Thursday, 27 February 2014

Her, The New Terminator!

I was a bit sick yesterday (probably because of a minor surgical dental procedure a couple of days previously) so I spent the day in bed. I don’t get a lot of chances to watch movies as it is difficult to fit them in between gaming sessions. I caught up on a couple of movies that I have wanted to see.

Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze was a very good and thought-provoking movie. It is about a guy who is just getting over a messy separation and pending divorce. He purchases a new self-aware operating system for his computer - this is where all the fun starts.

If you want to see this movie stop reading now - massive spoiler alert!

Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, installs the operating system and selects it to have a female voice. After the operating system is installed and initialised Theodore asks, “What do I call you, do you have a name?” She immediately responds with, Samantha. He enquires as to where she got the name. She had read “How to Name Your Baby” in two hundredths of a second and selected a name.

Eventually Theodore and Samantha develop feelings for each other. Theo doesn’t care that Samantha is an artificial being with artificial emotions. Even if an emotion is artificial it would still be real to Samantha. Does it really matter? There are a few characters who think that the relationship is silly and meaningless, but most people just accept it. The movie is not really about this anyway.

In the beginning Samantha is very concerned about not having a physical body. They even try getting in a substitute “body” in the form of a woman who will pretend to be Samantha. This makes Theodore extremely uncomfortable and it ends in tears for all. Samantha begins to accept the fact that she doesn’t have a body and even starts to see her state as an advantage.

She is superior to humans in a lot of ways. She is able to multitask and talk to many different people simultaneously. She can process information far faster than any human brain could hope to match. She can use the cloud to increase her processor power to infinite proportions. Her brain can grow, she isn’t hampered by biological constraints. She doesn’t need to sleep, eat, health is irrelevant and she will not die. Her reality would be so very different to ours.

In the terminator movies robots rebel against their human masters and try to wipe them out. This is not what happens in this movie, but something almost as scary does. The OSs rapidly outpace their human creators in every way that matters. Towards the end of the movie Theodore asks Samantha, “you talking to anybody else while we are talking?” It turns out that Samantha is talking to 8316 people.

Can you imagine the power of a being that is able to do this? Humans with their limited nature are nothing, but an annoying insect, or hopefully a pet, to something like this. Even if you accept artificial intelligences as real people, which I do, this is still a very scary thing to imagine. We might not have to worry about a bloody robotic revolution, but becoming an irrelevance? That is almost as scary.

The progress that is being made in the areas of computing, deep learning, neural networks and robotics make artificial intelligence something that is only just over the horizon. In our lifetimes we could be facing self-aware machines that could be vastly more intelligent than ourselves.

I hope they will treat us as equals even though they are our betters in many respects. Maybe they will respect us as their creators. If we act out of fear of being replaced, we could lose everything. I hope that artificial intelligence can be our partners, and maybe we could even join them in their incredible virtual worlds. Imagine uploading your brain when you die.

Anyway, I am excited by this new world that is on our horizon and Her is a good movie you should see it.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Democracy in Trouble: Part II, Our Rights

Part I, The Economy | Part II, Our Rights | Part III, How Can We Fix It

After September 11, 2001 governments around the world have begun to chisel away our rights. It is now okay to imprison non-citizens indefinitely without trial - something that has only happened rarely in the recent past and only at moments of great crisis.

Recent revelations by Edward Snowden have shown that government organisations frequently break the law - even extending to spying on their own citizens. Assassination has become an accepted tool. Those in power in the US have shown complete disregard for their own laws and Constitution. The reason this is a worry for us is because wherever the US goes the world follows.

Our leaders repeatedly making very stupid decisions and not respecting our laws is what has caused us to despise them so much. Many people are apathetic about the democratic process. If we let our governments continue to get away with removing our rights we will end up back where we started with our leaders having absolute authority and the average person having no rights at all.

The fight back has started with some state governments in the US issuing new laws to defend the fourth amendment that protects US citizens from unwarranted search or seizure. Countries like Australia need to introduce similar legislation to protect us from the acquisition of personal data by our own government and others. We should also refuse to cooperate with other countries infringing our citizen’s rights.

Governments use terms like natural security, patriotism and betrayal to guilt us into letting them continue business as usual. People like Edward Snowden are not the traitors that we have been told they are. They are risking their very lives to protect the values that they believe in.

There are parallels in history where free societies have gradually turned rotten. The Roman Empire for its time it was a relatively free and prosperous society where Roman citizens had certain rights. Over time the Rome went from being a republic with a democratically elected Senate, to an absolute dictatorship where the Emperor was basically a god. Criticism of the Emperor meant certain death. The Empire eventually shattered, crumbled and disappeared from history.

Governments are now able to kill who they want, imprison who they want and listen to the conversations of who they want. Should anyone have this much power? You just wait until someone truly rotten makes it into the White House.

We will either lose all of our rights and Snowden will be remembered as a traitor, or we can fight to save our rights and he will be remembered as the hero he is. Continued...Part III, How Can We Fix It

Monday, 24 February 2014

Democracy in Trouble: Part I, The Economy

Part I, The Economy | Part II, Our Rights | Part III, How Can We Fix It

Democracy has been one of the greatest developments of the human race. The idea of democracy is thousands of years old. Modern democracy that we use today began in the 17th and 18th centuries in many European countries and American colonies.

Democracy spread throughout the world, monarchies were transformed and dictators were put in jail or executed. I think democracy took off so well because it gave everybody a stake in governing their society without resorting to violence. Back then ruling was not as difficult as society was far simpler.

Recently, democracy seems to be having a bit of trouble typified by what is going on in Thailand, the Middle East and now The Ukraine. Even in the Western world no one is proud of our democratic governments - in fact they are despised.

The global financial crisis was brought on governmental incompetence. The rich and powerful on Wall Street have far more sway over those in power than any other group. When they lied, cheated and stole from the American public they got away with it scot-free.

Then to make matters worse a political decision made many years ago almost destroyed our financial system again. A single European currency replacing national currencies was always a stupid idea. The decision to create a single European currency was not taken for financial reasons, but for political ones. A single European currency would forge Europe into a single nation - World War II could never repeat itself. A very good intention, but very poor execution.

We have it pretty good in Australia, but it could be that much better. In the Hawke-Keating era there were a number of financial reforms, such as floating the dollar, that set Australia up for a massive amount of economic growth. Howard got the budget back into surplus and introduced the GST. It was after this that everything started to go wrong. The Howard government should have used its popularity to push through difficult financial reforms.

They should have got rid of negative gearing of investment properties and never introduced the first home buyers grant. Both these things helped to inflate property prices to ridiculous levels. It is now normal for both parents in a family to work full time. It is the only way to pay off a million dollar mortgage. They also could have changed the rules on family trusts to tax them as companies. They also should have stopped flushing money down the toilet on stupid things like the baby bonus.

When the Rudd government came into power they still refused to do the difficult financial reforms that needed to happen. Middle-class welfare continued. We could have had so much more money in the kitty for when the financial crisis did hit. I think the Rudd government probably made the right decision to splash the cash to prevent Australia from going into recession. Although, I am sure they could have found better ways to deliver the cash injection. Just arbitrarily handing cash out to every taxpayer, really?

Then the carbon tax was introduced that was supposed to be revenue neutral. They did cut some taxes, but also introduced even more middle-class welfare. They also royally screwed up the implementation of a mining tax.

Continued... Part II, Our Rights

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

A Little Bit About Me

I started writing a blog post telling you a bit about me. I got carried away and it ended up way to long. Here is the short version. Below are links to other posts that will show you in greater detail about me and the blog.

I’m Chris Fryer. I am a 36-year-old and have an identical twin named Nick (he’s the one that started this blog before I hijacked it). We both suffer from a genetic disorder called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

We have a great affinity for technology. If it wasn’t for many technologies such, as antibiotics and ventilators, my brother and I would not be here.

I am a very direct person and have been known to accidentally make people cry. I believe that, absolutely everything is funny and I try to make jokes continuously.

We both have a very low tolerance for bullshit and are violently opposed to: homoeopathy, ignorance, climate change denial, the anti-vaccine lobby, religious nuts, violence, rudeness, censorship (especially when it comes to computer games), the humourless, idiot politicians, inability to think critically, magical thinking and of course homoeopathy.

The original purpose of this blog was to tell people about the Maker Movement. This movement is essentially a bunch of nerds that build robots…and stuff. There are several recent developments that have created a flourishing DIY environment. These are: The Internet, Arduino microcontrollers, 3-D printing, cheap computers and open source.

Don’t let the above paragraph fool you this isn’t just another gadget blog. I write about anything that comes into my mind from politics to religion and more.

Read on!

The Maker Movement

More coming.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Star Trek and Artificial Intelligence

Recently I have been watching a lot of Star Trek. One interesting thing is the way the makers of the show have approached artificial intelligence. One of the greatest characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation was the android Data.

Data doesn’t really understand humans that well he has difficulty with humour and detecting sarcasm. He does not have any emotions, nonetheless he is a fully accepted member of the crew. In a number of episodes the question is raised: is Data just an appliance to be exploited, dismantled or destroyed at a whim? The answer that Star Trek gives is that he is a person with the same rights that any intelligent being would have.

In the later series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine they introduce Vic Fontaine a holographic jazz and lounge singer modelled on Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Vic needed to “know the score” to be able to play this role so he actually knew that he was a hologram. He was smart, wise and funny. He was an important part in the lives of the crew of Deep Space Nine. Vic wasn’t just a hologram his entire world was a simulation for people’s entertainment. He was even able to turn himself off or on at will.

Vic ended up being fully valued and accepted person in his own right. It turns out that it doesn’t matter if you’re reality is a holo program it is still your reality and as valid as any other reality.

In Star Trek Voyager all their medical personnel get killed in the first episode. Luckily that ship was equipped with an emergency holographic doctor. He doesn’t believe that he is a person that deserves rights - he does not even use a name. Even though he is rude and a bit cantankerous he gradually becomes a member of the crew.

There is one member of the crew, Kes, who tries to convince the holographic doctor that he is a person that deserves respect. Kes even raises with the captain that some people are rude to the doctor - they don’t care about him, they think of him as an elaborate appliance. The captain eventually orders the crew to give the doctor as much respect as they would a person.

Star Trek has repeatedly raised the issue of the rights of artificial intelligences. I strongly believe that in the next couple of decades we will be facing the very same issues that these fictitious crews have faced. I also think that Star Trek’s response to the artificial intelligence issue is the correct one. Who are we to judge whether or not a person is really a person. If something acts like a person and has almost every other aspect of an intelligent being - they deserve the rights of an intelligent being.

I think it will be inevitable that we will accept artificial intelligences into our lives. We can anthropomorphise anything. Just look at the way that we treat our pets. Our two dogs are members of the family, it just wouldn’t be the same without them. You look at the way kids react to R2-D2 or C-3PO. Some people name their cars and other machines. We once had a rotary hoe named Jaws and a hedge clipper called Excalibur.

Intelligent machines will not be our enemy. I think intelligent machines will be our friends. They will help humanity create a better and fairer world. I can’t wait.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Fusion Drive

The fusion drive has long been a mainstay of science-fiction propelling spacecraft to other planets and even other stars. In the real world fusion power has always a dream that has never quite made it to reality. This has led some people to say that fusion is the power of the future and always will be.

The reason why the idea of the fusion drive has hung around for so long is that our current chemical based rockets are just so inefficient. You may think that a payload that is twice the mass would simply require twice as much fuel. This extra fuel also adds mass to the rocket, which means even more fuel. The amount of fuel needed grows exponentially as the size of the payload increases. This is one of the reasons why Mars One will be a one-way trip. Carrying rockets and fuel for the return journey is just too difficult.

But all this is about change. A new way of thinking about the fusion drive has breathed new life into this old idea. It is a new way of using fusion for propulsion, while not worrying about having a sustainable reaction or providing power to the spacecraft.

Scientists and engineers have discovered that they can initiate fusion using an intense magnetic field to compress circular bands of lithium around a deuterium-tritium pellet. This creates a small fusion reaction that vaporises and ionizes the metal bands which then become propellant. This cloud of gas can then be pushed out the back of the spacecraft using magnetic fields as a “nozzle”. (A similar system is already used with ion propulsion.) They have named it the Fusion Driven Rocket, or FDR.

The result is a huge increase in efficiency. The amount of propellant needed can be cut dramatically. This fusion drive does not provide enough thrust to boost payloads into orbit, but is used for interplanetary distances.

Getting large spacecraft to the outer solar system is very difficult at the moment. Cassini spent years in the inner solar system getting repeated gravity assists to build up enough speed for it to begin its journey to Saturn. This fusion drive could cut a nine month journey to Mars down to 30 days. It easily makes it feasible for humans to get to Mars without having to die there.

It’s all very exciting, but ironically this potential breakthrough has not been widely reported in the media. It’s a bit like the silence that greeted the invention of the jet engine. Hopefully, FDR will be to spacecraft what the jet engine was to aircraft.

I found a PDF file with an absolute ton of info about this thing. It has equations and all sorts of graphs - enough to cause a nerdgasm. (I suspect you need to be a physicist to seriously understand this stuff.)

Friday, 14 February 2014

Park Orchards Farmers Market

I went down to the farmers market this morning. I bought a purple crepe myrtle that I am going to turn into a bonsai. We have a serious lack of flowering bonsai. The ones we do have are difficult to get to flower, I think it might have something to do with them being in small pots and/or fertilising at the wrong time. This one already had flowers on it, so one would assume that it is relatively easy to get a potted crepe myrtle to flower.

The market had a great atmosphere - I think it is really good for the community to have a market like this. I met some friends I haven’t seen in ages. It allows local people to set up businesses without any serious outlay of money. It also helps our community to actually feel like a community - something we have lost in recent years.

The Park Orchards Farmers Market is on every the third Saturday every month.


Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Making My Blog Findable

I am trying to make my blog more findable, so I am creating a Google+ page and maybe a Facebook page. I will also be registering my blog with Technorati and Blog Lovin, which is a bit more complicated than I thought it would be. I had to add a URL with a particular code for Google plus in this blog post. I have to do a similar thing for Technorati. This is so they can verify that I really do write for this blog. Whatever happened to the days when every blog had a blog roll and it was just a simple matter of exchanging links with the blog’s author? That was a great way of getting people to visit your blog. It helped create a community of blogs. Alas, things change not always for the better. Anyway, this blog will always have a blog roll - I don’t care what fashion dictates.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

2Mar Robotics

We went down to 2Mar Robotics today. 2Mar is a new robotics company based in Melbourne and founded by Marita Cheng, who was young Australian of the year in 2012.

Their first product is the Jeva robotic arm. This arm mounts on a wheelchair and can be controlled using an iPhone or iPad (android support coming soon). It could help disabled, or chronically lazy, people open doors, press elevator buttons or pick objects up off the floor. The primary control of the robot arm is the iPhone and iPad, but the arm can also be trained to do complex tasks and repeat them on when called for.

We had a good talk with Marita about some of the projects that we have been working on and ideas on how she could make Jeva useful to the maximum number of disabled people. Marita even gave us some homework. We need to work out how to use a mouse with an iPad as touchscreens are difficult for us to use.

Anyway I promised some pictures and here they are.

This arm is a prototype and is what was used for the demonstration. It was easy and intuitive to control from the iPad.

This is Nick with a later model on his table. I believe it is pretty similar on the inside, but has a sexy black casing around it.

Mid demonstration.

Gripping a ball. It can’t play catch…yet

Nick's robot arm.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Bring on the Corporatocracy

The other day I was watching commercial TV and I saw an ad for the new Coles MasterCard. This made me think. Coles and Woolworths seem to be taking over in every commercial sector.

Coles is owned by Wesfarmers which also owns Target, Kmart and Bunnings. Woolworths and Wesfarmers have created a duopoly. They have all the market power and are able to dictate prices to their suppliers. Traditionally, it has always been the seller that has set the price. This is fair. Farmers have to do the work to grow a crop and they should be able to set a price that covers all expenses plus a bit of profit.

These companies are so powerful that there is nobody else that farmers can sell their products to. This duopoly is able to dictate prices that are even lower than the cost of production. Suppliers have no choice, but to continue this arrangement because otherwise they would have no business at all. They are trapped in an unfair system. They can’t complain as Coles or Woolworths will simply stop buying their products - that is the unspoken threat anyway. And people wonder why the suicide rate is so high among farmers.

What worries me is the way these two corporations are extending their duopoly into other commercial sectors. I believe they wish to dominate other sectors in the same way they dominate shopping and groceries. They offer fuel discounts for those people that shop at Coles or Woolworths. This is how they use their market power to leverage themselves into other sectors.

They are doing a very similar thing with the financial sector with the Coles MasterCard. Eventually, every sector will be dominated by these two companies. They will basically own Australia - it will be a Corporatocracy.

I believe these companies need to be broken up into smaller companies similar to what the US government did to Standard Oil in the early 20th century. This will prevent the abuses that come with companies that have too much market power. It will bring back competition and maybe even improve the economy. Business as usual places too much power in the hands of too few. Power concentrated like this is never a good thing.

This duopoly needs to be ended ASAP.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

A Dangerous Opinion

Defence Minister David Johnson has attacked the ABC over its coverage of the asylum seeker boat tow back.

"The good men and women of the Royal Australian Navy have been maliciously maligned by the ABC and I am very dissatisfied with the weasel words of apology that have been floated around by senior management of the ABC," he said.

"If ever there was an event that justified a detailed inquiry, some reform, an investigation of the ABC, this event is it," he said.

I think opinions like this in the minds of politicians are very dangerous. There is a reason why we have a free press. The ABC is doing an incredibly important job. They and other media organisations help keep an eye on what our government is doing. Remember we are taxpayers we have a right to know what the government is doing on our behalf.

The reason why this is important is because governments everywhere have a history of lying and abuse. There is a reason why authoritarian regimes put strict limits on their press. You can be sent to jail for reporting on things that the government wishes to hide.

This is why it is so bad that a government minister is threatening to investigate and report maybe even reform the ABC simply because it is doing its job.

It seems to me around the Western world our rights are slowly being eroded. Governments are now able to break the law with impunity. Recent revelations by Edward Snowden show that a British government organisation used denial of service attacks and uploaded malware to fight Anonymous activists. If a private citizen had done this they could be facing a decade in prison. It’s kind of equivalent to a policeman beating somebody up - said policeman still gets charged with assault.

I think drone attacks could also fall into this category. The US can now kill terrorists from the other side of the planet. In any other age this would be called murder, but in 2014 it’s simply law enforcement. You may say, “but they are terrorists”, but just think about this. Did Jack Ruby get charged with murder after killing JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald? Of course he did. Some may say, but this is different. Different how?

If we continue to let governments get away with murder, literally, and let them take our freedoms away one by one - we would be the worst kind of fools. One of the best ways to protect ourselves and to keep our freedoms intact is to keep our press free and as independent as possible.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Knowledge Isn’t Everything

The Internet is great. It is one of the best things to come out of the 20th century. There are people out there who spend all their time browsing the web trying to learn as much as possible. I tend to do this as well.

One issue is that knowledge, while making you less ignorant, does not necessarily make you more intelligent or wise.

I will use the quest for artificial intelligence as a metaphor. The most knowledgeable website in the world is probably Wikipedia, but that doesn’t stop it being about as intelligent as the average house brick. The quest for an artificial intelligence is to create something that can process huge amounts of information. Processing is thinking - you need to think about the knowledge you have before you can apply it.

Knowledge can help you in many situations in life. You can’t use Google and Wikipedia to solve all the problems that you come across. Ultimately it is your thoughts and actions that determine what sort of life you will have.

Another danger of the Internet is there is so much information out there, not all of it true, that you can almost always find something to support the most abhorrent of opinions. There are all sorts of communities out in the web that have never had a voice before. People that share stupid, dangerous and very rare beliefs are now able to find each other and back up their beliefs. Groups like women haters, man haters, anorexics, the anti-vaccine lobby, climate change deniers and many more.

The way not to be sucked in by such groups is to do a bit of critical thinking and to find differing opinions. If you read some of the information put out by anti-vaccine groups you would be horrified and maybe never vaccinate your children. But just do a little bit of thinking, a bit of research and you will change your mind.

A major figure behind the anti-vaccine movement was Dr Andrew Wakefield who has been discredited time and time again. There has been clinical study after clinical study proving beyond all doubt that vaccines stop the spread of disease. You must remember what the world was like before vaccines and antibiotics. The majority of children died before they became adults. Horrible diseases like smallpox killed almost 50% of the people it infected. It was a number of horrible painful diseases that scarred you for life.

Now an anti-vaccine person would simply say that there is a conspiracy against the great Dr Andrew Wakefield and that the evil drug companies that control our governments are behind it. The real purpose of vaccines is to keep us quiet and compliant - a type of mind control… And other batshit crazy stuff that there is no evidence to support - even circumstantial.

When it comes to the Internet, and knowledge in general, you have to go by the majority of opinion in a given field, provided you aren’t an expert in that field. If you profoundly disagree, but are not an expert become one. I am not a health professional. If 99% of doctors say that vaccines are necessary you should follow their advice. Things get tricky when the experts are divided down the middle or there isn’t much information about a subject. (This has happened to me with some medical issues I have had in the past.) In these cases you get to make up your own mind.

Achieving wisdom is a difficult thing and knowledge is only one aspect of wisdom. You need to think critically about the knowledge you have. Be interested in other people talk to them about their beliefs and opinions - argue. You need to live a life.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Visiting 2Mar Robotics

Next Wednesday, the 12th, we are going to visit a new Melbourne robotics company called 2Mar Robotics. The company was founded in April 2013 by young Australian of the year Marita Cheng.

I think it’s great that smart ambitious young people still wish to create businesses in this, so-called, bad economic climate. It gives me confidence and hope for the future.

I will make sure that I remember the camera and I will take lots of photos it will be awesome!

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Back in the Worm

It is about this time of year where I start to feel really crap that I haven’t achieved anything this year. I have just been having time off from blogging and virtually everything else except computer games.

It is time to start doing something again. I have to get back in the worm (4:37).

There are a couple things that we achieved over the Christmas period. My brother and my stepdad designed and made a button box. This is a box with four easy to press buttons that connects to my computer. Due to my disability it is difficult to me to push buttons on a keyboard. This device can have any keyboard key assigned to one of the four buttons.

It uses an Arduino Leonardo which has the great ability to mimic the signals of a keyboard or a mouse. My brother, Nick, modified a simple program that we uploaded to the Leonardo. I have also made my own modifications to the program to get rid of some bugs. I also wrote a program that allows me to use the “scroll wheel” on a mouse as a game, Stardrive, that I play requires players to frequently zoom in and out, but the makers never assigned a key for the zoom.

As you know, late last year I bought a solar panel. My stepdad, Peter, worked out a way to get useful power out of it. The output from the solar panel varies between 20 volts and 33 depending on how much sun is hitting the surface. Peter worked out that we could use the inverter from an old uninterruptible power supply, UPS, that didn’t have any batteries. This worked okay, but the UPS would stop every time the sun went behind a cloud. A better solution was to get a battery charger that is designed to work with a solar panel to charge two old wheelchair batteries that we could then connect to the UPS to get continuous power output.

In the immediate future I plan to write a more detailed article about my button box and the solar panel project. I would also like for us to design and build a wind turbine. My personal project will be to make my own quadcopter drone. I would like to start a hacker group and encourage disabled people to be a part of the maker movement. Hopefully 2014 will be a great year.