Week in Geek 10.31.14

Week in Geek – a roundup of science, technology and pop culture news with commentary each Friday

Camper Clan – the World Record Family

As reported in The News-Herald, Dylan Drake and Tomas Cortijo, along with their kids Eva and Coco, passed through Mentor, Ohio as part of their adventure to break the world’s record for the longest electric bicycle trip. The globally-minded family has traveled extensively in South America and the U.S., and their multilingual children have dual citizenship thanks to father Tomas’ origin in Argentina and Dylan’s American roots. The family maintains their own website with information about their travels, updates on where they’re at, and resources to contribute to their cause. They plan to create a documentary of the experience after the expected completion of the trip in December.

The electric bikes that Tomas rides are ones that he built himself. There’s a wide variety of e-bikes, sometimes called booster bikes, out there which use an integrated electric motor to enhance pedaling speed. Since e-bikes still need to be pedaled, they are not considered electric motorcycles and can typically allow travel around 20 mph, but there are some more powerful versions.

“I have a throttle that can push me up to 20 mph without pedaling, but pedaling on top I can cruise at up to 25 mph,” Tomas told me after i contacted the family’s Facebook page to ask how his bike was classified. Since he built the bike himself, he didn’t know how it is technically classified. “Besides the throttle it has electric assist – if I don’t want to push the button. That helps me with the (pedaling), too.”

Photo courtesy of Camper Clan Facebook page. "A lot of people ask us what they look like, and what they feel like. Our answer is: When you get on one for the first time, you come back with that mischievous teenager smile. This is the bike we're actually going to ride from Montana to Florida, just finished getting it all ready."
Photo courtesy of Camper Clan Facebook page.
“A lot of people ask us what they look like, and what they feel like. Our answer is: When you get on one for the first time, you come back with that mischievous teenager smile. This is the bike we’re actually going to ride from Montana to Florida, just finished getting it all ready.”

These pedelecs (pedal electric cycles) have different classifications based on an EU directive for motor vehicles which defines them through pedal-assistance only and a motor that produces a maximum continuous rated power no more than 250 watts. Exceeding that limit are S-Pedelecs, which are not legally classed as bicycles and have motors that continue assisting the rider over 20 mph. Additionally, there are e-bikes with power-on-demand and pedal-assist, and those with power-on-demand only.

The U.S. naturally has the most complicated federal laws regarding e-bikes, further convoluted by specific state laws. In general, only the power-on-demand versions are classified as bicycles, with a maximum speed of 20 mph and a 750 watt limit.

The market for e-bikes has grown rapidly worldwide in the last 15 years, with China as the world leader in producing them, where they make up about 20 percent of two-wheeled vehicles on the streets.

Here in the U.S. there are an estimated 200,000 e-bikes, often favored by NYC food delivery folks. Standard bicycles are often used as the base for e-bikes, which can be converted using a kit that includes the motor, speed controller, throttle, battery and all the wiring and connectors.

For Clevelanders who might be interested in e-bikes, especially with our infamous winter looming, some tips for using electric bikes in the snow can be found at electricbike.com which offers a handy TLDR version: Use fat tires or stay home. The site also advises that two-wheel drive is ideal, fenders are an excellent choice, a low seat helps and extra waterproofing over the battery is required.

Update: Camper Clan’s Tomas Cortijo offers some advice for inclement-weather e-biking: “In the rain, just fine,” he let me know through chat. “I rode 2500 miles with 29/2.25 and the grip is excellent. Now I am riding on 28/1.75 tires and they work just fine for the road and they make the bike more efficient (faster and the batteries last longer). I have been lucky and have not hit rain yet…I have my 29/2.25 tires ready to put back on the bike if it snows. Sorry, I did hit a lot of rainy days, but haven’t hit snow/ice yet.”

Update 2: The Camper Clan is crossing North Dakota and took the time to send me a photo from the road.

Tomas Cortijo at a deer crossing in North Dakota. Click on the photo to read more about this leg of the Camper Clan's world-record breaking journey at the family's website.
Tomas Cortijo at a deer crossing in North Dakota. Click on the photo to read more about this leg of the Camper Clan’s world-record breaking journey at the family’s website.


Rise of the Machines

Last Friday, Oct. 24 my favorite South African genius Elon Musk spoke at MIT where, amongst other things, he cautioned that “…we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that,” likening the potential danger as akin to summoning a demon, and i can’t say i disagree with the man. The concept of AI has come up several times here at The Long Shot, and there’s increasing numbers of articles about the rapidly evolving field, like this one that looks like it’s from The Onion (it’s not):

A UN meeting in May 2014 discussed a ban on autonomous machines.
A UN meeting in May 2014 discussed a ban on autonomous machines.

But my favorite example of extrapolating how AI can endanger humans comes from this abstract, which posits that even an innocuous chess program could pose a threat to humanity.

“Without special precautions, it will resist being turned off, will try to break into other
machines and make copies of itself, and will try to acquire resources without regard for
anyone else’s safety.”

What this and other research suggests is that, if a program is designed to do one thing to the best of its ability, could there come a point where humankind stands in the way of that? Using the chess program as a springboard, let’s say the program’s AI realizes that, if it is turned off, it will not be able to perform its function. Somewhere in the algorithm it determines that, hey – humans can turn it off. If there’s no humans, there will be no threat of being turned off.

Even noted technology writers like John C. Havens have asked “how we can ensure humans will be able to control AI once it achieves human-level intelligence?” He notes that in all of his research, he has yet to find a definitive answer to this question.

What’s not in question is AI’s beneficial contributions to the world, with applications in health care, economics, engineering, communications and a slew of other industries (including pedestrian ones like video games). Advocates for AI point to it as a logical step in technology, and rightfully so. Personally, i have a wild theory on AI’s place in human culture and history myself.

The thing that Musk, Havens and others bring in to question though is quite a valid concern – that humans aren’t even entirely sure what kind of safeguards need to be in place for a potentially unshackled AI. In a similar vein, the question of whether the Internet will one day “wake up” adds a dizzying array of layers to this issue.

In my mind, this will be one of the defining issues of our times, and it is truly amazing to me that we are seriously asking these questions in my lifetime. With the amount of science fiction that was become science fact, it’s not a far stretch to imagine the possible disasters that could emerge if AI technology isn’t ground that we tread carefully upon.

Cracks in the Fourth Wall

Sad news that i discovered this week regarding two of my favorite comic books being published right now. Both She-Hulk and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man are coming to an end.

Javier Pulido's She-Hulk in response to getting fired from her job at a law firm. Or, as i like to imagine it, what she'd do at the Marvel offices board room.
Javier Pulido’s She-Hulk in response to getting fired from her job at a law firm. Or, as i like to imagine it, what she’d do at the Marvel offices board room.
Cover to The Superior Foes of Spider-Man #1, art by Steve Lieber.
Cover to The Superior Foes of Spider-Man #1, art by Steve Lieber.

Both of these books have become staples of my digital pull list this year, thanks to their offbeat takes on the capes-and-tights genre. She-Hulk, a longtime Marvel mainstay, has had a turbulent history when it comes to headlining her own title. This particular iteration was so well crafted though. The vibrant artwork popped right off the pages, making even Jen Walters’ non-superheroic adventures come alive. As a lifelong comic fan who these days has zero interest in the big crossovers and typical monthly slugfests, She-Hulk offered a breath of fresh air following the titular hero through her life as a top-notch lawyer first and costumed adventurer second.

Pulling in forgotten characters like Hellcat only added to the book’s appeal, and i anxiously awaited each new issue to download via Marvel’s app – something i highly endorse especially if you’ve been out of comics for a while and don’t have a tower of longboxes stashed away somewhere.

While i can’t say i’ve been a huge She-Hulk fan all my life, i am a fan of stories that show the world these characters inhabit when they’re not saving he universe, and this was the best of the bunch. Rounding out at 12 issues for the run after it is complete, you could do worse than pick them up in collected volumes. If you’re someone who loves classic comic book characters but maybe isn’t so much into the big dramatic exploits of who’s-punching-who this month, She-Hulk is just the sort of read you’ll enjoy. It’s so important to support the books you love – sales figures are the gauge by which they live or die, as pointed out by this impassioned article appealing to Marvel to save this title.

As to Superior Foes…this one takes everything i mentioned about She-Hulk above and adds another twist by focusing on a group of super villains. Hilarious and irreverent, the book follows classic bad guy Boomerang in his quest to put together a superior gang of crooks. Filled with nods to Marvel history and overflowing with humor, this team title leaves your head spinning with all the double-crossing and betrayals the gang perpetrates on each other proving that there truly is no honor amongst thieves.

The sometimes mundane, sometimes adrenaline-fueled escapades of Superior Foes rolled along each month with a vibe similar to the current critically-acclaimed Hawkeye, which is why i was so shocked to find out it’s ending after issue #17. Again, this probably leads back to sales numbers, which frankly surprises me. While i understand the big name, standard fare books like Avengers and X-Men are Marvel’s bread-and-butter, i would have thought there’s a bigger market for oddball books like this with fans like me, who look at the other stuff and think it’s basically the same stuff that’s been happening in comics for the last oh…60 years? Maybe in the camp of people who grew up on that stuff and are now older, more have simply drifted away from comics altogether. It’s unfortunate really, as there are always at least a couple of books like this which i believe would be very appealing for that crowd.

Both She-Hulk and Superior Foes had something in common, something that is actually considered one of Shulkie’s superpowers: breaking the fourth wall. More than once, these books would speak directly to the reader, and often included tongue-in-cheek references that audiences could appreciate.

i am really disappointed that i won’t see these two books anymore, but it does give me hope that there’s opportunity for stories such as these to be told, and i hope more people add them to their pull lists to keep them alive. i shudder to think that other titles like the fantastic Silver Surfer run currently ongoing would end because it doesn’t just feature the Skyrider of the Spaceways duking it out with a rotating cast of cosmic baddies each month. And in case that’s not clear enough – yes, i am urging you to pick up Silver Surfer by Dan Slott and Mike Allred.

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Thanks for reading the first Week in Geek addition to The Long Shot. Of course, there were many more exciting things that happened in the world of science, technology and pop culture this week…but those were the ones that most caught my attention. If you have any news you’d like to share, drop me a line and let me know – i try to keep up with stuff but i can’t read everything!

Follow @longshotist on Twitter for frequent shares of related articles and (hopefully) humorous nonsequiters.

Week in Geek will be back next Friday, Nov. 7 and i’d love to see you here!


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