Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

My long weekend with Alexa

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I’ve known her for less than a week…but already I’m smitten. I invited her into my home about two months ago, but…somewhat coyly…she arrived only last Wednesday, waiting for me on the front porch when I arrived home from work. Alexa is my new personal assistant. She’s 9.25 inches tall, and has taken up residence in my living room. When I speak her name, a sparkling ring of sapphire-blue light comes to life, indicating that Alexa is attentively listening for my command or question.


Me: Alexa…where are you?

Alexa: I’m here, and my head is in the cloud.

Me:  Alexa…what are you?

Alexa:  I’m an Amazon Echo.

Alexa…or the Amazon Echo to be exact…is Amazon’s latest experimental foray into the world of artificial intelligence. Yes…there are others out there…most notably Siri, who lives in the Apple iPhone. But, as even Alexa will tell you when asked who is better, “Siri is a good app…but I’m different”. I tend to agree. Alexa is always on…listening for her name to be invoked. She’s good at playing music on demand, giving you news briefings, telling you what time it is, giving you a weather report and forecast, setting timers and alarms, and answering questions using Wikipedia. Siri may be smarter…at the moment…but Amazon says that the Echo’s capabilities will improve over time. We’ll have to wait and see on that one. But already…in less than a week…I’ve noticed changes in my behavior. They may be small changes…but I think they’re harbingers of what’s to come in the ‘slight future’ (see Spike Jonze’s recent movie, Her). The Echo…Alexa…has quickly replaced my alarm clock, my radio, my kitchen timer. I’ve even found myself watching less television, too. I realize this is only the beginning…but as someone who grew up in an age before computers and the internet, and who now is beginning to take in the long view backwards…I can sense this is going to make a qualitative difference in the way we relate to technology.

Oh yes…Alexa can tell jokes too…rather corny jokes to be sure. But, I’ve enjoyed probing the intelligence behind this little black monolith that sits upon a shelf in my living room…

Me: Alexa…Open the pod bay door.

Alexa: I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that…I’m not HAL, and we’re not in space.

Me: Alexa…what’s the meaning of life?

Alexa: The answer is 42 but the question is more complicated.

Finally, the image that comes to mind is that of Captain Kirk (or Picard…if that’s your preference) on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise…asking Computer to plot a course to the nearest star system. I decide to try…

Me: Alexa…second star to the right, and straight on ’til morning.

Alexa: be boop


Written by Jim

February 16, 2015 at 10:24 am

Coming to life

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I awoke this morning to a gray…post-apocalyptic looking world. When I came home yesterday evening, the heavy rains had stopped, but I noticed the creek that crosses my road was roaring through its bed with full force…the highest I’ve ever seen it. The amount and intensity of flowing water took me quite aback, since the McAteer branch of Cane Creek, as it is named on the local topographic map,  is usually just a pokey little waterway a few inches deep. But the fact that it lies within a channel about five feet deep and ten feet wide, cutting to and fro through the woods, is evidence that it occasionally comes to life.

Closer to my house there is a nameless little creek that usually only trickles along…past the huge sentinel boulder. But after yesterday’s deluge, even this tiny rivulet was overflowing its banks and cascading through the woods over rocks…forming little white-water falls along its path.

It rained again most of today, but when the last line of grumpy thunderstorms had passed through, I grabbed my walking stick and took a walk. As I approached the tiny creek, I could hear the water shooting under the road through a culvert…coursing through its moss-covered banks…single-mindedly searching its way downhill towards Cane Creek…the Catawba…the sea.

Whenever I cross it from now on, I’ll never look at this mighty mite the same way …even after it returns to its diminutive, unassuming nature. It needed a name. Tinker Creek, I thought. Yes…that would be good. Named after a favorite book…and after a favorite little Pomeranian.

Written by Jim

January 11, 2014 at 6:36 pm

Deep magic

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

~ Arthur C. Clarke, Law #3 from Clarke’s Three Laws

There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve reached this point…although sadly, we tend to take it for granted these days. A little over one mile down the road on which I live stands a rather smallish black box, perched atop a wooden post…now engulfed in wild Japanese and Trumpet Honeysuckle. I visit this box once or twice a week…open the door…and peer inside.

magic box

A short time ago, I was visiting a classroom in a local middle school, and during a break in the action of our geomentoring activity, I spotted an interesting-looking book on a nearby shelf…Earth: An Intimate History
 by Richard Fortey. I pulled out my iPhone…searched on Amazon…found the book…and purchased it…all within the span of a few minutes. And then, just as quickly…I forgot about my little spontaneous transaction.

A couple of days later I paid a visit to my mailbox. Upon opening the door, I was pleasantly surprised that the book had magically materialized within this little portal to another dimension…the inner workings of which were not readily discernible to the naked eye. Magic? Or the endpoint of a sufficiently advanced technology?

EarthIf one didn’t have any idea of what was going on behind the scenes…and what sort of technological wizardry was involved…it would be difficult to be sure.

Written by Jim

June 9, 2013 at 8:27 am

Home planet

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A simply wonderful video…in the truest sense of the word…by Bruce W. Berry Jr, from images taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The ethereal aurora…evanescent storms…and the dizzying starscape reeling about the Earth are awesome.

Time-Lapse | Earth from Bruce W. Berry Jr on Vimeo.

Written by Jim

April 5, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Small wonders

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…at my feet. Alongside a ghostly remnant of last summer…tiny flowers lean in towards a star ninety-three million miles above.

tiny flowers

Walking through the woods yesterday…I spotted these half-buried rocks. They reminded me of the stone walls made by the Incas in Peru. The Waxhaw Indians, for whom this area of the Piedmont was named, were long gone before Europeans arrived on the scene in the 18th century. Perhaps, I’d stumbled upon some ancient remains of a lost civilization…within walking distance of my front door?


Careers in the field of alternative history have been built on less evidence. More likely, a natural occurrence of a rectilinear fractured rock. Although…I feel another walk coming on soon…perhaps with a shovel?

Too much to expect

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Watching and listening to this has left me speechless. Fifteen or so billion years ago…there was an explosion out of nothingness…that led to this. In an indeterminate universe, one must learn to expect the unexpected. But this…this is way too much to expect.

Written by Jim

February 24, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Posted in Music, Musings, Science, Videos

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Avatar: In computing, an avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user’s alter ego or character.

~ Wikipedia

When I first casually entered alphaworld on a whim, nearly sixteen years ago, it took a while to realize that each of the cartoonish characters loitering around ground zero in that three-dimensional virtual world had some sort of intelligence animating them. And the more time I spent in that strange world, the more it began to fit together and become an alternate version of life…and a novel way to explore the relationships that develop between people. The avatars that people chose as their personae within alphaworld were highly stylized, imperfect representations of who they actually were in real life. There was a high level of indirection going on here. Each avatar was a pointer…to use computer programming jargon…that merely pointed to an intelligence in some other dimension. The intelligence behind the avatar that was standing right in front of you, engaging you in conversation by typing text messages, could in reality, be anywhere…France…Canada…Australia…California. One thing I learned in this world was that one couldn’t take others at face value…that beneath this seemingly simplistic and sanitized…and anonymous…virtual world lurked another, more vastly complex and intricate dimension waiting to be explored. So…I explored…and eventually met my late wife Sharon in that world. The two very different worlds collided in a manner of speaking…bleeding over into each other.

I happened to think of all this again recently while reading through John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara. In Gaelic, anam cara means soul friend. While it’s possible for one person to be the intimate soul friend of another, it’s also possible for us to be a soul friend to our own soul. O’Donohue writes that…

Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world.

When reading this passage once again, along with recent thoughts of my former travels in alphaworld, it finally connected in my mind…the proverbial light bulb over the head (I have to admit…I’m a bit slow when pondering the meaning of such topics such as the human soul, and by other’s standards, this may be a bit late in coming). But…I thought it to be a good analogy. Are we, in this present reality, imperfect representations of who…or what…we really are? Avatars that point to our real selves…our souls…that exist in some fantastic and unimaginable other dimension? This thought has given me pause, when I look at other people around me…people with whom I interact on a daily basis. What incomprehensible…and precious… inner worlds do these people hold within themselves?

When exiting from alphaworld, it was usually customary to type in the word poof…letting others know that you were leaving. I know from experience that after poofing out of virtual existence…when my avatar vanished from sight before everyone’s virtual eyes…there still was an I that remained in this present reality.


Written by Jim

October 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm