XPRIZE Gives Awards — The Tricorder Is Real!

It has been 50 years since the end of the first season of Star Trek. The fantastic, futuristic world presented to us by Gene Roddenberry was full of technology that would boggle the minds … of people in the 1960s. However, less of a prophet and more of a pioneer, Roddenberry inspired generations of scientists and engineers to make that world a reality much sooner than expected. Some of those technologies, like mobile phones, have become almost ubiquitous. Others, like warp drives, are still theoretical, but on the cusp of reality.

One thing that has eluded us to this point is the medical marvel that is the tricorder. Half a century has passed since being introduced to the portable diagnosis machine, and there still hasn’t been much to show for it.

Until now.

Enter the X Prize Foundation. The organization, founded in 1995, seeks to promote innovation through competition. The first competition held was for private organizations and individuals to fly into space. Since then, there have been many others, including the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. Announced in 2011, the challenge officially began on 10 January 2012. The devices would have to be portable, non-invasive, and diagnose over a dozen predetermined medical conditions.

Now with the competition complete, of the seven final teams from around the world, two winners were crowned on 13 April 2017. They were awarded cash prizes as well as assistance in developing their products.

Final Frontier Medical Devices team

The first place winners, taking home a prize of $2.5 million dollars, was Final Frontier Medical Devices. The Pennsylvania-based team was led by two brothers, emergency medical physician Dr. Basil Harris and network engineer George Harris. Their creation is called DxtER (pronounced “Dexter”), and it can operate autonomously or share information with healthcare providers at the discretion of the user. Truly the epitome of classic, free market, garage level innovation, the group was comprised of family and friends giving of their time and expertise to bring the marvel to life. DxtER uses an A.I. platform utilizing a combination of years of clinical emergency medical experience and data from actual patients with a variety of conditions.

Dynamical Biomarkers Group team

Second place, and a $1 million dollar payout, went to Taiwan-based Dynamical Biomarkers Group, who had sponsorship from mobile phone giant HTC. The team was led by an Associate Professor from Harvard Medical School, Chung-Kang Peng, Ph.D, and included experts from a wide variety of disciplines. Although the device is a bit larger than the winner, it is still extremely portable and is powered by a user-friendly smartphone app.

DxtER being tested.

With the advent of these new technologies, the future of medicine becomes brighter in multiple ways. Emergency rooms and doctors’ offices would no longer be bogged down by people simply needing a diagnosis for themselves or their children, freeing up resources for patients with more immediate and pressing needs. Areas where medical care is at a premium or nonexistent will be able to be better served. Those who are adventuring or traveling where no medical care is available can still receive basic medical care. It even opens the door to better monitoring technology for athletics, allowing coaches and trainers to better watch and assess performance issues in athletes.

On a more personal side, I have been dreaming up as of late a way to provide full clinical examinations where a doctor is not on site. It could be for patients in quarantine, where the doctor is at a remote location from the patient (such as Arctic and Antarctic explorers and researchers), or even for astronauts exploring deep space (such as journeying to Mars) when exams can’t even be done in real time. In those cases, observation and auscultation are fairly simple, but percussion and palpation are prohibitively difficult. Such developments as have come out of the X Prize Challenge bring such a project closer to reality.

Dynamical Biomarkers Group product test.

I would like to offer my congratulations to the winning teams, Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group, for their innovation and achievement. And I offer my utmost and sincerest thanks to the X Prize Foundation for their efforts to bring out the innovation to make this possible, as well as to all of the teams who took part in the challenge and brought Gene Roddenberry’s vision to life. The world will be a better place thanks to all of you.


Overcoming Challenges To Mars


We can’t stay on Terra Firma forever. The stars are calling. And it’s not just about adventure, exploration, and discovery. It’s about survival. Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it best when he said, “Asteroids are nature’s way of saying: ‘How’s that space program coming along?’ ”

But asteroids aren’t the only threat to our survival. Yellowstone National Park is a volcano and an overdue ticking time bomb. Coronal bursts from the sun aren’t exactly predictable. New and more dangerous plagues and super bugs are constantly threatening. And that’s just scratching the tip of the iceberg of the dangers humanity has to face in its constant struggle for survival. Although the human population is large and growing, it might not take much to undo that, and not in very pleasant ways. Nations have globe annihilating weapons pointed at each other and are just waiting to push the button.

Yoko Ono is still capable of releasing a new album.

We’re quite a way from traveling between star systems. Our current hope is within our own solar system. Luckily, Mars isn’t too far away. But it’s far enough away to create a plethora of problems in trying to get there. So do we currently have the solutions? A few weeks ago at Worldcon 74, I had the opportunity to sit in on a panel by NASA astronaut Stan Love about the difficulties in getting to Mars and back. And it got me thinking about possible solutions.


Ship and Propulsion

To start off, let’s talk about the ship. We’re not talking about some Soyuz capsule or Columbia class orbiter. It has to be a vessel made for long trips. I mean loooong trips! And there must be a brief colonization period while Earth and Mars align just right to send a ship out and back again. Using an orbital slingshot effect, which was standard practice when going to the moon, fuel for the chemical rockets can be minimized. But there’s also no margin for error. The slightest miscalculation or misexecution (which apparently wasn’t a word until just now) would result in nothing more than a lost ship and dead astronauts. In case you’re wondering, that’s not a good thing.

Of course, that wouldn’t be a problem using nuclear thermal propulsion. And like many nuclear reactors that were used in major universities and are used on a lot of ships in the U.S. Navy, the base isotopes are not dangerously radioactive, the harmful radiation occurring only once the reactor is switched on. So it’s safe to launch into space, right?

Well, not everyone understands the science. Doing so would invoke a major political backlash. Extremists on the far left have a hard time grasping that the reactor isn’t being used to poison the skies and the isotopes aren’t radioactive enough to cause any environmental problem if there is a disaster on liftoff. Extremists on the right would have the concern that the construct might be, you know, a weapon of some sort. And until the lawyers and business people who comprise the House of Representatives, being the ones who control the federal purse, are outside of such influence, the reactor propulsion system isn’t going to happen. So gravitational slingshots and even greater danger of failure it is!

But wait, what about the newly developed and state of the art Electromagnetic drives, or EM drives, that I keep hearing about in the media, the so-called “impossible drive”? Oh, you mean the one that’s only starting to be studied and nobody knows how it would perform on an actual vessel without lots of further testing? Yeah, great idea. But it needs, you know, lots of further testing. Although it shows a lot of promise, most of the rumors of progress and seemingly impossible feats (like making lasers exceed the light barrier) are just that: rumors.

Since we’re on the subject of hypothetical propulsion, let’s consider another possibility. What if a nuclear reactor was put on a vessel to power an Alcubierre drive? Although still theoretical, the math behind it has yet to be disproven. The Alcubierre drive is intended to be a real-world warp drive.

But to exceed the light barrier (if that is even possible with the drive) would require the use of antimatter. The longest antimatter has been held stable is 16 seconds, which is immensely longer than any previous record. And the amount was almost negligible. But what if a reactor was used? Sure, if it works, it would travel much less than 10% the speed of light. But it could possibly be faster than the chemical rockets used today and even more efficient. So is it practical in any way? The jury may be out on it, but it’s worth thinking about! Even more so if it can shorten a trip to and from Mars.

Warp drive, though less impressive with a nuclear reactor. (NASA)
Warp drive, though less impressive with a nuclear reactor. (NASA)

As fun as it might be to speculate as to how to get to Mars faster, the sad reality is that by current technology, it’s a bloody long trip. Being without gravity for so long can do nasty things to the human body. An artificial gravity system like those typically found in science fiction would be a wonderful thing. But coming up with such a system is difficult when so little is known about gravity.

There are three different theories (Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and M-Theory/Superstring Theory), and all of them are completely different. It’s hard to apply something without even knowing what it is! So there has to be another way. Well, there has to be two different ways, to be exact.

The first is to completely ignore gravity altogether and have astronauts exercise on a daily basis. This is the current method of keeping the body intact on the International Space Station. Perhaps a bit inconvenient. But if it works, then it’s rather hard to complain too much.

The other is to replicate the effects of gravity through centrifugal force. That means the ship’s main body remains upright while the crew’s living area spins. This is the kind of thing one would see in movies like 2010 and, appropriately, The Martian. Just don’t get dizzy from staring out the window.


What’s On The Menu?

Then there’s the issue of feeding the space explorers. Packing sack lunches for a full crew on a long voyage isn’t so easy. There has to be months worth of storage for all of the astronauts. After all, in space, you can order as many pizzas as you want, but they’re not going to deliver.

And it’s not like you can grow food that easily. The light needed would exceed anything that the ship’s systems or solar panels could provide. While a nuclear reactor powering the ship could solve that problem, the likelihood of that kind of power being used is slim. So what could be grown? Is all hope lost?

One would have to use the fact that there’s not enough light to one’s advantage. That means growing food that requires little to no light. As was seen in The Martian, the main character grew potatoes in the crew’s stored dung. While that might be a crap way of doing things, it can be quite effective.

Then there’s the possibility of a high protein source. Mushrooms require no light, just a damp enclosure with nutrients. That means shiitake mushrooms could make it onto the menu. When cooked right, they can have a similar taste and texture to meat, and provide a higher concentration of complete proteins than steak.

What every growing boy needs ... including Mario! (Wiki Commons)
What every growing boy needs … including Mario! (Wiki Commons)

And if there can be salt water bins (even though it might take up too much room and over-complicate setup before launch because of it), perhaps they could grow dulse. Dulse is a red algae seaweed that is said to be healthier than kale. One strain of dulse being grown at Oregon State University is supposed to even taste like bacon when fried up.

Now, with a nuclear reactor, there would be enough energy to “greenhouse” various food plants. But if one can’t be used, all hope is not lost. In fact, it might not exactly be steak and potatoes, but it would sure come close. Now that’s some good eats, at least by space standards.


Health and Fitness

Finally, there’s the general health and wellness of the crew to figure out. Right now, the only way to combat the negative effects of weightlessness is constant exercise. Without it, there would be muscular atrophy and osteoporosis due to the muscles and bones not having the benefit of normal use. And there’s little to no way to maintain full physical monitoring until astronauts are back on Earth. Throw in the mental psychosis, and you have an overall medical nightmare!

But then again, just as so many other solutions found by the space program, overcoming those obstacles can have much greater benefits to all of humanity than just space flights.

First of all, there’s the physical exercise issue. Electrostimulation to prevent atrophy might be good, but it’s far from ideal. Providing an artificial gravity should solve that problem, even if it’s just spinning the crew compartments. But having a gym of some sort is still a good idea, if not imperative. The difficult task is finding ways to exercise as much of the body as possible as thoroughly as possible in as little space (no pun intended) as possible. Luckily there are a lot of multi-gyms marketed for use in the home. I’ll leave it to the NASA eggheads to decide which is best.

A clean and jerk just seems a bit less sporting in zero gravity. (NASA)
A clean and jerk just seems a bit less sporting in zero gravity. (NASA)

But how does one monitor the overall health of an astronaut from such a distance? Imagine being able to conduct a physical examination on an astronaut in deep space while still on Earth. There are automated blood pressure cuffs which can be found in drugstores and even in some doctor’s offices. It can give information on both blood pressure and heart rate. There are devices for checking vision, blood saturation levels, temperature, and much more.

By using piezo microphones, one can listen to heartbeats, breathing, and gastric sounds. Small cameras can be used to look at the ears and nose and so on. So observation and auscultation can be covered. All that are lacking are palpation and percussion. Perhaps something like ultrasound can check inner organs without palpation.

So a doctor wouldn’t have to be in the same room as a patient to conduct a head-to-toe physical assessment. That means an exam could be performed on a patient in quarantine, or even with a doctor in another part of the world. By sending the data as a package, it could even be done on an astronaut with doctors on Earth. It would be a 20 minute delay using current technology. Then after review by a doctor, a further set of test requests can be sent back for needed follow-ups.

Then there’s one more health issue that must be addressed. That is the subject of mental health. Put a handful of people, even trained professionals, for an isolated trip through space, and you have the perfect setup for murder. The issue becomes dealing with potential psychosis from that isolation. Phone calls to friends and family are out of the question with nearly a half hour delay. Using Facebook or YouTube to pass the time are also a bit of an issue. So other than having a library of movies, books, and video games already on board, there isn’t much escape from the isolation. So what can be done to keep those with the “right stuff” from going lethally coo-coo?

One possibility would be to try to send communications faster than light. This is a difficult task given things like the freaking laws of physics. Luckily, quantum mechanics may hold an answer that relativity doesn’t provide. That possibility is quantum entanglement. Although the jury is still out on it, some think that entanglement could transmit information instantaneously. It is to my understanding that the Chinese plan to launch a satellite within the next couple of years to test entanglement communication between China and Tibet. We’ll see how that goes. If communication could be instantaneous, then important matters can be attended to such as mission control monitoring, real time updating of critical systems, and updating Snapchat.

Another more likely option would be better training to deal with psychological stress. Different states of mind translate to different brain frequencies. By training those frequencies with electroencephalography (EEG) much like one can exercise a muscle, one can become more relaxed and focused, and more resistant to the negative effects of isolation psychosis. And when EEG headsets cost as little as $79 (approximately $22,135 in government dollars), it’s a solution that is actually affordable and doesn’t challenge the known laws of nature.

What’s even better is that it has uses well beyond keeping astronauts sane. Mind frequency training can be used by ordinary people to learn and master skills faster. It can be used for therapy and relaxation, especially for those with issues relaxing who need guidance. It can be used by children and adults who are dealing with trauma or abuse to not only gain strength but also make it easier to open up in therapy. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll keep astronauts from going off the deep end.

It's to keep you sane, really. Not to make you look ridiculous. Trust me. (NASA)
It’s to keep you sane, really. Not to make you look ridiculous. Trust me. (NASA)


Getting to Mars is loaded with challenges. Overcoming those challenges won’t be easy … or cheap. But in the long run, it might just be worth it. After all, we can’t stay planted on Earth forever. Granted, there are issues not discussed here … like colonization. But we still need to get there first. One step at a time.



Pokémon GO Signals New Social Media Paradigm


Have you seen the newest craze in social media? Kids and adults, young and old, people of all races, genders, and walks of life are coming together in one of the strangest ways. The latest addition to the Pokémon franchise, Pokémon GO, has been released and is proving to be quite the phenomenon. (Read our article “WTF is Pokémon GO and Why Is it Cluttering Up Social Media?” if you’re still curious as to what it’s all about.) Players are no longer sitting at home on video game consoles dreaming of becoming Pokémon trainers. They’re getting up off the couch, going out into the world, and making it happen!

But the augmented reality app is doing more than just entertaining the masses, both players and those of us playing vicariously through them on social media news feeds. It’s doing more than fueling memes of both love and hatred for the game: it’s giving us a glimpse into the future of social media!

In order to better understand what the new paradigm means to social media, let’s look at the four previous advancements in social media.

The first was the basic message board system. It was what it all started with. The beginning was DARPANet (1969) with the U.S. military. It was designed so that in case of nuclear war, government information would survive even if there were no humans left to use it. It was what the Internet (1983) was originally based on with Usenet/Newsgroups, as well as dial-up bulletin board systems. (Later would come the “Gopher” static pages, then the hyperlinked “World Wide Web”.) The basic forum system is everywhere from standalone discussion boards to 4chan style BBS systems to comment sections (like the one below this article where you are encouraged to give us feedback).

An emulator of the World Wide Web, photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton
An emulator of the World Wide Web. Photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton.

The second was the basic interest-based platform. A person could sign up based on an area of interest and interact with others (typically for a nominal fee) of similar interest. And hopefully, people signed up that one would actually want to communicate with. It’s always a gamble. Such examples include Classmates.com and most current dating sites.

The third was the most “social” of all. It was the “gathering” platform where meetings could be organized via e-mail lists. This was also the point of the original flash mobs back when they were actually flash mobs. Someone wanted to do something silly in public but didn’t want to do it alone or just wanted to be joined by others. So they would send out a notice about the event, time, and place. Then a huge group at a predestined time would start bowing to a big dinosaur statue before dispersing or dance around a park in tutus or whatever. Nowadays, the term “flash mob” is more associated with carefully planned but unannounced performance art. It’s lost all meaning.

The fourth came from the notion that a person doesn’t need to be charged to use a service if they can provide salable data. By gathering information based on shared files, location data, posts, shares, and likes, a company could target advertising and monitor trends in real time. This type of service found its footing with MySpace, then took off with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, YouTube, Tumblr, and so on. (You are following SciFi4Me, right?)

Illustration by Gerardo Obieta, and courtesy Rosaura Ochoa via a Creative Commons Attribution license
Illustration by Gerardo Obieta. Courtesy Rosaura Ochoa under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

There’s just one issue with the current model for social media: it’s purely virtual. The social component has been lost. That means that apart from location data and images and people becoming connected (“friended” or “followed”) or disconnected (“unfriended” or “kicked to the curb”), there’s no way of determining interactions in the real world. The difficulty has always been to integrate physical reality and virtual reality.

Enter augmented reality. Although not a new concept (it’s been used for heads-up displays (HUD) for fighter jets since the 1970s), the smartphone has given it new applications. In Korea a few years back, for example, people could hold a phone camera up and landmarks would be marked on the screen.

Then camePokémon GO.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know by know that Pokémon GO has become … um … big. Really big. No, I mean huge! And it knows no limits. Players of all ages are collecting ’em all. And they’re changing the face of social media by combining the social with the media.

Pokémon GO players congregating in a park in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo courtesy Roger Lew under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
Pokémon GO players congregating in a park in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo courtesy Roger Lew under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

There are two ways that the game has, well, changed the game. The first is the reintroduction of social interaction. Not only do the catching and training of Pokémon cause interaction between players, but the competition and even the very act of searching for the virtual creatures has created peaceful gatherings that have had the feel of makeshift parties. People are meeting new people and making friends, something that was generally absent from the old flash mobs.

While one might think that getting people out into the world and interacting without the virtual component would interfere with gathering data, that’s not exactly true. In fact, the indirect data might be even more telling. Imagine a person either regularly went to a restaurant and stopped or began frequenting said restaurant without having done so before. Then there is an interaction with another user of a social media service either virtually or in marked location. After that interaction, the other person takes on the same behavior. It becomes obvious that the first user influenced the second user with a positive or negative review, and it confirms that there was such an interaction. Such data is not only still available without direct virtual involvement, it can be even more valuable.

The other way it’s changed things is the location targeting component. Players who would never have gone to church before went to church because they were Pokémon gyms. Now Niantic, the company that developed and is the distributor of the game, intends to have businesses pay to be Pokéstops in the Japanese version.

A Fuller's Brewery pub in Portsmouth, England, takes advantage of the widespread popularity of Pokémon Go. Image courtesy Cyclonebiskit under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
A Fuller’s Brewery pub in Portsmouth, England, takes advantage of the widespread popularity of Pokémon Go. Photo courtesy Cyclonebiskit under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.

Use your imagination as to what this means. Imagine brick and mortar stores being able to compete with online purchasing again. Targeted coupons and points systems can get shoppers out to the stores, restaurants, theaters, and so on once more. Just scan the code on your receipt and earn points. It would be great for fundraisers. Then there’s AR games similar to Pokémon GO. Perhaps a zombie hunting game? There could be scavenger hunts, geocaching, educational field trips, and so on. There could even be … um … anything! (I said to use your imagination. Didn’t I say to use your imagination? I’m pretty sure I said to use your imagination.)

By successfully combining the physical and virtual, Pokémon GO has shown us the next step in social media. No longer are users trapped by their devices. No longer are service providers restricted to data when a user is trapped by said devices. No longer are brick and mortar, mom-and-pop stores fated to be crushed under the heel of online purchases. All it takes now is the creativity and resources to develop those social networks, or to convert the existing ones to augmented reality platforms. Then like the services we have today, it’s the users’ job to use ’em all.


Inside BB-8: A look Under the Hood of TFA’s Robot Hero


Last weekend saw thousands of Star Wars fans gather at Celebration Europe 2016, a travelling fan-fair of everything to do with the beloved franchise. There were lots of cosplayers, bot builders, tons of merchandise and fan art. But one of the most exciting moments in the whole weekend for one group of fans came in a panel called “Droids of The Force Awakens“, in which some of the secrets of the BB-8 droid were revealed.

BB-8 has been the subject of considerable speculation since its very first appearance in the teaser trailers. Most folks assumed that it was CG, as how could a robot even move like that, with its head staying on and upright? That assumption got dashed to pieces at the 2015 Celebration when BB-8 itself rolled out onto a live stage in front of a crowd that rose to its feet in astonishment. BB-8 was real.

The BB-8 Builder’s Club went to work immediately afterward.

Image courtesy Pixabay
Image courtesy Pixabay

At first, the prevailing notion was a “hamster ball” — that is, an omni-directional robot driving around inside the body. The release of the Sphero toy version lent weight to this idea, but experimentation by builders soon showed the robot would wobble far too much, whereas the stage model (known as the “red carpet” BB-8 since it was built with live appearances in mind) moved very smoothly indeed.

The “bot builders” — mostly (including yours truly) veteran R2 builders — fell to, analyzing every frame of the footage, both live onstage and in the trailers being leaked out at the time. It quickly became apparent that A) there were multiple BB-8s in use, B) they were all traveling on a fixed axis, but C) had been cleverly constructed to hide that fact as much as possible. Exactly how it worked, however, remained a mystery.

At the panel on Saturday, the engineers behind the robot confirmed what the builder community had increasingly come to suspect: the drive is suspended on a horizontal axis going through the body. A framework on top with a magnet mount on a spindle provides pitch, roll, and yaw controls for the head. A similar pitch/roll/yaw system attaches to the bottom framework, allowing the body to shift its weight and turn, lean from side to side, or roll around. The weight of the bottom framework (which contains the batteries and electronics) provides stability to the overall system.

It has been known for some time that the “red carpet” version does not actually appear in the movie; it was completed after the shooting was done. Therefore, getting BB-8 to come to life onscreen required a variety of different approaches:

  • Puppet versions, with an axis going through and a handle behind to be “driven” by a puppeteer (you may have seen behind-the-scenes footage of a man in green running along, pushing BB-8 in front of him). The handle (and pilot) were painted out digitally later.
  • The “wiggler”, one designed with no outside rigging. It could be viewed all the way around without any digital cleanup, but it couldn’t actually move anywhere. This one was used a lot for making the character express itself with a large amount of articulation of the head.
  • A lightweight “carrier” designed to crash into John Boyega (Poe).
  • Remote-control “trike” versions were used for driverless movement, essentially a tricycle with BB-8’s body as the front wheel. Their heavy-duty rear wheels meant they could trundle over all sorts of uneven and sandy terrain.
  • A one-piece molded “stunt” body, though that was never used.

The team for the “red carpet” BB-8 deserves special mention here because, as noted, they had already done their bit. BB-8’s parts had been shot and were in the can. But they felt that they could make a “real” version and so, working on their own after months of turning the problem over in their heads, they managed to cobble together a prototype. This got them the money they needed to make a final version, and with just a few days to go, BB-8 was finished in time for Celebration 2015.

Image courtesy Kārlis Dambrāns' Flickr under CC-attribution license
Image courtesy Kārlis Dambrāns’ Flickr under CC-attribution license

A few more fun facts:

The “red carpet” BB-8 has been clocked at 7 kph; the trikes at 11 kph.

The “thumbs up” lighter gag was a last-minute idea by J.J. Abrams, and was done in CGI as there was no time to build it for real.

All of the pieces were modular, so they could be swapped out between the different models.

The creation of BB-8 in all its many incarnations is an incredible feat of engineering — several, in fact. Even the most “simple” models were still the result of experienced craftsmen and women doing amazing work. The “red carpet” version is a true crowning glory: a masterpiece in the most literal sense of the word. When the movie came out, the ‘bot builder community mushroomed overnight with people who were inspired to get into this amazing and rewarding hobby.

The panel were mum about Episode 8, but with the ever-evolving technology, we would not be in the least bit surprised to see the little orange fellow trundling along in new adventures. It’s amazing what happens when talented people come together to achieve the previously impossible.


Kelly Luck is hoping to have her BB-8 up and rolling in time for next year’s convention season. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.


Spring 2016 Digital Hollywood Summit in May


Virtual reality, internet television, augmented reality, how to make a deal with creators. These are just some of the topics on the schedule for the spring 2016 Digital Hollywood Summit held in Los Angeles.

The conference, scheduled for May 3 – 6, 2016, started back in 1994, and is considered one of the leading trade conferences for the industry.

Hackday5 Augmented Reality step 2 - (photo courtesy Ian Hughes - Flickr, under a CC attribution license)
Hackday5 Augmented Reality step 2 – (photo courtesy Ian Hughes – Flickr, under a CC attribution license)

This year’s themes include those above, plus the California Education Summit (which includes working with digital media in a university setting), financing, the women’s summit (which is about content created by and for women), advertising, and social TV.

Prices run from $350 per day all the way to $635 for all the events, with discounts for groups and other special categories. Run by Digital Hollywood, the organization also does a Media Summit as well as a Digital Hollywood Live event. For more information about the summit, as well as to register, visit Digital Hollywood’s website.

You can see more of Angie’s work (and her social media connections) over at her website.


What’s so Special About General Relativity? Part II


In the previous article, I covered the Principle of Equivalence and some preliminary concepts that lead up to what is known as the Special Theory of Relativity. Though most people have had some exposure to the consequences of this theory through television, movies, books, or articles, I often find that they really don’t get what it’s all about, or there are misconceptions about what it really means. Being the kind of teacher that digs deep to find ways to simplify complex concepts, I find that it’s hard for many people because it’s usually presented using big numbers or just the letter c. Either approach can go deep enough into levels of abstraction that it just becomes gibberish to many people.

The very first dip into this pool of abstraction in math is going from apples and oranges to numbers, and most handle that fairly well. But introduce fractions, negative numbers, letters, weird symbols, and on and on, and at some point, the student who is just hanging on by their fingertips will fail. It’s not the student’s fault, they just get left behind. Not to say that everyone can master higher Mathematics or Quantum Physics, but I’ve been able to identify which abstract concepts have gone too far for a particular individual, re-presented the concept, and taken said individual past the breakdown to the next level.

Mathematics has its own language; unfortunately, we use the same words as everybody else, and they often mean something completely different. The good teachers are the ones who make the effort to understand why an individual student is lost and find a way to get them through it. I guarantee that that one individual is not alone, and the new route you find will open doors for more than just that one student.

That being said, I’ll take a slightly different approach. Because c is constant, we can chose any value we want and the equations don’t change. Let us suppose that c is 1,000 meters per second (sorry, I’m going to switch to meters; feet and miles just aren’t popular in Science). That’s still pretty fast, about 2,240 miles per hour. Now suppose that my friend Bob is riding on a train, and:

  • the train is going 800 meters per second,
  • the train is 200 meters long,
  • Bob is in the center of the train (100 meters from the front and back),
  • there are lights at the front and back of the train that blink simultaneously.

Yes, I see you in the back with the puzzled look on your face, how can I say that the lights blink at the same time? For those that haven’t caught on yet, note that it takes one tenth of a second for light to travel from the front (or back) to the midpoint of the train. If Bob moves far enough forward he will no longer see the lights blink simultaneously; there will be a distinct difference in the time that the light from either end takes to get to his eyes. This is the second lesson of relativity. We can only say that two events occur simultaneously when the light from the two events gets to our eyes at the same time. The bigger lesson here is that pretty much nobody on the train will agree with Bob that the lights blink simultaneously.

Consider this question: how close to Bob do other people on the train have to be so they all agree, within the bounds of human perception, that the lights at the end of the train blink simultaneously? If we consider how modern movies fool our brains into seeing fluid movement by flashing still pictures in front of our eyes one after another, we can answer that question. The current standard in movies is 24 frames per second. This means that each still picture is displayed for about 40 milliseconds (1/24 = 0.042 and a millisecond is 0.001 seconds).  In our imaginary world of slowed down light, the distance is 40 meters (1000 * 0.04 = 40), so people sitting in seats 40 meters in front of and behind Bob all agree (to some degree) that the lights are flashing simultaneously. In the world of Physics, we refer to this as a Rest Frame. Within this frame, everyone agrees on what is simultaneous.

In most presentations about the rest frame concept, the talk is usually about high precision clocks and rulers. This can get a bit abstract, so hopefully the addition of the limits of human perception makes things a bit clearer (or muddier). If we were to use the real value of the speed of light, that 40 millisecond range is more like 12 million meters (about 7,500 miles); even I have a hard time thinking about a train that long. The point behind all of this is: even though everything on the train is connected and moving at a constant speed, because the speed of light is finite, not everyone on the train sees the same thing. It should be obvious that I am, standing off to the side as the train speeds by, in a completely different rest frame. There can be no frame that contains Bob and myself; we have to consider what we see from in own frames and then match things up via the constant of the speed of light.

The primary thing that we will disagree on is the path that light takes as it travels from point to point. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s slow the train way down, say 20 miles per hour. Now suppose that Bob has a ball that he is tossing straight up and then catching it. Bob sees the ball go straight up and down into his hand, but I see the ball (and Bob) moving with the train. I see the ball go up at an angle and then come back down at an angle into Bob’s hand. Since we can’t agree on the path that light will take, something else must slip.

Bringing back the original picture, suppose there is another blinking light above Bob’s head. The paths that Bob and I see the light take are similar to the ball. As Bob sees it, the distance that chunk of light from the flash travels is A in the following:

This is what I see as the train passes by. The beam of light travels with the train, the train moves a distance B and the light travels along C:

We can splice these two pictures together to get this:

I’m quite certain that you recognize this and remember our old (really, really old) friend Pythagoras:

$latex C^2 = A^2 + B^2.$

Now we have to figure out what A, B, and C are. Remember that Bob and I both have to agree on how fast the light is moving. In the first picture, Bob uses his clock to measure how long it takes for the light to travel from the roof to the floor; I’ll call that time t, so the distance that it travels is ct. I have my own clock and I see the train passing by with a speed of v. I also see the beam of light travel from the ceiling to the floor, but from my point of view, it takes the angled path. By my clock this takes a time T. During this time segment, I see the train move a distance given by vT and the light beam travels cT. So now we have:


$latex (cT)^2 = (ct)^2 + (vT)^2$

$latex c^2 T^2 = c^2 t^2 + v^2 T^2$

Divide by $latex c^2$ and rearrange a bit:

$latex t^2 = T^2 (1 – \frac{v^2}{c^2})$

Take the square root (it’s okay, everything is positive):

$latex t = T \sqrt{1 – \left(\frac{v}{c}\right)^2}$

This is a relationship between the times that Bob and I measure for the light to travel from the ceiling to the floor of the train. Let’s take a look at this term:

$latex \sqrt{1 – \left(\frac{v}{c}\right)^2}$

Since nothing can go faster than the speed of light, v is always less than c, so v/c is always less than one, as is the square. One minus a number between zero, and one is another number between zero and one and taking square root still is, you guessed it, a number between zero and one. No matter what v is, this term is somewhere between zero and one. It is close to one when v is close to zero, and close to zero when v is close to c. If we use our slow value for the speed of light, then:

$latex t = T\sqrt{1 – \left(\frac{800}{1000}\right)^2}$

$latex t = T\sqrt{1 – 0.64}$

$latex t = 0.6T$

From my point of view, Bob’s clock runs sixty percent as fast as my clock, he measures the speed of light the same as I do, but the light that he sees moves across a shorter distance.

Now this one will make your head explode: if there’s a blinking light on a pole above my head, then Bob will see the exact same picture that I did (just in reverse), and he will say that my clock is running slow. From our own points of view, we both are correct as long as we stay in our own rest frames. This situation is symmetric, we both see the other moving by us at 1,000 meters per second, we both see the other’s clock ticking at a slower rate. To settle the argument about whose clock is slower, one of us has to break that symmetry, either by me jumping in my car and accelerating to catch the train or the train decelerating to a stop. The one that breaks the symmetry loses the argument. Well, not so much lose, but it’s their clock that will be behind, because their frame of reference will be accelerated relative to the other. I’ll get back to that in a future article, and let the abstraction sink in for a bit.

What have we learned?

  • People on trains rarely agree on anything.
  • Clocks on trains run slow, that’s why the train is always late.
  • Everybody is right up until the point that you have to talk to somebody else.



Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror News — WEEK IN REVIEW 05 March 2016


Week in Review is loaded with the latest headlines from this week in genre news.




~ Sandman loses JGL
~ Venom is back
~ Men In Black visit Jump Street
~ ABC sets new seasons
~ SPACE-X launches & lands?
~ Universal: new R-rated space comedy
~ Power Rangers cast photo
~ Assassin’s Creed gets a sequel
~ American Horror Story
~ GINA TORRES gets MacBeth’d
~ Syfy: Aftermath series ordered
~ Marvel: HAN SOLO mini
~ Legends of the Hidden Temple TV movie


Tony Dyson, R2-D2’s Original Builder, Dead at 68


(Image credit: tonydyson.com)

In 1977, back in the far-off future of the past, very little had changed. Firm-jawed spacemen in silver jumpsuits flew through the void in surprisingly roomy cockpits. Everything was shiny and antiseptic, worlds looked like quarries or abandoned backlots and engine rooms bore a suspicious resemblance to warehouses. For every Dark Star, there was a Space: 1999.

And then Star Wars happened.

Many reasons may be cited for the rise of this strange little movie to the title of modern myth: the fine performances, the cutting-edge special effects, John Williams’ score. But one major thing — one that was consistently lost on the thousand-or-so Star Wars clones that came flooding out in the years that followed — was the look of the thing: the dirty, grimy, lived-in look of the universe it took place in. Spaceships didn’t gleam: they were rough, ugly things built for function over form. Robots were utilitarian machines. The heroes wore old, worn, practical clothing. This was a universe you could believe in.

This was the secret sauce, the thing that really separated Star Wars from the rest. And it is thanks to people like conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, as well as special effects wizard Tony Dyson, who was found dead in his house Friday, March 4, at 68.

You don’t hear much about the special effects people. There’s always time to lionize directors, producers, and the stars in front of the cameras. But when it comes to the technical people, we drift off. Who can honestly say they are glued to their screens on Oscar night when Best Lighting comes up? And yet without them, our favorite films would be so much less: less convincing, less realistic, less enrapturing.

Tony Dyson took McQuarrie’s designs and turned them into amazingly detailed, visual, and above all believable creations. Probably his most famous work was his critical role in bringing R2-D2 to life. In a way, it was his defining work: utterly convincing in its role as a purely practical machine, and yet instilled with an unforgettable character. He did special effects (and later supervision) for many science fiction movies, and also built robots for such companies as Sony, Philips, and Toshiba.

Last December, when speaking to the Times of Malta, he summed up his life philosophy: “Be playful. Never stop playing. If you look at life the way it really should be — enjoyed — then you become very creative.”

Dyson certainly lived up to this. He was a man who loved to create, to instill a bit of himself into his work. He was an artist, able to inject creative expression into whatever his current project called for. He will not be remembered by many: there will be no star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, no statue or museum. But once in his lifetime, he created a work that may last for centuries, possibly even to the days when Star Wars hyperspace ships and personality-laden robots are seen as quaint relics of primitive imaginations. It is through art, through what we create, that we truly achieve immortality.

And Tony Dyson has earned his.

(Kelly Luck built her first full-scale R2-D2 in 2015. It’s the first one she’s had that she hasn’t yet managed to lose. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.)


Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror News — WEEK IN REVIEW 20 Feb 2016



A little late, but still here with the headlines!



This week:
~ Damon Knight Grand Master named
~ Star Wars comics & fan film contest
~ Stan Lee is done with Canada
~ New SpaceShip Two
~ Blade Runner 2
~ Battlestar Glactica
~ New Titan Comics projects
~ DC “Rebirth”
~ Ava DuVernay gets offers
~ Pinhead’s back!
~ Pennywise is back!
~ Neffy Awards

Star Wars Fan Film Contest video

Star Wars Fan Film Contest details


8Bits February: Games We’ve Played, Games We Want to Play


On this month’s edition of 8Bits, the gang discusses Konami vs. Kojima, Five Nights and Freddie’s, Super Hot, Metal Gear Solid, GOG vs. Steam, the advantages (or not) of early access, and a general round-table about the games they’ve been playing.

What video games are you playing? What’s coming out that you can’t wait to get your hands on?

The panel: Marie Lim, Garrett Ades, Travion Leapheart, Casey Shreve

Archive.org Adds Windows 3.1 to Its Emulation List


In their ongoing quest to make a backup of every single thing that has ever been on the internet or indeed a computer, the Internet Archive has announced that they have added Windows 3.1 to their list of emulated platforms.

The site, probably best known for their web-scraping “Wayback Machine“, has also accumulated a considerable amount of audio and video files, texts, and — more recently — software. They have previously released a wide collection of MS-DOS games running a browser-based version of the popular DOSBox emulator. Now, they’ve updated their archive to run hundreds of Windows 3.1 game using the same emulator.

The selection is mostly shareware, games rather outnumbering utilities. The selection is a bit pot luck, but those who spent hours clicking away in the sixteen color world will almost certainly find an old friend here. As with most offerings on hand at the Archive, titles may be downloaded for those who do not wish to run them through the browser.

Founded in 1996, the Internet Archive has been methodically archiving and digitizing our collective culture for nearly twenty years. Their collections run the gamut from live concert recordings to vintage films to scanned microfilm of old newspapers.


(Kelly Luck thinks the Prelinger Archives are a bigger time sink than TVTropes. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.)




The Stars are Waving at You


The buzz around the science world this week is the announcement from The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) that they have successfully detected gravitational waves. Actually, they hinted a few weeks ago that they had a big announcement coming up and, well that’s what they’ve been trying to do for years, so what else could it be?

So what does this mean and why do we care?

Albert Einstein theorized around one hundred years ago that black holes, which do not emit light, must lose energy as they orbit each other. He concluded that they would throw out energy by creating ripples in the very fabric of space-time.  When these objects are moving around rapidly then they kick up ripples that propagate away like the waves you would see from a motorboat going around in a circle.

The next question is: how do we detect them? Since these are waves in space-time they will squeeze or stretch things as they pass by. I don’t know about you but I don’t feel like I’m being stretched or squeezed to any extent so these waves must not be all that big. I may have mentioned it before but, of all the fundamental physical forces, gravity is actually the weakest. The electromagnetic force (that includes lights and magnets) is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times stronger than gravity. The effects of these waves are so infinitesimally small that they are very difficult to detect. When Dr. Einstein ran the math way back then he knew how minuscule these waves were and was very, very skeptical that they would ever be detected.

Because of this it has always been theorized that the first event that would have even a ghost of a chance of being detected would be two black holes in a decaying orbit around each other finally colliding and joining into one. It is of no surprise, then, that this is exactly the event that LIGO observed on September 14th, 2015. Well, at least that’s what they say it was because it’s the only theoretical event that would release gravitational waves with enough energy to be detected. It’s not like we can go look because black holes are, well… black and the nearest approximation of when this event occurred is around 1.3 billion years ago. They were able to get a rough idea of the direction to look since there are two LIGO sites, one near Hanford Washington and one near Livingston Louisiana and the Louisiana site detected the signal 7 milliseconds before the Washington site.

Well that’s the stuff you’ll read on the other blogs out there. I want to talk a bit a how this was done. I’m sure that you’ve heard the term Interferometer before but maybe that’s as far as it goes, just another big word that nerds use to look smart. The concept behind these devices is that pretty much everything in the subatomic world is a wave. When you split a wave into two pieces that travel two different paths and then bring them back together they will interfere with each other. If they both traveled the same distance then they will add back together and look the same as the initial wave. If one of them goes slightly further (or shorter) then the waves will not exactly line up when they come back together. The high points add and the low points subtract – an interference pattern is generated. When you use lasers you simplify the equations since the light from a laser is all the same wavelength so the interference pattern becomes very distinct light and dark bands (I covered these concepts in a previous article here).

What is LIGO then? LIGO is based on a device that I’ve talked about several times in my articles, the Michelson, Morley interferometer:

Actually Michelson and Morley didn’t have lasers available when they did their experiments; lasers merely refined the precision of the tests. In the original device the the two legs were 11 meters long, the legs in the LIGO devices are 4 Kilometers long and the mirrors and beam-splitters are aligned so that the beams bounce back and forth some 400 times before they recombine. This makes the LIGO devices something like 144,000 times bigger than the original device.

LIGO Hanford

The precision of LIGO is to be able to detect the change in length of one of the legs thousands of times smaller that the size of a proton (protons are already not very big). This should give you some idea of how weak the interaction of gravitational waves is with physical objects.

The two black holes that collided were calculated to each be around 30 times more massive as the Sun and collided at nearly half the speed of light. At the point of impact, the gravitational energy released was about 50 times greater than all of the stars in the visible universe but still completely dark. Even at that level of energy released (it’s way beyond human comprehension, I won’t bother to throw out any numbers) the amount of squeezing from the gravity wave was still on the order of thousandths of the diameter of a proton. It’s a mere blip; the LIGO team converted it into sound and you can listen to it hereSo there you have it, one of the most powerful events in the universe translates to a little more that the squeak of a mouse.

Not to downgrade the triumph of this event. This is just great example of how huge the universe is and how events that release energy on astronomical scales are just blips in the matrix. Maybe we do need some numbers to make it real. The energy released as gravity waves when the two collided was estimated to be equivalent to converting the mass of three of our Suns directly into energy. Remember this

$latex E = mc^{2}$?

The mass of the sun is approximately

$latex 2 \times 10 ^ {30} \,kg.$

Three times that is

$latex 6 \times 10 ^ {30}\, kg.$


$latex E = \left(6 \times 10 ^ {30}\right)\left (3 \times 10^{8}\right)^2$

$latex E = \left(6 \times 10 ^{30}\right) \left(9 \times 10 ^{16}\right)$

$latex E = 54 \times 10 ^{46} \, Joules.$

The number above is scarily huge but there are still words in our language that account for it. The world doesn’t always agree on these names but for the general audience here this number is five hundred forty Quattuordecillion Joules (a Joule is roughly the energy of an average sized apple dropped one meter). Just trying to pronounce that makes your head hurt.

You get the idea, it’s incredibly huge, way beyond billions and billions. When it finally gets to us it takes devices with phenomenal sensitivity to have the even the remotest hope of detecting it. This blast of energy was released over a few milliseconds and, at its peak, was around 50 times the intensity of light from the visible universe. If it were light we would have seen it with our eyes. Because it was gravity it was just a blip in one of the most sensitive detectors devised by man.

Okay, enough with the big numbers. I’ve bounced around a bit but hopefully the basic points have made it through. I may seem a bit nonchalant about this announcement but there’s a reason for that. Around twenty years ago I attended a lecture by the esteemed Dr. Kip Thorne, who was working on the initial LIGO project. He described what he suspected was going to happen and it was almost exactly what did happen. That’s also what makes this so interesting to scientists. It’s one of those special events where observation and theory match to a high level of precision. Not to mention that is yet another validation of Dr. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (hey, you can read more about that in the series of articles that I just started here).

The detection of these waves also proves that we can build devices able to detect the whimper of black holes smashing together and opens the door for even higher sensitivity. Perhaps we’ll be listening to the song of the Solar system as the planets wend their way around the sun in the future. Of course, that will take an increase in precision in the Quattuordecillion range.

This also opens a new era of astronomy. We’ve always had the visual range that has been enhanced to finer and finer degrees with telescopes. Next came Radio astronomy that allows us to listen to the universe and then there’s the gamma ray observatories, x-ray telescopes, infra-red detectors and on and on. Though each of these reveal different aspects of stellar phenomena they are just different ranges of the Electromagnetic spectrum. Gravity wave astronomy brings in a new way to look at how really, really massive things interact.

So what have we learned?

  • Gravity is really weak, man…
  • Quattuordecillion is a real word.
  • The stars wave but nobody can see it.


What’s so Special About General Relativity? Part I


Roughly one hundred years ago, on a day classified as November 25th, Albert Einstein presented his papers on General Relativity. As much of a shock as it was back then, these concepts still baffle and amaze people. But what is relativity? I’m sure that you have either tried to wade through various articles or documentaries that tried to explain it or just flat out ignored it. I too have read those articles and watched the videos, and I’m usually sitting there thinking, “What about this…” or “Why didn’t you describe it this way?” So now, I’ve taken it upon myself to cover these things the way that I want to talk about them. Maybe, just maybe, it will help it sink in a bit better.

Note that there are two, I suppose the easiest way to break it down is levels, of this theory. The first is what is known as Special Relativity. It is classified as special because it applies to the case of uniform motion; objects moving at a constant velocity. General Relativity expands that notion to include objects under acceleration; their velocity is not constant. In either one, the primary word is Relativity, but before I get into what that means, we first need to understand the Principle of Equivalence. 

The Principle of Equivalence may sound daunting, and maybe it is. My first attempt to describe it generated some blank stares, so let me slow it down a bit. What we are talking about here is the physics of objects under uniform motion or uniform acceleration. By uniform, we mean that the object is traveling at a constant speed in a straight line or that the object is under constant acceleration in a straight line. If you are in a box with no windows, the Principle of Equivalence states that there is no way that you can determine if the box you are in is stopped or if it is moving uniformly.  There is no experiment that you can perform within that box that will tell you one way or the other – the two situations are physically equivalent.

So what about uniform acceleration? Again, you are in the windowless box. The motion is no longer uniform, but the acceleration is constant, in a straight line. The new question – is the box moving, being pushed by something like a rocket engine or is it sitting still being pulled on by gravity? The principle of equivalence, once again, says that you cannot know. These are also physically equivalent situations. The force due to gravity feels, looks, tastes the same as a force due to some other agent. The good news, I suppose, is that we can tell the difference between uniform motion and uniform acceleration. The bad news is that, either way, we have no idea if we’re actually going anywhere.

With the equivalence principle understood, I’ll put you in the box again, but this time I’ll be nice and give you a window. Well, maybe not that nice as there is nothing to see, just the black emptiness of space. I ask you again, are you moving or stopped? If you are moving, how fast are you going? How can you tell? Without something else to see, you don’t know; without something else to measure against, you can only assume that you are not moving. This is part one of Relativity, you can only measure your movement relative to some other object; without a point of reference, the question has no answer.

Think about that next you are watching Star Trek (any generation), and the helmsman says something like “Instruments read all stop, Captain.” Stopped relative to what? If you’re a few hundred light years from anything, you’re pretty much stopped relative to nothing no matter how fast you thought you were going.

Okay, you say, there must be some feature of the fabric of space that I can always measure my movement against, some constant structure that stays in place that everything moves around. Good try, that idea died many years ago. I briefly mentioned this experiment in a previous article (here), but I’ll cover it again.

Back in 1887, Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley devised an experiment that they hoped would prove the existence of this static fabric of the Universe, classically known as the Aether. The basic idea behind this experiment was that if the aether existed, the Earth would be moving in orbit relative to it as would the light transmitted by the device. The speed of light along the same path as the Earth should be faster because it includes the speed that the Earth is moving. The difference in the speed of light propagating across the aether would be different along perpendicular paths of the same length.

Michelson-Morley experiment, light traveling along the two paths of length L always take the same amount of time no matter how the apparatus is oriented in relation the Earth’s movement in orbit.

What it showed is that there is no aether. This experiment has been repeated to finer and finer degrees since then (I even did it myself as an undergraduate), and it always has the same result: there is no fixed fabric of the universe.

Mister Einstein’s leap of brilliance upon hearing about this result was that it implied light always travels at the same speed no matter who (or what) measures it. Wow, so fifty of us in fifty different rocket ships going fifty different directions looking at the same chunk of light will all measure that it is moving at the same speed. Thus, there is a constant in the Universe related to motion, but it is not zero. It’s the speed of light, and we call it c. c is around 186,262 miles per second or 299,792,458 meters per second; either one is fast.

The special part of Mr. Einstein’s Relativity is all of the consequences of this revelation. I’ll cover those consequences in the my next article on Relativity, but for now, I’ll let the initial pieces soak in.

So, what have we learned today?

  • Physicists like to put people in boxes.
  • If you can’t see where you’re going, you can’t know where you’ve been.
  • No matter which uniform you are wearing, you still can’t tell if you’re moving.


Usborne Releases Classic Programming Books as Free PDFs


Once upon a time software came in books.

Not just books, but magazines as well. You would get the latest issue, and jump straight to the you-type-it section, games and novelty programs, even a few really useful ones, all carefully printed out in BASIC for your Apple, Commodore, or TRS-80. You’d spend an hour carefully typing in the listing, making the requisite changes for your particular computer system, save the file, cross your fingers, and type RUN. There was nothing like that first moment when it fired up and actually worked the first time.


Now Usborne, a British press that has been printing computer books for decades, has released a set of fifteen of their original type-it-yourself books from that era as free PDFs. Each one covers a different theme: Space, Fantasy, Spies, even an introduction to machine language. Generally, the books came in one of three categories: A general book covering a particular aspect of programming (beginning basic, tips and tricks), A collection of small, themed programs designed to be easily portable between the common micros of the day, and one complete game that was built up from beginning to end through the length of the book, teaching programming principles as it went.

These books, and others like them, were very popular at the time — think of them as the grandparents of the “Teach Yourself Game Programming in 21 Days” genre. Many a modern day senior programmer will get misty-eyed paging through the old books. Those who were lucky enough to be part of that first generation to grow up around computers and discover the rush of programming still recall the feeling of sitting in front of this amazing new machine and actually getting it to do what you told it to. For some, that rush never fully subsided, and turned into a lifetime behind the keyboard.

Of course, times have changed enormously: the days when computers coming with BASIC baked into the ROM are long past. But the same basic principles laid down in these early books still hold good stead. And fun is still fun. And even as you read this, somebody, somewhere, is busy porting them all over to Python.


(Kelly Luck wrote her first program on a TRS-80. She considers “Hey Hey 16k” to be a soppy ballad about the good old days. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.)



NERDS Comes to Broadway with Story of Steve Jobs & Bill Gates


If a time traveler, say, one thousand years hence were to dig through the detritus of our civilization in an attempt to piece together the history of the twentieth century, they may be forgiven for thinking there was only one Steve behind the creation of Apple. Steve Jobs has been the main subject of at least seven biographies, three comic books, nine films, one play, and now he’s even getting a musical. This latest, Nerds, is set to open on Broadway with previews at the end of March and an official opening on April 21st. And Steve Wozniak? Well, he’s in there, too. Somewhere.

The musical (which actually premiered in Philadelphia in 2007) is actually about Jobs and Bill Gates, following each as they start off as awkward, nerdy kids all the way to their ascension as two of the most powerful and important voices in the technological world. The book is by Robot Chicken alumni Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner, so it’s safe to say this will not be a particularly reverent treatment. Actually, early reviews have name-checked The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, and even Spamalot. During its inaugural 2007 run, it won local awards for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Original Music. So there’s plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic about it.

image courtesy NERDS Facebook page

Still, as they sing in Gypsy, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” and the production at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre is pulling out all the stops. Word is the new production will feature holograms, projections, and even interactivity for the audience. Yes, there is indeed an app for that. Not much word on what it will do: so far we have only been told it will allow audiences to interact with the set (we’re thinking onstage chat room) and even affect the ending (spoiler alert: they both get immensely rich). How all that shakes out in practice we’ll have to find out in April.

Now, yours truly is, in another life, something of a theater person, and as such I’m always glad to see new and innovative shows (actually, these days just something that isn’t based on a book, movie, or TV show is enough to be grateful for), but you do have to wonder how the two stories can be told at once like that? I keep getting a mental picture of a kind of twisted, alternate-universe version of Love Letters. Okay, probably that’s not too close to the real thing, but it does make for a weirdly compelling mental image.

Also, it may just be me, but I am a bit tired of the all-Jobs-all-the-time approach the popular media seem to have taken since he passed away. Lest we forget: if it weren’t for Wozniak’s elegant and innovative hardware designs, Jobs would have been busy selling a series of stylish and fashionable — but empty — boxes. Likewise with Paul Allen, who was with Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft and actually pulled off the DOS deal that put the company on the map and who, like Wozniak, has spent most of his latter years in philanthropy. Don’t see many films about him.

But let’s be honest, shall we? This is the Sherlock Assholmes era, where genius comes with mandatory attitude. Two brilliant guys with nice personalities beavering away quietly at making the world better does not compelling cinema make. Or, it seems, theater.

In any case, it will be very interesting to see what comes of it. What the heck: it’s got to be better than Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, right?

Nerds starts previews on March 31st. Tickets and additional information are available here.