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.


Moonwatching

January 16, 2014

I was driving home from work a day or two ago, and I noticed the newly risen moon in my rear-view mirror.  I was trying to decide how close it was to being full, and also trying to stop paying attention to the (beautiful) moon in my mirror and look at the (boring) traffic on the highway in front of me.

I’m used to enjoying the beauty of the sunset during my drive home (only during some times of year, of course), but I don’t often see the moon rising. For a moment it threw me that I was seeing it, then I reminded myself that I was driving west but seeing the eastern sky in my rearview mirror.

That got me thinking about how to figure out when to look for the moon and where in the sky, and about the phases of the moon in general. I have a fairly long commute (at least forty-five to fifty minutes, depending on traffic), so I had plenty of time trying to construct diagrams in my head.

I understand how the different phases work in terms of the relative positions of earth, moon, and sun, in terms of how much and which part of the moon is illuminated, but I never remember how to factor in time of day. And the one thing I just couldn’t make sense of, in my mental diagrams, was the new moon.

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No sky show here tonight

January 9, 2014

I was excited this morning to read that I might finally have a chance to see the northern lights tonight. Predictions were that they might be visible even in Iowa, and according to one map we’re right at the border of where “poor” shades into “fair” chances to see them.

Trees and light pollution would probably make viewing conditions in our neighborhood shift us back into the “poor” range, but if the weather was good I’d be willing to drive somewhere for a chance to finally see the aurora borealis. The sky is currently overcast, however, with no likelihood of it getting any better (instead the cloud cover will increase until it starts raining sometime tomorrow).

At least I can look at photos online, and imagine what I might be seeing if I were in someplace like Norway instead of Iowa. And I learned what causes the northern lights. I had always just thought of it as an atmospheric phenomenon, and never realized that the sun was involved.

According to the National Geographic article, the sunspot group that caused this week’s coronal mass ejection is still active, so there just may be another powerful solar blast on the way. So what are the chances it does happen, and conditions are again right for the resulting northern lights to be visible in Iowa, and it comes on a clear night (there are a few forecast next week)? I won’t be planning my schedule around it. But I can hope.


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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Books: The Russian Donation

April 15, 2013

I enjoyed The Russian Donation largely because it was different from a lot of mystery novels I have read. To begin with, it is written by a German author for a German audience, and of course set in Germany (in the 1990′s). So it depicts life in Germany matter-of-factly, not like a book written for Americans and set in a foreign country to try to make it more interesting.

It could be termed a medical mystery, as the main character is a doctor, attending physician at a teaching hospital, and most of the characters and action are related in some way to the hospital. But the issues turn out to have a lot more to do with the business side of the hospital than the medical side.

It should be no surprise to most people, considering rising healthcare costs and the various efforts made to contain them, that healthcare is a business and decisions are made as much by business administrators as by doctors. But it’s interesting to see a physician’s point of view as he goes about his daily (and sometimes nightly) duties. (Author Christoph Spielberg is himself a practicing physician, so he knows what he’s writing about.)

Early in the novel, narrator Dr. Hoffmann, having just filled out a death certificate (for the patient whose death is surrounded by the mystery Dr. Hoffmann goes about trying to unravel), comments that “I had no idea that at that moment I was almost signing my own death certificate.” I kept waiting for someone to try to murder him. But for a book described by some reviews as a thriller, The Russian Donation struck me as surprisingly undramatic. I don’t say this as a criticism – in some ways it is a welcome change from thrillers where the tension is constantly at a fever pitch.

The cover says this is “Dr. Hoffmann’s first case.” That was one reason I picked it out (among new books at our library). It’s always nice to start a series at the beginning. I don’t know how soon the English translation of another of Spielberg’s Dr. Hoffmann books will appear, but I’ll keep out an eye for it.


Turning science fiction into science

March 9, 2013

I read recently about a number of scientific advances in 2012 that would once have been possible only in science fiction. None of them seem especially surprising, considering previous scientific advances I already knew about.

Today, however, I was surprised to read a discussion of the pros and cons of bringing an extinct species back to life. I knew that cloning techniques had continued to develop since it first made big news. But I wasn’t aware that there was serious work on recovering DNA from extinct species for the purpose of creating live animals.

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