Cyborgs in the making?

March 18, 2014

Yesterday our younger son asked why science fiction so often portrays problems that arise from a mix of the biological with the mechanical. We had an interesting conversation about real-life instances of machines embedded in people’s bodies, such as mechanical heart valves and cochlear implants. Such devices clearly improve a person’s quality of life without raising concerns that machines could be taking over.

Science fiction, of course, is always looking at what could happen in the future based on current trends. Might we someday have implants that challenge our ability to distinguish between person and machine? Or that make the distinction meaningless?

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If St. Paul had used Powerpoint…

February 8, 2014

I’ve seen Scripture passages “translated” into a format familiar to users of modern technology, such as
God texts the Ten Commandments.” But this is the first time I’ve seen anyone tackle an entire book of the Bible.

I’m not sure whether this is poking fun more at people who inflict their tacky Powerpoint presentations on others, or at those who prefer Scripture packaged in convenient, sound-bite-sized portions. But this “Terrible Powerpoint” version of 1 Corinthians is humorous.


Gone and mostly forgotten

July 26, 2013

Every now and then someone from my generation makes a comment about phrases our children don’t really understand because they refer to antiquated technology. Why do we talk about “dialing” phone numbers, or “rolling down” a car window? How can someone sound like a broken record? What is a carbon copy?

What I hadn’t thought about until I saw this link on facebook was the sounds that went with much of that old technology. The sounds of a telephone dialing or someone typing on a manual typewriter don’t exactly bring back memories, but they stir some sense of belonging to an earlier time.

My parents weren’t coffee drinkers, so percolators weren’t part of my childhood. And I don’t remember ever staying up late enough to experience a TV station sign-off until I lived in Spain as a college student (and thought of it as a quaint feature of Spanish TV).

But I remember flashbulbs and cash registers (I even operated one at K-Mart, not as old as the one on the linked page, but even when I worked there it was a very old model). I certainly remember film projectors (watching a movie in school was a really special treat), but they weren’t as noisy as that one.

I had completely forgotten gas station driveway bells. But just the thought of them also reminds me of those old vending machines with knobs you pulled instead buttons to push.

Other websites have more examples. Do you remember calling to get the time? (Or the weather?) Dial-up internet isn’t from nearly as long ago, but in “internet time” it’s ancient.

Another website includes slide projectors. (A few months ago, my son told me he had to do a slideshow for school. My first thought was “They still have slide projectors?” before I realized he meant PowerPoint.)

Dot matrix printers, though … they’re actually still around. As recently as last August I used one regularly, and for all I know it’s still there at the company I no longer work for. It will be a while before those go the way of 8-track tapes and floppy disks.


Books: Present Shock

June 29, 2013

This is yet another book I decided to read based on an email sent by my supervisor at the college. I read the linked article, about Douglas Rushkoff’s new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, and found the topic intriguing.

Rushkoff is sounding an alarm about what he calls presentism – an obsessive focus on the present moment, unmoored from its context in the flow of time. He talks about society has lost the idea of narrative, and how people are slaves to the digital devices that demand their constant attention.

Perhaps it’s because I live in a relatively rural area in the Midwest, or because I am over fifty, but I don’t see the extremes he is talking about in my everyday life. I thought perhaps reading the book would help me get an idea of what is happening to people elsewhere, where these trends may have taken greater hold of people’s lives.

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Good new, bad news, or not news at all?

June 14, 2013

If you’re interested in manufacturing technology or the role of manufacturing in the economy, you may be interested in an article recently published in the Wall Street Journal, “Advanced Manufacturing: The New Industrial Revolution.” But what I found nearly as interesting as the article was (as is often the case) the different comments readers made about it.

The article itself is about how technology is changing the nature of the manufacturing process. Inexpensive electronic components make it possible for machines to monitor themselves, and humans located at remote locations can respond to problems that do arise. Additive manufacturing makes it possible to produce parts in shapes that were not feasible before, or that previously cost too much to be practical.

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High-tech socks

June 2, 2013

When you hear “high tech,” what do you think of? Computers, probably. Or at least something with a microchip in it – which could be almost anything these days. But socks?

I buy cheap socks. Considering that I wear pants most of the time, and my socks are seen so little that I’m mostly just interested in the color not contrasting too much with my pants, it hardly seems to make sense to pay extra for fancy socks.

Plus they stick around for very long, at least not in good shape. The last set of socks I bought, I think they had holes in the toes by the second time I wore them. Or they disappear when I wash them (only one of them, of course – and probably the one that doesn’t have a hole in it).

Until I read this article in the Wall Street Journal, I figured my sock troubles are just part of life, and a fairly small problem in the big scheme of things. But now I wonder, should I try some of the newer, high-tech socks?

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Mending made easy

December 26, 2012

For eight years I lived without a sewing machine. I had bought one used, a long time ago, back when I got my first full-time job and my first car and my first rented room. I had never-ending problems with the tension, even after getting it supposedly repaired at a shop that specialized (among other things) in fixing sewing machines. After I had children, I had no time to sew my own clothes, and I used the machine only for mending. It was such a pain to use that some mending jobs seemed easier to do by hand. When we moved from Michigan to Illinois eight years ago, I gave the thing away.

But some mending is not easier to do by hand, and the pile of unmended clothes grew. I looked, sometimes, at the sewing machines sold at Walmart, and wondered if a new machine might work better than that old one. But I remembered the man at the sewing machine repair shop telling me I had a good machine, made out of metal instead of plastic. The newer, plastic machines, he said, gave a lot more trouble. That was easy to believe, considering what I hear people say about newer models of so many other products.

The pile of mending got so big that I had been thinking, recently, of taking it to someone who does sewing to make some extra money. Somehow we never settled on a time for me to get the stuff to her, though – we both have busy schedules. Then a few weeks ago, at the Boy Scout Christmas campout, one of the Scout mothers was there with her sewing machine, sewing patches and badges on boys’ uniforms. It looked like it worked well, and I asked her about it. She was very happy with it, and explained that the electronics took care of the tension, and pretty much everything else.

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Books: The Neanderthal Parallax

November 9, 2012

Having previously enjoyed Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, I tackled his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy over the past two weeks. Like Sawyer’s other science fiction, these novels are based on real science, however speculative some of it may be. As in the WWW trilogy, one of these areas of speculation is the origin of consciousness.

In the WWW trilogy, the theory that is explored posits a relatively recent origin of consciousness, less than three millennia ago. In this trilogy, it is set about 40,000 years ago, and is thought to be the result of a collapse and subsequent reestablishment of the earth’s magnetic field. Along with consciousness and therefore conscious choices came the first split between parallel universes.

As chance would have it (this being based on quantum theory), in our universe, it was our ancestors who developed consciousness. In the parallel universe, it was those we call Neanderthals. Our own ancestors, in that universe, failed to develop consciousness and subsequently died our, presumably (according to Neanderthal scientists) due to lower intelligence, our cranial capacity not allowing for as large a brain.

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Books: Same Time, Same Station

October 17, 2012

I ended up reading this book about the early history of television because I had been reading a book about teaching Sunday School. I know that seems like an unlikely jump, but there was a logical connection. Honest!

(The book I was reading about teaching Sunday School recommended, more or less in passing, that if you use puppets, not to have them talk about God. I emailed the author to ask why. Her response – that puppets are not real so they can’t have a relationship with God – did not entirely satisfy me, so I found an internet forum about puppets and found someone who seemed to use puppets in Christian ministry. I joined the forum so I could contact him by email, and asked him about this. He not only saw nothing wrong with having puppets talk about God, he told me that the word marionette comes from the name Mary because early Christians used puppets to teach. Wanting to learn more about that history, I looked for books in the library catalog about marionettes. One was about Howdy Doody, a show I’ve heard about but never seen. I wondered if I could find a DVD I could borrow with episodes from Howdy Doody. My search didn’t turn up much in the way of DVDs, but it did list Same Time, Same Station, a book about the early decades of television.)

The topicĀ  of the book was interesting, but just barely enough to motivate me to finish reading the book. Despite what the flyleaf says about “Baughman’s engagingly written account,” I found it far from engaging. The flyleaf also reveals that Baughman is a historian and a professor; perhaps he wrote this with students of Journalism and Mass Communication in mind.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with so many endnotes. They take up over 25% of the book! That means, of course, the that text is chock-full of quotes, historical details, and other data that may be of interest to the historian but probably not to the average reader. Often I thought Baughman could easily make his point with a single quote. But he piled one on top of another. I wondered if he was trying to use every possible historical citation, and if so why.

I did learn some interesting facts about the early history of TV, however. Having grown up in the 60′s and 70′s, I took the division of stations into VHF and UHF for granted. I had no idea why I watched NBC on UHF and CBS on VHF. (The third network, ABC, had no local station, and only came in very fuzzily on one VHF station and one UHF station – and then only on a good day.)

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IQ and the Flynn Effect

September 23, 2012

Unlike a lot of people, I’ve always enjoyed taking IQ tests. Earlier this year, salaried employees in the department where I worked had to take a series of tests that were supposed to measure one’s leadership potential. Some of them dealt with experience and ambition in relation to leadership, and one test measured abstract reasoning. We were told not to worry about this last test, that it was only one piece of the larger picture. But for me, that test was the best part of the whole process.

I’ve never wanted to get into management, so I have naturally not sought out the kind of experiences the other tests were asking about. What leadership positions I’ve been in have usually come sort of by default – because I was the only one willing to do it, or because I seemed the “obvious” choice (president of math league in high school because I got the highest scores, and Bible study leader at church because I am the pastor’s wife).

The kind of abstract reasoning and pattern recognition used in a certain kind of IQ test, however, is something I’m good at and I enjoy doing it. Partly I enjoy it because I know I do it well, but it’s also the kind of puzzle I enjoy solving. I think the test I took (a long time ago) that was supposed to measure aptitude for computer programming was of this nature. I not only did very well on it, but I enjoyed taking it so much that I figured I would enjoy computer programming also.

I always assumed, growing up, that such tests measured some actual trait labeled intelligence. That’s what the people who made and administered the tests thought, of course, and I suppose most other people did also, until psychologists began to recognize that intelligence was really made up of a number of broad abilities.

I remember learning about the idea of multiple intelligences, a number of years ago, when I was looking for resources for teaching Sunday School. On the one hand, it makes sense to recognize that different people learn best in different ways, which seem to be at least somewhat related to this idea of multiple intelligences. On the other hand, it seems to be stretching the word intelligence to the point that it doesn’t mean very much, to use it for abilities that do not deal with reasoning.

No doubt society has often inappropriately treated people with high abilities at abstract reasoning as superior to those with other kinds of abilities, and it is good to recognize the value of those other kinds of abilities. But it should be possible to correct that tendency without divorcing the word intelligence from its traditional meaning related to reasoning ability.

All that was somewhat in my mind as I started reading an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. James Flynn discusses the fact that IQ scores have steadily risen over the decades, and asks Are We Really Getting Smarter? I had not realized that scores were, in fact, increasing, because the tests periodically are updated and re-standardized, so the scores appear to remain constant. Someone who scored well on a test today would have scored even better on one of the older tests. But someone who scored well several decades ago would not score nearly as well now.

Flynn was the one who initially drew attention to this trend, though it was the authors of The Bell Curve who coined the term Flynn Effect, in recognition of the work done by Flynn to document it. A number of different explanations have been offered, but Flynn’s own explanation, in the WSJ article, is that modern education has trained people do perform better at abstract reasoning activities.

If IQ tests really measured something innate, then people who lived a hundred years ago should have performed just as well. (Better nutrition and protection from infectious diseases have been offered as explanations for the increases, and they may account for part of it, but improvement in those areas does not seem to follow the same pattern of gradual, linear progression seen in IQ scores over several decades.) People in a less technological society did not have all the knowledge we do, but they should have had similar aptitude.

Language and cultural references are sometimes given as explanations for certain subgroups of society not performing as well, but the non-verbal problems that use only geometric shapes should eliminate that issue. Yet as Flynn points out, people who have not gone through modern education would have difficulty understanding what in the world such questions were about.

We are trained at such a young age to recognize abstract patterns, finding similarities in unrelated objects (similar shape or color, for instance), that it is hard (for me, anyway) to imagine lacking that kind of recognition. But it makes sense what Flynn says: if success in life is based on ability to hunt animals, or make furniture or clothing, the idea that the moon and a cantaloupe have something in common (because they are both round) may sound like nonsense.

Of course, in a technologically advanced society, abstract reasoning is an important ability in many jobs. But it’s good to be reminded that IQ is a useful measure only to the extent that what it measures is useful.


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