Friday, November 29, 2013

Why SF Turned Dark & Engineering Wimped Out

Neal Stephenson, thought provoking as always, speaks at the Association for Science and Technology Centers. Here are my main takeaways:

Why has science fiction shifted from optimistic, idealistic stories from 50 years ago, to dark, dystopian stories that dominate the genre today? The shift seems to have occurred in the late 70's with Star Wars (still idealistic, but a gritty and broken-down futuristic world) and Alien (an industrialized, militaristic world). But I think this reflects the cultural change of the 60's. In the 50's there was a stronger emphasis on ideal norms. The cultural revolution of the 60's exposed a lot of the pretense.

The pretense didn't go away, but a layer of pretense was lifted away, and contemporary society is a little more honest about the real norms. In fact, we've become quite jaded, especially when you look at politics. Part of this might also be blamed on Watergate and cameras bringing the horrors of the Vietnam war into the public awareness.

But, Stephenson points out, the "built" environment has only changed superficially since the 70's, compared to the changes between 1900 & 1970's.

The helpfulness of SF to engineering comes from the shared understanding that the engineering team has through the SF that they all have read. This saves time and resources in communicating the vision, because the SF writer has already shared the vision, or some portion of it, some version of it, and the engineers are all on the same page.

The Hieroglyph anthology was designed to use near-future technology to write about tech that might be attainable within the lifetime of an engineering student today.

Why isn't society taking on big projects in the physical world like we used to? Stephenson believes the financial world is what is holding us back, and a modern aversion to risk and trying new things, and our leaders.

I'm not sure I buy this aversion to risk theory. American society, in particular, has become much more dependent, and accepting of, debt as a way of life. There is a vocal movement opposing public debt, but the common use of debt is far greater today than it was prior to the late 70's (when American Express and others started offering charge cards and credit cards).

I think the lack of big engineering projects has more to do with the partisanship of contemporary politics. Stephenson does say he thinks that it has to do with leadership today, and perhaps this is what he's referring to. Taking a political stance on a major engineering project can be politically risky, and the finances of the project can be used to illustrate that risk. However, George W. Bush tried to push for a mission to Mars, with a Moon Station as an interim step. However, this didn't really catch on. Again, this may boil down to partisanship, and also to Americans' suspicion of government, which grew out of the 60's cultural changes, the Vietnam War, and Watergate.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

You Broke the Internet, Says Schneier to NSA

Don't freak out like this company's Shareholders, but it appears that the NSA actually has broken the internet.

As a follow up to my post back in October, here's an Ars Technica article about cryptographer and Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society Fellow Bruce Schneier's recent statements on Capital Hill.

Schneier said that the vulnerabilities inserted into security products by the NSA through its BULLRUN program could easily be exploited by criminals and other nation-states as well once they are discovered.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Not a Quantum of Solace

I read a lot of content on Slashdot and LinkedIn, so I was very disappointed to see that these two sites may have been targeted by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British sister agency to the NSA. It appears that malware may have been pushed out by the spy agency to visitors of these websites in conjunction with the NSA's operation (codename Quantum).

 Related: Amazon, Home Banking Not Secure Anymore? NSA is weakening security for everyone, making it riskier to do online banking...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Modular phone

I typically like to customize gadgets, software, etc., so I was excited when I first heard about Phonebloks. Reducing e-waste, that's a great outcome as well.

Then I realized they didn't actually have any way of making the devices, they were just raising awareness and building a community around what they wanted. There was no Kickstarter to build this thing. Some experts said that the technology wasn't even viable yet.

So, I said, what good is this?

Now it turns out Motorola had already secretly come up with an ambitious project to do this very same thing. And they've teamed up with the Phoneblocks guys. How cool is that!

I almost want to say, "See, maybe it is worthwhile to build hype over an idea, even when there isn't a clear path to execution."

But I can't say that. This is just serendipitous. They didn't cause Motorola to do Project Ara. Motorola was already doing it. Maybe they'll bring something helpful to the table, but what if there was no project Ara? Would they have influenced another manufacturer to take this on?

If you've got a good idea and the ability to make a compelling video, there's not much cost to trying to start a movement. You might even get a career out of it somehow. And, maybe there's nothing wrong with that, as long as you're not misleading people.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Do horses shrink in the dryer?

A post-apocalyptic future caused by climate change is a popular Dystopian theme. Perhaps these future animals should be smaller, at least in areas of increased temperature. Previous periods of global temperature increases have reduced the size of horses up to 30%, according to this brief article from Science. When the global trend reversed, animal size rebounded.

Of course evolutionary pressure favoring smaller animals takes place over long periods of time. But in the short run, maybe we would see evolutionary pressure killing off a great number of larger animals.

Larger muscle mass could mean more heat production, but would the animals die of heat stroke? Or would there be a more complex mechanism. Look at what is happening to Moose, the largest deer species. Their population is declining precipitously due to two parasites and white-tailed deer, but the parasites have always been around, they're just more abundant now due to climate change.

For domesticated animals, who can benefit from modern medicine and human-controlled breeding, will these ecological factors be mitigated? If so, horses and cattle might not increase.

A picture is emerging of our microbiome (the symbiotic bacteria that live in our guts) that shows the impact of our diet on our health. We feed domestic farm animals on diets that maximize their growth, so farmers can make more money on each animal. Then farmers and veterinarians administer antibiotics to help them avoid illness and grow larger. But perhaps it's healthier for an animal to be smaller, and perhaps livestock should have a diet that maximizes animal health rather than size. We're already counteracting the environmental pressures on animal size.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

11 North American Nations?

No, this is not the premise of a new YA Dystopian novel. It's a theory about the dominant cultures in the US and North America. This article in Tufts Magazine by Colin Woodard presents a more granular look at North American cultures, from the county level instead of the state level, looking at attitudes toward violence. He comes up with 11 nations based on historic settlement patterns (I like the way he names these groups):
  • Yankeedom
  • New Netherland
  • The Midlands
  • Tidewater
  • Greater Appalachia
  • Deep South
  • El Norte
  • The Left Coast
  • The Far West
  • New France
  • First Nation

I think his simple-majority approach to grouping the counties is a bit of a problem. How different would this map look if he left counties white when there was less than an 80% dominance in the trends he is studying?

I would also like to see what happened to the map if he counted suicides along with murders. Recent articles on suicide rates between various US populations has suggested that some homicides are in fact suicidal reckless behavior. It's hard to tease out the "suicide by by homicide" behavior, but adding the suicides in with the homicides might cancel out this effect.

It's an interesting paradigm that bears further investigation. Something to think about in upcoming elections.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Enders Game Movie Sequel?

Ender's Game took the number one slot at the box office over the weekend, and I watched it with a bunch of 8th graders, only one of whom had read the book. It blew their minds, and they thought it was great. (Spoilers ahead.)

As an adult who has read through to about the middle of book seven in the series (at which point I became too disturbed by his in-book comments about homosexuality to continue reading), I thought the film was very good, but not great. It hit all the major plot points I was expecting and felt true to the original story.

Battle School was the core of the story, and I think that was great. The space combat was greatly truncated compared to the book, but how many space battles can you watch when the key characters are just watching a projection above their heads and remote-controlling the battle above them?

Observation on User Interfaces for Computers: Gestural control was very dramatic when Ender is zooming in and out, changing perspectives of the projected space battles, but I still feel unconvinced that a computer interface with gestures is comfortable/workable for the end user without a lot of haptic feedback. The one-handed typing interface was interesting to watch - Ender was able to hold his tablet with one hand and use some sort of sign-langauge-esque typing technique.
One reason I say it was not great is because I had to explain so much about the ending to my group of moviegoers, not just the 8th graders, but also the other adults. When the movie isn't clear to those who have not read the book, that can be a problem. But it wasn't so confusing that it ruined enjoyment of the story. It's a complex story, and some events at the end were just a little too rushed to fully take in.

Even though the movie took the top slot, some analysts have suggested that it didn't do well enough to warrant a movie sequel. However, that doesn't seem to have stopped a lot of people from speculating about it. In fact, it was one of the first things to be discussed by my group of moviegoers after the lights came up. It's probably too early to know if there will be a sequel. Overseas sales are at least as important, if not more important than US sales these days.

The three likely paths a movie sequel might take are:
  1. Speaker For the Dead - the next book in the series which shows Ender 30 years later. There's not much action, and it's a very different kind of story.
  2. Ender's Shadow - Which is Bean's story, and mostly concurrent with Ender's Game. It might be good to make this while the actors have not aged too much.
  3. Fleet School - first in a new series of YA novels by card that picks up right after Ender's Game to show what happens to the Battle School after the war.
When you look at the fact that the Ender's Game novel has been back on the Best Seller list (mass-market paperbacks) for a year, and has held the #1 slot for the past few weeks, and a handful of other weeks over the summer, it's clear that Card is profiting from the movie indirectly, despite the fact that he does not profit directly from the movie (he got a flat fee for these film rights years ago).

I don't know about the film rights for the other books. It seems likely that Card would not sell the Fleet School rights for a flat fee if he thought he could profit more from the movie sales.

However, this Q&A from 2010 indicates that Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow were almost combined as one film. This suggests to me that the rights for Shadow might be in the same category as Game. However, that's just speculation on my part. It is equally possible that Card was hoping to work in Shadow so that he could sell additional rights that would be tied to the movie's earnings. Again, just my own speculation.

That said, if a sequel is made, I'm most interested in seeing Ender's Shadow. Bean is a great character, and we didn't get to see much of him in Game, even though he's clearly an important player.