Playing God

A common criticism invoked against new technology is this:

“We shouldn’t play God.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this. It seems to be God’s exclusive role to do the things currently beyond our ability. Then when we figure out how to do them, we’re, what? Putting God out of a job? What exactly is God’s job? More than anything, this statement is a generic push back against anything new, with a faux-pious relish.

Humans can fly now? We shouldn’t be playing God. Walking on the moon? Don’t play God. Vaccines? Test tube babies? Tasty GMO tomatoes? Only God gets to do that. Ski lifts? Instagrams filters? Nonstick cookware? God is gonna be pissed.

Any time we figure out how to do something new, we’re playing God. At least, up until the moment that the disorienting new thing becomes the boring old thing.

I wondered: when did this trend start? Who was the first person to level this critique? This is the image that came into my mind.

It’s true enough that we need to exercise discretion with our technological offspring. But simple rejection of the possible doesn’t get us anywhere. I think Stewart Brand, writing in the 1968 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, has the last word on the subject: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Simulators Have Come a Long Way

When I was in high school, I got a summer job working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Being young and useless, I didn’t do much for NASA. But they sure got me fired up for a career in aerospace. As a young airplane geek I got to see all kinds of cool stuff. One that I particularly remember for its gee-whiz factor was the old Redifon flight simulator. It was huge. Was it huge because it used a giant vacuum-tube computer? No. It was huge because it featured a giant map stuck to a wall! Think of it as an enormous model train landscape turned on its side. With no trains. And an aircraft carrier.

Redifon Flight Simulator

I must have seen it just before it was torn down, because it was still capable of running. But even then it was clearly on the way out. This was the awkward period when the new digital simulations weren’t yet very good even though the old mechanical simulators were on their last legs.

Look at that picture! The terrain is a hand-painted map. The visuals for the cockpit come from a video camera with a periscope attachment that “flies” over the landscape. You actually had to worry about flying the periscope into the ground or a building and damaging the simulator. With a scale of 2000:1, they could pack a lot of detail into the landscape. But the pilots were obviously pretty constrained, so I think it was only useful for take-offs, landings, and other airport operations.

I was thinking about this overlap that I had with the Elder Days because I recently (along with half the rest of the world) bought a copy of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2020. You just can’t believe how big and beautiful and complete this simulator is. It has every airport in the world, dozens of airplanes perfectly rendered inside and out, sumptuous clouds, and accurate time-of-day lighting. Moving traffic on the ground! Wandering herds of wildebeest! Migrating flocks of flamingos! It’s hard to know where they can go from here. It just seems like they’ve solved flight simulation once and for all.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

But they’re not quite done. Now what I’d like them to do is model, inside FS2020, the old Redifon terrain map, sideways aircraft carrier and all. Kind of like making an iPhone app of an abacus. Somebody out there has to want to do this…

Freedom from FOMO

I can’t help but notice, dear reader, that you’re having a hard time filling your SocialTwitterInstaBook feed with fabulousness. But you’re in good company. It’s hard to do these days. And as a long time sufferer of FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out), I want to personally thank you. It means I’m not falling behind.

It turns out, I mostly don’t mind staying home and being boring, so long as you’re forced to do more or less the same thing. You can’t fly to Mallorca without me. You can’t meet Lin Manuel Miranda at that amazing charity event you run. You can’t even sit near the Lieutenant Governor at Chez Okay, the pretty good French restaurant at the corner of Fourth and Lame. That would’ve made a sweet Instagram selfie, n’est-ce pas?

Not this year, my friend…

In the old days, if you did any of those things, or rather, if I had the misfortune to learn about you doing any of those things, then I would feel bad. I would feel bad, because you would be AHEAD and I would be BEHIND. I don’t like to be so blunt about it, but there it is. My lizard brain, despite all my protests to the contrary, cares about these things. Hey, look, I didn’t invent the brain stem. I just have to wear one every day.

You used to be Instagramming glorious sunset photos from Greece. But where are you now, huh? Stuck at home. Watching Netflix and eating way too many powdered donuts, just like me. What’s that? You’re watching operas, learning Italian, and cooking gourmet meals? Dammit! Don’t they have some kind of quarantine for that too?

Unscripted Unreality TV

Years ago—I guess this was in 2003—I went to a high school reunion. While I was there, I talked for a while with an old classmate who had migrated out to Los Angeles to work in television production. He was an editor who specialized reality TV. He wasn’t especially proud of his genre, but it paid the bills.

He told me something that I remember very clearly. These shows were unbelievably cheap compared to what were then “regular” scripted shows. You needed fewer people and less time to make an episode, and on top of that, the ratings were great. Or at least, given how cheap they were, the ratings were plenty good. Here is what he said: over the coming years you’re going to see more and more and more of this stuff. They’re going to drive out other shows. The superheated economics of unscripted television generated an unstoppable geyser-like spew of shows.

I happened to see an article today about the smoking crater that is the cable business, and this chart caught my eye. My high school buddy’s prophecy was playing out brilliantly! Why pay writers when your audience will happily watch unpaid attention-seekers do the reality TV monkey dance?

Given where the industry is headed, you can’t really say that unscripted shows saved cable television, but it sure made the crash landing a lot softer.

Incidentally, my friend passed along a few other nuggets of wisdom. One is that people are so eager to be on these shows that they don’t read the contracts carefully (surprise!). And when they see the final cut of the show, they sometimes feel humiliated and want to sue somebody. But it’s too late. They learn that the contract they signed not only specified that they might look stupid, but that the editors would go out of their way to make them look stupid. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s there in the contract.

Which brings me to the last thing I learned that night. My editor friend told me, with all the footage he was given, he could tell any story he wanted. Want a love story? A bitter rivalry? A feel-good romp? It’s all there, given enough tape and a skilled editor. A reality show isn’t “scripted”, but it’s sure as hell edited to tell an entertaining story. That story may bear little relationship to what “actually happened,” whatever that means. But reality was never the point of reality TV, in the same sense that wrestling was never the point of TV wrestling. I’m paying you for something cheap and sweet. Reality need not apply.

Does Space Sickness Correlate with VR Sickness?

In keeping with my preferred late-adopter approach to life, I finally joined Team Roomba. Sure enough, giving iRobot ten years to work out the kinks before I buy means that I’m really liking how well it works. I shoulda bought one of these things ten years ago! Only I would’ve wanted the one that just came out this year…

Anyway, like a lot of The Quarantined, it’s been a big gadget-buying season here at Rambles Manor. So in addition to finally buying a robot that sucks, I also bought a video game that makes you throw up. And as the new owner of an Oculus Quest, I can tell you in all frankness that VR and a Roomba, much like alcohol and barbiturates, are a dangerous combination. Do not mix them, particularly after you’ve had a beer. But I digress.

I was never really itching to buy a VR rig, but my wife was interested in virtual 3d travel for her birthday, so that pushed me over the edge. One reason I hadn’t bought one already is that I’m prone to the kind of motion-sickness that gives VR a bad name. I didn’t want to spend several hundred dollars just to paint the carpet a new color. Even a new Roomba couldn’t clean that mess.

But I’ve been very impressed with the Quest, even though I’ve been doing the VR equivalent of going on the kiddie rides at low speed. My favorite thing so far surprised me: little looping 3D animations built with a Facebook VR tool called Quill. They’re charming. My new hero is Goro Fujita, master of the Quillustration. But I’ve also been skating a little closer to the edge, trying motion-based games and reading about VR sickness. And it got me thinking about space sickness, or as the astronauts prefer to call it, Space Adaptation Syndrome (insert three-letter acronym here).

One of the surprising things about space sickness is that it doesn’t correlate with typical motion sickness. That is to say, people who never get air sick, even though they fly high-performance jets for a living (that is, your typical astronaut), still have a 50-50 chance of getting space sick. It’s unpredictable, and nobody knows why. As you can imagine, it’s a real drag for your typical hot-shot space jock to be so humbled on their first flight. This is not the kind of thing that typically gets reported to the press corps, but it happens a lot.

So VR sickness made me wonder about space sickness. Could the kind of vestibular disruption you experience with VR actually be somehow similar to what you experience in zero-g? If you have strong “VR legs,” are you likely to adapt well to space station shuffleboard? After all, in both cases what you see corresponds only weakly to what your middle ear is telling you, at least according to years of earthbound experience. And it’s clear that both of these are very different from flying a jet at high speed. So that’s my hypothesis, and I want to know if there’s any evidence for it: VR legs and space legs are a matched set. If it’s true, it would give us an useful way to predict who’ll get sick in space, and also perhaps help them prepare for the ups and downs, or rather not-ups and not-downs, of floating lunch. Which makes me wonder… if there’s no up in space, you can’t really upchuck. So do you just chuck?

Incidentally, in my research I learned that way back in 1985 Senator Jake Garn was taken along as a VIP guest astronaut on Space Shuttle mission STS-51. Sounds like a fun gig, except that his space sickness during that mission was so profound, so comprehensive and incapacitating, that it set the bar for all future astronauts. “One garn” is now (unofficially) considered at NASA to be the absolute worst possible case of Space Adaptation Syndrome. Most people only experience no more than 0.1 garns for a few days.

So perhaps if a milli-Helen is the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship, then maybe a centigarn is the amount of space sickness required to blow a single chunk.

The Sadness of the Hobby Telescope

The hobby telescope is one of the saddest purchases a person can make. It’s even more pathetic than the NordicTrack ski machine that no one ever uses. Telescopes look cool, and after you’ve seen a few Hubble Space Telescope pictures, you think to yourself: Oh man, I’d like to cook up a few shots like that.

The Hubble can do this. You will never ever do this.

But you’re dreaming. You don’t want to own a telescope. You want to be the kind of person who owns a telescope. You want to talk knowledgeably at parties about owning a telescope. Actually owning a telescope kind of sucks. Here’s the thing about a hobby telescope.

  1. If it’s cheap, it’s terrible. If it’s expensive, it’s… expensive.
  2. If it’s small, the image is terrible. If it’s big, it’s so heavy and awkward that you’ll never take it out. It will suck up half your garage and stare at you every day, mocking you.
  3. Getting good images means staying up late or waking up early, driving someplace inconvenient, and then standing around in frigid darkness for long stretches of time. If you don’t like doing any of these things, owning a telescope won’t change that.
  4. You will be amazed to learn that even finding the thing you want to take a picture of is hard.
  5. Even when everything’s in place and the view is lined up, it’s going to cramp your neck to get into the right position to view the object.
  6. And the ultimate insult: the image you see is likely to be a small smudge of light.

So there you have it. You stay up late. You drive to a dark location. You get the object in your scope. You look at it. And you think: all for this little smudge? More to the point, for every conceivable thing you can look at, somebody else has already taken a picture that is impossibly better than you will ever capture. Stars don’t change that much, it turns out. Somebody else already took a better picture of the Eiffel Tower than you, and they sure as hell took a better picture of the Triangulum Galaxy than you.

I am confident you’ll soon be taking quality pictures like this.

Here is the key point about stargazing of any kind: It’s not a visual activity. It’s a cerebral activity. If it genuinely makes your heart sing to look at a smudge of light and say “Wow! That’s it! That’s the lenticular galaxy M84!” then you may be the right person to buy a telescope after all. If it doesn’t, then hey, I know a quick way to save yourself $1600.

But for all my gloom, there are some exciting new developments in this market for us mere mortals. I was impressed with this review of the Unistellar eVscope (which was originally a Kickstarter project). I don’t own one, so don’t take this for a review. But the eVscope makes some smart choices for your typical lazy wannabe astrophotographer. First of all, this is not a telescope so much as a camera attachment for your phone. So it avoids the neck-cramping nonsense of wedging yourself behind an eyepiece. It’s not too big, so you might actually take it outside every now and again. It helps you find things automatically. And most of all, it’s got modern software that will assemble an image that’s much better than your eye can see. How? By taking many pictures in rapid succession and then combining them into one superior image. Finally, it can automatically participate in data-gathering campaigns for honest-to-goodness scientists. You get to feel useful instead of just cold and bored!

Like a lot of things these days, software is what’s making all the difference. The old hobby telescope market is trying to graft modern software onto an ancient chassis. It’s an uphill struggle. This new model starts with the software and builds up from there. As such, they’ve been able to banish the major headaches and user-experience flaws of hobby telescopes.

Hmm… maybe it’s time to sell my old NordicTrack and make room for something new.

Ode to a Calculator

Engineers are fond of their calculating gear. Nostalgia, so they tell us, derives from the Greek word for pain. There is certainly a bond formed in pain across many late nights, many problem sets, and many many wrong answers.

The generation before mine cherished their favorite slide rule. I know many of my contemporaries who swear by their trusty Reverse Polish Notation HP calculators. But this was the machine that saw me through college and graduate school. This one was mine.

Behold, the Sharp EL-5100S Scientific Calculator. Isn’t she a beauty?

I bought it at 42nd Street Photo in New York when I was a freshman in college. I enjoyed the adventure of going to a special store to buy a special machine. And I never saw another one like it. You had to know exactly what you wanted when you walked into 42nd Street Photo, because the store staff would yell at you and dismiss you if you were uncertain. “What do you want?!” I forget where I got the recommendation, but I knew what to ask for and they had it.

What made it great? It had a super wide pixelated display. This meant you could not only enter (and see) long expressions, but also that all the text was more legible more capable than a typical seven-segment digital display. Press the Pi button, and you saw the dapper Greek letter itself, not some bastard numeric approximation. It had backspace and delete keys, so it felt more like computing with a small screen than calculating with a big screen. I could type in lavish, extravagant expressions and survey their stately architecture before pressing the equals key. Then, if the result smelled sour, I could press the PB button (for “playback”) and review my input for mistakes. Backspace backspace fix fix fix, and off I went. Luxury! That playback button saved me so much time.

It’s been twenty five years since I used my 5100S in anger. Atop a bookshelf in my study, it’s had time to ponder its fate. Periodically I’d pull it out and consider either throwing it away or rehabilitating it. I couldn’t bear to do the former, and I couldn’t be bothered to do the latter. But this virus-enforced home stay has had me snooping and tidying in every room in the house. It was time to make a decision: I decided to see if the old girl could still dance. I bought some Duracell 76As and plugged them in.

No dice. Sadly, my little friend wasn’t going to come back to life. I wonder what happens deep in the circuitry of a solid state device to make it stop working? Is it sad? Is it angry? It’s probably something simple, like a bad resistor. But I’ll never know. It was an exercise of pure nostalgia.

But I can still slide it out of its case and see possibilities and power, pain and perseverance. The keys still spring under my touch. The calculator is the engineer’s wand, or it was before still more powerful machines displaced it. With it, you felt the ability to summon, to penetrate the unseen, to conjure great things into existence. Not that those things necessarily happened, but it felt that way at times. Other times, of course, it felt like an anchor, shackling you to the desk even as your English major friends went out for beers and laughter and late-night liaisons. It’s all there for me, those memories of thermodynamics and aircraft control theory and convergent-divergent rocket nozzles. Memories of things lost and gained. A bargain of time and sweat for… what? I never built an actual rocket. But I did come to understand the made world. I remain grateful for that. And I remain grateful for this little helper, my familiar, my companion.

Thanks, old friend!

Muybridge 2.0: Atlas Jogged

You know the story: One night over whiskey, Leland Stanford and Eadweard Muybridge were having an argument about the Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics. The question: does Atlas always have one foot on the ground while he’s moving?

The primitive photographic technology of the time had no way of telling if the robotic wonder was ever truly airborne. But Muybridge kept at it, and eventually came up with this.

Case closed! Robots can fly.

MetaMensa and Your IQTQ

I am going to found an organization called MetaMensa. Admission is based on your IQTQ. That’s your Intelligence Quotient Test Quotient. It measures how good you are at taking IQ tests relative to how good you could possibly be at taking IQ tests. So if you get 8 out of 10 questions correct, then you have an IQTQ of 80. You must have a positive IQTQ to join MetaMensa. There’s some controversy regarding how well IQ tests do measuring your intelligence. But MetaMensa sidesteps all that: we have a rock-solid way to test your IQTQ. By the way, we make no claims about the relationship of the IQTQ to your intelligence. Just to your ability to take IQ tests.

If you multiply your IQTQ by your age and divide by 100, you will get your IQTQ Age Factor (IQTQAF), a number that is equal to or less than your age. What this value (measured in years) signifies isn’t yet clear, but the arithmetic is not difficult to perform. People with an IQTQAF greater than their age are immediately disqualified from MetaMensa, because somewhere their math has gone badly wrong, and that’s not the sort of person we want parading around as the sort of person who parades around as someone who they believe is believed to be smart because of how they score on a culturally biased and academically bankrupt test of perceived but not actual intelligence. Not by a long shot.

At the MetaMensa Gift Shop we sell t-shirts that say “Say what you will about my intelligence, but I’m very good at taking IQ tests.” On the back it says “I joined MetaMensa and among other things I got this t-shirt. It’s not lousy. ‘Lousy’ actually means ‘full of lice’, and this t-shirt does not fit that description. At least not at the time it was purchased. And by the way, it’s just a myth that highly intelligent people are pedantic assholes.” We also sell novelty pants that say “These are actual smarty-pants.” They’re novelty pants because they’re not actually smart.

MetaMensa holds monthly dinners in which the seating is strictly stratified by IQTQ scores. If you have an odd IQTQ score, you are required to sit next to someone with an even IQTQ score. That way, you can see how the other half lives.

So have you got what it takes to join MetaMensa? Look in the mirror and ask yourself this question: “Do I have $35 for the admission fee?” If the answer is yes, then the answer is yes. You’re our kind of person.