Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Shalom Robot

It was sometime in January of 1921 that a Czech playwright named Karel Capek presented R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). His brother helped him coin the word Robot from the Czech word for drudgery or servitude. The story is about a woman who goes to Rossum's Robot factory on a mission to liberate Robots who are manufactured to have all of the features of a human except (they believe) a soul. It ends badly for humanity as the Robots revolt and exterminate every human except one. Many of these usual themes would come to be explored within thousands of subsequent works of fiction.

About a hundred years before the premiere of Capek's play Mary Shelley (age 19) was vacationing with friends when she was challenged in a contest to write the scariest story amongst those staying at Lord Byron's villa in Switzerland. Rising to the challenge she wrote a book about Dr. Frankenstein who creates a living being out of non-living parts. This story also ends badly as the creature kills several people before killing himself.

Go back even further but remain in the same general area of Central Europe and you will come across the story of Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, a 16th century Rabbi who it was said created a Golem to protect the Prague Ghetto from anti-semitic attacks. That word comes from the Hebrew gelem which means raw material. A Golem is a living being created from entirely non-living material. They are said to have all the features of a human except for the gift of language which if they had it would be evidence of a soul. The good Rabbi's Golem also gets out of control and goes on a killing spree. It is said that this very Golem still rests in the store room of a Synagogue in Prague and even killed a Nazi officer during WWII.

It seems that the Golem story is featured in many classic tales told in Czech culture and Mary Shelley would likely have absorbed these. It seems that Frankenstein was the former name of a city in Silesia and it has also been argued that on their way to their Switzerland vacation with Lord Byron the Shelley's stayed briefly at Castle Frankenstein where a notorious alchemist is said to have experimented with human bodies.

Gustav Meyrink wrote a novel called Der Golem in 1915 which inspired several movies including The Golem: How He Came Into the World in 1920, the same year in which Capek wrote his play. It seems clear that the story of Frankenstein owes a great deal to the Golem story. It seems equally clear that one cannot have a full understanding of Capek's Robot story without acknowledging the influence of the Golem myth which had been prevalent within the cultures of Central Europe, particularly in Czech culture.

Side note: Another participant in Lord Byron's scary tale challenge was his doctor John Polidori who wrote that week The Vampyre which spawned a whole other genre.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hardware / Meatware Problem

Derek Finkle has written about a young man who may have been wrongly convicted of murder. The Crown Prosecutors are asking the courts to force him to turn over his research notes and recordings. There are of course many points to be made about freedom of the press and expression but I want to pursue a technological question.

They are not asking him to reveal the contents of his brain, only the contents of his external recording and storage devices. We seem to make a natural distinction between memory stored in our brains and memory stored externally on devices like notepads or digital recorders. I suppose if this reporter had an eidetic memory and didn't require notes or recordings, then he would not be in this situation. What if he had a handicap and relied on external memory devices to remember most things? Would there be some line drawn between what he would be asked to hand over to the Crown?

There is no basis to punish anyone for thought crimes in our social or legal system but there are precedents in which written or otherwise recorded thoughts are employed as linchpins in court cases. It seems that you are allowed to think what you want internally as long as you don't make any record of it that could be externally accessible. This has worked so far but upcoming technological developments will likely bring us to question this approach.

External devices have always been used to augment our mental faculties. But the line between internal and external may soon be blurred. Those handicapped by brain injuries are beginning to make use of devices that interface with the brain in a much more immediate way than the interface between your brain and your notepad, laptop or digital recording device. These hardware devices are being more frequently attached to the physical human hardware (meatware?) and achieving what can only be called cyborg technologies.

The current trend is towards the even further externalization of memory storage and this is exemplified by the services offered by some internet companies to augment your computer's data storage on their servers. So we might see something like Google Personal Memory Storage Service. This will successfully connect you wirelessly to a vast external memory augmentation for your brain but who wants to suddenly forget what they were thinking about when they enter a subway station? Sooner or later you will undoubtedly be able to buy a plug-and-play device that will augment your own mental faculties. When this becomes common there will be some interesting discussion about what then becomes considered the private realm of thoughts versus the more legally accessible externalized recordings of those thoughts. Where is the distinction to be made?

Are Finkle's notes and recordings different from his memories because they are externally stored? Well cyborg technologies will internalize these. Are they different because they reside in a device and not in meatware? These implanted devices may use distributed storage processes that will make it impossible to say in which matrix of neurons these recordings are stored. Parts of your thoughts and memories will be stored in your meatware and parts in the hardware. Without the constituent parts working together there will be no thought or memory to display.

Even if you could somehow distinguish between memories in the hardware and memories in the meatware, these internalized devices will cease to be made of metal and plastic at all. They will eventually come to be made of biological material custom built by being grown inside your own body. This will be a welcome development since it will make it more difficult for spammers to hack into our thoughts and compel us to buy advanced versions of erectile dysfunction pills.

It's probably too soon for legislation but maybe it's time we started thinking more about these things.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Leaving Krypton

Immigrants in North America are more successful than the native-born as they make up a disproportionate percentage of the entrepreneurs who drive economic progress and innovation. This has historically been the case despite the inherent disadvantages that one faces by uprooting and starting over in a strange land with little or no assets at all.

By the time they arrived in America, the Jews of Europe were the victims of oppression and forced immigration over many centuries. When they arrived on this side of the ocean they found that the environment was relatively more tolerant to them. Like the Asian, African and Middle Eastern refugees that followed, one of the reasons that their new surroundings allowed them to thrive was because they no longer had to deal with the burdening oppressions that weighed on them. Opportunities increase when you're not being hunted down.

It's like walking around with ankle and wrist weights for most of your life and then having them removed and being issued wings in their place. Superman would have been an average Schmoe on Krypton but becomes a superhero on Earth. This plays out in various other ecosystems. The lowly Zebra Mussel from Russia hitches a ride in the ballast of freighter ships and finds himself in the land of plenty that is the Great Lakes. Those purple flowers that you may see by the side of the road also made the trip over on those ships and now these are considered invasive species because they have been so successful.

Those opposed to immigration often use language that only barely seems to be metaphorically talking about invasive species. Sometimes even invasive species are used for good. The Canadian Wolf was introduced into Yellowstone Park to help bring a balance to that ecosystem. Without a successful predator most of the native species were overeating, overpopulating and threatening the environment. But immigrants don't eat the natives like Wolves do, nor do they consume all the food like the Zebra Mussel leaving none for the locals, nor do they suck up all the marsh water like the Purple Loosestrife, leaving none for the less thirsty vegetation.

A human ecosystem can demonstrate the successful innovation and economic activities of individuals that will leave everyone in the ecosystem better off. This is at the heart of capitalist economic theory. If the proper parameters are in place then the rising tide is supposed to lift all ships. This largely works as long as we don't allow undue exploitation and lose sight of why we want to increase wealth in the first place: To raise the tide for all, not to drown the weak swimmers.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Happy Days

Growing up in the 70's and 80's we used to watch a TV show called Happy Days that was about a group of high school students in the 50's. We considered the fifties to be some ancient time in the past barely accessible within the memories of the really old people who may still have been alive. The music seemed ancient and quaint. The fashions were preposterous, silly and so alien that some of the girls used to dress up as a "fiftie's girl" for Halloween, much like one might dress up as a renaissance courtesan (which are really stupid choices for Halloween costumes since neither of them is scary).

In retrospect the Happy Day's setting only preceded us by about twenty years. I went to high school in the eighties which is now about twenty years ago. The kids today must think of the eighties as some magical ancient time when people dressed liked idiots and listened to really lame music. Do they look through my high school yearbooks when considering Halloween costumes?

Punk Not Dead Yet

Here's a bizarre realization for me: Punk was born about 30 years ago! I ran into a kid in a Starbucks last week wearing a Forgotten Rebels t-shirt. I chatted him up about it, telling him that I knew the guys in that band from Hamilton all those years ago. I guess it would have been like someone coming up to me when I was in high school and telling me that they knew Chuck Berry. I would have had a polite exchange with him while thinking "good for you gramps".

Someone has made a film about Punk's 30th birthday.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

iPhone is Totally Book

T9 predictive texting is used on many cell phones. You enter all of your text using 9 keys. When one tries to enter "cool" the word "book" could also come up since it uses the same "2265" keystrokes to enter. So some kids have started to use the word "book" as a laudatory descriptive with phrases like "man, straight up, that iPhone is totally book".

Which brings me to wonder why we often have such a fetishistic relationship with our devices. It seems to me that a successful piece of technology should be invisible or at least transparent. When you watch TV it quickly becomes transparent and you cease to notice the device at all. Instead you are immersed in the world that is being displayed. A phone is usually like that also. Unless you've got it perched on your shoulders and you're getting a kink in your neck or the sound or heat is hurting your ear, you don't really notice it. It remains transparent unless something goes wrong with it.

People go ga-ga over a new flashy device like the iPhone but the enthusiasm will be short-lived if its usability doesn't deliver. It will be a truly successful technology when you cease to notice it. Instead of thinking "wow I'm engaging with this really book device by using only my fingers" you should be thinking about the conversation you're having in a chat session or the information you're viewing on the screen, or the movie world that you've entered by launching a video.

Perhaps the reason that we get so excited is because we intuitively sense that the iPhone's combination of features and abilities will allow us to attain a greater transparency and ease of use. Like any successful technology it should have the fluency of a second language that arises when you no longer have to concentrate on the grammar and can begin to truly express yourself.

But the iPhone user won't require predictive texting. You'll be able to type on a full qwerty keyboard and as a result you probably won't discover any book new usages.

Philosophy, Powerpoint, Free Association

Le Grand Content

Friday, January 12, 2007

Jeff Buckley - Documentary

In 1994 I finally caved in and bought a CD player so that I could play Jeff Buckley's Grace album at home.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Apple Resurrects The Newton

In 1993 I came across a new product from Apple Computer called The Newton. It captured my imagination. The next year I had left grad school and formed a company that focused on the new technology. I gave six years of my life to that project and had a wild ride. During those years I would either go to Macworld exhibitions or follow them remotely to see what new products were being launched.

The Newton continued to improve until Apple released their final version the MP2100 in 1997. It was starting to approach the potential I had envisioned for a mobile communication device. It was years ahead of its time and it took many years for others to approach it's innovations. But it all ended badly for Newton when Steve Jobs came back to Apple and decided to trash anything that was invented while he was serving the banishment imposed on him by John Sculley. Rumours persisted for years that Apple would bring back the Newton but it never materialized... until yesterday.

So yesterday morning I followed Jobs' keynote from San Francisco where he was expected to announce the new iPhone. It has already caused quite a stir, appearing on the front page of many newspapers including the Globe and Mail that was delivered to my door this morning. This slim and sexy iPod/computer/communicator (which may be renamed soon) is really a device that materializes many of the promises made years ago by the Newton.

What Steve Jobs taketh away, Steve Jobs giveth again.

War on Pollution

It is a proven fact that diet or workout regimens are more effective when tackled with a friend. The camaraderie goes a long way towards alleviating the pain. The war on your fat ass is more easily won when we're all in it together.

We seem to declare war on everything else why not pollution. Our leaders tell us that there is no way we can meet our Kyoto targets by 2012 but I say that anything is possible if everyone gets behind a cause. There needs to be inspirational leadership that can convince the people that some sacrifice is needed and that together we can win. Remember those scrap metal drives during WWII? It seems easy enough to convince people to support illegitimate and wholly fabricated causes so it shouldn't be too difficult when the cause is based on fact and real necessity.

Hispanic Cinema Festival at the Megaplex

Recently Viewed films all coincidentally made by Mexican or Spanish directors.

I generally like non-linear films. One complaint is that this one never seems to let up on the intensity.

Children of Men
I'm a big fan of dystopian cinema. This film is also intense but with better variation of tone. I like Clive Owen's misanthropy.

Perhaps a little schmaltzy. I was however surprised to find that Penelope Cruz is not nearly as irritating in her native language.

Pan's Labrynth
A gory adult fairy tale. I can see how some people will consider this an excellent film... if you like that kind of stuff.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Language Bytes

Mcdonald's Encouraging Littering? "Put litter in its place" is printed on Mcdonald's packaging. But crumpled paper is litter if it is found on the sidewalk and it is garbage if found in a bin.

Dead Slow Children Playing These words were posted on a sign in my neighbourhood when I was kid. Sure, my friends and I weren't that bright, but come on!

Farken Icehole Motherfarkers There was a movie called Johnny Dangerously which featured an immigrant mobster who shouted malaprop obscenities. This comic innovation allowed us children to watch a movie in which swearing occurred. I understand that Battlestar Gallactica also uses Fark in the same way. But if everyone started to use it like a profanity would they not have to begin bleeping it?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Escalation of Violence in the Middle East

Forgiveness is not some abstract metaphysical precept. It is a practical necessity. An eye for an eye ensures that we all go blind.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Thanks Bill Gates, for Inventing the Computer

Ask people who invented the light bulb and most will reply with the name of Thomas Edison. It has been forgotten that Edison actually made a living buying patents from other inventors. The gas bulb / carbon filament design was invented by Canadians and sold to Edison who commercialized it. There were also electric light bulbs being designed with varying degrees of success by dozens of other people over a century before Edison even came on the scene.

Many people and most Americans think that Henry Ford invented the car. Not even close. He fought for 8 years all the way to the supreme court to avoid paying royalties on a patent owned by George Selden. There are dozens of automakers of note before Ford but his innovations in mass production techniques helped him to sell millions of cars.

Guglielmo Marconi's reputation has coasted for decades on the adulation for being the person who invented Radio but only now Nikola Tesla and others are starting to get their due in popular culture.

Through self-promotion, guile, or sheer momentum, combined with a popular laziness for historical understanding, the people who eventually win over a technology market often come to be considered the inventors of that technology. So it is not that surprising for me to have had been engaged in conversations in which Bill Gates was praised for inventing separately the computer as well as the internet.

I'm hoping this one won't stick. Perhaps the very nature of computing technology will preclude this. One of the benefits of this technology is that it allows for dissenting opinions to be aired and permanent records to be kept. One need only search the internets to find that Bill Gates did not, I repeat did not invent the computer. This technology also gives hope to the legacies of the thousands of forgotten pioneers who's reputations were overshadowed by more entrepreneurial self-promoters like Edison, Ford, Marconi and Gates.

Johnny Has 2 Mommies... and 1 Daddy.

The Ontario Court of Appeals has ruled in effect that a child has three parents. The lesbian couple raising the child as well as the biological father have been given full legal standing as parents in a case decided this week.

While reading some of the comments left by the readers of a Canadian news source I began to see a pattern that I've noticed before. Some readers welcomed the tolerant position taken by the court while some others criticized it and wondered when people would be allowed to marry their pets. I noticed during this debate and the recent gay marriage debates from last year that the people that oppose such decisions seem to have inferior writing skills compared to those who supported them. Below is an example of an opposition viewpoint:

To all the fools that keep saying that gays should allow to marry and that it does not affect me. You are now a witness to the actual agenda that the gay community has had all along. Let's let them think that this marriage game is tame and it doesn't 'hurt anybody'. You myopic stupid people. This is a slow death to the real family which is the agenda of the so called a 'gay lifestyle that is normal'. This is the hidden agenda of the gay community. To indoctrinate and argue on an economic front that this makes sense. I guess they forget about the vulnerable children that don't have a say in the matter. You better reinforce the psychological network because this society will need it in the future. Being all screwed up due to the 'normal lifestyles.'
God help us all.

It is muddled and badly written. When I start reading something like this I can't help but eventually hear it spoken in the distinct dialect of a stereotypical caveman on a bad TV show. The tolerant seem to be much better writers than intolerants. I wonder why that is.

Privacy? What's that?

Police have installed dozens of new cameras on a busy shopping street in downtown Toronto. People are complaining about the erosion of their privacy. Here a some things to consider:

When you're shopping in a mall you are never usually out of the view of a camera.

Your blog details your personal views on sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Your friend's myspace account probably has photos of you having sex on drugs at a rock and roll concert.

A man takes his last breath before his neck is snapped and someone captures the video on a cell phone and distributes it worldwide in minutes.

It's too late. There's no privacy left to erode.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Death of Decorum

It has been repeated by many that Saddam Hussein got more respect than he gave his victims. That may be true but it's no excuse. Not enough respect was given to the principles of due process and the rule of law. We had an opportunity with the strongest possible example to demonstrate that the rule of law applies to all. We had a lynch mob instead.