iPhones are pro-life

Indignant complaints about Siri, the virtual personal assistant on the new iPhones, which will give you information about just about everything, but not where you can get an abortion:

If you ask Siri for an abortion clinic in New York City, it will tell you “Sorry, I couldn’t find any abortion clinics.” A simple Google web search—which Siri itself uses to find results—gives you seven to start with, some within walking distance of where I’m located.

• If you ask the same question in the city of Washington DC, Siri won’t direct you to a nearby clinic, but to one 26 miles away.

• A reader reported that when he asked “find a pregnancy termination clinic” Siri responded: “I found a number of medical centers fairly close to you.” Then “it showed me seven results and four of them were chiropractors, two were acupuncture specialists, and one was an emergency room.” Update: Indeed, after we tested this, it’s true.

Apparently, women across the country are having similar experiences.. To make matters worse, the iPhone 4S’ smart assistant will not direct you to a place where you can obtain emergency contraception if you ask for it. Instead, it gives you a definition.

via Is Siri Pro Life? Apparently Yes (Updated).

Replicating a Stradivarius

How’s this for a use of  technology?

A Stradivarius violin has been “recreated” using an X-ray scanner normally used to detect cancers and injuries, according to researchers.

The US-based group used a computerised axial tomography (CAT) scanner on the 307-year-old instrument to reveal its secrets.

They then used the data recovered to build “nearly exact copies”.

The team said the technique could be used to give musicians access to rare musical equipment. . . .

Scans of the older instruments revealed worm holes, small cracks and other damage that helped create their distinctive sounds.

Eventually the two men [Steven Sirr and John Waddle] borrowed a Stradivarius known as “Betts” from the US Library of Congress which still had an original label placed by its Italian creator, Antonio Stradivari, inside its body.

Teaming up with another violin maker, Steve Rossow, they proceeded to create three replicas.

To do this they took more than 1,000 CAT scan images from the original instrument and converted them into a file format used to resemble three-dimensional object in computer-aided design (CAD) software.

“We used the scans to determine the density of the woods that made up the violin – that could only otherwise be done if the violin was dissected and measured – and of course that would never happen,” Dr Sirr said.

The files were then fed into a CNC (computer numerical control) machine. It used the data to carve the violins’ back and front plates, neck and the “scroll” carving at the neck’s end using various woods picked to match the originals as closely as possible.

These were then assembled and varnished by hand.

“The copies are amazingly similar to originals in their sound quality,” said Dr Sirr.

“When we make the violin we copy the changes that have occurred over more than 300 years including the shifts in the wood – the small deformations in the front and back plates that occur over time because of the forces of the strings and the other parts of the violin.”

Dr Sirr said he hoped to repeat the process with other antique instruments and hoped that his work would one day pave the way for students to have access to “nearly exact copies” of the originals.

The dean of the world-famous Juilliard school in New York, welcomed the possibility.

“Every string player graduating from any great conservatory faces an immense crisis of how do you obtain a violin that is at the level that you need to have a really first rate career,” said Ara Guzelimian.

CAT scanner CAT scans are more commonly used to diagnose tumours, cancers and infections

“With the inflation of prices of rare old violins – and obviously Stradivari at the top of that list – it’s far out of the reach of anyone but investors and investment trusts. So if there was a way of putting a superb violin in the hands of a young violinist at a fraction of the cost it would be a huge step forward.”

A well-preserved Stradivarius known as the Lady Blunt was sold in June for $15.9m (£10.2m) at a charity auction.

via BBC News – Antique Stradivarius violin ‘replicated’ by radiologist.

Can natural gas ignite the economy?

New technology is unlocking vast amounts of natural gas in the United States, enough to have a huge economic impact.  Yes, it involves “fracking,” the controversial practice of pumping chemical-laced water into shale deposits, but improvements in that technique are starting to satisfy all but the most zealous environmentalists.  I’m glad to see companies from my native Oklahoma are leading the way.  Businessweek has a big story on the topic with the deck below the headline, “Unlocking vast reserves of shale gas could solve the energy crisis, the jobs crisis, and the deficit.”

“The United States,” [energy company CEO Aubrey] McClendon boasts, “has the capacity to become the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”

A tall man who wears his wavy silver hair long by CEO standards, McClendon, 52, exudes the confidence of someone who’s certain he’s seen the future. Exploitation of newly accessible supplies of gas embedded in layers of what’s known as shale rock, he predicts, will help revive domestic manufacturing and change the terms of debate about global warming. “It’s a new industrial renaissance,” he says. . . .

Encouraged by the availability of inexpensive and cleaner domestic gas, some electric utilities are replacing their coal-burning capacity with gas-fired units. Energy-intensive manufacturers of chemicals, plastics, and steel are beginning to bring home operations that they exported years ago. “We believe natural gas must be part of any discussion on strengthening our country’s long-term economic health,” Mulva said in Detroit. “It should also be part of any discussion on improving energy security, protecting the environment, and, yes, creating jobs.”

On the economic potential of the nascent shale revolution, even some career environmentalists sound impressed, if cautious. “This thing is a potential game-changer,” says Fred Krupp, president of the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Shale production in the U.S. has increased from practically nothing in 2000 to more than 13 billion cubic feet per day, or about 30 percent of the country’s natural gas supply. That proportion is heading toward 50 percent in coming years. The U.S. passed Russia in 2009 to become the world’s largest producer of natural gas. An Energy Dept. advisory panel on which Krupp sits estimated in August that more than 200,000 jobs, both direct and indirect, “have been created over the last several years by the development of domestic production of shale gas.” At a moment of 9.1 percent unemployment nationally, additional decently paid work is just one potential benefit. “Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, emits less in the way of greenhouse gases, and avoids mercury and other pollutants from coal,” Krupp points out. “So this could be win-win, if—and this is a big ‘if’—we do it the right way.”

via Could Shale Gas Reignite the U.S. Economy? – Businessweek.

Local Election Day blues

Where I live, we are just voting today for local elections.  We just have a state senator to pick and a number of county offices.  But for the last several months we have been subject to getting multiple automated phone calls a day conducting polls, demonizing opponents, and scaring us into voting for particular candidates.  Opposition research, negative campaigning, and hyperbolic rhetoric have trickled down into local elections.   (The last robocall I answered insinuated that one candidate’s support of the 2nd Amendment made him liable for the shootings at Virginia Tech.)  Apparently, local candidates are hiring out of state firms to provide these political services.   (I answered an automated call from Olympia, Washington, telling us who to vote for in a race for county sheriff!)

The theory is that local government is closer and more responsive to individual citizens, who elect their neighbors to represent them in public office.  National government, by contrast, is more remote.   Reformers are calling for a smaller central government with more power devolving to state and local governments.

But what if state and local governments are likewise dysfunctional, bound just as much to special interests and oblivious to the civic virtues?

It is true that local issues often finesse the liberal/conservative polarization that has paralyzed the national government.  The divisions in many local governments are on the order of “pro-development” (uniting free-market pro-business conservatives and pro-jobs liberals) vs. “anti-development” (uniting conservatives who want to preserve the pristine character of the community and anti-capitalist environmentalists).  Although I don’t see a civic consensus being possible with that kind of polarization either.

Perhaps this kind of political strife is intrinsic to democracy.  Still, having lived in a number of communities not all that different from where I live today, I don’t remember local elections being like this.

The genius of Steve Jobs

I was asked to write up something about the death of Steve Jobs for the Lutheran Witness website.  I’ll link to that when it goes up.  In the meantime, here is something in today’s Washington Post that I think is very telling about the man’s  genius.

It seems the public was disappointed about the unveiling of the iPhone4S.  Apparently, it didn’t look much different from the old iPhones.  People were looking for matters of appearance.  But look at the reality of what this new device can do:

The launch wasn’t really about the phone at all. It was about the software inside and possibly the kick-start of the next big revolution in how we interact with our gadgets.

That software is called Siri, but Apple would like for you to think of it as your “intelligent assistant.” And what Siri does is nothing short of amazing.

Siri can listen to your “natural language” (that is, words spoken as you would to another human, not a computer) questions or requests and respond like a digital secretary. It’s not just that Siri listens, either. The software is capable of understanding the context of what you’re talking about, so if you ask it to set an alarm on your phone, it will ask you for what time. And again, you don’t. Have. To. Talk. Really. Slowly.

If you ask Siri to schedule an appointment, it will not only check to see if it conflicts with any of your other meetings but will help you juggle the time slot until you have your day’s events mapped out. Siri will find movie theaters close to you or tell you how to get home from your current location. It can identify family members, spouses and co-workers you’re always talking to, and it knows when people’s birthdays, anniversaries or other big events are coming up.

Here’s an example of a chat I had with Siri:

Me: “Schedule an appointment with Jack for 3:30 p.m.”

Siri: “Okay, here’s your meeting. Note that you already have a meeting that overlaps with this. Should I schedule it anyway?”

Me: “Change the time.”

Siri: “Okay, Joshua, what’s the new time and date for this meeting?”

After I learned that my new time overlapped again, I asked Siri to cancel the meeting, and it asked me if I wanted it removed from my calendar. All this happened in the span of a minute or so, and all of it felt strangely normal.

More interestingly, Siri is plugged into Yelp and Wolfram Alpha (a search engine dedicated to finding facts instead of Web pages). If you ask Siri how much $45 is in British pounds, it can tell you the answer. Or how many cups are in a gallon (16, for the measurement challenged). But again, the best part of this is that you don’t have to tone down or over compensate for computer hearing. Siri listens like a person, and often responds that way, too.

via Apple Siri: the next big revolution in how we interact with gadgets? – The Washington Post.

It seems to me that Jobs and his company did not just give people what they want, following the dictates of the marketplace.  Certainly, someone who does that is likely to have great success.  Rather, he came up with things no one knew they wanted, things they never even dreamed of.  He led the marketplace.

There is a lesson here for churches that want to engage the culture and Christians who want to make an impact.   Just conforming to cultural trends and following fashions is not going to do very much.  Try addressing what the culture does NOT already have, finding something that it needs or that it doesn’t know that it needs.  Don’t just imitate the dominant styles.  Invent new styles that other people might imitate, to the point that your style might become dominant.  Don’t follow the culture.  Lead it.

This applies also to technology, business, and the arts.

Predator drones for bad guys

A predator drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader, propagandist, and recruiter.  Complicating the matter is that he and one of his minions also killed in the Yemen attack were  American citizens.   Some are concerned that executing an American like this is a violation of our constitutional rights for due process and a fair trial.  Others say that al-Awlaki is a textbook example of a traitor who is fighting on the side of his country’s enemies and that being killed in this quasi-military operation is what happens in war.  It has nothing to do with the legal system.

Some of you have already been arguing about this is another post (rather than staying on topic), but let’s take this in another direction.  Do you think predators should be used in law enforcement?

In which of these cases would you support their use?

(1)  Against the Mexican drug lords who are terrorizing Mexico (in consultation with that country’s authorities)?

(2)  Against domestic organized crime leaders?

(3)  In situations that call for deadly force, such as against snipers or holed-up killers, as another weapon in the arsenal of SWAT teams?

(4)  To patrol dangerous neighborhoods?

(5)  As a high tech cop on the beat, used mostly for surveillance but carrying a weapon?

(6)  Used for surveillance but without the Hellfire missile?

How would you handle the constitutional issues?  Is this just another weapon or just another tool, or are there particular legal or moral problems with it?

Help us draw some lines.

via Anwar al-Awlaki: Is killing US-born terror suspects legal? – CSMonitor.com.


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