Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Three in a Row

May 31, 2017

Scanning the news this morning I came across three interesting articles.

The first is a not-so-veiled criticism of President Trump’s ban on certain electronic devices in airline cabins – meaning passengers have to put these items in their checked luggage instead.  As I reflected on this  article, it strikes me as one of the dumbest articles I’ve recently read.

The article ignores the fact that lithium ion batteries are “inherently volatile” beyond wanting to criticize a policy decision.  If they’re that dangerous, why are they allowed on flights at all?  Why are we using them in electronic devices that we carry with us everywhere if they are essentially the equivalent of little time bombs?  Wouldn’t the article be better aimed at critiquing why such a volatile substance is accepted beyond the parameters of certain airline flights from certain countries?

The second article is a great discussion of what may appear to be  rather arcane Supreme Court ruling that actually has a great deal of actual and potential impact for consumers everywhere.  I’ve long been distrustful of the growing trend of virtualizing ownership.  Seen most clearly in computer operating systems and software, it’s the idea that you don’t really own a product, per se.  Rather, you are paying for the right to access something that still belongs to someone else and who has ultimate say over what you do or don’t do with what you’re accessing.  Physical and intellectual property issues are critical not just for their economic implications but in terms of privacy and consumer rights.  Definitely worth a read through!

The final article describes the renaming of a NASA project to send a probe closer to the sun than ever before.  Instead of calling it the Solar Probe Plus (which is admittedly a lousy name!), it is being renamed the Parker Solar Probe in honor of a scientist.  But the article immediately reminded me of one of my favorite author’s short stories – The Golden Apples of the Sun.  It’s the name of both one of his short stories – about a manned trip to the sun to actually scoop up and bring back to earth some of the sun’s essence – as well as the anthology that includes the story.  Since Bradbury’s story pre-dates Eugene Parker’s solar scientific contributions, I think it’s at least worth considering.  Plus, The Golden Apples of the Sun is a far more beautiful name for a solar probe!

Re-Making Good

April 5, 2017

If you’re worried about your privacy and the security of your personal information in an interconnected, Internet world, you aren’t alone.  The man who first created the World Wide Web is also concerned.  Fortunately, unlike you and I, he’s the sort of guy who might be able to do something about it.

Resurrecting Rogues

December 27, 2016

We went to see the new Star Wars movie today, part of our annual Christmas-time tradition of going as a family to a movie theater.  Yes, it’s a good movie.  Far better than the last four installments, and frankly even better than I remember Return of the Jedi.  Rogue One inclines me to go back and watch at least A New Hope again to see the interplay, because I think they did a really good job of linking to that next (story-chronology-wise) film.

What I didn’t expect as part of that linking, was to see actors and actresses digitally reproduced for Rogue One as they appeared – roughly – in A New Hope, despite the latter being filmed 40 years ago and at least some of those actors being deceased.  Although Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is the most obvious example of this, there is one other example at the very end.

I mean, realistically, it shouldn’t be unexpected.  Probably 90% of everything in the movie was digitally created or added in terms of scenery, backdrops, extras.  Frankly, before getting lost in the story – fairly immediately – I pondered how the stunning opening visuals of the new movie didn’t hold the same grandeur for me, knowing that they’re all computer generated.  Part of the immersion into another galaxy is lost for me knowing how little of it is created in our galaxy but rather in a digital galaxy on a hard drive.  But, the story was compelling enough so that such thoughts were short-lived.

Until Peter Cushing appeared on screen.  Since he died 22 years ago, I know that’s not him.  Even were he still alive he wouldn’t look as he did in 1977.  Yet there he is, very realistic and life-like and, had I not known all of the above, perhaps I would never be the wiser that he is as much computer generated wizardry as the backdrop of stars and Death Star behind him.

My immediate reaction was one of curiosity.  Not as to how they did it, but rather what the implications of doing it are.  Does Cushing have an estate, or family that would benefit from royalties or payment for the appearance of his likeness in this movie?  Does the movie studio get to use his likeness for free then?  Did anyone have to give permission for Cushing to appear in this movie, post mortem?  Star Wars fans are well aware that Sir Alec Guiness really disliked Star Wars and his role in it.  Could the studio use his likeness in future films, forcing Guiness to keep appearing in a franchise he loathed?

What’s to keep a studio from reusing famous faces indefinitely?  And what does this mean for actors and actresses, or frankly, for any of us?  What if a director spotted my face in a restaurant, snapped a pic on his phone, sent it to his animators and said ‘put this guy in the film‘?  Would I have any recourse?  Do I deserve compensation?

My wife sent me this article from The New York Times which discussed very few of these things.  The tone of the people quoted reminded me of stories where scientists pursuing questionable procedures are quoted.  Inevitably, they respond with something along the lines of Yes we know this is very complicated and controversial so you can trust us that we’ve thought it all through very carefully.  Which is not reassuring in the least.   I’m glad that thought was given.  But the idea that one small group of scientists or directors have the right to decide what is and isn’t acceptable, based on their own personal struggles and considerations of the topic is ridiculous.

Ultimately, they dismiss the concerns because it was really, really important to them and to their story to do it this way.  I would argue quite the contrary.  Tarkin’s presence would of course be expected in this film at some level, but there was certainly a lot of additional drama and therefore screen time that wasn’t necessary to the storyline at all.   And the fact that you wanted to do this to tell your story is not a justification for doing it.  Nor is the assurance that it’s really expensive and hard to do so not many other people are likely to do it, including us.  The fact that they were willing to go to the time and difficulty and expense of doing it obviously shows that these are not, in and of themselves, deterrent factors.

I was pleased to hear that they received permission from Cushing’s estate, at least.

In a rather unexpected twist of fate, I find myself in agreement with a Huffington Post editorial for a change.  It should not be in the hands of later generations to resurrect the image of a deceased actor or actress.  It is unfair to the dead, and ultimately another blurring of our own acceptance of and coming to grips with mortality in general.  This editorial also rings the same bells, though neither editorial propositions a very compelling rationale for their position.

Here’s my theological rationale:  something in us reacts against the idea of using the dead for these purposes because part of us resonates with the idea that they aren’t really dead and gone.  Oh, they’re not here with us, for certain.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  Therefore it’s more than just a memory we do offense to – we do offense to their reality.

If we truly die, if there is nothing beyond death, then that’s it and like an expired copyright others are free to cannibalize us and our works to the extent that the law allows or prohibits.  We can try to ensure that our families are compensated in some fashion, but that’s more of a formality than anything, and certainly one prone to eventual revocation should circumstances make that convenient.  There are no moral obligations to consider, because nothing like morality or appropriateness or ethics exist beyond our conceptualization – or reconceptualization – of them.

But if we aren’t truly dead and gone, absorbed back into atomic nothingness; if there is a corpus of ethical and moral standards that we have been entrusted with as stewards, not creators, then our misgivings have a root.  It’s not just the economics we balk at, not just the potential for misappropriation, but the possibility of actual offense.  Not against an idea or a memory but against a person – a person who may be dead but who continues to exist in a meaningful sense – every bit as meaningful as when they were alive.

If we remember that our theology isn’t separated somehow from the rest of the issues we try to make sense of, these other issues begin to make more sense.  It isn’t a matter of respect for the living or the dead, but rather for a person, who might be living or might be dead, but exists just as definitely either way.  What’s more, Christian theology indicates that we don’t simply continue to exist, we continue to exist in relationship.  What we look forward to is a time to come when we are together again, more together than ever before.  Our actions to one another continue to have meaning and weight.  And while I have no doubt that if we do take advantage of somebody after they are dead, and we meet together again in glory there will be forgiveness for that, it still dictates how we treat that person up until that reunion.  Not as an asset to be exploited but as a creation of God the Father, redeemed by God the Son, and – God-willing – brought to faith by God the Holy Spirit.





Burning Bridges

August 22, 2016

Odds are that at some point in your work life, you’ll leave your place of employment.  Fired.  Quit.  Retire.  Whatever the reason, the uniform issue is that you need to take steps to preserve for yourself and then eliminate from your work device(s) data that is personal in nature.  This article gives some good tips on what to do and how to do it, and also provides the standard caveats – don’t take data that doesn’t belong to you, and ensure that you don’t delete anything that company policy requires you to save.


August 4, 2016

One of my favorite and most influential authors, Ray Bradbury, died just over four years ago on June 5, 2012.  His books were pivotal in how I came to think about science and about fiction and about the two of those elements together.  He never let the setting or the science eclipse the human, and he used the speculative to comment on the here and now.

They’re honoring him in his home town with a statue, which is a nice thing to do.  I think it does capture a great deal of his whimsical spirit and energy.  But I also think that he shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly as a bubble-gum writer.  As gladly as I devoured his delicate touch in the worlds of fiction and science, he was also a stunningly astute observer of human nature as well as prognosticator of the human condition both externally and internally.

His most critically-acclaimed work, Fahrenheit 451, is a darkly prescient discussion over the control of history and thought.  The literal burning of books that formed the centerpiece of the story can be seen at play in our  drastically revisionist history, as people wrangle for control of how to tell the story of our past to suit personal agendas, and how books are banned for contradicting illusion with reality.  As a side note, his predictions about television and interactive media are increasingly close to modern reality.  When we walk in the evenings from time to time, the glow of the huge television screens in almost every house always makes me remind of Ray’s vision in this book, and I shudder a little bit.

I remain a greater fan of his short stories than his novels, with one of my favorites being The Murderer.  A simple tale of technology run amok that is shocking in how closely it mirrors the reality of our technology co-dependence today.  He understood the allure of technology and how ubiquitous it could become so quickly, until the ability to think and to be alone were obliterated by the constant intrusion of electronic and digital conveniences.

Yes, Bradbury captured my heart and imagination, but he also planted alarms in my psyche, warnings both personal and communal.  Hopefully those don’t get erased by history or commemorations large and small.

Costs and Benefits

July 19, 2016

How do you stop terrorists?

There are lots of ways.  Those opposed to gun control in the US are using the Nice terror attack to argue that gun control advocates are missing the point – the tool doesn’t matter, but rather the intent.  Even without guns, people will still kill other people.  But the desire to try and keep people from killing others is a good one.  The question becomes how far do you take it?  Do you ban guns?  Certain kinds of guns?  Certain levels of ammunition?  While perhaps an important discussion, it doesn’t solve the issue of people killing other people because they don’t need guns to do that.  Can we stop them if they’re using another tool?

Turns out, probably.  But how comfortable are you with what is necessary to do that?

Are you comfortable with your local or state or national government installing devices that blind, deafen, raise the temperature of a person’s skin, or otherwise disrupt what a person is doing, on the off chance that someone is going to be in range of one of those devices and doing something they shouldn’t?  Are you comfortable with someone being able to stop your car from driving by pressing a button?

Safety has costs.  Not just tax dollars, but costs in terms of personal autonomy, personal peace of mind.  There are ways of stopping people, but to be effective they have to be installed and operational and ready to use with the flick of a switch.  They might be installed with the intention of only being used against terrorists or other violent threats to the population, but they could always be utilized against the population.

Not happy with the protest that has gathered at an inopportune time?  Well, we could disperse them without hurting anybody.  Want to encourage people to avoid a certain area of town?  Well, we could make it really uncomfortable for people to be in that area.  If we’re uncomfortable with someone turning every-day items into weapons, should we be comfortable with actually installing weapons on our streets and buildings and other places?


It Is a Big World

May 23, 2016

And oftentimes a beautiful world as well.  It’s easy to forget that after listening to partisan news/Twitterfeeds/Facebook rants/podcasts all day.  Here are two examples of a beautiful world to start the week.

First off, German windows.  I forgot how much these things ROCK.  Being overseas again last summer reminded me of the genius of German engineering.  I’m sure these must each cost roughly the equivalent of a space shuttle, but heck, they are also worth every penny.  German windows are an example of beauty still in this world.

Secondly, pho.  This fantastically delicious soup is yet another proof of a beautiful world and the creativity of people who persevere in spite of incredible adversity.  This is a short article on the history of pho, and as such doesn’t include my first introduction to pho by a pretty girl after a disastrous off-road trip while dealing with an unpleasant head cold.

There you go.  The world isn’t all bad.  We will survive this election cycle.  At least some of you will.



Paperback Writer

April 19, 2016

In case you’re curious about the process of creating a medieval manuscript, this video is a great, short description of the process!

The Doctor Will Text You Now

April 16, 2016

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that even in the realm of health care and health diagnosis, there’s an app for that.  Several, actually.  This article gives a quick (if somewhat glib) overview of several popular “telemedicine services” filtered through her first-person experience.  The upshot is that you can now use an app to contact a health-care provider, discuss a situation, condition, or symptoms, and potentially even have an actual doctor prescribe medication for you – all without ever going to the doctor’s office.

While I’m at first inclined to be dismissive of such technology, I can’t say it is necessarily any worse than a typical 10-minute in-person visit with a doctor.  I don’t go to doctors, because thank God I’m either healthy or my issues are low-key enough that I don’t really stress about them.  But I talk with people regularly who lament the long lead-times to get an appointment.  Our country acknowledges we have a problem with abuse of hospital emergency rooms for treatment, but when you can’t get a hold of a doctor any other way, and you might have to wait two months for an open appointment time, it’s understandable.

Has anyone tried these apps yet?  I’m worried that they would turn out being about as helpful (unhelpful) as the nurse hotlines that insurance companies used to offer.  The promise was similar – call this number any time of the day or night to talk with a registered nurse who will listen to your situation and provide some medical advice.  We actually utilized this on one or two occasions many years ago, but the result was always the same: no matter what the situation was, the advice was to go to the doctor or hospital immediately.  Of course that was the advice – can you imagine the lawsuits if a doctor or nurse didn’t offer that kind of advice?  While I would assume these apps would be similarly cautious, the author’s experience doesn’t seem to hold with that assumption.

Perhaps the medical community is just that aware now of how desperately a solution is needed to the increasingly difficult problem of just getting in to see a healthcare professional.  If the apps are able to filter out folks who really just need an aspirin from those who need to go to urgent healthcare or the emergency room, that’s a big help.  And as the article notes, for less serious health situations – or at least situations that seem less serious to the patient until too late – the apps can provide an easier way of seeking medical advice and perhaps even preliminary treatment.

As part of  a generation that is accustomed to Googling information on everything, these apps intrigue me.  But I’d prefer to have some more input on actual experiences before utilizing them.


Killing Writer’s Block

March 14, 2016

Or more accurately, threatening to kill what you’ve written if you stop writing.  How’s that for an app premise?

It sounds like a good way of forcing you to keep writing no matter what, but I’m not sure how helpful that ultimately is.  I might have to break down and try it!