Friday, January 30, 2009

Technologies In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear

After ordering a cup of the restaurant's strongest tea, Jape pulled a rolled-up sheet of black material from a pocket of his cape and spread it on the tabletop. "Softscroll, activate," he whispered, and within a few seconds the featureless surface came alive, displaying windows filled with words and pictures.
--From The Last Protector

I first wrote about the "softscroll," a futuristic personal computer built into a thin, flexible sheet of plastic that Jape, the time-traveling Ranger, could just roll up and stuff into a pocket, almost ten years ago. At the time, it seemed like a pretty far-out concept. But today, while subbing in the science department over at Saint Charles East, I saw a presentation on nanotechnology, and a part of the new tech being displayed was... you guessed it, "stretchable silicon," which is supposed to lead to such things as a TV that's just a paper-thin sheet of plastic you roll out on the wall, or cell phones that roll up inside a pen, or... yep, a flexible computer.

Granted, the stuff that John Rogers of the University of Illinois has created won't do quite everything the "softscroll" does... yet. And flexible computers aren't on the market... yet (good thing my book came out last May!). But "stretchable silicon" does illustrate one of the problems of writing science fiction: technology is moving forward so quickly that by the time you've written, sold, edited and released a book incorporating a "far-out" new gadget, you may find the gadget isn't very far-out at all! My friend Jerry Weinberg wrote a book called The Aremac Project, which featured a machine that could read your thoughts, and now, just a few years after its release, he's worrying in his blog that technology may have already caught up with him. He advises writers to set their SF books far enough into the future that something like this won't happen. And to get back to nanotech for a moment, it's starting to look like carbon nanotubes may very well make the "elevator to orbit" concept feasible... rendering obsolete all those great SF books in which people fly around in rockets.

I wonder if this rapid advance of technology, which makes SF gimmicks obsolete almost overnight, is part of the reason fantasy's taken off in the last few decades. Odds are the University of Illinois won't develop your story's central gimmick if it involves magic. Then again, as Clarke observed, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It's Good to Know Where You're Not

Here's our Highway Sign of the Day:

Where I come from, you don't very often see signs that tell you what road you're not on, but in some parts of the country that's an important thing to know. This sign is (or was; I shot the picture in 1981) on Utah Route 46, just south of its intersection with US 163. I suspect the sign's there because this is pretty empty country, and if you find yourself on 46 (headed for the tiny town of Paradox, Colorado) when you meant to be on 163 headed for Monticello, you may go quite a ways before realizing your mistake.

So what was I doing here? Looking for the empty country; in particular, heading off to see the wild and scenic desert alone on a big Japanese dirtbike that I'd modified for long-distance touring. In other words, I was on something of a fool's errand, almost in the same league as that "Into the Wild" guy who walked into the Alaskan wilderness figuring to live off the land. A breakdown, a bad crash, or just a big error in my trail guide (no GPS or satellite navigation in those days!) would have meant the buzzards would get a bigger-than-usual meal. Looking back, I think I must have been slightly crazy to make this trip. But, obviously, nothing too awful went wrong, and I returned sunburned, bruised and more than a little humbled... and the buzzards went hungry. You can read about the trip, and see some pretty neat pictures, here.

When I was putting this story together, I visited a lot of web sites to make sure I had my facts more or less straight (it has been 27 years, after all). And I found that things do seem to change over time. A landmark that was called "Prostitute Butte" in '81 now sports the more politically correct name of "Lone Rock." I have a photo of a natural arch that doesn't seem to have the same name now that it had then... but it also doesn't look the same, even though it's in the same place. The creek's changed its name, or at least the spelling of the name, and the particular Jeep road I took now seems to be parts of three different Jeep roads... or perhaps it's now a mountain bike trail. And I don't recall having to pay a dollar to cross the last six hundred feet of private land.

Memory is funny stuff. Memories change over time, but reality also changes, it seems.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Winter? What's That?

I have a sort of tradition, one of those things that's kind of stupid and obsessive-compulsive if you think about it too hard, but something I've managed to maintain anyway for twenty-nine years now: getting out for a motorcycle ride at least once in every month of the year. Most years it's not that much of a challenge; even in the Frozen North that is Chicago, there are several decent days in any given winter month.

Most years, I said. Some years are tougher. Like 2009: the temperature was in the 40s on December 30 of last year, started falling (along with some snow) on New Year's Eve, and in short order we were alternating sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall. I was beginning to wonder whether this was the year that my streak came to an end.

Luckily, there was One Good Day in the forecast: Thursday, the 22nd. While temperatures had been in the single digits and teens, the last few days had been mostly clear and sunny, which evaporated most of the snow and ice off the roads (leaving a nice layer of salt, but that's another matter). And the forecast high for Thursday was a positively tropical thirty-five degrees, so I made my plans to haul the nineteen-year-old Harley out of the garage and go for a spin.

Of course, starting a nineteen-year-old Harley that's been sitting in an unheated garage during a long cold snap ain't exactly an easy task. The Evo Big Twin motor is pretty cold-blooded and shows little enthusiasm for cranking, let alone actually running. So I decided on a more subtle approach: at eight in the morning I started up a thousand-watt radiant heater a few feet from the bike, aimed at the engine. Then, recalling how we used to get the old Dodge to start in cold weather back in my college days, I stuck a 100-watt drop light under the carburetor. Around noon, I decided to give her a try. Twist the throttle a couple times to prime the carb, push the button, crank (slowly), crank (slower), catch, sputter... stop. Try again. And again. About the fourth try I realized which step I'd left out of the preparations: pull out the choke, dude! One more try, this time with the choke on. Catch, sputter, sputter some more, run tentatively on one cylinder for a few seconds, and settle down to a fast idle. Hooray!

So there I was, sitting in the driveway next to the snowbanks (click on the picture at right to enlarge it) with the bike more or less warmed up, wondering just where to go. The wet spots, occasional patches of slush and general coating of salt on everything convinced me that this wasn't a good day to head for my favorite twisty backroads. So I contented myself with a ride across the straight, flat state highways, about twenty-five miles each way to Sycamore, where I stopped for about half an hour (oops, make that officially twenty-four minutes, because I only put two pennies in the meter) to warm up. Then, another twenty-five miles back, turning the old bagger's odometer over the Number Of A Hundred Beasts (66600). I even explored a couple roads with modest curves on the way back.

I actually saw one other insane person out on a bike. He had no windshield and no full-face helmet, and was bundled up like the Mummy (or somebody on his way to make an unscheduled withdrawal from the quickie-mart). We exchanged waves, the camaraderie of the lunatics.

Today dawned colder--mid twenties and dropping this afternoon, with an overcast and a prediction that the next several days will be cold, with a chance of snow. Yesterday may very well have been the only decent day for riding this month. Glad I took advantage of it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Worst of Both Worlds

Today's Dilbert strip (click here to read it) really hits home for those of us who worked in Corporate America. In the story leading up to this strip, Dilbert's been given no work to do (because there's no budget), and so fritters his time away creating a profitable internet business. Then the pointy-haired boss fires him for "misusing company resources." And in today's panel, the company seizes the profitable business because it was created on company time. Dilbert, as always, gets the shaft. As usual, Scott Adams captures the essence of Corporate America: the Corporation takes everything and promises nothing. Dilbert has no job security, but anything he creates is property of the company.

It was not always that way. Back when I was still more or less starting out in the technology field, when the USA was still the world's unchallenged leader in technological innovation, a friend and I left the company where we'd helped make the cell phone a commercial product, and went off in search of new challenges (and more money, of course). We took two very different paths.

My friend went to Silicon Valley and became something of an entrepreneur. He worked for several companies, most of which paid in stock options rather than cash. If he had a brilliant idea that made the company enormously profitable, he'd end up filthy rich off his options. On the other hand, if the company went bust (which most of the Silicon Valley start-ups did), he'd find himself with no job and no money. High risk, but also the possibility of high reward. It was a fair bargain, as the success of such companies as Apple, Intel, etc., goes to show.

I, on the other hand, took a job with the Bell System. At the time, the Bell System was a huge, regulated monopoly, and the employment contract was best described as socialist. Maybe even Marxist, in the sense of "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." The contract explicitly said that anything I invented while employed at the company (and this could be read to include anything I invented on my own time) was licensed to the company. If I invented something that made a billion dollars for the company, that billion would go into the company's pocket, not mine. (In fact, I did invent something that I'm told generated a billion or so for the company, though in all fairness it took close to a hundred people to actually build the thing.) In return for giving up the right to become rich, the unwritten part of the contract pretty much guaranteed lifetime job security. There was good health care and a real pension plan, so barring some major gaffe like parking in the executive's office, I wouldn't have to worry about food, clothing and shelter for the rest of my life. Low reward, but close to zero risk. In my experience, this too was a good environment for innovation.

But Dilbert's company--like most American companies, including those that formed from the splinters of the Bell System after the 1985 breakup--wants to Have It All: they claim ownership of what the employees invent, but promise nothing in return beyond this week's paycheck. I suspect this corporate attitude is a big part of the reason the good old U.S. of A. is no longer the world's leader in technological innovation (don't believe me? Check out this Tom Friedman column in the New York Times). After all, why take the risk of innovating when somebody else gets all the benefits? I don't have any good answer (yet), but I don't think this country's going to return to it's global leadership position until this problem gets resolved. "High risk, no reward" is no formula for promoting innovation.

By the way, my friend never did get rich from developing technology. But he also invested in Silicon Valley real estate on the side, and this made him enough that he was able to retire in his 40s, move to Northern California and become an environmental philanthropist. Not a bad outcome.

Friday, January 16, 2009

More of Why I Love Computers

A while back, I posted a couple examples of digitally-created silliness. This morning, another one appeared on the New York Times website:

Only a computer would tell you to "share your thoughts," and immediately add that "comments are no longer being accepted."

Remember the grand old days of science fiction, when you could blow up a computer by posing a simple paradox like "everything I say is a lie, and I am lying to you right now"? These days, the computers not only tolerate paradoxes, they routinely create them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Frozen Flood!

We had our first "hundred-year flood" in the late summer of 2007, when the Fox River rose about six feet above normal, flooding several houses and yards in my neighborhood. Our second "hundred-year flood" came in June of 2008, and it was a strange one because nearly every day was sunny and dry; all the rain was falling way upstream in Wisconsin. But, again, the mighty Fox was a good five and a half feet above where it should have been. And we had our third "hundred-year flood" in September, when the leftovers of Hurricanes Gustave and Ike combined with a Pacific storm to create three days of heavy rains (and it made for one heck of a radar image).

Now, we're having our fourth "hundred-year flood," and it's the most peculiar of all: a frozen flood in the middle of winter! We had above-normal snow in November and December, so that on Christmas Eve we had something like two feet of snow on the frozen ground. Then, on Boxing Day we began a warm and wet snap that extended through December 30: two days of very warm temperatures (50s and even low 60s, very rare for this time of year) and heavy rain. By Tuesday the 30th, all the snow had melted and run into the river. Then it turned cold again. Under the ice, the river rose and fell and rose again. Right now, it's again something like five feet above normal, nearly at the top of my retaining wall, and has flooded the park, the boat launch, and several yards. Only this time, the flood's in the form of ice. In the picture at right, you can see how the ice is just inches below the top of what is normally a five-and-a-half-foot wall. This is just a few inches shy of the highest level it reached in '07.

Still, I'm in pretty good shape compared to my neighbors. The park and boat launch, for instance, have become a skating rink. And if you look in the background of this photo (click on it to see a larger version), you'll see that the neighbor's boathouse is almost half-submerged--standing in about three feet of water, with a good six inches of ice on top. Things are going to be very interesting when the river goes down and this ice starts to break up and move.

And things are going to be even more interesting for the people living in this house, as it's completely surrounded by a frozen moat!

The river itself is behaving in strange ways. There is pretty solid ice stretching out about fifty feet from the shore (on this side). Beyond that, it goes back and forth between solidly choked with floating ice and wide open flowing water. The ice seems to pile up, moving more and more slowly until it finally stops, and then the huge plug of pack ice moves downstream as a unit. Sometimes big slabs of the stuff stand up on end and roll over with a crunching sound. Ah, life in the Arctic...

The weather forecast calls for a bit more snow, followed by serious temperature drops--by next Thursday we're looking at a high temperature below zero. This combination of high water, swift current and intense cold could lead to some very interesting river behavior. Let's just hope it doesn't end up like the old curse, "May you live in interesting times!"

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Was This Thing Programmed in England?

One of the side-effects of ubiquitous cell phones is that parents have become Ground Control when their kids head off on road trips. If you're a parent of a teen, or a twenty-something for that matter, you know all about this--the phone rings, and it's the fruit of your loins (or a friend thereof), calling from the middle of nowhere and asking how to get somewhere else. Of course, you are expected to figure out just where in the middle of nowhere said offspring are, and then plot a route to the desired destination. And you do, because you're a Parent and that's what Parents do, even if your "kids" are now grown-up and married and living in another country.

In the search for an uninterrupted night's sleep, many parents have looked for the technological fix, buying the kid a global positioning system (GPS), complete with turn-by-turn directions. But even technology can't solve all problems, as a friend of mine reports.

Seems his son was up in the hinterlands of Wisconsin, following the directions of his GPS, when it suddenly demanded that he make a left turn onto a road marked with a very clear "DO NOT ENTER" sign. He wanted to know whether he should obey the GPS or the sign. Now, at this point I could pause for a dissertation on how the kid's confusion over which to obey is a symptom of how we're becoming Tools of our Toys, but for now I'll put that tirade on hold. I want instead to consider just where the kid was when he got mixed up. Seems he was approaching a diamond-style interchange between the state highway he was on and a limited-access divided highway. Something like the one at right:

He's coming in from the west (which is the left side of the picture) and wants to end up going north on the four-lane. But when the GPS is demanding (quite insistently, or so he says) that he turn left at the first ramp--in other words, it's telling him to go north on the southbound off-ramp, into the southbound lane of the highway.

Which got me to thinking: why would the GPS want to send him down the wrong ramp into the wrong lane in the wrong direction? Is it just stupid? Is it in fact telling him to take the northbound on-ramp that's the other side of the bridge? (To this last, I have the answer: no; the GPS wants him to go north on the southbound ramp. We know this because once he passed the ramp, it started re-plotting his route.) Could it be that the GPS was programmed in England, where people drive on the left side of the road? Or, for that matter, China, where people also drive on the left side, and where most of the consumer electronics in the world are currently being made?

Or, perhaps, reality is even stranger. When the kid got to the other side of the bridge, the GPS again started telling him to turn left, this time onto the northbound on-ramp. This leads to the rather frightening speculation that the GPS really has no concept of which way traffic goes on a road. Which would make sense--the software's really just seeing lines connecting dots, and plotting a minimum-distance path between them. Which is why, on occasion, GPS units tell people to turn onto the wrong line--for instance a railroad track, as in this New York Times story. Or, as in this story from Germany, into a portable toilet. Who knows; maybe the "P" in GPS stands for something other than "positioning"?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Blast from the Past!

The Buell Motorcycle Company celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this summer, and as part of the celebration their house organ, Fuell, printed a special retrospective issue with a silver cover and lots of pictures and such from the company's history. Including, on the third page, this picture from the 1987 motorcycle show in Rosemont, Illinois. Erik Buell, founder, head designer, president, chief cook and bottle-washer, is on the left, in that nifty (but vaguely out-of-place at a motorcycle show) business suit, explaining the virtues of his new RR1000 motorcycle. (For those who don't know, the RR1000 was a serious sporty-bike, propelled by the short-lived but powerful XR1000 Harley engine. It's one of the slipperiest motorcycles ever released to the public, and just a few years ago one of these twenty-year-old machines, with a newer engine, set a Land Speed Record at Bonneville.)

But who's that guy next to him, the furball in the Sturgis shirt, clutching a poster and a four-dollar cup of Budweiser? Yep, it's me. I'd bought my first Harley about four years earlier, and was by now up to four of them (two Sportsters, both of which I still had, and two FXRT Sport Glides, one of which I'd gotten through the peculiar combination of near-terminal poison ivy and Lamaze classes, but that's another story), and what drew me to chat with Erik was more his involvement in the project that first developed the FXRT. We talked a bit about the Sport Glide, particularly the rather lousy saddlebag latches that were on the first couple years of the bike. Erik gamely tried to redirect the conversation to his new bike, and eventually I was willing to listen to that, too.

As much as I liked the bike, I wasn't willing to buy one. It wasn't the $16,000 price tag as much as it was the dead-end motor (the XR1000 engine was a one-shot project at HD; the future was in the new 1100cc all-aluminum Evolution motor) and the fact that the bike lacked a lot of features I'd need to go touring, such as a passenger seat and luggage. Of course it lacked these things; it was, after all, more of a street-legal road racer, a bike optimized for going around corners very fast. Which was true... but when you live outside Chicago, going around corners fast means you either set up your bike for touring or buy a trailer, because the nearest place with roads even remotely worthy of this bike is more than a hundred miles away. And I don't like trailers. So, as I recall, before I finally shook his hand and headed off for another overpriced beer, I told him "give it the new motor, a passenger seat and some luggage, and I'll buy one."

Eight years later, he took me up on that offer by bringing out the S2T Thunderbolt... which I also didn't buy (though I sort of wish I had, preferably in that bright metallic purple they called "Parkway Blue"). Instead, almost exactly nine years after the Rosemont motorcycle show where I first met Erik, I bought a '96 S1 Lightning... a bike which had no passenger seat (heck, even the rider seat was best described as a "one-cheek wonder") and no luggage. And I took it touring. But that's another story, too.