Edward Willett

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The SpeechJammer

[podcast]http://edwardwillett.com/wp-content/uploads//2012/04/The-SpeechJammer.mp3[/podcast] As a writer, freedom of speech is near and dear to my heart. It’s one of the basic principles of the democratic form of government. And yet it seems to be constantly under attack, for one simple reason: it’s easy to say you believe in free speech when people are saying what you agree with. It’s a lot harder when they start saying things you vehemently disagree with. “He/she/they shouldn’t be allowed to say that!” is perhaps a natural human response, but it’s still one that must be overcome if free speech is to flourish. Which is why I find a recent technological development rather disturbing. Imagine if, instead of shouting down ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 16:02, April 24th, 2012 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

The foundation of psychohistory?

[podcast]http://edwardwillett.com/wp-content/upLoads//2011/05/Psychohistory.mp3[/podcast] In his famous Foundation series (published six decades ago now), science fiction writer Isaac Asimov postulated a fictional branch of mathematics, discovered by scientist Hari Seldon, known as "psychohistory," which could predict the future. Psychohistory was based on the principle that the behavior of a mass of people is predictable if the quantity of the mass is very large. Psychohistory came to mind when I read a recent article by Robert Lee Holtz in the Wall Street Journal outlining the research being conducted using the vast amounts of data collected by mobile phones. According to Holtz, scientists are finding that, using the data collected through these ubiquitous communications devices (now in ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 14:08, May 2nd, 2011 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

Wireless wonders

Wireless telegraphy isn't difficult to understand, Albert Einstein once said.  The regular telegraph is like a very long cat; you pull its tail in New York and it meows in Los Angeles.  Wireless telegraphy is just the same, only without the cat. That being the case, the world is filling with more and more non-existent cats, because wireless communication is the wave of the future--in fact, it's more than just a ripple right now. All wireless communication is, of course, based on radio, which works because, as Heinrich Hertz in 1866, electrical currents flowing in one set of wires generate electromagnetic ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 16:35, May 15th, 2001 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

Spam

  Few things equal the thrill, when you first get an Internet account, of receiving e-mail. But it's not long before the thrill gives way to annoyance, as you discover that much--sometimes most--of the mail you receive has subject headings like "Get Rich Fast!" or "XXX HOT BABES XXX". Yes, just like your regular mailbox, your electronic mailbox attracts junk mail. Internet users call it "spam," and it's a growing problem. Spam, of course, is also the name of a prepared lunchmeat sold by Hormel Foods. The link between Spam the lunchmeat and spam the unsolicited e-mail is a Monty Python sketch, in which a couple enters a restaurant where everything on the menu contains Spam. Other customers include a bunch ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 17:45, October 6th, 1997 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

Language

Perro, chien, hund, sobaka, kelev, mbwa, animush, inu. No, those aren't the ingredients for tonight's special at a vegetarian restaurant--at least, one hopes not: they're all words for the creature we who speak English would call a dog. At first glance, the languages from which those words come would seem to have little in common with each other--but linguists will tell you that, in reality, all human languages are remarkably similar; not in their specific vocabulary, but in the way they are organized. Modern human language has existed roughly as long as modern homo sapiens--maybe 40,000 years. Before that, the Neanderthals probably had some form of language, but since the latest DNA evidence ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 11:11, July 15th, 1997 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

Future phones

When I was a kid (and though young whippersnappers may beg to differ, I'm not all that old now) pretty well all telephones were black and had rotary dials: no digital readouts, no push-buttons, no "recent callers" buttons or "redial" buttons or "recall" buttons or any of the other buttons that my current phone boasts. Phones, in other words, have changed. But, in the immortal words of Randy Bachman, "You ain't seen n-n-n-nothin' yet." (Now you young whippersnappers really think I'm old.) So far, despite all the changes, telephones have remained, at heart, very similar to the device Alexander Graham Bell patented in 1876 and 1877. Air molecules set vibrating ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 11:35, September 11th, 1995 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

Writing

Last week I wrote about paper, and how much I, as a writer, appreciate it. But even more, I appreciate writing itself: the existence of a system for conveying information by putting marks on paper. What I said about our civilization being built on paper is only half true: our civilization is really built on what we write on that paper. Before writing, knowledge was limited by human memory. With writing, knowledge began to accumulate from generation to generation. The first forms of writing were pictography and ideography. Pictography means "picture writing": drawing a picture of whatever you are trying to convey,whether it's the sun or your favorite cow. Ideography, or "idea writing," uses those pictures ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 16:56, November 4th, 1992 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

Television

There's probably no object in your house that is a better example of the impact of science and technology than your television set -- and probably no object less understood. Strictly speaking, television really is just "radio with pictures." Like radio, it's based on the fact that an electrical current flowing in one wire emits electromagnetic waves that can create a current in another wire the first isn't directly connected to. If the original current varies in response to sounds, then the copy-cat current will vary in exactly the same way. That variance can be turned back into vibrations in the air that mimic the original sounds--and you've got radio. All you have to do to ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 13:53, August 5th, 1992 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

Modems

There's a rather standard science fiction situation, based loosely on some of the oddities of quantum physics (the quirks of quarks, one might say), that postulates a whole other universe co-existing with ours, sharing the same space, but unseen. Well, in a sense this "parallel" world is already accessible, though not as a science-fictional "alternate reality." This complex world that many people never see is the world of computer telecommunications, and it exists all around you right now. You're probably used to the idea that today money is transferred from computer to computer across the continent or around the world, or that police can use computers in their cars to obtain information on criminals from computers ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 16:40, February 28th, 1991 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »