My Childhood Fantasies Are Today’s Normal

January 9, 2014 at 12:15 pm

It’s crazy when you think about how much has changed since the 1970s. If you’ve seen American Hustle, you’re probably glad. (I did just have to get a new science oven myself this week.) The 70s were a weird time. But they’re also when I was born, so they form the basis of my perspective.

I often find myself talking to my kids about the way things were. About not having cable TV (and some family members not even having color TV) for a good chunk of my childhood. About rotary phones and card catalogs at the library and the ubiquity of payphones and the oddness of cell phones and the advent of the Internet and the Internet before it had pictures and computers pre-Windows and Atari and video game arcades and cassette tapes and vinyl records and VHS camcorders and so many other things that were but no longer are.

It’s been just one big avalanche of technological progress. Watching the Challenger explode on television  was, in many ways, less dramatic than watching a CGI space-station torn apart by orbital debris in Gravity. I have more power in my outdated Android phone than in the first three desktop computers I owned combined. I now use satellites to navigate, I can buy nanofiber pants that repel liquids, I can print three-dimensional objects, and I surf the net on a fiber optic connection that promises speeds of 75mbps and actually delivers 45mbps. (My first modem was 2400bps.) I saw footage today from a video game engine that is so photo realistic, it’s almost impossible to tell the environments from the real thing:

Today, I followed a link to a video about a new toy robot with gyroscopic balance and sensors that allow basic hand-motion programming. Interesting enough in itself, on the sidebar was a link to the most recent cover of Popular Science:



Do you know what one of my favorite books was as a boy? It was this little gem:



I recently bought a copy of this from a used book website because it was such a significant imagination-starter when I was a kid. I don’t know if you can make it out, but that cover depicts a “telepresence” (virtual reality) helmet-wearing operator of a lightweight mechanical dragonfly drone.

The book was published in 1974. Here’s the plot synopsis from Wikipedia:

Danny exacerbates a small electrical fire, altering an experimental crystalline semiconductor material Prof. Bullfinch was evaluating. Prof. Bullfinch is able to use this altered material to create ISIT (the Invisibility Simulator with Intromittent Transmission), a dragonfly-like probe which could be piloted with a Telepresence helmet and gauntlet gloves.

The trio each tries out the device. Irene uses ISIT to birdwatch. Joe uses the device to observe a beehive from the inside. Danny discovers a bully nicknamed ‘Snitcher’ cheating by copying the word list to the school spelling bee and dishonestly winning himself a boombox. The ISIT is outfitted with a speaker which is subsequently used by Danny as a means to pretend to be the bully’s conscience, in order get Snitcher to confess to his father.

However, ISIT also causes problems, as soon afterwards Prof. Bullfinch is visited by General Gruntel. The general reveals (in very authoritarian language) he wishes to use ISIT as a tool to spy not only on enemy governments, but against Americans as well. General Gruntel attempts to seize the unit, but is rebuffed by Doctor Grimes. While going to get authorization to seize the ISIT, he leaves the professor’s lab under guard.

Danny, Irene, and Joe decide to take matters into their own hands and stealthily break into the lab to recover the probe. The probe’s absence is realized which leads to Colonel Twist, the commanding officer of the two guards, to delusively believe the device has been stolen by a foreign power. As he is being confronted by Twist, the Professor realizes the trio of friends are responsible. He informs Danny that without destroying his notes detailing the creation of ISIT, either the Soviets or the US military could still recreate it. While the local national guard arrives to secure the house against foreign spies, Danny and the Professor make their way to the probe’s controls and use it to cause a fire that destroys both the notes and probe.

Dr. Grimes arrives with orders from the Governor for the military personnel to stand down and leave the Bullfinch residence. Bullfinch informs Grimes that the device and his notes have been destroyed, leaving him the only man to remember the blueprints by memory. Professor Bullfinch also tells Dr. Grimes and Danny that he will not recreate ISIT until the world is ready for it.

Wow. Does any of that sound familiar? The ethics of drone usage, the desire for military application and spying on US citizens, the danger of the technology falling into the wrong hands…it’s all so 2014. And despite Professor Bullfinch’s unwillingness to recreate ISIT “until the world is ready for it”, it’s here.

From the Popular Science article:

Last February, the engineers sent their drone, called the InstantEye, to Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, for its annual Army Expeditionary Warrior experiments, where an infantry platoon used it to help complete a set of assigned missions. The soldiers gave it a “green” rating, one of the highest available.


Learning how nature creates superior sensors could lead to lighter, smarter drones. And as that happens, their range of applications will grow. Guiler and Vaneck plan to sell the InstantEye to the military and law enforcement. The British Forces have recently begun using a microdrone, a hand-launched helicopter called the Black Hornet, to scout for insurgents in Afghanistan. Microdrones may also have uses closer to home. They could allow police and SWAT teams to gather footage inside office buildings or banks and between skyscrapers, where winds typically gust.

Wood visualizes an even more diverse array of uses for RoboBees. A box of about 1,000, he notes, would weigh one pound. They could easily be shipped to a disaster site and deployed to search for survivors. They could also monitor traffic or the environment and help pollinate crops. Research scientists could use them to gather data in the field.

Whatever their application, microdrones are no longer a da Vinci–like dream of engineers. They’re taking off—agile, resilient, and under their own power.

As I was clicking over to grab that quote, I noticed something in my Twitter feed about the launch of a satellite later today from right here in Virginia. It’s all happening so fast.

I wonder what things will be like when my kids are my age.


Amazon Autorip – A Game Changer In The Intellectual Property Debate

January 25, 2013 at 10:53 am


Yesterday, I got an email from Amazon. It read:

Dear Steve Skojec,

We thought you’d like to know that eligible songs from 3 CDs you have purchased from Amazon are being added to your Cloud Player library. This means that high-quality MP3 versions of these songs are available for you to play or download from Cloud Player for FREE. You can find your songs in the “Purchased” playlist.

In addition, we’re excited to announce AutoRip. Now when you buy any CD with the logo, the MP3 version of that album will instantly be delivered to your Amazon Cloud Player library for FREE.


I don’t know if I squealed in excitement like a girl, but I probably should have. This is a major development in intellectual property distribution, and it will undoubtedly influence any number of other decisions in the ongoing debate over who owns content, and in what form.

It doesn’t matter whether you buy a CD or a digital version of music, you bought the music. Having Amazon recognize this and ensure that you have access to both after purchasing the physical medium is a logical step. First, because it’s likely to curtail piracy. Think about it: have you ever lost or damaged a CD you bought and downloaded the album illegally to replace it, figuring that you already owned it? Don’t lie.

Secondly, it’s undoubtedly a strategic move to shift more content in the direction of digital and away from physical media as painlessly as possible. This will win over many of Amazon’s customers who like having actual CDs of their favorite albums on their shelves and aren’t yet ready to move to digital. Many of those people probably still buy physical albums out of habit, or even distrust of new technology. Once they become familiar with the ease and convenience of non-physical media, any number of those individuals may make begin making future purposes of digital media alone, thus alleviating shipping costs for Amazon, reducing overhead and fulfillment center staffing, and increasing profit margins.

This needs to happen with books. You may recall that I wrote something a while back about this very topic, albeit from a different angle. My proposal was intended to give print an extended lifespan by providing free ebook copies of any work to a person buying the hardcover. I wrote:

I got a Kindle Touch for Father’s Day, and I absolutely love it. The compact size, the convenience, the built-in book light in my case, the ability to store hundreds (or thousands) of books all on one tiny device – all of it is very appealing to me. Since I got it, I haven’t picked up one of the many, many physical books that are piled around my house.

At the same time, I wouldn’t dream of replacing them. Books that are worth owning are worth displaying, and if I read a good ebook I want a physical copy on my shelf. I want to know that when the EMP strike comes that will take out the American power grid and all of our devices, I can still read. Books are a status symbol. Books should be seen by the people who visit your office or your home. There’s nothing like the smell, feel, and heft of a book. When you have your head buried in the pages, everyone else gets an advertisement about what’s inside by looking at the cover.

But they say the print industry is dying, and the sales numbers I linked to are hinting that this is more than anecdotal. So here’s my proposal to book publishers:

With every physical copy of hardcover book you sell, package a free copy of the ebook as well.

That’s it. Simple. No magic there. It doesn’t cost anything to distribute an ebook. You can charge more for a hardcover. But if you’re like me, you want the hardcover on your shelf or for your lazy afternoon Sunday reading, and you want the ebook for the plane, the train, and the trip to the beach. I want to know that if I’ve purchased a book, I can read it in whatever format I damn well please. That doesn’t mean I think I should get a free hardcover if I buy an ebook; I understand that there’s a cost to produce something and that it needs to be covered. But if every hardcover came with an ebook version free of charge, I guarantee it would shore up the print industry in a real and immediate way.

Interestingly, my opinion on physical books is beginning to change. Now that I’ve had a Kindle for half a year (and with a recent upgrade to the new Kindle Paperwhite, I’m moving even faster in this direction) I am losing the impetus I had to keep buying physical copies of books just so I can display them on my shelves. It starts feeling like a waste of space because I now absolutely prefer, every time, to read on my Kindle. That said, I still like to display the cover art, be able to hand someone a copy (I’m no fan of DRM – I want to be able to loan books I own to anyone, even if they are in electronic format) and to know that if the power goes out, S.M. Stirling-style, I still have a library of good reads at my disposal.  There’s a real value to physical books in a way that there isn’t to CDs. CDs still need a power source to be used. Paper books will be good even after the bomb.

But I do believe that regardless of whether print is doomed or you want to keep it alive, the idea Amazon is applying to music simply has to also be applied to books. The time has come. And honestly, if you give me an ebook with the hardcover, I’m probably going to spend the extra dough on the hardcover more often than not, because I’M GETTING TWO THINGS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE. Decision: made.

I doubt the product strategists at Amazon are reading this, and if they are, they probably already know this is an inevitability. So get to it! Let’s make it happen. And if that just means that people transition away from print (thus fulfilling the profit motives I intuited above) and toward digital, well, that’s a consequence I’m prepared to deal with. There will always be a market for paper books, even if it’s small. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

No Time to Stop and Smell the Microchips?

March 27, 2012 at 8:02 am
Atari 2600 Entertainment Console

Oh Yeah, Baby! Look at that Veneer!

The other day, my 14-year-old daughter and I were driving to school, passing the time listening to “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. When it got to the part that says, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture,” something dawned on me. I reached over and turned down the volume, and posed a question:

“Do you even know what a Polaroid picture is?”

“No.” The blank look on her face (though unfortunately common to teenagers) said more than her response. I then spent the next five minutes explaining what an impressive development Polaroid photos were at a time when you had to take your film in to get it developed, and how people would shake them to get them to develop even faster. It then dawned on me: I could give a long list of technologies that I’m nostalgic for. But things move so fast now, kids don’t even have the time to develop an emotional attachment to them. I’m only 34 years old, and there has been monumental development in tech during that time. Do you remember:

  • Having friends whose parents still had black and white TVs?
  • The leap from broadcast TV to cable?
  • The advent of VCRs (let alone DVDs)?
  • The time you got your first microwave?
  • Small floppies replacing big ones?
  • Hard drives becoming standard on computers?
  • CD-ROMs replacing floppy drives?
  • Computer graphics that consisted of only 4 colors? 16 colors? 32 Colors? 256 Colors?
  • MS-Dos?
  • The significance of 640K?
  • BBSes?
  • 2400Bps modems? 9600? 14.4K? 28.8? 56.6? The switch to DSL, then Cable, then Fiber Optic connections?
  • Prodigy? Compuserve? AOL as an online portal? Juno? NetZero?
  • Telnet? IRC?
  • The first ISP in your area to offer a real internet connection to the World Wide Web?
  • The WWW when it was still mostly just a collection of unadorned hyperlinks?
  • Rotary phones?
  • Pulse-dial touch pad phones?
  • Old-school cordless phones (with the big antenna)?
  • The first time you saw a cell phone?
  • The first time you knew someone who had a cell phone?
  • The first time you bought a cell phone?
  • The first time your cell phone became Internet capable?
  • Atari, ColecoVision, Commodore64, Tandy, Amiga?
  • The enormous leap from Atari > Nintendo 8 bit?
  • The enormous leap from Nintendo 8 bit > Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis
  • The idiotic purchase (which I made, natch) which was the Sega CD?
  • The first time you saw real 3D graphics in a console game?
  • The first time you saw real 3D graphics on a game you played ON YOUR PHONE?!?!

This list is, of course, only partial. All of these changes have happened in my lifetime, and most of them have happened within the last 10-20 years. Kids that are in high school today don’t remember a time when high-grade technology wasn’t ubiquitous. They don’t remember life without the Internet. They never had to understand the Dewey Decimal system well enough to look up a book in a library card catalog. They don’t even know what it’s like to try to figure things out in a world without Google!

Space Invaders (1980)

Screenshot of Space Invaders (1980) - Taken From Stella, The Atari Emulator

And since the saturation of technology in society is so complete, they don’t have time to get attached to certain platforms or devices. 30 years from now, do you think people will wear shirts with the Xbox 360 or PS3 logo on them? Not a chance. But just last weekend, I saw an Atari logo t-shirt in the graphic tees section of Target. Atari was cool so long ago that they thought it was a good idea to put faux wood paneling on it. How is it still part of pop culture? Because it was all we had. It was new, unique, and exciting. And it didn’t get replaced by something else for quite a while. There really was no such thing as console wars back then. Moore’s Law hadn’t really kicked in to high gear. Nobody was imagining the kind of computing power we’d have in our toys in the 21st century, let alone in actual computers.

It makes me sad to think that generations only a little bit younger than my own take the breathtaking speed of technological advancement for granted. They don’t recognize the sound of a modem handshake, and they have no idea how thrilling it was when the public Internet was young. For heaven’s sake, most of them have never even seen, let alone used, a pay phone. Everything is different. And it will continue to change at an astonishing pace.

I’m glad I grew up when I did. I’m glad I saw this all unfold – slowly, awkwardly, attaining grace and proficiency over time. I’m glad I knew what it was like when every processor upgrade meant a noticeable boost in speed, and you measured RAM in kilobytes, then megabytes, never dreaming of what would come and how it would blow your mind. And now with the advent of advanced robotics, nanotechnology, exotic materials, solid state devices, and more, I’m certain that I’ll see an entirely new revolution of new science unveiled before another 20 years go by. I’m happy to know that through it all, I’ll never lose my sense of wonder as I watch technology progress. It’ll always be new and exciting, with a sense that science fiction is becoming science fact, right before my eyes.

It’s a pretty cool time to be alive.

Printing Lost Tech

November 30, 2011 at 12:25 pm

I was recently doing some research on a story idea I had, and I came across this list of the “top 10” lost technologies. Number 10 on the list is the world-famous Stradivari violin, the secret of which died with the Stradivari family in the 18th century.

One lost technology of the 1700s is the process through which the famed Stradivari violins and other stringed instruments were built. The violins, along with assorted violas, cellos, and guitars, were constructed by the Stradivari family in Italy from roughly 1650-1750. The violinswere prized in their day, but they’ve since become world famous for having an unparalleled—and impossible to reproduce—sound quality. Today there are only around 600 of the instruments left, and most are worth several hundred thousand dollars. In fact, the name Stradivari has become so synonymous with quality that it has come to serve as a descriptive term for anything considered to be the best in its field.

The technique for building Stradivari instruments was a family secret known only by patriarch Antonio Stradivari and his sons, Omobono and Francesco. Once they died, the process died with them, but this hasn’t stopped some from trying to reproduce it. Researchers have studied everything from fungi in the wood that was used to the unique shaping of the bodies in order to describe the famous resonance achieved by the Stradivarius collection. The leading hypothesis seems to be that the density of the particular wood used accounts for the sound.


Coincidentally (it’s a small Web after all!) I came across another post today about a process that has been devised that might help reveal the secret of the Stradivarius and allow it (or reasonable facsimiles thereof) to be produced again after centuries:


We’ve seen all kinds of crazy things being printed — from bones to blood vessels — and now you can add antique violins to that list. Music loving Radiologist Steven Sirr popped his into a CAT scanner to see what it was made of, then showed the results to a violin-making friend. Curiosity soon led them to scan everything from guitars to mandolins, so when the chance to take a peek inside a 307-year-old Stradivarius came up, how could they resist? 1000 scans later, the files were converted to 3D CAD format and another violin maker enlisted. Crucially, the images show the density of the wood all the way through, allowing a CNC machine to carve out copies of each section, with different woods used to match the differing densities. With all the parts in place and a lick of varnish, the replicas were complete. Sirr claims the copies sound “amazingly similar” to the original, but we are unsure if he plans to make it open-source.


I fully believe that the ability to scan, print, precision cut, and reproduce materials is going to be one of the breakthrough technological developments of the next two decades. We’ll see more and more things reproduced, Star Trek replicator-style (perhaps not “Earl Grey, Hot” though) and the very concepts of intellectual property boundaries and supply chain logistics will be forever transformed. Right now, a guy with a MakerBot can whip up his own board game pieces, toys, and parts based on open source online models. An astronaut on Mars ten years from now might be able to print needed tools or materials using a combination of Martian dust and a bonding agent brought with him on the space ship, thus reducing the total payload of the mission and making room for other essential stuff. A molecular gastronomist will print food using an extruder and edible printer goop, infusing protein gels and carbohydrate pastes with the essence of foi gras or pumpkin souffle. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter.


Cool things will be done, and they will be done increasingly on the cheap. By printing stuff.


I remember when I read about the first rapid prototyping machines in Wired back when I was in high school. Or maybe it was college. Either way, what sounded like the kind of thing only universities with research grants or multinational corporations could afford back in the day is now becoming quasi-ubiquitous. You can buy a 3D printer for home use for about the cost of a fancy Laser Jet. I’ve seen them for under $1000. You can DIY one for cheaper, no doubt, if you’re good at that sort of thing.


Many cool things are afoot. I’m adding a 3D printer to my long-term wish list.


Why Arresting “Anonymous” Hackers Will Only Thin the Cyber-Herd

July 19, 2011 at 3:59 pm

The reports have been trickling in all day. FBI agents across the country are raiding homes and bringing in suspected members of the hacking group known as “Anonymous.” No word yet on how many actual arrests have been made, and only one suspect has been publicly named so far.


What I suspect Federal authorities will soon discover is that they are dealing with a very sophisticated mob of highly intelligent people who are utterly without scruples. Many members of the group taken as individuals are no doubt as non-threatening as your friendly neighborhood code-monkey. They’re gamers. Monty Python fans. Pop culture connoisseurs. Avid readers. Highly skilled – though while some will have capitalized on this to a great degree, a number of others are likely slackers. These latter are the Best Buy employees that sneer at you quietly as you ask inept questions about USB Hard Drives and willingly pay bloated retail prices for what they buy from, or through gray market suppliers. I’d venture to guess that with the exception of those that have studied the martial arts in conjunction with avid anime obsessions, or perhaps those who’ve learned actual swordplay in the context of LARPing, few members of the group have ever felt personally powerful in their entire lives.


And that’s what makes them dangerous. Because as a distributed collective, they function on the Internet with god-like power.



I’ve never known that power personally, but I always hoped I’d have a chance. I remember as a teen, back in the 1990s, when I first plugged in a modem and saw what it could do. I slipped into the bitstream at 2400kbps and started pulling down phone numbers for local BBSes. I can’t remember where I found my first number. Probably got it off of CompuServe. I’d spend my evenings tying up my family’s phone lines dialing up, playing Legend of the Red Dragon, and downloading games like Kingdom of Kroz and Castle Wolfenstein 3D and the original Doom. I installed a tagline generator that inserted witty one-liners like “Where We Operate at a 90 Degree Angle to Reality” at random at the end of my posts. I cut my teeth in online Catholic apologetics against a particularly acerbic British atheist known online only as Fox, but whom I later met in real life and found to be a very nice guy during my one-and-only guest stint on Mad Trivia Party. He even gave me a ride home.


I also poked around hacking and phreaking texts, read anti-authoritarian classics like Jolly Roger’s Cookbook and thought that the Hacker Manifesto was one of the coolest things ever put on virtual paper. I received my certificate proving that I was one of the first 200 Internet users in Broome County, NY when came online in 1994. (I should have kept that certificate. My kids will wonder some day about what the world was like before the Internet…) By the time I read about the exploits of Kevin Mitnick in the 1995 book CYBERPUNK: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier, I felt like I knew my way around the dark corners of cyberspace a little bit.  I knew there was a future in fighting cybercrime, and I thought about how awesome it would be to be in on it.


But I was lazy and undisciplined. I couldn’t make myself even learn how to program in BASIC, despite having a book aimed at teaching kids to do just that. I never bothered with HTML until I was in college, and then I relied on WYSIWYG editors. I had too strict of a moral code to be a hacker, and not enough motivation to lay the foundations for a career in cybercrimes enforcement, so I did nothing. But I remember the dream. I remember reading Neuromancer again and again, not really getting it but knowing what it represented. I remember how awesome it felt, thinking about how you could exist in a world outside the system and nobody else knew who you were or where you were or how to stop you. How you could fight against anyone that way, no matter how powerful. You could cruise through the darkness of cyberspace at the speed of data – which was always increasing – doing whatever you wanted. It was intoxicating.


These people in Anonymous, they knew these feelings too. And the ones that are getting picked off right now, they’re probably the lazy ones. The slackers. The ones like me, who never had the discipline to really see it through. Who took shortcuts and didn’t cover their trails. Who wrote sloppy code. But there are so many more out there, and they are more careful. Smarter. Better trained. They probably work for cybersecurity firms themselves, and know all too well how the establishment thinks and how to break through. The FBI is just thinning the herd.


I’m not rooting for Anonymous, and I pretty much never root for the Federal Government. But I think a war is brewing, and it’s not going to end any time soon. The FBI is going to be their next target, because they think in terms of hitting back twice as hard. The Internet makes a hacker feel invincible. It’s maybe the only time he feels like that. Probably not in life, probably not with women, probably not in his job. But you can’t underestimate how much not feeling that power in every other part of their lives will motivate these guys. They think of themselves in terms of David and Goliath. Or Robin Hood. Or, as the mask they often don show, as V.


And they believe they can win.

Hatsune Miku = Idoru

November 12, 2010 at 11:36 am

“We could begin with a music called enka,” he said, “although I doubt you’d like it.” Software agents did that, learned what you liked. “The roots of contemporary Japanese pop came later, with the wholesale creation of something called ‘group sounds.’ That was a copy-cat phenomenon, flagrantly commercial. Extremely watered-down Western pop influences. Very bland and monotonous.”

“But do they really have singers who don’t exist?”

“The idol-singers,” he said, starting up the hump-backed incline of the bridge. “The idoru. Some of them are enormously popular.”

Idoru, by William Gibson.

I’ve been a William Gibson fan for many years. In terms of style, he’s like a cyberpunk Faulkner, and while I’m no fan of Faulkner, I find his consumerist, tech-ubiquitous vision of the future fascinating. And often enough, he gets a number of things right. One of my favorite Gibson books has always been Idoru, with a plot line I can’t succinctly summarize here (so go read Wikipedia on that if you’re interested.) Point is, the book revolves around the idea of a mega pop-star, a Japanese singer who is nothing more than a construct. She exists as a hologram, a mashup synthesis of the looks, voice, and talent of others, powered by an artificial intelligence that gives her an awareness of her own.

The idea of celebrity as a manufactured thing is nothing new. A look at the latest bands appealing to adolescents reveals no small amount of calculated artifice. But it seems that in Japan, an actual Idoru has arisen, and her popularity is not insignificant. Her name is Hatsune Miku, and she is a singing, dancing, Anime hologram:

Her voice is synthetic – the product of a piece of Yamaha voice software. (For more about the tech behind the hologram, go here.) Nothing about her is real, and yet the concert-goers seem remarkably enthusiastic. In the strange Venn Diagram between reality and virtuality, the overlapping section continues to grow larger. The appeal of this sort of thing, beyond the novelty, eludes me. If the cult of personality surrounding celebrities is nauseating, at least it’s a cult of personality. These constructs can’t have anything like a real personality, because they’re not persons. They’re simply an orchestration of anthropomorphized parts. And yet, something tells me that if we can continue to customize our celebrities to be exactly how we want them to be, the popularity of these idoru will only increase.

Gibson himself weighed in on Hatsune Miku on Twitter this week: “Hatsune Miku doesn’t really rock me. I want higher rez, less anime.”

Still, it’s got to be weird to watch your stories coming true.