Since beginning to write these columns, I've found myself scanning a lot more technology news and information sources than in the past. In addition, Victoria, the intrepid editor, goes to great lengths to direct my attention to yet more articles. In the course of all of this perusing, I've come across many stories that were ludicrous, hilarious, weird, or otherwise likely tirade fodder but that did not suggest sufficient substance for me to generate a rant long enough to convince MC Press that it should pay me for my efforts. Of course, as everyone knows, I compose these columns for the sheer love of writing, not money (stop laughing, Victoria; it's unbecoming), but for some unknown reason, the grocery store prefers cash rather than, say, a hug. Besides, you can be charged with sexual harassment these days for hugging someone without prior written, notarized consent.
Even more important than not being able to create a column sufficiently lengthy for MC Press, I couldn't come up with anything long enough to satisfy the folks who make all of this possible, the advertisers who pay to place their ads here. They are truly glorious people whom I definitely want to make and keep happy. May the sweet bird of paradise smile upon them and foul their competitors' porridge.
Even though I wasn't able to turn any of these items into a full-blown rant, because I'm lazier than the average three-toed sloth (my assumption that sloths are indolent is based solely on the species' name; I'm too lazy to look that up), I hate wasting perfectly good material that's sitting there, staring me in the face, so this week's column draws on a number of news stories that would otherwise go unused.
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According to a March 12, 2005, article in The New York Times, a technical glitch laid bare to some clever computer users the names and addresses (postal and email) of subscribers to a newsletter for the Broadway musical Spamalot. This likely exposed the people who voluntarily subscribed to the Spamalot newsletter to a lot of...well...spam. What exactly were they expecting? That sounds pretty much like the definition of "poetic justice," doesn't it?
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On March 28, 2005, The New York Times reported that the first phase, just the first phase mind you, of the army's Future Combat Systems project was expected to cost $145 billion (that's billion with a "B"). This is the super science, robot soldiers, remote control, artificial intelligence, science-fiction-turns-real, push-button warfare sort of stuff that's supposed to make wars much less messy and much less painful (for the owners of the new technology, but not for the other guys) in the future.
That $145 billion doesn't include the $25 billion expected to be required for the communications systems needed to tie all of the gadgets together. So we're talking about an estimate of $170 billion for just this one project. Does anyone want to place a bet on how accurate the military's estimate is and which way it's going to err?
The article goes on to say that the Future Combat Systems project is just one element in a plan to build more than 70 major weapons systems at a cost of $1.2 trillion. Yes, trillion with a "T."
Let's put this in context. America isn't quite as hated around the world as the media likes to suggest. Before the last U.S. presidential election, a survey was taken in some of the nations that are America's traditional allies. Even in those countries that are stereotyped as being virulently anti-American, such as France, while most people said that they weren't particularly happy with the then and still current American administration, the vast majority of them, more than 70% in the case of France, said they had a favorable or very favorable opinion of the American people.
True, this survey was run only in countries that are America's traditional allies. I'm sure the results would have been uglier in a few other countries, but the point is that in all the world there are probably only a few million people, if that, who have the means to inflict significant harm on the U.S. and its people and who are so upset with America that they want to see that harm done and who want go to the trouble and personal risk of inflicting it themselves. An estimate of 10 million people would probably be a gross exaggeration.
Here's my proposal: Why doesn't the U.S. take the $1.2 trillion it plans to spend on new weapon systems and, instead, say to its enemies, "The money is yours if you promise to go away and leave us alone." Even using the undoubtedly too high estimate of 10 million people, that still works out to $120,000 per potential terrorist. OK, it's less than a big lottery jackpot, but it's more than enough for them to afford to take up a new hobby or two to fill in the time that they would have otherwise spent blowing up people and property. (And their hobbies will likely require the purchase of stuff from American companies, so some of the money will come back.) Of course, the problem will be ensuring that the potential terrorists keep their word, but with that much money at stake, I'm sure someone can conjure up a way to do so.
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A June 7, 2005, article from The New York Times reported on a graduate student at the University of California who created a robot for cockroaches. It's a cart controlled by a modified computer trackball. A cockroach is placed on top of the trackball, and as the disgusting little insect scurries--or rather, tries to scurry--instead of the roach moving forward, the trackball spins. The cart then moves in the direction that the cockroach would have been running if it had been standing on a solid surface rather than on a spinning trackball.
All I could think of when I read this article was that cockroaches have been around for about 350 million years, which predates even the dinosaurs. They'll probably still be here long after we've blown ourselves to bits or fried ourselves as a consequence of global warming. I really don't think these pests need any help from our technological wonders. They seem to be doing just fine on their own.
Oh yeah, the world is crying out for this invention. Come on. This guy's building a robot for cockroaches, while I'm still cleaning my place manually, or I would be if, in fact, I ever cleaned my place, which I don't. I don't tidy up because I like to leave a few tasty morsels around for the cockroaches. They need to eat too. Mine don't have any machines to help them in their food gathering activities, so I feel kind of sorry for them.
Here's an idea: Rather than building robots for cockroaches, why not build me an automaton maid? If it's an attractive, anatomically correct female android with circuits that don't allow it to access the friend speech, that would be even better.
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According to an Associated Press story distributed in late September 2005, gorillas have, for the first time, been spotted using tools in the wild. They've employed them in captivity for awhile now, and other non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, have been seen making use of tools in the wild before, but this is the first time gorillas were seen doing so. Somebody should warn them and their not-so-distant cousins on the evolutionary family tree, the chimpanzees, about where they're headed.
We humans are living proof of what tool use can eventually evolve into. Only about 4% of our DNA is different from the DNA of chimps, so our experience is probably relevant. Extrapolating from our evolution, it seems obvious that it won't be long before the serenity of the jungle will be incessantly interrupted by impertinent, boorish apes who insist on continually shouting at the top of their lungs into their cell phones.
And don't get me started on where they're likely to go with the use of tools as weapons. You know what the next step will be in that regard. The jungle will soon be going nuclear. The only difference between us and them is that, not being terribly verbally advanced, they'll probably pronounce it "nucular."
So if you can communicate with chimps and gorillas, please warn them that they're on the road to wreck and ruin and should stop now, before it's too late. They'd be much better off leaving the tools where they lay and continuing to just swing merrily from tree to tree, gathering bananas while they may.
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On October 6, 2005, Reuters reported that some students in Germany had invented a coaster that can signal bar staff whenever your beer glass is empty. Oh, this is just what responsible barkeepers everywhere need: a device to ensure that they can pour as much alcohol as possible down drunkards' throats before closing time.
The coaster is also designed with a motion detector so you can signal your server by simply waving the coaster. (Note to geeks who can't think of anything other than computers: By "server" I mean a person, not a computer that stores data and applications accessed by other computers on a network.) Oh, please. You really can't wait the extra few minutes until your server passes by? Here's a suggestion. Rather than using this ultra-high-tech gadget, try this if you want to get a barmaid's or barman's attention: Climb up on the table. Strip naked. And jump up and down, repeating "I want another beer" as loud as you possibly can with every leap. I guarantee that will get your server's attention exceptionally quickly. Of course, local laws may prevent him or her from serving you any more alcohol once you reach a state that allows you to do that.
According to the Reuters story, the students have already seen some interest in their invention from, among others, a Canadian beer company. It makes me so proud to be a Canadian.
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Also on October 6, CNN, among others, reported on the Ig Nobels. They're awards that are handed out at Harvard by Annals of Improbable Research magazine. Lest you think this is a great honor, please note the "Ig" in front of the "Nobels" in the awards' title. The 2005 winner in the medicine category was, to quote from the Ig Nobels' Web site, "Gregg A. Miller of Oak Grove, Missouri, for inventing Neuticles--artificial replacement testicles for dogs, which are available in three sizes, and three degrees of firmness."
You're probably thinking that this is a joke, right? Nope. This is for real. According to the CNN report, this guy has sold more than 150,000 Neuticles, earning him revenues of more than one million dollars. That works out to less than $10 per Neuticle or $20 for a pair. (Your pet would likely develop a serious psychological disorder if you bought him only one.) The inventor must have given out a lot of free samples and discounted pairs in his early days because the Neuticles Web site lists its products as starting at $73 a pair and going up to almost $400 a pair for the higher-priced models.
Think about that. People are paying almost $400 for a pair of testicular implants for their pets (Neuticles now offers them for cats too). And that doesn't include the veterinary fees for the surgery needed to implant them. I say, balls to that! If your pet is having self-esteem problems due to his having been neutered, treat him to a few Freudian pet psychiatry sessions instead. It's probably cheaper.
If I haven't convinced you that this is for real (and if not, then, after you've finished reading this tirade, try visiting www.neuticles.com), you'll probably never believe what the inventor was quoted as saying in response to receiving the award: "Considering my parents thought I was an idiot when I was a kid, this is a great honor." His parents thought he was an idiot when he was a kid? No, really? Then again, he has already earned more than double his original investment, so I guess he's not the idiot.
It's too bad dogs can't read email. Canine male enhancement sounds like it would be a great candidate for spam.
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This all just goes to show that our world and our technologies are incredibly weird. I have a lot more proof of that, but I'll save it for another week. Keep smiling...or be afraid, be very afraid. You decide which.