Turing’s time

Last night we attended the world premiere of Sentences, Nico Muhly’s homage to Alan Turing, composed as a performance by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. It was a lovely performance, consisting of seven sections, each relating to an aspect of Turing’s life. As Muhly said earlier in the week, they didn’t want to put together a typical gay tragedy, and in this they succeeded. Time will tell, of course, how durable of piece of composition it really is, but the Barbican crowd certainly enjoyed it, giving both Muhly, who conducted the glorious Britten Sinfonia, and Davies several standing ovations.

The libretto was by Adam Gopnik, whose day job is as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. In the program notes, Gopnik makes an interesting point—writing something new these days about Turing is like writing something new about Robin Hood. The myths have become so ingrained that’s it’s hard to come up with anything truly new. Turing has been not only rehabilitated, he’s nearly been canonized. Continue reading

The Tech Curmudgeon – iMacs “Assembled in USA? Don’t make me ROTFLMAO….

iFixit iMac teardown

iFixit iMac teardown

The Tech Curmudgeon read today that some Apple iMacs have been showing up in the States with the words “Assembled in USA” etched into the aluminum on the back. According to the NBC-LA blog press:here, this implies that Apple may have started to do “some real work… somewhere in the United States.” And Apple Insider, the site that appears to have broken this non-story, writes that the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) “substantial transformation” critera means that the iMacs had to be getting more than merely screwed together from 100% imported parts.

When the Tech Curmudgeon read this at lunch today he nearly spewed Red Bull all over his screen he was laughing so hard. Clearly neither the NBC-LA blogger nor the Apple Insider writer had ever built commodity electronics. The Tech Curmudgeon has, and let him tell you what Apple’s claim means: it means that Apple’s marketeering department got hold of the laser engraver, and nothing more.

In theory, “Assembled in USA” means just what Apple Insider says it means, namely that the new Apple was “substantially transformed” as its imported parts were turned into a finished computer. But theory represents reality a lot more often in theory than it does in reality.

The FTC writes that Customs defines “substantially transformed” as

a manufacturing process that results in a new and different product with a new name, character, and use that is different from that which existed before the change.

Customs is part of the Department of Homeland Security, and the FTC doesn’t really get to say what does and doesn’t qualify as “substantially transformed.” Sure, the FTC writes that merely screwing together foreign computer parts isn’t “substantially transformed,” but if Customs says it is, the FTC is stuck with what Customs says, not the other way around.

Long, long ago in a city far, far away, the Tech Curmudgeon actually built commodity electronics that were marked as “Assembled in the USA.” And even though all the components except for the aluminum box were imported from Mexico and Hong Kong, it was still right and proper to say that the electronics had been assembled in the USA for one simple reason: loopholes. Specifically, loopholes the size of Mack trucks.

First, products made in Mexico at the time were defined as having been made in the USA because of NAFTA. Free trade required that products made in Mexico and Canada be treated identically to those made in the USA, and so Mexico-manufactured components were still marked “Made in USA.” Last the Tech Curmudgeon checked, Nogales and Cuidad Juarez weren’t part of the USA.

Second, assembling the foreign-made components takes more than a screwdriver. Why, it took the Tech Curmudgeon’s former employer a pair of pliers, some Loctite, the insertion of several computer boards that were mated together using idiot-proof, self-guiding electrical connectors, a torque wrench, and a screwdriver. And what really put it over the top was that the completed product was (gasp!) tested in a US factory. Clearly it was assembled right here in the United States of America, right?

The Tech Curmudgeon’s former employer sold commodity electronics products that were 90% foreign manufactured material and that took maybe 15 minutes to assemble and another 5 minutes to test, yet they were legally permitted to say that the products were “assembled in the USA.” So you’ll excuse the Tech Curmudgeon if he doesn’t buy into Apple’s marketeering.

The Tech Curmudgeon looked at the iFixit teardown of the iMac that started all this laughable speculation, and he noticed a few things. For example, the fan was made in China. So was the LCD display. And the power supply. The AirPort module – made in Korea. The hard drive – made in Japan. The only parts that don’t say that they are foreign made are the main electronics board and the attractive brushed aluminum case.

The way the Tech Curmudgeon figures it, the best case is that the main electronics board was assembled in the USA and bolted into a USA-manufactured aluminum case along with all the other foreign-made electronics. But that’s best case. More likely, however, is that the main electronics board is actually made outside the USA just like everything else is. While the Tech Curmudgeon don’t have any proof of this, he’d guess that the board is made in Mexico or some other free-trade partner, shipped into the US using a NAFTA-like loophole, and then the entire iMac put together from 90%+ foreign-made components.

Who cares, right? It’s an Apple and so the iMac is clearly God’s Jobs’ gift to consumers, and Apple buyers are above all that country of origin nonsense. Bullshit – American consumers care a lot about “Made in the USA.” “Made in the USA” was a major enough slogan back in the 1990s that foreign car makers moved entire assembly lines to the US just to be able to bypass that nativist sentiment (that there were tax benefits too merely sweetened the pot). Nativism and isolationism is again on the rise in the US, and so Apple’s marketeering people are trying to gain a competitive edge for their products against their competitors like HTC (China), Samsung (South Korea), Nokia (Finland), and Sony (Japan). And Apple is probably trying to claim that mythical moral high ground defined by “Assembled in the USA” from Google and it’s subsidiary, Motorola, before they claim it for themselves.

“Assembled in USA” is nothing more than a calculated, cynical marketeering ploy by a company that has turned cynicism into high art. If you believe for a moment that Apple’s products are really “Assembled in the USA,” the Tech Curmudgeon has a nice telecom startup that is expected to hit profitability any day now to sell you at a nice low price.

Changing science fiction, changing the world: Scholars & Rogues honors William Gibson

I have been known to say that William Gibson is arguably the most important author of the past 30 years. That’s a mouthful of an assertion, especially since we’re talking about a genre writer, I know. But even if I’m wrong, I’m not off by much. The man who more or less invented Cyberpunk, then abandoned it as quickly as he defined it, did more than simply alter the direction of science fiction, he literally helped shape the computing and Internet landscape as we know it today. That’s pretty big doings for a guy who had never so much as played with a computer before he wrote his first novel.

This story we’ve heard before, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version for those late to the party. Gibson’s Neuromancer (the first novel to ever win the SF triple crown – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick awards) introduced us to cyberspace, a “consensual hallucination” in which humans used computers to navigate around the global online network. He imagined it as an immense, three-dimensional virtual space, and as his “Cyberspace Trilogy” (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) unfolded, we also encountered killer viruses, psychic online projections of humans whose flesh was being kept technically alive in protein baths out in meatspace, and even artificial life forms that had evolved from advanced artificial intelligences created by powerful corporate interests. Continue reading

How digital is transforming politics: a special report from Mashable that's well worth a look

Unless you’ve been off-world for a few years, it’s not news that electronic media technologies are exerting a dramatic impact on our political sphere. However, being generally aware of the fact and having a more detailed understanding of the hows and whys, that’s another thing.

Our good friend Josh Catone and his colleagues over at Mashable have just released a fantastic series (http://mashable.com/2012/10/02/politics-transformed-special-report/) entitled Politics Transformed: The High Tech Battle for Your Vote, and to say it’s illuminating is to badly understate the case. Some of the specific issues addressed include: Continue reading

Coming of age in the games industry: The Collective Agreement

by Michael Smith

It’s no secret that the video games industry likes to compare its successes to those of the film industry. For several years now, game sales have surpassed the box office. The recent Avengers film set an opening weekend record, grossing $200 million in its first three days. Compare that to last November’s hit game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which did $400 million of business on day one. And that doesn’t even get into the recent revolutions in social gaming and the ironically named free-to-play games.

In spite of this, the film industry continues to lead the games industry in one important way — a sustainable business environment. Continue reading

Kara is self-aware: technology is climbing out of the uncanny valley, but toward what?

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotic and 3D computer animation, which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s human likeness.

This, from the folks at game developer Quantic Dream, is simply remarkable.

Continue reading

The Tech Curmudgeon – "Technology" means more than gadgets, people

The Tech Curmudgeon looked up the word “technology” in his dead tree American Heritage Dictionary, and just in case he was dating himself, he looked up the word in an online dictionary too. Both dictionaries generally agree with each other that the word “technology” means the application of science or knowledge to achieve a practical objective. That’s a pretty broad definition that takes in anything from stereo systems to car engines to air- and spacecraft to oil extraction equipment. So the Tech Curmudgeon wants to know when was it that “technology” came to mean just personal gadgets, social media, and smartphone apps? Continue reading

Kindles, books and libraries

OK, so I got a Kindle. This is a major step, for someone who is as much of a book junkie as I am. Actually, more like a book magnet. And after decades of buying books, they add up. Especially since I’m a packrat, as Mrs W never tires of pointing out, and living in a flat with limited space, it leads to books three deep in the bookshelves, that sort of thing. Of course, there’s the occasional cull, but that just clears out space for a while that fills up again. Then there’s the feeling that while I’m not likely to read any Dan Brown ever again—once was enough—there’s still no reason to believe that a single tree should ever be sacrificed for a Dan Brown book, as Mrs W once commented. Elitist, I know, but there it is.

So I thought about this for a while, and a couple of years ago we borrowed one for a long weekend from the son-in-law, and Mrs W really liked it, but that was in the US, and for a while there the availability of titles in the UK was pretty sparse. Continue reading

NASA, American exceptionalism, and me: older, and less viable

Fourth in a series

As a child turning teen in the late 1950s, the black-and-white RCA in the living room received only three channels … well, four, but we didn’t watch PBS. So I read. Newspapers, of course (after Dad finished sports and Mom finished news). And books. The library was only two blocks away, so I spent afternoons there sampling the stack. I was a small-town boy at the end of the idyllic “Father Knows Best” decade of Eisenhower placidity, a geeky kid feeling the first pangs of puberty.

I longed for adventure beyond being a Boy Scout or tossing a football with neighborhood pals. In the library I found adventure stories set in space, spun with well-chosen words and exquisitely crafted plots.

I discovered Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End.” Then Robert A. Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation and Empire.” Science fiction (or, in Clarke’s case, science prediction) captivated me. I became a sci-fi cognoscente.

Then, in 1957, came the shocker: Sputnik. Continue reading

The Space Shuttle: first thoughts on the end of an era

Second in a series.

I just watched the space shuttle Atlantis take flight for the last time, and I’m trying to figure out why I feel so much like I did after my grandfather died.

Is it because so much of my life has been defined by my attitude towards space exploration, and because the space shuttle symbolized that?

Is it because the first shuttle went up when I was eight, I saw Challenger blow up at 13, saw Columbia break up on reentry when I was 30, and have now lived to see the end of American space flight for the foreseeable future at the age of 38? Continue reading

Remembering the Space Shuttle: "Something has happened…"

This article originally appeared on July 8, 2011. We repost it today to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster.


First in a series.

A few moments ago, at 11:30am EDT, Atlantis lifted off, marking the 135th and final mission in NASA’s historic Space Shuttle program, which began in 1981. The Shuttle era was defined by glory and tragedy and perhaps even a bit of banality. After all, the first time you do something it’s exciting, but at some point it becomes routine, even if the something in question involves lobbing over 2,000 tons of metal into space.

Over the coming days, as the crew of Atlantis orbits the earth, conducting experiments and, one hopes, taking a few moments to enjoy the ride, the staff at Scholars & Rogues will be offering a series of personal reflections on the program. We have also invited some guests to drop by, including our rocket scientist buddy Dr. Michael Pecaut, who has had quite a few experiments up on the Shuttle (and is at Kennedy Space Center right now working on yet another one). Continue reading

Art and music and a special Friday Night edition of the Saturday Video Roundup: let's get the 4th of July weekend started!

Heading down to the First Friday event in the Highlands Gallery District here in a bit, and am very much looking forward to seeing mentalswitch’s eyePhone show at Sports Optical. You’ve seen some of his iPhone art here before, in fact, and tonight – lots more. Head this way, Denver folks.

Meanwhile, I’m ramping up for the evening with some new tuneage. Just downloaded last year’s Fitz & the Tantrums CD and I’m rapidly falling in love. Here are a couple of samples.

Y’all have a good one, y’hear? And if I don’t see you, happy 4th. I’ll be doing barbecue, Lexington style, with some good friends. You won’t be eating as well as we are, but have fun the best you can…. Continue reading

Haste, cost erode editing of online and mobile news

In 1976, I was a general-assignment reporter of limited experience and minimal accomplishment. So my editor kindly fired me, then said: “Now get your ass up on the copy desk where you belong.”

I knew little about copy editing. So I asked my newsroom godfather: “Neil, what do copy editors do?”

He looked over the rims of those 1950s spectacles he favored and said, “Defend your reader.”

“Against what?” I asked.

Error,” he said. “Any error possible.”

The memory of, or, perhaps, even the desire to exercise that dictum may remain in today’s newsrooms. But the ability of copy editors today to defend readers against error has inexorably been eroded. That decimation of editing capacity has been fueled by computerization beginning in the late ’70s and continued in this past decade by the sacking of newsroom staffs and the insatiable demand of management to get stories online or winging to mobile devices right now.
Continue reading

Bitcoin – and digital currencies – retrace the troubled history of banknotes

Commenting on Thomas Lowenthal’s original article at ArsTechnica on Bitcoin and the dangers involved in introducing a new currency.

The closest parallel to a pure digital currency play is the travails of paper money. Coinage is at least based on the value of the coin making up the face value. Paper money has no such associations which is why the gold bugs still want to return to the standard.

Money is only valuable when backed by a government that can use sufficient force to ensure that it will be used for all trade, debts and promissory notes. When a person asks, “You and what army?” a government can easily respond. Continue reading