Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Losing my (comment) virginity

One of my two readers left a comment yesterday. It seems the way to coax the lurkers into commenting is to mention them by name! Now I am left wondering if the reason my other reader is slacking in the comments department is because I haven't mentioned him.

I already knew the swiftest way to find out whether anyone reads what you have written is to misspell their name. Thus calling someone Angela Smith instead of Andrea Smith, or Robin Braggs instead of Robin Baggins will elicit comments, or complaints or letters from a solicitor much MUCH faster than claiming that the world is flat, or evolution an illusion.

Open the book of Life

The BBC reports the opening of the book of life, a vast encyclopedia which aims to record all the species on the planet.

It suggests that the creation of this resource may be as great as the invention of the microscope. Not sure how, exactly, as one was a tool for seeing things never before seen and the other is a record of them. That's not to underplay the vast job of work which is being undertaken. Oh wait. Having visited the first pages, I see... I see. It will be possible to submit pictures and information, seek out information about a species... if you are passionately fond of butterflies or cormorants, you will be able to submit information to the people responsible for curating those pages. Even the pages with no information except a title, already provide links to historical papers and books mentioning the species. Thus a quick search for Green Woodpecker brings up Cambridge University papers, books published in the 19th century, reviews from the British Museum. What a fantastic resource this is!

Those who watch the TED talks from the TED conferences will be aware that one of the inspirations for the EOL project was the TED talk by E.O. Wilson in outlining his TED wish. That was in March 2007. That the first volume is opening now, and that it is being curated all over the world, is a marvellous thing.

Monday, February 25, 2008

New Ops

Despite not being American and not really caring who becomes president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy writers' of America (SFWA) association, I go here to the blog of John Scalzi on the say-so of Cory Doctorow from BoingBoing. I have to admit that it is very unusual to read such an open and scathing run down of someone's opinion of another, and that even though I know nothing of the people involved, it was gripping.

What really caught my attention, notwithstanding the brilliance of the prose in the piece above, was one of the comments below in which Gianluca at comment 18 suggests that Mr Scalzi, should he give up the Science Fiction could make a living as a professional ranter. Like, that's a *job*?

I so want to be a professional ranter! I wonder what the qualifications are? And who gives out the jobs? If anyone knows, do tell. I have such good qualifications: I have ranted about Second Life, Education, Old People's Homes, charging for Genealogical information....

And another thing... with all the millions of people on the internet, (230 million on laptops alone, figure courtesy of another story on BoingBoing this morning about the laptop for every child campaign - note to campaign, as they keep reminding me, my children are still waiting...) isn't it odd how you bump into the same people over and over? I saw Pete Darby on the comments list for the John Scalzi blog. *waves*

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Machine Stops

I have posted in other places about the E.M. Forster story, The Machine Stops. I read it as a teenager in the 1970s and felt that it was as far-fetched in 1975 as it had been in 1909.

It's a funny thing... my children greeted Ray Kurzweil's reported predictions of blood cell sized computers with general derision. "Yeah, yeah, yeah... and in 1975 they believed we'd have personal robots by the year 2000, or be flying to work by jetpack!"

I had no trouble believing that we might have a personal R2D2 to do the hoovering or collect the dirty laundry. I had no difficulty accepting that we might have surveillance outposts on the dark side of the moon by 1999. But the idea that we might all be linked by a machine, and have friends around the world we hadn't met, that didn't ring true at all in 1975. It didn't seem likely.

To see how prescient E.M. Forster was, I recommend reading the story. I wonder how dependent we will become on our machines over the next 100 years. I wonder whether books will withstand the march of progress or gradually get filed under obsolete objects and be relegated to museums.

Currently I resist the march of progress coccooned in a library of thousands of volumes, and I love the touch, look and reading of books. I cherish the ones with history, I see them as friends and companions in many cases. But even I would hesitate, with the availability of reference material online, to buy a new encyclopedia or dictionary.

I think writers have a big part to play in considering the shape of the future... and maybe we should heed their warnings.

Bill Bailey

I can't believe I have got this far into my miscellany without mentioning Bill Bailey, a gifted comedian, actor, personality. He is revered in my house by everyone for different things: his status as one of the team leaders in Never Mind the Buzzcocks, a regular tv show which has a vaguely anarchic musical theme, his appearances in Black Books, and his stand up routines.

He has a wonderfully mad and buggy website, and so I am informed by one of my offspring that if you pause video and then replay it, all the audio you have listened to plays at the same time, but it is worth it. He is someone to be cherished, who appears to be able to be funny without being nasty, erudite without making anyone feel stupid, and entertaining.

The website seems to be a rather odd mish mash of steampunkery and googie, with a lot of games which will be interesting and entertaining the first time you visit but a PITA the second, third, fourth and fifth time. Anyway... enjoy!

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Virtual reality is real reality"

The BBC website reports that Ray Kurzweil predicts that there will be a merging of virtual reality and reality in the next 25 years.

He says: "In virtual worls we do real romance, real learning, real business. Virtual reality is real reality."

He added "Games are the cutting edge of what is happening - we are going to spend more of our time in virtual reality environments. Fully emergent games is really where we want to go. We will do most of our learning through these massively parallel interactions. Play is how we principally learn and principally create," he said.

I have no idea whether he is right that we will have tiny computers and huge worlds, but I think that the promise of virtual worlds for enjoyable learning is immense.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bow Street Runner game

As often is the case, I am indebted to BoingBoing for a link to Channel 4's Bow Street Runner game, released to coincide with a new series.

In the tradition of Myst and Riven exploring games, this is a flash game in which you are a new recruit assigned to a murder case. Your esteem and rank depend upon the way in which you handle the case. Mousing over scenes leads you to clues and information.

I'm impressed by the quality of the game and the graphics and design generally. My only real criticism would be that the wigs and costumes let down the high production values from time to time. Old fashioned wigs would not have the gloss of man made fibres, and the finishing on some of the clothes looks poor. It's otherwise splendid, although the dire warnings of adult material don't seem justified by the one "sod off" that I encountered.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rupert Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake is an anomaly in the modern world... a scientist who is using scientific method on things which are mostly dismissed by scientists, like ESP.

It is always instructive to see how the rest of academia treats people who think outside current paradigms, and it seems that "with general derision" is the answer. That always astonishes me, when there are so many paradoxes and unexplained conflicts in the current understanding of physics and quantum theory.

However, I think there is a lot of interest in the Sheldrake research and site, not least the experiments with N'kisi, a grey parrot.