Why technology laws may need a common-sense exception

Given the rapid rise of new technologies, particularly of the visual recording variety, it’s becoming increasingly probable that our older system of litigation and after-the-fact statutes is going to be even more out of date very shortly than it already is. Specifically, a story picked up in some parts recently mentioned the following annoying story regarding a neighborhood intruder skating on the very thin ice of legal ambiguity as regards recreational drones.

In short: there is no common sense way in which this is a defensible action, and more generally it is legally questionable to begin with. That it might not be the highest thing on the police’s agenda is besides the point: there needs to be a framework to deal with these intrusions, and soon. This applies as much to the ultra long-focus lenses of the ilk that were used to snap nude pictures of Kate Middleton as it does to Google Glass or otherwise mobile cameras.

As regards drones and backyard airspace, it should be legal, point blank, to bring down a drone intruding into your backyard, in any way you see fit. An intrusion of this nature should receive a caution at the least, and an intentional intrusion of this nature should be a felony. I’m not insane about privacy, and I understand that we live much of our lives in public now, but that is all the more reason to define and preserve a sphere of privacy and to clearly determine the acceptable limits of technological application well in advance of them becoming a problem.

Infrastructure and the convergence of the global human footprint

Like a lot of people, I’ve been having some fun with GeoGuesser, and I have to say, except in situations where location is really obvious (like Ireland, where the signs were all for O’Reilly, Flanagan, O’Connell etc.), I am appallingly bad at this game. Like, tens of thousands of kms off. Sometimes it’s just unfair – a dirt track in Canada is essentially indistinguishable from a dirt track in Siberia – but in others, given that I am primarily making guesses based on the quality of infrastructure and what scenery there is, I am incredibly, incredibly off.

Which is interesting, because this isn’t a Western/Anglo bias (or at least not solely) – having driven through a large portion of US Interstate Highways, I am fully aware of the state of deterioration that some of the US roads finds themselves in. But the degree of similarity, from high way to highway, and the quality of roads even in third-world countries, was a bit surprising.

Secondly, the degree of overlap between Mexico and California, in terms of the structure of cities and appearance of sidestreets, was pretty surprising, even though I’ve seen it in person and up close.

Overall, the degree of my confusion, while certainly potentially due to ignorance, also suggests an acceleration of the global convergence of infrastructure. Fifteen years ago, when I lived in Eastern Europe, this was not yet the case; Soviet streets were notoriously badly built and susceptible to heat and wear, and of course the difference in building material quality and design was also marked. And, certainly, in some places of the world (usually in rural areas), there are still stark differences in quality, but these differences are universal, applying as much within countries as outside of them. To a degree, of course, rural roads in the US should be higher-quality than rural roads in, say, India, but this is not always the case any more.

Maybe this is belaboring the point a bit, but it’s interesting to see these trends from the outside, as a visitor to this planet (as opposed to a native) might – perhaps we are approaching a true confluence in the human experience, and a global cultural point of convergence, through the realities of best practice and shared environmental factors. Given that infrastructure provides the basis for much of the human experience, in terms of availability and export of goods, flow of investment and distribution of culture (in particular via the internet), the positive side of the convergence is exciting. But significant investment is needed if the wear and tear and rising ruin of the rural networks are to be prevented from plunging our backcountry areas – the world over – into a sort of 21st-century dark ages.

In defense of the artificial advancement of the human race.

We make a lot of noise about fair competition and the unfairness of doping, hormonal treatments or other chemical advantages, but let’s consider the issue from another perspective:

If tomorrow the world were threatened by a significant event, such as an asteroid impact, supervolcano eruption, or – dare I say it – confrontation with extraterrestrials, what version of human would we want to confront that danger with? The fully optimized, chemically altered superman a la Lance Armstrong, or the ‘fair play’ human with whatever natural balance of fast-twitch muscle or endorphins evolution has gifted him or her with?

This is a serious question, because it gets at the heart of the whole doping conflict. If you think you’d prefer mankind’s chances with the unaltered version, you’re either delusional or (at best) suggesting there’s something in our natural imperfection that would better qualify us for survival.

I’ll get back to the latter point later. First, a word on natural selection, our planet,  and our universe: the forces that created us are also trying to kill us. More precisely, the apparent statistical anomaly of intelligent life in the Universe suggests strongly that a) the odds against our coming into existence in the first place are astronomical and b) that the odds of our continued existence are hardly better. So before there is talk of ‘mother nature/natural selection knows best’, consider that mother nature could care less about intelligent life, here or anywhere. In other words, when considering our survival, we need all the help we can get, natural or chemical.

Now, to get back to the idea of the inherent advantages of not tampering with our genetics or conditioning – this is an argument born out of the imperfections of the current state of doping / steroid treatments. It is indubitably true that looking like Barry Bonds or Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a unilateral advantage, and that anabolic steroids in particular have a number of unfortunate and unhappy side effects. But at the same time – as the cycling circuit is now proving – it is possible to look quite small, in fact, and still possess extraordinary aerobic and/or anaerobic fitness. Further, it should be pointed out that ‘natural’ weight training and dietary improvements, which have succeeded in pushing human development far beyond even the farthest bounds of previous standards of size, weight, and strength – these are scientific improvements just as much as the ‘illegal’ chemical treatments, and they also have significant physiological drawbacks (overtraining, resulting in muscle tears / shin splints / premature aging of joints etc.). And yet few people decry them as dead ends in the evolution of human development. As a result, while current chemical methods may be flawed, these are flaws that must be worked out in further development and not in avoiding the topic completely.

Further, the hazards and challenges that space travel presents – in terms of muscle atrophication and the difficulty of maintaining basic fitness – suggest that extraordinary solutions must be created and deployed in order to allow the exploration of our system (and perhaps eventually beyond). Fundamentally, it seems at present unlikely that we, in our current form, could make it far off this planet, and as numerous philosophers and astronomers have pointed out, this more than likely means extinction, perhaps sooner rather than later.

Finally, while I am a huge sports fan and completely understand the impetus to deride artificial performance enhancement as ‘cheating’ (which it is, under current rules, and which creates inequalities between richer and poorer athletes), it is worth noting that, at some point in the future when we are all eternally young, good-looking, and well-muscled, we just might owe a significant debt of gratitude to the Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds of the 2000s; after all, they were willing – albeit for significant financial gain – to be guinea pigs when the technologies in question were far from proven, and far from safe. This is not to say that these technologies should not be carefully watched and controlled (a major cause of the conflict in Hard Drop, after all, is caused by irresponsible experimentation in this area), but it is to say that we should not – perhaps even must not – shelve the conversation.

May the Fourth…

…Bring you free science fiction.

As promised in the countdown banner, the day of free science fiction has arrived – and what a coincedence! It’s May the 4th.

For today only, grab your Hard Drop and Old Fool’s Errand completely free!

Enjoy, and do please leave reviews, either on Amazon or on Goodreads (or both!)

More April science breakthroughs!

Rise of the machines. Well. Or just the self-assembling nanoparticles.

A relief to anyone perhaps overworried about Yellowstone (not that it’s not still a big deal): Supervolcanoes just got downgraded as an extinction threat.

And a potential huge boon for transportation of furniture or ‘soft’ implements required off-world (not to mention, threat to Ikea): the chair that unpacks itself.

It’s been a good month in science!


Design in the age of science fiction

It’s interesting to me that in an age where touch-screen computing is real, where Google Glass now exists, and where we have the ability to interact with our computers via speech to an unprecedented degree (although no one uses Siri for any useful purpose), we still haven’t really matched the science fiction ambitions of the 1970s, 80s, or 90s.

On the one hand, of course, we obviously have – it’s ludicrous to us that you’d have to try to pilot, say, the Millenium Falcon with those hundred different switches and gizmos. But on the other, despite the fact that we have all or most of the technology needed to achieve it, we haven’t really made good on the standing computers (except in a very few instances), the integrated heads-up displays (other than, e.g., in luxury editions of cars), or motion-response interfaces.

And what’s strange about this, as above, is that it isn’t really technology holding us back. It’s design. Touchscreen computing had existed for decades before Apple’s iPad put it in the hands of consumers. Google Glass has probably been feasible for a while (more or less since smartphone scanners began to be used for things) before someone decided to actually make it wearable. Motion-response systems exist in multiple forms, from Kinect to Wii to the new HP Leap software, but it’s just not…sexy. Not yet anyway.

What’s needed is the next step up, not in technology, but in workable design. I know there’s copious conferences on this stuff already, and of course Apple’s entire value proposition is based on introducing non-techies to technology via intuitive user interfaces, but I think, in order to make the next quantum leap to true science fiction, we need a more open, dynamic, and collaborative process to make that happen. I’d love to hear what you all think about how that can happen. Leave  a comment below!

…Sounds awfully familiar.

What’s that, a subject (or subjects) who won’t play ball with the audience back home?

It’s nice when it’s clear you’re thinking along the right lines.

In the meantime this whole ‘putting the duct tape over the lens’ concept sounds awfully like the premise of a horror film.

Ripped from the headlines…

…Or rather, perhaps, the reverse – news cropping up recently that Dutch reality producers are cooking up a real life Old Fool’s Errand: Dutch reality show seeks one-way astronaut to Mars

Looking forward to the legal wranglings (not to mention production quality, plot similarities, and instagram photos) on this one…

The most exciting scientific advancements of April 2013 (so far)!

This week has seen me genuinely excited by science news much more than I usually am. Some jadedness is only natural given the various life/not-life announcements coming out of NASA’s Mars missions lately, and I’m still pretty hesitant to get on the bandwagon given that the press so frequently distorts, overhypes, or plain misunderstands the science aspect of things.

However, this week has been hugely exciting. To recap:

Two Earth-like planets were discovered in Goldilocks zones

Potential vacuum- and radiation-insulating nano shields were accidentally discovered in the lab (with long-term space exploration applications)

Fingerprints of the solar system parent supernova were found in meteorites

Plus the usual assortment of little things. As an sci-fi/space enthusiast, it’s pretty awesome to have more or less direct evidence of what came before us still visible (if we know where to look), but more importantly the combination of other Earths – and maybe the means with which to protect ourselves on the way there – is incredibly exciting.

Now to get NASA some funding…