhokhar did ask for a lawyer during his interrogation several times before being granted his request.

But this is one of the first attacks where common sense more or less held the line in public discussion. People have decided not to give into terror, at least for now.