Posts Tagged personal computers

Five things that make Star Trek better than reality

Star Trek TOS castFor those of you who don’t live in an imaginary universe, today is First Contact Day. In the Star Trek mythos, Humans and Vulcans first met on April 5, 2063, after the inaugural warp flight of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix caught the attention of a Vulcan survey ship.

In honor of First Contact Day, I’d like to (try) to explain what I love about Star Trek the most. It’s not the aliens or the reliable sound effects, it’s that Star Trek depicts an ideal society that we should all work to make real. Here are five things that make living in the Star Trek universe better than living in reality.

Klingon replicator1) No Money

Obviously, this is a good thing. Money might make the world go ‘round in 2013, but it would be pretty sweet to live in a world without poverty in 2213. Also, because it will never have to worry about paying bills again, humanity can become more goal-oriented.  How many investors do you think would be interested in financing construction of a massive starship just so William Shatner can cruise around the galaxy in it?

Granted, this isn’t something that can be realistically achieved without a massive technological breakthrough. Star Trek’s money-less society relies on matter replicators, which can easily make all of the necessities of life like food, clothing, and even large machines. Since most commodities are infinitely replicable, there’s no point in charging money for them.

So far, we’re not even close to building replicators (3D printers don’t count).

USS Enterprise refit engineering2) Machines that help Humans instead of replacing them

I read a lot about how robots and computers will eventually replace the human worker, thanks to their efficiency and the fact that they never ask for raises. Star Trek shows us an ideal human-machine relationship and, while the machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, humans are still doing the work.

Every Trekkie recognizes the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, because she’s the audio talent behind every starship computer. These computers do plenty of things: they operate systems, run diagnostics, and conduct database searches. But they don’t do that on their own: Starfleet officers are always telling the computers what to do, and analyzing the information they provide.

If it were any other way, there would be no point in sending the Enterprise on a five-year mission of exploration; a robotic probe would be much cheaper. Starfleet even has an android officer, Data, but all he wants is to be human. That’s the right attitude.

The Federation doesn’t just explore space to gather data, it explores to give people the opportunity to see new things. That’s why the Enterprise’s helmsman puts the ship into Warp 9, even if a computer is actually firing up the engines.

Data playing guitar3) People who do what they love

The result of a money-less society and healthy amounts of automation is that people are able to do things because they want to. No one in Star Trek takes a job because they need health insurance, and they have plenty of free time to enrich themselves.

It’s amazing how many people on every incarnation of the Enterprise are musicians, artists, or actors. It’s also cool to think about how wonderful life would be if everyone had time to pursue things like that.

A hobby is a great way to take one’s mind of the drudgery of everyday life, and it’s even more enjoyable when there is time to devote to it. Today, it’s hard to conduct recreational pursuits for their own sake because our time is so valuable, but in a future where income and manual labor don’t exist, that won’t be the case.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701A4) Spaceships

Of course, people will need something more substantial to do. Humanity requires more substantial tasks than cottage industry (sorry, Etsy and Kickstarter) and space exploration is a very substantial task.

Spacecraft are cool in their own right, but their most important role in Star Trek is keeping people productive. If we no longer need to work for a living, and if we’re displaced from today’s jobs by machines, we can’t just sit around all day posting photos to Instagram.

Luckily, Starfleet is very labor-intensive. The original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) had a crew of 432, while the Next Generation-era Enterprise (NCC-1701D) had about 1,000 souls aboard (including civilians). There’s also the armies of people needed to build these things, plus command staff, diplomats, designers, and other Starfleet personnel.

Most importantly, Starfleet gives people a chance to go to new places and experience new things, which brings us to the best thing about Star Trek

Starfleet5) Imagination

Something I find very annoying about life in 2013 is that we constantly talk about how high-tech our society is, but can never find any good uses for that technology. Facebook is fun, but whatever happened to going to the moon, or curing diseases? What we have is a lack of imagination.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t lacking in imagination. He imagined how technology could solve humanity’s greatest problems, and enable its greatest achievements. It wasn’t a realistic vision, but at least it gave us something to shoot for.

Restricting ourselves to only thinking of new ways to use existing technology will never advance anything, because its doesn’t give people a reason to. That’s how technological advances happen: people think of something that doesn’t exist, and try to create it.

Constantly recycling today’s digital tech won’t do that. Yes, we could have “smart” toothbrushes that play our Pandora stations, but if our predecessors had the same attitude we’d still be riding stagecoaches.

No cleverly named app will unite the world, but a ship that can travel faster than the speed of light just might. Maybe we’ll find out in 50 years.

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Weather can’t stop the Postal Service, but government cutbacks can?

United_States_Postal_Service_LogoAs I sit here typing while watching snow persistently fall, I can’t help but think about the people that have to work to make mine and everyone else’s lives happen even when it gets inconvenient. You’ve heard the mail carrier’s mantra, right? They may not be out delivering mail in the Northeast today, but if we were expecting slightly less than two-to-five feet of snow, they probably would be.

That’s why I find it so ridiculous that we can’t agree to fund the Postal Service, and that this logistical marvel is cutting Saturday mail delivery because of that. We may be in the midst of a rather heated federal spending debate, but really? Even this is up for debate?

Even postmaster general and stereotypical corrupt political appointee Patrick R. Donohue has pointed out, mail may be cheap, but e-mail is free. However, as long as we live in a physical world, we’ll still need a way to move physical objects from one place to another.

I’m not being sentimental: until someone perfects Star Trek-like transporter technology, there will literally be no way to send a magazine or a college care package anywhere with a computer.

Also, considering that Chinese hackers can seemingly take down the New York Times at will, I’m not too comfortable with online banking.

The Postal Sevice is one of those modern conveniences that people take for granted, and maybe that’s the problem. Perhaps, because they sit in front of their computers, tablets, and smartphones all day, and not their mailboxes, they assume they can do without it.

Which is why a blizzard happening days after the postmaster general announced an end to Saturday letter service is quite fortuitous. Massive power outages are expected, so all of that hyper-efficient 21st century communication technology will soon be useless. The Internet isn’t sounding so superior right now.

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Information, data, and the future of journalism

As an aspiring journalist, I’m used to feeling like an anachronism. Many people assume that the revolution in digital technology will eventually kill newspapers, and leave a cacophony of independent bloggers and Twits in its wake. But at least that means people will still be doing the writing. If a new company called Narrative Science has its way, that could change too.

According to a recent story in Wired, Narrative Science has developed an algorithm that can write news as well as a human. The company is currently selling its services to businesses and the parents of Little League players; its computers primarily churn out quarterly reports and coverage of Little League games. However, company cofounder Kristian Hammond thinks that, in 15 years, 90 percent of news will be written by computers.

I’m not so sure about this, and not just because I want to keep my job. In order to write stories, Narrative Science’s computers need to be fed raw data. They can sift through that data much more efficiently than a human, but someone needs to compile it for them. In the case of the Little League games, Narrative Science relies on an app called GameChanger, which parents use to file all the statistics of their kids’ games.

Even with humans doing the leg work, Wired’s Steven Levy believes Narrative Science will capitalize on the importance of data in our lives. In theory, a system that can see every minute detail of an event, from a pitcher’s stance to the precise shade of orange of John Boehner’s skin at a Congressional hearing, can write a more accurate story than a person.

If we focus on data, then the machines win. Computers are unerring and un-judgmental, and they can sift through massive caches of numbers more efficiently than humans. However, there is hope for human journalists: information.

Data and information may seem like the same thing, but they are not. A datum is the building block that a piece of information is made from. That’s why people use the term “raw data:” it needs to be formatted into something that people can understand. That is where humans come in.

A machine can record a player’s batting average with extreme accuracy, but it will never be able to express the feeling of watching that player come out of a slump by hitting a home run. There are also situations that are too subjective for data. Can statistical analysis of past speeches predict what Newt Gingrich will say next? Can anything?

Another advantage information has over data is timeliness. Taking a poll of eyewitnesses at an event will not always be possible, so how will mechanized reporters get the data they need to compile a story? Having a human reporter on site to decide what readers need to know is still the only way.

You can learn a lot by crunching numbers, but it’s hard to tell what it all means. Reporters are more than just meat puppets who string sentences together; they are professionals who figure out what people need to know, and how best to tell them. There is no love lost between the public and the media, but that does not mean that computers can do this job better than humans.

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We need to teach our parents some manners

Technology is a wonderful thing (this blog wouldn’t be possible without it), but it does come with some drawbacks. The combined heat of the world’s iPad 3s is probably contributing to global warming, and some say the Internet is just one big distraction. Regardless, one thing is certain: high tech gadgets make people incredibly rude.

People seem to think that smart phones and other devices excuse them from behaving properly. They let them ring at the most inappropriate times, and discuss things in elevated cell phone voices that not one needs to hear. Suits with ear pieces look like they are talking to themselves. People carry on conversations with friends while texting other friends.

A few years ago, this type of behavior would have been unthinkable. Now, people are so engrossed in what is happening on their tiny LCD screens that they ignore the people around them. Is this the future of human interactions? Perhaps not.

I may sound like an altacocker, but I’m actually part of the young, tech savvy generation ad men dream about. This isn’t the 1950s, where an older generation decried youth’s supposed lack of morals. This time, parents (and grandparents) are listening to rock n’ roll. Unlike past cultural phenomena, the technological revolution is not generation-specific.

A common stereotype is that all young people are very good with computers, while their Baby Boomer parents just can’t figure them out. That’s often true, but that doesn’t mean older people are not using computers, smart phones, or tablets. In fact, that’s the problem.

A lot of older people have smart phones, but they may not be comfortable using them. They see other people being obnoxious, and assume it is part of the brave new smart phone culture. These people probably don’t even know how to set their iPhones to “silent.”

Consequently, it’s up to teenagers and 20-somethings to teach their parents some manners. This generation has grown up with the annoyances of technology abuse, so they know how to use their devices without making everyone within a 15-foot radius want to kill them. Youth is also much better for marketing: no one takes an old person complaining about manners seriously, but what about someone in their 20s? For once, parents should listen to their children.

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Why are computers so slow?

Those of us who remember dial-up know what a really slow computer is like, but do we know what a really fast one is like? Today’s computers are tremendously quick compared to their predecessors, but maybe we should raise our expectations.

By speed, I mean the amount of time it takes a computer to do an everyday task like start up or open an application. Most computers can do these tasks in a few seconds, but why not a few milliseconds?

There is a device that can do its job in a few milliseconds, and it is a car transmission. One of the latest advancements in automotive technology is the dual clutch transmission: standard units have a single clutch (augmented by a torque converter in automatic-equipped cars) that decouples the engine from the wheels during gear changes and then re-engages the two.

With two clutches, the process happens much faster. One clutch uncouples the engine, while the other selects a set of rotating gears and slides them into position. The change occurs in less than a second, faster than a human being can blink.

This is no small wonder considering how much is going on: a personal computer sends a few electrical signals around its circuits, but a transmission moves heavy pieces of metal around, while its own computers send and receive electrical signals just like their office-inhabiting counterparts.

The warp drive of transmissions is not a one-off prototype, either. While it is the choice of exotic carmakers like Ferrari, the dual clutch transmission is still a mass-market item. The technology debuted on the Volkswagen GTI and Audi TT, two relatively affordable, mass produced cars. You can even get one on a Ford Fiesta for under $20,000.

Computer companies spend millions of dollars in advertising money trying to convince us that their product is the pinnacle of human technical achievement. However, while computers are much faster today than they were a decade ago, there is room for improvement. We have a transmission that can shift near-instantaneously; we should have a laptop that can turn on near-instantaneously.

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