Did Ray Bradbury Invent AT&T’s Digital Life?

Photo: CNN

Turn down the thermostat from your office. Lock the back door from the other side of town. Watch live video of your pets from your phone. These are but some of the features that AT&T’s Digital Life offers. The company’s new service (slated to launch this year) aims to equip homeowners with a platform to monitor their homes via smart phones, tablets, and PC’s. These are some of the wirelessly enabled devices that come with the service:

  • Cameras
  • Window/door sensors
  • Smoke, carbon monoxide, motion and glass break sensors
  • Door locks
  • Thermostats
  • Moisture detection and water shut-off
  • Appliance and lighting controls
Just imagine–you can have a house that practically takes care of itself while you’re away. Water leak? Digital Life will shut off the main water source if one is detected.  Cracked window? Digital Life will alert you in case of a potential burglary or robbery. This all sounds like cutting edge stuff, but it also sounds eerily familiar if you’ve read Ray Bradbury’s work.

In 1950, Bradbury published a short story called ‘There Will Come Soft Rains,’ borrowing the title from a poem by Sara Teasdale. The story is about an automated house that continues to function despite its owners’ untimely death from nuclear warfare. All the appliances in the house continue to run as if the house’s tenants were still there to receive its services.

“Until this day, how well the house had kept its peace. How carefully it had inquired, “Who goes there? What’s the password?” and, getting no answer from lonely foxes and whining cats, it had shut up its windows and drawn shades in an old-maidenly preoccupation with self—protection which bordered on mechanical paranoia…The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants, big, small, servicing attending, in choirs. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.”

This dystopian projection of the future raises an important point. While it may seem that we are slaves to our devices, our technology only exists because it serves a purpose to us. Without our tech, where would we be? Similarly, without us, where would it be? This Socratic discourse leaves us with more questions than answers. Then again, perhaps that’s a good thing as we shift paradigms with the adoption of Digital Life and services like it.

Video animation of “There Will Come Soft Rains”

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Did Edgar Allan Poe solve Olbers’ Paradox?

Here’s a riddle for you. If the Universe has infinitely many stars, then presumably, the night sky should be filled with light–right? So, then, why isn’t it? Welcome to Olbers’ Paradox.

There are many possible explanations:

  1. There’s too much dust to see the distant stars.
  2. The Universe has only a finite number of stars.
  3. The distribution of stars is not uniform.  So, for example, there could be an infinity of stars,
    but they hide behind one another so that only a finite angular area is subtended by them.
  4. The Universe is expanding, so distant stars are red-shifted into obscurity.
  5. The Universe is young.  Distant light hasn’t even reached us yet.

This idea can be traced as far back as Kepler in 1610. Olbers popularized it in the 19th century, confounding scientists and philosophers alike. But what if I told you that author Edgar Allan Poe was the first who posed a possible solution? Poe wrote the following passage in “Eureka: A Prose Poem,” published in 1848:

“Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy–since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing that the distance o the invisible background [is] so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.”

Veritably, Poe was not a scientist. He was an author who wrote compelling science fiction that remains salient even in today’s literary landscape. However, it’s interesting to think that even from a speculative standpoint, he was able to provide primitive insight on the answer to this cosmological conundrum.

Here’s a beautiful video from the YouTube series Minute Physics explaining how Olbers’ Paradox works:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxJ4M7tyLRE]

Edgar Allan Poe has been an abstruse, enigmatic figure in the literary realm as well as in his personal life. Read about his mysterious death (the day he became nevermore), when–perhaps– he took off “to seek a shelter in some happier star.” 

Nevermore

There were several theories about Edgar Allan Poe’s death, all of them just as mysterious and elusive as he was. The last known sighting of Poe was in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 3, 1879. He was dressed in someone else’s clothes and seemed disoriented (possibly drugged or under the influence of something).

I think the most interesting theory is the one proposing Poe was “cooped” on a local election day of that year. When a person is “cooped,” they’re kidnapped, drugged, or bribed to be dressed up as different people, then taken to the polls to vote multiple times–swaying the vote toward a candidate, depending on who’s behind the cooping.

I once drove to Baltimore for no other reason than visiting Poe’s grave. Though historians would likely disagree, I think it’s better that the exact cause of Poe’s death remains unknown. Edgar Allan Poe: poet, author, native Bostonian, science fiction pioneer. Man of the macabre until the very end–’til he was nevermore.

“The Truth” podcast does a great job at reimagining this bizarre situation in an eerie radio drama. I recommend listening to it. Other theories about his death enumerated here via Wikipedia.

Two Wolves

“The one you feed.”

See larger version of comic here.

Gavin Aung Than is quickly becoming one of my favorite comic books artists. Founder of Zen Pencils, he left a corporate graphic design job to go rogue. He’s inspired by the pathos of great minds past and present. He illustrates inspirational quotes from influential people in history (from Carl Sagan to Walt Whitman and beyond), providing a visual supplment for sage wisdom. I’ll admit–I own quite a few of prints myself.

The Most Beautiful Experience

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and science.”

–Einstein, What I Believe (1930)

(via ScienceNote)

Listen to RadioLab host Robert Krulwich read Einstein’s credo on NPR’s This I Believe, a radio show based on a 1950s series of the same name. There’s also an essay collection in book form. Foreword by Jay Allison, who may have written the most inspiring benediction known to contemporary radio producers.

A Series of Tubes

View the original entry on Public Radio Exchange’s (PRX) blog.

All right, I admit it. I’m in love with steampunk. In October, I attended Bruce Rosenbaum’s talk at Creative Mornings: Boston. (If you don’t know who Bruce Rosenbaum is, don’t fret. I didn’t either before the seminar, but I won’t forget now.) A designer by day and the founder of ModVic, Bruce Rosenbaum has converted his entire house in Sharon, MA, into a steampunk paradise. I’m talking about gadgets with gears, brass-laden furniture, old wood-fire stoves and massive pipe organs repurposed to fit a modern household.

I couldn’t help but think of Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible episode, “A Series of Tubes.” Pneumatic tubes, that is. This refers to an early 20th century system of underground, steam-powered tubes used to deliver messages (almost) instantaneously. (Think of it as an analog form of text messaging.)

Some of you may be thinking, “So what?” Underground tubes and brass gadgets are cool, but isn’t this kind of, well, outdated? What’s the appeal?

Let’s think about it. In a world where things are increasingly digitized, the basis of steampunk’s appeal lies in the fact that it romanticizes tangible technology. It answers the question, “What if the Steam Age and Industrial Revolution happed at the same exact time?” Steampunk re-imagines a reality in which the modern and the antique co-exist artfully and meaningfully. Take a listen to this episode of 99% Invisible for more insight on this retro-futuristic world. You can call it fantasy or science fiction. You can even call it absurd. As for me, I’ll just call it awesome.

If you’re still interested in learning more, check out this PBS special on the genre.

The Kendall Band

“Shake the handle back and forth slowly to sound the bells.”

One of my favorite things about Boston is the Kendall Band, a musical sculpture at the Kendall/MIT stop. The audiophile in me can’t resist. The musical sculpture is composed (no pun intended) of three different musical “instruments” that inquisitive commuters can play. The chimes, named Pythagoras after the mathematician (it is the Kendall/MIT station, after all), are my favorite.

On either side of the T stop are handles that you can swing back and forth to rock the hammers against the chimes. When they sound, a lilting B minor chord reverberates through the station.

“Although the detailed mathematical analysis of motions is quite complex, most visitors quickly and intuitively figure out how to operate the sculpture without any written instructions.”

What I love most about this sculpture is that it invites the curious to interact with it, luring eyes previously glued on backlit screens back toward the physical world. The secret of the chimes is left to the discovery process, and the consequent chord elicits an ambience that starkly contrasts the litany of a typical commute. It triggers almost all the senses–something that you can see, feel, hear, experience, and immediately share with others. When approaching curiosity in this case, don’t knock. Ring the bell.

Other neat public, kinetic art sculptures include the Singing Tree in Lancashire, UK and Sway’d in Salt Lake City, UT.