Tag Archives: science

The War Against the Machines

In which The Author is on the winning side

You probably don’t need me to tell you that I’m a huge fan of The Matrix and The Terminator films (except the most recent two in the series – but that goes without saying). What self-respecting Science Fiction fan wouldn’t be turned on (intellectually) by the idea of self-aware artificial intelligence deciding that it represents the next stage of evolution?
Just this week, an open letter from a thousand respected researchers in science and technology – including Professor Stephen Hawking, no less – warned of the potential dangers of letting autonomous weapon systems loose in combat situations. If you’ve seen the third film in the Terminator trilogy, you’ll remember that that’s exactly what happened: the Pentagon decided to hand the entire US military-industrial complex to a cybernetic system called Skynet, which quickly assumed control and declared war on the human race. While the film may be fiction (now), the possibility of self-aware battlefield weapons is a very real one, and the note of caution sounded by experts in the field probably shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
About this time last year, I wrote a post briefly summarising the development of robots in SF, from Karel Capek’s original play R.U.R., through the Daleks and the Cybermen, to The Terminator and beyond. (I can’t insert a link to it here, because I’m using a public access PC in Aberdare Library, instead of my Netbook, and Internet Explorer won’t let me open the archive.) Now, it seems, the real world may be about to catch up with the fiction.
I should explain that I’m only using Internet Explorer because Firefox crashed when I tried to access the Guardian crossword in its PDF version about half an hour ago. Normally, I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.
In turn, I’m using a public access PC because the wifi in the library isn’t working. I wasn’t at all surprised when I failed to connect this morning. I was here yesterday too, and it took a call to the No Help Desk and about a forty minute wait before another regular and I were able to log in. When the entire public access network started to collapse, at about 3.30 p.m., I knew we’d be in for a blackout today. I know some of the local authority staff have taken reduced hours as part of staff cutbacks, but I’ve never before encountered a piece of fucking computer hardware that only worked a four-day week.
Even when I have been using my Netbook, I’ve been forced to use an external USB keyboard. The built-in keyboard died a fortnight ago. Fortunately I had an external keyboard at home, so I’ve had to cart that around with me ever since. Once I got used to having a numeric keypad where there isn’t usually one, and got over the habit of taking screenshots by mis-hitting the keys, it’s a decent compromise until I can fit a new keyboard.
Even before my Netbook started playing silly buggers, the flat screen monitor attached to my desktop PC had gone on the fritz. There must be a loose connection in there somewhere, as there was an unpleasant crackling sound from within whenever I switched it on, and I had to fiddle with the mains cable to make it stay on. After a while, I couldn’t even switch it off – it just went into self-test mode and cycled through a series of pleasant colours until I switched it off at the plug. Now it seems to have died entirely. There’s a similar model in the library displaying exactly the same symptoms. Still, I shouldn’t grumble, as my friend Jennifer gave it to me a few years ago when my old CRT monitor bit the dust. I’ve seen one in a second-hand shop, so I’ll probably be able to pick up a replacement fairly cheaply.
The final insult came during the early hours of Sunday morning. At precisely 2.11 a.m., in fact. My Nokia semi-smartphone (ringtones, camera, Internet capability) was sitting on the shelf above my bed as usual. It beeped once. I wasn’t asleep anyway. Graham, the hero of H. G. Wells’s novel When the Sleeper Wakes (see Another Security Leak From the Future) stayed awake for six days and nights before falling into his 200-year coma. Only six days and nights? When it comes to insomnia, that’s strictly fucking amateur league.
It wasn’t the sound it makes when I receive a text – as happened a fortnight earlier, when Anna decided to text me in a drunken rage at about 5 a.m. It was the electronic equivalent of a hungry baby’s cry – it wanted me to charge it up.
I wouldn’t have minded normally. I knew the battery was fairly low, as it had been bleating plaintively all through Saturday morning. I gave it a quick burst before heading to Cwmbach in the afternoon, and then forgot to plug it in when I got home. I switched it off (the equivalent of an old school mother giving her baby a drop of gin?) and gave it a full charge in the afternoon.
On Tuesday it went flat again.
It did the same on Thursday afternoon.
After getting a full charge from zero yesterday morning, it’s now firing on about half a tank. I’m going to London on Tuesday, so I’ll have to make sure it’s fully charged on Monday evening, otherwise I could be stuck without a timecheck when I’m wandering around the city.
Skynet is still displaying evidence of its presence in the library IT network, by the way. The crosswords from the Guardian and FT were sitting in the print queue, waiting for me to ask Judith to release them, when the printer suddenly came to life just now. I thought it must have been something which Judith herself had requested – but no, my crosswords appeared as if my magic. (Or, maybe, as if by potentially hostile AI software.)
Considering what a terrific job I’ve done in the past few months of rendering various pieces of electronic technology all but useless, I’m thinking of changing my name. I can’t decide between Thomas Anderson or John Connor. Personally, I think you can just call me Neo and have done with it.

Moon Shadow

In which The Author digs out an old book

A couple of weeks ago, one of my Facebook pals shared a link about an eclipse in the UK this month. I hadn’t seen any mention of it myself, so I decided to look into it. There is in fact an eclipse due, on Friday 20 March, just two days after my birthday. I wondered why I hadn’t come across it in my old copy of The Guinness Book of Astronomy Facts and Feats (2nd edn) by Patrick Moore, published in 1979. (He was plain old ‘Mr Moore’ back then, by the way.)
The answer turned out to be more straightforward than I’d thought. Sir Patrick’s listings stopped at the total eclipse of 11 August 1999. It was logical enough, I suppose, to declare a cut-off point at the end of the century, rather than spend pages and pages listing all the forthcoming eclipses for decades to come.
Eclipses are more common than you might think. In fact, the maximum possible number in any one year is seven, made up of solar and lunar eclipses. As Sir Patrick himself pointed out, ‘in 1935 there were 5 solar and 2 lunar eclipses, and in 1982 there will be 4 solar and 3 lunar’.
Of course, whether you get to see any of them depends on a combination of factors. Your own location on the Earth’s surface is the key to how much you’ll get to witness. I vaguely remember standing in the yard of Comin School in Trecynon, looking into the sky through a piece of smoked glass. I think that must have been the partial solar eclipse of 11 May 1975, when I was nine years old.
Here in the UK we didn’t get any more Moon-on-Sun action until the summer of 1999. This was really exciting, because it would be a total eclipse – always assuming that you were right at the south-western tip of Cornwall at the time. Here in South Wales, we could look forward to about 95% totality.
Even though I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere near Lands End, I swapped a day off work (it was a Wednesday) for the occasion. I left the house in good time and took my little viewer up to the playground near the old Dare-Aman Line, where a gang of local kids had gathered to watch it for themselves. We spent our time passing the viewer around, taking turns to watch the eerie spectacle of the sun gradually being nibbled away. The birds stopped singing and it quickly became much cooler as the shadow of the moon advanced across the solar disc. I sketched out a quick diagram on a piece of paper to show what was happening, and the whole occasion turned into an impromptu science lesson.
Next Friday’s eclipse is also set for fairly early in the morning. Always assuming it doesn’t piss down, I’ll probably head for high ground and take my viewer with me again. I might even try and set up a camera obscura and photograph the solar disc at various stages. That had been my plan on the previous occasion, but it was far too breezy. We’ll have to see what happens on the day. Unlike eclipses, we still can’t predict the weather with any reasonable accuracy.
According to Sir Patrick,
The first known prediction was made by the Greek philosopher Thales, who forecast the eclipse of 25 May 585 BC. This occurred near sunset in the Mediterranean area, and is said to have put an end to a battle between the forces of King Alyattes of the Lydians and King Cyaxares of the Medes; the combatants were so alarmed by the sudden darkness that they concluded a hasty peace.
Here, for your entertainment and edification, are some more highlights from his book:
The longest possible duration of totality for a solar eclipse is 7m 31s. This has never been actually observed, but at the eclipse of 20 June 1955 totality over the Philippine Islands lasted for 7m 8s.
The shortest possible duration of totality may be a fraction of a second. This will happen at the eclipse of 3 October 1986, which will be annular among most of the central track, but will be total for about a tenth of a second over a restricted area in the North Atlantic Ocean.
The first recorded solar eclipse seems to have been that of 2136 BC (22 October), seen in China during the reign of the Emperor Chung K’ang. The Chinese believed that eclipses were due to an attack on the Sun by a hungry dragon, and they endeavoured to scare the dragon away by making as much noise as possible. (It always worked!) There is a story – probably apocryphal – that on this occasion the two Court Astronomers, Hi and Ho, were executed for their negligence in failing to predict the eclipse.
The first official American total eclipse expedition was that of 21 October 1790, when a party went to Penobscot, Maine; it was led by S. Williams of Harvard, and was given ‘free passage’ by the British forces, but unfortunately a mistake in the calculations meant that the party remained outside the track of totality!
The only emperor to have died of fright because of an eclipse was Louis of Bavaria, in 840 (his three sons then proceeded to engage in a ruinous war over the succession).
The only astronomer to have escaped from a besieged city in a balloon to study a total eclipse was Jules Janssen. The eclipse was that of 22 December 1870, and Janssen flew out of Paris, which was surrounded by the German forces. He made his way safely to Oran, but clouds prevented him from making any observations.
The longest totality ever recorded was during the eclipse of 30 June 1973. A Concorde aircraft, specially equipped for the purpose, flew underneath the Moon’s shadow and kept pace with it, so that the scientists on board (including the British astronomer John Beckman) saw a totality lasting for 72 minutes! They were carrying out observations at millimetre wavelengths, and at their height of 55 000 feet were above most of the water vapour in our atmosphere, which normally hampers such observations. They were also able to see definite changes in the corona and prominences over the full period. The Moon’s shadow moves over the Earth at over 3000 km/h.
The first attempt to show a total eclipse on television from several stations along the track was made by the BBC at the eclipse of 15 February 1961. The track passed from France into Italy and Jugoslavia, and thence into Russia. The attempt was successful; totality was shown from St Michel in France (commentator, Dr Hugh Butler); from Florence in Italy (C. A. Ronan); and from the top of Mount Jastrebec in Jugoslavia (myself). This must also have been the most peculiar way in which a television commentator has spoken to the technical crew. I talked French to a Belgian astronomer, who relayed it in German to the senior Jugoslav, who passed it on to his companions in Serbo-Croat. This was no doubt why, at one stage, we showed pictures of mountain oxen chewing the cud rather than the eclipsed Sun!
I doubt whether next week’s eclipse will produce any stories as interesting or bizarre as those.
But you never know.
On the morning of 11 August 1999, I bumped into an old hippy mate of mine from the Carpenters days – a casualty of heavy alcohol and drug abuse during his younger days – walking his dog Poppy along the line. Later that same morning I saw him wandering through Aberdare – on his own.
My first thought was, ‘Oh, no! He’s sacrificed Poppy to bring back the warm yellow god in the sky!’