I wish I had a computer like they do in the movies

Jurassic Park (film)

Jurassic Park (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Depictions of technology in films and TV always make me either cringe or laugh out loud. Either they are so completely antiquated in their depiction or they exhibit properties so advanced that we can only dream of being able to do the same thing. I do feel sorry for the film directors because an awful lot of technology is fairly dull to look at. If you have a whole scene that revolves around your protagonist doing stuff on a computer, it’s going to look very dull indeed unless you spice it up somehow.

Sometimes the film makers do this by making the machine’s display ridiculously frenetic or by making the machine make noises. Often, they go completely over the top and exaggerate what today’s computers are capable of. How many times have you seen a computer which scrolls the characters onto the screen one at a time with a beep accompanying every letter? What about when a particularly grainy satellite image appears and someone says “enhance” and the machine crunches away, the pixels sharpen, the image zooms in and suddenly we can read the exact brand of cigarettes the bad guys smokes.

If someone wants to hack into a system in real life, they spend a long time cracking the defences of the target network. They might use social engineering techniques to unlock an initial chink in the armour. They might perform exacting research into who set up the security. They probably network with other individuals to share ideas. In short, it takes a fair amount of time and what appears on the screen is boring, mundane text. It’s not particularly cinematographic so I guess you can forgive the film makers for trying to jazz things up, but bars slamming shut across the screen or skull and crossbones appearing with some cheesy phrase seem faintly ridiculous.

Here are some of my favourite films and some of their technological howlers;

1. Superman IIIRichard Pryor steals the pence from every transaction in his bank’s computer system. This one touches my heart, probably because I work for a banking software company. He manages to hack into the system by typing the command “OVERRIDE ALL SECURITY”.

2. Independence Day – Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith fly into a really advanced alien spaceship and kill it with a virus. Really? I would have thought that such an advanced civilization might have come across that kind of threat before and don’t get me started on how Jeff Goldblum’s kit could just be plugged in – maybe the U in USB really is universal.

3. Jurassic Park – when our heroes discover that the whole computer system has been hacked by the resident nerdy programmer and locked up as tight as the velociraptor should have been, the young girl taps a few keys on the keyboard before uttering those immortal words “This is Unix, I know this”. She then proceeds to unlock everything in the blink of an eye.

4. Weird Science – two teenage kids create a beautiful woman in their bedrooms using their computer, a modem and a pair of bras on their heads. We have just about got 3D printing, let alone creating anything as complex as a woman!

I look forward to the day when our computers catch up with the movies.



Being terrified for fun – I don’t get it

An example of a roller coaster, one of the sta...

An example of a roller coaster, one of the staples of modern amusement parks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is one branch of technology that baffles me. In amusement parks across the world, ever more advanced machinery is being rolled out together with complex, computerised control systems. This machinery is designed with the express purpose of terrifying the users. People flock to these meccas of terror in their thousands to experience the flood of endorphins that accompany being scared out of their collective wits.

The amusement park industry is worth about $25Bn a year, so there is a big incentive to develop new rides to gain market share. Because the rides are so complex, they cost a fortune to develop. Universal StudiosJurassic Park ride is reputed to have cost twice as much to develop as the movie it’s named after. It took 6 years to design and build, cost $100m and it remains the most expensive ride ever developed.

These machines are truly colossal feats of engineering. The tallest are over 125m tall. The longest is nearly 2.5km long and speeds approaching 100mph are not unusual. The idea behind amusement parks is not new. There is an amusement park in Klampenborg in Denmark that has been around for over 400 years.

I once found myself walking through the Pleasure Beach amusement park in Blackpool. I was with some companions and we were chatting away. We must have been lost in whatever the topic of conversation was, because somehow, we ended up at the top of a set of stairs about to board “The Big One“. As roller coasters go, the Big One is fairly tame by world standards. It stands a mere 65m tall and runs for just under 1.7km.

I’d never been on a roller coaster before, so I thought what the hell. I’ll give it a go. We sat in the seats and pulled the safety bar down. A countdown began and then we began our slow ascent up to the apex of the roller coaster. The ascent took an awfully long time and staring out the side, I noticed with some alarm how high up we were and how little steel seemed to be holding us there.

English: Part of the Big Dipper with Infusion ...

English: Part of the Big Dipper with Infusion behind it and the Pepsi Max Big One dwarfing both of them in the background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Slowly, we crawled to the point of no return. When we reached the peak, we almost seemed to hover, staring down into what seemed like an abyss in front of us. Suddenly, we plunged. The acceleration was terrifying, but worse was yet to come. When we hit the bottom, the full force of gravity reminded us who was boss and my head was flung forward, alarmingly close to the safety bar.

About halfway round the ride, there was a technical failure of some sort which meant we came to an abrupt halt. We hung at a terrifying angle, staring at the ground some distance below us. Eventually, the ride was restarted, but we had lost nearly all our forward momentum and the centrifugal force necessary to keep us in our seats just wasn’t there. I was convinced I was going to fall out.

Eventually we made it to the finish and I couldn’t wait to get out. My companion, however, had other ideas and he was sat in my way. He told me to relax and that we would get another go because of the glitch. As if on cue, a voice came over the microphone “Sorry about that folks – would you like another go?”. Somehow my feeble cry of “No!” was drowned out by all the other yeses and we had to do the whole thing again.

I have never been so terrified. I literally had to prise my fingers off the safety bar and I had jelly legs for about an hour afterwards. Never again!