Monday, May 25, 2015

Steam keys for Elite Dangerous's early backers coming soon

I'm not sure why it took so long for them to do this, but here's the official news:

From May 28 you’ll be able to generate a Steam key from your account page, and we’ll have full instructions right here on the forums closer to the time.

For those of you who haven't tried the game yet, here's a pretty good primer:

I think it's safe to say that if the genre hasn't gotten its hooks into you when you were younger, you probably won't like Elite Dangerous. Most of the time you won't be having fun, per se, but it's still a very satisfying experience.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The unpredictable nature of the digital future

The last generation old enough to remember analog technology will be dead one day. I'm talking about the death of my generation: Generation X's stragglers. The Atari and Nintendo kids. The last people who could possibly understand the Pavlovian "wee-woo!" of a dial-up modem.

My first computer was a Commodore 64, which was handed down to me when my parents upgraded to an unwieldy IBM for their home business. Today my left-hand monitor stand is a 4-head VCR while the right-hand stand is a hardback dictionary and an old copy of DOS for Dummies. It's with a bit of sadness I realize I'm no longer cutting edge. I don't qualify as young anymore, especially in an age when toddlers own iPads. I find it increasingly hard to send a text message these days—I never could get the hang of touchscreens, really, and I finally upgraded my Galaxy S, which had a physical keyboard, to a Note 4. This is no longer my technology. I'm merely borrowing it.

The future is scary. Always has been. It becomes exponentially scarier when you realize "the far future" is closer than you thought.

As a science fiction reader/writer, I'm inclined to worry about a lot of things that have yet to happen. Some of these things are likely. Some of the scarier possibilities, however, aren't as clear cut. I should point out I'm not as worried about runaway artificial intelligence as Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk seem to be (none of whom, it's worth noting, have any significant expertise in the matter; the author of the book which got most of them concerned  in the first place admits it would be a "great tragedy" if humans didn't pursue the field), and while I admit Ray Kurzweil is probably a genius, I think his predictions of a technological singularity are premature to say the least. Which isn't to say these people haven't given me pause. 

Seriously, stop and consider that for a moment: a bunch of the geeks who made their fortunes by aggressively pursuing the cutting edge of technology are now the doomsayers on what many believe is the next logical step. Out of touch? Maybe. But while there used to be a strong pulse of computer-phobia among the mainstream, it seems to me those irrational fears have shifted to genetically modified foods, vaccines, and every other area of science but the computer sciences (this fad, too, shall pass). The armchair computer-phobes went away just as their irrational fears may have become rational ones.

I've read enough science fiction and Popular Science to know all predictions of the future should be taken with a grain of salt. There are absolutely zero authorities on the matter despite the almost religious following Kurzweil has acquired (Doctorow and Stross criticized the movement by naming their singularity novel Rapture of the Nerds; they, too, hold a lot of opinions I disagree with). But given enough time, the chances of something like one of the predicted catastrophes happening (such as runaway AI) only goes up.

* * *

I used to be a gadget geek who owned a smart phone and a 64-bit operating system long before any of my friends even knew they wanted that stuff. Today, a lot of them still don't know they want that stuff, but they have it anyway. We're all technophiles now. Willingly, unwittingly. The change was so swift, most of us didn't notice.

My own wariness stems from the fact that cutting edge gadgets used to be marketed to cutting edge people. Then the manufacturers of these devices were held responsible by the geeks who not only wondered what was inside the devices, but demanded the right to open them up, warranties be damned. When only geeks were early adopters, they actually gave a shit when an app wanted access to every nook and cranny of their phones and, potentially, their private lives. Now, with a straight face, companies put out devices, preloaded with Facebook, that don't even have expandable memory slots and use a lot more glue than screws. In a lot of ways the geeks were much more technophobic (or perhaps technoskeptical is a better word) than the self-proclaimed technophobes at the time, but realistically so and for good reason.

Now these gadgets and services are mainstream. Now everyone is playing with fire. The new and broader target market, unfortunately, has no idea how fire works. They couldn't care less, either.

Beyond growing more powerful, it's no secret that processors and integrated circuit technology are getting smaller and more concealable every year. Yes, we saw phone screens become unexpectedly bigger with the recent "phablet" phenomenon, but the devices themselves are thinner, not to mention lighter (and, in my opinion, a lot more destructible). I say all predictions of the future should be taken with a grain of salt, so get the salt ready: there really aren't a whole lot of places this technology can go other than internal. We're already wearing it on our wrists, already gearing up to wear it in the form of ocular technology (and don't get me wrong, I'm pretty stoked about that). Nearly everyone who used to roll their eyes at my gadget obsession seems to be more integrated, more connected than I am at this point.

Ten years ago most people would have reeled at the idea of internalized communication electronics, but the younger generations are primed for acceptance. The fact that many parents have unwittingly trained their kids not to value privacy (seriously, your Facebook friends really don't need to know when your daughter had her first period, and the ones who actually care are probably sick in their heads) indicates future generations aren't ready for the tech they'll inevitably inherit... by my vantage point, anyway. The next generation might not think it's weird that: their cars tell the insurance companies how fast or unsafe their driving is, that their toilets analyze their samples and automatically upload the information to their doctors (and who knows who else?), that they never have to take stock of what's in their fridge, it just mysteriously arrives on their doorstep when they're about to run out. Then again, our great, great, great grandparents would be just as shocked—if not horrified—by the way we live today.

So what will the world look like ten years from now? Your homework this evening, if you can manage to pull your eyes away from your phone long enough, is to think about the youngest person you know in your life and imagine how technology will change by the time they're your age. You will be wrong about most of it, but that's okay.

* * *

Science fiction writers and futurists have been predicting human-integrated electronics for decades (I was born a year before Neuromancer was published, which makes me roughly as old as the idea has been popular). Like all the other predictions that have managed to come true, we'll still look back and joke about how much of it we got wrong (moving sidewalks, flying cars, personal jetpacks, etc.). So while we probably won't require cranial surgery to get the iPhone 20, the next Steve Jobs is going to figure out how to make something sexy that's equally as worrisome to our prude, twentieth century sensibilities. And how many of the old analog geeks will be around then to even notice how weird it is?

I'm not saying the future shouldn't be weird. I'm saying the future is inevitably weird. The march of progress doesn't need as many cheerleaders as it once did (there will always be social and political backlash to life-improving sciences such as embryonic stem cell research, but modern naysayers lose interest relatively quickly because they're typically distracted by something else) and there might not be enough attention being paid to progressing responsibly. It doesn't matter how old analog people become as long as we don't become out of touch. We have to at least make an effort to understand what the younger generations are getting themselves into, otherwise we have no right to criticize it.

Friday, May 22, 2015

My newest toy: the Lionel CDV-700 6B Geiger counter

Here's a short list of the things I've been shocked by:

  • Electric fence charger (I had the misfortune of holding it in both hands when it bit me)
  • Wall socket (horribly stupid school prank gone wrong)
  • Coverless light switch (felt around in the dark for said light switch)
  • Water heater (gas water heater, but it had an electronic thermostat)
  • A 9V battery taser (worthless for protection, by the way)
  • Bare house wiring in a customer's attic (didn't bite me until I grabbed a copper pipe)
  • A ton of other things I can't remember at the moment

As of about an hour ago, I can add "Cold War-era Geiger counter" to the list:

Ain't it a beauty? Came with the original headset, too.

Yes, I knew the insides were high voltage. No, I didn't take the proper precautions when poking around inside. Yes, I felt the jolt right in my heart. I would rate this shock between the bare wiring (surprisingly mild) and the cattle fence charger (surprisingly strong).

I've been trying to get one of these for about a year and a half, but most eBay listings were either a little too damaged or a little too overpriced. I suspect the current price on these units is due to Fukashima-concerned consumers trying to screen their produce. Just so you know, most Geiger counters are pretty much worthless for this application. If you have no interest in using a Geiger counter properly, don't buy one.

I got this one for $60 because the seller didn't know what was wrong with it or how to operate it. Aside from battery corrosion (I have an $8 replacement compartment on the way from, which also sells refurbished units for $180 a piece) and a bit of rust on the can, the unit is in good condition. A sticker indicates the civil defense calibrated it in 1983, the year I was born, and I wanted the Lionel-manufactured unit because A) it uses two D-cells instead of four, and B) it's just cool that a toy company (well, model train company) manufactured it.

Baseline readings at my own house are a little higher than average (in my admittedly limited data set, anyway). The "hottest" thing I found was an old breadbox my parents used to keep our pills and vitamins in. The second hottest was a mysterious box in my father's garage. The thrill of opening the newspaper-packed box up was more exciting than anything that ever happened to me while metal detectin', but I was disappointed, if not relieved, to only find lantern mantles inside.

As is, it's a pretty good unit for detecting potential sources and listening to that great Geiger counter sound, but I imagine it will be a while before I purchase a newer check source and get it properly calibrated. Nonetheless, it's a pretty piece of Cold War history for my shelf.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fury Road: George Miller's masterpiece

a trailer that manages to leave the best bit unspoiled

Movies used to have balls, even the expensive ones which opened during the summer. Nowadays you might get something like The Expendables, which tries to recapture that magic, but they always feels too slick and disingenuous.

Fury Road is as authentic as you can get. It's a two hour movie with about ten minutes of dialogue and comes from a filmmaker who—thank God—hasn't learned the "right way" to make a summer blockbuster. Movies as brilliant and hard hitting and mind-fuckingly maniacal as Fury Road makes me retroactively hate the more standard stuff like Avengers 2. I'm not so naive I don't understand why movie execs don't make movies like this anymore. No, what amazes me is a movie like Mad Max 4 can be made after 9/11 at all. It has a hell of a bite for something intended for such an increasingly sensitive society.

It's worth noting Tom Hardy and Charlize Theoron share an equal title credit; it's every bit "Imperator Furiosa's" film as it is Mad Max's and Theoron's more than up to the challenge. Another surprising cast member is Hugh Keays-Bryne who also played the villain in the first film. This time the villain is so good he'll remind you of no less than the likes of Hannibal Lector and Darth Vader. Nicholas Hoult (yes, the kid from About a Boy) is unrecognizable as Nux, the white-faced character who proclaims in the trailers: "Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!"

Within minutes of the opening shot, Max's famous car gets smeared across the wasteland by the War Boys, presumably the biggest, baddest gang around. Max is thrown into captivity, turned into a walking, talking blood bag for Nux, and chained to the front of a souped-up car when he isn't hanging upside down in a cage. Meanwhile, the villain teases the malnourished citizens of his compound with his abundance of water and Furiosa is gearing up for a trip to Gas Town she has no intention of completing; when she veers off course the chase begins. And it never, ever stops.

Director George Miller has been trying to make this movie for twenty years. It shows. You can see the decades of thought enriching each action sequence, each of which is different than the last despite using the same three elements throughout: a desert, some cars, and a handful of maniacs. I always cherish a movie that shows me something I haven't seen before. Fury Road does this not once, but several times over.

Fury Road is easily the most exciting movie of the twenty-first century. It's a movie that's been hyped beyond the moon, but will pay back every ounce of that hype with pure ingenuity and the kind of thrills we got when Schwarzenegger said "I'll be back" for the first time, when Ellen Ripley came face to face with the queen alien. Jesus, it's been so long since we've had one of these movies. I came out of it feeling like I'd just survived a trip down Niagara Falls.