Geeks and Gadgets at Gaylaxicon!


I’m speaking this evening at Gaylaxicon about Geeks and Gadgets, so I did some homework to get in the mood.  Here is my line up of the top (or at least randomly discovered) 17 things* all good geeks should know exist:

1.  The Hi-Call Gloves: awesome gloves that let you talk to your hand!

2.  The Fancy app – like Pinterest, but it lets you actually buy stuff!

3.  Simpl: I haven’t used this, but it promises me I can design websites from my tablet – why you need a website so quickly that you can’t use a real computer, I have no idea – but here we are.

4.  Shoes with GPS! I need these.  I am always lost.

5.   PDF Pro – write your notes right on the pdf

6.  Google Goggles: take a photograph of something and let it guide your search! 

7.    This is a Transparent Glass Toaster.

8.  Also the toaster that prints the weather on your toast:

9.   Cool new mind mapping software from Exobrain

10.  You know you wish you could use the Facebook in your shower!

11.  Haiku Deck – okay, so again – really?! You are so busy you need to create your presentation on the bus – but yeah, maybe you are.  Or maybe you forgot about it all weekend and now you’re up the proverbial creek.  Either way, this app looks pretty cool.


12.  Glow in the dark fingernails?  Hell yeah.

13.  I have handy man envy and often wish I was better at building stuff.  Well, at least now I can safely hammer a nail.



14.   Prismatic:  Sticks all your social media stuff in one spot. 

15.  Project Glass – We know this one – Google’s making glasses that overlays virtual information on your vision.

16.  Wanna watch tv on your wall?

17. And…drum roll please…this is the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen.  Turn your smart phone into a robot.  ZOMG, I want this.

*Yes, 17.  Because it is an awesome number not seen often enough in our popular culture.

Curiosity gets a taste of Martian Soil

Have you been following the new Mars rover, Curiosity, as it explores our nearest planetary neighbor?  Well then, you won’t want to miss out on the rover’s first use of its complex, on-board, chemistry lab!

Rover Gets Set to Scoop, Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The lab is central to Curiosity’s mission, because the mobile lab will allow NASA scientists to figure out if this region of Mars could have ever sustained life.  There are a lot of different environmental conditions that have to be present for a planet to have life – even tiny, microscopic life.  According to NASA the fundamental requirements for life as we know it are liquid (not frozen) water, organic compounds and an energy source for metabolism (all the chemical reactions that organisms go through).  So, Mars would have needed to be a lot warmer to sustain life.   And, its current atmosphere is too thin for liquid water to exist on the surface of the planet.  But, there is evidence that there once was running water on Mars.

Tools at Curiosity’s ‘Fingertips’
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

And so, Curiosity is going to use its robotic arm to scoop up a little bit of Martian sand and dust and then test it to find out its chemical composition.  Curiosity performs these experiments with three instruments – collectively called the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite, better known as SAM.

Sample Analysis at Mars Instrument
Image Credit: NASA

NASA describes these three instruments: a mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, and a laser spectrometer.  The mass spectrometer separates elements and compounds using their mass.  This helps scientists identify them.  The gas chromatograph heats soil and rock samples until they vaporize.  It then separates these gases into their components for analysis. The laser spectrometer measures the different isotopes of  carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in atmospheric gases. Understanding the ratios of these elements is crucial to the mission because they indicate whether Mars could have supported life.

This image from NASA’s Curiosity rover shows the open inlet where powered rock and soil samples will be funneled down for analysis.
Photo Credit: NASA

Curiosity is also going to look at the minerals in the soil using an instrument called the CheMin.  The CheMin is an X-ray Diffraction (XRD) instrument that also has X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) capabilities. That data will be sent back to Earth and NASA scientists will analyze it. Because minerals indicate the environmental conditions that existed when they formed, scientists will be able to see if water was involved when the minerals were formed, deposited or altered.

View of Rocknest
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Right now, Curiosity is just in the testing phase – NASA scientists wanted to test the rover’s arm at a sand dune that Curiosity is currently exploring, called Rocknest.  The entire analysis will take two to three weeks, before Curiosity begins its 325 foot journey to its next stop: Glenelg Intrigue.  This location is unique because it is where three types of Martian terrain meet.

Eventually, Curiosity is heading to Mount Sharp to test the clay at its base.  That clay might hold clues to Mars’ past.

COBOL and the Governator

A student in my class posted about the impending crisis (possibly current crisis) that will occur when all the COBOL programmers retire.  It was a really smart connection to make and it made me think of one of my favorite stories from the history of software.

The COBOL retirement wave is a real problem – in 2006 Computerworld conducted a survey of 352 IT managers and 62% of the respondents were still actively using COBOL.

We don’t teach new programmers how to use COBOL and experienced programmers don’t want to maintain other people’s code, because it’s like trying to navigate the labyrinth of another persons mind –  in a different language.

My favorite example of the COBOL dilemma will always be Schwarzenegger in 2008:

The Governator wanted to cut the salaries of state employees because California was in a budget crisis.  But, to reconfigure the payroll system would take a minimum of six months.  Why?  Because (in part) the last round of layoffs had cut California’s part time COBOL programmers!

And that is why you have to love the history of software.  Arnold Schwarzenegger thwarted by the 1970s version of Skynet

The iPhone 5 Release


The iPhone 5 was released this week and it is slimmer, with a larger screen – but that’s not why I’m writing this post.  Instead, with Apple in the news again, it prompted me to think about the interesting history of the company.

Apple has really been in it for the long game.  They were not always the behemoth they are today.  Everyone has heard the apocryphal stories of Apple’s modest beginnings, but some of us may have forgotten the hard times that Apple has gone through.  For example, in 1997 Microsoft invested $150 million when the failing computer company was on the verge of bankruptcy, in part because of the ill-fated Newton project.

But what Apple has had from its inception is an incredibly talented staff.   And many of those staff were right in Silicon Valley, their light being hidden under a bushel at the Xerox Parc Research Center.  Xerox Parc was the black sheep of Xerox—a heady research environment, developing inventions and innovations that didn’t fit the Xerox product line.  The researchers at the Palo Alto based Xerox Parc produced some of our most important computing technologies, including the mouse, the first graphics program—Superpaint, graphical user interfaces, and Ethernet networking.   Xerox found it difficult to capitalize on these new technologies, and marginalized the elite research institute within the company, creating discontent.  Many of these unsatisfied computer engineers left Xerox Parc for the fledgling Apple Inc.

Xerox PARC has been one of the most influential organizations in computing and while Xerox wasn’t able to capitalize on their developments, with the leadership of Jack Goldman, they created an environment that supported the inventions and innovations of many of the luminaries of the computing revolution. And that reputation still holds true. PARC is currently working on flexible, printed, organic electronics.

Apple keeps their corporate history pretty close to the vest, but hiring Alan Kay, Gary Starkweather and Larry Tesler has to put you ahead of the curve.   Kay is one of the founders of Object Oriented Programming—a dominant programming methodology.  He created the Dynabook, the inspiration for laptops and tablets.  His personal computing philosophy drove the modern information revolution.   Gary Starkweather created the first laser printing technology at Xerox PARC and he later developed Apple’s color sync technology.  Tesler, another Xerox PARC graduate who left for Apple, created the first use of “copy and paste” and later became the VP of the shopping experience for Amazon.

Apple has been playing the long game.  The company has focused on innovation since their inception.  They have lured many great computer scientists and engineers away from other organizations.  Now, that focus is paying off in spades.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Apple/Xerox Parc story read Malcom Gadwell’s article in the May 2011 issue of the New Yorker.  Or, for a longer look, Michael A. Hiltzik’s 1999 book, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age.


Space hazards!

Wired informed me today that the Europeans (in conjunction with NOVA) had developed a “Heat-Seeking Telescope [that] Tracks Deadly Space Rocks”.

I’m torn on this.  On one hand, I think to myself, Really?  You spent this kind of money (€30 million) to address the pressing concern of how we can track deadly asteroids.  But then, I think, why the hell not – we spend significantly more money on wars, why not keep an eye on deadly asteroids, too.

Then I realized that the Europeans were actually reporting this completely differently.  The point was to keep our satellites safe from space debris and dust that wouldn’t actually make it to earth.  A little less sexy, but way more sensible given how substantial our dependence on satellite technology has become.

EDIT: As it turns out, upon further research, we are not only trying to track deadly space rocks, we are also in the process of building a fence to keep them out.  How did I only just become aware that we are building a Space Fence.  (Yes, that’s really what they call it.)

Photo credit: Nancy DuVergne Smith

Did I mention the Mars Rover is AWESOME?


NASA.  Seriously.

Planned Parenthood

Listening to Cecile Richards coalesced some of my opinions on Planned Parenthood and why it is an issue worth talking about on the national stage:

  • Estimated number of abortions averted by Planned Parenthood contraceptive services each year: 277,000
  • Percentage of all Planned Parenthood health services that are contraceptive services: 34%
  • Percentage of all Planned Parenthood health services that are abortion services: 3% (Numbers that show this as higher are including emergency contraception in their “definition” of abortion)
  • Planned Parenthood provides nearly one million Pap tests and more than 830,000 breast exams each year
  • Planned Parenthood provides nearly four million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections
  • One in five women in the U.S. has visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life.

(Numbers from Planned Parenthood)

So, if we pull funding for Planned Parenthood, where are these services going to come from?  How do we support the 277, 000 unwanted children that could result from reducing access to contraception?  Who will provide pap smears to the women who used to use Planned Parenthood?  Would rampant breast, ovarian, uterine and cervical cancer in low-income families improve our economy?  Apparently not – at least according to the CDC who is currently spending big bucks on a marketing campaign to make us aware of the threat of gynecological cancers.  One of the problems with cutting this funding is that you need to replace it with something else.

Moreover- why does Planned Parenthood get that funding?  Because in 1970 Nixon signed Title X into law, providing family planning services to low income families.  Not only did Nixon sign this into law, this vote was bipartisan – The Senate vote was, in fact, unanimously in favor of the law.

Why?  Because it used to be common sense that women who can plan their families to work with their incomes and life stages were better parents and better prepared for the workforce. (I’m paraphrasing, but see Brad DeLong’s post on this to see the details)

The ongoing point made by social conservatives is that this isn’t a battle worth fighting – that progressives are pandering to the woman vote by placing this at the forefront of their platform, but isn’t the same true on the other side – Planned Parenthood has received Federal Funding with little outcry for over forty years – why is it suddenly the subject of such divisive tactics?  Isn’t that also pandering?

And most importantly – for those that think we are in a post-feminist era, please note, we are sitting here discussing Title X funding, but who’s ever heard of 42 USC § 247b–5 – the act that provides federal funding for prostate cancer screenings?  Or protesting the use of Medicare for ED medication?  Because men’s health issues are just that, health issues.

Programming and Religion

An interesting question came up in my class on Tuesday. I was asked whether religion has acted as a catalyst or an obstacle on programming.

In programming specifically, the only area where we hit the really existential questions that intersect with religion would be in AI – and these are the sort of questions faced by androids the world over – do you have a soul, emotions, a personality… well, okay, they are the kind of questions androids would face if we had created an android.

But more broadly, the role of religion in science and technology is a fascinating question – we often think of religion as the obstacle to science: Galileo’s house arrest, Bruno being burned at the stake, but religion was also the keeper of scientific knowledge during the Dark Ages (Medieval period). The Jesuits (an order of the Catholic Church) are responsible for some of our most basic of scientific knowledge; Einstein and Newton were both very religious and credited their religion as inspiration or guidelines they used in their work.

Religion doesn’t just sit shoulder to shoulder with science. There is a relationship between them that informs and influences our understanding and interpretation of both.

I think on a personal note, that the history of science teaches us the fallibility of human knowledge – in the sense that we have come so far so quickly, and that there is so much we don’t yet understand about our universe, that believing in science should not preclude believing in your faith (whatever that faith may be).

In programming, the social constructs that act as barriers and catalysts tend to be political – things like funding debates, research choices – and the enormous impact these can play in how technologies develop.

On a lighter note – what if programming languages were religions?

Curiosity Lands on Mars!

After traveling 357 million miles, Curiosity landed on Mars!  That was quick!  No, really – it only launched 9 months ago.   This thing is amazing.  It lands with a parachute. I mean, really, a parachute!

Curiosity isn’t just on a scenic mission either, it’s got some real work to do while it’s traipsing around Mars.  It has an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument called a CheMin that identifies the minerals in the samples gathered by the robotic arm.  It’s going to analyze the upper atmosphere, to try and figure out where Mars water supply went.

Which is really funny in a historical context.   Giovanni Schiaparelli first suggested there were canals (and therefore water) on Mars in 1877, as a result of what we now know to be a optical illusion.  By 1909 Martian Canals had been completely discredited and until the Mariner 9 mission in 1971 that was the end of the story.

Mariner 9 found surface features that suggested water had eroded the surface, canyons and river beds.  But now, with Curiosity, we are not only answering the question of if Mars had water (not only did it, it might still have water!) but where that water went!

Finally – as Jon Stewart pointed out – Curiosity has a death ray!  Well, an instrument named ChemCam that uses laser pulses to vaporize thin layers of material from Martian rocks or soil from twenty feet away!  Kind of a death ray, if you’re a small piece of rock.

NASA rules.

CONvergence: Women in STEM fields

Today I spoke at the science fiction convention, CONvergence, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The panel was about the role of women in technology.

One of the points that often gets lost when we discuss women (or the lack thereof) in the STEM fields is the reason it is a problem that women are underrepresented.

Sure, we hear about the financial disparity between STEM jobs and other fields, or that it is discriminatory, but in my opinion, the real reason it is a problem that women (and minorities) are excluded is that we are doing a disservice to the STEM fields.

One of the ways we conceptualize the Sciences (and by extension, the STEM fields) is as a method of asking questions about the universe. On an individual level, the questions we ask are influenced by our backgrounds. By excluding large groups of people, we narrow the questions we can formulate and, by definition, the answers we will find.

This isn’t just a question of improving the lives of women, or creating a more just society, it is fundamentally about strengthening our STEM fields by introducing and including different perspectives and background knowledge.