Category: Technology

Speculating about the Future of Google+

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 28, 2013 12:43 pm

Despite a strong initial start, in the universe of social media it’s widely believed that Google+ will never replace Facebook.

Nothing to see here folks, move along...

That said, I’d like to get all Thomas Friedman-y and speculate wildly from a very limited personal anecdote.  Namely, my 6th grader just begged to be allowed to join Google+.  Begged!  Stomping and huffing was involved when the request was denied.  And why?  “All my friends are on Google+!!!!”

I know for a fact that my kid’s friends have parents who would certainly refuse to let them open an account on Facebook.  My theory is that Google+ is such a “failure” as a social media hub that it’s possible for parents to not even know that it’s a social media hub.  Or, if they do, the existence of “circles” as a way of limiting exposure gives parents a better sense of control, making Google+ seem like a more appropriate first step.  And from the kids’ point of view, Facebook is for grown-ups.  Would you want to be on the same social media channel as your mom???  Ew.  Plus, because it’s unpopular with, you know, old people, you don’t have to worry about parents checking your status ten times a day.

In short, I’m starting to wonder.

Edit: And, look what just showed up in the news: “Google+ outranks Twitter as Number 2 Social Network after Facebook


Fires on the Mountain: Facing the Inevitable

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 14, 2013 1:58 pm

This weekend, Australian astronomy faced a horrible setback, as a large wildfire swept through the area housing the Siding Spring Observatory.

Luckily, no lives were lost, and while some support buildings were destroyed (including the fire shed, ironically enough), the damage to the telescopes initially appears to be far less than it could have been, thanks to the efforts of the fire crews.   (FYI, Amanda Bauer was doing superb work live-blogging news and images as they became available.  Click here and here, for  the day of the fire, and the day after as the state of the observatory became clear.).

However, as bad as this was, it wasn’t the first time, nor was it the worst.  Almost exactly 10 years earlier, Australia’s Mt. Stromlo Observatory (shown below) was devastated by wildfires, as discussed in this excellent article, where Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt discusses how at least one of the telescopes threatened at Siding Springs was built as a replacement for one that was lost at Mt. Stromlo.

If you think about it, it’s clear that the peril to astronomical observatories will continue indefinitely.  We typically put optical observatories on mountain peaks, in isolated spots.  While there are a few that are sited high enough to be above the tree line (such as Mauna Kea), the majority of smaller facilities are on lower mountains, and are typically surrounded by vegetation.  The combination of droughts and fire is inevitable, and sooner or later, another observatory is going to burn.


More Gradual Erosion in the Dignity of Humankind

By Sean Carroll | June 27, 2012 10:01 am

The next obvious step in the robots’ scheme to take over the world: develop an unbeatable strategy for Rock-Paper-Scissors. (The robots are patient, their plan has a lot of steps.)

It didn’t bother me when computers became better than us at chess, but this is outrageous.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Technology

Paying for Creativity

By Sean Carroll | June 18, 2012 8:40 pm

Over on Facebook, a single blog post was linked to by four different friends of mine: a physicist, a science writer/spouse, a saxophone player, and a screenwriter. Clearly something has struck a nerve!

The common thread binding together these creative people who make a living off of their creative work is the impact of technology on how we distribute intellectual property. In other words: do you ever pay for music any more?

Emily White doesn’t. She’s an intern at NPR’s All Things Considered, where she wrote a blog post saying that she “owns” over 11,000 songs, but has only paid for about 15 CD’s in her entire life. The rest were copied from various sources or shared over the internet. She understands that the people who made the music she loves deserve to be paid for their work, and she’s willing to do so — but only if it’s convenient, and apparently the click it takes to purchase from iTunes doesn’t qualify.

The brilliant (and excessively level-headed) response that my friends all linked to was penned by David Lowery. He makes the case much better than I would have, so read him. Making the case is necessary; there is a long tail of compensation in creative fields, and we’re all familiar with the multi-millionaires, so it’s easy to forget the much larger numbers of people sweating to earn a decent living. Not everyone has the ability to create work that other people are willing to pay for, of course; the universe does not owe you the right to earn money from your writing or thinking or playing. But when other people appreciate and benefit from your stuff, you do have a right to be compensated, I think.

Coincidentally, today I stumbled across a book that I didn’t know existed — one about me! Or at least, one whose title is my name. Since nobody other than my Mom thinks I deserve to have a book written about me, my curiosity was piqued.

Turns out that the book (apparently) isn’t so much about me, as a collection of things I have written, supplemented by Wikipedia pages. None of which I knew about at all. In other words, for $60 you can purchase a 160-page book of things you can find on the internet for free. There is a company, VDM Publishing, that specializes in churning such things out via print-on-demand. Turning Wikipedia pages into a book is bizarre and disreputable, but possibly legal. Taking blog posts and articles I have written and including them in the book is straight-up illegal, I’m afraid.

Fortunately, I’m not losing much value here, as only a crazy person would pay $60 for an unauthorized collection of Wikipedia articles and blog posts, and I like to think that my target audience is mostly non-crazy people. But it’s a bad sign, I would think. Stuff like this is only going to become more popular.

Don’t let that dissuade you from purchasing highly authorized collections of very good blog posts! For example The Best Science Writing Online 2012, appearing this September. No posts from Cosmic Variance this year, but I have it on good authority that the editor worked really hard to make this a standout collection.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Business, Technology

Dismal Global Equilibria

By Sean Carroll | June 14, 2012 12:00 pm

The Civilization series of games takes players through the course of history, allowing them to guide a society/nation from way back in prehistory up through the near future (say, 2100). You develop technologies, choose political systems, and raise armies. There are various ways to “win” the game: military conquest, achieving a just and happy society, or building a spaceship that will travel to Alpha Centauri. It’s a great pastime for any of us who harbor the suspicion that the world would be a better place if we were installed as a benevolent dictator.

Although the game is supposed to take you to the near future, apparently (I’ve never played) you can keep going if you choose to. Which is exactly what one commenter at Reddit did: he has been nursing a single game of Civilization II for ten years now, bringing his virtual global society up to the year 3991 AD. (Via It’s Okay to Be Smart, a wonderful blog.) At which point we may ask: what have we learned?

The news is not good. If you’ve ever read 1984, the outcome will be eerily familiar. I can do no better than quote:

  • The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.
  • There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.
  • The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.

It gets better from there.

What we actually learn about is the structure of the game. We have one player against the computer (who manages multiple civilizations), each with certain goals — a paradigmatic game theory problem. Such games can have “equilibrium strategies,” where no player can make a unilateral change that would improve their situation. Assuming that this player isn’t simply missing something, it’s likely that the game has reached one such equilibrium. That could be the only equilibrium, or there could be a happier one that might have been reached by making different decisions along the way.

What we would like to learn, but can’t, is whether this has any relevance to the real globe. It might! But maybe not. The Earth isn’t a closed system, so the “escape to another planet” option is on the table. But the Solar System is quite finite, and largely forbidding, and other stars are really far away. So limiting our attention to the Earth alone isn’t necessarily a bad approximation.

Right now the human population of the Earth is very far from equilibrium, either politically, or technologically, or socially, or simply in terms of sheer numbers. A real equilibrium wouldn’t be burning through finite resources like fossil fuels at such a prodigious rate, continually inventing new technologies, and constantly re-arranging its political map. But it’s possible (probably unlikely) that we could reach a quasi-equilibrium state in another couple of centuries. With a system as complicated as human civilization on Earth, naive extrapolation of past trends toward the future isn’t likely to tell us much. But “sustainable” isn’t a synonym for “desirable.” If there could be such a near-term equilibrium, would it be a happy one, or the game-prognosticated future of endless war and suffering?

Not clear. I have some measure of optimism, based on the idea that real people wouldn’t simply persist in the same cycles of conflict and misery for indefinite periods of time. It only seems that way sometimes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Technology, World

NASA Gets a Present

By Julianne Dalcanton | June 4, 2012 10:34 am

The exciting news of the day is that the “National Reconnaissance Office” is donating two unused spy satellites to NASA.  From the limited information available, there are two satellites with 2.4 meter  mirrors just sitting around gathering dust (metaphorically speaking, because they’re actually parked in a climactically controlled clean room). There are no instruments on board, and they lack solar panels or pointing controls, so it will take a fair bit of engineering to turn these into upward-looking space telescopes. In the real world, “engineering” is the same thing as “money”, so the exact fate of these satellites is not clear.  However, it is likely that one will be repurposed into “WFIRST”, which was the Frankenstein-style mission proposed by the latest astronomical decadal survey to provide further observational constraints on Dark Energy.  Many had wondered why no significant funding lines were opening up for WFIRST, but it seems likely that this has been the deep-background plan for a while.  However, WFIRST is only one mission, and there are two satellites, which opens up some exciting possibilities.  I’m sure the UV community in particular is starting to salivate — they’ve been making huge advances in coating and detector technology, so even a modest 2.4m mirror could offer as big a gain as the jump to the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) offers in the infrared.

As someone who spends a lot of time working with the Hubble Space Telescope, this is nothing but good news. The official lifespan of the Hubble is nominally over a few years from now, and the thought of losing generic optical-UV capabilities in space for a decade or more is horrifying.  I’m now much more optimistic that we’ll at least have something up there while we do the hard work of figuring out how to move past the 2.4m aperture size.

The other interesting bit in this for many is the fact that this gift is coming from what is known as the “dark side” — the area of technological development that scientists are not allowed to know about.  The same companies that build major space science facilities (Northrup-Grummond, Ball Aerospace, etc) also build facilities for the military and “reconnaissance” organizations.  The science and military efforts are kept heavily firewalled from each other, of course, but there is frequently a very abstract, high-level of cross talk between the two.  When you’re putting together a project, it becomes clear from the contractor which kinds of capabilities are “easy” (where “easy” means they know how to do it, because of requests from some other government entity).  It is therefore no coincidence that both the Hubble Space Telescope and these unused satellites share a 2.4m mirror, and you can pretty much be assured that some of the expertise used in building JWST either came from or is destined to pass through to the dark side.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Space, Technology
MORE ABOUT: space telescope

Technological Applications of the Higgs Boson

By Sean Carroll | March 20, 2012 10:52 am

Can you think of any?

Here’s what I mean. When we set about justifying basic research in fundamental science, we tend to offer multiple rationales. One (the easy and most obviously legitimate one) is that we’re simply curious about how the world works, and discovery is its own reward. But often we trot out another one: the claim that applied research and real technological advances very often spring from basic research with no specific technological goal. Faraday wasn’t thinking of electronic gizmos when he helped pioneer modern electromagnetism, and the inventors of quantum mechanics weren’t thinking of semiconductors and lasers. They just wanted to figure out how nature works, and the applications came later.

So what about contemporary particle physics, and the Higgs boson in particular? We’re spending a lot of money to look for it, and I’m perfectly comfortable justifying that expense by the purely intellectual reward associated with understanding the missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics. But inevitably we also mention that, even if we don’t know what it will be right now, it’s likely (or some go so far as to say “inevitable”) that someday we’ll invent some marvelous bit of technology that makes crucial use of what we learned from studying the Higgs.

So — anyone have any guesses as to what that might be? You are permitted to think broadly here. We’re obviously not expecting something within a few years after we find the little bugger. So imagine that we have discovered it, and if you like you can imagine we have the technology to create Higgses with a lot less overhead than a kilometers-across particle accelerator. We have a heavy and short-lived elementary particle that couples preferentially to other heavy particles, and represents ripples in the background field that breaks electroweak symmetry and therefore provides mass. What could we possibly do with it?

Specificity and plausibility will be rewarded. (Although there are no actual rewards offered.) So “cure cancer” gets low marks, while “improve the rate of this specific important chemical reaction” would be a lot better.

Let your science-fiction-trained imaginations rome, and chime in.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Higgs, Science, Technology, Top Posts

Journey to the Exoplanets

By Sean Carroll | March 5, 2012 7:31 am

My first contribution to Download the Universe, our collaborative site that reviews ebooks on science, is now up. It’s a review of Journey to the Exoplanets, a snazzy and fun iPad app from Scientific American. Teaser:

When I was your age, we didn’t have any of these fancy hand-held portable ebook readers. We didn’t have any such thing as extrasolar planets, either. Planets orbited the Sun, and books were printed on paper. And we liked it that way.

I’m assuming here I was about your age in 1992 or maybe earlier, because that’s when the world changed forever. Sony introduced a “portable” device called the Data Discman, arguably the first hand-held ebook reader. That same year, Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail made the first discovery of extrasolar planets, orbiting a pulsar with the romantic name of PSR 1257+12.

It’s been a busy twenty years. Everyone and their dog is reading ebooks, and astronomers are discovering planets around other stars (exoplanets for short) by the bushelful — 760 as of this writing, if we go by the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia. Which is why it seems perfectly appropriate that one of the first and snazziest ebooks devoted to science is Journey to the Exoplanets, written by Edward Bell and illustrated by Ron Miller.

Check it out.

Robot Helicopter Electrik Band

By Sean Carroll | February 29, 2012 12:23 pm

Sometimes a label conveys it all: “Robot Quadrotors Perform James Bond Theme.” This video was shown today at the TED conference by Vijay Kumar of Penn. (H/t Al Seckel.)

Note that the little helicopters are pre-programmed; they’re not being remotely controlled by any human beings.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Music, Technology

Books Made From Electrons!

By Sean Carroll | February 21, 2012 8:47 am

[Updated to provide a better link for DtU overlord Carl Zimmer.]

The conventional presentation of a book — words and images printed on sheets, bound together in a folio — is a perfected technology. It hasn’t changed much in centuries, and likely will be with us for centuries to come.

But that doesn’t mean that other technologies won’t be nudging their way into the same conceptual space. Everyone knows that the practice of publishing is being dramatically altered by the appearance of ebooks — a very broad designation for book-length content that is meant to be read on an electronic device. At the simplest level, an ebook can simply be a text file displayed by a reading program. But the possibilities are much more flexible, allowing for different kinds of images, video, interactivity with the user, and two-way connections with the outside world. The production and distribution process is also much easier, which opens the door to books that are faster, shorter, longer, and quirkier than the usual set of hardbacks and paperbacks. If I put my mind to it, I could meander through this blog’s archives, pick out a few posts, and have an ebook published by this evening. It would suck — editing and presenting a good collection requires effort — but it would be published.

In the current state of the market, one question is: how do you find good ebooks to read, ones that don’t suck? Into this breach leaps Download The Universe, a new website devoted to reviewing ebooks about science. Not just “science books with electronic editions,” but books that only exist in the e- format. (Apparently we have already passed through the awkward hypenation phase, and gone from “e-book” right to “ebook.”) Because it would be embarrassing not to, we also have a Twitter account at @downloadtheuni.

This brand-new project has been led by our inestimable blog neighbor Carl Zimmer, who has assembled a crack editorial team consisting of some of the world’s leading new-media science journalists and also me. We’ll be contributing regular (one hopes) reviews of ebooks old and new, all with a science focus. Suggestions welcome, of course.

The world is going to change, whether we like it or not. It always feels good to help channel that change in constructive ways.


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