Category Archives: Technology

Kindles and Current Reading List

My Kindle Paperwhite arrived today, and after using it for only an hour, I wonder how I managed to get by without one. It would have made the last 7 years a much more reading-conducive experience. At home, I have bookshelves full of books and I end up not even reading many of them, partly because I don’t have a great non-expensive way of transporting books from Texas to New York. And the physical books I do have in NY can get weighty. For practicality, I should have used the library system more. But there’s a certain irreplaceable feeling of having your own books that you can read at your own pace. Anyway, I think a Kindle solves all my reading problems and perhaps I can reassign my old books to other uses.

BookHatFamilyGuy

In this link is the past reading list. And currently on the summer plate:

  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century – Thomas Piketty
  • The Price of Inequality – Joseph Stiglitz
  • An Appetite for Wonder – Richard Dawkins
  • The Big Short – Michael Lewis
  • Drift – Rachel Maddow
  • The Virtual Executive – Debra Benton
  • Nudge – Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
  • Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

How Movies Have Conditioned Us to Hate Science and the Future

According to film, science and technology solve nothing. Either one of two things occur: (1) the exact same social problems will happen in the future even with significantly advanced technology, or (2) social problems will be even worse than they are today.

The perspective I am writing this from is that of concern with the future of American education with particular interest in math and science. There are many voices in the STEM discussion. I just hope to contribute in fleshing out the relation between the public sentiment towards science and Hollywood’s portrayal of science.

1. The Future Sucks

HungerGamesPoster

I have not read the books, but The Hunger Games is quite dystopic: a society where young people are randomly selected and put to a grandiose battle to the death, as entertainment for the upper classes. But the stadium is an extraordinary technological feat: the environment can be changed at will, fires can be triggered anywhere, and cameras are hidden in every location. Of course, those with advanced technology are bad. Those with poor technology are good.

Elysium

Elysium makes the technological divide even more blatant. The rich, bad guys are in a utopian, ultra-technologically advanced ship experiencing luxurious lives with all-powerful healing chambers, leaving the rest of humanity, i.e. the good guys, to rot away on a dystopic Earth.

terminator_salvation

With the Terminator franchise, the message is clear: Artificial intelligence is super evil! Don’t let the machines ever have power, else they will kill you.

The_Matrix

Yeah.

Intime

And that.

Dredd-Poster

And that.

The-island

Also that. And many, many more. Every time, technological advances lead to a terrible world devoid of any current notion of morality.

2. Scientists Are Evil Murderers

Alien-poster

The premise of Alien is massively disheartening. The off-camera scientists want to study an alien creature at all costs, disregarding all morality, i.e., letting a killer alien parasite on board and massacre everyone (almost). Of course, a backstabbing android was in on the conspiracy from the start.

Prometheus

Yes, Prometheus is part of the Alien franchise, but it is so insulting to scientists that it deserves its own rant. The scientists in this movie are so stupid that no one would ever want to be a scientist after seeing this movie. From Cracked:

“Instead of a worthy follow-up to the best sci-fi action movie ever, we got an attempt at a stand-alone plot that wouldn’t have even happened if the characters weren’t stupid enough to pet alien snakes, get lost in tunnels that they themselves had mapped, and take their helmets off on an alien planet most likely so full of dangerous microbes that they’d be shitting their intestines out within the hour. Seriously, they’re like the dumbest scientists ever.”

Last_Days_on_Mars_Poster

Regarding The Last Days on Mars:

“Another Prometheus basically. In the way that the world’s most prominent scientists are trusted to be the first to search for life on Mars, then they turn out to be a bunch of emotion driven morons making the most ridiculous and rash nonsensical decisions they could make time and time again. I really don’t see why the people making these types of movies feel the need to have these people constantly being petty emotion driven morons. Things can go wrong even when the people are making the right decisions.”

The “emotion driven moron” depiction of scientists is superbly ironic. Are they trying to criticize scientists in general, i.e. criticizing rationality and intelligence, and supporting emotion and ignorance? Or are they trying to criticize emotions and idiocy, i.e. supporting scientists?

Jurassic_Park

Dammit scientists, stop sciencing!

the-host_

Chemistry = monsters!

Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

Seriously, stop it, scientists.

Godzilla_poster

We give up.

3. Zombie Apocalypse, or Any Man-Made Apocalypse

Resident_evil

The Umbrella Corporation makes us really hate science. When not creating zombie viruses, it does… whatever the heck it does, making other viruses and figuring out how to murder people. Good job, Resident Evil.

28-days-later

While the release of the virus in 28 Days Later subverts the typical trope in that it was caused by animal rights activists, the blame is on the scientists for having those caged infected animals stuck at a research lab in the first place.

World_War_Z

I don’t remember World War Z too well, but I remember the scientist was practically useless and accidentally killed himself in a hilariously undignified fashion.

Either science will cause the apocalypse, or given the apocalypse, it is old-fashioned values that triumph over science.

4. Nature/Magic/Tradition/Spirituality/Irrationality/Emotion vs Science

avatar

Avatar is basically the ultimate nature vs technology film ever made, and of course, nature trumps technology easily. In addition, nature is good and technology is bad. You could argue that the message of this movie, or any of the ones above, is good: technology is not automatically good, and we should not take technological superiority as an excuse to exploit others. But the message of “science is not necessarily good,” hammered into our brains again and again and again, that “science is not necessarily good,” eventually translates to “science is evil.” In addition, these types of movies always depict science as in conflict with something like nature or emotions, when in reality, science tries to help them.

Equilibrium

A man with some emotion (good) vs a society where emotion is forbidden (evil). It assumes that advancements in science automatically lead to its being used for totalitarian control somehow.

Minority_Report_Poster

A man with good conscience (good) vs a cold rational police force (evil).

Fifth_element_poster

The answer is always love.

StarWarsMoviePoster

An ancient traditional religion (Jedi, The Force, lightsaber resembling a sword) triumphs over technology (Death Star, droids, and laser guns). And yes, this happens a long time ago, but it pragmatically fits into our analysis of sentiments of the future.

StarTrekIntoDarkness

Even in an age of interstellar space exploration, people still are adversely affected by notions like revenge, anger, self-interest, massive-scale conspiracy, and the pursuit of personal power. (On the other hand, the original TV series were quite optimistic. Such negative “human” traits were mostly absent, and when they did appear, it was because the crew was observing a less advanced civilization that still had them.)

As a caveat, I’d like to point out that I think most of the movies above are individually great. But if you combine all the anti-technology, anti-future sentiments, you get an extremely negative, if not socially dangerous, depiction of the future.

Poll Results on Technological Optimism

Because of the linearity of scientific progress, much of anti-science sentiment is related to anti-future sentiment. According to one poll, 48% think that America’s best days are in the past (Rasmussen, 2014). Another poll reports that 30% of Americans believe that future technological changes will cause people’s lives to be mostly worse (Pew, 2014). From the site’s own findings:

  • “66% think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring.
  • 65% think it would be a change for the worse if lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health.
  • 63% think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.
  • 53% of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them. Women are especially wary of a future in which these devices are widespread.”

These percentages are affected by many factors. For instance, wealthier people are generally more optimistic about the future of technology: 52% of those with an income of $30,000 or less think technology will be for the better, but 67% of those with an income of $75,000 or more do.

TechFuture_better_or_worse

According to Gallup, there is also a significant partisan gap in optimism, with Democrats significantly more optimistic: 74% of Republicans have positive views of America 5 years in the past, whereas 75% of Democrats have positive views of America 5 years in the future.

This post was inspired by Neal Stephenson’s argument that science fiction is fixated on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios and that sci-fi should dream more optimistically. From the Smithsonian Mag website: “He fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world.” These are legitimate fears. If we as a society abandon science now, what kind of Dark Ages will we slip back into?

College and Smartphones

Photo from Newegg.
Image from Newegg.

Last December I obtained a Samsung Galaxy S3, my first ever smartphone. Yes, I’m only about 6 years late to the smartphone party. Before this, I had been using a Motorola Razr flip phone for years and didn’t really think a smartphone was necessary. But after just three months, it is already difficult to imagine not having one.

Smartphones in College Life

According to various reports I found, somewhere between 50-70% of college students have a smartphone. But statistically, at a school like Cornell, whose students come from families that more affluent than average, it would be reasonable to assume the percentage should be much higher. In fact, almost everyone I know here has a smartphone.

According to one source, the percentage of all college students who had a smartphone in 2009 was about 27%. Another source claims that the score in 2008 was 10%. Yet at Cornell, the figure was already 33% by 2008. I think it would not be unreasonable to estimate that Cornell’s smartphone usage is about a year (and a bit more) ahead of the average trend, and I would bet that currently between 80% and 95% of students at Cornell have a smartphone.

The social implications of having a smartphone here are significant. To have the Internet at your fingertips is to have all the knowledge you need on demand about activities, people, or just random information in a conversation. It is also to check email, respond to messages, or to share videos. Since the social norm is to have one, and the students expect other students to have them, most things are done with a smartphone in mind. At Cornell, to not have a smartphone is to be technologically behind. The Red Queen analogy comes to mind: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

The “Superhuman” Extension

I resisted getting a smartphone for a long time because I thought (1) having a laptop was sufficient, and (2) not having a smartphone brought more peace of mind. However, the utility gained from having one far outweighs the silence of not having one. I can check my email at any time, look up anything I want, and a few weeks ago in NYC for an interview, I used it as a GPS.

There is an interesting article by John D. Sutter from CNN Tech last September, which is titled, “How Smartphones make us Superhuman.” It obviously makes the case supporting them. An excerpt:

In addition to enabling us to video events on a second’s notice, potentially altering the course of global politics, these high-tech human “appendages” increasingly have become tools for fighting corruption, buying stuff, bolstering memory, promoting politics, improving education and giving people around the world more access to health care.

While I don’t use the smartphone for any political reasons as Sutter might admire, I find it invaluable as a college student to be able to access information from anywhere. In classes, I still use my laptop as it is faster to type things, given that it is set up. But on the go, and for other occasions, using a laptop is impossible. It may sound strange, but without the Internet, I would feel disconnected from the world.

In fact, last May, my laptop broke down and would not even get to the boot menu. While it was being repaired (for about a month), I had no immediate Internet connection for the first time in years, and it felt that something was deeply missing. I had to go to the school libraries multiple times a day, and I would be there at odd hours. (Though, I did manage to write a 23-page math paper saved between various emails and flash drives.) Not having a computer was certainly survivable, but at a huge inconvenience.

Similarly, for a smartphone it is obvious that anyone can survive without having one. However, the productivity, convenience, time-efficiency, and omniscience are clearly worth it for any student living in 2013.

Is the Virtual World Really An Escape from Reality?

Or are they on a collision course?

Google Glass

The Role-Creating World

One of the most popular and successful genres of gaming is the role-playing game (RPG). In an RPG, the player is a character in a usually fantasy world, and is able to develop skills and abilities within that world to progress as a character. In the virtual world, one could grow more powerful or more wise, and take on more difficult obstacles.

Traditionally, these role-playing games—and in fact, all commercial video games—were played as an escape from reality. One could escape the loud, busy, modern world and live instead in a quiet, simple, and perhaps peaceful world.

WoW Screenshot 4
Screenshot from the game World of Warcraft.

One of the strongest effects of these games was to cause players to disregard socioeconomic stratification that existed in the real world. In the virtual worlds of RPG’s, everyone starts equal and has the same opportunities.

From an extensive CNN report on gaming:

A professor: “…people do not feel they have the freedom and kind of  their own power to change their own social roes and their own identities. But in cyberspace, people do not remember… your wealth.”

From a gamer interviewee, in the same report about the RPG known as Maple Story:

“It’s a game where you can make people grow and develop within a certain line of work.  …you get a feeling that you are improving.”

The anonymity of online gaming meant that players could ignore social and economic barriers in real life, and feel accomplished by themselves.

The Facebook Conundrum

The face of gaming was forever changed by Facebook. Instead of playing with anonymous players from all around the country, and even all around the world, players of Facebook games play with their real-life friends.

Screenshot from Farmville. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Moreover, many Facebook games have microtransactions, where players can pay real money to gaming companies in exchange for virtual goods or virtual currencies. In “older” style RPG’s, on the other hand, all currencies are in-game only and there is no legal exchange between virtual money and real money.

These are two big factors:

  • The veil of anonymity has lifted; and,
  • Real money is now able to affect your character’s position in the virtual world.

It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is headed: into socioeconomic stratification in the virtual world, which was supposed to be the one place where players could escape from real world problems.

That is, in classic RPG’s, more successful players could attribute their victories to skill, knowledge, and effort. But in microtransaction-based games, the more successful players could be attributed to just being wealthier in the real world.

Diablo 3 and Marxism

Even in these microtransaction-based games on Facebook, the microtransactions can be thought of in terms of a state-controlled economy. Almost always, the company itself determines the prices of all virtual goods or currencies, and the company itself is the seller of goods. Zynga and Nexon are two examples of this.

Activision Blizzard took the idea of microtransactions one step further, and created a capitalist economy, where the players themselves sell goods to each other, while the company obtains a 15% tax on each virtual good sold.

Screenshot of the Real Money Auction House in Diablo 3. The $250 buyout is the max limit.

In the classic microtransaction models where every player who buys a particular item pays the same amount, no player feels ripped off or feels that the system is unfair.

But in the Real Money Auction House model, one player might buy a near identical good for half the price that another player paid, perhaps because the first player had carefully studied the market and compared options more carefully. The second player ends up feeling ripped off.

In this free market virtual economy, the stratification arising from unregulated capitalism has taken effect. Again, one doesn’t need to read Karl Marx to see what is going on in this virtual economy. The rich are getting richer by buying goods cheap and then reselling them for higher values, while the poor find it very difficult to start off. The poor have essentially turned into a working class. The Diablo 3 economy is very much akin to that of Industrial Revolution Britain.

The Future of the Virtual World

The virtual world began as an escape from reality, then transformed into a mirror of current reality, and then mutated again to a history of human reality.

If it continues down this path, then the virtual world of the future is not going to be the virtual world we saw in our dreams.

What we imagined virtual reality to be.

It will not be a place where we can set aside our real world and escape our problems for a few hours. It will not be a place where we have fun or meet people we would never see otherwise and talk about the little things in life without worrying about our financial position.

Instead, it will be an extension of the real world and everything in it. Those who are wealthier in the real world will have more options in the virtual world, and those who are poorer will remain poor. Ultimately, if virtual reality does not return to its roots as an escape from reality, people will end up escaping the virtual world as well.

Curiouser and Curiouser

The wait is almost over. Check out NASA’s official page on the Curiosity rover.

The rover is currently closing in on Mars, with a few hours before landing. The image below links to NASA’s “Where is Curiosity” page with real-time locations.

The landing itself will be very intricate. Many different processes will have to work perfectly for a successful landing. Let’s hope all goes well.

Edit: It successfully landed! Great job NASA! Here is the first picture, in which Curiosity overlooks its own shadow:

The Map of Facebook Connections

[giant map]

This map was created recently by Paul Butler, an intern at Facebook [via]. Roughly, the lines on the map represent Facebook connections between different cities.

I think we would best learn from this map if we compare it to two others. The first is the famous Earth at night picture:

Wow, they look pretty similar, you might say, after focusing first on the bright hubs of North America and Europe. But there are three major exceptions: China, Russia, and the Middle East. (There are other noticeable holes like Bangladesh and Vietnam.) Asia looks pretty dim on the Facebook map. Sure, it has India, South Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia lit up, but you can see a giant hole, devoid of light, a pit where, in many of the places, Facebook is banned.

In my previous post I mentioned it was no surprise that Mark Zuckerberg was named TIME’s Person of the Year 2010. But looking at the map above, we easily see that Facebook has not reached out to as big a userbase as it can. Speaking of users, where do they reside? Here is a map of population density around the world:

Again there is quite a close overall match with the Facebook map. And yet again, there is a disparity in China, Russia, and the Middle East, and in Africa.

We can also derive graphically that the percentage of people who use Facebook in North America. is much higher compared to the rest of the world. Compare, for example, the eastern half of the United States and the entirety of India. Though India has over three times the population of the United States, the Facebook connections in the eastern United States alone outshine India’s vastly.

As seen from the map, Australia’s eastern coast plus New Zealand also have a disproportionately high percent of Facebook users.

Before I finish, I’d like to show just one more image: the Facebook map zoomed into the United States:

Damn, that’s home, for me, and for most likely the vast majority of my readers. YOU are on that diagram. You probably have a Facebook, and you are connected to this virtual map. It is not a physical map. That was in an old, ancient age. With Zuckerberg officially recognized, named above other world leaders, it is an appropriate time to say that this moment, this year of 2010, is the year that we can officially turn back and say that we’ve exited an old phase of society. A new one, THAT one, in the picture above you, has replaced it.