Tag Archives: science

Perihelion Today

During my sunrise time search for New Year’s, I stumbled on this description of a perihelion. Today, Earth is at its closest point to the Sun. It’s a separate issue from day length and season: distance instead of tilt. I had probably heard the term before; I forgot.

Upon relearning it, a corner of my brain started waxing lyrical about elliptical orbits. Drifting away, then circling back in again. It’s an idea I like. I’m the sort who will focus intense attention on something for a while, then wander off to think about something else. What makes it different from just losing interest is how I often swing back around to that thing again.

Video games, half played in a few days, will get picked up for round two months, even years, later. Hobbies learned and abandoned catch my interest again, and all the carefully packed-away supplies are broken out. Ideas percolate slowly. Interests wax and wane (to drift with my astronomical metaphors slightly).

How do you recognize the difference between a permanent loss of interest and a temporary one? What things have you drifted away from? What things have you refound? What other old interests might still be waiting, getting closer to the light again as time goes by?

Migraines: Only Attractive on Paper

Thought I would link you to this little infographic on migraines, because dear gods, my head.

It’s only been for the past few years that I’ve started getting migraines. The first time it happened, I genuinely didn’t believe it was a migraine. Yes, fine, I needed dark glasses and earplugs to be able to tolerate lying still in a dark room. Yes, my head hurt in ways that recalibrated all my pain scales. But I still, in the early moments of it hitting, tried to go outside and function like a human being. I was wrong. About everything. Ever. Ow.

Right now, I don’t in fact have a migraine. I wouldn’t be typing, or looking at a backlit screen, or sitting upright if I did. What I have is three days of fluctuating pain and a creeping sense of doom. If I’m lucky, I can watch what I eat (salt seems to be a thing?), ice my head and neck, and rest, and a few days of feeling awful will be as bad as it gets. If I’m not lucky? Well, migraines aren’t actually fatal, but I’ll wish they were.

I don’t get these often, but if I did, I would seriously want to try this treatment. Hell, I’m tempted to hook my earlobes up to a nine volt (or a car battery) to see if that helps now.

Babel Glass: Translation is Magic

On October 1, 2013, CEATEC Japan opened for five days of technological wonders. The expo looks like a candy store of everything that has touch screens and wireless links and chrome and glass. This isn’t just a big tent for live-action infomercials, though. A lot of these products are still in the development stages, so we are looking at technology that could be part of our lives some day in the future. One of the products being developed is NTT Docomo’s Intelligent Glasses.

The Intelligent Glasses are similar to the much-discussed Google Glass project. There is a headset with an display over the right eye and a camera to scan the world around you. The glasses offer the ability to turn any flat surface into a mock touch screen. A peripheral tracks hand movements in relation to the camera’s field of vision to control this. The camera also uses facial recognition, which is a slightly terrorizing concept to me. I’m envisioning walking through the world with a halo of personal data around everyone’s head, constantly forced to know their status or favorite team or opinions on recent news…wait. That sounds familiar…

Okay, but the really cool part of the glasses is still coming. This is the part that made me want to talk about them in this column, even though I really don’t have anything much to say about turning them into a magical version. Because this bit is pretty much Magic is Science all on its own. They translate. They translate whatever they see.

Holy shit, what?

They can currently handle English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Which is impressive right there, because that’s six writing systems alone. This is the Babel fish and universal translators and whatever excuse they used about the stargates doing something for language comprehension in the Stargate Universe. And this is real. That’s kind of a big deal. We are living in a science fictional universe right now.

You can see a picture of the Intelligent Glasses in action here. The monitor on the left shows, I think, what the person is seeing through the headset as they look at that menu. It doesn’t look like the translation has come through yet, but there is apparently a solid five second delay, so it might still be processing. I did see a news clip, which I do not have a link for, in which they showed the translation on-screen. It appears as an overlay of text on the original. It used as an example the same menu that appears in the photo above.

I would be interested in seeing how the translation performs with more advanced materials. My Japanese is somewhere between spotty and nonexistent because I am many years out of practice with it. I can, however, read much of what is on the menu (the main headings, for example, say soup, salad, main dishes, and dessert). It is written in katakana, the syllabary most often used to render loan words from other languages. So, basically, the glasses are reading English words that have migrated into Japanese use and are written in a special system used largely for that purpose. Point is, translating them back is not the most taxing exercise, relatively speaking. I’d like to see the glasses at work on newspaper articles with higher reading levels or on proper names, such as street signs, where a literal translation is not the correct one.

An Aside:

One thing that bothers me about “global culture” is the way in which English is becoming not merely universally recognized, but required. There’s an article here (via ysabetwordsmith) about prejudice against English speakers attempting to speak the native languages of places they visit. The native people want to use English instead. Learning new, non-English languages is increasingly frowned upon, appallingly enough.

English is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. It can talk about a hell of a lot of things. Not everything, though, which is why I find it so troubling that languages are dying all the time as their populations disappear or get swallowed up by a dominant culture and language. The death of any language means the death of some words that it handled better than anything else. Without words, we have no shared ideas. If English is the only language any of us have, we only have concepts that exist in English (unless/until we invent new words for them).

So, to my way of thinking, commonly available translation abilities would offer an alternative to this anglophone takeover: convenience without conversion. I would rather have translators, even imperfect ones, than a single, universal language.

Between the delay in translation and the limited pool of languages, the glasses are far from perfected. They are, however, goddamn amazing in their potential. I want us to reach a point where simultaneous audio translation is possible for all people, all the time. This is a step in that direction. (I do, however, keep in mind the warning in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy regarding the Babel fish: by removing all linguistic barriers, it has been responsible for more wars than anything else in the world. Knowing exactly what the other person is saying isn’t always a boon.)

Waiting for a Letter: Communication is Magic

I spent the better part of the weekend poised by the computer waiting for emails to come through so I could answer them. Instantaneous communication is generally great, except that now everyone expects it. The message goes through the instant you send it (sort of, unless you have an email provider that can’t sodding get their act together *cough*). People can respond to it instantly too. Which starts to mean they should respond to it instantly. Oh, my life.

I have absolutely no business pining for the age of handwritten letters. I grew up in the computer age, though I was rather late to the internet compared to most of my peers. Even without email and instant messaging, no one was ever more than a few hours away by phone. Leave a message, hear back before the day is out. Written letters were reserved for holiday cards and thank-you notes.

I do pine for that bygone age, though. There is something deeply romantic about letters, those tiny time capsules that carry messages into the future. Stories from WWII always get me in particular. Now and then, the news will run a story of letters lost for decades that finally found their way to the recipient, letters from a frontline to a home front that both disappeared a lifetime ago. One last chance, right? One last chance to express love and hope and desperation and longing, a chance stolen from the jaws of time and death and distance.

I’ve been thinking about doing a series of posts about magic and science and how fiction can transform one into another. I suppose I should talk about instant transmissions–telepathy and wormholes and pervasive vid phones. All very nice things (except telepathy, which freaks me out).

I would rather talk about slow communication, though, so I’m going for the magic end of things. Magic-using worlds vary from the very primitive to the highly advanced. I rather like the inefficiency of the mail owls of Harry Potter, for example. We’re talking about oversized, nocturnal carrier pigeons, for goodness sake. I like the idea of messages that come to me as well. Forget sitting by the computer, trapped by the obligation of instantaneous communication. Let me go about my business and let the messages track me down.

I want to see bubbles used for messages. I wrote a bit about bubbles in my newsletter, Wonder on a Budget. I like the idea of using them to trap a voice, carry the message away, and release the message as they burst. What a horrifically impractical means of communicating, and what a beautiful one. Think of the dangers the world would pose to a little bubble bearing that precious message. Think of the fleets of bubbles one would need to send out to ensure delivery. This is the communication version of nature’s divide between nurturing one offspring at a time and just tossing a horde of them out into the world and hoping for the best.

Even with magic to protect and guide them, I imagine air currents could throw them marvelously off-course. How long would it take for them to arrive then? Would it be a kindness or a cruelty to get that preserved burst of voice years after the fact? What fears could be assuaged, what wounds could be reopened?

After this weekend, I wouldn’t mind waiting a year or fifty before receiving the next email. (I’ll happily take comments, though!)