Films on Disk Might Survive (On Another Earth)

What is the future of movie rental?

My wife and I watched Another Earth this evening. I posted to Facebook: “Another Earth is basically a tragic drama set to a sci-fi premise. The premise of the drama is implausible; the premise of the sci-fi backdrop totally impossible. Still, we found the writing to be sharp, the acting to be fantastic, the directing to be interesting (though there’s too much zooming!), and the story to be engaging throughout.”

But my parenthetical comment about the business of movie rentals is perhaps more interesting: “Incidentally, Amazon has started running regular specials on streaming video rentals; I don’t see how disks can possibly survive more than a few more years.”

We rented Another Earth for 99 cents, and Amazon regularly puts movie rentals on sale for a buck or two. With online rentals at $3.99, I’ll make the trek to Red Box to rent a disk, even though that requires two trips (one to pick up, another to drop off). But as the price of online rentals drops, I just don’t see how movies on disk can survive, at least in the rental market. (There’s some advantage to buying disks if you want to own a copy, as a disk can be loaned or sold.)

What struck me was that I watched a science-fiction movie in a way that shows the real world rapidly progressing beyond the world envisioned in a lot of older science fiction. Who needs to contemplate another earth when we’ve got this one?

Integrating Aerial Photography in Search and Rescue

During the search and rescue effort in which I played a (very small) role, it occurred to me that it would have been nice to use aerial photography in the search.

Our group had aircraft available, but in the end ground teams found the vehicle. There are several obvious limitations to searching by eye out of an aircraft window. You can look away. You can fail to see something subtle. You can sneeze at just the wrong moment.

Far better would be to borrow a plan (or a drone) with aerial photography capabilities. Then the idea is to fly quickly in a grid pattern, snapping detailed photos of the ground as you go.

Once these photos are taken, they could be uploaded to the internet (as a friend of mine suggested), where dozens (or thousands) of eyes could pour [pore] over them. (Alternately, they could be subject to digital processing.) What one person working alone might miss, one of a hundred might spot.

Our landscape was perfect for such aerial photography. The land was relatively barren, with stumpy desert trees. The weather was mostly perfect, with clear skies. Obviously in a dense forest or in fog the idea wouldn’t work.

My understanding is that there are quite a number of planes throughout the country already equipped with aerial photography. It would be fantastic if one of these planes could be easily rented (or borrowed) in search and rescue efforts.

In our case, it turned out, the delay didn’t matter (to the missing persons). But in other cases, rapid discovery could mean the difference between life and death.

Apple Phases Out Optical and Magnetic Drives

Years ago in school we students plugged standard tape recorders into computers to load programs and save files. (That was a big advancement over the older card systems.) Then came the 5.25 inch floppy, which lasted quite a while, then the 3.5 inch floppy, then the zip disk, with a whopping 100 megabytes of storage!

During the development of the magnetic removable disk, of course, the magnetic hard disk drive also became prominent; today terabyte drives are common and cost less than a hundred bucks.

But removable magnetic disks are not commonly used today. They have been replaced by CD and (a bit more recently) DVD optical drives. It seemed reasonable to think that the trend would continue to higher-capacity optical disks (namely Blu-Ray). But now that seems not to be the case.

What is interesting about Apple’s latest design changes is that the company dropped its base-model $999 MacBook, which featured both an optical drive and a hard disk, making its entry-level laptop the MacBook Air, which features neither sort of media. Instead, the Air runs exclusively on flash memory; the entry-level model carries 64 gigs of it. Meanwhile, the entry level $599 Mac Mini dumps the optical drive but keeps a hard drive.

How, then, do you load up software and move around files? The Air is basically an internet-driven machine. Apple has facilitated online software sales with its app store, and later this year it is rolling out its own cloud service for file storage. If you want to move stuff around via physical media, you can plug in a flash drive, optical drive, or hard drive. The computer, then, is going the way of Apple’s portable devices in terms of using (primarily) the internet to transfer data, rather than optical or magnetic drives.

Of course, this model kind of sucks if the internet ever comes down or falls under political control.

I realize I’m describing pretty obvious trends; still, sometimes I think it’s worth stepping back to observe the breathtaking evolution of technology.


Rob commented July 30, 2011 at 10:38 PM
Have you noticed that an entire industry has now sprung up just to make URL’s shorter?

Technology Catches Up with Harry Potter Magic

J. K. Rowling’s first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, came out June 30, 1997. The release of the series spans the 20th and 21st Centuries, and new technology has started to catch up to Harry Potter magic.

In the novels, newspapers show moving photographs. On June 29, 2007, a decade after the release of the first Potter novel, Apple released its iPhone, which brings constantly updated news, complete with video, to one’s fingertips. The iPhone and similar devices are much more useful and powerful than the magical papers in Harry’s world, and owl delivery seems positively primitive by comparison.

A few days ago, Technology Review published the article, “A Practical Way to Make Invisibility Cloaks” (thanks to Paul Hsieh over at Geek Pressfor the link).

The idea is that new production techniques allow for large-scale printing of “metamaterials,” largely made of metals, which could be fashioned into things like invisibility cloaks and superlenses.

Provided politicians and bureaucrats manage to restrain themselves from crashing our economies, technology will continue to gain ground on the magic of the Potter universe. Indeed, thanks to the wonders of science and technology, we are living in the most “magical” age of human history, in which doctors can scan people’s bones and hearts, people can quickly fly around the world, the average person in advanced economies owns self-propelled coaches, and we can take vast libraries of books and music around with us in pocket computers.

The Potter novels will always remain great literature — for reasons I explain in my book Values of Harry Potter — but technology will make the magic of the novels seem increasingly less magical. Thankfully, the deeper magic of the novels has nothing to do with casting spells or riding brooms.

Shermer Explains ‘The Believing Brain’

Arch-skeptic Michael Shermer spoke at Tattered Cover May 31 about his new book, The Believing Brain. With permission, I filmed the presentation, and I’ve edited three selections.

In the first video, Shermer explains the basics of how people tend to find patterns both where they are real and where they are not. We need science to tell the difference, he argues.

In the second video, Shermer argues that people tend to find agency even in complex systems and inanimate things.

Finally, Shermer explains people’s tendency to mentally construct agencies and project them into the world.

Shermer also offered some fascinating insights into political battles, specific conspiracy theories (deathers, birthers, truthers), and the importance of free-trading liberal democracies (broadly understood) for preserving the peace and keeping dangerous people from gaining power. For all that and more, you’ll have to read his book!


Tess commented June 2, 2011 at 11:55 AM
This is great!! I was there at the lecture as well. Nice job on filming and editing it. Is there any chance you’d be willing to post the entire lecture or maybe send it to me? Thanks again for posting this!

TJWelch commented June 6, 2011 at 7:44 PM
Many years ago, I read the original (1997) edition of Shermer’s book _Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of our Time_. In what was otherwise a good book, he included a chapter called “The Unlikeliest Cult: Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Cult of Personality”. While purporting to be a debunking of Objectivism, it was at most an indictment of the alleged behavior of some Objectivists–largely sourced from the Brandens’ memoirs. I don’t remember much in the way of arguments against the philosophy itself, other than an arbitary assertion that morality cannot be objective.
Keep in mind that the rest of the book dealt with creationists, Holocaust deniers, UFOlogists and the like. I found it intellectually dishonest to lump Objectivism in with such company on flimsy pretext.
Rand herself exposed the use of such tactics in her essay “‘Extremism,’ or the Art of Smearing.”

Martian Climate Cycles

Omigosh! Mars has suffered both Global Warming and Global Cooling! Quick—pass another subsidy! Charles Q. Choi reports for Fox:

Peering beneath the ice at the north pole of Mars has now revealed the red planet may be surprisingly colder than was thought.

Any liquid water that might exist on Mars therefore might be hidden deeper than once suspected, closer to that world’s warm heart, researchers suggested. …

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter… scans revealed the polar cap has up to four layers of ice rich in sand and dust, each separated by clearer sheets of nearly pure ice. Each dirty and clean layer is some 1,000 feet thick (300 meters).

These dirty and clean layers were created by ages of intense dust storms followed by icy eras. This five-million-year-long cycle was likely driven by wobbles in Mars’ tilt and fluctuations in the shape of its orbit around the sun.

The more sunlight the red planet saw because of these changes, the more the polar icecaps retreated and the more dust storms Mars saw.

You mean something other than human production influences climate? You mean, like, maybe the sun?

Whether and to what extent human emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases influence Earth’s climate, liberty remains the best policy.

Liberty also offers people the greatest promise of mining that Martian ice and generally setting up camp on the planet. There’s a whole solar system filled with natural resources just waiting for people to exploit them.

How It’s Made

Last time I had access to cable TV, I watched several episodes of the show “How It’s Made.” It’s a spectacular show that reveals how various products are mass produced.

What has mass production done for us? In short, a lot fewer people can make a lot more life-advancing stuff. That allows more people to enjoy the products. Practically all of the clothes we wear, most of the food we eat, and just about every product in our homes was mass produced (or significantly assisted by mass production) using advanced technical processes.

Many of today’s labor-intensive jobs are made possible by mass production, which frees up labor for other jobs. When the country first started, most people worked in agriculture. Now a tiny minority do. Today, businesses exist to wash your dog or provide it with therapy. “In 2003, more than 15 million people practiced Yoga, according to Yoga Journal magazine,” writes one practitioner. Several massage clinics have recently opened up near my house, and chiropractors are everywhere. These are just a few examples.

Yet who pauses to recognize the profound improvements to their lives made possible by science, technology, and a market free enough to develop the wonders of mass production?

Milloy on Mercury and Evolution

There is all the difference in the world between reasonable skepticism regarding some particular religious or scientific claim and universal skepticism that brings all knowledge into doubt. Steven Milloy seems to have stumbled across that line.

I was impressed with Milloy’s recent article about the environmentalist flip-flop on mercury. While environmentalists have typically screamed bloody murder about any trace amount of mercury anywhere, when it came to laws mandating the use of light bulbs that happen to contain mercury, environmentalists were strangely mute. Milloy concludes, “First mercury was dangerous. Then, temporarily, it became no big deal. Now that the Greens have caught us in the CFL [compact fluorescent lightbulb] trap, they’re reverting to form on mercury — all to cause the sort of chaos resulting in increased government control of our lives.”

However, after I promoted this article via e-mail, Doug Peltz pointed me to a Cato interview in which Milloy expresses doubts about biological evolution as applied to humans. While Cato’s web page no longer seems to host the interview, it is available through

[Question:] What’s the real deal on evolution? Twenty years ago on “Cosmos,” Carl Sagan said it wasn’t a “theory” but a “law.” My Christian friends tell me it’s a theory shot full of errors. And my scientist friends tell me it’s provable in the everyday world.

[Reply:] Explanations of human evolution are not likely to move beyond the stage of hypothesis or conjecture. There is no scientific way – i.e., no experiment or other means of reliable study – for explaining how humans developed. Without a valid scientific method for proving a hypothesis, no indisputable explanation can exist.

The process of evolution can be scientifically demonstrated in some lower life forms, but this is a far cry from explaining how humans developed.

That said, some sort of evolutionary process seems most likely in my opinion. But there will probably always be enough uncertainty in any explanation of human evolution to give critics plenty of room for doubt.

Here Milloy implicitly casts doubt on inductive knowledge as such.

Obviously billions of years of biological evolution cannot be reproduced in a laboratory environment. However, extensive research into fossil records and genetics proves conclusively that all life on earth arose from evolutionary processes.

Moreover, the only alternative to evolution (broadly meaning the development of life through natural processes not guided by some higher intelligence) is some variant of creationism, either natural or supernatural. Natural creationism would involve something like the the process found in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is no evidence for such creation, making any claim about it completely arbitrary. But those of a religious bent would dismiss natural creationism as quickly as they dismiss evolution, for their entire motive is to create room for supernatural creationism. So, in effect, Milloy sacrifices the very possibility of objective knowledge to religion.

‘We Made Bold Moves’

On Wednesday night, my wife and I watched In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary about the Apollo missions. The film consists mostly of interviews taken recently with several of the astronauts and video and photos that the astronauts shot on their voyages. I spent the film alternately gasping, cheering, chuckling, and blinking back tears. (Make sure to watch the extra interviews, too.)

Paraphrasing, one of the astronauts says, “It was a time when we made bold moves.”

Watching the videos while listening to the men explain what was going on is riveting: I got some sense of how exciting, how fantastic, and how scary these trips were. These men were basically strapping themselves to a missile inside a glorified tin can.

We enjoyed many of the comments by the astronauts, but our favorite interviews were those of Alan Bean. To take just one humorous example, he says something like, “Some of the tabloids claimed that we staged the whole thing in a hanger in Arizona. Maybe that would have been a good idea.” His joyful spirit is fun to watch. Bean has devoted his later years to painting moonscapes. I rather like many of these paintings; “Hello Universe” says it all. Viewers can flip through all of the paintings.

Elsewhere I might discuss the politics of space travel, but for this blog I’ll look for the religious themes. In my view, the only error of the documentarians was to include near the end gratuitous material about religion and environmentalism. That one of the men found Jesus after his Apollo mission hardly seemed relevant. Yet, obviously these trips were profoundly moving for the astronauts, and I got the sense that they sometimes had a hard time expressing the spiritual dimensions of traveling beyond the earth.

One of the astronauts talked about how, prior to the moon landing, those orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve read passages from Genesis for transmission to earth. One woman sued them for it, which struck me as taking things a bit far.

By coincidence, on Thursday I was reading Joseph Campbell’s Though Art That. He had the following to say about the reading (page 4):

The incongruity was that they were several thousand miles beyond the highest heaven conceived of at the time when the Book of Genesis was written, when such science as there was held the concept of a flat earth. There they were, in one moment remarking on how dry the moon was, and in the next, reading of how the waters above and the waters beneath had been walled off.

One of the most marvelous moments of that contemporary experience was described in stately imagery that just did not fit. The moment deserved a more appropriate religious text.

Though Ayn Rand would have had little patience with Campbell’s Kantian presumptions regarding “the ineffable nature of the divine” (page 17), Rand did write an essay about Apollo 11 that appropriately celebrates the achievement:

The meaning of the sight lay in the fact that when those dark red wings of fire flared open, one knew that one was not looking at a normal occurrence, but at a cataclysm which, if unleashed by nature, would have wiped man out of existence — and one knew also that this cataclysm was planned, unleashed, and controlled by man, that this unimaginable power was ruled by his power and, obediently serving his purpose, was making way for a slender, rising craft. One knew that this spectacle was not the product of inanimate nature, like some aurora borealis, or of chance, or of luck, that it was unmistakably human — with “human,” for once, meaning grandeur — that a purpose and a long, sustained, disciplined effort had gone to achieve this series of moments, and that man was succeeding, succeeding, succeeding! For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel — not “How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!” — but “How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!”

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt — this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being — an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.



Yesterday The New York Times published a story about Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipTwo:

Burt Rutan took the cloak off of his new spacecraft on Wednesday.

Mr. Rutan, the creator of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed craft to carry a human into space, traveled to New York to show detailed models of the bigger SpaceShipTwo and its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo. …

Officials at the press conference said that the WhiteKnight aircraft is 70 percent complete and that SpaceShipTwo is 60 percent complete. Test flights of the planes could occur this year. Passenger flights are not expected to begin before late 2009 or 2010.

This is a modest step toward commercial space exploration, but it is an important step. While I probably won’t be able to afford a seat on any of Rutan’s crafts, I’ll cheer on those who can. “You can’t take the sky from me.”