Tag Archives: technology

Remember When You Could Send a Spaceship to Mars for Only $75 million?

So I’m sure you’ve heard by now of the orbiter that India sent to Mars for only $75 million, and seen it compared to the U.S. Mars orbiter that cost $672 million. Whatever the reasons for the difference in price, my main concern is that the two orbiters will start orbiting the planet in the same path at the same time, and they’ll be fighting over the armrest, and we’ll have to turn the spaceship around.mission to mars

The more I think about it, even $75 million starts to sound like a lot. Maybe the first space trip would cost a lot.  But that was decades ago, back when there was an evening paper and people had milk delivered to them in a glass bottle.  There should have been more cost-effective innovation by now, like what they’ve done with coffee.

There are plenty of places where money can be saved on the Mars orbiter. I hope they didn’t bother installing air conditioning.  I’ve found that a good fan well-positioned can cool as quickly, if not more quickly, than central air conditioning, albeit with a plug that can be a trip hazard, especially when one is using a plate with a turkey sandwich on it to balance a large glass of soda.

We shouldn’t be paying for ice either. Space is very cold.  All the spaceship has to do is hold a pitcher of water outside the cabin for a few seconds, and poof!  Instant ice cubes.  The ice cubes would, of course, be in those annoying half-moon shapes that come out of refrigerators.  You can’t have everything in life.

The biggest cost-saver would have to be cable and internet. The price that NASA pays to have cable and internet on every one of its spaceships was probably, in the beginning, quite modest.  And after a few months, NASA got accustomed to the price, and the astronauts were too tired from walking in slo-mo in those bulky suits to read the monthly cable bill very closely anymore.

In fact, I’m sure that NASA at this point feels rather powerless to do anything against the cable company. But the company is expecting you to do nothing! I wish I could say.  Just call up, and say that you heard that other large and inefficient agencies are paying less for cable and internet, and that you as a loyal customer demand the same low price.  The cable company will grant your wish.  And do you know why?  Because they don’t want to lose you as a customer.

Friends, it has been over two days since I shamelessly plugged The Issue Box on this blog, and I suspect that many of you have not had the opportunity to check it out. I know, I know.  They’ve been showing episodes of Roseanne. I get it.  TV marathons happen.  But still there are commercials.  So feel free to stop by during a commercial break.  Unless it is one of those commercials that is better than the program you were watching.  It’s fun when that happens.

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Big Announcement

Instead of writing something that purports to be funny, I want to let you know about a website that I’ve been visiting recently. It is called The Issue Box. And you can find it by typing theissuebox.com into your browser’s URL field. Or you can Google it. Or you can follow this link.

The Issue Box allows users to post and vote on an infinite number of political and other public issues, without requiring any personal information – no names, no financial information – save for an email address that is used solely to verify that you are a human being and not a bot or toaster oven.

So, for example, you could say something like, “There are not enough restrictions on pollution,” and then vote “Agree” or “Disagree.” And then that issue, with your one vote, will be available for any other users to vote Agree or Disagree.  As the votes tally, you will be able to see a pie chart showing the split of yeas and nays, and how each voting user voted.

Now let’s say that you are a user of the site, and you didn’t create that issue, and you don’t want to vote on it either.  You think the issue misses the point.  So now you create the issue “We need to enforce the pollution restrictions we already have,” and vote Agree, and now your newly-minted issue is posted on the Home page for all to see and vote Agree or Disagree.

Now let’s talk real controversy.  What information do we require to sign up? A valid email address. That’s it. The email address is your username for logging in, but on the site you are identified only by a random assortment of words that we assign to you.   The password is a random combination of numbers, also assigned.  So your presence on the Issue Box will be totally anonymous. There is zero chance of us sharing your information with others because we don’t have any information to share.

An email address and the issues created and voted on by that email address, and that’s it.  If your email address has your name in it, and you’re not comfortable sharing it with us, then go use another email address, even one created just for the purpose of authenticating that you are a human, which is done once and never again.  But regardless of whether your email address has your name in it or not, to other users and to the public, you will be identified by only the randomly generated handle that is assigned to you at registration.  No one need ever know how you vote…unless you decide to tell them.

In case you are wondering, I have more than a passing interest in the Issue Box. I helped create it and am hoping that if enough people go on it, I will be able to sell the website for billions of dollars, and retire to a mansion with its own movie theater, where I can watch the movie they’ll make about how I screwed over my friends to take control of the company, and hope that the screenwriter is nominated for an Academy Award.

So if you get a chance today and you want to do something that’s 100% risk-free, costless, and permits – nay, encourages – you to simply say, yes or no, how you feel about an issue, and see how many people agree with you, then go to theissuebox.com and get your issues out there!

Postscript: You should know that, strictly speaking, we are still in the Beta-testing phase of the Issue Box. So if you encounter anything that looks like a glitch, please be patient and, if you have a few moments and are so inclined, send us a note about it and we’ll take care of it.

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Remember When Virtual Reality Was More Virtual Than Reality?

Facebook’s Director of Newfangled Operations was sitting at his desk, reading reviews on Yelp for a good place to get turkey salad. An assistant knocked at his door.

“Come in, come in,” he said, facing the assistant. “So what’s the good word?”

photo of human wearing virtual reality headgear

Photo courtesy of Sensics, Inc. via Wikipedia.

“Well, sir, you know that ever since we acquired the virtual reality company Oculus VR, the, uh, upper management has been anxious to learn about the user experience.”

“Yes, yes,” the Director said. “And what is the user experience? Do the people, the salt of the earth, the great unwashed masses yearning to be free…do they like virtual reality?”

“Yes, they do, but—”

“But what? Are people displeased with the gaming?”

“No, they love it. They say the exploding bodies have never been more life like.”

“Are they able to access enough pornography?”

“Of course. We’ve enabled even individuals with visual, hearing, and tactile disabilities to enjoy it. A Congressional committee has commended us.”

“Don’t tell me they’re concerned about privacy.”

“Most people accept the theory that privacy was a myth originated by the Sumerians around the same time as the Epic of Gilgamesh.”

“Well what then?”

“Sir, the users’ concern is that when they wear the virtual reality headgear, they can’t tell if people are touching their food.”

The Director stared at the assistant for a few moments. “Touching their food?”

“Yes, you know. Like putting their hands all over a bowl of potato chips, and then watching while the virtual reality user eats the potato chips that have just been touched.”

The Director was a silent a moment. “I see how this could be quite a problem.”

“Sir, should we tell Mr. Zuckerberg? Perhaps—”

“No! Mr. Zuckerberg doesn’t like problems.” The Director chewed on a nail. “We’ve got to fix this ourselves.”

The solution was to offer virtual reality users the services of someone who would sit in the same room with them, without wearing headgear, and would stand guard over the users’ food or drink or bodily integrity. These hired individuals—called “guardians”—could also watch coats and book bags. And for a while it worked.

But then people started to worry that these guardians were doing things to them that they had been hired to prevent. What if the guardians had been bribed by someone who wanted to dip a finger in the users’ coffee and stir it around? How would the users ever know?

So then the guardians were scraped and instead the headgear was fitted with a little camera that would broadcast the user’s immediate surroundings through a little window in the corner of the headgear’s screen. So now users could watch the real world while they were immersed in virtual reality.

After a while, users found that watching their real life surroundings was more interesting than the virtual world. If they were alone, they could watch an empty room and see if anyone came in. If they were in a room with other users, they could watch a bunch of other people wearing headgear, bobbing around in their seats and waving their hands.

Users started talking to each other while they were immersed in virtual reality. Now that they could see everyone else in the room, they could talk freely, knowing that they weren’t speaking to an empty room. At first they talked about the virtual reality simulation they were using at the moment. But soon they moved on to other topics, like the weather, or upcoming weddings, or what each of them had done that day. Tech bloggers dubbed this growing practice of in-person conversation while wearing the headgear “non-virtual reality.”

Non-virtual reality became so popular that the software engineers kept enlarging the size of the window projected on the inner screen. Before long, this window took up the entire screen, so that when the users put the virtual reality headgear on, they saw a live, perfectly to-scale rendering of the same exact scene they would see if they took the headgear off.

“Sir!” the assistant said, entering the Director’s office with the headgear on. “Your program is a complete success! It is reported that 98% of the world’s population now walks around with headgear on all the time.”

“Splendid!” said the Director, wearing his own headgear. “But who are the 2% that aren’t wearing headgear? Are they from those primitive societies that walk around in loincloths and star in those movies they show at the Museum of Natural History?”

“No, sir. That was our initial theory, too. But it turns out that the 2% are hardcore techies.”

“Techies! But how can that be?”

“They say the original headset was better.”

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Remember When Stores Couldn’t Track You Within the Store?

I met a traveler from an antique land who said, “I read an article in the New York Times about how stores are now using their unwitting customers’ cell phone signals to track their movements within the store.”sweet ride

I can picture it now.  A major retailer is having its mid-July meeting, and the Director of Sales is going over old and new business.

“All right, let’s see where we are.  Winston, are all the school supplies on the shelves?”

“Yes sir.  As of 11:59 on the night of July 4th we started putting out the pens and pencils and notebooks of every size, shape, and cover material.”

“Good.  And when is the Christmas merchandise going out?”

“We’re aiming for middle of next week, sir.”

“Excellent.  Okay.  Now, on to new business.  I believe you were going to prepare a presentation for us on the new technology that allows us to track customers through the store using their cell phone signals.”

“Yes, sir.  If you’ll direct your attention to the screen here, you’ll note the squiggly neon lines winding around the screen.”

“Yes, I see,” says the Director.  “It looks like my kid drawing with crayons on the kitchen tile.”

“That’s an excellent analogy, sir.  Now, each squiggly line represents a customer.”

“But I don’t understand.  We’ve been using cameras to monitor the customers for years.  How is this cell phone thing different?”

“Well, sir, a camera allows you watch the customer, but unless you are very attentive and don’t take any coffee or Facebook breaks you won’t know all of the products the customer looked at or for how long the customer looked.  This technology bridges the gap.  The customer’s odyssey through our aisles is tracked, and the longer a customer stays in one spot, the darker the line becomes at that point.”

“What is that customer doing over there?”

“Looking at platinum bound notebooks.”

“Oh, those are a hot new item.  Wait!  Where is the customer going now?”

“Looks like the customer is heading over to the cheaper notebooks.”

“Did he, she or it take a platinum notebook?”

“Let me check out the video camera.  No, it looks like her arms are empty.”

“We have to redirect her back to the more expensive notebooks.  Captain Riker!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Use those things we bought from The Hunger Games auction to help our customer back to the overpriced school supplies.”

Captain Riker pushes a button, and suddenly the customer is met with a wall of fireballs heading directly towards her.  She turns around and runs to the exit of the store, but then is met with a swarm of bees whose stingers dispense hallucinogenic poison.  The customer runs from aisle to aisle.  The Director watches the whole thing from a screen mounted next to the Keurig coffee dispenser.  Eventually the customer finds refuge in the aisle with the platinum notebooks.

“Ex-cel-lent,” the Director says, blowing on his coffee.  “Now she has no choice but to—wait, what is she doing?”

The screen shows the customer tying four of the notebooks together to create a platinum shield.  Holding the shield squarely in front of her, she runs right through the wall of fireballs to the notebooks bound with soft cardboard, retailing at $1.29 apiece.  She grabs a few and, still holding her shield aloft, runs to the checkout line while the fire behind her consumes erasable markers and glittered index cards and fish-shaped wastepaper baskets.

“I can’t believe she did that!” the Director screams.  “Now how are we going to control the customers?”

“Well, sir,” says Winston, “did you ever see Inception?”

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Remember When Luggage Didn’t Have Wheels?

My friend wanted me to come over to his house because he had invented a time machine and wanted me to try it out.  I asked him if he wanted me to bring over some beer, but he said he had some already in the fridge if I didn’t mind Bud Light.  I did mind, but didn’t tell him, not wanting to hurt his feelings.luggage wheel

The time machine was set up in the garage, made out of a 4-foot jeep that had been given to my friend’s son for his second birthday.  I was inspecting the chassis when my friend, in trying to twist off the top of a bottle of Bud Light, lost control of his arm and knocked me into the time machine.  By momentum I hit some switch and the next thing I knew I was traveling through time in a sequence that was somewhere in between Back to the Future and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

When the traveling stopped I was in front of a giant castle.  The guards at the gate, eyeing my modern dress and assuming I was the prince returning home from college, took me to see the King.

“So son, you are back from that school of yours.  I hope the $30,000 in tuition was worth it.  Financial aid my eye!  Oh well, I see you’ve taken to wearing your pantaloons lower on your hips.”

The King asked me to demonstrate what I learned in falconry class, and I so I took the glove and whistled for the falcon.  But as the giant bird approached I forgot where I was and ran away screaming and waving my arms, and the King knew me for an impostor for which the punishment was death.

“Wait, wait,” I said.  “Don’t I get one last chance, some trial, to save my life?”

“I’m not aware of that procedure.”

“Oh yes,” I said.  “It’s in all the chivalric romances.”

The King looked at his advisor and pantomimed drinking something.  But he nevertheless entertained my suggestion.

“Very well, stranger.  My army is to meet the army of Aethelred the Pithy in three days.  I’ve asked him if we could have the battle here but his daughter apparently has a soccer game earlier that day and all the parents are expected to attend.  So we have to go to his battlefield.  But if my knights wear their armor whilst riding they will be to tired and sweaty to fight.  Solve this dilemma for me, stranger, and I will grant you lands and titles.”

I told them to wrap the armor in sacks, and place the sacks on wooden boards affixed with wheels and a long retractable handle.  Frankly, I don’t know why they didn’t think of it before.  They had wagons and wheel barrows and even their catapults were on wheels.  But sometimes the most hidden solution is the one that’s staring you right in the face.  The King was impressed and upgraded my status from stranger to wizard.

On the morning of the battle, we arrived at the battlefield in high style.  The knights were well rested and not sweaty at all.

“The enemy approacheth!” someone called.  “Don your armor!”

The knights turned to put their armor on, but someone had mixed up the luggage tickets, and it took some time to sort out whose bag of armor was whose, made even more difficult by the enemy knights who were lopping off arms and legs all around us.  Our knights did their best to parry the attack, but armor would have been nice.

“And so,” said King Aethelred to me while I stood in chains before him.  “Tell me again, stranger, why I should let you live?”

I explained to him that I knew of a way to put tops on bottle of ale that could just be twisted off.  He was skeptical but agreed to let me show him.  He ordered one of his subjects to open a bottle of ale for me.  The top was hard to pull off, however, and as the subject pried it free his arm hit me, and I fell back, and the next thing I knew I was back in my own time, lying beside the converted toy car.  I tried to explain to my friend what had happened, but he didn’t believe me, insisting that luggage tickets were not invented until after the Renaissance.

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Remember When You Needed a Cell Phone to Record Someone in Public?

The good folks over at Google have invented something truly spectacular—a pair of eyeglasses with a small computer screen mounted on one of the lenses so that the user can have all the advantages of a smartphone without the inconvenience of having to take it out of a pocket and tap a touchscreen.  It is called the Glass.  At last we can search for cat videos while windsurfing.

Photo by tedeytan via flickr

Photo by Ted Eytan via Flickr

As I save my nickels against the expected $1,500 price tag, I note with not a small amount of incredulity that not everyone is looking forward to the Google Glass.  The product is still months away from being released to the general public, but already has been banned from a Seattle bar and the roadways of Virginia, on concerns of privacy and distraction, respectively.

Privacy?  Distraction?

Think about how wonderful it will be when you can photograph someone in a supermarket without having to pretend to make a phone call, putting the silent phone to your ear and turning sideways, estimating where the lens is focusing, faking your end of a conversation (“Yeah, I know…This is now two weeks they don’t have shredded cabbage”), checking if the photograph was too blurry or if you missed the target, and repeating as necessary without blowing your cover.  A person should not have to go through so much work.

With the Google Glass, you can just look at someone and take a photograph.  When you see someone wearing white after Labor Day, your friends won’t have to take your word for it.  When you’ve sculpted your mashed potatoes into a likeness of Karl Marx, you can take a memento without looking weird in front of the other diners.

And why does the media always emphasize the negative aspects of distraction?  Until Google Glass is in stores, if someone is telling you a boring story, you have to pretend to listen by concentrating on the space between their eyebrows or on the way their mouth moves.  When you’ve got Google Glass on your eyes, you can read Moby-Dick and when you laugh at the funny parts, the person will think you’re enjoying their story.

Of course establishments that don’t see these advantages and are so obsessed with antiquated notions like privacy will prohibit people from wearing the Google Glass on the premises.  The inventors will be forced to conceal the Glass in a better place, like in a person’s hair, or in their nostrils where the Glass could be loaded with a Flonase app during allergy season. Workers will wonder why some patrons are always tilting their heads back and scanning the room with their nostrils, and perhaps think it some new neck exercise.

And when new barriers to the Glass arise, such as hair and nostril searches, or people who are bald or who can’t stop sneezing, Google will have no choice but to locate the Glass where it should have been all along—resting up against our eyes like contact lenses.  Everyone will be able to walk around, without any electronics showing, but with a data screen in their field of vision.  Like the Terminator.

To take a photograph you’ll need only scratch the side of your face, and a video will start recording at a mere throat clearing.  Internet searches can be triggered by just asking a rhetorical question, like “What is gluten anyway?”

And as the photographs and videos and data are uploaded, humanity will finally have what it has been working towards since people started making wedge-like shapes in clay tablets thousands of years ago:  One shared brain, under Google, with liberty and justice for all.

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Remember When There Were No Zip Cars?

I walked out my front door one Sunday morning to pick the newspaper up off my driveway, and I accidentally stepped on one of those zip cars.  It hurt.  The little, boxy car put a few sharp indentations into the soft fleshy part of my foot, and I was placed on my crab-soccer team’s injured reserve list for the next three games.  That would teach me to walk outside barefoot.

At the time of the incident, I screamed in agony, and the zip car zipped away.  I hopped after it, but the car slipped down a rabbit hole, and the next thing I knew I was sitting at a little round table, trying to remember whether I was supposed to go with “drink me” or “eat me.”

What a nifty idea—cars that you can rent ad hoc and drive up blades of grass like the characters in Antz.  In Paris you can rent a bicycle like this, which in French is called a “velo” or “le bicycle.”  The program has proved so popular that they are now considering a re-creation of the Napoleonic Wars on bicycles instead of horses, and of the Franco-Prussian War, where instead of starving Paris the Prussians will hoard all the bicycle pumps.

What else could use the “zip” concept?  I think zip boats are the next zip thing.  You could instantly rent a boat anytime you had the urge to sail somewhere, hopefully with Captain Ron at the helm, or put on a white suit and do a drug deal in the middle of the Indian Ocean, or you are rummaging through your parents’ attic and find an old map that obviously leads to One-Eyed Willie’s treasure and the chance to save your family’s home from foreclosure.

Even if you don’t live right next to a large body of water, the zip boats would still be useful.  You could rent the zip boat, host a barbecue on it, and tell all the people you work with that you had a party “on the boat” on Saturday and that the reason you didn’t invite them was because you couldn’t find them on Facebook.

I also like the idea of zip big screen televisions that could be rented for special television moments like the Super Bowl, or the season finale of The Real Housewives of Scythia.  There would be kiosks for all the latest forms of technology: LCD…plasma…ambient particles of Axe body spray that congregate in clouds above large cities.

I can imagine even zip lawyers.  They could all stand in a line tethered to the metal rental stations, and dressed in varied interpretations of the term “business casual.”  Pop in $15,000 (credit card reader available) and the zip lawyer would be yours to sue whomever you wanted.  You would be able to commence a lawsuit against an individual or corporation of your choosing, ask them to photocopy all their bank statements and receipts and mail them to you, and then make them sit in a room at a long table for seven straight hours on a work day, and ask them questions about things they don’t remember.

The only problem would be that you would not be able to return the lawyer to just any kiosk.  For wherever you tried to return the lawyer, you would keep getting told that it was the wrong kiosk, that you had to go to a different kiosk.  And by the time you found the right one, there would be another $15,000 worth of charges to your credit card.

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