Omni Quickies

Cockroaches equipped as wireless networks [SF Chron] – While this is not “the” technology that Minority Report made famous (that would be the gestural interface), this reminds me strongly of those scurrying mechanical spiders that made their way through the building to chase down Tom Cruise.

On its belly, each roach carries a dime-size circuit board along with a radio, a microphone and a battery. The gear, which adds up to 2 grams, about half the weight of a roach, is still in the prototype phase. As the bugs crawl into crevices and disperse, their microphones pick up sounds, while the radios transmit data via a local-area wireless technology called ZigBee. In the future, the bugs might carry sensors to detect radioactivity or chemicals. Epstein and his team are working to make the electronic circuitry even tinier, so it can be carried by smaller insects such as crickets and water bugs. They’re also testing a metal composite that flexes like a muscle when electricity is applied. Placing the material on a cricket would alter the flutter of its wings and distort the pitch of its chirp. It’s a way to relay information as aural zeroes and ones, like the bits in a computer, which could be decoded by software. Epstein came up with the idea of using insects to form wireless networks while listening to swarms of cicadas in Shanghai, where his wife is from. Submitting a funding proposal “was like writing a science fiction novel,” Epstein said, but resulted in $850,000 from the U.S. Army.

“Thought Experiments” by Roger Ebert [Asimov’s] – Ebert posits an interesting, if recursive, framework – that the science-fiction enthusiasts who networked maniacally using dead-tree technology were precusors (so to speak) of the type of online behaviors that would show up later. Science-fiction consumption helped pave the way for the science-fiction-like use of technology that we are so familiar with today.

For that matter, we were online before there was online. It is perfectly obvious to me that fanzines were web pages before there was a web, and locs were message threads and bulletin boards before there was cyberspace. Someday an academic will write a study proving that the style, tone, and much of the language of the online world developed in a direct linear fashion from science fiction fandom-not to mention the unorthodox incorporation of ersatz letters and numbers in spelling, later to influence the naming of computer companies and programs. Fanzines acted uncannily like mimeographed versions of Usenet groups, forums, message boards, and web pages-even to such universal design strategies as IYGTFUI (If You’ve Got the Font, Use It). Some of the same people segued directly from fandom to online, especially to places like the Well-not surprisingly, since many computer pioneers were also SF fans. Today, fandom survives on the web, where it is no doubt World Wide, and some very slick fanzines have segued into prozines. Are there still analog (paper) publications called fanzines? I haven’t heard that there are. That world has moved on. Today a twelve-year-old kid in Urbana has other ways to connect with alternative ideas, other worlds to explore. No doubt they are as exciting as fandom was for me. God knows what we would have given in 1958 for the web. To look through these old pages of Xero even today, and find Harlan Ellison right about “Psycho” when the world was wrong, and Blish taking on Amis, is to realize that in the mimeographed pages of a fanzine created in the Lupoff living room there existed a rare and wonderful discourse, and it was a privilege to be part of it.

Inmates at Brazil prison pedal for electricity – and their freedom [TODAY] – While this story frames it as a positive, it’s easily reframed as the tip of a dystopian scenario where the world is so destroyed that inmates are enslaved to produce the most basic of necessities. Black Mirror played out a dark version of this, in its second episode.

By pedaling the prison’s stationary bikes, the inmates charge a battery that’s used to power 10 street lamps along the town’s riverside promenade. For every three eight-hour days they spend on the bikes, Silva and the voluntary program’s other participants get one day shaved off their sentences. The municipal police contributed bicycles that had long been lingering in the lost and found, and neighborhood engineers helped transform them into stationary bikes and hooked them up to car batteries, donated by local businesses. Area entrepreneurs also pitched in the converter used to transform the battery’s charge into the 110 volts needed to power 10 of the cast iron street lamps that dot the riverside promenade. Every night just before sunset, a guard drives the charged battery from the prison, on the outskirts of town, to the downtown promenade. He hooks it up to the converter and a few minutes later the 10 street lamps begin to glow a soft white, like full moons suspended over the rushing waters of the river. Another guard comes in the morning to pick up the battery and ferry it back to the prison.


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