culture Archive

“Too Much Information” Technology

Posted January 27, 2011 By Steve

“Too much information will make your brain choke.” — Bryan Davis

liar game

When it comes to privacy, I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to put the toothpaste back in the tube. I think what’s going to happen is that modern culture will adapt to an ever diminishing expectation of privacy. To older people that probably sounds really terrifying. Younger people don’t seem to be as bothered, especially considering what they’ll post on Facebook.

And it’s not just the Internet that will erode the walls that separate us from one another. One of the things that’s coming up is a technology called augmented reality, in which what you see in the real world has an added layer of computer generated information overlaid on top of it. So imagine you’re walking around on vacation and want to get a bite to eat. You don’t know any of these places. But with AR, you might have a small screen or even glasses to wear that overlay additional information about what you see. When you look at a restaurant it may also display how well it’s been reviewed, or whether it’s been cited by the health department, or if it has low sodium options.

This relates to privacy in that as facial recognition software becomes more mature, it will become possible to use AR to learn things about people just by looking at them. Imagine something like this connected to a database of registered sex offenders, for example.

What will be even more game changing will be on the fly lie detection. As scanning technology used in MRIs becomes cheaper and miniaturized, someday it will fit into these sorts of AR systems. Another way to do this that might be technologically easier to engineer would be if the sorts of microexpressions that show deception can be analyzed by the facial recognition software. Either way, imagine having a conversation with someone and having your AR system display a big stop sign every time the person shows signs of deception.

So at what point will information technology become “too much information” technology? Love it or hate it, you’re likely going to find out!

Climate Change Education?

Posted December 22, 2010 By Steve

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” — Mark Twain

a factory

When it comes to climate change, I have to admit that I don’t really know what’s going on. I know that both sides are cocksure and have incentive to promote their positions, meaning that neither should be trusted out of hand. It seems that more experts believe that the climate is changing than not, but that’s only so helpful to me, as I’ve worked with university faculty, and have seen firsthand how impressed with their own infallibility they can be, and how rarely they change their mind once it’s made up. There’s good reason for the saying that science advances one funeral at a time.

The way I see it, the climate change issue is really a series of three questions, all of which must be answered affirmatively for dramatic action to be warranted:

  1. Is the climate really changing?
  2. If so, are we causing it?
  3. If we are, is it worse for us than de-industrialization would be?

While I’m no climatologist and don’t claim to know for sure, I expect the answer to the first one is probably yes. I realize there are some issues with the data that are used to support this theory, but given that the climate has always been dynamic, it’s not so difficult to believe that the average global temperature is on an upswing.

I can also believe that the second one is at least partially yes. The long list of species that we’ve hunted to extinction show that humans can affect the environment to its detriment. If there are enough of us, we don’t even need advanced technology to do it — ask a woolly mammoth.

I think the third one is a lot more iffy, though. Many of the apocalyptic predictions are based on worst case scenarios, and computer models rather than direct observation. I work with computers, and one thing I know is that the problem with them is that they always do exactly what you tell them. Unless the model is strikingly accurate, there’s always that cause for uncertainty. Moreover, whatever negative consequences there may be should be weighed against the benefits that have come from industrialization, like average lifespans that are decades longer now than they were when we first started burning coal. I’m fine with moving to an economy that uses less carbon, but in the meantime do we really want to do without modern technology? If we tried, how many people would die earlier than they would otherwise?

I’m thinking about all this today because of a piece I read in The Hill saying that Todd Stern, the top climate negotiator for the U.S., is calling on scientists and policymakers to orchestrate an educational effort to change the public’s perception about climate change. Regardless of what the answers to those three questions are likely to be, is it really the government’s place to tell people what to think? Clearly not. But even if it is, would it do any good? Natural selection has been taught in American schools for a century, yet a recent Gallup poll shows that four in ten Americans believe that Creationism is literally true, and that only one in six Americans believe that humans evolved without divine intervention. With ignorance like that, what chance is there to educate the American people on a scientific topic that’s so complex there is still reasonable uncertainty about important details?

George Carlin, R.I.F.P.

Posted June 23, 2008 By Steve

Fresh off of a week’s worth of hagiographic logorrhea from the chattering class after the untimely death of Tim Russert comes the truly lamentable passing of George Carlin.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Russert will be be missed. I found him an interesting interviewer who did occasionally ask tough questions of his interviewees despite their being his colleagues in the political/media elite.

The loss of Carlin, however, is truly a shame. I know him more from his recent work, as the goofy Archbishop in Dogma and in the work he did for kid’s entertainment, like narrating Thomas the Tank Engine stories and playing the voice of Fillmore the spacey VW bus in Cars — yes, I have a three year old son.

I’m aware, however, that long before this Carlin was a free speech pioneer, that his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV” routine dragged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, leading, unfortunately, to one of their many failures to defend individual liberties. But he didn’t always lose, and comedians have cited him as an influence and inspiration ever since. Carlin’s sort of iconoclasm is vital for avoiding a descent into authoritarian stagnation. He’ll be missed.

Happy Newton Day!

Posted December 25, 2006 By Steve

I suppose I’m steeped in my own culture too much not to feel nothing strange at wishing others a Merry Christmas even though I am not a Christian. However, thanks to my friend Bob Klassen I also think of December 25 as a great holiday in celebration of reason and science. It is, after all, the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton, and while it’s said that he loved the Bible even more than science, it’s his work with the latter that caused Alexander Pope to write:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.

Happy Newton Day everyone!

Dead Man’s Chest

Posted July 25, 2006 By Steve

I’m not sure why the critics didn’t like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It had a complex plot, but not a convoluted one. It was long, but engaging throughout. Now I may be a little biased, since they filmed all the scenes with lush beautiful rainforest in Dominica, and it was cool to see one or two familiar faces on screen (like our boat guide on Indian River). But still, I thought it was great.

And this movie also goes to show that you can do whatever you want to Naomie Harris and she’s still hot.