Deploying The Digital Undead

Hollywood has made tremendous strides in marrying technology and film.  First it was in deploying high-end “special effects,” using miniatures and models, such as were found in 2001 and Star Wars, then it was in having computers generate images and entire scenes.  More recently, technology has been focused on the human actors, who’ve either been digitally recreated or, as in the recent film The Irishman, de-aged.

james-deanNow we’ve apparently reached a new frontier, where filmmakers believe they can literally raise an actor from the dead and, thanks to the miracle of modern computer, give the actor an entirely new career with new roles.  And the first actor to be targeted is one of Hollywood’s icons:  James Dean.

The moviemakers, acting with the full permission of the Dean family and estate, plan to feed TV footage and still photos of Dean into a computer to create a digital James Dean.  (The real James Dean died in 1955 at age 24, after making only three movies, and immediately rose to legend status, including being the subject of an Eagles song.)  The digital creation will then be moved from the computer to the movie screen with the help of stand-in actors moving through scenes using the motion-capture technology commonly used in CGI filmmaking, and another actor will supply the voice of the digital “James Dean.”

Digital JD is supposed to make his debut in a Vietnam War drama called “Finding Jack” — which seems like a very weird choice, given how closely the real James Dean is associated with the pre-Vietnam War, leather-jacketed bad boy ’50s.  The filmmakers say that they’re not aiming at a one-movie curiosity, but instead hope to give their digital creation an entirely new career that will revive interest in an actor who has been dead for more than 60 years.

Some people are rightly reacting with horror to this effort, which seems desperate and ghoulish.  But it may be the wave of the future in increasingly cash-conscious Hollywood.  Some studios may think:  why worry about developing and casting new acting talent if you can revive Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Lucille Ball, and other stars of the past, draw upon their established personas, and avoid dealing with real-life actors’ huge salaries and huge egos?

I’m not a fan of this effort, but I’m also not sure it will work.  James Dean may have been an iconic figure for a particular generation, but how many people under, say, 60 even know about him or have any interest in the films he actually made?  Fame is pretty fleeting in today’s Netflix world, and I’m not sure that the ghosts of stars of the past are going to fit in.

In Passionate Pursuit Of Privy Productivity

Do modern workers spend too much time in the bathroom, causing the businesses that employ them to suffer decreased productivity?  A company in the United Kingdom is making that claim and has developed a new toilet to combat the alleged problem — which it says is getting an enthusiastic reception from American companies that may leave the commode creators feeling flushed with success.

defaultThe company, StandardToilet, asserts that workers spend 25 percent more time in the office bathroom than is strictly necessary, causing employers to experience missed employee time on the job and a hit to the bottom line as a result.  It’s not entirely clear what study, if any, substantiates the 25 percent figure, and it sure seems like determining precisely how much time people really need to take care of business in the bathroom would be extremely difficult.  In any case, the theory articulated by the trade group the British Toilet Association is that employees are spending more time on the seat because they aren’t just performing essential bodily functions, but also are checking social media, sending texts, visiting news websites, and otherwise multi-tasking on their personal affairs in there.  Apparently it’s just another way that the smartphone has affected life as we know it.

StandardToilet’s brainchild is a toilet with a seat that has a 13 percent downward slope, causing employees to need to use their legs to firmly brace themselves against the risk of sliding off and thereby making it uncomfortable to use the toilet seat as a perch for extended bathroom breaks to stay in touch with whatever’s trending on Twitter.  The tilt is supposed to cause leg strain after five minutes, incentivizing employees to wrap up their use promptly.  And it’s not just about businesses, either: StandardToilet hopes to market the new toilets to roadside rest stops and public restrooms where users might be tempted to linger and clog up the efficient use of the facilities.  Incidentally, the company also claims that the new design “helps in reduction of risk in swollen hemorrhoids,” which certainly is a worthy goal — you might call it goal number two — as well.

Are employers concerned about extended bathroom breaks to the point where they will install new toilets to replace old ones that are working perfectly well?  The next time you’re using the facilities outside of your home, you might want to check the slope before you sit down and start liking Facebook posts.

The Day The Phone Call Died

The other day I had an actual telephone call on my cell phone.  Not an email, not a text, not a robocall from a telemarketer or scammer, not a social media interaction — an actual telephone call, where I spoke to real live person and we had a back-and-forth conversation in real time.  It seemed almost like a red-letter event.

Child talking on the telephoneI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the personal telephone call is dying a long, slow, agonizing death.  (Business calls are another matter, obviously.)  The process began with the decision of many people, Kish and me included, to get rid of our home land line phone because it had become only the source of annoying telemarketing and survey calls during dinner, and we figured we didn’t need it anyway because we had cell phones.  Then, with the advent of texting and email and social media, those became the preferred methods of communication.  Friends who used to touch base by telephone now do so by texting, often in group texts, or by responding to a Facebook post about a new job or new member of the family or new dog or new recipe.  It’s quicker and easier and viewed as less intrusive than placing an actual telephone call.  Others argue that these other forms of communication are more efficient than phone calls, because you can send pictures and attach documents and data.

It’s kind of curious that the number of phone calls are falling while the statistics show that the use of cell phones overall is increasing.  In short, people just aren’t using cell phones anymore for what used to be their principal purpose — i.e., making telephone calls — but instead are glued to their phones to check the news, reactions to social media posts, email traffic, and play games.

Will there be a day when the phone call as a communications tool actually dies?  That would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago, but it seems increasingly plausible now.  I hope it doesn’t happen, because I still think phone calls are superior for certain forms of communication — because in a telephone call you can hear the other party’s voice, which through its tone, and pauses, and other non-verbal clues can tell you something about how the other party is doing and how they are reacting to what you’re saying.  Phone calls are a lot more personal than texts or emails, and I hope there is always a role for them.

The U.S. Space Force

Earlier this week, Congress approved the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.  Among its other provisions, the legislation has officially created the U.S. Space Force, which will become the sixth branch of the U.S. military — after the Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force.

spaceforce1_1533570559Although the legislation authorizes the creation of the U.S. Space Force, it does so in a cautious way.  The U.S.S.F. will initially be created under the Department of the Air Force, and it won’t be able to start hiring new service members.  Instead, to reduce redundancy and maximize efficiency, no new “billets” are authorized, which means that the U.S.S.F. will use existing personnel from the Air Force Space Command to staff the new branch.  That means that, at least initially, the U.S.S.F. will have a very strong Air Force feel to it.  During its first year, the Space Force will establish a headquarters, and the President is empowered to appoint a Chief of Space Operations, who will report to the Secretary of the Air Force and be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What, exactly, will the U.S. Space Force do?  The legislation identifies its core functions as follows:  “protect the interests of the United States in space; deter aggression in, from, and to space; and conduct space operations.”  That’s a pretty broad mission.  You can read one recently retired Air Force General’s view of the case for the Space Force, the need to seize the “high ground” of space, and the need to counter actions by the Chinese government in space, here.  His remarks also indicated that significant new technology has already been developed, and is currently being developed, that will help the U.S.S.F. fulfill its broad mission.  We can expect to see some advances in satellites, spacecraft, communications, space transportation, robotics, and life support technologies, among others, as the U.S.S.F. gets underway in earnest.  And don’t be surprised to see contracts awarded to SpaceX and other private space technology and exploration companies.

When the creation of the U.S.S.F. was first suggested, some people made fun of it as a silly Buck Rogers adventure, and others bemoaned the official militarization of space as inconsistent with the notion of space as the peaceful final frontier.   Congress, however, clearly saw a strategic need for a new branch of the service to focus on space, and the legislation approving the creation of the Space Force passed by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities.  The U.S. Space Force is here, and it signals a new era in the “Space Race.”  Exactly what that new era will look like will be sketched out in the next few years.

Dead Mouse

Unfortunately, we’ve got a dead mouse in the house.  Fortunately, it’s not a mouse of the furry, four-legged, cheese-loving, living in holes in walls and getting chased by cats in cartoons variety.

Instead, it’s our ancient computer mouse that isn’t working.  It was doused in coffee as a result of a desktop spill yesterday, and the soaking apparently has affected its innards and batteries enough to render it inoperative.  It’s an incident reminiscent of the old Saturday Night Live “Pepsi Syndrome” skit, where a knocked-over soft drink on a computer keyboard caused a nuclear meltdown.  This morning’s task list therefore will include trying to figure out if there is some way to get the old mouse scampering again, short of going out and buying a new mouse — which might not even be available given the advanced age of our home computer.

And, by virtue of the spill, we are reminded yet again of interconnectedness of our modern world, where every link in the technological chain is important.  It’s great to have a fully functional computer, but there’s not much you can do with it when a working mouse is not in the house.

 

Dr. Toilet

We’re used to “smart” devices these days.  Smartphones, of course.  Smart TVs.  Smart security systems.  Even smart refrigerators.

So, is it really a surprise that people have been working on the “smart” toilet?

eut3628s__98071.1512066915An Asian company has created a toilet that has built-in sensors that can detect, collect, and analyze waste samples.  The test results are then transmitted to an app on your phone, which gives you health advice based on the test results.  This particular smart toilet is supposed to be able to monitor heart disease and also to evaluate urine samples for symptoms of cancer and heart disease.

Health advice and real-time test results, directly from your toilet to your phone?  We must be living in the 21st century!

But that toilet is not the only “smart” stuff that will soon be available to increase the IQ of your bathroom.  Other powder room devices that have been exhibited or developed include a toilet and bathroom mirror that use the Alexa voice assistant (although exactly how Alexa helps in this particular area isn’t clear), a pressure sensor toilet that measures heart and blood vessel information, a toilet seat that checks blood pressure, and toilets that are linked to wi-fi, analyze out sugars and proteins that appear in your deposits, and also evaluate your body-mass index.  And some of the new devices even helpfully have LED night lights built in to the toilet lid.

In short, we may be on the cusp of the next great advance in toilet technology, when your home bathroom turns into a laboratory of devices that collect and analyze number one and number two, evaluate the blood flow in your cheeks, and consider God knows what else in order to provide you with a detailed, up-to-the-minute report on your personal health status — all of which will be transmitted and stored somewhere.

Terrifying, isn’t it?

Big Bro’s Apps

Every time I update my iPhone, weird new apps appear.  I have no idea what they are.

garageband_ios_iconThere’s one app with a guitar on it called “GarageBand.”  There’s another with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star on it called “iMovie.”  There’s also “iTunes U,” with a mortarboard cap, and “Keynote,” with a podium, and “Measure,” and “Numbers,” and “Pages,” all with their own different square icons.  What do they do?  Beats me!  I have no idea what they are or what function they are designed to perform or how they got where they are.  I didn’t consciously put them on my phone — they just appeared there.  Because I have no idea what they do, I haven’t tapped any of these apps.  I’m afraid that if I do, I might be charged for something I don’t want, or have to go through some long process to sign up for something I won’t use.  And, by using them, I probably would be transmitting data to someone somewhere would could sell it to some marketing firm who would use it to target ads to my phone.

The addition of these unknown apps makes me think about the reach of Apple and the power of its updates.  Somewhere, some unknown person is deciding what applications should appear on my phone.  I have no idea what process they use to make that decision or what they are trying to accomplish.  I get why Apple wants me to activate “Apple Wallet” — which I haven’t done, because I think my normal wallet works just fine.  But why would Apple decide that the standard iPhone set-up, which is what I have, should include an app like “GarageBand”?  What kind of design and standardization approach is at work here?

Cellphones are great, and the functionality they provide allows us to stay connected wherever we may go.  But there’s something about them that’s a little Big Brotherish, too — except that Big Bro isn’t the government, it’s some big company that is deciding what should and shouldn’t be on a device that you carry with you everywhere you go.  It gives me pause.