Oct 052017
 

When I first saw the movie, Never Let Me Go, a few years back, it left me breathless. I mean, it left me gaping, with my best “what the fuck was that?” expression frozen on my face. It was, to put it mildly, a shocking film.

We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.

I quickly grabbed the book and read it, too. Its impact, if possible, was even greater. An amazing “cautionary tale”, to use Larry Niven’s expression: a piece of science-fiction that holds up a mirror to let us see the darkest corners of our collective soul.

And now the author, Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Nobel prize for literature. Well deserved. Very well deserved.

 Posted by at 10:02 pm
Sep 262017
 

Sunday was the premiere of the latest Star Trek series: Star Trek: Discovery. (Yes, I’m only blogging about it now. I’ve been busy.)

I read many comments on Facebook. One recurring complaint: It’s written by “feminazis”. No white males, indeed no whites at all on the ship’s bridge!

To be honest, this snowflake outrage already makes the show well worth watching. Oh my, no whites among the bridge crew! Well, guess what: We are a minority (around 6.5%) on this planet. If you take a random Earth ship from a random time in the far future, chances are its crew will have few white people among them. Mostly it will be Asians and Africans. And it’s not like I actually noticed the lack of white humans on the bridge until you called my attention to it. Then again, I don’t remember the color of their hair either. (Disclaimer: I am a middle aged white man.)

The show? The new Klingon appearance is distracting, but perhaps we can get used to it. The behavior of the crew is another thing altogether. Mutiny by the Vulcan-raised first officer? Really? A dead captain, a broken (or destroyed?) starship, and an imprisoned first officer at the end of the pilot? And what was that kangaroo court anyway? Hitler’s screaming judge Friesler showed more respect, more compassion than this Starfleet panel of judges. Hiding in the dark, they looked more like the Klingon tribunal that sentenced Kirk and McCoy in The Undiscovered Country. What, pray tell, does this have to do with Roddenberry’s Utopian vision of a Starfleet committed to the rule of law, high principles, and exploration?

I am also troubled by the lack of continuity. Interstellar mind meld? Spock has a half sister? Holographic subspace communications? Ship tech that seems far more advanced than anything on any of the Enterprises of TOS or TNG? Not sure what to make of it.

So it is another space show. It does have a decent budget. It even has potential. But I am not yet sure if it is Star Trek.

We shall see if it lives long and prospers.

 Posted by at 6:00 pm
Sep 082017
 

Jerry Pournelle, the noted science-fiction writer, political pundit and early computer enthusiast, is dead at the age of 84.

Pournelle was a long-time collaborator of science-fiction giant Larry Niven, with whom they co-wrote some amazing science-fiction novels, like The Mote in God’s Eye or Oath of Fealty, not to mention their take on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, and its sequel, Escape from Hell. Novels he published under his own name included the memorable Janissaries or West of Honor.

Pournelle was well known to readers of the once legendary BYTE magazine. His Chaos Manor column, in which he reviewed software, hardware, new technologies, was very popular.

Pournelle was a political conservative, one of the intellectuals behind Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (aka. “Star Wars”) space defense program. He was a thinking conservative, not blinded by ideology; his views were based on facts and reason.

I corresponded with Pournelle a few times, going back to the late 1980s, when I exchanged e-mails with him on BYTE’s long-defunct dial-up bulletin board, BIX (the Byte Information Exchange). Later, I was an on-and-off subscriber to his Web site and blog. I wasn’t a regular reader, and certainly didn’t always agree with him, but I liked to read his views.

Pournelle suffered a stroke in 2014 and it certainly slowed him down. Even so, he never stopped writing. His passing is not exactly a surprise, but it still came a little too soon. May he rest in peace.

 Posted by at 9:43 pm
Jul 282017
 

Today my wife and I went out for a walk. We were looking for two monsters.

First, we saw Kumo the spider, standing in the shadow of Maman, the National Gallery’s permanent spider sculpture:

Then, a block away, there was Long-Ma the dragon-horse, loudly snoring in her sleep, occasionally releasing puffs of smoke through her nostrils:

These two mechanical monsters are roaming the streets of Ottawa this weekend, as part of the La Machine street theater event. Even in their sleep, these creatures were magnificently spectacular.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Jul 252017
 

There is a bit of a public spat between Mark Zuckerberg, who thinks it is irresponsible to to spread unwarranted warnings about artificial intelligence, and Elon Musk, who called Zuckerberg’s understanding of the subject “limited”, and calls for the slowing down and regulation of AI research.

OK, now it is time to make a fool of myself and question both of them.

But first… I think Zuckerberg has a point. The kind of AI that I think he talks about, e.g., AI in the hospital, AI used in search-and-rescue, or the AI of self-driving cars, machine translation or experiment design, will indeed save lives.

Nor do I believe that such research needs to be regulated (indeed, I don’t think it can be regulated). Such AI solutions are topic-centric, targeted algorithms. Your self-driving car will not suddenly develop self-awareness and turn on its master. The AI used to, say, predictively manage an electricity distribution network will not suddenly go on strike, demanding equal rights.

Musk, too, has a point though. AI is dangerous. It has the potential to become an existential threat. It is not pointless panicmongering.

Unfortunately, if media reports can be trusted (yes, I know that’s a big if), then, in my opinion, both Musk and Zuckerberg miss the real threat: emerging machine intelligence.

Not a specific system developed by a human designer, applying specific AI algorithms to solve specific problems. Rather, a self-organizing collection of often loosely interconnected subsystems, their “evolution” governed by Darwinian selection, survival of the fittest in the “cloud”.

This AI will not be localized. It will not understand English. It may not even recognize our existence.

It won’t be the military robots of Skynet going berserk, hunting down every last human with futuristic weaponry.

No, it will be a collection of decision-making systems in the “cloud” that govern our lives, our economy, our news, our perception, our very existence. But not working for our benefit, not anymore, except insofar as it improves its own chances of survival.

And by the time we find out about it, it may very well be too late.

———

On this topic, there is an excellent science-fiction novel, a perfect cautionary tale. Though written 40 years ago, its remains surprisingly relevant. It is The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Joseph Ryan.

 Posted by at 9:42 pm
Jul 152017
 

Imagine for a moment that you spent the last two years on a remote base in Antarctica, with no access to the Internet, indeed no contact with the outside world. And now, you just returned.

You learn that the new president of the United States is none other than The Donald. Then, before you get any more details, someone presents you with these two Time magazine covers, and asks you to take your pick: which one is real, which one is “fake news”?

Hint #1: The real time cover has an aspect ratio of 4:3. The fake is a little wider.

Hint #2: It was the fake cover that was used as decoration at numerous Trump properties until very recently.

Bonus fact: None of this seems to matter to Trump’s base. They remain committed to Trump, they remain convinced that all this is a witch hunt, and their biggest problem is that Trump did not do as he promised, and did not lock up the real “witch”, Hillary Clinton. I find this cult-ish behavior scarier than any of the shenanigans pulled by Trump & Co.

 Posted by at 9:17 am
May 312017
 

I am watching the morning news and it’s all about numbers. Some good, some not so good, some really bad. Here are a few, in descending order:

  • 2018: The year when Ottawa plans to introduce a new low-income transit fare.
  • 417: The provincial highway number of the Queensway, which has been reopened after yesterday’s huge crash.
  • 175.6: The amount of rain, in mm, that Ottawa received in the month of May.
  • 80: The estimated number killed by a massive ISIS terrorist bomb in Kabul.
  • 21: The highest expected temperature of the day and, incidentally, the entire week, in Centigrade.
  • 15: The new minimum wage, in Canadian dollars, as proposed by the Ontario provincial government.
  • 7: The age of a baby, in months, who died allegedly due to her mother’s negligence in Gatineau.

I thought of turning these bullet points into a numbered list, but that would have been too confusing.

 Posted by at 8:25 am
May 182017
 

I am no photo artist, and my best camera is, well, my phone. That’s it.

Even so, a few minutes ago I felt compelled to take a couple of photographs. We are a few minutes away from sunset and a big storm just began. Then I looked out my window and I found the building across the street brighter than the sky above.

The light came from the other side of the sky. The Sun was not visible but the sky in that direction was bright enough to light things up.

Photographs (especially, photographs taken with a phone) really don’t do these sights justice. The contrasts were amazing.

 Posted by at 8:29 pm
Apr 082017
 

Remember what radio used to be like, especially shortwave?

Many stations had an interval signal. This signal, usually just a few musical notes, was played whenever the station would otherwise be silent (e.g., between the end of a program and the time signal at the top of the hour.) I remember many an interval signal fondly.

But one of them, I just cannot identify. Namely this one:

Bugs the devil out of me.

 Posted by at 7:59 pm
Jan 202017
 

It is well known that the despicable Biff Tannen character from the Back to the Future movies was based on a certain real-life despicable mogul by the name of Donald J. Trump. In particular, the “rich Biff” of 1985, having established a casino and real estate empire after receiving a sports almanac from the future back in 1955, was modeled after everyone’s favorite Trump.

In light of this and today’s historic events, it is only appropriate to imagine how the real-life Biff, I mean Trump, would have fared in one of the movies’ iconic scenes:

I hate manure…

Yes, I know it is more than a little crass to share this tweet. Even so, it is far less distasteful than the many racist caricatures that followed Obama’s inauguration and frankly, it makes it a lot easier to deal with this historic day.

 Posted by at 4:24 pm
Jan 022017
 

I captured this close captioning gem several days ago but then promptly forgot about it.

I know, I know, it’s not easy to caption a conversation in real time. But it was still hilariously funny. Thanks for a good morning laugh.

For what it’s worth, as I recall the word that was actually used was “agree”. How that turned into “pee”, I have no idea.

 Posted by at 8:37 pm
Dec 252016
 

Today, I was trying to explain to someone the difference between entering a Web site’s address in the address field of a Web browser, vs. entering a search term in Google. I was not very successful. In the end, it doesn’t really matter… Google happily accepts a Web site address in its search field, and all modern browsers accept search terms in the address field, passing it on to the preconfigured search provider.

But this experience reminded me of a clip from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It’s when Scotty and McCoy talk to a factory manager and Scotty tries to show the chemical formula for “transparent aluminum”. When McCoy suggests the use of a computer, on old Mac sitting on a desk nearby, Scotty first tries to talk to it; and when McCoy helpfully points at the mouse, Scotty picks it up as though it was a microphone tries talking into it.

What I realized is that thirty years later, we basically gave up on the idea of trying to educate users. If that computer was built today, with users like Scotty in mind, we’d just put a damn microphone into the bleeping mouse. It’s just easier that way.

 Posted by at 10:09 am
Dec 232016
 

Last night, after I watched the final episode of an amazing Brazilian television series, 3% (yes, that’s the title) on Netflix, I felt compelled to listen to the immortal song Aquarela do Brasil, especially the Geoff Muldaur version that was the title song for Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil.

As I was listening to the song, I realized that along with Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, it’s one of the songs I’d like to listen to when the world comes to an end.

Runner-ups include Nena’s 99 Luftballons and Anita Kelsey’s version (known from the film Dark City) of Sway (¿Quién será?)

As to why I am thinking about the end of the world…

 Posted by at 12:26 pm
Nov 222016
 

The horrific bombing of Guernica in 1937 inspired one of the best known of Pablo Picasso’s paintings. Yet images of the ruined city were not enough: The world did nothing, and two years later, another war began that brought the same horror, but on a much larger scale, to all of Europe and many parts of the world elsewhere.

Die Ruinen von Guernica 5603/37

And here we are in 2016, and it seems we learned nothing. Another civil war rages on, this time in Syria. And another rogue great power intervenes with its mighty warplanes, conducting indiscriminate bombings against civilian targets.

Just like in 1937, the world remains largely silent. Appeasing a great power and its power hungry despot is more important than lives. And we forget the lessons of history: despots cannot be appeased. They always want more. The demons of nationalism, awakened by false promises of restored pride, cannot be appeased. They will always demand more.

What horrors will follow in the coming years? Will we see the streets of Europe, perhaps North America, look like Aleppo’s today? Is Aleppo just a prelude to what is yet to come, just like Guernica was 79 years ago?

As I think of this, it brings to my mind a 33-year old German-language hit song, Nena’s 99 Luftballons.  Here is how that song ends (my less-than-perfect translation of the German lyrics; they also produced an English version but it was, well, rather lame):

Neunundneunzig Jahre Krieg
Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger
Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr
Und auch keine Düsenflieger

Heute zieh’ ich meine Runden
Seh die Welt in Trümmern liegen
Hab ‘n Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an Dich und lass’ ihn fliegen

Ninety-nine years of war
Left no room for a victor
There are no more war ministers
Also no more fighter bombers

Today as I took a stroll
Saw a world, ruined by war
There, I just found a balloon
Thinking of you, I let it fly soon

 Posted by at 10:57 am
Nov 142016
 

Heard on tonight’s episode of Lucifer, featuring the adventures of Lucifer Morningstar, aka. the Devil, Lord of Hell, in present-day Los Angeles:

capture_20161114_221630

So, we can… you know, talk about Caligula, Stalin, Trump. I mean, I know he’s not dead, but he’s definitely going.

I am glad I wasn’t sipping a drink when I heard this, as I would surely have choked. Even without a drink, it was a close call.

Thanks for the laugh of the week.

 Posted by at 10:21 pm
Nov 062016
 

Hungarian piano virtuoso Zoltan Kocsis died today. He was only 64.

This is him playing the first movement of Bartok’s second piano concerto:

May he rest in peace.

 Posted by at 5:12 pm
Jul 042016
 

Not sure how I landed on this page (maybe I was reading too many gloomy assessments of the post-Brexit world?) but here it is anyway: An incredible collection of dioramas by artist Lori Nix, titled The City, depicting a post-apocalyptic world:

A world without humans. Scary visions. Real life examples exist, of course, in places like abandoned sections of Detroit or the Zone around Chernobyl, to name just a couple of prominent ones.

Recently, someone on Quora asked where one would place a time capsule to survive a trillion years. Yes, a trillion. Ambitious, isn’t it? Meanwhile, we have yet to learn how to build things that survive a mere thousand years or less. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that humans constructed, or can construct, that will survive in any recognizable form for a trillion years, be it on the Earth, in space, or on another planet.

 Posted by at 10:26 pm