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Sci-Fi

+ - USPS to Issue Star Wars Stamp Set

Submitted by
clevertwit
clevertwit writes "The US Postal Service is issuing this May new 41 cent stamps featuring popular characters and images from the 6 film Star Wars series. The stamps come on an oversized sheet and can be seen at: http://www.usps.com/communications/newsroom/2007st amps/starwars/. A contest will determine which stamp of the set will be later released as an individual stamp. (Sure to be Yoda ...) Note that the USPS seems to have a clue, none of the images include Jar Jar Binks or the Ewoks."
Enlightenment

+ - Circuit City and the American Dream job

Submitted by Anonymous Coward
An anonymous reader writes "Circuit City said yesterday that it had fired 3,400 of its highest-paid sales staff and will replace them with lower-paid workers, however the fired workers have a chance to apply for lower-paying positions after a 10-week delay, said the 655-store electronics chain based in Richmond, Va. Circuit City spokesman Jim Babb said: "This is no reflection on job performance,". "We deeply regret the negative impact. Retail is extremely competitive, and if we're going to thrive and operate a successful company for our shoppers, employees and shareholders, we just have to control costs." So work hard, become the best in your field and get fired so they can offer you a new job 10 weeks later at a lower salary. That seems to fit the American Dream?????"
Communications

+ - Hubblecasts - providing cool stuff from the HST

Submitted by kasparn
kasparn (1052812) writes "The ESA/NASA Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has through 17 years now provided us with the best and most magnificent optical and near-infrared imagery of a wide range of stars, nebulae, planets, galaxies etc. Now a so-called Hubblecast is available providing a very need presentation of the exploration of distant galaxies using the HST and it is narrated by a German astronomer going under the name "Dr. J". One of the cool things I in particular like is the ability to download the Hubblecast in various (very) good qualities. I personally think that it's crucial that professional astronomers themselves actually participate in producing outreach material of this kind, since so much science is going on and non-astronomers only get to know very little of all the exciting new discoveries and beautiful images."
Communications

+ - Cisco to Buy Webex

Submitted by Dekortage
Dekortage (697532) writes "As the latest in a series of recent acquisitions, Cisco has agreed to buy Webex for US$3.2 billion. Cisco, known more for its networking gear, will be relying on Webex's popular online conferencing/collaboration service to expand into online business services. In typical marketing-speak, Cisco's Chief Development Officer says in the official press release that "The combination of Cisco and WebEx will deliver compelling solutions accelerating this next wave of business communications." For an extra ten points, can anyone name the flamboyant homosexual who appeared in Webex's early advertising?"
HP

+ - Europe exec confirms Google Phone

Submitted by cyberianpan
cyberianpan (975767) writes "So Google has confirmed that it is working on a phone News.com The head of Google in Spain and Portugal has confirmed that Google is working on a mobile phone. "Some of the time the engineers are dedicated to developing a mobile phone," Ok this could be the 20% free time development but publicising that would be stupid. Obviously this phone could link in with Google Earth/Maps... it is a marketers dream regards targeted advertising, literally the shops may talk to you when you pass about products that they know you want. Thos could lead to Goolge having more power than any IT company ever. Obviously barriers present, chiefly in that Google doesn't have mobile phone networks & thus would have to cut deals."
The Internet

+ - Death and the Internet

Submitted by
yorickwilks
yorickwilks writes ""The Internet changes everything" says William Dutton, Head of Oxford's Internet Institute, but surely not death, which, with taxes, tends to be permanent and unchanging?
A moment's reflection shows that is not so, and civilizations differ in nothing more than how they treat death and its subsequent state, if any. Even within a single society, our treatment of death, and our reactions to it, are so different from those of our Victorian ancestors — with their crepe bands, black-rimmed newspapers and mourning hats — that they now seem more like a foreign tribe.

Shrines are normally for the dead, whether elaborate tombs or small candles in the corner of Japanese living rooms; but Internet shrines are different, and it is often hard to know if the owner of a web page is alive or dead. I turned recently to the URL of an Italian I had once met, and discovered from his webpage he was now famous as the Father of Italian Cybernetics. I had no idea he had become so celebrated, but what was hard to discover was the answer to what had brought me there: whether he was alive or dead. It is this crucial borderline — dead vs. alive — critical to physiology and the law, that the Internet systematically fudges.

If, in the future, to be is to be in cyberspace, then an area ripe for development is email, where there are huge commercial opportunities for postmortem email that are well within technical reach, given the advances in computer processing of natural language in recent years. With only simple electronics, we are all familiar now with goodbye videos from the deceased at their own funerals, and some modern gravestones, known in America as Vidstones, have, instead of a simple memorial picture built into the stone, a small video of the deceased, solar-powered, that can be activated by a switch.

But email has been subjected to a wide range of analysis techniques to understand its content, at some acceptable level, most notoriously by companies and national security agencies: but such analysis can also decide whether the email content is positive or negative, whether it is asking for something or announcing a lecture, and so on. These and many other kinds of email content can now be extracted by reasonably intelligent programs, and it would be a very small move to have them automatically replied to as well, a service that could continue without a living correspondent. This would require not only the special software but a stable host server, such as a university or perhaps, in the future, a foundation specifically set up for the purpose of repling to emails to the dead. That would keep someone in cyberspace, as it were, for a fixed period for a fee, just as medieval chantries would pray for your soul for so many years for the appropriate donation. Even now graves are rented only for a fixed period.

One's email could move seamlessly into an after-life mode: academics, for example, are used to accepting and declining invitations to lecture by email, and sending out their publications as offprints as attachments in the same way. It is perfectly straightforward to extend the standard Unix "Vacation program" which normally replies to email by saying you are on holiday and when you are coming back, so as to say:

I am sorry I cannot take up your invitation to lecture at your University because I died on September 1st 2008. I would have loved to come and see you all again; thank you so much for asking me

And so on. Sending out a requested offprint electronically would be straightforward, as would the provision of bibliographic or autobiographical information with the standard search technologies Information Retrieval and Information Extraction.

A recent Internet development relevant to all this is Second Life (https://secondlife.com/), a virtual world where some two million people have taken up a form of residence using avatars: artificial appearances or simulations of themselves who meet others, including the avatars of people not currently on line (at the time of writing only eleven thousand of the two million subscribers are actually on line). Second life has obvious resonances of "after-life" as well as "parallel life", which is the one its creators intended. The expansion of Second Life is extraordinary, with, at the time of writing, sixty thousand acres "sold", a space which is (virtually) expanding by 8% a month. The sales are in "Linden dollars" inside Second Life but they can be bought and sold for real money elsewhere on the web, which has given the virtual economy aspects of a real one.

Famous singers are now releasing songs within Second Life which the buyer can get and play there. I had a perfectly serious conversation last month trying to convince the British Library — which sometimes doubts the quality of its "outreach' in a demotic age — that it could buy land in Second Life and erect at least a large hoarding on it, saying "LIBRARY HERE SOON".

But what has this to do with the Internet? Well, life as an avatar, after one's own death, would certainly be a form of life, even in a virtual world. Your avatar on the other side could continue to function and appear to meet people, talking as it had been programmed to, visiting places and living a full if rather thin second life. It would not be you, of course, and at best rather like the schoolmen saw the lives of angels, as all form but no substance.

Other possibilities arise from the opportunity we will have very soon of putting every possible fact, memory and datum about our lives onto the Internet itself. Last week the British library hosted a meeting on Memories for Life ((http://www.telegraph.co.uk/connected/main.jhtml? view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/connected/2006/12/13/nlife 13.xml), a topic generated as a challenge for modern computing a few years ago and funded since then as a university research network (www.memories-for-life.org). The core idea is that computer storage is now so large and cheap that it becomes feasible to envisage recordings of everything we say, hear, write, see, eat or meet in eighty years of life, along with all our medical readings, as being stored on the Internet in some moderate and quite available space (known to the technically minded as 28 terabytes, according to an estimate by Alan Dix of Lancaster University). This is a huge amount of space but, at the present rate of progress, will be quite cheap to buy with a year or two, and could be stored on something no bigger than a sugar lump. The real problem is how we could possibly search all those memories and facts, even if we had them available; how we could begin to make sense of them, in the way a biographer makes sense of a subject's life by careful editing and selection.

The notion of all life on the Internet may be fanciful, but it is plain that huge chunks of our lives are going to be put there, not only the emails and the documents we write, but all our photographs and videos, which we are being encouraged to show to everyone in the world on sites like flicr (flicr.com) and YouTube (youtube.com). A possibility discussed at the British Library was that people may be able in the future to organise their lives and memories and data on the Internet with the aid of special automated assistants that can talk and converse in a normal way. This is the same motive as that behind all the recent offers by Google, Vodafone and others to offer free storage space to the public for their life data; but in return, the companies will get access to people's memories, tastes and records and, under certain safeguards, will know what adverts to send personally to them.

Something slightly more academic and benign is the notion of a computer Companion: a conversational agent that stays with one for a long period, appears to learn one's tastes and habits, and helps to organize and select all this personal material for its "owner". One can think of a Companion as best suited to the elderly, living alone and in need of company, needing to be reminded when to take pills and of the soap opera plots if they have been forgotten. Concretely, the Companion could be a mobile phone, or a computer screen, but more likely something like a furry handbag that sits on one's lap and talks, light to carry about and definitely not a robot. The Japanese have already gone some way in this direction: the BBC website carris a story of an elderly Japanese lady, Akino, who has a commercial companion called, Primo Puel, whose Japanese is primitive but Akino is reported as being comforted by it, liking to "hear it chatting away to itself in the other room". Akino added that she found more comfort in it than talking to her late husband's shrine in the corner. Readers will remember Japanese toys without any language like Tamagochi that had no language at all but aroused powerful emotions of care towards them in their owners.

Primo Puel has no language but natural computer conversation has come a long way even if it has not yet the everyday success of machine translation, which can now give a reasonable if basic translation of any web page on demand. The Loeber website (www.loebner-competition,org) shows the year by year increasing capacity of programs that take part in its annual computer conversation competition. There is now a major European initiative to build a computer Companion using these much stronger methods for deriving computer conversation: it is called Companions (www.nlp.shef.ac.uk/companions) and I coordinate it at the University of Sheffield, where it will run for four years with fifteen EU and US partners at a cost to tax payers of some 13 million.

It is said that the elderly in care homes spend much of their time shuffling their memories in the form of photographs; soon these will be digital images, of course, and the EU Companion will start there, discussing with its elderly owner who is in each picture, where it was taken and what its importance is. The idea, which may or may not succeed, is to use conversation with the elderly to build up coherent narratives, stories of parts of the owner's life, the stories which the images tell. Normally only those with talent, resources and leisure write autobiographies, but, if the Companions project succeeds, everyone could assemble some form of autobiography for their children, and undergo, with the Companion's help, some form of debriefing of their whole life. Many learn little of the early life of their own parents and then, suddenly, it is too late to ask, unless one has been bold and persuaded them to talk into a tape recorder and reveal their memories.

Companions is a futuristic project, but the Japanese have shown there is a market for anything plausible of this sort, if it reaches an acceptable level of voice and tone and a realistic level of chat. If it does so, then another interesting possibility arises, one close to our original theme of the Internet and life after death. The technical basis of the Companion is a technical matter called machine learning, or what some call data mining: the ability of a computer to learn, within limits, things it did not know before. An obvious successful example is learning to understand or imitate a voice: anyone who buys an IBM typewriter that takes dictation automatically has to train its computer to understand the owner's voice, so as to minimise typing errors.

The same process would allow a computer to imitate its owner's voice: Stephen Hawking's insistence on keeping his twenty year-old electronic voice has had the effect of masking the great advances that have been made. The Companion, after years of debriefing the same owner's life could also, with today's technology, produce a reasonable approximation to their voice. It would also have an organised set of images, emails and documents that tell its owner's life story. So the important question would become: what would to happen to it when the owner died?

Many might prefer to destroy the Companion of a loved one at that point, as some used to put down an aged parent's dogs and others, like ancient Egyptians, killed the wives of rulers at their deaths. But most would not now do that, but would retain the Companion, with its now familiar voice, its memories and detailed knowledge of the loved one, as a powerful and moving memorial, and almost a potted form of the departed.

This is not a very red-blooded life after death on the Internet, but it is something many will find attractive in the future, for themselves, their parents and for their own children. It is no more, perhaps, that a computerised and updated form of the Vidstone or, in a more literary vein, the view of Jules Romains in his prewar novel La Mort de Quelqu'un, that one had some form of existence so long as one was remembered by someone alive and no longer; it is a view not far from much modern rational common-sense.

Ray Kurzweil, the computer pioneer who built the first dictation-typewriter, is said to be devoting his old age entirely to health products so he can stay alive long enough to benefit from what he believes will be the next great technical advance: the reproduction of every human brain cell in a computer, or in silico, as he puts it. The Companion that simulated a dead person, as described above, would be much less radical than that: it might imitate behaviour but would have no tie to any structure in the departed's body or brain. But alas, even Kurtzweil's surviving in silico twin will not be he himself, and will deliver him no more of the traditional afterlife promise than would the survival of his identical twin brother."
Graphics

+ - LGPL Swfdec project now works with YouTube!

Submitted by
Ur@eus
Ur@eus writes "The swfdec library which is a LGPL licensed Flash library just announced that code making it work with YouTube has been checked into their Git repository. So you can now view your YouTube movies with an open source solution! This is the result of six months of intensive hacking by swfdec developer Benjamin Otte and a big step forward for opensource Flash support."
Software

+ - IT industry publishes Government 'To Do' list to m

Submitted by
Chris
Chris writes "PublicTechnology.net.net reports that: IT trade association Intellect yesterday published a paper entitled "Implementing Shared Corporate Services in the Public Sector" that details the steps government must take by the end of this year if it is to make shared services, and all the associated benefits, a reality.

The full story is at: http://www.publictechnology.net/modules.php?op=mod load&name=News&file=article&sid=8181"
Music

+ - Audio Sombrero - A surround sound hat!

Submitted by
Ant
Ant writes "Chairboy says "Is this the answer to the ancient question: 'How will I enjoy full surround sound while walking down the street?' Yes!!1!!1!eleventy!! A wicked combination of stylish and practical, it solves almost as many problems as it causes. It is a question wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in some sort of piece of bacon!""
Intel

+ - High schooler is awarded $100,000 for research

Submitted by wired_LAIN
wired_LAIN (974675) writes "A teenager from Oklahoma was awarded $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search competition for building an inexpensive and accurate spectrograph that can identify the specific characteristics of different kinds of molecules. While normal spectrographs can cost between $20,000 and 100,000 to build, her spectrograph cost less than $500 dollars. The 40 finalists' projects were judged by a panel of 12 scientists, all well established in their respective fields. Among the judges were Vera Rubin , who proved Dark Matter, and Andrew Yeager, one of the pioneers of stem cell research. My only question is: why aren't these kids given more media coverage?"

There is no distinction between any AI program and some existent game.

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