December 28, 2010

Automats

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 6:26 pm

Image from the Automat.net.

The wonder of impersonal food service.
  • Automats almost experienced a brief revival in NYC, where Bamn!, located on 8th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues offered a modern American comfort food menu. They opened in 2006 and sadly closed in 2009.
  • The interiors of automat restaurants were generally in the Art Deco style.
  • The first automat restaurant was opened in 1902 by Horn & Hardart, and remained popular until the 1950’s. See the Smithsonian’s online article for more details.
  • The last original automat closed in NYC in 1991.
  • By all accounts, the automat was done in by fast food restaurants.

I have no personal memories of automats, as the last one in the Boston area went defunct in my childhood. I imagine the experience was similar to picking from a Woolworth’s lunch menu, being served by vending machines, and eating in the atmosphere of a Johnny Rocket’s. Does anyone remember eating at an automat?

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December 21, 2010

Philosophical Thoughts

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , , — Brian Triber @ 11:53 am

Image from the Sydney Morning Herald.

This is your brain on blogs.

Any questions?

From Wikipedia (for whatever that’s worth):

  • Sentience: the ability of any entity to have subjective perceptual experiences.
  • Consciousness: variously defined as subjective experience, awareness, the ability to experience feeling, wakefulness, the understanding of the concept self, or the executive control system of the mind.
  • Creativity: defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “the ability to create”, which, according to the threshold hypothesis, has a correlation to intelligence. (Note that experiments to prove this hypothesis has ended in mixed results.) Wikipedia actually requires, by their definition, that something of value be produced! I would make a strong argument that as long as something is being produced, wether of value or not, creativity is occurring. My initial reasoning is that the value of a created valuable is biased by wether the observer considers it to have value, and that is actually a measure of economics, not of philosophy or psychology.
  • Intelligence: defined in Wikipedia as “…an umbrella term describing a property of the mind including related abilities, such as the capacities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, learning from past experiences, planning, and problem solving.” Of course this doesn’t really get a grip around the topic, as there are at least seven theories of intelligence listed, and two additional scientific definitions, including one published in Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns, a 1996 report published by an APA task force, that itself references at least 5 theories. So, in toto, there’s been an awful lot of intelligence expended in defining what exactly intelligence is.
  • Intentionality: the Wikipedia article defines this in a roundabout way to identify wether an act is intentional or not — essentially circular logic as far as definitions go. Further along, the article references Franz Brentano’s definition, stating that intentionality is a characteristic of “acts of consciousness”, which once again avoids providing a proper definition since acts of consciousness have many characteristics besides intentionality, although this definition does begin to hone in on it.
  • Sapience: the ability to act with judgement. The Wikipedia article goes on to state that the terms sentience, self-awareness, and consciousness are used interchangeably with sapience in Sci-Fi. Hence the initial thrust of this research into what makes us human.
  • Artificial Intelligence: “the study and design of intelligent agents”, or a machine that observes its environment, acquires knowledge from those observations, acts to ensure its success, and learns from those acts. This is a little different from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. For a little chuckle, check out Asimov’s 30 Laws of Robotics. (I especially like #11.)
  • Self-Awareness: In a bit of art imitating life imitating art, ad infinitum, ad imitatum, the self-referential definition for self-awareness appears to be awareness of oneself. As an individual.
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December 14, 2010

Soups On! And a Side of Fries…

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 1:31 pm

Image from D & S Vending.
The RMI 8050.

Back when I was in high school, attending the High School Studies Program on Saturdays at MIT, there were a series of ancient vending machines, including this one (or one similar enough to it that it may as well have been this one), in the basement of Building 7 near the elevator. As a kid who essentially ate school lunches, I thought that the machine was alright. It dispensed chicken soup that was occasionally a little darker than normal, but on a cold winter day, salty soup was good.

I guess the tip off that the machine wasn’t well maintained was when I went to purchase a cup of tea that tasted like it had coffee in it. And again when my hot chocolate had a couple of noodles floating in it that I had convinced myself were actually malformed marshmallows extruded from some sort of tube that needed cleaning inside the device — after all, if MIT could make extruded french fries in their cafeteria, why not extruded marshmallows for the hot chocolate?

Extruded french fries, I hear you ask? Well, that’s another story. At the time — and now I’m dating myself — in 1984 the MIT cafeteria used to sell extruded french fries. My best friend Max and I would go to the corner vendor for a cup of chili with cheese and onions, and then go into the student center cafeteria for the french fries. This part of the experience was kind of a ritual. The cook would place a wire deep fry basket under the receptacle of a big machine attached to a water pipe. Occasionally, the cook emptied a bag of powder — ostensibly potato flour of some sort but it might also have been plaster dust — into a hopper at the top of the machine. He pressed a button on the front, which was inordinately large despite being the only button on the machine. After a compressor kicked on, french fries extruded into the fry basket. Within seconds, the basket was removed from the machine and plunged into oil the color of a raven’s wing at midnight. If the cook wasn’t fast enough, the potato sludge would congeal back into a single mass and have to be discarded.

Those are my memories of the food machines at MIT. Does anyone have other stories of vending machines they’d like to share?

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December 10, 2010

The Eyes Have It

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 9:52 pm

Image from www.makezine.com.
Big Brother Is Watching

Wired Science online announced the results of a Newcastle University psychology study today where posters asking restaurant customers to pick up after themselves were displayed with two different designs. The message was the same on both posters, but one had a picture of flowers while the other had a staring eye. The result? People were twice as likely to clean up their messes when the staring eye was used.

The article claims that the study was testing the theory of “nudge psychology”, which posits that people behave “better” (whatever that means) when the “better” option is pointed out to them. I think in this case the experimental assumptions might be flawed. Isn’t it possible that, in a society where we have been bombarded all our lives with the understanding that someone is always watching us (God, the government, whoever’s on the other side of my web camera, the camera on the traffic light on the corner), being stared at, even subliminally by the image of an eye, might do something to keep us reflexively honest?

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The Antikythera Mechanism – a Mechanical Computer

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 10:25 am

Image from Nikon Metrology.
The Antikythera Mechanism, which may look familiar to some, was created around 80 BC, and found in a shipwreck in Greece in 1900.

Image from Nikon Metrology.
This photo shows an X-Ray image of the device.

These images are from the Nikon Metrology website. It has been theorized that the device was used for predicting eclipses.

A video of a virtual reconstruction of the device by Wright and Vicentini is on YouTube.

According to a story by Lester Haines from the online tech news site The Register, a working version of the mechanism has been duplicated in Legos by an engineer from Apple computer named Andrew Carol. Here is the video of the working model.

Other interesting links:

New “Current Research” Category for Post Entries

Filed under: Current Research — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 9:47 am

As an experiment, I’ve decided it would be interesting to track my research for my current projects on the Blog. My aim is to create an ongoing conversation about those topics that affect the plots, characters, and settings of my current writing projects. If this experiment works, it will hopefully lead to more depth in understanding my writing subjects, both for me, and my readers. My guess is this will be more helpful after the fact, i.e., after someone has read a short story, to provide further informational sources. But one can never tell.

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December 8, 2010

The Value of Physical Books

Filed under: Publishing Industry — Tags: , , — Brian Triber @ 11:15 am

The Publishing in the 21st Century blog has recently posted an article about Oprah Winfrey’s current Oprah Book of the Month, a twin Edition of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations, available as e-books for a price on Amazon, sold at bookstores, and available for free (for the kindle only) at the publisher’s website.

There has been a lot of back and forth about why books are priced as they are. Penguin, the publisher of this edition, claims the e-book is enhanced from the free versions offered directly from them. This seems to be a reasonable assertion considering how much effort goes into designing and editing the additional contents of an e-book, and editing the source material for the new format to begin with.

For physical editions, the cover price has to pay for, in addition to the editing costs of the new supplementary materials, printing, binding, shipping, and the labor of the folks at the bookstore in displaying and handling the books. In this case, the bookseller also has to deal with getting additional signage up and promoting the new edition in newsletters and advertisements.

But why a physical edition of this book? From my own personal perspective, e-readers have now matured sufficiently to allow markups, i.e., taking notes, directly in the text and those notes are effortlessly synchronized to the computer, so papers can be researched entirely electronically without paper and pencil. The only other reason for owning a physical copy, in my mind, is to get the author’s autograph.

But with this edition of Cities/Expectations there is one other factor. Oprah will be leaving the airwaves shortly, which means that her impact on the industry by selecting a pick of the month will also disappear (although she may continue this in her magazine). For the sake of continuity, or perhaps for the sake of collecting, many readers will purchase a physical copy for the sake of completing their Oprah Book Club Library.

Assuming you owned a current e-reader model, is there a reason you would want the physical book instead of the e-book?

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December 7, 2010

Google Editions: Coming to an Author Near You

Filed under: Publishing Industry — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Brian Triber @ 6:16 pm

There’s an interesting article on the E_Reads blog about Google eBooks becoming Google Editions, and how this will impact the publishing industry. For writers specifically, it mentions that there will be an Affiliate program that allows authors to sell their own ebooks from their web sites through Google Editions.

Independent writers currently have several options to circumvent the traditional publishing industry, including POD, vanity presses, and now, for ebooks, Google Editions. Currently, the biggest advantages traditional publishing has over these others is access to brick and mortar stores, and to critics. Budgets for publicity, which used to be a big plus with traditional publishers, are drying up, leaving the author in all cases picking up the bill for much of his/her own publicity tour.

Many authors, especially those with non-fiction or self-help works, use POD publishing in tandem with other sources, such as speaking at conferences, where they sell physical editions of their work, and on-air marketing through providing content, such as late-night talk shows. A parallel to this in the traditional publishing industry would be a college professor requiring their students to purchase their own text book from a textbook publisher.

For the independent author with POD, however, Google Editions seems to offer an additional outlet for sales. POD editions are physically delivered to the reader. But with ebooks slated to be the primary source of reading in the near future (some sources estimate that 80% of book sales will be ebooks within 5 years, which sounds overly-optimistic to me in this economy) Google Editions seems to offer a way to fill the sales gap. Details about the new program are incomplete, but it appears that it should handshake cleanly with Google’s online stores and the Google Checkout program, a purchasing interface for websites that charge the seller per transaction.

I’m in no way affiliated with Google at this time, and am probably only slightly less confused than most writers about the best method for marketing and sales. The real difficulty is that with the traditional publishing industry being so difficult to break into, POD, Google Editions, and vanity presses offer a tasty bit of bait on a hook. The hook is, of course, that because anyone can publish anything they like with these sources, quality is varied, and traditional publishing is unlikely to consider even looking at a previously self-published work.

Your thoughts?

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