This week’s pair of science fiction technologies phasing into everyday life: robots and rockets

This week two more science fiction technologies entered our world in a big way.  This time they are robots and rockets.

First, robots: an Estonian company is about to trial its delivery bots in Washington, DC.  Starship Technologies has built small, six-wheeled robots that carry a cargo to a target destination, such as a home or business.

Starship Technologies robot

PR photo.

It’s really a multi-device hardware system, as vans carry the bots to the destination area:

Robot delivery with van

A few thoughts: it’s an interesting alternative to flying drones.  If the Estonian invasion succeeds, perhaps we’ll see a competition between robots for air and ground.

I wonder about what’s needed for areas to support this.  Would sidewalks need to be cleaned or cleared?  What about vandalism or accidental damage?  The hacking possibilities are fun to contemplate.  Let’s see if technology fears attach to this deliverybot (Fox News: is ISIS using Starships to deliver bombs to your children?)

I’d love to see educational uses.  Can students build their own for on-campus uses?  How about inter-institutional competitions, like whose bot can deliver a pizza the fastest?  What creative uses will faculty and students come up with?

My favorite photo from the Starship site:

Delivery bot and an older gentlemen.

For my “21st century meets the 20th” files.

Related robot story: Nissan is experimenting with helping you live your WALL-E reenactment dream.

Second, space travel: Elon Musk, a Robert Heinlein character come to life, issued his company’s plans for taking humans to Mars in the medium-term future.  It’s a complex project, involving some older technology (one giant booster rocket) and new (a huge crewed ship that’ll land itself on Mars).


There’s an inspirational trailer:

(And is that terraforming at the end?)

I have so many questions, and not a few emotional reactions.

How likely is this to happen?  SpaceX is certainly working on it, with multiple projects and tests, from the Raptor engine to that crazy autonomous landing booster to the successful Dragon ships.  Musk says they’ll send “something” to Mars every two years, at least a Dragon shipment, starting in 2018.

But how far can this actually be realized, all the way to setting up a colony by 2022 or 2026?  Musk’s presentation jokes about one problem:

South Park joke

He is rich, though, and likely to attract investors like the ones who fund asteroid mining projects.

What does this mean for education?  Maybe we’ll see a spike in demand for space sciences, from rocketry to astrobiology.  Hopefully it’ll inspire a wave of interest in space exploration among students, starting with the youngest.  We should also look for spinoff technologies rippling across education, as inventions and projects race along the Mars missions.

What does this mean for society?  Again, I turn to spinoffs, which we saw from NASA’s golden age (Tang, Teflon, computers, batteries, solar, etc).  It also points to the continued dominance of the neoliberal paradigm, as it’s a huge step in the privatization of space exploration… and that’s if the mission doesn’t fully succeed.  Simply spending huge amounts of money, mobilizing people and capital to get going, and making some progress (as SpaceX already has done) will have a direct impact, with knock-on secondary effects.

More thoughts:

  • Musk wants to name the first crewed Martian ship “Heart of Gold”, joking that its motive force would nearly be an Infinite Improbability Drive.  That’s one serious geek and science fiction fan.
  • Around 1:15 into the presentation he casually tosses off the idea of suborbital cargo delivery by rocket to “anywhere on earth” – watch for this one.
  • Musk also describes the colony taking up to a century to become sustainable, so this is clearly visionary stuff.   “This system means access to the greater solar system.”
  • In the Q+A one Russian audience member asks why this is such a US-centric project.  Musk claims to want an international enterprise, but is being blocked by American laws about foreign nationals and rockets.
  • Related: let’s see if other companies and/or nations generate their own projects.  We could see a Mars race.
  • The vision here is simply breathtaking.  It hurls me back to when I was a lad, reading science fiction and nonfiction about humans voyaging through the solar system.  I got chills watching the video, without a trace of shame or embarrassment.
  • Let’s see how the backlash emerges.  It could come from public good advocates or socialists, who want the government to do this kind of thing.  It could come from anti-technology people, of course.  And when the American economy runs into stresses (think recessions or state budget crunches, for starters) people will demand using this money “for Earthly concerns.”
  • I also wonder how this will play out generationally.  Will older folks love it, feeling an Apollo memory?  Will younger generations be excited, having their own space adventure, and generally more immersed in technology?
  • I’m intrigued by Musk’s presentation style, which is informal (suit but no tie, no prepared remarks), very low-key.

What do you make of these developments in rockets and robots?

(Musk link via HackerNews)


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Rural broadband update: can the squeaky wheel get the ISP grease?

I’d like to update you on my rural broadband efforts.  (If you would like the backstory, check these posts)

Over the past few weeks I and others have been pressing hard on a variety of fronts.  We’ve pinged and interviewed technologists, business leaders and representatives, nonprofit leaders, elected politicians, people running for office, and many people in our area.

We have come up with a set of possible options, which I’ll return to in a followup post.  Here I’d like to note one potential positive sign.

After all of this action on our part, Fairpoint seems to be responding.  If you’re new to this story, or don’t remember the details, Fairpoint is our local ISP.  They have a monopoly position in much of rural Vermont, including our town.

Fairpoint logoLast week Fairpoint mailed out letters to people in the area, promising faster speeds.

They then emailed local politicians, assuring them of better broadband.

And check out this notice in a briefing document for this week’s local government meeting in a nearby town:

The team from Fairpoint Communications then initiated a presentation focused on the company’s wide array of services and the options for potential customers in and close to Middlebury. They also described several recent investments that will be improving access to faster broadband speeds in our larger community inclusive of the Ripton area.

The group then collectively reviewed a series of aerial maps depicting Fairpoint’s current and future network facilities in and around Middlebury. There was a conversation about being able to augment service in the vicinity of the Middlebury Airport and for the growing community of telecommuters that we have in the area. The Fairpoint representatives also discussed their willingness to communicate with our community around any needs that are currently unaddressed or options for different classes of service. [emphasis added]

Why does this matter?  First, Middlebury is the biggest and by far the richest town in the area, which is why Fairpoint presents there.  But there are other towns around Middlebury, of which Ripton is just one (and a smaller, and poorer one).  Here you can see six towns orbiting Middlebury:


Click to get the fuller Google Maps treatment.

We, plus one more, share the same school district (about which more later).  Yet Fairpoint singled out Ripton from the rest to mention.

Second, I haven’t heard of any activism from any of these other towns.  So maybe, just maybe, all the noise we’ve been making is having an effect, changing the mind of our monopoly ISP.  Perhaps this is a good result that vindicates our efforts and will lead to better infrastructure.

And yet.

I called Fairpoint’s business line to ask about the news.

The representative had no idea what I was talking about.

“We at the business office are usually the last to know,” she spun, and then offered to call back when she found out more.

She did call back, the next day.  I wasn’t home (and remember we have no cell phone coverage), so my wife took the call.  The Fairpoint representative said *something* was in the works, but she had no details, including no timeline.

I’m going to follow up by calling the Fairpoint workers and executives who’ve been speaking to me in the recent past.

What do you make of this, oh readers?

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The future election takes off: finishing _Infomocracy_

And so we come to the end of Malka Older’s Infomocracy (all posts here).  All kinds of things happen in the novel’s second half, so if you haven’t read those chapters yet, be warned that here be spoilers.

Older, InformocracyOverall, I really enjoyed this novel.  It’s a very rich vision of a complex and transformed political world.  I’m also enjoying following the #Infomocracy Twitter hashtag.

For this post I’ll begin as ever with a quick plot summary, notes on the book’s world, then lit prof observations.  If you’d like to read previous posts and discussion, they’re right here.





1: The Plot 

The global election happens, but Information goes down, and skulduggery occurs, with all sides scrambling for advantage and/or democracy, and the election hacked and revised.  Mishima becomes even more of an action hero, Ken slides into working for a new employer, and Domaine gets in trouble.  A new Supermajority appears.

2: The Future World

So far Information has sounded like a mix of Google and Facebook plus all social media.  It also reminds me now of Wikipedia, with its massive amounts of human work, and their governance structure: “Information prides itself on its flat, consensus-based organization with no single person at the top of the hierarchy”… plus some emergent bureaucracy (315).

More political parties/governments: AfricanUnity (196), AlThani (must be drawn from this Qatari ruling house) (210).  We learn that SecureNation is “made up almost entirely of military personnel and their families” (261).

Interesting political details: the microdemocracy is still only 20 years old, meaning governments can target older voters who remember the previous world (ours) of nations and war (280). Powerful point about political transformation.  Felons can vote, even from jail (309) – how unAmerican.  We also learn that the transition from nations to centenals involved threats of nuclear war (333).

Climate change is doing its work: “The main Information hub for New York City is in the heart of the Bronx, which seemed inconvenient for many years until seawater started to eat away at the edges of Manhattan” (242).  The Maldive Islands are now known as “the Adapted Maldives” (268).


More technology: a healing pad applied to wounds which “rebuild[s] muscle” (201).  Crows are part of public transit (223), and we learn that they “are designed to fly at the lowest altitude possible that enables a straight line between the origin and destination” (230).   There is the Lumper, a device which “permanently disable[s] all metal firearms within its effective radius”, which seems to have disarmed the world in a huge way and maybe made the infomocracy happen (231).  Some teakettles are nuclear powered (284).

People can run diagnostics on their minds, yielding rich infographics about their personality (258).  Interesting security idea, a physical display: “complicated iridescent armbands that are nearl[ly] impossible to forge” (238).

We see people creatively use older technologies, or improvise new ones, when the internet goes down.  The Liberty centenals have their own local networks accessed by their own hardware (298).  Plus the retro telegraph (213)!

Design: people shape conference rooms to encourage certain behaviors, using a music of lighting, music, scent, and wind effects (245-6).  Interactive fiction has developed (333).  Food culture is interesting, largely vegetarian, plus a touch of insects for protein (335). Continue reading

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A Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology

devil_gags9999In the dark and satirical spirit of Ambrose Bierce, I offer the first draft of a Devil’s Dictionary for educational technology terms.  May it entertain, and all be forgiven.

App, n.  An elegant way to avoid the World Wide Web.

Blended learning, n.  The practice of combining digital and analog teaching.  Also referred to as “teaching”, “learning”, and “the real world”.

Blogging, v.  The practice of writing to and interacting with an audience through an easy to use, automatically archiving tool.  A curiosity, which might be significant if every anyone used it.  Can be neatly buried by the LMS.

Competency-based education (CBE), n.  A tentative recognition that learning might occur outside of academia.  Obviously dangerous, and preferably reserved for the lower classes.

Digital native, n.  Student worker.

Engagement, n. That which everyone talks about but really does not know what it means. (thanks to Elena)

FERPA, n.  An excellent euphemism for the English word “no.” (See also “HIPAA”)

Gaming, n.  A massive cultural artifact shared by a huge swath of the human race, perhaps the most advanced integration of multimedia and storytelling, capable of teaching in fascinating ways.  Let us never speak of it again.

HIPAA, n.  A powerful synonym for the English phrase “no way”.  (See also “FERPA”)

Infographic, n.  An easy way to avoid reading and writing.

Interactive whiteboard, n.  A stylish but expensive alternative to paintings and wall hangings.

Lifelong learning, n.  An institution’s strategy for extracting money from alumni.  Also known as “development”.

LMS, n. 1) A document management system, whereby a faculty member can transfer a single document to his or her students.  Curiously overpowered for this purpose, nevertheless universally deployed.

2) A good way to avoid legal notices about copyright.

3)  The graveyard of pedagogical intentions.  A sump for IT budgets.

Luddite, n.  Someone who doesn’t study history, yet wants to inaccurately claim to be militantly anti-technology in one area when simultaneously relying heavily on technology in every other aspect of their lives.

Mobile, n.  1) Formerly The Great Peril, now known as That Which Must Be Shunned.  To be enabled with campus wifi, but dreaded in actual use, especially in classrooms.

2) A technology widely used by blacks, latinos, and poor people.  Someday we could think about starting to strategize about beginning to respond to this fact.

MOOC, n..  A high-profile and expensive way to put content on the World Wide Web.

Etymology is obscure; may draw on Massive Open Online Cult or Massively Open Otherworldly Course,  Can only be discussed as an American invention.

Open Education Resources, n.  A flexible and low cost way for students to access and produce content, while engaging faculty creativity and providing multiple class options.  Faculty are unaware of it.  Further study at some point in the future could be considered.

RIAA, n.  A friendly and major stakeholder in campus technology decision-making.

Shadow IT department, n.  A mysterious alliance that does a lot of work on campus.  It seems to include little start-up companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and others.

World Wide Web, n.  A strange new technology, the reality of which can be fended off or ignored through the LMS, proprietary databases, non-linking mobile apps, and judicious use of login requirements.

Are there other terms we should add to this luciferean lexicon?

(devil photo by gags9999)

Posted in education and technology, Uncategorized | 33 Comments

What should we ask Google’s education evangelist tomorrow?

Jaime Casap
This Thursday I’m excited to host a terrific guest on the Future Trends Forum. He’s Google’s education evangelist, Jaime Casap.

Jaime focuses on the links between social justice, technology, access, and education.  In addition to those issues, I plan on asking about some topics familiar to Forum participants, including open education, generational differences, and automation, for starters.

Please RSVP beforehand, or just click here on Thursday at 2 pm EST.

To find more information about the Future Trends Forum, including notes and recordings of previous sessions, click here: .

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Two more science fiction technologies became real this week

Sometimes the twenty-first century feels like science fiction.  Let me share two stories from this week that show previously speculative technologies entering everyday life.

First, the United States Department of Transportation issued regulatory guidelines for autonomous cars.  That means the US government is supporting the deployment of self-driving vehicles. The White House described it thusly:

the Administration is announcing a new Federal Automated Vehicles Policy to help facilitate the responsible introduction of automated vehicles to make transportation safer, cleaner, more accessible, and more efficient.

The president even published an op-ed about this in a Pittsburgh newspaper.

As one article put it, “The DOT is not neutral toward AVs. It wants to get them on the road soon. That’s a big deal.”  Same article summarizes a chunk of the regulations with this infographic:


Regulations aren’t very sexy, and that’s precisely the point.  Once a technology has entered the deeply nerdy world of overlapping governmental regulations, you can take that as a sign the thing has become very real indeed.

Second, in hunting the New York/New Jersey bomber(s), the New York City police department sent out an alert… to nearly everyone in the city with a smartphone, at the same time.  A Facebook friend describes being on a subway when the message arrived, and everyone in the car’s phones going off simultaneously, emitting the same tone.


As the Times observed,

The “wanted” message sent Monday appeared to be the first widespread attempt to transform the citizens of a major American city into a vigilant and nearly omnipresent eye for the authorities. It added new meaning to the notion of “see something, say something,” even as it raised some concern that innocent people could be mistakenly targeted.

While this sounds like something from cyberpunk fiction, it might already be out of date, like some of cyberpunk fiction.  538 points out that the alert lacks an image, and hence could lead to witch hunting.  It was also a broadcast without the ability to track readership, and lacked both non-English versions and identifying marks.

Self-driving cars and crowdsourcing surveillance through nearly ubiquitous handheld computers – some days the twenty-first century actually feels like the future.

…should I keep posting these advanced technology notes?  Here are some previous examples.

(thanks to Lloyd Walker for nearly all of the DOT information; thanks to Greg Diment for the 538 link)

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American tv “news” networks look blearily at the mirror and swear to change, for real this time

Media coverage of the 2016 American presidential campaign has become so terrible that even tv “news” people are starting to question themselves.  They worry that the relentless pursuit of ratings has led them to abandon journalistic principle, and maybe even enabled one of the worst nominees ever emitted by a modern political party.  Journalists from other media are chiming in with criticism and concern.

Hang on – that was in March.   We’re doing it again now.

(Has tv “news” coverage improved over the intervening six months?  The many ways one can answer “heck no” are best left as an exercise for the reader.)

Now it’s mid-September, the presidential race is in overdrive, and once again media types seem to have realized that tv “news” coverage is abominable.  Maybe this is becoming a regular thing now, a cyclical breast-beating without a shred of meaningful action.

Why this current cycle of self-recrimination?  Perhaps it was the release of this Gallup poll, showing American trust in journalists to have dropped to the “lowest level in Gallup polling history”.

Gallup polling on Americans' attitudes towards news media

Note that 8 point drop just over the past election year.

It’s more likely that this week’s round of public flagellation responds to two other triggering incidents, Matt Lauer‘s recent interviews with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and Friday’s semi-birther press conference.  In both cases tv “news” critters shamelessly admired Trump, or just gave him a free pass.

As Greg Sargent delightfully put it,

Greg Sargent: "Donald Trump once again urinates on the cable nets, and once again they hold out cups to catch the precious fluids."

Greg Sargent: “Donald Trump once again urinates on the cable nets, and once again they hold out cups to catch the precious fluids.”

One Washington Post columnist called out the tv networks., this time in response to that especially idiotic Trump press conference.  “Donald Trump said ‘Jump,’ and TV news said ‘How high?'”  Margaret Sullivan goes on to cite Dan Gillmor, who

on Twitter called this episode “universal sewer dwelling” for cable news. By phone afterward, he said that “no journalist with a shred of integrity would have covered it.”

Saying the press got played, he said, is an understatement.

Gillmor is on fire about this topic, with a series of fierce tweets and at least one solid article.  (I also like the way he’s adopted my practice about putting quotes around tv “news”) Continue reading

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