Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sleep safely at night, ET-nanny is watching over us

In this story on AOL news, former US airforce officers claim that back in 1967 UFO's were responsible for disabling nuclear missiles. 10 missiles went from operational to unlaunchable while UFO's hovered over the base. Of course the officers were sworn to secrecy - rather unnecessary as they already operated on 'above top sectret' level - and the whole incident never happened as far as officials were concerned.

The Second Opinion Tribune has a healthy dose of sceptics elixir mixed in with the virtual ink with which its stories are written. So to say that we at TSOT believe in everything we read would be overstating the facts. However we at TSOT also have a healthy dose of imagination. And we love to speculate on 'what if' scenarios.

So, what if this report is true. What if ET decided to play nanny and put a stop to our mucking about with military toys that are way beyond the level of our mental development. After all, the way we play with weaponry is a bit like letting a 4 year old play in a muscle car with the engine running.

Of course the military takes the view that anything unidentified entering its bases should be shot at first and asked questions of later. Or rather, shot at, buried and never talked to or about ever more. But I think that if this story is true it may be the best news in centuries: ET is watching over us! We may muck about as much as we like but when the 4 year old threatens to launch the muscle car into traffic causing an almighty wreck, ET-nanny will turn the key and switch off the engine before it is too late.

We at TSOT don't believe in God but we do believe that with many billions of star systems beyond our little moon, the idea of little green men roaming the galaxy has a far greater chance of being a reality. So let's believe this story if only to be able to sleep peacefully at night. Safe in the knowledge that even if we have only just outgrown our monkey brains and still behave like primitive beasts at times, nanny will prevent us from making too much of a mess of things. Even if she only does it to prevent her the extra work of having to mop up after us.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Is Britain in trouble?

Mont Python's The Life Of Brian, crucifixion scene
(Photo courtesy of the BBC)
A Cardinal who has visited the UK a couple of times called the UK a third world country.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge come joined sixth in a league table that rates the world's universities.

The financial crisis hit the UK hard. There are signs of economic recovery but the same article warns against over confidence. The UK is not out of the woods yet, economically speaking.

Then there is the problem of binge drinking and carousing, turning many of the UK city centres into zombie horror film sets as soon as the clock strikes twelve. Complete with blood spattered zombies, partially clothed, stupified victims and Christian zealots battling it out with the zombies. The latter in a profoundly non-violent way of course.

Is the U.K. in trouble?

Maybe Britain is going through a bad patch. A sort of mid life crisis. Historically speaking Britain has only just laid down the riches of a brilliant career and settled down into relatively quiet retirement. Gone are the days of successfully striving against European competitors for domination of the world's seas. Gone are the days of conquering and colonising. Gone are the days of large scale industry and economic boom. Instead the U.K. has had to settle down to a largely domestic life. And that is a difficult transition for an old sailor.

But Brits are made of stern stuff. They're island folk and island folk tend to shrug off hard times. Their history is full of stories of survival against all odds. Even their literature reflects this. Read Dickens, Stevenson or Defoe (two of these authors were Scottish by the way). They show an island spirit geared towards shrugging off bad weather. An example of this can be found in an initiative launched by a (again Scottish) company: James Donaldson and sons LTD. This company, instead of celebrating its 150 years in business by throwing a flashy party, donated £150,000 to a new charity which was used to launch The Donaldson Leadership Academy. This organisation helps children who have not had an easy start in life to reach their true potential. Initiatives like this help the younger generation of a society to take another look at their future and re-evaluate their prospects.

Britain may be going through a bad patch but historical precedent and current initiatives seem to point to it rising above such matters. The stiff upper lip and British sense of humour will probably safe the day. As Eric Idle sang in the direst of situations: "always look on the bright side of life!"

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Robots with feeling

In an article in PCWorld an artificial 'E-skin' is described that may soon help robots feel. It can also be used to make prosthetic limbs with feeling abilities. The skin consists of semiconductor nanowires and works with low voltages. It can detect pressures low enough to be able to wash your precious China cups.

This is science fiction coming to life. Finally all those Asimov robots can become reality. Although Philip K. Dick's 'Do androids dream of electric sheep' (basis for the film 'Blade runner') paints a much darker future of course.

So robots will be able to feel in the near future. Or at least in one sense. In the other sense, the sense of feeling emotion, they are still wholly lacking. For how long though? It seems there is a drive towards trying to recreate life. Mary Shelley proved to be more than a little prescient when she wrote 'Frankenstein'. Mankind is trying very hard to recreate a being that can be called living. We have mechanical devices taking over heavy labour, building the objects that we crave. And robotic research is constantly striving to construct robots that are ever more self sufficient. Artificial Intelligence seems to be the hardest stumbling block but there is little doubt that with the advances in computer processor power and ever smarter algorithms a thinking computer is only decades away. If that.

And yet, and yet... Will we allow robots to become our overlords? Will robots want to be our overlords? Science fiction is full of stories that paint a dark future. I even write them myself. But is that picture a true one?

For a dark future ruled by malicious robots to come true we will have to create robots that either have no feeling and act purely on logic principles or robots that have actively malicious intend towards us. So as long as roboticists have read the Robot series by Asimov to learn the Three Laws of Robotics and have read 'Do androids dream of electric sheep' for the warning it contains, we may be safe. The only thing we need then is enough compassion and tolerance to accept our new earth-citizens. In that regard it may be that the greater problem lies with us, not with the robots.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fat is like religion

The anti-fat fad. We have been bombarded with anti-fat commercials for many years. Science and pseudo-science have invented a multitude of ways to lose weight. Obesity is a problem in many wealthy cultures and vascular diseases resulting form too much fat are the number one killer in our luxurious society. However as with any form of extremism: lose the nuance, lose the plot.

In an article in the online Wall Street Journal, Melinda Beck explains that not all fat is bad and not all slimming is healthy. It turns out that fat cells are much more than just storage bags for the excesses of our over-sumptuous living. They are active communicators with our brain and with regulatory systems in our body. It turns out that battling fat in one part of the body where it is seen may force the body to store its fat elsewhere where it isn't seen, say around the heart and liver. It also turns out that those are bad places to store fat.

Fat is to the body what religion is to society. A little may be good, it regulates and keeps one going in lean times. Become too radical in battling it or too indulgent in allowing it and the whole kit and caboodle stops functioning correctly. There is a golden mean where the body functions just fine with a little bulge here and there. They're not called love handles for nothing. Enjoy the weekend!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nokia: struggle to remain relevant in smart phones

Nokia N8
(Image copyright Nokia, 2010)
The world is changing. Yesterday's sure bets seem less of a winner these days. Microsoft was once the only player in the OS market that mattered. These days, the alternatives are getting more viable by the minute and Windows is far from the only valid choice when choosing an operating system for your laptop, desktop, phone or tablet.

The same goes for the mobile phone market. Nokia used to be the safe go to manufacturer only a couple of years ago. Now, with smart phones taking over the mobile phone market, they struggle.

There is a parallel here: if market share meant anything in determining a company's future, both Microsoft and Nokia would be as safe as houses. But as both companies know, market share is in fact as safe as houses proved to be during the sub-prime disaster. It turns out that customers are fickle beasts. Brand loyalty only goes so far. If a manufacturer does not provide the right feature set and - more importantly - the right user experience, the public looks elsewhere. And Nokia has not offered the right user experience for some time. The Symbian operating system has grown old and stale compared to the iPhone and Android alternatives. It is clunky, looks unattractive and involves to many button pushes or screen taps to get you where you want to be. It was good in its day but not anymore.

In a rousing speech yesterday, Nokia's top marketing man, Niklas Savander, tried to convince a developer-audience that Nokia means to revitalise the brand. New smart phones, running new OS's will make them relevant again in the smart phone market. He even took a leaf out of Steve Jobs' book when he jibed, "One more thing, they perform, day in day out, no matter how you hold them." This of course is when Murphy pokes his head around the corner and makes all Nokia phones go "Oomph!" and lets those reception bars go the way of the dodo. Better not to joke at your competitors expense!

I am sceptical on Nokia remaining a relevant smart phone manufacturer. Their market share in the US is negligible and although they sell huge numbers of smart phones worldwide - some 260,000 a day according to Nokia themselves - I doubt whether the new N8 flagship phone with the 'new' Symbian^3 operating system is going to do it. With smart phones leaving the high end market and entering the 'every one's phone' market, the OS is going to become more important than ever.

You see, reading some reviews about the N8 some people may like this phone. It has some niggles but also some nice features. But that is not going to cut it. To stay relevant in the smart phone market Nokia does not need a phone that is just all right. It needs a phone that blows both the iPhone 4 and the Android contenders out of the water and the N8 running a Symbian OS is not going to do that. It is going to be an also ran. And an also ran is not enough to sustain a huge company like Nokia.

What would save Nokia? Maybe a 4" smart phone flagship running Android with the build quality of a tank and a camera that rivals a SLR would. They need to bring out a phone that promises its user uninterrupted use and loyalty, even when the competition has moved on during the contract period. In other words, they need the modern equivalent of my old and venerable N82, which I still use every day!

My latest book!

Friday, September 10, 2010

15 years of PlayStation

The Sony PlayStation has turned 15 on Thursday it says in an article on In the days it was launched, those that played games on consoles played them on Atari's, Nintendo's and SEGA's machines. Some of these had been around since the late seventies and Sony had some catching up to do in a market that was still largely a niche market (have a look at some of these vintage machines here at Benway's collection).

Sony caught up. They sold some 240 million units of the PlayStation, PS one (a re-issue of the original) and PlayStation 2 and went on to launch the PlayStation 3. Although this last console had a little bit of a shaky start. The high price point and lack of tripple A games seemed to dampen sales of this new generation. The Microsoft Xbox 360 already had a huge following and a slew of mainstream games to play on it and Sony had to fight an uphill battle. In Februari 2010 Shacknews arrived at new estimates of PlayStation 3 sales that put it at 33+ million sold. This was close to the Xbox 360's previously published number of 39 million units sold. Although no one could touch the Nintendo Wii, which had become a runaway success and had sold 67+ million units.

In the 15 years the PlayStation has been around PC gaming has had to deal with the rising popularity of console gaming. PC gaming is not dead however as some gaming analysts would have you believe. But it has shifted its focus on online play and online distribution. Games like World of Warcraft, Starcraft II and the online distribution service Steam, keep PC gaming alive and kicking with tens of millions of players every day.

The venerable PlayStation has seen it all. It has travelled the timeline from the 8 bit graphics beeps and squeaks era to the hyper realistic every onscreen muscle moves surround sound era. And it has survived. It begs the question, what's next? What will the PlayStation 4 bring and what will it be up against? I am willing to bet it will probably be a Nintendo.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Google TV and Apple TV: how the living room was won

At the IFA trade show Google's CEO Eric Schmidt announced that Google TV will be launched this fall. Only in the US at first but the world will follow next year. Apple announced similar plans at an event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on 1 September.

This means both Google and Apple have thrown down the gauntlet and are now challenging the big TV networks. At first the adoption of TV through the Internet may be modest. It will mean connecting yet another device to your TV that connects to the Internet. In Apple's case this is the Apple TV and in case of Google this will probably be any computer where you can run a browser on. Many people may not be ready to surf the Internet from their lazy chair and change their TV viewing habits yet. Although the Apple TV provides a nice interface with an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad, that lets these devices stream content to the Apple TV and thus to your big screen.

Yet there may be a quicker adoption of this technology than one might think. Don't forget that YouTube outperforms many big networks when it comes to prime time viewer numbers. Transporting YouTube to the living room TV may transport with it an instant audience of 2 billion a day.

This is good news for both Google and Apple. Bad news for the networks. But lets face it, when YouTube with its piano playing cats, hyperactive teenagers and snippets of prime time TV manages to outperform the major networks, the major networks have only themselves to blame! Instead of fighting the Internet as the evil land of free for all they should have embraced it. Cuddled it and snuggled up to it. Made love to it and finally made it their own. Then they would have had a big say in what happens with the bits and bytes that travel from the handy cams to the TV screens. Instead they persisted in opposing it when parts of their shows turned up on YouTube. They gave it the stink eye the rest of the time, partly by incorporating it in their web sites in the most bungling, user unfriendly ways they could think of.

Now the big TV networks are left with a bruised pride and a lot of skittish viewers who are as used to watching TV on their laptops, iPads and media centres as they are on their networks. YouTube et al will become just another channel to watch in the eyes of many viewers. And considering the quality of programming of many channels, that piano playing cat doesn't even stand out.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Drink! You'll live longer, a new study suggests

Time magazine published an article on Monday, quoting a study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. The research found that heavy drinkers outlive non-drinkers. Good news for many people, including myself. And a perfect Friday subject for The Second Opinion Tribune.

The story comes with a note of warning: alcoholic beverages are not eternal-life-elixirs. There are rather annoying illnesses associated with alcohol, like cirrhosis and certain kinds of cancer. And a drunk crossing the street is more likely to be hit by the last bus than a sober person.

It is unclear why the controversial findings cropped up. One of the reasons thought to be instrumental in boosting a drunk's life expectancy is the fact that drinking is a social activity. It is well known that social interactivity is conducive to a longer life. 

It seems some of us are screwed then: the lonely drunks. The ones downing their single malts in quiet contemplation of life, the world and everything. Those who abscond from the pressures of a social life

To be slightly drunk makes life so much easier. The difficult questions that pester one during the day become irrelevant. The mind chooses higher plains to wander on than the mundane world of taxes, bank accounts in the red, pesky managers and the general malaise caused by a life just ebbing away in a river of profound pointlessness.

So allow me to make a statement that is based on sober self-observation, so no scientific validity should be attached to the following: all drinkers probably live longer. Even if the amount of social interaction you have resembles that of Richard Dawkins at a bishops convention. 

Instead of a yearly holiday wherein you forget the earthly worries, the brain takes a daily break. Every day it throws caution to the wind and flits around, free as a butterfly on a summer's day. The brain is allowed its fairy tales that become as much truth as the chewing out received by that much too successful too young, new manager.

A daily dose of alcohol may be bad for the liver, but provided you have brain cells to spare - and lets face it, most of us do - it does wonders for your peace of mind. Your health!

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Top Gear's The Stig Courting Controversy

The Stig
The BBC series Top Gear is hugely popular, even outside the UK. Apart from the three main presenters - Jeremy Clarkson, James May and the little bloke, what's'is name, Hammond, Richard Hammond - there is also a silent witness to the program's success: The Stig. Whenever Jeremy Clarkson utters words to the effect of "Now some say he is..." everyone knows it is time for a Stig segment. But who this white knight is, no one knows. His helmet never comes off and he never speaks.

If HarperCollins, a book publishing firm, gets its way however there may soon come an end to the fun. They are set to publish a book in which the true identity of The Stig is going to be revealed. The BBC began legal action against HarperCollins to prevent the book from being published. The case is set to continue behind closed doors as to continue the case in public would defeat the purpose, according to the judge.

Whether you are a petrol head or not, there is a certain spoil sport mentality in the HarperCollins' stance. They will have a quick cash-in on a book that will sell many copies purely on the strength of the reveal. Once the real identity of The Stig is known the sale of the book will drop off and that's it, the tempestuous tea cup will become calm again. But for millions of people, Top Gear will be just that little bit less enjoyable.

On the other hand it may give Top Gear an opportunity to come up with a new mystery (as they did in 2003, that version of the Stig later revealed himself in an autobiography). Maybe they can organise a competition for viewers to send in ideas. Oh, wait, there was something about competitions and the BBC wasn't there? As a matter of fact the BBC has quite a track record when it comes to controversies.

Oh, heck, it's impossible to choose sides here, they're all equally childish. Maybe it's time for a thorough spanking all round.

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