Friday, February 26, 2010

Standing up for Andrew, and Walter, Koenig

For those that haven't heard, Andrew Koenig, the son of Star Trek's Walter Koenig, was found dead of an apparent suicide in Vancouver's Stanley Park yesterday. Andrew played Boner, the goofy best friend of Kirk Cameron's character, Mike Seaver, on the '80s sitcom Growing Pains. As such, there are a number of cheap jokes being floated around gossip-o-sphere about the apparent humor of guy named Boner whacking himself.

I can promise you there are at least two people who aren't laughing: Walter and Judy Koenig. A couple years back, I got to spend a weekend with Walter Koenig as his fan liaison at a local sci-fi con. It was a privilege, and I took a great deal away from our time together. I would not be so bold as to call Walter a friend, but I am absolutely certain he was a proud and invested father who loved his children with an obvious, almost illuminated intensity. I have no doubt that the loss of Andrew has wounded Walter in a fashion I can barely comprehend.

No father deserves that, especially not one so generous and devoted as Walter. And whatever you think of Walter or Andrew or fame in general, no family deserves to have such a profound and horrific loss rendered a public punchline. So before you go make Boner jokes around the water cooler, take a moment and think of Walter and his family. They need our sympathies and our support, not our sarcasm.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Brown energy

Household electric meter, USAImage via Wikipedia
Brown energy (n.) - Energy derived from non-renewable resources, usually through highly poluting methods. The opposite of green energy. A snarky term for any energy source, technology, or industry that the environmentalist movement doesn't approve of. Brown energy, in concept if not in name, is typically depicted as a root cause of environmental collapse in ecopocalypse and greenpunk fiction.

I bring it up because: The Bloom Box is making the rounds as the savior energy technology du jour, offering highly efficient refrigerator-sized industrial fuel cells. At sufficient scale, the Bloom Box can supposedly convert natural gas and oxygen into electricity with no toxic byproducts and for less cost per kilowatt-hour than conventional commercial electricity. Nonetheless, the Bloom Box runs on non-renewable natural gas and a single Starbucks-powering Bloom Box Energy Server will run your $800,000. So is this green energy, because it's non-polluting, or is it brown energy, because it's non-renewable? It's probably a little bit of both, but even money says a Bloom Box-esque eco-energy source gets namechecked in a quasi sci-fi TV show within the next six months. It's too trendy to ignore.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Roach motel

Partial setup for programming of screen contro...Image via Wikipedia
Roach motel (n.) - A media consumption device, format or service with such pervasive and egregious DRM that it precludes sharing content with any other device, format, or service. More simply, any system where "your data checks in, but it doesn't check out" -- which is a reference to the old tagline for Roach Motel insect traps. A roach motel is any technology that doesn't let you move your data off it with a minimum hassle.

I bring it up because: Both the Kindle and the iPad have been described as roach motels (notably by Cory Doctorow) in the wake of the Amazon/MacMillan pricing dust-up, largely in the context of both devices wanting to "own" the digital book market and thus having no incentive to make ebook portability a priority. This, in turn, revived discussion of the larger, lingering roach motel apocalypse issue -- format obsolescence. All digital data is encoded in a specific format, and that format will eventually fall out of use, which in turn means the decoding devices will become scarce, which thus means the data will be trapped in the old format. (Raise your hand if you have old single-density floppies that your current PC can't open.) Therefore, all data formats eventually become roach motels, which is why contemporary data portability is such a pressing longterm issue.

Charles Stross took this concept to a dramatic extreme in Glasshouse, wherein the distant descendants of humanity had to reenact (inaccurately) aspects of 1950s Western culture because most of the historical records of the era were trapped in encrypted proprietary file formats. Think that's farfetched? Ask NASA how easy it is to decode digital records of the moon landing. If the world's foremost manned spaceflight agency can forget how to read its own unencrypted video tapes of events of staggering historic importance, what chance does the average consumer have of avoiding personal roach motel hell 20 years on? Maybe the Data Liberation Front are onto something after all.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Truly Trivial: What Olympic venue featured the largest roof ever built?

Games of the XXI OlympiadImage via Wikipedia
Can't research. Buried in snow. Going to old Geek Trivia bullpen. Blatantly milking Olympic fever. Don't judge me.
The 1976 Montreal Games were an overall success in spite of the fact that the widely anticipated Olympic Stadium, built to host the opening and closing ceremonies as well as several showcase competitions, was not completed before, during, or even years after the '76 Games. Designed to incorporate a then-cutting-edge retractable roof suspended from a massive architectural mast tower, the cost and complexity of the design skyrocketed construction costs and forced the stadium to open with no roof. ...
Despite such mishaps, Olympic stadia have a largely proud architectural tradition, even where roofs are concerned. In fact, another Olympic venue featured the largest single roof ever built, an engineering triumph still lauded today.
Read the complete Q&A here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Hyperfiction

A Picture of a eBookImage via Wikipedia
Hyperfiction (n.) - A form of fiction that takes advantage of interactive media to elevate a story beyond mere linear narrative. Basically, a story that incorporates hyperlinks to allow the reader to experience the text in any particular order, and to explore story materials that are ancillary to the main plot. For example, a hyperfiction novel might include interactive maps of the setting, video news accounts of events in the story, and blogs or journal entries made by several characters. Hyperfiction is still in its infancy, though Shadow Unit by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly, Leah Bobet and Holly Black is perhaps the most well known sci-fi experiment in the medium to date.

I bring it up because: Hyperfiction is more than fiction on a hypertext-capable reader, as Elizabeth Bear informs us. This is the point being missed in the recent Amazon vs. MacMillan brouhaha, to say nothing of the announcement of the iPad --  fiction that is native to digital media does and is more than fiction native to analog media. Put another way, producers did more with DVDs than they did with VHS tapes. Interactive features, games, alternate audio commentaries, whole extra cuts of the film, easter eggs, and the like. This is taking advantage of the potential of the medium. To date, we've stuck analog books on digital readers and called them ebooks. But what does a hyperbook look like? How would a hypernovel differ from a novel? We haven't even begun to really ask the question. Until we do, don't expect e-readers to become "necessary" to the average consumer. You haven't replaced their novels yet. You've only copied them.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Truly Trivial: What was the first computer to beat a human opponent at chess?

Photo of Radio Shack Chess Computer 2150L. Pho...Image via Wikipedia
Fourteen years ago tomorrow, Gary Kasparov became the first reigning world champion chess player to lose to a computer under normal chess tournament conditions. On Feb. 10, 1996, IBM's Deep Blue chess supercomputer defeated Kasparov in the first game of a six-game match before being routed four games to two overall. Deep Blue, after some upgrades, went on to defeat Kasparov in a similarly orchestrated match in 1997, thereby "ending" the undisputed dominance of humans over machines in world-class chess.

Of course, there's almost nothing "undisputed" about the previous sentence. The Kasparov/Deep Blue rivalry has its own chess subculture and sordid history, with some claiming it was a triumph in computing prowess, while others see it as a jury-rigged publicity stunt designed solely to boost IBM's stock price. The documentary film Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine is perhaps the most high-profile examination of this rivalry, though it is but one of many emotional and perhaps less-than-objective accounts of the events.

What makes this issue so contentious is that chess is perhaps the ideal human vs. machine intelligence contest. Chess is so mathematically complex it cannot (as yet) be rendered a solved game, which is a term for any game which has a methodical, reproducible strategy for achieving at worst a draw every time it is correctly used. Put more simply, there are so many possible moves in any game of chess that not even the most powerful supercomputer on Earth could efficiently model them all. Thus, computers -- like humans -- can only anticipate a limited number of moves in advance and must develop an ever-shifting strategy to defeat a capable opponent. You must think on the fly to win at chess.

Today, it is generally conceded that even consumer-grade computer hardware can model enough moves in advance of any given chess position to consistently outplay all but the most skilled human chessmasters. Even under tournament conditions where human players are given access to the computer's opening book -- the equivalent of watching game film on a human opponent to note tendencies and styles -- chess programs can now brute-force their way past most human players.

This is quite a stretch removed from the first computer ever to defeat a human opponent at chess, when the machine needed to significantly modify the game and the conditions of the contest to win.

What computer was the first to defeat a human opponent at chess?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Nerd word of the week: Human-rated

Project Constellation insigniaImage via Wikipedia
Human-rated (adj.) - Term for a spacecraft that is capable of safely transporting human passengers. The term man-rated is often used interchangeably with human-rated. Human-rated craft are almost invariably more complex, more expensive, and thus rarer than mere cargo-rated craft.

I bring it up because: President Obama just pulled the plug on the the next NASA human-rated spacecraft, Project Constellation, in his recently proposed federal budget -- even as we edge closer to the retirement of the space shuttle program in September of this year with STS-133. (Whether this axing survives Congress remains to be seen, as the Bush-era Constellation program promised research dollars to several Congressional districts.) As it stands now, NASA is going to be out of the manned spaceflight business after this year, and may stay that way for years, even decades, and perhaps forever.

Scientists are torn over the Constellation shutdown: Upset that the promise of a manned presence on the moon, Mars, and even the asteroids has been nixed; relieved that an over-budget, backwards-looking retread of the Apollo program has been shut down in favor of more promising and practical telescope and robot-probe missions. Moreover, Obama is explicitly handing the human-rated baton over to private spaceflight, with the likes of SpaceX poised to pick up millions or even billions of dollars in NASA contracts if they find a commercial method of getting astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station. It could be a bold new era of affordable spaceflight, or just another decade or three of humanity trapped in the claustrophobic confines of Low Earth Orbit. Only time, and human-rated innovation, will tell.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Truly Trivial: When did the famous 1984 Macintosh TV commercial first air -- before the Super Bowl?

I actually had a few fresh Truly Trivial columns squared up for possible publication this week, but the confluence of the iPad and the Super Bowl required that I excavate this gem from my old Geek Trivia days. Yes, the Apple fanboys should alternately pleased and perturbed:

[T]he definitive computer commercial for all time is, has been, and probably always will be the Apple Macintosh 1984 Super Bowl spot. Directed by a fresh-from-Blade Runner Ridley Scott and boldly implying that IBM was the evil corporate equivalent of Big Brother from George Orwell’s novel 1984  ... the commercial grabbed the attention of millions, became an artifact of pop culture and a standard-bearer for event marketing and Super Bowl commercial creativity, and launched the Macintosh line of personal computers — even though it aired only once.

Except for one thing: Despite the legend, the spot didn’t air just during Super Bowl XVIII, nor was the Super Bowl spot the commercial’s first time on television.

Read the complete Q&A here, then enjoy the sublime reference to the classic "Super Bowl" Mac ad in this Simpsons clip.