Big Air 2004

(no subject)

I can't remember who shared this article, but I found it interesting.

However, I think it may be gravely mistaken. Certainly I'd agree those jobs won't get replaced in the short term, but I think technology will fundamentally change them sooner than you might think.

Let's take them one by one.

1. Childcare Expert

Sure, a robot might not be able to interact with a child like a human (yet), but we've all heard stories of the carer who was napping the job, or worse. One thing a machine can do is ensure your child is watched every second you are away. And the human carer for that matter. But they can also do other things. Toys are getting smarter and smarter, and the teddy that can interact with your child, and alert the human carer when personal attention is needed will be a valuable assistant. How much time do carers spend on mundane tasks like changing nappies? If a robot comes along that can handle that, why not free up the carer's time for proper interaction with the children? Of course the thing that will sell this to parents is the ability to log in and check on the child (and carer) at any time.

2. Chef

Maybe the cordon bleu chef is safe, but how much skill does it take to flip burgers for McDonalds? Fast food restaurants will see greater and greater automation. We're already seeing self service ordering terminals, and it's likely we'll see food preparation follow suit. In classier restaurants, we may still need chefs, but how long will we need commi chefs chopping carrots if a chopping robot can do it faster and more safely? This is only the first step, and as more and more jobs get automated, we may eventually see world class food prepared with no human interaction at all.

3. Tour Guide

We already have "robot" tour guides of a sort. Watch people walking around a museum or sitting on a tour bus wearing headphones for examples. Sure, it may not be up to the standards of a live guide, but it offers advantages such as a choice of languages, and the ability to skip bits you don't find interesting. Future generations of digital tour guide will offer the ability to tune the tour exactly to our interests, and dynamically add more detail when we look interested, and push on when we look bored. It may never be as good as a great human guide, but it will sure as hell be better than a bad one.

4. Journalist

I'm sure the author of this piece smugly thinks his or her job is safe. There are already armies of robots trawling the web for potential interesting stories and writing automated stories that are surprisingly hard to tell from human written stories. That's not the same as hard nosed investigative journalism, but it's a start that will only get more advanced. I think that no journalist could do their job these days without internet searches, and it's the ability of computers to find connections hidden in vast database that will be relied on more and more by future journalists. On the other end, the need to rush a story out in time for the morning edition will see more and more resilience on automated writing tools, As both of these capabilities get more advanced, the only thing left for the journalist to do is ask the right question. When pieces that used to take weeks of digging can be produced in an afternoon, newspapers will need a lot less staff, and those who are left will be wondering "how long till someone comes up with a computer that's good at asking questions?"

5. Artist

I doubt most artists consider their work "a job", and so there are likely to be humans producing works of art as long as there are humans. In 2008, a Russian novel, "True Love", was published. It was completely computer written, although the computer was guided by a team of experts. Robots have also painted and written poetry. It mightn't be to the standard of human artists, but there plenty of markets where this won't matter. Mills & Boon novels, for example?

6. Doctor

Another one where humans aren't going away any time soon. However, there's no doubt that machines are intruding into the traditional doctor space, and doing things that no human could do. For example, doctors can't be there to monitor our vitals 24/7. I wear a device on my wrist that constantly monitors my heart rate for tracking fitness. In the future this is likely to add more functionality, and monitor our health, pre-emptively telling us when we are unwell before our symptoms are even apparent, and taking appropriate measures to cure us before we even feel sick. For the most part this will happen in conjunction with doctors rather than instead of them, and will be generally a good thing as Doctors are freed from treating colds and flues to concentrate on really challenging work.

I don't think any of these jobs are going to disappear overnight, but I don't think any of them are completely safe from robots.
Big Air 2004

Hugo Awards 2014 - Nominations Closing Monday 31st March

This post is just a friendly reminder to all my friends who have an interest in Worldcons and the Hugo Awards. If you were a member (full or supporting) of either last Worldcons (San Antonio) or the this year's Worldcon in London, or the following on in Spokane, you are entitled to nominate in the Hugo awards. I expect that a lot more of our friends are going than usual, since it's on our relative door-step, and some may not be familiar with Hugo Nominations.

If this doesn't apply to you, please ignore this post.

I've a number of friends who are very active in fandom, and deserve some recognition for their efforts. They deserve recognition in a great many areas, but probably the greatest awards we have as fans are the Hugo awards.

First of all, my good friends, James Bacon and Chris Garcia are both forces of nature in the world of science fiction fandon, and are active in an insane amount of fanish things, and they are two of the most prolific fan writers I know, having contributed to many fanzines in addition to producing their own two, Journey Planet and Drink Tank.

Here are some excellent examples:

Journey Planet Issue 15: The Write Stuff co-edited by Lynda E. Rucker

Journey Planet Issue 16: The Philip K. Dick issue with Pete Young

Journey Planet Issue 17: The Art issue, with Colin Harris

Journey Planet Issue 18: The Social Media issue with Helen Montgomery

Drink Tank - The twin peaks issue

Please have a read and tell me you aren't impressed. If you like them, please nominate James and Chris in the Best Fan Writer category, and nominate Journey Planet and Drink Tank in the Fanzine category the Hugo awards.

Claire Brailey and Mark Plummer also do a fantastic amount of work in fandom, and they produce their Fanzine, Banana Wings. Unfortunately this is a paper only publication, so I can't link to their work, but if you know them or have read anything they've done, they are also deserving of recognition. If you were a member of last year's Worldcon, you may still have some samples from the Hugo package. If you have space on your nomination form, please consider including Banana Wings in the Fanzine category, and Mark and Claire in the Fan Writer category. They deserve it.

Heather Urbanski is a writer and contributor, and has written a book about new versions of old science fiction shows, called The Science Fiction Reboot. She's also eligible in the "Best Related Work" category. You can read a sample for free on Amazon, which might be enough to decide if she deserves nomination:

My good friend Pete Reid is one of the most amazing Lego builders I know, and his book, Lego Space: Building the Future contains some amazing photographs and a great story, as well as instructions for building some of the models, which I designed (what a shame I didn't insist on having my name on the cover). It's bit subjective which category it belongs in, but I've nominated in the Best Related Work and the Best Graphic Story to be safe. Again, you can read a sample on Amazon:

I would encourage my friends to nominate in the Hugo Awards. If you're a member of any of the participating conventions, you should have received an email with your voting PIN. More details can be found at:

Regardless of whether you nominate any of the above, please don't forget to get your nominations in as the closing date is on Monday 31 March 2014 (for those west of London, don't wait till the last minute or you'll get caught out by the time difference)!
Lego Spaceman

The PiQL Project

I've posted about this on Facebook, but the trouble with FB messages is they tend to get lost in the clutter, so LJ seems to be a more suitable home for these posts.

Like many of my generation, I have been, and remain, a fan of the 8-bit microcomputers of the 1980s. They were small, cheap, and easy to use. Most importantly, when you switched them on, you were immediately faced with a programming language (usually BASIC). These computers helped to breed a generation of computer programmers. When I went to university, a significant proportion of my class had some previous programming knowledge. Today, by contrast, a higher proportion of college students may be computer literate, but I think the proportion who start a computer science course already knowing a programming language is much lower.

There is, however, once beacon of hope... the Raspberry Pi. It is dirt cheap ($25 for the basic model, or $35 for the more advanced one), and a great introduction to programming (even if that programming is in Python, a language I have no great fondness for). The only downside is that unlike the old '80s micros, it has no case or keyboard. If only we could find a way to combine the two.

This is where the idea struck me: take a 1980s computer, and replace the internals with the tiny Raspberry Pi circuit board. A little Googling shows it's not a terribly original idea. Several people have done it for the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. But I bet nobody has done it for the Sinclair QL.

I'm sure only a handful of people remember the QL. After the success of the ZX Spectrum, Sinclair attempted to move into the business market. It was a brilliant concept, but flawed in a number of ways, and after a string of delays, it was a commercial flop. However, it included a number of innovations that influenced many later computers, and it still has a significant fan base.

Most importantly, it was, in my opinion, one of the most elegant computers of its era. Here's a photo:

Sinclair QL Case

The first step was to get hold of a QL case. One thing I wasn't prepared to do is destroy a working QL, since there won't be any more of them. So I needed to find either a non-working one, or an empty case. There was only one place to look: eBay. QLs don't come up very often, and broken ones even less so, so after six months of waiting and following links to old QL software packages, a QL case came up for auction. There doesn't seem to be a lot of demand, as I ended up getting it for £3.99 (I was willing to go significantly higher - I won't tell you what the maximum bid I'd put on it was).

Of course, there's more to this project than just slapping a Pi inside an old case. The defining characteristic of 1980s machines was the way everything was self contained. You didn't have a separate keyboard and computer case. The project will be pretty pointless if I can't make the QL keyboard control the Pi. And I'm afraid this won't be as simple as plugging in a USB cable. The QL was connected to its keybaord by two ribbon cables, one with 11 wires, and the other with nine. Pressing a key shorts the connections between a wire from each cable, so the computer knows which key has been pressed.

Fortunately, this is pretty much the same way modern keyboards work. The only difference is there is a circuit in the keyboard that detects which key has been pressed and converts it into a keycode that gets sent down the USB cable.

Three solutions present themselves:

1. The Pi has a number of general purpose IO pins that can be connected to external hardware and accessed by software on the Pi. This solution would be attractive, as it doesn't require any extra hardware, but it would mean writing a custom keyboard driver. I would like to be able to run multiple OSs, so a custom driver would be needed for each one.

2. Since the keyboard works more or less the same way as a modern one, why not use the controller circuit from a modern USB keyboard? This would then be connected to one of the Pi's USB prots inside the case. The key mappings would be different, so we'd need some custom key mappings, but this shouldn't be too great a problem.

3. There's a cheap USB development board called the Teensy. It offers plenty of IO ports and could easily handle the QL keyboard, and there is sample code available for making it behave like a standard USB PC keyboard. This has the advantage that all the mappings for the QL key layout could be handled before the keycode gets sent to the Pi, so no mappings would be needed. At $16-$19 depending on model, it's also a cheap option. Another advantage of this is that it could take control of the LEDs on the front of the case.

I'm still looking into which of these is the best approach, but the third seems the most elegant and is looking attractive.

Once I get the keyboard working, the only other difficulty will be to connect all the ports to the QL case. I would like to use the original port locations on the case as far as possible, and hopefully avoid cutting any new holes if I can.

First, the right side of the QL case held two microdrives. Although it might be useful for one-off conversions of QL software or data, I don't hold much hope of getting a Pi to read microdrives, so I intend to put SD card readers in the microdrive slots.

At the back of the case is the following:

Two ports for networking. The QL used an odd form of networking that daisy chained QLs using 3.5mm jacks. Fortunately the hole is big enough that one of these should accommodate an RJ45 cable. The other I might make an audio out, as the QL only had an internal speaker, no headphone or mic sockets.

The next socket is power. The Pi takes it's power from a USB socket. However, I plan to have a powered USB hub, so I need a power supply for both of those. I'm debating whether to put the transformer inside the case.

The next sockets are RGB and UHF for monitor and/or TV output. The Pi has two video outputs, a HDMI and a composite video, so these will be routed to these ports.

The next ports are SER1, SER2, CTL1 and CTL2, which were for serial devices and joystick ports, though oddly they all used UK style phone sockets. These will all become USB ports.

The final port at the back is for ROM cartridges. I'm thinking this should be connected to the Pi's internal SD card slot, allowing easy change of OS by swapping SD cards.

It should be interesting to run a QL emulator on the Pi. Even emulating a 68K, the Pi should be many times faster than the original QL.

This is all rather conceptual at the moment. The first step is to solve the keyboard problem. Should be interesting!
Lego Harry Potter

An Unexpected Journey

Although still afflicted by the cold, on Sunday I braved the elements to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Overall I found it a very enjoyable movie, and I think if you like Tolkien's universe at all, you won't regret seeing it. However, I do feel it's a little longer than it needs to be, and I question the wisdom of splitting the book into three parts rather than two.

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I do think the movie could be shorter by at least half an hour without losing anything of significance.

However, I'm thoroughly looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

Hello? Is anyone still here?

I find myself using LJ less and less, and the arrival of G+ which seems to be growing into the type of community I used to find in LJ once upon a time, makes me wonder if that's the natural successor to LJ.

The other option seems to be Dreamwidth, which seem to be doing some very neat things, and seem to be more interested in developing a community than LJ have been for quite some time. However, I can't help wonder if they're just trying to plug the holes in a sinking ship.

I recently realised that most of my LJ activity has been deleting anonymous spam comments. LJ seem to have given up trying to prevent spam. There used to be a tickbox on the delete form for "mark as spam". That has disappeared, suggesting they have no intention of doing anything to curtail spam. The simple solution for me is to disable anonymous comments.

Looking back, it's a bit of a pity. I remember the science fiction community we used to have on LJ, and that has all but evaporated. We have bits and pieces of it on other social networks, but it seems much more fragmented, and too easy to miss interesting stuff. It would be wonderful if we had something like that again.
Lego Spaceman

On Planets

I seem to have put my foot in it on someone's Facebook post (I'd post a link, but Facebook doesn't really like outside linking).

All I did was did was make an innocent remark about the number of planets in the solar system, and suddenly everyone is rallying to Pluto's defence. And fair play to them. If you want Pluto in your list of planets, as far as I'm concerned, you're welcome to it.

But for as long as I've been into astronomy (or at least into it enough to know what's going on in the solar system), I've had a problem with Pluto. But then, I've had a bit of a problem with the term "planet". Let me cover that first.

The word planet comes from the Greek verb πλανηθεί (planasthai), meaning to wander, referring to the way they moved across the sky. Anything which moved across the sky could be considered a wanderer, so from that point of view Pluto does deserve planet status, though you need a fairly powerful telescope to observe its wandering.

The trouble with this definition is it only takes account of what early astronomers could observe, the movement across the sky. Some moved faster or slower, but all followed a defined path, and if you were clever enough you could predict what that path would be.

Yet far from just being points of light that move around the sky, we now know quite a lot of detail about the composition of these objects, and they fall into a couple of distinct categories. It doesn't take a genius to see that the first four, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are very different from the next four, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and it makes a lot of sense to separate them into "rocky planets" and "gas giants". There are also asteroids, such as Ceres, and not just the ones between Mars and Jupiter, some of which were regarded as planets at one point until they got demoted (I'm not certain whether this caused any outcry at the time).

But Pluto doesn't fit into either category. It's orbit is a wide ellipsoid, when the others are broadly circular, and it's made mainly of ice, with a small iron core. To understand it properly, you need to look at the solar system. We tend to think of it as a disk with the planets spinning around it. But That picture leaves out much of the solar system.

We could imagine the whole solar system as being about the size of a compact disc or DVD, and instead of imagining the planets covering the whole surface, imagine them fitting inside the clear plastic part near the middle. In fact, the inner solar system of the sun and rocky planets would fit in the hole at the centre, with the asteroid belt running around the edge of the hole. Pluto's orbit would lie around the silvery part before the bit where the data starts, though because it's not properly circular, it would encroach into the clear area of the CD.

But that still leaves all of the metallic area of the disc. We need to mentally divide this intp two regions with a circle running through the middle of the shiny bit. The inner part (from the clear part to our imaginary line) is known as the Kuiper belt, and contains many bodies like Pluto. It's currently estimated that there are about 70.000 objects in this region with a diameter of 100km or more. Like Pluto, they are mostly a metallic core with a mantle of ice. That could mean hundreds or even thousands of Pluto-sized bodies. If we were to classify these as planets, we could end up with a Rhyme I don't fancy learning!

The International Astronomical Union considered this to be a problem, so they held a conference to decide a better definition of a planet, and here's what they came up with (I've copied and pasted because I'm lazy):

1. Is in orbit around the Sun.
2. Has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape.
3. Has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

That's very clever. On the surface, it seems to bind together the rocky planets and gas giants, but relegates asteroids and Kuiper belt objects to Dwarf planet status.

This would seem to solve the problem, bit does have one or two problems, the most obvious being the meaning of clearing the neighbourhood. There are many astroids wandering through the solar system. For example, one group is known as the Apolloids, which are asteroids that cross Earth's orbit (and which will perhaps one day crash into Earth causing death and destruction). If Earth had cleared its orbit, these surely wouldn't be there.

So while I find the new definition interesting, it certainly isn't perfect, and it leaves itself open to interpretation. Just how many random objects are allowed to share its space?

But since planet is just a rather loose grouping of several different of object, there would be nothing wrong with saying "these nine objects are planets because we say they are,"

So while I'm happy to remove Pluto from my personal list of planets, if you want to keep on yours, that's okay by me.