Rope and ride a star

As many of you already know, Leonard Nimoy died recently.  He is probably best known for his role of Spock on “Star Trek”.

I loved watching the new episodes when the show first aired, but it was the reruns on television that kept me entertained throughout college and later in my early years as a teacher and then software engineer.  Spock was a role model, in a way, for how one could be logical and scientific — such as in an engineering career — yet function well as part of a team.

With Nimoy’s passing, I am reminded how much I would like to see new episodes of a “Star Trek” series on television.  I think there is room for it nowadays.  Science fiction Shows like “Defiance” (SyFy), “The 100″ (The CW), “Falling Skies” (TNT), and other series have had elements of the kinds of things we saw on “Star Trek”, but none offer the sheer encompassing thrill of space exploration offered in the original “Star Trek” and the various related series that followed it.

I read an article recently about the “Speediest Star’s Origins Revealed” in Scientific American.  As a science fiction writer, I enjoy letting my mind wander to think about such things, and my first thought was of “Star Trek”.  I imagined an episode where the Enterprise, possibly with warp engines disabled, somehow used that same speedy star to rope it and ride it.

That may be a dumb idea, but it is an example of how I’d like to bring back the imagination of the series.  New space companies have formed over the past decade, and we are just beginning to see how those efforts are leading to new space vehicles and exploration.  Just as these companies will inspire others to develop new technologies and methods to explore space, science fiction television can be useful for inspiring decades or even centuries-from-now generations.

There are still “Star Trek” movies, but I want more.

Ship clip art

Where do you want to go today?

You might remember that in 1994-1995, “Where do you want to go today?” was a big ad campaign for Microsoft.  I started working for Microsoft not long after that, so the phrase kind of sticks in my mind.  But that’s not why I mention it.  Today I’m thinking about the future of travel.

I recently read about a new company called Detour.  They describe themselves as “a brand new way to experience the world. Gorgeous audio walks in San Francisco [and soon, more locations] that reveal hidden stories, people and places all over SF” through your mobile phone.  An interesting idea, especially considering the company was started by Andrew Mason, former CEO of Groupon.  But are attempts like this just a substitute for more enriching experiences, like spending the time to research and read about a place BEFORE you go?

Speaking of BEFORE you go, Terry Jones – former CIO of SABRE, CEO of Travelocity, and founding chairman of Kayak — has taken a new position as Executive Chairman of Wayblazer, a new travel company based on IBM’s Watson technology.  Below are a couple of  videos where he discusses the future of travel.  Wayblazer is an interesting idea, particularly making use of social media and a huge collection of useful facts and opinions.

But is this the future of business travel, or does it include the future of leisure travel?  Does a product/company like TripAdvisor — based on the input of thousands of people’s opinions — or Facebook inform Wayblazer & Watson, or does it eventually compete with it?  In other words, at what point does Watson become so smart that it decides it knows more about a place — and more accurately — than do the opinions of humans?  Only time will tell, especially since Watson and other cognitive computing technologies are really just getting started.  By the way, I should disclose (it’s on my resume online) that I worked for American Airlines SABRE.

Also, I’d like to refer to an article in MIT Technology Review last year “A Beautiful Path” that I blogged about.  Researchers are developing a system using social input that attempts to provide not the shortest or fastest path from location A to location B, but rather the most beautiful.

As a computer scientist I admit I enjoy these ideas, and I wish their designers and developers much luck.  But as a former travel agent, travel-related programmer (SABRE), experienced traveler, and lover of writing fiction, I have to wonder about the future of travel.  I mean, isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?  Isn’t part of a successful journey discovering it for yourself for the first time?  Isn’t learning about a place sometimes through accidental discoveries of fun restaurants and unusual places?

People have used travel agents and social media now for a long time to find out more about the places they are going and what they can do there.  So there’s nothing inherently wrong with more and possibly better ways to find that information.  But remember this.  The perfect travel photo  — or memory — often comes from a combination of events and a spontaneous discovery of a rarely seen place seen in a new light.  So gather all the information you want from as many sources as you want, but don’t forget to enjoy your journey.


Intellivision “Truckin'” in a History of Racing Games

Lance Carter’s “History of Racing Games” is an online collection of files and blog entries about racing games from the 1940’s to the present.  I am very pleased to see that my classic game “Truckin'” is listed among the titles.   You can find his pdf file about “Truckin'” here.  I’ve included a video showing “Truckin'” below.

I was inspired to make this game after years of travelling the I-5 freeway in California.  It’s a very long stretch of straight freeway with typically thousands of trucks on the road.  But caravans of trucks carrying goods to market can be seen on major and minor highways across the country.  According to Wikipedia — and I agree – “The trucking industry provides an essential service to the American economy.”

LightSail

The Planetary Society — I’m a member — has planned a LightSail mission.  It will essentially sail in space from the photons from the light of the sun.

This is the stuff of science fiction that is now becoming reality.  I haven’t used this technology in any of my science fiction stories yet, but with some future — yet to be created, as in The Flight of the Dragonfly, 1984 — powerful lasers, as it gets beyond the reach of our sun’s light, a space sailing vehicle may bring us to other solar systems.

According to Wikipedia, “The earliest reference to solar sailing was in Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon.”

Consciousness is a hard problem

Hard Consciousness may be the most difficult problem.  Oliver Burkeman,  for an article in The Guardian, writes about the efforts to solve the mystery and why it might not be solved.

I love reading about consciousness simply because it is one of those problems that may never be solved.  Some of you may know that I wrote a short story called “Oddly Perfect” about a mathematician who goes in search of a large odd perfect number — something which might never be discovered, simply because it may not exist — only to find something even more amazing.  I think the search for an answer to Hard Consciousness is like that.  It’s also like discovering America for the first time or many other explorations in history.  There are many looking for answers, and maybe someday someone will bump into a completely unrelated but pretty important discovery along the way.

If you also enjoy thinking about this subject, you might enjoy the video below with Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers.

Game inventions

On my other blog, NEWWorthy, I recently posted a couple of game-related entries I thought I would share here as well.

Researchers have figured out how to use a quantum light beam to solve a maze in the fastest possible time to date.

You can also read about Cepheus, a computer program that plays an almost perfect game of Texas Hold’em Poker.

Speaking of card games, I have designed a new solitaire type of game, and I’m programming an interactive version in Unity.  It combines some of my varied interests into a new card game.  Look for more on this in 2015.


Back-up computers, tablets, phone data…soon, back-up your brain?

BBC – Future has a thought-provoking — pun intended — piece on the concept of back-up brains.  The idea has been explored quite a bit in science fiction.  Even “Frankenstein” explores this a little in that there is an attempt to restore a dead brain to life.

More recently, the movie “Transcendence” took a look at saving a person’s consciousness to a computer.  By the way, Jack Paglen, who wrote the screenplay,  is said to be working on the script for the “Battlestar Gallactica” movie – some of you may remember that the robots in the reboot television series were able to move consciousness from one body to another.  While “Transcendence” got mixed reviews, a number of them less than kind, it looked at the some of the issues that the BBC – Future article explores.

So this seems to be a hot topic, with Google and others spending a lot of money on AI and all that an artificial intelligence entails.  I was happy to see that the BBC –  Future interview with Anders Sandberg from the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University mentions quantum states — aka quantum consciousness — as a potential gigantic brick wall to building a back-up brain.  Though he doesn’t give it much credence — he says ” I do not think these problems apply” — I guess I still have an open mind about the possibility for a quantum consciousness.

Anyway, back to “Transcendence” for a moment.  While the movie wasn’t great, I think it was perhaps better than what the trailer implied.  In any case, the trailer and the articles mentioned above might be food for thought.

Accidentally dismissed Outlook reminder

I modified a reminder in Outlook, and as I was preparing to delete another reminder, the modified one popped up.  This caused me to accidentally delete the wrong reminder, and I had no idea which one it was.  So I wondered if there was a way to figure this out.  Please note that I have not tried this for Outlook Calendars that are stored on the internet.

If you are running Outlook 2013 or later, I think there is a solution — of sorts — to finding a dismissed reminder.  If you run into this situation, here’s something you can try.  Go to your Outlook calendar and click on the menu “Search Tools” and then “Advanced Find”.  Then select the “Advanced” tab in the find dialog.  Now under “Define More Criteria” select “Date/Time Fields” from the “Fields” drop-down and then “Modified”.   For “Condition” select “Today”, or “Yesterday”, or whenever you accidentally dismissed the reminder.

Click “Add To List” and then “Find Now”.  Outlook will search and find Calendar items that you modified today, including those reminders that were dismissed.  At least it did work for me when I tried it.  I hope it works for you.

Neural Networks and Games

When I started programming in the late 1970’s, computer chess was the challenge of choice for eager hobbyists looking for ways to show off their skills.  Using 8080 machine language, I developed a 4k (that’s a bit over 4,000 bytes of code, NOT megabytes or gigabytes) chess program that used an alpha-beta pruning method to play a reasonable level of chess.  It couldn’t beat many humans, but it wasn’t too bad against other microcomputer players.  Well, enough about that.  Chess-playing machines have mastered the art and are able to play at the level of the top human players.

For the last decade or two, the game of Go has been one of the games of choice for software and computer engineers wanting to make a mark in algorithms or artificial intelligence research.  With recent advances in deep learning and neural network programming, researchers are making progress on automated Go players.  MIT Technology Review posted an article on the subject recently and pondered whether the best human Go players might fall to computer players soon.  I’m not so sure that’s about to happen, but the advances are impressive.  In any case, if you are working on games and haven’t delved into neural nets or deep learning yet, now might be a good time to start.

Retrogaming Events Calendar

Wikipedia defines retrogaming – yes, they spell it with no spaces, but many websites (about 3 to 4 times as many) use the two words retro gaming — as “the playing or collecting of older personal computer, console, and arcade video games.”  Although there are some comprehensive databases online of game conventions such as Game Convention Central and Upcoming Cons, they aren’t classic gaming specific and they are not always easy to search.

Game Convention Central
So I thought some gamers might like a list of some of the retro gaming expos held throughout the year.  I say “some”, because I’m positive I left many out, including some held in January and February this year.

Please double check the actual dates and locations at the links below, as things can change.  I only listed the dates and places for convenience and you should not count on my information as correct.  Also, the ones marked with a “?” indicate that I don’t know if this expo will be held this year, since no information is available at the time of this blog entry.

Arcade Expo (March 6-8, 2015), Louisville, KY

SXSW Gaming Expo (March 13-15, 2015), Austin, TX

Retro Gaming Expo (April 18, 2015), Vancouver, BC, Canada

Play Blackpool (May 2-4, 2015), Blackpool, U.K.

Retro Gaming Expo (June, 2015?), Seattle, WA

NERG 2015 (June 20-21, 2015), Gateshead Stadium, U.K.

Classic Game Fest (July 25-26, 2015), Austin, TX

Let’s Play Gaming Expo (August 1-2, 2015),  Plano, TX

Classic Gaming Expo (July or August, 2015?), Las Vegas, NV

Retro Con (September 12-13, 2015), Oaks, PA

Play Expo (October, 2015?), Manchester, U.K.

Retro Gaming Expo (October 2015?), Portland, Oregon

Pittsburgh Retro Gaming (November, 2015?), Pittsburgh, PA

Retro Gaming in Sweden

Mondegreen-phobia

I think I may have mondegreen-phobia.  In case you don’t know what a mondegreen is, according to Wikipedia a mondegreen is “a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning.

I love music like anyone else, and I really enjoy listening to a great voice clearly enunciate the words to a great song.  But all of my life I have never been able to figure out a strange lyric or mumbled passage in a pop song.  I won’t go into details — you can check out the Wikipedia link or just search on mondegreen on YouTube  for examples instead, embarrassed as I am about my inability to detect the correct phrase in even a relatively minor mondegreen —  but I will just say that I am the last person to ask if you are wondering what a singer was saying in a rock song.

I am a little jealous of and a bit amazed at some people’s ability to correctly detect the words being said in a song, in spite of the obvious mondegreen.  For me, it’s just an opportunity to create a new word: mondegreen-phobia.  Perhaps someone like me has already coined the term.  If not, I’ve done it now.

Hubots

In 2012, a Swedish drama called “Äkta människor” (Real Humans) became a hit science fiction show about very human-like robots and the issues that come with that level of technology.  Now, “Humans” — based on the Swedish show — is set to be shown on BBC channel 4 and later this year on the AMC channel.

I have not seen “Real Humans,” but the video below was shown a few years ago.  Household and family robots are in demand, so it’s only a matter of time.  Whether they will be made to look like or act like humans or not is another matter.

Frankly, in my writing I have not been too trustful of robots that look like humans.  If you are interested in the subject — like I am — you might enjoy “Humans” when it comes to U.S. television later this year.  You might also enjoy reading my short story, “Like Mother, Like Son” about human-like robots, in my science fiction anthology “Science Fiction: Robots & Cyborgs.”

Robots that create jobs?

In 2014, I blogged a bit about how robots and AI — long thought of as job-destroyers without numbers to back up that thinking — might actually be starting to eliminate human jobs.  There were many research and opinion articles written on the subject.  Just recently in MIT Technology Review I read about how Quill, a robot writer, is now being used for financial news reports generated from big data.  Some have complained that unauthorized use of drones are creating dangers for commercial pilots, and potentially reduce the number of jobs — such as aerial photography.  But also in the past year or two, there may be a hint at a continued trend in the ability for technology to create as many or more jobs than it destroys.

Drones have been big news, and CES 2015 unleashed plenty of them.  Sure they are and have been mainly a military instrument, but drones are well on their way to becoming a commercial and consumer item as well — depending on how quickly and what guidelines the FAA sets.  Someone is going to have to be able to help fly drones, navigate patent laws, and fix them.  Companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have expressed interest in drone pilots, as well as drone patent lawyers.  Many drone manufacturers need experts in the technology.

The U.S. Air Force started giving raises to drone pilots, and they are looking to fill a “significant shortfall in drone pilots.” The outlook for drone pilots — and the potential for high salaries — has prompted schools like Embry-Riddle to provide undergrad and graduate degrees in Unmanned and Autonomous Systems Engineering (drone technology).  Even high schools are offering courses.

How about drones and farming jobs?  The video below explains how Idaho may see an increase in drone pilot jobs related to farming.

This is all pretty exciting for those seeking high paying new jobs.  I do have to put my science fiction writer hat on, though.  While drones may create jobs for drone pilots, where is all of this activity headed?  My guess is that it sort of depends on how quickly AI gets really smart and really trustworthy.  Until then, most drones will require human expertise and subjectivity to help pilot them.

Asimov’s “Foundation” series on HBO?

TheWrap reported in November 2014 that Jonathan Nolan, writer of “Interstellar” and the short story that “Memento” was based on, is now working — or may be working, depending on whom you believe — on a “Foundation” series for HBO based on the works of Isaac Asimov.  Considering the intelligence he brings to his writing — “Interstellar”, while not easy to buy into all of the science presented, was at least thought-provoking and entertaining — perhaps there is hope for a movie or tv series version of “Foundation” yet.

The “Foundation” series premise is that psychohistory – a term coined by Asimov — can be derived from history, sociology, and mathematics to predict the future.  In a way, it’s a form of time travel, because if you already know what’s going to happen in the long run — at least at the big picture level, rather than specifics — then you have to some extent been to the future.  Or have you?  You’ll have to read or watch the series to find out.



“Twelve Monkeys” 2.0

I enjoyed the 1995 movie “Twelve Monkeys” with Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe.  Actually, with each watching, it’s grown a bit more on me, because as a movie it was a bit confusing the first time I saw it.  Now, the SyFy channel has a new series starting January 16 called “12 Monkeys” (preview video below) — I imagine this spelling is to set it apart from the original storyline.  They claim it will not be the exact same story as the movie, but certainly a few main themes will be replicated.

As a movie, I think the actors — including Brad Pitt – carried the plot in spite of the strangeness of the time travel and some left out answers — especially the ending.  But as a tv series, there is much more opportunity to provide a satisfying time travel loop and answers to what happens in the long run.  I will give the new show a try and hope that it will maintain an interesting — thought provoking? — timeline.

Time travel, possible or not, is never easily plotted to give an entertaining experience.  The best time travel stories stretch ones imagination while bringing on the fun, all the while pushing the viewer or reader to follow the logic — or illogic — of the plot.  I think that “Continuum” on SyFy has done a pretty good job of maintaining a balance between making it entertaining, while making one think about what works and what doesn’t work in the story.  After all, no one really knows what would happen should a time traveler — or group of time travelers — really exist.

I’m very happy to report that “Continuum” will be back in 2015 for a 6 episode final run, hopefully completing what it began a few season ago.  If you are like me, and love the idea of time travel — possible or not – then you might also enjoy my top selling anthology of short stories “Science Fiction: Time Travel.”  If you try it, I hope you will have fun reading these stories as much as I had fun writing them.

Time Travel E-book Cover

A face is not just a face

I was excited to see a number of articles last year on the subject of pattern recognition, particularly as it relates to human faces.  Face pattern recognition algorithms may — in time — predict with high accuracy the identity of a person, the age of a person, or even tell whether two persons are related to each other.  Though security applications are potential uses, I’m particularly interested in these capabilities for genealogists.  Maybe a bright computer science researcher will also figure out how to use genealogical expert techniques — such as clothing, photo stock, and other clues — to  identify the time period a photo was taken.

A human face is not just a face, but rather a path to identification.  Without the capability to decode a face along the usual path in the brain, face blindness (prosopagnosia) can occur.  In November 2014, The Scientist had an article entitled “A Face to Remember” which relates recent research on prosopagnosia.

A few years ago I wrote a dark science fiction mystery, “Face Facts“, which explored one man’s attempt to cure his prosopagnosia in the future.  This short story is in e-book format for many e-readers.

FaceFactsCover_ForAmazonKindle

Avatar ride

Although it wasn’t among the best science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, I enjoyed the movie “Avatar” and the effects are amazing.  In 2017 we may yet see the best outcome of the movie in the form of a theme park land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  The settings and the action in the movie would seem to be perfect for a theme park ride.

I love science fiction and sometimes science fantasy, which is more of the category of “Avatar.”  In 2017 we’ll see if Pandora really comes to life!