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The RoBlog
Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Kite Aerial Photography by Scott Haefner | ptbonita
Ok, earlier I asked the question of what you would do with a 10Gb/s connection to your house. I just stumbled across this site of beautiful pictures taken from a kite, some of which are 360 panoramas like the one in the link below.

That got me to thinking of what it would take to updated the 360 degree panoramas in real time so you could experience looking around from the kite as if you were there. Now THAT would take some bandwidth and processing horsepower, I'm thinking.

And then I remembered that various media technology companies are working on pretty much exactly this for use (at least initially) at sporting events. The idea is that you could look around the even just like you were there, choosing your own objects of interest to look at, and potentially choosing which camera point of view you wanted to look through.

The obvious problem these companies are running up against (besides the development of their equipment)? Bandwidth to the home. There you go, answered my own question. Anyone have other ideas of what a 10Gb/s pipe is good for (besides the obvious porn jokes)?

Check out the site. The pictures are pretty cool.

Kite Aerial Photography by Scott Haefner | ptbonita
Life in the Year 2014 Deconstructed
Ok, I promised a few posts back to take a closer look at Robert J. Saywer's prediction of what life will be like in 2014, as posted on Backbonemag.com, so here we go.

Sawyer begins by describing a waking up scenario where your bedside clock will track your brainwaves and wakes you up in a gentle fashion right at the point where you are most rested.

Is the general idea of this scenario possible by 2014? Yes, but only just.

Let me start, however, by pointing out that this gentle waking will probably only be possible on the weekends for most people as the kind of mass social re-engineering required to allow you to sleep in to whenever you want and then come to work would probably take 10 years longer than the technology that enables it, if ever. You'll still have to show up somewhere (even if it's your home office) in time for some meeting or other, and given the increasingly global reach of businesses, this will probably mean meetings at 7am in San Francisco to catch the people getting ready to leave in London. And, of course, we're only talking about white collar workers at this point. The vast majority of the working population will still need to be at work by 8 to flip burgers and great customers with a smile.

Back to the technology. First of all, if this process is possible at all, it's unlikely to be in a clock by your bedside. A clock is probably going to be too far away from your head to accurately monitor your brainwaves with the technology available in 2014. More likely, it would seem, would be some sort of Smart Pillow whose primary function will be to gather biometric information about you like your brainwaves, body temparature, and maybe one or two more things. The pillow will then report the data wirelessly to your personal computing device, which will then communicate with whatever home systems have finally been network activated to manipulate your environment in the manner you have predetermined.

The challenges, beyond the commoditizing of the brain wave reading technologies, that will need to be overcome for this vision to be realized include:
- Supplying power to the pillow regularly (this will become an increasing problem that will need to be solved generally in the next 10 years as more and more non-computing devices become electrically active without ready access to a wall plug).
- On a similar note, placing the required electronics into a pillow without interupting its comfort value.
- Identifying whose brainwaves are being read and what device to report the information to. Probably some sort of brain wave fingerprinting is possible (I don't know enough about brainwaves), but your computing device and your pillow will probably have to have some kind of conversation that goes like this: Computer: "Any pillows in the area that receive biometric information from a person whose brainwave patters match this, report that information to me".
- Encrypting the data to prevent it being intercepted (I assume this will be a minor barrier).
- Handling the case where there is more than one brainwave in the area to pick up. I don't know if it will be easy to discern two brains that are, for example, on the same pillow or not.
- Privacy issues related to sleeping on a Smart Pillow that is not your own (e.g. hotel, one-night-stander, etc) that could feed back your biometric information to an undesireable (a challenge that will come up again and again in discussions of the near future where such things as toilets that can monitor your urine for various reasons are predicted to become common).

Hmm, seems I've already run out of time and I haven't gotten beyond the first paragraph of the prediction. Looks like this will probably take me a week's worth of entries to cover. Ah well, it's interesting anyway. Tune in next time, and don't forget to check out the original article: It’s 2014, and life is the same. Only better

Wireless tech gets workout at RNC | CNET News.com
Here comes the future!

Information swarming is happening at many levels at the RNC, it appears (and happened at the DNC as well). Officers in the field will be equipped with small wireless cameras on their headgear, allowing people in a centralized location to see what the officer sees. I wonder how the wireless bandwidth is managed here. Seems like you could clog a network pretty fast with a bunch of cameras like this.

Mobile bloggers with camera phones will be convering the scene from many angles, presaging the individual-as-reporter era that we should see become the dominant process in the next couple of years. I assume that events of this magnitude that happen a year from now will contain video and audio. Now if I could only get my Micro-Local-News concept off the ground, I'm sure I could make a mint ;)

Wireless tech gets workout at RNC | CNET News.com
Samsung Phones to Contain Near-Field Chips
It looks like another portion of my vision for technology is falling into place. I hadn't heard of Near-Field Communications (NFC) before, but according to this very brief article, it is spec'ed to provide 212kb/s at a range of 8 inches. The technology is being targetted at allowing a portable device to carry out a transaction in a physically local space that would be impossible for someone else to intercept and non-obvious ranges.

I had always thought of physical touch plates when I was thinking of ultra-security, but this kind of networking technology makes some sense as well. The question I have been wrestling with myself is if there really is a need for this kind of technology for very long. Will longer-distance techs like Wi-Fi, accompanied with encryption that PDAs will be able to perform in the next year or so, be sufficient security to enable these kinds of transactions without a new technology?

Certainly this kind of technology (NFC) is not entirely foolproof. For example, if I were to use it to pay my groceries (even though everyone likes the RFID idea for that, though I remain unconvinced about this application of RFID), I could see some hacker physically placing an interception receiver just under the counter where the I would have to place my personal device to complete the transaction.

I presume some of likelihood of NFC becoming adopted will have to do with the cost of the technology, and getting into the right places (like consumer devices). Another big part of the question will be if the technology can get in to the hands of the sellers.

In any case, this kind of thing will be interesting to watch

Samsung Phones to Contain Near-Field Chips
Tech Crazy > Internet connections will hit 10Gbit by 2010 in Japan
NTT, Fujitsu and the Japanese Government have evidently undertaken a project to bring 10Gb/s Internet connections into people's homes. That's certainly awe inspiring and fun to think about, but what was more awe inspiring is that in Japan, and apparently several other countries, 100Mb/s fiber is already being rolled out in people's homes.

This certainly speaks to a future when entertainment content is delivered primarily over the Internet rather than by cable, broadcast, and the like. And with 3Mb/s wireless connections already in some countries, the era of watching what you want when you want to where ever you are, is fast approaching. It also probably signals the rosey future of edge content providers like Akamai who will likely be increasingly relied on to get content as close to the consumer as possible to reduce strain on the Internet backbones.

But all of this begs the question: What new uses would 10Gb/s inspire? Surely 1Gb/s is fast enough for very high quality video. What could be the next killer application that would require individual users to have 10Gb/s connections? Is it just more simultaneous feeds, or is there something more revolutionary waiting?

Tech Crazy > Internet connections will hit 10Gbit by 2010 in Japan
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Technology Review: 'Marathon Mice' Created to Run Farther, Longer
Interesting that this gene manipulation is already in human trials.

Technology Review: 'Marathon Mice' Created to Run Farther, Longer
Gas Prices in Portland
A good example of swarming information that will increasingly be how information is distilled. What will be required is the swarming mechanism with the data is much more complex than gas prices.

Monday, August 23, 2004
Life in the Year 2014
I ran across this delicious article this morning by science fiction writer Robert J. Sawer on Backbonemag.com.

In it, he envisions what the life will be like in the year 2014, a mere 10 years from now. And even though he wrote it in July of this year, he shows that predections of the future can never be too near for the fallacies to creep in.

His rosey picture of technology is every bit in the vein of those people who, in the 1920s, were trying to envision the glorious 1980s where technologies of the future have cured all men's ills and made the world a better place. Since Sawyer is only looking ahead 10 years, there are no cities of ultra-high-rises or sky-cars, but there are things that are just as wonderful, like relics from the 1950s and '60s future movements such as the robotic kitchen.

Unfortunately I don't have the time to dig into all of the aspects of the story worth noting (and learning from) just now, but I will do so as soon as I can, don't you worry (and I know you were worried)!

Meanwhile, check out the article below.

Life in the Year 2014
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Omni Future Almanac: Superconductivity
Pg. 23
A full understanding of superconduction phenomenon [which will occur in the next 20 years]...will be soon followed by the development of a room-temperature superconductor...

Nope. As near as I can tell, superconductivity fizzled out in the 80's. I don't suppose anyone could tell me why?
Omni Future Almanac: High-Energy Particle Anomalies
Pg. 23

There is a general discussion of the seeming paradox that certain particles can transmit information faster than the speed of light, as witnessed by their spin. When the members in a pair of these particular particles are spinning, they always do so in opposite directions from each other. When separated and one forced to change its spin, its partner immediately changes spin accordingly.

Now, no doubt I've horribly butchered what actually happens, so why stop there?

The prediction is that we "will develop an explanation for these types of phenomena sometime in the early twenty-first century."

I don't know if we have an explanation for why or how this occurs, but it does have a name (which is as good as an explanation, right?)...only I don't recall it exactly. It's something like quantum entanglement, and all I really know about it is that it keeps coming up in discussions of quantum computing and, not surprisingly, long distance communication.

So, have we solved this? I'm guessing not, but perhaps someone more knowledgeable out there could correct me. If not, then we're probably darned close, which is where we always get into trouble, so I'll predict that it won't be solved for another 25 years ;)
Omni Future Almanac: Unified Field Theory
Pg. 22
Sometime between now and the end of the century, physicists will finally construct a mathematical mosel that will tie together the four basic forces holding the universe's particles together...

Nope. Not yet. Always so tantalizingly close. Always so frustratingly far away.

Add this to the list of things that gets more complex the closer we seem to be to solving it.
Omni Future Almanac: Ultimate Glue
Pg. 21
By the twenty-first century, nails, screws and rivets may be found only in museums.

My feeling is that this was a winking observation rather than a stoic prediction for the future. Nonetheless, my guess is that even if the "ultimate glue" had been invented by now (I'm not currently aware of such a thing), nails, screws, and rivets would be in little danger. Such simple machines have incredible staying power (ok, maybe rivets in most situations may want to consider their retirement options), not the least for the reason that they can be relatively easily undone.

Some technologies are so good, so simple, that extremely large advances are required to supplant them, and in the long history of nails, and somewhat shorter one of screws, we haven't managed to do that yet (and I don't think that the Ultimate Glue would do it either, should it ever be developed).
Omni Future Almanac: Unlocking Enzymes
Pg. 21
[Enzymes] will fill innumerable roles in nonbiological situations. They will make petrochemicals, digest garbage, form structural materials, and much more.

I feel like I've done an entry on enzymes already, but I can't seem to locate it, so here it is again: What ever happened to enzymes?

I know they're in my laundry detergent, and I know they're in my dishwashing soap, but I'm pretty sure they're not in our garbage (at least not the landfill type; I'm pretty sure they're in our waste water treatment processes). Did they live up to the above kinds of applications?

Assuming that enzymes are used in a wide variety of applications today, it just goes to underscore something I'm pretty sure I've said before (but, then again, I thought I had already written about enzymes, so there you go): The technologies that seem like they are about to be in every home, office, and recreational activies, are exactly the kinds of technologies that fade into the background of our lives, helping us from afar, more than they help us directly. It is on the fabric of these kinds of innovations that our society progresses, but this fabric is largely invisible to the vast majority of us.
Omni Future Almanac: Genetic Crops
Pg. 20
Using genetic engineering techniques, scientists will craft new kinds of plants before the end of the century.

Yep. Or at least I'm pretty sure. What OMNI failed to predict, however, was the backlash that GM crops have created. We sometimes fail to stop and ask ourselves how humans, behaving humanly, are going to react to our predicted innovations (the "Sunny Side of the Street" fallacy). Would people trust genetic tampering with something as primal as food? Turns out it at least makes some people stop and think.

Of course this phenomenon isn't limited to genetically modifying foods; turns out that just irradiating them was enough to get people up in arms. I'm guessing that the fuss over GM foods will die down significantly over the next 10 years as more people get used to seeing them, but you have to question what kind of legacy science has left itself that people would fear such things.

I don't mean this to sound like I'm pro GM foods. I'm actually undecided at this point. It turns out that I have some concerns about modifying the basic things that we use to live every day, just like everyone else. My misgivings tend to arrive from the other end of the spectrum, however, where "alternative" herbal remedies keep popping up in the news has being discovered to interact harmfully with certain medications, or to cause sterility, or worse, increased cardiac risk. With the government so slow to make these things go through the same tests that "real" drugs have to go through, it leaves me concerned that the proper amount of caution and testing might not be applied to GM foods as well.

Best to wait a bit and see how these things play out over the next decade or so. After all, it would suck to find out that the cool nitrogen fixing modification we made to tomatoes also increases the rate of intestinal cancers in people who consume it regularly, wouldn't it?
Omni Future Almanac: Decyphering the Brain
Pg. 20
The manner in which the brain encodes, assimilates, stores, and retrieves information will be understood within our lifetimes... Early in the twenty-first centru, researchers will achieve the ability to use the electrical patterns of the brain code to communicate directly with our minds.

Hmmm, maybe. But this is one of those things where people believe we're on the cusp of things that will still take us quite a while to actually figure out.

We have mapped out some of the kinds of activities various regions of the mind are involved in. We come ever closer to understanding the cellular functionality of various nerve cells (only recenly appreciating the large number of cell types in use in the brain). We can tap in to nerves to pass along information of sorts, and to get information back out of them. We have even plugged an interface into a monkey's brain, allowing it to play a computer game without touching a controller.

But these things are still a far cry from understanding the system as a whole. They are a long way from implanting any information into the brain, just data. The brain is a big darn complex system, and we have a ways to go before we can talk to it directly.

It's very possible, in fact, that each brain lays itself out differently enough (working around localized malfunctions, and taking advantages of localized happy accidents) that even if we could directly interface with one brain after a lifetime of work, it may still take quite a while after to interface with the next brain.

Now, advances in computing power will make the development of these "custom" brain interfaces ever faster, so it's unlikely that it really will take a long time to interface with the second brain after we've done it with the first, but given that the brain is an active, living system, I think we have some time yet before we're plugging Internet interfaces right into our skull.
Omni Future Almanac: Mapping the Genome
Pg. 20
"As the turn of the century approaches, biologists will successfully transcribe all the genetic information in a healthy human cell for the first time."

Yep. At least as far as I understand things. There may be a more specific meaning of the above sentance the is off, but the Human Genome Project has mapped out the human gene, and many of the predictions of the Almanac about its effects (disease markers, e.g.) are now coming true.

Not quite as the century approaches (if I recall correctly), but close enough.
Omni Future Almanac: Deconstructing the Cell
Pg. 20
"Before 2000, scientists will be capable to taking cells apart piece by piece and putting them together again in new, startling combiniations."

While I think they are talking more metaphorically here, the literal understanding of this prediction, I believe, has not yet taken place. Re-assembling a cell is a challenge that still awaits us.
Omni Future Almanac: Black Holes
Pg. 19
"Before the turn of the century [2000], a black hole will have been fully verified."

Not sure what "fully verified" means, and I am most certainly up on my astronomy, but I think we haven't gotten to "fully verified" quite yet. Let me know if we have.
Omni Future Almanac: The Dying Universe
A quick one here.

The first paragraph of the first subsection of the first chapter talks about scientists devoting their energies in the near future on discovering how and when the universe will die.

I wonder if this is a direct reference to the presumed collapse of the universe that was the prevailing theory at the time, or just a general musing like one would muse about the beginning of the universe.

What I ultimately find fascinating about this is that it reminds me that we are only something like 6 years into discovering that the universe is much more unlikely to collapse than we thought; that it is actually expanding more rapidly over time, and not slowing down. At any time, our models for things we take as fundamental can be rocked by a new observation. And just when we think astronomy is getting boring.
Omni Future Almanac Revisited
I've decided to go back and re-read the Omni Future Almanac, which I last visited nearly a year ago. Partly this is so I can capture thoughts on the early part of the book, which did not make it into my blog the last time around. Partly, as well, because I promised my dad, who loaned me the book, that I'd take notes in it, just as he did in 1989, and again in 1995 (though I'm going to cheat and take my notes online). And partly because it succinctly captures a wide range of things in a way that's easy to comment on.

I'm hoping that this will propel me in to reading through a stack of other "books on the future" that I have sitting on my desk that require deeper thought on my part, and likely longer entries.

I'll be including my dad's entries where I find them, prepended with the year he wrote them. It should be an amusing ride at least.
Predicting the Messy Stuff
In an older entry here, I mentioned that "...figuring out what localized instabilities would cause what to happen on the global scene is entirely beyond my comprehension." and that "My opinion is that you just have to predict around them and hope for the best."

Well, such things are no nearer to my comprehension, but it was interesting that I randomly got handed a paper by Dr. Massoud Amin, who was my wife's professor in college for a while, about applying the new branch of the mathematics of complexity to exactly this kind of thing, or at least things very close to it...I think.

In any case, as I don't know if the paper (which, frankly, gives away no details) is supposed to be public knowledge, I won't repeat its themes here, but if what he is proposing bears fruit, it will provide an interesting compass for the future of the messy things like economic development, political instability, global security, and the like.

Micro Flying Robots are Cool
Yahoo: News - World Photos - AP
DataVault: RSS for Calendars
An interesting article about a use for RSS that goes beyond blog monitoring. This fits in with my larger DataVault vision of data exchange for the future. What is missing is the ability to set permission-based access to the feed, and assign new calendar entries a permission type (e.g. "All friends", "family only", etc), which requires having groups of friends in some reliable (read secure) identification and authorization process.

Oh, and applying this concept to every piece of information you have anywhere ;)

RSS gets down to business - CNET News.com
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
The Machine Stops
I've recently been pointed to E.M. Forster's short story "The Machine Stops". A dystopic vision of the future, that, in the grand tradition of showing us where unbridled extension of current technology will lead us if we are not vigilant, puts humans in isolation chambers under the earth.

A copy of the story can be found here.

I find it interesting that the person on whose page this appears gives Forster credit for some things that Forster gets the general spirit of, but nowhere near the general implementation of, making it difficult to credit him for specific visions like email (pneumatic tubes not really being the same; more being the "Super Now" of the existing postal service). This feels much like crediting predictions to Nostradamus, or psychics by choosing the parts where they are right, ignoring the parts where they are wrong, and assuming the details.

I think the central flaw in this, and similar isolationist visions of the future, is the denial of Man's social nature. Sure, people like me wouldn't mind living, to an extent, in a chamber where all our needs are met, but self described "people people" (of which there are a great many), would just never be comfortable not being in the real presence of other people. The ability to shake hands, clap shoulders, and the like are still fairly fundamental to the existence of most of us.

It has long been my feeling that the Internet will be the new mechanism by which we form our modern tribes. It will help us find those people that compliment us well, and while some of this interaction will be virtual, a physical component will still be required lest the interactions feel, for all their projected reality, like that of a pen pal.

This story would seem to be a vehicle by which the author examines what it is to be human, rather than a likely outcome of human events. What is the likelihood of people continuing to have children if there is nothing in it but the burden of carriage and birth, the duties thus ceasing? Unlikely indeed.

Comfort is not man's primary desire, or at least not for all men, or even, likely, most. Exploration, the pushing of some sort of boundary (be it physical or mental), is far more fundamental.

What I think is lacking from visions of the future of this sort, is how, exactly, we get into such a place. Surely there would be factions wildly opposing a machine-enabled existence, or those who would prefer living topside regardless the risk. There would be people concerned with losing the fundamental freedoms on which the US (among others) was founded. We see this daily already. This vision, and those like it, require either some sort of cataclysmic event (for which there can be no planning), or that society is, on the whole, ignorant, or worse, passive. It is my experience with the latter that, for good or ill, people are rarely passive.

It is because we so readily identify with the son of the main character that this story is unlikely to happen.

Perhaps most damning, in my opinion, of this particular vision of the future, is that the INTP, exactly the sort who might well be suited to living in chambers physically isolated from the world, but virtually plugged it, these types of people are exactly those kinds of people who would be "lecturing" on how the machine worked. Picking it apart. Reading the manual. Tinkering with the way it works. Envisioning a better, more powerful version of it. The knowledge of the machine would most certainly not die as in the story, although, perhaps, the ability to actually perform the fixes might.

Monday, August 16, 2004
Popular Science | Is Science Fiction About to Go Blind?
An interesting article about a couple of current Science Fiction writiers, what they're thinking about and the like.

Popular Science | Is Science Fiction About to Go Blind?
Ubiquitous Surveillance: Too Much Information
Here's an article about how a guy has been posting detailed information about the security preparations surrounding the Republican National Convention, and how it concerns people in the Department of Homeland Security.

This supports my growing feeling that Big Brother type scenarios will actually be harder, not easier, for the government to pull off, as the public will be at least as well armed to watch the government and it's officials as they are to watch the public.

I think it's important to ensure that laws aren't put into place to limit this as this kind of two-way watching is likely the only way to keep the government balanced while still protecting security.


Augmented Reality
This is some VERY cool stuff, largely dealing with how virutal objects could interact with real objects in environmental augmented reality setups.

There's interesting fodder for thinking about how technology of the future will unfold, and you will undoubtedly see bits and pieces of this in future entries here.

High on the "just plain cool" meter is the ability for software written by these folks (and possibly hardware, I didn't dig too deep) to allow you to project video on to practically any surface. The system adjusts the brightness (and, presumedly, other values) of each pixel in real time to account for different textures and colors on the viewing surface, essentially cancelling them out. It also adjusts for warping in the geometry of the surface as well, making it possible to project a movie onto a patterened curtain in a way that looks very much like projecting on to a regular screen. Multiple projectors can be used simultaneously to eliminate shadows that might be caused by a single projector on a 3D surface.

One can envision a Redundant Array of Inexpensive Projectors (RAIP) much like today's RAID drives for servers for household theater viewing. Perhaps 5 projectors or more arranged in a pattern like 5 is represented on dice allowing for a cheap (relatively) setup that can be used anywhere to show a movie.

Augmented Reality
Friday, August 13, 2004
Volvo - Concept Lab
Here's one of Volvo's concept cars. This one is the "Safety Car Concept" or SCC. If you click on the highlight area numbered 1, you'll see their fingerprint lock prototype.

It's an interesting decision, and I like the direction, but why do they have to use a complicated dedicated piece of hardware for you to open the door remotely. If you're going to open the door remotely, why not build an app for existing PDAs?

Actually, I can guess: 1) Few, if any, PDAs have a fingerprint reader; and, 2) A PDA can get obsoleted fairly quickly leaving you with a really large key fob.

It won't be long until your car and your personal computing platform will exchange encrypted messages to unlock the door. It's too bad that Volvo didn't decide to push the envelope a bit further with this concept with a more standard interface that can be implemented on any computing platform with the appropriate wireless interface.

Wouldn't it be nice if they published an unlock API and you could use your own key type (fingerprint, password, simple button on an already secure PDA, etc)?

Volvo - Concept Lab
New Scientist: Alien Contact
The current (Aug 7-13, 2004) issue of New Scientist magazine contains an article by Paul Davies ("Do We Have to Spell It Out?") pondering how aliens might contact us by means other than a signal in the electromagnetic realm, and having been interested in the related subject of how we could most successfully create a message that could be interpreted by aliens, and, consequently, what kinds of message structures aliens might use to communicate with us, I had a few thoughts on what Davies had to say.

Davies essentially says that if aliens were sufficiently advanced from us, which, at this point, seems possible should they exist at all, their method of sending a message to us might be to embed a message on the planet, rather than to beam a message to us continually from afar. Specifically, Davies suggests that the message might be hidden in the very basis of life itself: DNA.

My first concern with this is the enormous distance that likely lies between us and the nearest alien life. I read yesterday in a book I'm reading entitled Time Out for Tomorrow that, by the author's calculations, if life were distributed evenly across our galaxy at the rate that the author presumed it to exist (the question of the probabilistic evidence for life is fodder for future entries here), there would be one planet with intelligent life every 1000 light years. To me, that's a very long way to travel at sub-light speeds, and worse if you assume that the aliens that send off these virus-laden probes with their message to the future intelligent beings, are not our nearest neighbor.

But Davies starts the article by indicating that these intelligent life forms may be hundreds of millions of years more advanced than us (which brings about all sorts of other discussions that I'll table for now), so it is presumed that enough time for such a probe to reach us from where ever they are has passed, and/or that they have developed technology to travel very near, at, or beyond the speed of light.

Davies suggests that aliens might choose to embed their message in DNA as it (or certain parts of it) are self correcting, helping to ensure its continued existence for hundreds of millions of years or more. This method also, by the way, has the benefit of being right under our noses all of the time, making it more likely to be found, and has the further benefit of being a "time release", or, more accurately, and "intelligence release" capsule whereby only sufficiently advanced beings would be able to discover and decode it.

His choice is to put it in specific sections of so-called "Junk DNA", certain specific portions of which are apparently very prone to being conserved as is. Apparently these specific sections have been wholly removed from mice with no ill effect, making them prime candidates for containing a message. Further, Davies indicates that theses sections are quite large meaning that extensive information could be passed along from the aliens to us in them.

I wonder, at this point, if it is fair to assume that all life (should it exist) anywhere in the galaxy, is based on the same procession of intertwining nucleotides that is the basis for our life? Is it safe to assume that DNA would evolve at all on another planet as a requirement for life, or could other functionally equivalent mechanisms substitute for it, and perhaps be more common. The assumption that aliens would send off probes full of message-carrying virus in the direction of any planet potentially capable of evolving life with DNA seems like a bit of a stretch, though this may reflect my better understanding of engineering (where functionally equivalent processes are often substituted for each other) than of biology.

More likely, frankly, would be that aliens sent the germ of life anywhere they thought it would survive; an outcome we will have to consider deeply should a message be discovered in our DNA (should that fact not be explicitly stated). For the time, however, I content myself to believe that current evidence is in the ballpark enough to explain the evolution of life on this planet.

Nonetheless, if it is indeed true that there are large strings of seemingly useless junk DNA, it would beg the question of why. While evolution is not a super efficient mechanism producing entities with no inefficiencies, large amounts of junk DNA stored in every cell on earth does seem like a huge waste of resources if it is to not serve any purpose.

Assuming for the moment that there is a message hidden in our bodies, long strings of the same nucleotides are definitely, as Davies suggests, excellent message markers. There would have to be a sufficient amount of them that the odds of that string appearing at random would be vanishingly small. Making this more difficult to spot, I imagine, are mutations that Davies seems to indicate happen even in this protected section of our genes. A stray mutation every few dozen nucleotides may make any long string of single nucleotides difficult to spot. Similarly with prime numbers, another mechanism of tagging a message that Davies relates.

More difficult still would be the method Davies relates from the Carl Sagan novel Contact. It's been a long time since I've read that book (which I enjoyed immensely), but it seems like a long stretch to assume that aliens would be, in short order, able to get us to sort the data of their message into a two-dimensional array from which the picture of a circle would appear without providing us enough information to conclude, already, that we were receiving a message from another sentient being. And, again, mutations would make this all the more difficult. Without such guidance, it seems like guessing the right array size might take a very long time indeed.

I wonder if information theory, or something similar, has a method of approximating the amount of potential information in a string of characters to help determine the likelihood of there being a message in something. I'm guessing there probably is, and that people like Davies have exactly that in mind when they go trolling for messages in this kind of data. If anyone has a link to a good summary of this kind of process, let me know.

I think the idea of a message in our DNA has a certain kind of elegance to it, and hope that someone decides to test it out with a reasonable method at some point. I don't, however, hold out much hope. Assuming that there are ETs out there (which, given some recent articles I've read about the fact that the earth may be more unique that we originally thought, seems less likely, which is not to say unlikely), and that they were interested in sending us a message and were sufficiently advanced in both time and technology to do so, doing it in our DNA just doesn't ring the right chord for me.

I would probably have to side with Clarke and put a message on the moon of some durable advanced alloy, that would be found in a straightforward manner (radiation searching, for example) when the target species' technology had sufficiently advanced. Better yet, something that was a beacon that millions of planets could see without having to send something to every planet that could carry some form of life. Maybe a rotating neutron star or the like. Of course if the most obvious places might require fiddling with the very nature of the universe in such a way as to change things we currently consider constants...perhaps something sufficiently down in the digits of pi...

Thursday, August 12, 2004
Technology Review: Unprecedented Electronic Net Over the Olympics
I have a suspicion that the "Big Brother" technology being used to monitor activities at important security sites (airports, event locations and the like) during the Olympics doesn't work quite as well as the below article (or more likely the people involved in the system) would like us to believe. My experience has been that speech-to-text technology, especially in noisy environments, still has quite a ways to go to be of much use. I wonder how many false alarms will get triggered, for example, because the audio analysis didn't pick up which language was being spoken, or just heard some things phonetically similar to buzz phrases but with too much acoustical ambiguity to be sure.

In any case, it does indicate that we're closer yet to the Orwellian future, if not 20 years later (not that I believe that constant monitoring of citizens is in our future, but I tend to be optimistic in that respect).

It is also an interesting case study in what you might be able to do with increasingly sophisticated "off the shelf" software (like Autonomy, mentioned in this article) in combination and/or with some custom bits as well. I expect we'll be able to do some pretty cool things with standard software packages plugged into each other fairly soon.

Technology Review: Unprecedented Electronic Net Over the Olympics
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Sharp Introduces 3-D Computer Display
Not sure of the impact of this yet, but it's pretty cool to think about.

Sharp Introduces 3-D Computer Display

Saturday, August 07, 2004
The Third Millennium: Acid Rain
I've just started reading a book called The Third Millennium: A History of the World: Ad 2000-3000, written by Brian Stableford and David Langford in 1985. It's a look back by fictional historians on the history of the 3rd millennium (go figure).

Anyways, the first chapter is titled "The World in the Year 2000" and the second paragraph mentions acid rain, which got me to wondering:
What ever happened to acid rain?

I remember as a kid seeing acid rain in Nevada where I spent my summers, but it seems to have disappeared from the lexicon these days. Did we successfully solve this problem with environmental regulations around pollution control? If so, is it still a problem in other countries, or did they learn from us?

Enquiring minds want to know, so let me know if you know.

Friday, August 06, 2004
Personal Gear: Skin used to transmit key data�| New Scientist
Print: Skin used to transmit key data�| New Scientist

I've been skeptical of Microsoft's patent on using the skin as a means of networking a series of personal devices. Unless the primary benefit is power savings, it doesn't yet click with me. Why not use a wireless technology? And getting all your devices in contact with your skin all of the time may be challenging.

This article, however shows a bit more promise in that it is primarily oriented at using the skin as a conduit for unlocking cars and ensuring such safety procedures as having safety goggles on before using power tools.

If this is it's primary target, however, this seems like nothing more than a niche play. It would seem more likely that wireless keys stored in your PDA (or the like) would be a better way to unlock a car. In this way, it can be started and warmed up as you approach, for example, or other, context-based activation models that are significanly less acheivable with direct contact technologies such as in this article.


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