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November 7, 2007

Dawn of the Cyperpunk Era

Filed under: Books,Commentary — Bob @ 9:14 pm

A news story at Slashdot recently grabbed more of my attention than usual:

Datacenter Robbed for the Fourth Time in Two Years

Thieves broke into the facility and stole computer equipment, and certainly not for the purposes of selling the hardware on the street like stolen car radios or DVD players. Likely the thieves were much more interested to gain access to the hard disks in the resident systems. All the network security products in the world can’t stop them once they have physical access. Identity theft and credit card fraud won’t be far behind this crime.

This story is straight out of a cyberpunk novel in the genre as defined by William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Those books and many more like them had a profound effect on my outlook on life. It seems the dark future predicted by that genre is coming true sooner than anyone expected.

Here is another example of the cyberpunk fiction:

Human Organs For Sale

This is somewhat gruesome but not surprising. Easily predicted by anyone familiar with the genre. Ebay might be squeamish but how long before this stuff appears on craigslist?

Here is something else in the same theme: The Science of Growing Body Parts

Another major theme in cyberpunk stories is virtual reality. Now there is a real-world example of that phenomenon for Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert comic strips, various books, and other useless crap:

It’s Like Reality, Without the Screaming

The source of that is Second Life, a virtual reality social network. Sure its primitive technology by comparison to the rich stories written by the great authors of the genre, but everything has a “version 1.0”.

Another strong theme in the cyberpunk genre is the role that corporations play vs. government. We like to believe our utopian democratic society will protect us from evil corporations and oppressive governments.

Certainly untrue. Think about Haliburton, a corporation that has free reign to set its own price for services in Iraq. It acts without any real oversight. A corporation like Blackwater can sustain a private war at the financial expense of taxpayers without so much as a social hiccup.

Consider that the U.S. government believes secret, illegal spying on citizens is justified and the blatant withholding of human rights of un-convicted prisoners is an acceptable way of conducting international politics. And certainly that particular government isn’t the only one to act this way.

The trend is clear, and the outcome will be fascinating. I can’t wait to see it all unfold!

May 21, 2007

Almost Human

Filed under: Books,Robots — Bob @ 8:07 pm

Almost Human by Lee GutkindMy father-in-law is very generous. Recently he bought me Almost Human by Lee Gutkind, a book of stories about a variety of robotics research. Most stories center around the CMU Robotics Institutes’s various projects pushing the envelope of autonomous robot behavior, although the most interesting story is about Manuela Veloso’s vision for RoboCup.

Another interesting topic is about the CMU Zoë project, a research project in the Chilean desert for an autonomous platform capable of conducting a search for biological elements without human intervention. The navigation and science packages may someday be included in a rover destined for Mars. In fact the author spends the majority of pages on this project, likely because it has sensational appeal, and because the author traveled to the location to watch one of the several exercises.

The book also touches on some of the people involved in these projects. The human element really comes through, and its nice to hear the researches are willing, and able, to bond emotionally with the machines they create. In my opinion the true test of robotics intelligence will be when a robot is able to establish a similar emotional bond with people.

I’d recommend this book although it’s definitely not a technical resource like The Principals of Robot Motion, but still it can be inspiring for people who make robots. I really like the idea that robotics research is progressing by leaps and bounds in my lifetime. I’m looking forward to seeing autonomous robotic researchers crawling the surface of the Moon and Mars as well as the first robot-human soccer game. I wonder who will win such a match?

August 11, 2006

Apollo Appeal

Filed under: Books,Space Exploration — Bob @ 8:59 pm

moon.jpgOne of my earliest memories is watching a lunar landing on television. I don’t recall which mission it was, I just recall seeing the fuzzy black and white images on television one morning. My guess it was Apollo 14, although there is a possiblity it was the original Apollo 11 landing; I would have been three years old at the time, but I suppose its possible.

Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with human and robotic exploration of outer space, especially the Moon. Eileen found Destination Moon for me at the local library and its been a real treat to read. It’s a nice coffee table book with magnificant photography as well as snippets of the communications between astronauts and NASA controllers. Most of the words I already knew but others were new and often quite interesting, especially the earlier missions that aren’t as well known as those missions that actually landed on the Moon. The book also contains numerous biographical references for the crews of every Apollo mission in addition to the photography.

I’m also a fan of the video series From the Earth to the Moon. I think I’ve written about it before, it’s a brilliant record of the amazing story of the NASA program that successfully put a human onto the surface of the Moon in less than ten years. Reading this book makes me want to watch it again. If you aren’t familiar with this series then you should immediately rush out to the library or video store to get the first episode.

May 28, 2006

Trip to the Flat Land

Filed under: Books,Commentary,Holidays — Bob @ 7:59 pm

Eileen and I spent the last 10 days in the mid-West of the USA visiting relatives. My mom lives in Michigan while Eileen’s folks live in Indiana and has aunts & uncles in Ohio. We flew out a week ago last Friday on United Airlines from Vancouver to Detroit via Denver. United has figured out that we’d pay a bit more money to sit in more comfortable seats. They’ve invented a new section titled Economy Plus. The seats themselves are the same as the rest of the plane but you get more leg-room for $44 per seat, each flight. The trick is to check-in early – you can only purchase this “upgrade” when you get your boarding pass (we did it at the electronic check-in machines) otherwise you take your chances. Glad to see the North American airlines starting to find interesting ways to improve the travel experience as well as improve their bottom line. British Airways has been doing this sort of thing for years with good success.

The USA looks pretty much the same as I remember, but the complaints are new. We heard plenty about the outrageous price of gasoline and also about how illegal immigrants were ruining the country. Oh my. The gasoline thing is especially funny because nearly two-thirds of the cars on the road are SUVs (we counted). Eileen says the number of SUVs purchased each year in the USA continues to increase, although I was unable to find a reference that supported or denied that claim. Gasoline was something like US$2.80 per gallon, which would equate to CDN$0.82 per litre. For comparison, here in Vancouver its CDN$1.20 per litre, or about US$4.11 per gallon. We laughed so hard we snorted.

The immigrant thing was more sad than funny, its a hot-button issue that most people don’t really think too carefully about. The economy of the USA is dependent on the immigrant work force in ways that probably can’t even be predicted. For example, immigrant workers keep the cost of farm labor low, thus making it possible for domestic farms to remain competitive with imports. Food costs remain low and many people (illegal immigrants as well as citizens) are employed. The low cost of food means the general cost of living is lower for everyone. Low cost of living means higher discretionary income which is usually spent on luxury goods which further fuels economic growth. If you eliminate the low-cost labor on those farms, will it negatively effect the entire economy? Maybe. I don’t really know, and I don’t think its entirely predictable.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think illegal immigrants are preferrable to legal immigrants. It’s just that the current situation is complicated and perhaps making hasty decisions and drastic changes isn’t wise.

I’ve been reading Collapse by Jared Diamond. The subtitle is How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and it discusses (with incredible detail) a number of factors that can lead to a particular society such as Easter Island or the Norse in Greenland to completely fail. Its well written and very interesting. This book talks about how societies become entangled in their own history, location, habits, and neighbors in interesting ways that sometimes turns out quite bad. And sometimes it works out ok, but it is very hard to predict the outcome ahead of time with any certainity. I think about the current situation regarding immigration in the USA in similar terms.

The other sad part of the immigration debate is that people seem generally unaware of the need for immigration in order to continue the existing standard of living for retired people. By 2011 there will be more people retired than working. The number of people retiring each year will continue to rise, leading to a significant problem where the taxes paid by those still working will be insufficient to pay for those who aren’t. The existing population in the USA and Canada (and probably other places) isn’t increasing fast enough to offset those who are retiring, and without working immigrants to make up the difference the government sponsered retirement funds will collapse.

The trip wasn’t completely doom-and-gloom however. My sister came to my mom’s house with her two-year-old daughter to visit from North Carolina. I hadn’t met her daughter before so that was really great. My mom is doing well too, and Eileen’s folks are getting along just fine. We also caught up with some friends and spent a couple of hours walking around the campus of Michigan State University where Eileen and I met. The campus there is really beautiful and the day we went was bright, very sunny and warm.

05-25-06_1903.jpgThe other thing we noticed – the place is flat by comparison to Vancouver. Some parts are so flat you can virtually see into next week. This terrain leads to tremendous wind storms and quick changes in weather. We sat on the back deck of her aunt’s house and watched a thunderstorm come in over the horizon. Within minutes the wind was whipping around and the rain was pouring down in bucketfuls. It rained and thundered for a half-hour or so then stopped. I grabbed a picture with my phone, it seems to be clear enough to demonstrate all points.

Tomorrow we’ll go back to the office and try to catch up from being away.

March 21, 2006

Current Events

Filed under: Books,Work — Bob @ 9:23 pm

Two things to report: (1) yet another change in Eileen’s book; and (2) after nearly twelve years at Creo (and later Kodak) I’m leaving.

Eileen’s book will now be titled In the Stars and will be published in February 2007. I think I liked the last title (Predicting Mr. Right) better but I’m definitely not the target audience. On the other hand the publisher’s marketing department are paid professionals and likely know what they are doing, so they get many more votes than me.

The second bit of news pales by comparison but is still significant enough to report. Way back in December 1994 Eileen and I moved to Vancouver so that I could join a 200 person company named Creo Inc. The company grew (eventually to 4000 people worldwide before being acquired by Kodak) and I was always able to find new challenges; however the last year or so has not been quite as exciting or challenging or rewarding as I’d hoped.

Last week I accepted an offer from Sophos Inc. here in Vancouver. I start at the beginning of April. I’m really looking forward to the change; it’s an entirely new market and new company with a family of new products to learn and work with. I’ll be writing software again, I find that part very exciting too. I’m nervous in a very excited way!

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