Max Headroom, 20 Minutes Into The Future

26 07 2008

So I used to love a campy sci-fi show back in the 80s called Max Headroom. It only lasted 15 episodes and is considered one of the most underrated sci-fi series of all time. You can find a few full episodes here. Basically it was about a TV reporter named Edison Carter (completely unrelated to this post, but in Vulcan that would be Edihsuhn Kartuhr) who gets seriously injured while investigating some bad guys. The last thing he sees is a sign that reads “max headroom”. A teenage computer prodigy named Bryce is tasked to find out what Edison had discovered so he downloads his memories into an AI system he developed. Edison makes a full recovery, so now there are two copies of him — one human and one AI. The first thing the AI says upon bootup is the last thing Edison saw, hence the name. The show didn’t have the best dialogue, but the story itself was pure genius.

The concept involves the network where Edison works, Channel 23. They have the 1984-esque ability see out any TV that is tuned to their channel. Max soon discovers he has complete freedom to move about the network and do the same thing, which means he can spy on anyone tuned to channel 23. This takes investigative journalism to a truly ethical edge.

Click the image for a video of the show’s introduction. This intro was always followed with the words “20 minutes into the future…” which then began the episode.

The series came at a time when I didn’t understand how far off-base I was relative to the rest of pop culture. I watched Dr. Who on PBS. I watched the original Battlestar Galactica (which ran for only eight months). I saw Weird Al’s UHF in the theater. I read Philip K. Dick and dreamed of electric sheep. It seems like I have always been attracted to anti-pop. I liked cyberpunk, and Max Headroom was the definitive TV cyberpunk series, but it just wasn’t that popular to the rest of America at that time. Now that I’m older I find I’m still doing it. I like U2 and The Who, but most of the music I listen to will never be found in a best-seller list.

This show never jumped the shark; it just couldn’t get the viewership. The stories were so complex that if you didn’t watch every single minute you would get behind, and there was no catching up. A couple of times I missed the first five minutes and spent the next 55 trying to figure out what was going on. This was radically different than just about anything else you could ever find on television — then or now. Except for the X-Files, most plots are simply recycled scripts from past hits that TV execs know will keep people watching. [“That’s not why people watch TV. Clever things make people feel stupid and unexpected things make them feel scared.” –Fry] But the real killer was that Max Headroom was placed in a time slot in direct competition with Miami Vice. Seriously, if you lived in the 80s would you watch Matt Frewer or Don Johnson? Yeah, you and about 30 million others. Which is why it was canceled in its first full season.

I’ve been thinking about what it would take to have a Max Headroom comeback since it was touched on in an article. The show was about artificial intelligence, corporate government, and Big Brother. Well, those things aren’t really futuristic anymore. Even the special effects, which were really cutting edge at the time, can be done on any modern laptop. But I don’t really care about what special effects get featured, because most producers now-a-days use special effects for crowd-pleasing explodobomania (thorshaya in Vulcan!) scenes instead of exceptional Contact-type surrealism, so meh to the special effects. I’m afraid that if a Max Headroom movie, mini-series, or even web series were to emerge it would become a fast-paced shooter with a gutted plot and looming doomsday scenarios. What I really want is for it to push the concepts of the ethics of giving rights to an artificial intelligence beyond what could be demonstrated in a family-friendly Star Trek episode. If the intelligence was allowed to traverse any connected system, what would ever make it stay ethical? Would morality apply? Could any court hold it accountable? I think this would be a good outline for a potentially great story.

Now someone just needs to write it!


Brian Cox, Headbanger

23 07 2008

Dr. Brian Cox is quite famous in Europe.  He’s kinda like the Neil Tyson of the BBC.  This is a commercial that promotes his new documentary on Time.  The guy on the left is the former keyboardist for The Talking Heads.  I love this!

Plus, here’s some footage from his documentary with him lip syncing.  FTW, can you tell me which songs he could’ve chosen to make himself appear cooler?

AGS needs a kick in the keester!

22 07 2008

[Before I begin, you can probably tell from the title that this is going to be a rant. My students can tell you that when I get in a mood to go off I tend to ramble and can’t stay on topic. This post won’t be that entertaining but it does have some important points I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s directed toward the Arkansas education system, but it might obliquely apply to you as well.  Enjoy! heh.]

So I was incredibly honored to be nominated for Arkansas Governor’s School’s Educator’s Day (are all those possessives grammatically correct?) by one of my favorite students, Max Roy. I didn’t even teach at Parkview this year and he still nominated me! Thanks, Max. Thanks a million. Some day I hope to do you a real solid in return.

I can’t overstate how much my students mean to me. My mom called while I was there and asked what I was doing. “I’m about to get a free lunch for being one of Arkansas’ Inspirational Educators,” says I. “Wow. That’s great! Why didn’t you say something about this earlier?” “Because, in the end I don’t really care about the nice treatment and the free lunch. All I care about is that my job allows me to inspire a student from time-to-time.” I mean that.

I appreciate the honor. It’s a re-affirmation to me that I’m doing something right.  I sometimes require hard work from my students, but never more than I know they can handle.  When I look at a student who’s struggling in a difficult class, but won’t back down and take an easier class, that’s when I’m touched the most.  And I know that student will feel better about themselves from the struggle.  That’s an awesome feeling you can’t get in a basket-weaving course. Not even an underwater basket-weaving course!

Everyone wants to feel successful, but not at the cost of lowering the bar. Have you ever, and I mean *ever*, been proud to have people applaud you for doing half the job of a peer? Of course not. Modern schools have a warped sense of priorities. Making kids feel good about themselves has risen to the focus of greatest importance. After sports, of course. We don’t care how kids feel about their athletic abilities if we’re winning. (Thank God they haven’t opened AGS to athletics… yet. And to coaches everywhere, “athletics” has only three syllables!)

Back to the point of this post. I attended AGS as a student 19 years ago. (Sheesh! I’m old!) It was the most amazing six weeks of my life. I was altered forever. We all were. But the school was quite different then. I hate telling my students that anything in the past was better than what it is now, even if it’s true. It’s just rude and pointless to make those observations, yet I still do it. At least, I do it when talking about things I’m passionate about. And AGS is one of those things. Back then the competition to get in was rough. There were 1600 applicants for 400 slots. The process was rigorous and we were judged on a dozen different factors, not just GPA. I aced the math section of the ACT and was still worried I might not get in. The students I found there were absolutely brilliant. I felt so out of place every day. These people were so knowledgeable and creative that I could barely hold a conversation with them. I loved it there. This year there were only 500 applicants. I am convinced after talking with several folks on the selection committee that the process is still rigorous, but when you *have* to fill all 400 slots you have to take some of the shaft with the wheat. Yet, that’s not the biggest problem I see with the AGS of today.

Back in 1989 when I attended, Hall High School in Little Rock sent 17 students. That was the most any school sent. Conway sent 13, and the other schools sent less. Not because those schools didn’t have the brain power, but there was just so much competition from around the state. My whole county only sent three students. With kids coming from all over it was a really diverse community. And I loved it. I met so many people there who weren’t like me. This was quite foreign to a kid from an all-white, 95% Baptist, farming community. I met Vietnamese, Kenyans, Brazilians. Buddhists, Hindus, atheists. Flag burners, ROTC sharp-shooters, future politicians. We all took the big Meyers-Briggs test to classify our personalities then we wrote our designations on our nametags to further demonstrate our diversity. Not sure what it means but it turns out my personality was the exact opposite of Hitler, but at that time I was an extreme introvert. AGS helped change that.  Often you’ll find diversity is something the larger schools are accustomed to and the smaller schools fear.  That makes the thought of attending somewhat distasteful for both groups.

This year Central High School sent 60 students. Several other schools sent more than 20. What diversity could possibly come from that? The smaller schools aren’t sending kids like they used to. Governor’s School still means something to the larger schools, but the rural areas, for whatever reasons, have stopped pushing their students to attend. But they’re the ones who need to attend.  The more diverse your environment, the more growth you can have.

I strolled the campus for over an hour and sat in on a couple of classes. What I found was a moderate amount of diversity but the students arranged themselves into groups of people who looked identical. It’s as though the magic of AGS is gone. I saw kids from the same school sitting together during their free time. What can you learn from someone you see everyday anyway? Spend time with people who are nothing like you if you want to grow! I just can’t see these kids having the same connection to each other like my class did. Speaking of spending time with others, I found out that the dorm rooms have unlimited internet access this year. Blasphemy! We weren’t even allowed to talk on the phone except during certain times and on the weekend. We could have a radio in our room but no TVs anywhere. We got most of our news from the newspaper. For those who think this is archaic, remember that I attended during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tienanmen Square protests and we still felt quite connected to the world. I would wager most of the students spend at least an hour each day tied to their computer in their rooms. Yes, what a memorable experience that must make.

The people who oversee AGS need to see these changes as something that could eventually bring the program down. The only thing that keeps the school going is the alumni who are now part of the process. They are educators, politicians, …voters. With each legislative session there is a special committee that determines AGS’s fate. There was a time in the early 90s when I was asked to speak before that committee (because I was an officer in the alumni association) to defend the school in light of an incident that had a lot of folks pretty upset. These legislators spoke in hard numbers because the cost is exorbitant. Today the torch has been passed and some folks in that committee think of AGS in the first person, so I’m not worried about it getting shut down right now. But there will come a time when the students who are attending now will become the decision makers. If their experiences are summed up in references to activities and special speakers, I don’t see the school continuing. How can you have a unique and life-changing experience in a place that wasn’t considerably different from college?

Fortunately, I’m not just pointing out the problems;  I have solutions!

What they need to do is limit the number of students coming from the same school and make sure they are quite different from each other. This won’t be fair or even feasible until they can find a way to increase the number of rural students applying. They need to determine the reasons for the lack of these applicants and invest some resources into solving the problem.  One of the biggest causes is the perceived advantage of taking college classes after their junior year in high school. AGS lasts six weeks and even though it’s free, it doesn’t count toward college credit. The other not-so-obvious reason is the belief that AGS is evil has permeated through much of rural Arkansas. There is an honest fear that the kids will come back believing in evolution, accepting gays as human, seeing other religions as judicious, and finding folks of another color like-able — maybe even date-able. There’s no way we can change these attitudes in time to save AGS, but maybe we don’t have to. My mom and dad had all these fears, and they tried really, really hard to talk me out of going. But once I was accepted, the honor of attending outweighed the ‘horrors’ they feared. I was allowed to go because of the prestige carried by AGS attendees.

That’s what the school needs: to be seen as respectable and prestigious again. The folks running the show need to invest in some additional advertising.  To their credit they are creating a video to distribute to all the high schools promoting the program this year.  What needs to happen next is for a few alumni to go to these schools to talk with the potential applicants and answer whatever questions they have.  It’s been so long since any students attended in some of these schools that there’s no one left to recommend it.  I learned about AGS from a student who had attended two years before I went; many schools in Arkansas have completely lost that resource.  I think that step would yield the biggest payback for their efforts.

I really want to see Arkansas Governor’s School achieve great things again, but so much of that rides on the caliber of the students who attend.  Without the quality and diversity that built AGS in the beginning, there won’t be an AGS in the future.  And that would be the greatest blow our education system has seen in decades.  I hope they can pull it together and make it great again.

When Planets Align – The Bad

15 07 2008

[For folks coming to this link looking for scientific information about planetary alignments, please go to this more recent article I wrote.  Otherwise, enjoy this popular post about a silly book I found.  And thanks for visiting!]

So my wife’s friend was throwing out a bunch of old books and I came across this:

I took this book with me to IPS. I told my wife I could get $20 within hours of getting there if I wanted to, but then I decided to just keep it for myself. I did get the opportunity to show it off to my friend Carolyn Petersen who said “What a find! What are you asking for it?” hehe. The inside cover gives the book the title “Prehistoric and the Genesis Truth (part I)” with a print date of 1976. Neat, huh? It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be. Some nut who thinks he found some Biblical code that explains the history of everything without us actually doing any research. Well, that’s not entirely true. He actually proposes some — I hate to say it — very interesting ideas concerning evolution and Biblical history. Let me explain…

The Stupid. This is printed right inside the cover (nothing has been changed… it really is this poorly written):

Front cover:

As the planets move into alignment at the end of 1982, their gravitational pull may cause huge storms on the sun. These storms could alter wind directions on earth, reducing the speed of the planet’s rotation, triggering serious earthquakes — Science quote.

“The picture on the front cover does not entirely pertain to the articles in this volume, but we use it to show the creation and handy work of God!” (Ps. 19:1) “But we do speak of this particular lineup in other prophetic books, that can be ordered concerning events!” — “This important book here, “contains the pre-historic and the Genesis truth, mysteries, revelation and various secrets of God’s cosmic force and creation!” [sic]

Okay, let’s start with the first paragraph. Wow, just wow. I want to go into all the bad things written in those two sentences, but I know you don’t have that kind of endurance. I’ll just hit the major ones. The planets did get in a fairly close alignment in 1982. I was 12 and I can remember all the doomsayers pushing books and interviews and other scary stuff off on us. I found the whole thing stupid at the time, but my classmates were really freaked out. Someone had calculated the exact moment of the alignment (as if that makes any sense) and on the day of we stopped class and watched the clock tick down our final seconds of existence. About 30 or 40 seconds after the end of time class resumed as normal. Later in life I learned that the computer monitor you’re reading this post on has more gravitational influence on you than all the other planets no matter where they are in their orbits.

But then it goes on to describe how solar storms actually mess with OUR weather! Not only that, but the destruction seems quite severe and very much like a real doomsday. This is justified because, of course, *science* said it. Or something. Not really sure what “science quote” means.

That second paragraph is just mind boggling. But it’s true, the book has absolutely nothing to do with the cover. With all the grammatical errors you can be assured this book was not an easy read. And read it I did. Almost as soon as I had it in my hands my curiosity overwhelmed me and I couldn’t put it down! And with all those exclamation points to let me know when I should be amazed!

The Interesting. The book is actually a transcript of a preacher’s sermon, complete and obviously unedited. In it he makes the claim that evolution is real, yet we were not a part of it. He claims, contrary to many of his contemporaries, that when science teaches about the age of the Earth and evolutionary processes we should accept it. Scientists have no ulterior motive in their publications and there’s nothing in the Bible to contradict them. Intrigued, aren’t you? heh. He goes on to explain that after the last mass extinction event the Earth was repopulated with creatures placed here by God, including us. This allows for Genesis to be true while not exactly refuting science. Okay, I know there’s a ton of things wrong with this view, but you have to admit from a religious standpoint it would seem logical if not downright reasonable compared to teaching the earth is 6000 years old!

The logic he uses is persuasive enough to actually be more dangerous than the doomsday claims of the planetary alignment. I can see myself as a teenager getting wrapped up in his argument and believing it. It would appeal to anyone who wishes to see a reconciliation between faith and science yet who doesn’t really understand either. Then again, the preacher was going on 1970’s theories and much has changed since then. That was when it was believed that the dinosaurs died out in an ice age. Don’t know if the incomplete scientific understanding of the time lends him any leniency, but I’m just sayin’. Enough of this… back to the astronomy!

The Truth. We see people so often persuaded into a position out of fear. [Why are you against free elections? Do you *want* the terrorists to win?] Sometimes fear is good [Grabbing the downed power line might make you dead.], but spreading fear irrationally is pure evil. The bottom line is you can’t think yourself out of a position you didn’t think yourself into. People who blindly believe that the planets influence their lives aren’t looking for truth, and they’re certainly not going to believe that scientists, much less someone like my ten-year-old, might understand better than they how the solar system works. They’re going to believe whomever they trust. And trust is something most skeptics have a hard time building with the common Joe.

Anywho, this has been my weak attack on the morons who claim planetary alignments have unpredictable results. Morons.

When Planets Align – The Good

15 07 2008

So my oldest son is now ten. When he was six he asked me “why is the sky blue?” He’s been asking really good questions ever since. Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m not going to give him some lame answer. I’m going to tell him the truth as best my science understanding, and his education level, will allow. (The following year he asked an even better question: “Daddy, can I watch Star Wars?” I answered with “Son, I’ve been waiting for you to ask that your whole life. Let me show you the collection.” I almost cried.)

Last night we were outside naming the stars as they came out and he asked why Jupiter is so bright and Mars so dim. What an awesome question! There’s a lot going on with disparate distances and sizes and surface color and angular separation from the sun…

He’s learned about the scale of the solar system, and he understands that Jupiter is a lot farther away from us than Mars, but it’s quite a different thing when you’re standing outside and you can actually see both of these objects above you and discuss their relation to the sun with someone. I taught a lot of good science in a short amount of time because I didn’t have to rely on models and tables… we were looking right at the objects we were discussing.

My son loves to hear me tell stories, and he has an incredibly curious mind, but that doesn’t always mean he’s listening to what I’m saying. To give you a visual of what this is like, click on the About Me tab at the top of this page! I had to teach him with hand gestures and scaling exercises three times before he could repeat it back to me, but he never broke his attention away. He really wanted to understand it all.

There was a moment when I pointed to the sun (which had set) and I pointed to Jupiter (directly opposite in the East) and asked him, “So where’s the Earth right now?” Then we turned our attention to Mars and Saturn, which were near the sun in the sky.

Me:  If the Earth is closer to the sun than Mars, could Mars be between us and the sun?

Garrett:  No.

Me:  Then where does Mars have to be?

Garrett:  On the other side of the sun…

And suddenly he had an understanding that many college grads never obtain. He can see at age ten our place in the solar system in more than a rote fashion. It isn’t just a drawing in a textbook or dots of light on a planetarium dome. He knows that the knowledge isn’t abstract or understandable only to an elite few – it’s perfectly logical and can be figured out by the common Joe with a little scientific thinking and direct observation. And most importantly, he sees the alignment of a few celestial objects for what they truly are, beautiful to look at but even more beautiful to understand.

Since Saturn was right above just to the right of Mars in the west, the fact they were obviously close to the same brightness was not lost on him. He started with a brilliant observation (no prompting from me!): “Mars and Saturn look like they’re right next to each other, but they’re not really close at all.” Awesome. Then he asked, “All that stuff you said about Jupiter should be the same for Saturn. So why is it so dim?” Really Awesome.

Before the evening was through he asked other questions about Polaris and Vega and Eta Carinae. Geneva called us inside because it was past his bedtime. I used to stand out under the stars until my mom had to come get me, too.

I’m so proud.

Pagan Poetry

13 07 2008

Sometimes I find myself obsessing over a single song. It’s not like simply having a song stuck in your head — I get to the point of frantically searching the web looking for different live versions and remixes and covers of the song by other bands and whatever else might give me my fix.

Tonight I kept repeating this line to myself:

On the surface simplicity

But in the darkest pit in me

is pagan poetry.

I couldn’t get it out. These are lyrics from the song Pagan Poetry from Bjork’s album, Vespertine. What brought this on was I was testing out some new recording software and listening to my slacker channel when it randomly picked this song. I had more tests to run on the software, but it was too late. I spent the better part of an hour scouring YouTube for live performances from various venues. Even found an *awesome* live version from Letterman (he’s an absolute idiot sometimes) that I was going to post here, and then I found this:

YouTube is definitely my friend. This is a video that some people created as an experiment. It has some decent compositing with really bad effects, but the spirit of the video comes through. I think it would be a lot of fun to make one of these with friends someday.

Bjork really is a polarizing artist, with her odd stage presence and non-standard musical style (who puts a harp in a rock song?). For most every listener she’s either amazing or annoying, but that’s what makes any artist stand out. If you sound unoriginal then is the music coming from inside you or from your environment? What I love most about her is her deeply moving lyrics. You should go here, click on Vespertine and then Pagan Poetry, and read along with the video. Trust me, you won’t understand her without doing this. And since this post started out with the lyrics getting stuck in my head, I feel I should point you toward them. Enjoy.

[BTW, if you look up the original video to this song you may be surprised to discover that MTV banned it for a reason. You’ve been warned!]

Biology or Physics?

12 07 2008

Here’s a cool website I stumbled across… Biology or Physics?

Can you tell what this is?

You get a selection of 12 images and you have to select which category of science it fits in — the gross, slimy, moving one or the cool, mathematically predictable one!  :o)

Not to brag, but I scored a 12/12.  How nerdy are you?  Be honest when reporting your score in the comments!