The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Archive for August, 2010

Big Ideas…

Posted by BigWords on August 29, 2010

As I’m currently without internet connection, I can’t help think more about the technology we take for granted rather than less. The entire concept of “back to nature” is completely alien to me, so forcibly being made to exist without everyday necessities is beyond contemplation – a fact which is made evident by my continued (and nevertheless futile) attempts to reestablish some sort of stable internet connection here. So, given the way that my mind works, I’m currently obsessing over technology. All of it. I started out a ways back with all my concerns about how little progress had been made with e-books – a situation which, sadly, remains true – and it seems right that I cast my net a little wider to show you how little has been improved with all the myriad ways we have to augment the world around us. The time to start asking hard questions about our state of technology is long overdue.

The future has not, as some claim, arrived. We have barely started using things to their greatest ability, yet a few people remain convinced that we have made the faltering steps on the way to a world envisioned by Star Trek. While it is true that personal computers, data storage devices, personal computers and mobile ‘phones have managed to improve wildly generation upon generation, we are laughably far from the world we should be living in. Take, for example, the number of people who go missing each year. How expensive would it be to use something not unlike the chips routinely placed in pets on people. We would be able to locate anyone with GPS, saving countless lives each year – and not merely those foolhardy enough to scale mountains or traverse deserts. Missing people would become a thing of history.

I expect that the civil liberties zealots will probably be shaking with anger over the suggestion that we start tagging people haphazardly with this technology. Breaching human rights isn’t what I’m suggesting at all, being merely a suggestion for an opt-in procedure. They, of course, would point out that every new technology is evil until proven otherwise – the DNA database (one of the blessed few intelligent decisions implemented by police forces) is a perfect example of this. The anti-technology crowd would rather have criminals walking the streets. I say we all start asking for chips embedded in our bodies so that if we ever have need of them, they are there. Like the Boy Scouts are fond of saying, “Be prepared.” When the naysayers go missing we can look for them the old fashioned way – and we all know how effective that is. I’ll be first in the queue when the procedure is offered.

That is barely scratching the surface of what we could be doing. Taking transport as the easiest target for technological improvement, it is easy to see where people are slacking off in the big ideas department It is offensive to consumers when terms such as “intelligent vehicles” are thrown around by manufacturers who are under the delusion that surface gloss will hide the deficiencies of their product. The main problem when discussing cars is fuel. I’m going to go out on a limb and declare all petrolium-based engines obsolete. It is a messy, inefficient, wasteful and ridiculously expensive waste of resources when hydrogen-powered vehicles are ready to roll out of factories. It becomes farcical when the manufacturers insist that their engines have improved. No, they haven’t. The combustion engine we see in the current generation of cars is still based on designs over a hundred years old, so any improvements are merely tweaks. Not impressive when looked at that way.

A shift to hydrogen offers a limitless supply of fuel (something many people claim to be looking for, though the odds of them finding it in a more glitzy form soon is doubtful), which would also ease political pressures for some countries. While I’m thinking about cars specifically, I may as well add that HUD’s really ought to be mandatory rather than an add-on, as taking your eyes off the wheel for any reason is a bad idea (yes, kids, I really am suggesting you never look at your speedometer ever again). I’ve never understood the appeal of all the gauges embedded into the dashboard of new cars – it suggests a lack of confidence in the software used on the part of the manufacturers, and a stubborn sentimentality for antiquated solutions on the part of the consumers. The safety aspect of HUD implementation is only a minor change, but one which would convince me people are thinking about design rather than regurgitating old ideas.

Seeing as how I’ve started on vehicles, I may as well see this through before moving on to other targets. There’s a lot of things wrong with the way people use cars, especially older and slightly less advanced ones – I refuse to describe any modern, road-legal, straight-from-the-factory car as advanced. The biggest problem arises when people who are not educated in simple math decide to drive very fast right behind another car, raising the probability of a crash to one hundred percent if the vehicle in front has to brake for any reason. That’s one of the things that can be solved by technology if we took three seconds to think about the problem. It is clear that no-one has bothered to take those three seconds to think about the issue though, and I’m calling car manufacturers out on the issue. It isn’t as if we would even have to come up with any new devices to deal with this sort of thing, as the basic components are already used in many automobiles.

The sensor which is attached to the rear of some cars to assist in (and even, in some instances, take over from) reversing into a space, whilst quite useful as is, could be combined with the speedometer to indicate when a car traveling behind gets that bit too close. With clever software solutions to take into account road surfaces, weather conditions, visibility and other factors, the instances of being rammed from behind would all but cease. How, you ask, would knowing you are about to be rammed cease it from happening? Simple. All that is needed is a automatic limiter kicking in on the car traveling dangerously close. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that everything I have just outlined in that instance is already installed. All it would take is for the currently separated systems to be integrated, and one major cause of vehicular accidents to be removed from the many other dangers on our roads.

Remember those funny little automated vacuum cleaners? The cute flying saucer-shaped things which never quite worked as well as people claimed they would? They are a perfect example of existing technology being put to use in an unexpected and useful way, though by themselves are of little to no importance in moving us to a brighter future. They hold the key to ensuring that cars never leave the road to travel on pedestrian areas whilst under control. They might also be a way to stop accidents in forecourts as well, but it’s the wider application of the underlying mechanics which interest me more. The cleaners are prevented from entering locations because they are told not to move past a certain sensor point – normally to keep them in a specific room, though any demarcation of territory is possible given enough of the posts which transmit the boundary outline.

Take a moment to ponder that. Keep thinking. Have you caught up with my track of thought yet? Yup, that’s right. We stick those things along the side of roads, and drivers will be prevented from mounting the sidewalk because their car will cut out on them if they try it. It’s a simple way of solving a major problem, yet nobody has seemingly thought of it. I despair at the rampant lack of imagination being put into modern automobiles. It’s almost as if everyone has given up on cars as a viable method of transport, and industry heads are waiting on the axe to fall on the entire industry – a prospect not entirely unimaginable if they keep traveling on their current trajectory. A skeptic may argue that any, and all, safety measures are useless if people continue to drink under the influence. Which is why I suggest installing breathalyzers in cars so that they won’t start if people are near the limit.

Simple measures. I’m not revolutionizing technology here, merely adapting existing things to new purposes. That in mind, the sensor which is currently positioned on the backs of cars, as I described above, is one which has the most potential. It’s a rather pitiful nod to advancement of automotive safety, ignoring the immense potential inherent in having a real-time assessment of the space directly near the vehicle. It’s also one of the things which could be enhanced by implementing the aforementioned sensors along the sides of roads. Computing has managed to advance to point where a few gigabytes is neither expensive nor spacious, so processing information second-by-second cost efficiently (when compared to the overall price of a new family car) is negligible. You may think that the car you are driving is smart, but how much better would it be if the car knew exactly where it was?

Using sensors on each face of the car (front, back and sides), and on each corner, the on-board computer could analyze speed and road position against other cars and the road itself. It could also make adjustments to the preprogramed journey to avoid traffic jams if it was made to take information from other road users – accepting that they also have the system operational. Taking it a step further, the chip I mentioned each person being allocated to prevent them going missing could be logged in the memory of the automobile each time they enter the vehicle, and if they have spent too long driving, the car could prevent them from driving whilst tired (an oft overlooked cause of crashes). This would also have a law enforcement benefit, as the driver of a car could be doubly identified, both by the breathalyzer and the chip identification. It is the small changes which would provide the largest rewards to road users, pedestrians, and those entrusted to keep our roads safe.

Where would the power required to keep the roadside sensors operational come from? Even better than free power, we have limitless free power available to use here – using the motion of the wheels of the cars traveling on the roads to generate the power would offset any cost from installing them. The excess electricity could then be used to keep the street lights lit. It is something which gets brought up from time to time, though (to date) nobody seems to have the nerve to suggest it as something that actually has a chance of being seen through. If there is enough power generated – and when you consider how many cars are on the roads these days, there would be a lot of power generated – then power not used in maintaining the sensors and the lights could actually be sold. There’s a cash cow, sitting there under your asses when you drive to work, as yet untapped.

When I started thinking about the lack of imagination used in building our future, I never expected to find so many deficiencies. It’s slightly worrying that there isn’t more concern about how little we have advanced in the last few years, nor questions raised about the way new technologies are being routinely ignored. This irregular series of missives on the inadequacies of modern technology will continue for a while, or at least as long as I can be bothered to write it, because I really do want to witness first-hand the things we see in films come to pass. We may never make it back to the moon – thank you, Neal Armstrong, for raising our expectations to unmatchable levels – but we might as well make the most of what we can do. That means we have to ask hard questions, then whine about the lack of movement in regulating and disseminating the technologies we should have had a decade ago.

Innovation doesn’t come from companies. Innovation comes from consumers pleading and pestering companies to do the things they should have been doing all along. Go annoy car manufacturers with requests for them to start acting like they are living in the twenty-first century rather than perpetuating the mistakes of the last hundred years. Hell, something as easy as installing five-point seatbelts instead of three-point seatbelts would save countless lives every single year, and that is without bringing into question why run-flat tyres aren’t installed as standard. There are less visible, yet equally impressive advances, in the paint industry which means that scratches should never bother anyone any more. Has it trickled down to the automobile industry yet? Hah. Don’t hold your breath. Dents and bumps in the bodywork bothering you? Has nobody heard of ‘memory’ materials, which reaquire their shape? Apparently not.

We’ve not come very far from the pony and cart, and we deserve much better automobiles than are available.

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Halo Made The News?

Posted by BigWords on August 27, 2010

It’s that time of year again, when eager otaku wet themselves in anticipation of a game which will no doubt fail to deliver, yet still froth at the mouth when a leaked copy of the game makes the rounds. Yawn. Apparently people haven’t learned their lessons from Half Life 2, because the already-yawnworthy Halo: Reach-Around – sorry Halo: Reach – has the rabid fans (and by rabid I do mean the foaming-at-the-mouth sense) to spare. God knows why, for a series built on the dubious premise of killing aliens because… Well, I guess because they are aliens. Yes, it’s one of those games. They might as well call the game Young Aryans In Space and be done with it, because the tone of the game is essentially “kill everyone who isn’t one of us.” The horrible and offensive plot is nothing compared to the awful graphics of the first two games. Sinister undertones are commonplace in FPS releases, but there is no excuse for ugly.

Microsoft is already taking action to fix the problem, but for the millions of twelve year old boys who live and breathe the game (anyone older will undoubtedly see the Heinleinian bullshit for what it is) it isn’t exactly a concern. Jeez, the sooner Halo fans get laid, the better. This is really your generation’s Uplink? The new Deus Ex? The “greatest achievement of gaming thus far?” Fuck. It’s a shallow, fascist, wank-fantasy about the superiority of humans, with a plot that probably makes complete sense to the immature fanbase, but it really is beyond even my ability to to summarize. The main character (an action figure whose poses elicit laughs rather than impressed gasps) is as paper-thin as the physics of the ridiculous Halo itself, a physics-breaking gameplay environment that seems to have been designed on the back of a napkin.

Oh ye merciless gods, there are even books about the twat in the shiny plastic suit whose adventures we are meant to care about. The Master-Race Chief is a self-styled hardass who seems to be mute. Or brain-dead. Maybe both. The rest of the human characters are as ill-defined as

…fuck this. I really don’t care. Seriously. How did this even become news? I’ll do the exactly the same damn thing I did with Halo, Halo 2 and Halo 3 – I’ll wait a few months, then pick up a copy at Gamestation for £4.99. I’m not wasting good money on shit like that. Excuse me while I go off and play something more worthy of my time…

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Refugees Of The Lost Kingdom

Posted by BigWords on August 3, 2010

by Gary James

In the torrid dreams filled with flickering embers came the vision, unfocused at first – as if seen through a heat haze – soon clearing to reveal the indescribable, unmentionable terror which burned eternally far beyond knowing. Mensinus woke each morning drenched in sweat and fear, and – following his carefully set routine – tried as best he could to shake off the feeling that something terrible was soon to occur. Awakening from such dreams day after day was beginning to take its’ toll on the academic. The tumbling, turned-around and swept away reality he had comfortably accepted was a horrifying thought, but as a tangible and all too real nightmare it was unbearable – for ten thousand years the splendor and opulence of the city had been a magnet for the brightest lights in the sciences from across the globe. Representatives of the council had been sent out across the globe to bring together peoples of all cultures to the heart of humanity, but if the flickering sparks of destruction portended in fitful sleep were accurate, then all would be for naught.

In his alcove, Mensinus tried valiantly to concentrate on the scrolls of texts laid out before him. Maps and descriptions of foreign lands spread across the table pointed at the existence of so much he had yet to experience for himself – strange beasts and exotic vistas, wondrous plateaus and beautiful oases… So many experiences to be had, and yet the awful dreams encroached on even his fancies of travel. The flames of destruction were always present out of the corner of his eye, a constant source of perspiration to his brow. The Great Hall which had seemed so cavernous to him as a boy now felt unbearably close, and from his vantage point on the second floor appeared no less than a massive kiln from which an awful smoldering terror would creep, catch and engulf all. His hand swept at the maps, billowing dust into the air from the ancient works. “And here be dragons,” he sighed softly, aware of the implications his words held.

A deep rumble echoed through the hall, followed swiftly by a tremendous shake of the ground. Vases toppled, people fell, and sprawled against the marble floor lay still – expecting, hoping and praying to their gods. Time seemed to crawl interminably slowly as the quake held tight its’ grip on Mensinus. The maps he was studying had flown across the floor into small groups. More chaos beyond the grand doors, those outside (caught, he supposed, in a more serious predicament) were screaming and wailing their torment to any who would listen. The doors to the Hall swung open and an excitable youth brushed past the scholars on the corridor, papers flying in all directions. “Flee. The city is burning, all is lost.” Mensinus raised himself carefully, steadying himself on the table, his heart pounding a tattoo of fear through his entire body. His dream was fulfilling itself.

A sound not unlike thunder took hold in the distance, and the building around him shook more violently than before, great cracks appearing in the granite where faults lay hidden deep within the stonework. It took all his composure to descend the stairs to the ground level, eyes blinking through the sweat of fear – Mensinus’ nightmare enveloping him once more, the horror of untold fears now weighty on the soul. His hands shaking, grasping at the walls as he made his way, one foot unsteadily placed in front of the other, to the reassuring firmness of the street. The sight which greeted him was one of complete disarray. Houses had toppled in on themselves, caged animals had broken free and scattered to the reaches, the elements of civilization had been thrown into tumult.

“Save us. Oh great ones…” Mensinus sank to his knees, “Save us.”

A great cacophony drew his attention to the far shore. The city’s merchant fleet, believed by the to be the greatest and most advanced in the world, had been dashed against rocks as if nothing more than the playthings of children. The scattered timbers looked so small from such a distance that Mensinus couldn’t tell if the sailors had been able to flee for their lives in the disaster. On land also, the tragedy had entangled citizenry in the hitherto unbelievable – the end of all that was. Flames licked the skyline in long, flickering trails, its’ errant embers falling from the inferno to engulf more in the chaos.

As if through a blanket of heat, Mensinus could see someone approaching. Not running, nor perturbed by the encircling flames, but calm and composed – striding forth through the madness as if unconnected to it all, the thin golden-bearded figure remained a focus of intensity. Mensinus held his hands out, “Can you save us, I beg of you?”
“From the fires of hell there is no salvation. But this I speak – there is time enough to flee, for the seas remain open, and far we must spread.” The stranger held out a hand. “Come with me and we will voyage forth.”
“My maps. I must retrieve my maps, for the entirety of lands are documented within them. The world has been charted and is known. They must be saved”
The stranger nodded.

With maps tucked under each arm Mensinus rushed to the shore, through the falling, burning logs and scattered masonry of dashed buildings, to find vessels spared the earlier destruction. The stranger stood proudly upon the bow of the elegant craft, unfazed by the movement of so many peoples from their homes.
He turned as Mensinus boarded. “We must depart quickly, for our time on these shores has come to an end. The heavens will soon shift against our favor.”
Mensinus nodded, “We will make haste for the pillars of Heracles, and on to Athens.”
“Very well.” The bearded man spoke softly, carefully, his eyes focused on things not readily apparent.
The ship broke free of its ropes, and the scattering of the remaining peoples took place. Some by fishing vessels, others by grand sloughs, and a handful of hearty souls dared all in one-man canoes better suited to the inner rivers.

A full day passed on the open sea, and an eerie quietness had overtaken the ship. Mensinus felt the dream heavily upon his heart again, the burnt red skies on the farthest skies – his homeland gone. The stars above him the only constant. The skies… Staring at the firmament he was possessed of the belief that he had witnessed the heavens move in sympathy with his predicament. Then sure enough, again. A prayer fell from his lips as night slipped dramatically and suddenly into day, the sea beneath him wrought with fury, and he knew – deep within his heart – that the city would never burn again. It would be forever frozen as is, eternally held in its’ final moments.

Sometimes the ideas which come to me are slow in forming, taking shape only after extensive thought has been expended on nurturing the concept to fruition, though at other times I am compelled by some strange force and manage to wade through the normally difficult elements of story craft. This particular piece is of the latter description, and is something of an accompaniment to the numerous fire-based flash pieces which AWers have been posting…

There’s a couple of healthy genius bonuses if you are at all familiar with the alternative history books of recent years.

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