Reality check


Holodeck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d like to meet the creative team who placed a holodeck on the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I can understand why they did it. If you are a writer, it’s an infinite source of Deus ex Machina. It doesn’t matter what kind of wacky plot you come up with, you have a room where the cast can experience absolutely anything.

I could forgive them if they came up with brilliant story lines set in and around the holodeck, but unfortunately it became an outlet for transporting the cast to other milieu. Don’t get me wrong, I like Star Trek and I like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes but that doesn’t mean I’m happy to see Lieutenant Commander Data in a deerstalker.

Assuming I commanded the Enterprise instead of Jean-Luc Picard, the first thing I’d do is order a full security audit of the holodeck software. All too often, the safety protocols get overridden or the cast get locked in because someone they’ve conjured up is a bit too clever for their own good. If such a thing existed, there would be other problems too. I’m sure some people would become addicted to holodeck use and many would use it for lascivious purposes. I’m sure there are many romantics on board who miss the sound of a babbling brook but I bet there are many more aching to act out their favourite sexual fantasy. Regularly.

When you look at the virtual reality technology available today, all this seems a very long way off. For the visuals, you invariably have to wear a cumbersome headset. In most of these headsets, you can turn your head far faster before the computer can render what you should see in front of you. There’s not much latency on the holodeck. Sound is much easier to get right, but if you want full body sensations, the state of the art is disappointing to say the least. The limit of our technology seems to be flight suits filled with minute pneumatic pressure pads which fill up to give the sensation of feeling.

To my knowledge, nobody has successfully produced a virtual reality rig that convincingly provides for all five senses. I don’t think we will ever get there with purely physical devices. I imagine the VR rig of the future will stimulate the brain in some way to fool it into actually living the experience in question. When they get it right, there will be a huge commercial market (and not just in the porn industry). Can you think of a better way to train people? Or a better way to perform a life saving operation on someone inaccessible. The military will love it, they get to play Ender’s Game.

If you want me, I’ll be on the holodeck, listening to the sound of a babbling brook.

Take him to sick bay!


Medicine (Photo credit: iPocrates)

The army is struggling to recruit for the Special Air Service (or SAS), a world-renowned élite force. They find it hard to find volunteers with the right combination of mental resolve and physical prowess. They are missing a trick. They should look among the ranks of doctor’s receptionists. Like many men, I don’t like going to the doctor’s. If you don’t feel well, the last thing you want to face is a number of challenging situations. The receptionist is just the first of many, but in many ways, the most daunting. These highly trained individuals are there to weed out the needy, the snifflers and the feeble of mind.

“Is it an emergency?” Of course it’s not an emergency, otherwise I would go to accident and emergency.

“Do you need to see someone today?” In a week, I’ll either be dead or better and I’d like to do what I can to make sure it’s the latter, so yes – I’d like to see someone today.

Once you are in, you are faced with the next challenge, the examination. Is it just me, or does the examination seem somewhat archaic? Thee stethoscope remains fundamentally unchanged since its invention nearly 200 years ago. If the doctor wants to test your reflexes, he hits your knee with a hammer. To take your pulse rate, he holds your arm and counts. To take your temperature, he pokes something in your ear. If he thinks you might have appendicitis, he pokes your abdomen to see if you hit the roof. The only nod to modern technology is the PC in the corner which is clinically useless. It is just a record keeping device.

You might get referred to a hospital for more detailed tests. If they want to see inside you, they will stand you up against a photographic plate and bombard you with radiation. Or maybe they might stick you in a torpedo tube where they ask you to lie still whilst they try to deafen you. They might even smother your belly with freezing cold gel and thrust an ultrasound wand into your abdomen. They will look at the results on a monochrome screen that looks like a poorly tuned TV.

Number One (Star Trek)

Number One (Star Trek) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why can’t it be like sick bay in Star Trek? As you lie on the couch, a machine behind you monitors your life signs. A steady bass beat echoes in time with your heartbeat. Doctor Bones McCoy waves a warbley box of tricks over your abdomen which tells him exactly what’s wrong with you. Invariably, he then reaches for a different device which makes a high-pitched whining. Whatever’s wrong with you, it is rapidly remedied with a quick wave of this futuristic marvel. All of this is carried out whilst a beautiful nurse in an inordinately short skirt mops your fevered brow.

It feels to me like modern medicine has a long way to go.

Shields up!


NCC-1701-B (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In almost every Star Trek episode or film, you can count on a number of things. Someone will say “beam me up”, the crew will face some kind of moral dilemma and someone in a red shirt gets it. The other thing that happens regularly is that the Starship Enterprise will get involved in some kind of tussle. The Captain issues the command “Shields up!” and we will see the pretty little display panel showing the nice safe force fields around the ship.

Once that happens, you know that although the crew might get tossed around a bit, some minor pyrotechnics will go off under a control panel and one of the officers will give dire warnings that the shields are failing. But hey – there’s another half an hour to run, so nothing too bad is going to happen. The shields are a good thing. They keep all that horrible nastiness away from the ship and the Star Trek universe seems to have more than its fair share of horrible nastiness.

As a technologist, I have to deal with shields of a different kind. In my career, the “tussles” I get involved with are much more mundane and still there are many who feel the need to resort to a force field. The command words in this case are “I’m not technical”. Don’t even bother trying to explain any of that technology nonsense to me, because I’m not technical. They wear those words like a suit of armour.

The problem is, that the very same person wearing those shields typically want to know why it’s going to take so long to get that new bit of functionality or to get their problem fixed. Whenever faced with this situation, unwise words gallop to the front of my brain. “Sorry – it takes us a long time to find the spell components to cast the spell to fix that particular problem” or “Sorry – but the fix-it fairies only work on Fridays”. Thankfully, I’ve always managed to catch them before they escape.

Once during a presentation, a guy in the front row put up his hand and asked me to clarify something I had just illustrated. After a short exchange to understand where the guy was coming from, I tried rephrasing my point in simpler language. He still didn’t get it, so I tried to make it simpler and gave an analogy. Still no luck, so I kept on simplifying until I just ran out of levels and then conscious of wasting the rest of the audience’s time, I told him it was magic, an answer which he accepted with good grace.

OK, so the gap between that guy’s knowledge and the subject matter of the presentation was too great to be bridged in the limited time we had available, but at least the guy was game. He wanted to understand and for that, he gets a lot of points in my book. So if you are one of the people equipped with the “I’m not technical” shields, just hold off hitting the button – take a chance. You might be amazed how technical you really are.

The inconvenient science of science fiction

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside,...

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside, Iowa, reading “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk March 22, 2228”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

150 years ago, Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon. 5 years later, he wrote about a powered submarine. Arthur C Clark wrote about GPS long before it ever became a reality. Captain Kirk used communicators to get Scotty to beam him up. Spot the odd one out.

Well, we’ve been to the moon and we have countless submarines creeping around the world packed with missiles waiting to unleash Armageddon. Most people have GPS in their smartphones which they also use as portable wireless communication devices. All of these things that were dreamed up in the realm of science fiction have since become true. Unfortunately, transporter beams have yet to be invented. We’re not even close.

In some Star Trek episodes, they talk about how transporters work. They transfer the subject’s substance or matter into energy, send it to another place and then turn the energy back into matter arranged according to the pattern. When something goes wrong, they “pull back” the subject to their starting point, only sometimes, they don’t make it. It all sounds terrifying and I certainly wouldn’t be keen on trying out early prototypes.

But how likely are they to happen?  I once asked a hulking great Jamaican barman on a cruise ship whether the crew ate the same food as the passengers. With a deep-throated roar of laughter, he told me “same meat, same fish, same vegetables – different chef, different recipe”. In other words, just transferring matter is not enough, the pattern in which that matter is arranged is crucial.

We have a pattern for the human body. Twelve years ago the first draft of the human genome was published. Our DNA is incredibly complicated with 25,000 genes and 3 billion chemical base pairs arranged in a double helix. In a recent update, scientists announced that what they previously thought was junk DNA is actually crucial to the make up of the human body.

A tiny unwanted accidental change in the pattern could be enough to render the subject blind, deaf or worse. It would seem to be a pre-requisite that this work is completely finished before transporter technology could be feasible for transmitting humans. But what about simpler matter? Using something I don’t claim to understand called quantum entanglement, scientists in Copenhagen have transported  matter 18 inches. Physicists in the Canary Islands have used the same trick to transmit small payloads over 89 miles.

Scientists admit that the same trick won’t work for humans, so something fundamentally different will need to be discovered to make transporters viable. Looks like we will be stuck with planes, trains and automobiles for a while yet.

Beam me up Scotty!


Abstract icon of Enterprise NX-01 of Star Trek...

Abstract icon of Enterprise NX-01 of Star Trek Enterprise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the big comfy armchair that was BP, my second employer “Pentyre” was more like a roller coaster. After the comfort of a blue chip company, I was brought down to Earth with a bump when I was summoned in to an all staff meeting the week after I joined. The entire company easily fitted into a small room. I was one of 7 software developers. The MD explained that a customer had reneged on a bill and the company was in real trouble. Some of the directors were going to forego salary for a couple of months and hopefully, everything was going to be OK. Had I made the mistake of my life ?

I very nearly ended up missing out on working at Pentyre altogether. I had already accepted a job with another company, but there was a recruitment consultant who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. He insisted I visit Pentyre to see what they had to offer. So after work one evening, I turned up outside their offices for an interview. First appearances weren’t too promising – a converted factory with a tatty sign outside. I was shown up the stairs into a demonstration suite. There were various devices around the place; pagers, phones, cameras, alarms, flashing lights.

I was interviewed by the MD himself. An unassuming middle aged man called Malcolm, impeccably dressed, short with wispy white hair. He gave me the potted history of the company, which didn’t take long. After a long career in IBM, he had taken his terms and used his severance money to start up the company. He then took me through a demonstration of what their software could do. It was a dazzling display as he made the various devices do their stuff with just a click with his mouse. The inner geek in me was hooked.

He then took me on a tour of the building. At the back of the building was an area that looked a bit like Q’s workshop out of the Bond movies. There were machines everywhere in various states of assembly. On the benches there were oscilloscopes and multimeters. Propped up against one wall was something called a protocol analyser. The last time I had heard of anything like it was during an episode of Star Trek. Dominating the middle of the room was a train set. I looked at Malcolm quizzically and he nonchalantly explained that the reason it was there was to test the train radio system they were developing for the London underground.

I was mesmerised. I simply had to work for this company. As we went back up the stairs to talk turkey, it was obvious I was hooked. Malcolm asked what it would take for me to go and work there. A brief exchange later, the deal was done. I started work there a few days later.

It was an amazing place to work. The nice thing about working as part of a small company is that every single person really makes a difference. Every few months or so, there was a new assignment – usually involving some brand new technology. My first job was all about pagers. Back then, if you had a large site, the only way to keep in touch with your workforce was to give them a pager. I also developed a building management system, some modelling software for a steelworks and CCTV systems for prisons and nuclear reactors.

My time at Pentyre taught me the power of small teams working together without constraints. The productivity was amazing. There was no demarcation; you sold, designed, built, tested, installed and supported every bit of software that went out the door. Not all the technology was all it was cracked up to be. We worked on a project to detect faces in crowds. I couldn’t get the face recognition software to recognise me standing perfectly still at less than two paces. Voice recognition was similarly inaccurate being unable to determine the difference between “Chicken Tikka Massala” and “Land Rover” even when spoken slowly and deliberately.

The technology failure that has tickled me to this day was DCOM. Launched with some fanfare, DCOM (or Distributed Component Object Model) was Microsoft’s attempt at a computing model for distributed computing. In order to test it, we set up two machines. On the first, we coded a simple button with the label “Sausage” which would then send a message to the second machine which would respond with the on screen message “sizzle”. It was the simplest test imaginable and we were used to getting such things working.

Even so, after a whole morning of messing about with various different settings, we simply couldn’t get it to work. Frustrated, we went off to lunch. When we returned – there was the “sizzle” message on the second machine – we obviously hadn’t left it long enough!


To infinity and beyond…

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programm...

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programma Apollo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a child, I had such a thirst for knowledge, I used to enjoy reading encyclopaedias from cover to cover. I found them absolutely fascinating. Every page I turned over, I read about something completely new which I knew nothing about. One of the areas that particularly piqued my interest was space travel.

The thing about space is that it is so vast and so full of the unknown that the possibilities seem endless. If anything, the literature I was exposed to and the TV and films I tuned into during my youth only reinforced my obsession with all things cosmic.

I was born in the seventies (just) and things looked so very promising. Man had just walked on the moon and the Apollo missions were in full swing. All the textbooks were quite confidently predicting that there would be a 2001 style space station in orbit and we would have established bases on the moon and Mars. I used to look up at the sky and think that one day, I would walk on another world.

Films like Star Wars and TV programs like Star Trek and Space 1999 only reinforced this notion and I used to revel in fiction like the Stainless Steel Rat. The first time I saw Alien, I thought it was so realistic even though the prospects of long range space travel and discovery of aliens have yet to be realised decades later.

So here we are and we have seen all the significant dates like 1984, 1999, 2000 and 2001 fly past. I have to confess to being bitterly disappointed with mankind’s progress into the universe. In every other endeavour, we have made leaps and bounds but truth be known, we would struggle to repeat what we did in 1969 – put a man on the moon.

There have been glimmers of hope, like the space shuttle, skylab and the International Space Station, but by and large progress has been glacial. As the old cold war superpowers have lost interest, other emerging nations have stepped up to the plate, but to date, no-one has really set their sights much higher than that amazing mission in 1969.

More recently, I have been encouraged by some green shoots. Governments seem to have largely given up, so it is left to entrepreneurs like Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic programme to commercialise space travel. Today, I spotted a news story on Twitter about Peter Diamandis who is widely expected to launch a startup company to mine asteroids for diamonds. How cool is that?

So do I still harbour ambitions to walk on another world? Well, no, probably not. But I’m sure by the time we get there – they will have jet powered disabled scooters – with twin lasers mounted front and rear…

May the force be with you – engage and make it so!