Geek stuff Archive

The insane innovation of TI calculator hobbyists

In the mid-to-late 2000s, you either knew, or were, that kid in grade school. You know. The one who could put games on your graphing calculator. You may be surprised to learn that some of these people didn’t exist totally in a vacuum. There was in fact a thriving scene of hackers who had bent these calculators to their will, writing games, math software, and more generally hacking on the platform just for the sake of it. True to my interests, it’s all deeply embedded, pushing the limits of platforms that were obsolete when they were released. I’ll take you through some of the highlights of Texas Instruments calculator hacking done over the past two and a half decades, along with an explanation of why these projects are so technically impressive. A friend of mine and I at high school bought the data transfer cable for our graphing calculators so we could play multiplayer Bomberman on them in class. Good times.

The software behind Eurovision

Whether you like the Eurovision Song Contest or not, no one can claim they don’t put on an extravagant show. After watching the performance last night, the thing that stayed with me most wasn’t the music, but the stunning lighting effects, visual effects and camera work. The 1831 lights, 24 cameras, 380 speakers and hundreds of mics all need orchestration in a way that’s hard to comprehend. Software makes it all possible. This year CuePilot was used to manage the entire production. CuePilot allows them to pre-programme all movement and to create a script for programming the lights, to pass to the camera operators and so on. It even allows them to create an entire pre-visualisation of the show — a 3D rendered simulation — before any footage has been shot. It’s so nice that we work now in, actually it feels like a videogame. I cut my shots in CuePilot, I send it to , they put it in the venue, and the venue is complete 3D of course now, with the light, with the movements, with the LED content and actually I see the song or the performance in actually real time and more-or-less real life. The objective is not just to create an elaborate show, but also to manage the emotions of the audience watching it. Gil Laufer, an MSc student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and Eurovision fanatic, has researched the effect it has. Our hypothesis was that pre-programmed camera work will result in a more unified experience among the viewers. A unified experience means that in terms of emotions and their intensities, each individual among a group of viewers would feel the same as the other group members. This can be measured and later analyzed using statistical methods. The conclusions drawn from the research is that pre-programmed camera work can result in a more unified experience compared to manual camera work. The ability to do that depends on the overall creativity value of the production, which in turn depends on various aspects such as the number of cameras and the available shooting angles, the production team’s proficiency in using tools as CuePilot, and in the time that the team got to spend on the production. Musical productions may not be the usual fare for OSNews, but the fact is that the sophistication of orchestration, simulation of the final show, and bridging between the software and the hardware its controlling, just wouldn’t be possible without the developments made in operating system and software integration over the last two decades.

Booting from a vinyl record

Most PCs tend to boot from a primary media storage, be it a hard disk drive, or a solid-state drive, perhaps from a network, or – if all else fails – the USB stick or the boot DVD comes to the rescue… Fun, eh? Boring! Why don’t we try to boot from a record player for a change? I hope he’s using gold-plated triple-insulated Monster cables with diamond tips and uranium signal repeaters, because otherwise the superior quality of the vinyl will get lost. Would be a shame.

The golden age of computer user groups

The Homebrew Computer Club where the Apple I got its start is deservedly famous—but it’s far from tech history’s only community gathering centered on CPUs. Throughout the 70s and into the 90s, groups around the world helped hapless users figure out their computer systems, learn about technology trends, and discover the latest whiz-bang applications. And these groups didn’t stick to Slacks, email threads, or forums; the meetings often happened IRL. But to my dismay, many young technically-inclined whippersnappers are completely unaware of computer user groups’ existence and their importance in the personal computer’s development. That’s a damned shame. Our current reality may largely be isolated to screens, but these organizations helped countless enthusiasts find community because of them. Computer groups celebrated the industry’s fundamental values: a delight in technology’s capabilities, a willingness to share knowledge, and a tacit understanding that we’re all here to help one another.  And gosh, they were fun. I wonder if we’ll ever see a rebound, the pendulum swinging back, where people who grew up in the screen age long for more personal contact and reignite the interest in these old-fashioned user groups. After the current crisis is over, of course.

Recommended YouTube channel: PBS Space Time

I'm going to do something different today - I'm going to highlight a YouTube channel that I personally really enjoy, and that I think might be a good fit for OSNews readers as well. I plan on doing this more often, since I feel a text/article-only focus leads to OSNews missing out on a bunch of really great and informative content. The channels I'll be recommending will all be focused on technology and science, and since I have a deep disdain for the stereotypical spammy, clickbaity YouTube channels, you can be assured I'll only be recommending truly informative and quality channels.

I'm going to start off with a channel called PBS Space Time.

Space Time explores the outer reaches of space, the craziness of astrophysics, the possibilities of sci-fi, and anything else you can think of beyond Planet Earth with our astrophysicist host: Matthew O’Dowd.

Matt O'Dowd spends his time studying the universe, especially really far-away things like quasars, super-massive black holes, and evolving galaxies. He uses telescopes in space to do it. Matt completed his Ph.D. at NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute, followed by work at the University of Melbourne and Columbia University. He's now a professor at the City University of New York's Lehman College and an Associate at the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium.

Space Time does not shy away from hardcore astrophysics, covering subjects like quantum field theory, quantum physics, the theory and mathematics of black holes and other astrophysical phenomena, and much more. Videos range from 10-15 minutes, and many subjects are spread out over many videos - the content is in-depth, purely scientific, and definitely not always easy to grasp. I'm currently watching Planck's Constant and the origin of quantum mechanics, just to give you an idea of what to expect.

There's a decent back catalog of videos to enjoy, so if this is your cup of tea, you've just got a whole bunch of new tea to drink.

MIT has developed a ‘system for dream control’

There is a borderland between waking life and the uncharted wilderness of sleep that we all traverse each night, but we rarely stop to marvel at the strangeness of this liminal world. If we do, we find that it is full of hallucinations both wonderful and terrifying, a mental goulash of reality and fantasy.

Usually we pass through this state of half-wakefulness on our way to deep sleep within minutes. We may experience microdreams during the transition, but the content of these microdreams appear to be random and we usually don't have any memory of them when we wake. A team of researchers led by MIT doctoral candidate Adam Horowitz wants to change that.

Horowitz and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab have developed a relatively simple device called Dormio to interface with this unique stage of sleep. Their hypothesis is that this liminal period between wakefulness and sleep is a fount of creativity that is usually lost in the ocean of sleep. The thinking is that if you’re able to descend into that stage of sleep and return to consciousness without descending deeper into sleep, you will benefit from the intensely associative thinking that characterizes the strange microdreams experienced during the transition to sleep.

There's so much we don't know about sleeping, dreaming, and the brain as a whole, that I'd be quite nervous about using devices like these before we have a better understanding of our brain. Still, if it works, this is quite cool.

What Deep Space Nine does that no other Star Trek series can

Fifty years ago today, on 8 September 1966, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek appeared on television for the first time - and forever changed the world. There's an endless string of articles all over the web, but as one of those Deep Space Nine fanatics the rest of the Trek world rather not talk about, this great article by Annalee Newitz really struck a cord with me.

Without this stubborn nugget of hope at its core, DS9 would be more like the 2000s version of Battlestar Galactica - a story about space mysticism and war that's laced with a fatalism about humanity. Ron Moore was an executive producer on DS9 and the creator of BSG, so the overlap makes sense. But on DS9, we are immersed in a world where our faith in the basic decency of intelligent beings can remain unshaken. Whether solid or liquid, most of the creatures who live on the space station always do the right thing. And most importantly, the good guys prevail not just because they are good, but because they are able to put their ideals to practical use. More than TNG and Voyager, DS9 helps us understand how humans got from the Bell Riots to social democracy in space. Our heroes do it by resisting imperialism and inequality and by allying themselves with other people who do. That's why the Federation has struck a deal with the Bajorans rather than the Cardassians.

"Do you think they'll be able to save us?" The best scene in all of Star Trek (this one's a close second).

Thank you, Mr. Roddenberry.

A new theory explains how consciousness evolved

Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that's why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?

The Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed over the past five years, may be able to answer those questions. The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right - and that has yet to be determined - then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.

I know this really isn't what you'd generally expect to be posted here, but the concept of consciousness - one of a small set of words in the English language I cannot spell from the top of my head without making errors - is one of those things that, when you think too deeply about it, you enter into a realm of thinking that can get deeply uncomfortable and distressing, like thinking about what's outside the universe or what "existed" "before" (quotes intentional) the big bang.

Personally, I'm one of those insufferable people who ascribes the entire concept of consciousness to the specific arrangement of neurons and related tissue in our brain and wider nervous system - I don't accept religion or some other specific magical thing that makes us humans (and dolphins? And chimpansees? And whatever else has some level of consciousness?) more special than any other animal in terms of consciousness.

I also don't like the controversial concept of splitting consciousness up into an easy and a hard problem, because to me, that just opens the door to maintaining the religious idea that humans are somehow more special than other animals - sure, science has made it clear some other animals have easy consciousness, but humans are still special because we are the only ones with hard consciousness. It reeks of an artificial cutoff point created to maintain some semblance of uniqueness for homo sapiens sapiens so we can feel good about ourselves.

You can take the whole concept of consciousness in every which way, and one of my recent favourites is CGP Grey's video The Trouble With Transporters, which, among other tings, poses the question - if you interrupt your consciousness by being teleported or going to sleep, are you really the same person when you rematerialise or wake up?

Have fun!

Kepler mission discovers bigger, older cousin to Earth

NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the "habitable zone" around a sun-like star. This discovery and the introduction of 11 other new small habitable zone candidate planets mark another milestone in the journey to finding another "Earth."

All the recent successes in space - Philae/Rosetta, New Horizons, the never-ending stream of discoveries from Keppler, like this one - actually make me sad, because it makes me wonder how much more we could've achieved and discovered has we not developed this anti-science and pro-war climate we've been living in for a while now.

Maybe these new achievements will reignite the hunger for space. We can hope.

Leonard Nimoy, Spock of ‘Star Trek’, dies at 83

Leonard Nimoy, the sonorous, gaunt-faced actor who won a worshipful global following as Mr. Spock, the resolutely logical human-alien first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie juggernaut "Star Trek," died on Friday morning at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 83.

"Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most... Human."

Elon Musk Is Warning us of Rogue Artificial Intelligence

We've highlighted the dire warnings of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk in recent months regarding the perils of artificial intelligence, but this week he actually managed to raise the bar in terms of making A.I. seem scary. More at Mashable. My take: I worked on AI 20 years ago (wow, time flies). I don't believe that we will ever create anything truly sentient. Intelligent and useful for our needs, yes. But truly sentient, no. For something to become evil, it must be sentient. Anything else, if it ever becomes problematic, it would just be software bugs, not evilness.

7 Awesome Bits of Tech That Just Freakin’ Disappeared

Carol Pinchefsky contemplates commercial skipping DVRs, and other tales of really good technology that vanished, in 7 Awesome Bits of Tech That Just Freakin' Disappeared. As Pinchefsky writes: "...It got me thinking about awesome technology that we somehow ditched. The airship? Awesome. Slide rules? Awesome awesome. Mir Space Station? Boss-level awesome. And now just thinking about wristwatches with calculators makes me suffer a sense of short-term nostalgia (as in Douglas Coupland's Generation X). Here are some of the coolest features and products that we’ve lost along the way to 2012.

Wall Street’s Cult Calculator Turns 30

Matthew Rothman bought an HP 12c financial calculator for his first job out of college in 1989. Years later, he still has the same calculator. And he still uses it constantly, just like thousands of other 12c enthusiasts. "Whenever I switch jobs, I just peel the old business card that is on the back and tape my newest one on," says Mr. Rothman, head of quantitative equity strategies at Barclays Capital in New York. Sales of the device, which debuted in 1981, haven't slipped even after its manufacturer, Hewlett-Packard Co., introduced more-advanced devices or even, two years ago, a 12c iPhone application, which replicates all the calculator's functions, the company says.

The Computers that Power Man’s Conquest of the Stars

"Watch a Nasa shuttle burning a path into space or a video of Saturn's rings taken by the Cassini satellite and it's hard not to marvel at man's technological prowess. But the surprising truth is that space exploration is built on IT which lags many years behind that found in today's consumer gadgets and corporate PCs. To this day, Nasa still uses elements of technology that powered the moon landings of the 1960s and 1970s, while the International Space Station - the manned station circling the Earth 250 miles above our heads - relies on processors dating back more than two decades."

HP Brings Classic Calculators to iPhone, Windows

I guess the tragic death of Michael Jackson put the internet on hold or something, as the amount of news we can find has come to a grinding halt. I did find something interesting, though: HP has made several of its classic calculator models available as iPhone applications or as Windows applications. I'm personally not particularly versed in the world of mathematics (other than statistics), but I do know the love many geeks have for their calculators.

Comedy Central Confirms: Futurama Returns 2010

Futurama is coming back! The animated series, loved by many geeks, is the second show in the history of television to be brought back to life after a cancellation (the other one's Family Guy, also by Fox), mostly due to strong fan demand and very good sales from the series of direct-to-DVD films. Comedy Central ordered 26 new episodes to be made, and airing will start in mid-2010. Matt Groening, one of the two show's creators, said: "We're thrilled 'Futurama' is coming back. We now have only 25,766 episodes to make before we catch up with Bender and Fry in the year 3000."

Simulated Brain Closer to Thought

A detailed simulation of a small region of a brain built molecule by molecule has been constructed and has recreated experimental results from real brains. The "Blue Brain" has been put in a virtual body, and observing it gives the first indications of the molecular and neural basis of thought and memory. Scaling the simulation to the human brain is only a matter of money, says the project's head. The work was presented at the European Future Technologies meeting in Prague.

OSNews Asks: What Star Trek Race Would You Want to Be?

Due to the success of the previous incarnation, I'd figure we do another 'OSNews Asks' item; it's a nice way to get to know each other a little more on matters that are in itself fairly irrelevant. We'll continue down the path of irrelevance by asking: What Star Trek race would you want to be, given the choice? And, of course, why? I'll start: definitely Betazoid. Reading minds, telepathy, maybe even empathic abilities, no weird ridges or other facial deformations, black eyes - what's not to like? Post your choice in the comments!