All posts by Arun Jiwa

The Colors of Antiquity

A Dragonfly FossilCan you imagine what the extinct birds of millions of years ago looked like? How big were they? Do they look like the birds of today? What colors were they? The first two questions are easily answerable by fossil records, but the third one is a bit more difficult, unless you have a time machine handy. But US researchers believe they’ve come a bit closer to solving the problem:

Writing in the journal Biology Letters, US researchers reveal how ancient feathers found in Brazil displayed “striking” bands of black and white. Previously, fossil experts could only guess at the range of hues exhibited by ancient birds and some dinosaurs.

To find an answer they had to look at behavioural and genetic clues:

There are particular cells that cluster into the dark areas of modern birds called melanosomes. Somehow the melanosomes are retained and replaced during the preservation process and hence you preserve a very life like representation of the colour banding in the fossils.

And also:

The Yale team believe they could identify brown, red, buff and even iridescent colours. The technique may be applied to other creatures to reveal the colour of fur or even eyes, the team believes.

This news reminds me of an SF story called The Color of A Brontosaurus, which speculates somewhat on the same subject matter.

[story via BBC News] [image by kevinzim]

Ray Gun Crowd Control

It doesn’t get more SFnal than this:

The Sierra Nevada Corporation claimed this week that it is ready to begin production on the MEDUSA, a damned scary ray gun that uses the “microwave audio effect” to implant sounds and perhaps even specific messages inside people’s heads.

I wasn’t really scared about the gun, until I thought about what was written next:

The pulses create a shockwave inside the skull that’s detected by the ears, and basically makes you think you’re going balls-to-the-wall batshit insane.

Thankfully, civilians probably wont have to worry about the gun, it’ll mainly be used to track down bad guys by the military.  But what other uses can this device be put to? Will it just be another tool for the miltary, or will we find other commercial uses?  In recent memory, that description really reminds me of the device used in Iron Man by Obadiah Stane, but the MEDUSA can’t be blocked out by headphones.

[Story from New Scientist, via Slashdot], [image by Nic Name]

Have Nano, Will Travel

The Tata NanoIn the future we we’ll all be driving small cars. That’s the hope of Indian automaker Tata’s newest car, The Nano. But for now, they’ve got to be able to market, distribute,turn a profit and get it out to consumers before they can really call it “The People’s Car.”

People in India get around in practically every way: by bicycles, mopeds, motorbikes, scooters, bullock carts, cars and buses. This all sounds more or less ordinary, till you consider this: there are less people who get by on cars than there are people who get by on any other means transport. In fact, cruising down any street in India, you might see an entire family (ie. two children, wife and husband) on a single motorbike. Highly unsafe, right? This is what is driving the campaign behind the Nano. To create an ultra low cost, fuel efficient four wheeler for the millions of Indian families getting by the other way. [image by blackrat]

By now, I’m guessing you’ve seen the Nano or heard about it from one media channel or another. But what factors will help the Nano model succeed? Or fail? And will it be marketable outside of India? My prediction is the following factors will greatly determine the answers to the questions I’ve posed.

High inflation in India is eroding the purchasing power of the disposable income of India’s population. This should increase their sensitivity to changes in fuel prices. The fuel efficient label on the Nano could help it sell as an alternative to less efficient, more expensive vehicles. Then again, people may just decide to get along by other means, if fuel prices increase too fast or too much.

The other factor that may seriously limit the Nano’s appeal to the population has to do with parking space. India’s cities have high population densities, and in most of these packed cities parking space for four wheelers is seriously limited or nonexistent. A typical middle class Indian living in one of the big metropolises won’t have the luxury of a two car garage that is common in the West. In these terms it seems much more sensible to take a bus, catch a cab, or squeeze through narrow streets on a motorcycle.

However, if the Nano does sell well, we may see competition from other car manufacturers enter the fray and the age of the ultra-low-cost fuel efficient car coming to the world. What do other Futurismic readers think about this trend? Will we in fact see more low cost cars being produced? Will they take off in the West like Tata hopes they will in India?

Best SF Movies Ever?

Over at AMC, John Scalzi points out that AFI has released a top ten list of films from the SF and Fantasy genre, and he’s written a new Top Ten List featuring films made since 1991:

“One interesting thing about the list, however, is that it stops 17 years ago; the latest film to be included on the list is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which hit screens in 1991. On one hand, this makes perfect sense, because it really does take time to find out which films are influential and which ones aren’t…On the other hand, there have been a fair number of genuinely excellent science fiction films since Arnold had his Terminator self dipped in hot metal, and it seems a shame to not give a shout out to them.”

Fifth Element seems to have a lot of the popular vote, as does the Matrix, but what do Futurismic readers think? Which movies would you add to or remove from that list?

One of the interesting aspects of written word SF is its ability to take up social problems in an SFnal context.  But the same ideas don’t translate well to the big screen, and what we end up with are inaccurate disaster thrillers like The Day After Tomorrow.  Are there any SF movies that take up ideas and social problems without forsaking the spectacle and CGI that run amok in a lot of SF?  

Internet = Short Attention Spans

hardwired io9’s Michael Reilly linked to an article in The Atlantic, written by Nicholas Carr on how the Internet is changing our reading habits. Michael summed it up in the following line:

The internet is giving us a form of ADHD when it comes to reading, and we should be scared of that.

Ok, Carr does mention the first half of Michael’s point in his article:

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

But the second half of Michael’s point is more or less implied by his view of Carr’s article.  Carr doesn’t try to inject this opinion into the piece, IMHO, but looks at the question from different angles to patch together a picture of how we’re changing in response to new forms of media.  He mentions anecdotes, and expresses professional opinions of sociologists, media mavens, bloggers, and neuroscientists.  

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

This article is well worth a read, if not for Carr’s anecdotes, then for the interesting behavioral points addressed by Carr.  Speaking from experience, I don’t find that the Internet has affected my ability to read for pleasure.  Reading long dry books has always been hard for me, and of course the Internet can be a distraction (so what else is new?). What about Futurismic readers, do you find it hard to read longer works because you’ve gotten used to reading short short text bits on the Internet?  Or, are you like me, the type who can balance reading weighty novels with a daily diet of RSS feeds?

[image by twenty_questions]