Scifaiku: The Big Picture

This is a reprint from my scifaiku, “The Big Picture.”  In 2006 it appeared in Scifaikuest Special Edition.  It represents my attempt at dark humor.  Yes, dark humor may have a double meaning in this context.  I wrote it as a warning that — with many astronomers and other researchers looking further and further to the ends of the universe — we don’t miss the trees for the forest (I hope I got the reverse idiom right in this case).  In essence it is my thank you to those who have spent and are spending their valuable time and effort to find NEOs.

The Big Picture by Richard S. Levine

left eye, telescope, searching focusing

dark, Orion’s sword, shines

nebula, extracted, retrieved

night, endless stars, viewed

right eye, structure, searching focusing,

both eyes, binoculars, searching focusing

Orion, left eye stars, right eye meaning

searching Orion, eyes open, Orion’s soul

binoculars, truth, coming asteroid

Ancestry reduncancy

Have you ever seen one of those charts that shows how you should have more ancestors in the year 1300 than were alive in the year 1300?  Take for example 714 years divided by 23 years per generation.  That’s over 30 generations or 2^30, which is about a billion people back in 1300.  But Wikipedia shows estimates of only a few hundred million people were alive in 1300.  How is that possible?

Wikipedia discusses the topic of “Pedigree collapse,” which explains why “everyone on Earth is [probably] at most 50th cousin to everyone else.”  You might also like this short explanation of pedigree collapse at the Straight Dope.

Professor Bruce Railsback at the University of Georgia (UGA) has an interesting essay on this subject called “Redundancy in Ancestry.”

Ralph Baer, the grandfather of video games

Ralph Baer passed away recently at age 92.  Although he was responsible for the first home video game system — Magnavox Odyssey — which created an industry, he had thought about making games for tv since the 1950’s.   Wikipedia states “In 1966, while an employee at Sanders, Baer started to explore the possibility of playing games on television screens. He first got the idea while working at Loral in 1951…”  That makes him not only the father of video games, but also sort of the grandfather of video games.

I’m so glad that Baer started the video games industry in the early 1970’s.   There was no career for making video games when I was in college, but I had always loved playing board and card games.   Atari came out with their 2600 in 1977, and I started programming at Mattel Electronics in 1979.  What job would have been more fun than that?  Thanks, Ralph!

SYFY debuts Ascension on Dec. 15

I’ve enjoyed previous Canadian-filmed science fiction television, such as “Continuum.”  So I look forward to another Canadian/American television series entitled “Ascension,” about an alternate present where in 1963 the U.S. government launched a covert space mission to send hundreds of men, women, and children on a voyage to a new planet.

I haven’t written an alternate history story about the past yet, but I sometimes enjoy them — especially when they involve time travel.  On the other hand, I have written a story about an alternate history where the future is changed.  It’s called “Timer,” and you can find it in my “Science Fiction: Time Travel” anthology.

Speed reading at The Reading Game

As I said in a previous blog, I worked for a time in the 1970’s at The Reading Game, learning centers owned by American Learning Corp. that eventually was purchased by Encyclopedia Britannica.  I started in Fullerton, CA as an associate, but then opened and started the Oceanside, CA branch.  I also taught speed reading through the Oceanside and Mission Viejo offices.

So I found it interesting recently when I discovered a Los Angeles Times article about the life of the famous speed reading educator and business woman Evelyn Wood.  Her company was purchased in the 1980’s by American Learning Corp and became the standard speed reading method at The Reading Game centers — after I had become a video game developer.


Investing Jetson’s Style

Science fiction movies like “Minority Report” portray a future where virtual reality is a natural way to access data. In reality, many companies, researchers, and governments have already experimented with this idea for enhancing military, educational, and healthcare technologies.

The line between games and “serious games” is becoming less clear. Now Fidelity is trying out Oculus Rift’s goggles for a flyover of one’s investments.

With people already performing daily tasks on their tablets and phones with simple touches, and video game technology being integrated into our work life, how long before office jobs are equivalent to working like George Jetson?

The Reading Game

Richard Levine, director at "The Reading Game" Oceanside
Richard Levine, director at “The Reading Game” Oceanside

Out of college, I started my career as a school teacher.  With many long-time teachers staying in the profession back then, it was difficult to find a job in the California school system.  After a stint as a math teacher at a junior high school, I landed a position as assistant director of the Fullerton branch of “The Reading Game”, a franchise of learning centers owned by “American Learning Corp” — which later was purchased by Britannica.  I even started and directed the Oceanside office of “The Reading Game”.

It was during this time that I saw how students learn with varying styles and at different rates.  But all the students I worked with seemed to learn better when they were motivated and having a good time.

Later, as a software engineer and game designer, I applied these lessons when developing “Microsurgeon” and “Truckin'” for Mattel Intellivision.  I wanted game players to have varying levels of difficulty and a variety of choices.  Like putting a little fun into education in my “The Reading Game” days, I put a little education into fun.

Will “12 Monkeys” be a good tv series?

“Twelve Monkeys” was an interesting time travel movie that starred Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe, Brad Pitt, and others.  One element that I think made it stand out was that time travel was depicted as making a person a bit — or a lot — nutty.  The “Journeyman” television series also showed us a time traveler who experienced headaches and other disorientation — not to mention his jumps were unplanned.

The new “12 Monkeys” series coming to SYFY television on January 16, 2015 could be good, but in watching the trailer (below) I wonder if some of the originality and edginess of the movie-by-a-similar-name will be lost on this new production.  It’s hard to predict, since the SYFY channel had great success in reimagining the original “Battlestar Galactica” series.

In my own writing, I’ve had at least a couple of time travelers who were driven to the edge.  “Timer” in my top selling anthology “Science Fiction: Time Travel” is about a scientist who struggles with the consequences of his time machine.  “The Time of Your Life” features a convict who suffers from Chronoagoraphobia.  This previously published story will appear in my next time travel anthology.

Brilliant mathematician meets Colbert

It’s not everyday we get to see a brilliant mathematician on a television show, let alone a comedy television show.  UCLA mathematics professor and Fields medal winner Terrence Tao was on “The Colbert Report” recently.  I would love to have heard more about the subject of twin, cousin, and sexy primes.  You can find more on the internet about bounded gaps between primes or computer algorithms for generating twin, cousin, and sexy primes.

OSHbots and science fiction

I just blogged a new entry on NEWWorthy regarding Lowe’s OSHbots, robot assistants in their stores.  Since science fiction writers helped to come up with the idea, it lead me to think about my own science fiction stories that consider robots that assist or sell products.  If you find the idea interesting from a science fiction point-of-view, you might like “Like Mother, Like Son” and “Agent Lenore” in my science fiction anthology “Science Fiction: Robots & Cyborgs“.


Lighthouse math

So I was reading “10Best: Scenic lighthouses around the USA“, and I had to stop for a moment when I came across “Further south, the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, built in 1860, stands 105 feet tall and provides stunning views up to 24 miles out to the Atlantic Ocean.”  Why?  Because I remembered the formula for calculating the distance to the horizon depending on the height you are viewing from.

The distance to the horizon is approximately 1.22 * squareroot(height_in_feet), so 1.22 * squareroot(105) in this case.  That’s about 12.5 miles — or a bit more if I include the height of a 6 foot person — nowhere near 24 miles.  So how do you get to see ‘stunning views’ up to 24 miles out?  You would need to see the top of an object that is over 100 feet tall — for example, an island mountain, a tall ship, a bird flying, or perhaps a tall building off in the distance.  Looking on a map, I suppose it’s possible that you could see the top of a tall building in Boca Raton or Port St Lucie, but I don’t see how that’s stunning.  I think the Bahamas are too far away, so what’s out in the Atlantic that is stunning, 24 miles out from Jupiter, and over 100 feet tall?  Maybe a cruise ship.

My numbers seem to coincide with the chart from Wikipedia below.  Is my calculation that far off?  What am I missing?


“The Force Awakens”?

According to CNN Entertainment and other sources, Star Wars 7 will be named “The Force Awakens.”  From a movie-goer and scifi writer perspective, I have to wonder what this means in terms of the plot.  So far, I can only guess that it might have something to do with either giving it a Disney perspective — meaning that this is a new beginning to the series, sort of like “Batman Begins” or “Superman Returns” — or maybe it indicates that what we’ve seen of the Force so far is nothing compared to what we’re going to see.  If it’s neither of these and nothing particularly different from what we’ve seen in the past, then one of the silly Twitter suggestions (see the bottom of the CNN Entertainment page) may be more appropriate.

The slide rule

I, and my classmates, used a slide rule in my physics and math courses at UCLA.  I could have purchased a HP pocket calculator for around $400 in 1972, but my slide rule was far cheaper and still adequate for my needs.  Back in the early 70’s, I was probably in the top 10% of my class in how fast and accurately I could compute with a slide rule.

By the late 1970’s, everyone was using a calculator — including me — but I still had my trusty slide rule.  I don’t remember, but I might have even taken my slide rule out a few times to do some calculations when I was prototyping the algorithm for the path of the bowling ball in Mattel’s Handheld Bowling and later Mattel Intellivision’s “PBA Bowling”.

For nostalgia, I still keep a slide rule around in my office.  I enjoyed reading an article on recently regarding “The Slide Rule: A Computing Device That Put A Man On The Moon“.  I’ve tutored mathematics for many years, and I can usually tell pretty quickly whether a student uses a calculator as a tool or as a crutch.  The calculator is not a wand, and it won’t form equations for you out of thin air.  I wonder how many math teachers today even realize that a slide rule is an excellent example of the use of logarithms?

Infographics can be wrong

When infographics show data in an interesting way, they can help one quickly comprehend the results.  That’s assuming that the visualization correctly portrays accurate data — or at least indicates where the data came from.  When infographics are made to convey an agenda, they are often as misleading as many of the political commercials we see on television.

That’s why I was uncomfortable recently when I saw an infographic on Pinterest — it was posted in several places related to teaching — that asked whether we wanted our kids to “make an app” or “make a difference”.  The agenda seemed pretty clear, and many who commented seemed to indicate that they’d prefer kids who make a difference.

What’s disturbing to me about this — especially when you see the graphic has already tried to decide the answer for you by placing the wrong wants on the left and the right wants on the right — is that it presumes there is one right answer.  This is especially odd because the high technology industry in the U.S. keeps telling Congress that we don’t have enough software engineers — who know how to make an app.

Comparing making an app and making a difference is just a restatement of the age old chicken and the egg dilemma: Which came first?  Is the person who sets out to make an app like Twitter or Facebook somehow less of a useful kid because they had the ability and the interest to make a cool app?  Nowadays the kid who decides to make a difference often needs a cool app like Kickstarter or even their bank’s mobile app to do so.

Infographics at their best are beautiful, creative, and informative.  At their worst, they can be incomplete, misleading, or just plain wrong.  You may find that an infographic conveys information in seconds or minutes that would have taken you hours to read about in a book or magazine journal article.  But like a political television commercial, often you need to read into the details to fully understand the graphic.

How informative is the infographic of infographics below?  Perhaps to be complete it should also show how much additional research is necessary to really understand the information shown in most infographics.

Infographic of Infographics

Dangerous juggling, Halloween style

I enjoy juggling 3 or 4 balls, or 3 clubs, or 4 rings, but I have never tried anything more dangerous than juggling a bowling ball, ping pong ball, and a tennis ball.  That was scary enough for me, but Three Finger Juggling has something truly dangerous for jugglers.  I’m not recommending you try any of these items, and I don’t intend to try them myself, but for the sake of Halloween, I’ve provided the link to their website.

Note at the bottom of their website they claim: “Due to the nature of these props, they are for use of experienced jugglers only…”  I would add that they are not even for use by most experienced jugglers.  These juggling props are DANGEROUS!