Category Archives: the future

Heroes: Hans Rosling

I love this guy. He takes huge piles of numbers and turns them into concise, eye-opening animations that reveal surprising truths. He’s like a living, breathing, Swedish Hari Seldon, peering into our future through the power of numbers. We need more Hans Roslings!

Watch all his TED Talks:

The Good News of the Decade (October 2010)
Global Population Growth (July 2010)
Asia’s Rise (November 2009)
Let My Dataset Change Your Mindset (August 2009)
The Truth About HIV (May 2009)
New Insights on Poverty (June 2007)
The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen (June 2006)

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Famous Names: James T. Kirk

It just occurred to me this morning that the character James T. Kirk of Star Trek fame has a name that is potentially loaded with meaning. Supposedly the character got his name from Captain James Cook (1728-1779), but I wonder if there’s a sly reference to the early church in there?

James is a name with several biblical associations. I think the easiest connection to make is with the book of James in the Bible, which begins in verse two, “Count it pure joy, brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” Church tradition also holds that the author of James (? – 62AD) was a relative of Jesus, and the first bishop of Jerusalem.

Tiberius could be a reference to Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus (42 BC – 37 AD), the Roman emperor during the ministry of Jesus.

Kirk is the Scottish English word for “church.”

I doubt this is all intentional, but it is pretty cool. Early church? Sent out into unexplored territory from Jerusalem and Rome? Seems like a pretty good fit to me. What other well-known names have meanings I didn’t notice?

Career Advice from Ebert

I follow Roger Ebert’s blog. I don’t just like his reviews (which I find concise, insightful and entertaining) but his perspective on life is refreshingly sensible. He’s got his head squarely on his shoulders, and without being inflexible or unwilling to accept change he is unswayed by the mad fashions of the new and extreme.

In his latest post he reflects on how movie criticism is no longer a viable career. It’s been taken over by bloggers and hobbyists, and has been thus improved. The confidence and humility he expresses is, itself, humbling.

He then offers this career advice: Find out all you can, and see what you can do with it. I love that! Truly the heart of being a lifetime academic. Why did none of my college professors ever introduce me to Ebert’s writing?

So when he says video games are not fine art, I don’t really have a problem with that. The man’s got a lot more experience than me, and for him to say video games are mere entertainments isn’t much of an insult… he’s made a living on lots of entertainments and a little bit of art. What do I think? I think a lot of art goes into games, and that games can be elegant and beautiful and meaningful. I don’t think they’re fine art, and if they were, I’m not sure I’d want to play them (with the exception of certain interactive fiction which feels more like literature than game).

The Gamer Resource

EvokeGame designer Jane McGonigal (of World Without Oil and Superstruct) explains how online gaming will change the world at TED2010.

She describes four skills that we develop by playing games:

  1. Urgent Optimism: Gamers believe that success is possible and we can and should act immediately.
  2. Social Fabric: Gamers build strong social connections because playing games together engenders trust and cooperation.
  3. Blissful Productivity: Gamers understand that hard, meaningful work makes us happier than relaxing does.
  4. Epic Meaning: Gamers want to be a part of a world-changing effort.

Her talk continues to describe the origin of games according to Herodotus, and the not-quite-spoken implication is that eighteen years of gaming prepared a dying society for the exodus (or diaspora?) that saved it.

It’s clear from Jane’s work that she believes we live in a dying society, but she’s not exactly suggesting we launch a colony ship in ten years. Instead, she’s hoping that the traits and the effort we invest in games can be directed at the real-world problems we face, before any such exodus is needed.

Part of me thinks that while I have learned some things from gaming, it also makes some people lazy. Another part of me thinks that she just insulted everybody who has ever led a fulfilling life without thinking of it as a game. But with the popularity of online games on the rise, maybe she is just trying to take back the growing part of society that’s been lost to aimless gaming.

Her latest effort, Evoke, started at the beginning of the month. Make this your gaming obsession for the next few weeks, and you just might learn something about changing the world.

Lunar Stories

I recently read three excellent books: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. In each case, this was my first exposure to the author’s work, and in each case I was thoroughly impressed. Each author has a powerful and distinctive voice; I will not soon confuse these books with anything else I have read. Fahrenheit in particular I recommend to anyone, regardless of their interest in science fiction, for its prose that develops in style and complexity parallel to the story and the protagonist. It’s a shockingly effective technique.

I was more interested, however, in the similarities between Heinlein’s Moon and the middle portion of Clarke’s 2001. Each carefully considers life on the lunar surface, and they reach similar conclusions on many points. There may have been some influence, but with Heinlein’s book released in 1966 and Clarke’s in 1968, the works may be considered contemporary. Naturally, both books make much of the lunar gravity and joke about people trying to descend stairs in 0.17G. Each suggests that we will utilize centripetal force for artificial gravity and extract water from lunar rock. And, most interesting to me, each suggests that the most efficient way to launch people and goods into orbit would be to use a miles-long assisted acceleration ramp. As Heinlein likes to point out, it’s gravitationally uphill to the moon and downhill to Earth. If we’re ever going to build a base on the moon, this seems like a must. I find it amusing than none of NASA’s recent program renovations includes this idea, which is at least half a century old. We certainly have the technology for it, but apparently not the budget.

Each story also considers the future utilization of artificial intelligence, with similar conclusions. In each story, traditional computer architectures have been outstripped by computers modeled on the human brain. In terms of computing power, their estimates are surprisingly accurate: Clarke’s HAL in the year 2001, although vastly powerful, is probably not quite human in terms of intelligence. Heinlein’s Mike from the year 2075 has just become self-aware, but rapidly shows himself to be more intelligent than any of his human companions. With current estimates saying AI and computing power will match human intelligence sometime between 2020 and 2040, these books are very relevant. It’s a humbling thought that we will probably build a moon base and see a computer pass the Turing Test in my lifetime.

That said, the two books have little in common in terms of political views and attitude about humanity. Heinlein is pessimistic (or realistic, depending on who you ask) about human nature and the course of politics, and his book sings the praises of practical Libertarian principles (called “Rational Anarchy” by one of his characters). Clarke is an optimist; he lets humanity get along and be at peace while we explore space, and even assumes we will have grown up enough not to offend an alien intelligence before we’ve sent a human beyond Jupiter. Overall, I think I enjoyed Moon more for its more detailed and realistic vision of the scientific and political implications of living on a different planet. Not to say Clarke isn’t terrific – I just find I enjoy Heinlein for some of the same reasons I enjoy Herbert – his holistic approach to science fiction. Only Heinlein is more relevant, more immediate, and less fantasy (Y’know it takes place in 2075 instead of 10,191).

The new species

Juan Enriquez coins “Homo Evolutus,” predicts humans will take control over their own evolution within my lifetime.

I’m actually excited about this! What a fascinating threshold our faith will cross when the average person’s direct experience of creation is enhanced by technology.