Thursday, 1 December 2016

Lingering History - Archaeology of Words

I was writing a story and had my character 'inching' toward a corner. It was a far-future story where inches were ancient history. I live in a country that's been metric for a generation and I've never heard anyone say 'centimeter-ing'. I heard a guy say he'd taken some good 'footage' when recording a video on his smartphone except there's no light sensitive reel of film in his clever piece of tech.

It's not just our language that lingers behind the technological curve. I use various pieces of software and often click on a picture of a floppy disc to save the file. Except floppy discs are 'ancient' history in computing terms. I wonder how long would the icon representing saving data will remain?

That made me wonder what more ancient things have remained with us, some of them so old we've kind of forgotten they still effect us. Sometimes it is a legacy in the language, often the legacy runs deeper, like time.

Twenty-Four Hours in a Day

This was invented by one of the earliest civilisations, the Sumerians, over 6,000 years ago. Twelve is a good number because has many factors and can be factored up and down. It was why the British used to use pounds, shillings and pence (with 240 pence in the pound and children were taught to memorise their 12 times table). Anyway back to time, 12 hours of daylight, 12 hours of night made sense to them. They preferred equal numbers of hours of darkness and light, that meant they stretched and shrank their hours with the changing seasons.

Located in what is now Iraq, the people of Sumer could get away with it, further toward the poles, where the season change meant hours of daylight would were significantly longer or shorter, it needed a bit of fixing (our Greek ancestors did that for us) and there you go.

I started with 12, but the Sumerians had a thing for the number 60, sound familiar? Yep, 60 seconds to 60 minutes, I'm sure they tried 60 hours in a day first (no evidence of that, it's just me). They did go for 360 days in the year. That's twelves and sixties. Funny how we ended up with 7 being lucky.

Next time you check the time you are looking at something that was probably decided by the Sumarian Committee for Time Standardisation and revised by the Greek Committee for Hour Fixing thousands of years ago.


While talking about time, ever wondered about 'clockwise' and why analogue clocks and watches turn in that particular direction? It wasn't a 50/50 chance where some watchmaker picked a direction and all the others went: "Woa man, that's the coolest way to turn we'll all copy that!" It is because that's the way the shadow moves on a sundial in the Western Hemisphere. Early clocks had only one hand because most clock users weren't interested in minutes and seconds and one hand was much like the single gnomon of a sundial.

Next time you look at your analogue watch you're looking at a simulated sundial marking out a time system developed by some clever Iraqi mathematicians millennia ago.

Upper Case and Lower Case

My laptop has a Caps Lock to switch between capitals and small letters. Capitals are often described as upper case and the smaller ones as lower case. Ever wondered why?

In the days before electrons were troubled to create letters on screens, or lasers cured plastic on paper, or ink was sprayed with microscopic precision, it was lumps of lead held in a frame pressing ink to leave the required mark.  Individual dies - or type - were required for each letter and punctuation mark, small letters, used more were held in open racks or cases close to the typesetter and capitals, that were less heavily used were held in cases above them. So in the lower cases were the small letters and in the upper cases the capitals.

Wedding Ring - Fourth Finger Left Hand

We humans are creative beings. Sadly we spend a lot of that creativity hating and developing ways to hurt our fellows. On the up side, we spend even more of it decorating ourselves; be it with snazzy clothes, interesting hairstyles, beards that look like semi-colons for the chin or add-ons like tattoos or rings through our noses and ears. All these have been going on since we've been around since we've painting amazing hunting scenes in caves or 'Wodder's a Jerk' with a spray can on the side of a garage.

Most of why we do these things are so ancient we've forgotten why. One I know about is wedding and engagement rings. In Western culture (I don't mean cowboys culture thought its a subset.) if you meet 'The One' and want to make it formal and engagement ring is the start followed by a wedding ring after the joining ceremony. Why is it that particular finger?

Well what is dominant in the Western culture today and pushing its way into others started off as an Ancient Egyptian tradition. Our Egyptian cousins believed there was a blood vessel that lead straight to the heart and there was been a belief that that is where emotions are seated since probably before we used to daub 'Ugh is a jerk' with mud-based paint in caves. Doing so is putting a ring around the heart.

It started with the Eyptians, was borrowed by the Ancient Romans and the rest is history, or bang up-to-date, depending what day it is.

Oh yeah, it doesn't have to involve diamonds.


This is a lazy one. The dashboard in your car holds all the dials, buttons and probably computer screens by the time this is published. That's not what it once was. It was the board on a cart or carriage that shielded the driver from being dashed with mud and dirt from the road. Think, they'll be dashboards on spacecraft in the future.

Don't worry, I'm not going to talk about why men and women's buttons are on different sides, though it's worth looking up. Let's do one more, even lazier.


'Car' is short for 'Horseless Carriage' and Iron is short for 'Smoothing Iron' and mine isn't iron. I do the ironing with an assembly of plastic, aluminium and copper. There's probably a little iron in there with the lead solder. Yep, irons used be shaped lumps of, well, iron heated over the fire then pressed on to clothes to, clothes.

Maybe future washing machines will deliver laundered clothes fully pressed, I wonder if they'll have a little icon of an iron to show when the the ironing process is underway.

Useful Links

Learn More about the Sumer Civilisation - a brief summary from San José State University.
A Summary of how the Sumerians 'created' time. - a less flippant explanation about Summer and time.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Humans vs Robots

Do you think you can beat a robot in a fight?  It seems quite common in science fiction, particularly SF movies, for a human to defeat a mechanical foe. I don't think it's that easy, or maybe even possible.

I watched a documentary recently about a factory that had a machine for checking bean quality. It looks at hundreds of beans per second. In milliseconds it would recognise a rotten one and knock the rapidly moving object out of the flow of healthy beans. Imagine that technology where the beans are a crowd of humans, the machine has face recognition software and it is controlling a high powered gun. The intended target wouldn't have a hope. That's picking a face from a crowd, consider a charging mass of troops and the same system designed to head-shot every one. Mechanical, efficient, heartless slaughter. There wouldn't even be a chance for the combatants' nerve to break and run away.

Feel confident you can beat the machine now?

Computer games give insights into things one can't face in every day life, for me today its battling robot war machines.

At present I'm playing a computer game called Overwatch. It's a fun shooter with all sorts of characters. One character is  an object lesson in the problem between fictional war machines and real ones.

His name is Torbjorn. He builds an automatic 'sentry gun', a robot gunner that quickly spots and fires on any enemy it sees. It's disliked because it is very hard to beat, especially when there is more than one. Tirelessly it watches, locks onto an enemy and, if it is you, you're in trouble.

After a month of play the developers are already 'nerfing' the gun, making its projectiles less damaging, because it's too effective. Also in competitive play only one is allowed. Still it kills quickly and mercilessly.

It's a good lesson if you're writing science fiction about robots.  If you think of all the famous robots in SF films and some in literary SF, the robots described are often slow and imprecise.  In Star Wars its all about living creatures, yet surely computers as sophisticated as C3P0 will act faster and be stronger. Robots that advanced should be doing all the fighting, who needs flaky Jedi or Sith. A droid army should just wash over a flesh and blood enemy. That's not the story Mr Lucas wants to tell or others. He likes the romance of the less sophisticated defeating the more. Think Ewoks. He's not alone, remember Avatar had the same fantasy.

I'm not down on Star Wars alone. Look at Robocop (the 1987 version) or Star Trek (Check out the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Arsenal of Freedom' for slow bots that shoot with rubbish accuracy.) or Dr Who, most of their machines are no match for flesh and blood, except in reality they are.

Killer Robots are Already Here

The irony is weapon technology outstripped the Star Wars before the first film came out. In the early twenty-first century robot killing systems exist and are very effective. ED-209 from the early Robocop film was behind what was out there already. Not yet 'thinking', but that's not required to kill.

Used to protect warships, Close-in Weapon Systems like the American Phalanx or Dutch Goalkeeper are rapid fire guns that can pick out and destroy supersonic targets at 2 to 3 miles (3 to 4km) in seconds. The X-wings diving on the Death Star would have been shredded. In Star Trek, the slow photon torpedoes would have been intercepted before harming any spacecraft. Who needs shields. In fact this tech may become the first 'shields'.

Then  there are anti-aircraft missiles that can now identify the type of aircraft they are fired at and work out the best way to destroy the target. This is done in the fraction of seconds between launch and impact. Missiles 'thinking' like that are basically robots.  Then they're are the helper systems that assist the warfighter such as computers for snipers, 'smart' mines that listen for an enemy and identifies it before calculating out how to kill that particular foe.

I used to play fighter aircraft simulators and discovered and then researched the auto-firing air-to-air gun. It was a system where the pilot would select the gun and the target then fly into a dogfight. The human could concentrate on the flying and the trigger wouldn't need to be pulled. At the optimum moment the gun would fire automatically. If the cannon shells in the gun are 'smart' then the flyer has facilitated a robot launching another robot.

Think that's more of a weapon-assist rather than a robot, consider this...

Killer robots are already here. It's well known that flying drones have been used to deliver bombs - that's kill people. In the recent tragic shooting of police officers in Dallas, Texas, a bomb disposal robot was used to kill the suspect. (Read about it here). Yes, both those have human operators, but its not long before the human 'trigger puller' is reduced to the person who gave the order to deploy the weapon system.

There are concerns that once the human is removed from the system, then what will be the outcome?Think a sad teenager running amok with a gun is bad, a single war machine mistaking civilian villagers for enemy combatants will be a tragedy on a different scale. Can you raise a white flag faster than a bullet can travel a hundred meters? Many engineers and scientists are concerned about this and set up the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

I'm not going to talk about morals, though it is worth thinking about. There is a campaign to stop landmines, the indiscriminate killers they are. Killer bots would be worse because you might get 'lucky' with a mine and lose a foot or hand, but then the mine is spent. A bot would quickly recognise it's first shot had failed and act to finish you off. No hope of survival there.

Anyway, I wasn't going to talk morals, I'm going to talk about how you beat them, if you can.

Can you beat killer robots?

I always like to think about how to beat the unbeatable or survive the unsurvivable. It's a hobby. Check back to my previous post Avoid Unbelievable Reality in Your Stories where I discuss the impossible like surviving a fall from a great height or being shot at point-blank range.

Head-to-head, if you're an ordinary soul like me, I think you'd be dead. It would be like me going up against a cage-fighter. What if you were a highly-skilled warrior - you'd be dead. The moment the machine recognised you as a threat - boom. Body amour might delay the inevitable, but it would likely be programmed to defeat any protection.

The easiest way to defeat any opponent is before it sees you as a threat, for killer machines stop them being built or destroy them in their factories.

Next is to hit them before they see you. Consider the challenge of trying to sneak up on a prey animal using sight, hearing and smell to detect you, consider a machine might not be limited to our senses, but use radar, thermal imaging and all the wonders of science to spot your approach.

Doesn't look like much hope, but there are ways.

Decoys are the first. Military aircraft use them to fox homing missiles with flares and chaff to confuse their senses. Some forces even use fake aircraft to draw the attention of weapon systems while killing blows are delivered by the real fighters.

Maybe infantry will be carrying decoy systems in the future, or have fake targets running along with them.

The old favourite camouflage is next. Don't look like a target. Challenge the machine to recognise it has to shoot you.

Finally is how you attack. Thinking guns, bombs or magic glowing swords? What about software? Get into the enemy's head (or processor) has always been a good way to win. It could be as you step into the fray your 'wingman' has hacked the system first. Maybe your 'wingman' is a robot fighting the robot for you in cyberspace or for real.

If you've got any ideas on how to beat machines let me know.

It's interesting the Overwatch back story is about a war with thinking machines and the strange solutions humanity selected to win what appeared to be an impossible war. Their final solution - make peace.

Now if only humans could do that, wouldn't this world be great?

Useful Links

Play Overwatch - Learn about the game.  Learn about it's lore too.
Campaign to Stop Killer Robots
Here's a list of close in weapons systems and videos - slow loading bulky page
M93 Hornet Anti-Tank Mine - Is this a mine, which should be banned, or a killer robot, which should be feared, you decide.
Ways to fox surveillance tech  - Ideas to confuse machines.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Bigger Levers

When we create technology we're creating bigger levers.  Levers amplify our motions and all other tech does the same.  Computers amplify our ability to calculate, communicate and create. Telescopes allow us to see further, cars; travel faster and sunglasses; look cooler.

You get the point.

It amplifies the good and the bad in us, worst of all the stupid.  Be careful out there our levers are getting bigger and more powerful and it's really easy to smack someone in the back of the head when you forget how long your lever is.

Enough said:o)