Something That Lasts

Something That Lasts (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 8-27-15)

Do you know how hard it is to build something that lasts 100 years?

Think about it.  Of all the items that you touch or see on a daily basis, how many of them were created over 100 years ago?  Certainly, your iPhone or anything electronic you might own is less than five years old.  Most likely, your furniture and possibly even your house is less than 20 years old.  As you drive around downtown Augusta, you might notice many wonderful historic buildings.  (We’re fortunate in that way.)  However, once you drive a few blocks past the Ezekiel Harris House, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything built prior to the last century (the notable exception located at the end of Magnolia Lane notwithstanding).

Any item that survives for 100-years must be created out of a passion.  Without a passion, no creator will take the time to ensure that an item possesses the qualities needed to endure – envisioned with a great design, built with the best materials and assembled with expert workmanship.  All of these qualities we see in the great architecture and works of art that have survived over the centuries.  While many common items have been lost to time, those which survive are those upon which a creator has poured their passion – pottery with inscriptions that tell a story, buildings that reflect a popular culture, and paintings that capture a snapshot in time.  These items embody a labor of love that transcends time, a passion that is shared across the ages.

Of course, long-term survival also requires a little bit of luck.  For instance, a glass bottle created over a century ago may possess the requisite qualities to survive – good design, good materials, created by an expert tradesman.  Poor circumstance falls upon this glass bottle, however.  This bottle, along with 1,020 of its friends, is selected to participate in an analysis of ocean currents.  After stuffing a post card with return address inside the bottle, the bottle is capped and tossed into the North Sea off the coast of Great Britain.  Surely, within the next few years, this bottle will either wash up on shore and then be unceremoniously thrown away or possibly crash upon a rocky coast and destroyed forever.

Another outcome for this bottle exists.  The bottle could simply float around the North Sea.  During this time, this little bottle would survive by avoiding schooners, U-boats, oil platforms and high-speed ferries.  The bottle’s cap would stay intact with no leaks and protect the return postcard.  After 108 years of meandering, the bottle would wash up upon the German shoreline and be discovered by happenstance.  No, it’s not a great work of art.  But after 100 years of floating around in the ocean, it’s deserving of a footnote in history.

Unfortunately for other ancient objects, luck runs both ways.  The full extent of the damage is not known, but it’s pretty clear that ISIS destroyed the ancient ruins in Palmyra, Syria.  These Roman-era ruins were some of the greatest in the world.  These ruins survived the fall of the Roman Empire, the dark ages, numerous crusades and two World Wars.  In the end, an unlucky combination of religious motivation and modern explosives forever silenced the passion of the 1st Century artisans who created such wonderful beauty.

When it comes to creating works that endure, our generation faces an interesting dilemma.  Past generations typically labored in the physical world.  While most individuals didn’t create great works of art, at least the results of their labor could be seen and touched.  Today, an increasing amount of our work occurs in the virtual world.  When you finish your day at work, what do you really have to show for it? You can say that you wrote new software, but all you really did is reorganize some magnetic bubbles on a hard drive.  More and more, our society consists of individuals whose primary job function is to reorganize magnetic bubbles.  This transition of labor begs the question, “One hundred years from now, will there be a museum dedicated to the great magnetic bubble reorganizers of the 21st Century?  If so, what will be in it?”

In fact, such a museum likely will exist.  The first exhibit in this museum will display the magnetic bubble organizing devices of the early 21st Century (e.g., the MacBook Air like the one I’m currently using).  The second exhibit will present the magnetic bubble transport devices that enabled sharing of bubbles.  Obvious, the Internet will be highly featured.  The remaining exhibits will be determined by history (i.e., our future), but I hope that these exhibits feature the great new ideas, scientific discoveries and electronic works of arts that were enabled by technology.  I hope that these new creations display the qualities needed to endure, and I hope that future generations are inspired to build upon these electronic inventions to create new opportunities for all and make the world a better place.

But most importantly, I hope that Augusta Tek gets its own exhibit!  :-)

Until next time @gregory_a_baker

 

The Fish, the Rat, and the Cat

The Fish, the Rat, and the Cat (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 8-20-15)

Toward the end of last year, our family adopted a stray kitten.  This was not a planned event.  On the scale of cosmic coincidences, this would certainly qualify as a “fortuitous moment.”  Apparently, a poor little kitten escaped from a nearby litter.  While this would result in certain doom for most kittens, this one quickly became the luckiest feline in the world.  Why do I say that?  Because that little kitten, wandering aimlessly through our neighborhood, crossed paths with my wife.

My wife has always wanted a cat.  As long as I’ve known her, any sight or mention of a cat triggers an immediate cuteness response – “Awww…isn’t that cute…”  We’ve spent long evenings together doing nothing but surfing the YouTube cat channels.  Honestly, I’m surprised that they haven’t renamed one of the kitten feeds “The Kari Channel.”  However, one slight quirk of fate presents a barrier between my wife and her cuddly friends – my wife is severely allergic.

For the majority of our married life, we’ve remained animal free.  Yes, I know, this is a travesty according to many of our pet-friendly friends.  They always remind us of the love and comfort that a pet brings to a family.  Of course, they usually tell us this as they leave social events early in order to tend to their puppy.  (“Poor little Fido gets so lonely when we don’t get home early…”)  After we had children, another wave of anti-animal guilt fell upon us.  Again, our pet-friendly friends were convinced that our girls would suffer mental anguish since we maintained a pet-free domicile.  Despite our best efforts, our resolve waned over time.  And so when the girls returned from a 2nd grade birthday party with goldfish, my wife and I looked at each other and thought, “Fish?  Yeah, we can do fish.”

After a trip to Bob’s for the needed supplies, we began our descent down the slippery slope.  Each girl had their own fish – Giant and Shiny – and everyone played together nicely.  Other than the requisite fighting over who gets to feed them today, fish drama stayed at a minimum.  Even the task of cleaning the tank (my job) wasn’t too onerous.  While I wasn’t eager to expand the enterprise, our first step into pet ownership was a success.

Of course, nothing breeds opportunity like success, and 3rd grade brought plenty of opportunity!  Did any of your teachers ever keep a classroom pet?  Our 3rd grade teacher did – a hamster named Marley.  I have to admit the Wonderpet brought a certain esprit de corps to the girls’ class.  All of their friends would come over and talk about what the hamster did that day.  As a bonus, the teacher sent Marley home with a student each weekend.  Marley kept a scrapbook of its adventures.  Rolling around in the ball, running cardboard mazes, meeting new people – this little guy had quite the life! If I remember correctly, we included picture of our trip to the emergency room.  Nothing big – a treatment for an infected hamster bite.  It’s just another day in the life of Marley.

At the end of the school year, my wife and I were not really given a choice.  We took the next step down the slippery slope when Sammy became part of the family.  Sammy is an affectionate little creature.  During the day, he enjoys running the hamster ninja warrior course that we put together.  During the night, he scurries about his cage gnawing on the objects that make the loudest noise possible.  Sammy also likes to run on his wheel.  For hours at a time, he’ll run and run and run, sending a whirling sound all through the house.  The girls love him…and somewhere deep inside that little fuzz ball, I’m sure Sammy secretly enjoys that I call him “The Rat.”

So when that preciously little black-and-white kitten looked up at my wife with its goo-goo kitten eyes and whispered “Meow,” not much prevented us from falling completely over the cliff.  I protested weakly, “How about your allergies?  What about when we travel?”  My protests didn’t go very far, “It’ll be an outdoor cat.  An outdoor cat can certainly take care of itself for a weekend.”  Soon thereafter, Kit Kat became a full member of our family.

After almost a year, we’ve all settled into our new routines.  Kit Kat sleeps in the basement and bolts outside at first light.  Sammy has escaped his cage a couple of times, but fortunately, we found him before Kit Kat.  (Kit Kat really wants to play with Sammy, but no one thinks that would be a good idea.)  Giant has swum off to the big ocean in the sky, but Shiny still keeps watch over the aquarium.  The girls enjoy all of their friends!  I only have one real concern.  We have a bird feeder on our deck, and it just doesn’t seem right to attract birds to the house while Kit Kat is on the prowl.  I get the feeling that while we now have a pet-friendly home, the bad bird karma is going to bite us in the butt.

Until next time @gregory_a_baker

 

 

 

Interview with a Robot

Interview with a Robot (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 8-13-15)

“I still can’t believe those bastards in Philly…”

The robot sat across from me, a pained expression etched in his face.  His gaze focuses generally on nothing as the events of the past few weeks continue to dominate his thoughts.  He raises his eyes up to me, and you can clearly see a spark of anger.

“Just look at me…I’m no threat to anyone!  Why would someone want to do this?  It just doesn’t make any sense.”

He looks back down at his cigarette for a moment, then leans back and takes a long, slow drag.  As the smoke engulfs his head, you could tell that his understanding of humans just isn’t computing.

hitchBOT is a robot from Port Credit, Ontario.  He started out the creation of Frauke Zeller, a professor at Ryerson University.  hitchBOT quickly realized that he was not suited for academic life.  Professor Zeller suggested that hitchBOT spend some time away from the university.  Knowing that the real world would be much tougher, the professor thought it would be a good learning experience.

“The professor suggested that I try hitchhiking across Canada.  Of course, I protested.  I’m made of a beer bucket and pool noodles, for crying out loud!  I don’t have any actuators or gears – how the heck am I going to hitchhike?  Well, he didn’t want to hear it.  The professor would simply respond, “This is a social experiment. Usually, we are concerned whether humans can trust robots…this trip will address a deeper question:  Can robots trust human beings?’”

The 26-days that hitchBOT spent hiking across Canada turned out to be some of the best days of his life.  hitchBOT travelled from Halifax to Victoria, a 4000-mile journey.  Of course, the start was the hardest part.

“I can’t deny it – I was terrified when the professor dropped me off in Halifax.  I knew for certain that I would be there for days.  However, it wasn’t long before a very nice couple offered me a ride.  I thought maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.”

You could see some life starting to return to hitchBOT’s demeanor as he starting talking about the Canada trip.  “Everyone was great.  The people were very friendly and curious.  Many folks already knew my name from the Internet, and a couple of people actually came searching for me.  And of course, everyone wanted to take my picture!”

You can’t help but get caught up in hitchBOT’s enthusiasm as he recalls his past adventures.  In addition to hitchhiking across Canada, he’s also been to Europe – hitchhiking across Germany and then vacationing at several cultural sites in the Netherlands.  The trademark hitchBOT optimism was in full display he started talking about plans for his trip to the United States.

“I wanted to do something different for the U.S. trip.  I had so many friends on the Internet, so I asked them where I should go.  Together we came up with a ‘bucket list’ of places-to-go and things-to-see.  We decided to start in Salem, Massachusetts, and by the time we got there, everything was ready to go.  I was really optimistic that my friends would be there for me.”

And for the first two weeks, it looked like hitchBOT was going to have another great adventure.  With the help of all of his friends, hitchBOT quickly checked-off two items on his bucket list – Do a wave at a sports game (BTW – Fenway Park), and See the lights at Times Square.  Everywhere he went, hitchBOT was treated like a celebrity.  He recalled many stops on the trip, but you could see the pain return as he starting talking about Philadelphia.

“My visit to Philadelphia started out just like all the other cities I visited.  Many of the people knew me, some didn’t – they were all very friendly.  I learned that they call Philadelphia the ‘City of Brotherly Love.’  Who would have ever thought…”

hitchBOT’s voice trailed off as he recalled those last moments.  No one really knows what happened.  The last images of hitchBOT are from a video blogger on Friday night, July 31.  The next day, hitchBOT was found in pieces, vandalized and destroyed.  Some of hitchBOT’s friends recovered the remains and returned him back to his home.

hitchBOT is currently resting at his home in Canada, still trying to come to grips with the events south of the border.  His future plans aren’t finalized, but it’s possible he could return to Philadelphia and continue his trip.

“I would love to get back on the road.  In general, I love people.  They are usually so nice and curious.  Most people really want to help.  Being who I am, I guess there was always a chance that something like Philadelphia would happen.  But considering how many people were out there taking care of me, I didn’t really believe it to be true.”

hitchBOT’s gaze shifts to a fleeting memory far off on the horizon.  He takes another puff on his cigarette and shifts in his chair, a physical reaction to the discomfort of his new reality.

“You know, no matter how much we deny it, it’s still going to be true.” he finally says, “Sometimes bad things happen to good robots.”

For more information on hitchBOT’s journeys, see www.hitchbot.me.

Until next time@gregory_a_baker

Drone Wars

Drone Wars (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 8-6-15)

It’s official – the next new thing is here.  Like most new things, it didn’t arrive overnight.  Unmanned aerial vehicles, i.e. drones, have slowly and steadily integrated themselves into niche areas of our everyday lives.  And like all novelties that turn out to actually be useful, the drones are here to stay.

Before preceding any further, I need to make a disclosure.  I own a drone; it’s a little DJI Phantom quad-copter.  I got it for Christmas, and since then I’ve probably logged a total of 2 hours flight time.  If you include the Go Pro camera, drone flying is averaging in the hundreds of dollars per entertainment hour.  It’s not one of my more affordable attempts at a hobby, but it’s not my most expensive either.

For those who haven’t flown a drone, the devices are remarkably easy to fly.  From an aerodynamics perspective, the quad-copter is not the most stable or the most efficient platform.  As a matter of fact, the quad-copter would be impossible to fly without computer stabilization.  With the computer stabilization and GPS navigation, the vehicle behaves very nicely.  Even in windy conditions, the GPS keeps the vehicle flying along the piloted path instead of following the wind.  (On one windy day, just for grins and giggles, I disabled the GPS in order to see how well I could control it.  How difficult could it be, right?  Fortunately, the tree into which the drone “landed” wasn’t that far from where I started.)

Getting the drone to go up-and-down doesn’t take too long to learn, and just like every other drone newbie, I attached my Go Pro and started taking pictures of our house and kids from on high.  The ease with which you can create pretty spectacular shots is one of the seductive qualities of a drone.  As a matter of fact, since the basic piloting tasks don’t require a great deal of skill, the typical drone newbie will spend hours trying to figure exactly what can be carried by the drone.  (Hint: It’s pretty much anything you can think of.)

This is also the point where the drone owner’s redneck gene kicks in.  For example, as in, “Hey, Bubba, I bet you can’t fly that drone up to the cloud,” or possibly, “Why don’t you fly that there Go Pro over Ellie May’s swimming hole.”  The extreme redneck would even go one step further.  “We can hook up a long gun on these two little hooks right here, paint the thing camouflage, and wham-o!  Deer hunting drone!”

Yes, as with any new technology, the possibilities are seemingly endless.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  And just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it.  Many of the low information crowd are just now waking up to the realization that drones are part of social fabric.  I regret to say that some of them are not happy.  It pains me even more to acknowledge that their disdain originates, at least in part, from other drone owners acting stupid.

What is it about a new technology that empowers folk to behave irresponsibly?  When something new comes out, there’s always a group of early adopters who want to push the boundaries.  These people help the technology mature and become more useful to more people.  But why do the early adopters feel compelled to nullify social etiquette?  It’s well known that reading a newspaper while driving is dangerous – but apparently many think texting is different.  Most people wouldn’t walk into a bar with a video camera – yet the Google Glass wearers thought it was OK.  And I don’t know of anyone who would approach a moving airplane while it’s on the ground, much less while it’s flying.  But put a drone in their hands, and the rules seem to change.

The rules seem to change”  Hmmm…maybe that’s the better indicator if a technology is going to stick around.  A truly disruptive technology requires us to look at the world differently.  A technology that challenges us to evolve is more valuable than one that maintains the status quo.  We all know change can be hard for some people, and some changes can be harder than others.  A technology that doesn’t force change isn’t going to advance our lives; it’s probably not going to make many folks upset; and it’s probably not going to be very successful.

After all, has anyone heard of someone getting ticked-off at an Apple Watch user?  Me either.

Until next time @gregory_a_baker