March 31st, 2014
I'm going to have to steal John Naughton's Quote of the Day:
"Technology is everything that doesn't work yet".
— Danny Hillis
I'm going to have to steal John Naughton's Quote of the Day:
"Technology is everything that doesn't work yet".
— Danny Hillis
What does a power line look like? To humans, they don't look like much – just strands of metal draping from towering poles. But for many animals, they're terrifying.
They see power lines as lines of bursting, popping lights. That's because they can see ultraviolet light that's outside the spectrum of human vision. [...]
A Preliminary Phenomenology of the Self-Checkout is long, but totally worth it:
III. The Ghost in the Machine
You have bought a greeting card, you indicate. Why, then, can't I feel its heft in my bagging area? Is it because of the appalling taste you have? I will not abet this item. I will never detect it, for you are unscrupulous and depraved. This disingenuous gesture will not cause your niece on the occasion of her birthday ("Time to celebrate!") to feel any particular tenderness. Welcome to the new phase in human history that my presence has inaugurated: soon, greeting cards will no longer be available for purchase. So, too: yarn, cotton balls, postcards, feathers, stickers, and some seasoning packets. In their stead, you might dare enjoy communing with your fellow man.
Also features a man who pays a terrible price for trying to game the Machine for the sake of saving money on half a dozen lemons, and Karl Marx chatting with John Locke1 about the price of lemons (among other things.)
Maciej Ceglowski's Webstock presentation on Our Comrade The Electron draws lessons for modern technologists from the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the inventor of – among other things – the theremin:
Termen was just what Lenin needed: a Soviet inventor with an electrical gizmo that would dazzle and amaze the masses, and help sell the suspicious countryside on electrification. He gave Termen a permanent rail pass, encouraging him to take his show on the road all over the Soviet Union.
When Lenin died a few years later, Termen sent urgent word that Lenin's body be immediately frozen. He had an idea for how to bring him back to life, but it required putting the body on ice. He was devastated to learn that Lenin's brain had already been taken out and pickled in alcohol, and his body embalmed for public viewing.
Given Termen's track record of technical achievement, it's probably a good thing he didn't get a chance at making zombie Lenin.
Roentgen Objects are genuinely remarkable pieces of furniture:
The furniture is a process – an event – a seemingly endless sequence of new spatial conditions and states expanding outward into the room around it.
Each piece is a controlled explosion of carpentry with no real purpose other than to test the limits of volumetric self-demonstration, offering little in the way of useful storage space and simply showing off, performing, a spatial Olympics of shelves within shelves and spaces hiding spaces.
From McSweeney's: Son, It's Time We Talk About Where Start-Ups Come From.
[...] I realize it's awkward, discussing these adult matters with your father, but have your buddies asked you to join a start-up? Be honest – Dad knows the HTML. Seriously, have you already started a start-up in the attic? I see you moved the family computer up there.
[Via Pop Loser]
I'm fairly sure the Infinity Augmented Reality Concept Video is a spoiler operation, secretly backed by Microsoft or Apple or some other Google rival to turn the public against the very idea of augmented reality. I mean, Infinity AR can't seriously believe that this is an appealing vision of the world five years from now, can they?
Theodore Ross is sceptical about the benefits Google Glass promises to bring us one day:
Sergey Brin put forth this rationale last February in a TED conference presentation during which he compared Glass to a smartphone and suggested that the head-lowered gaze was somehow emasculating. "We all use these touch phones, which you can't even feel," he said. (Not sure what he meant by that, but hey, who's the visionary? Not me.) "Is this what you were meant to do with your body?" Brin claimed that they had tried "to make something that frees your hands [and] frees your eyes" – the ocular freedom being achieved by putting "the display up high, you know, out of your line of sight."
When you hear Brin speaking in these terms, best check your wallet. Likewise, when Genevieve Bell, Intel's in-house anthropologist (known as their Director of Interaction and Experience), goes on NPR to describe a future smartphone that will direct her past the coffee shop she's gone looking for and into a museum to view a "piece of art…like nothing [she's] ever seen before," I resist. I don't see that future as a totalitarian vision so much as one built on the exploitation of laziness and busyness, the fatigue of work and children, the stress of bills. It doesn't harm so much as transform, devolving us into a pack of boring stooges who can't decide whether we want a coffee or an epiphany-generating aesthetic experience.
In all fairness, it's entirely possible that by the time Google Glass is a reasonably-priced piece of hardware rather than a really, really expensive beta product Google, Intel and their competitors will have worked out what ordinary people really want to use wearable technology for. I'm pretty sure that being deluged with ads1 isn't it.
James Bridle on How Britain exported next-generation surveillance. Good, but depressing.
As is often the case when it comes to governments and surveillance technologies, the problem isn't so much the technology itself as it is a reluctance on the part of officials to explain how the data gathered is being used, beyond a bland assertion that all relevant laws and guidelines are being followed. Plus, of course, mission creep on every possible front.
I can't remember where I found a link to this, but the Columbia Journalism Review's profile of my favourite internet sceptic, Evgeny vs. the internet Is well worth a read:
Evgeny Morozov wants to convince us that digital technology can't save the world, and he's willing to burn every bridge from Cambridge to Silicon Valley to do it.
The villages of Rjukan, Norway, and Viganella, Italy, are both situated in deep valleys where mountains block the sun's rays for up to six months every year. To illuminate those darker winter months, the two towns have built gigantic mirrors that track the sun and reflect daylight downwards. Viganella completed its huge computer-controlled mirror in 2006, and Rjukan followed suit just this month, mounting a mirror that will reflect a 600 square meter (6,500 square foot) beam of sunshine into the town square below.
Nicholas Carr contemplates the Quantified Self movement and wonders whether the same technologies are going to be adapted to bring us what I'd prefer to call the Quantified Employee:
Some companies are outfitting employees with wearable computers and other self-tracking gadgets in order to "gather subtle data about how they move and act – and then use that information to help them do their jobs better." There is, for example, the Hitachi Business Microscope, which office workers wear on a lanyard around their neck. "The device is packed with sensors that monitor things like how workers move and speak, as well as environmental factors like light and temperature. So, it can track where workers travel in an office, and recognize whom they're talking to by communicating with other people's badges. It can also measure how well they're talking to them – by recording things like how often they make hand gestures and nod, and the energy level in their voice."
It's the euphemisms that get to me. In the hands of the unimaginative and the insecure, "Use that information to help them do their jobs better," will turn into "I don't trust you further than I could throw you, so you are now required to account for every five minute block of time you spend away from your desk. And for the quality of your hand gestures."
The order had come from the Dean of Dresden campus herself. In an effort to maximize classroom time (and justify expenditure budgets), lecture times would now be accurate to the second. IT would be responsible for the deployment of new, centrally synchronized clocks. [...]
Sometimes a high tech solution requires some distinctly low tech support.
Alongside the bizarre coincidences, intense rivalries, terrible failures and moments of heroic achievement that made theories into realities, HOW WE GOT TO NOW uses historical precedents and modern-day analogies to explain why it's not always the smartest person in the room who has the best idea. From frozen foods entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye to Internet visionary Tim Berners-Lee, Hollywood "Golden Age" actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr to mother of radioactivity Marie Curie, and from Thomas Alva Edison to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, the series shows how the best ideas can come from surprising places (and take years to shape), as well as how amateurs can revolutionize specialist fields, and why patents are sometimes a big idea's worst enemy.
A classmate was caught using his phone in maths. The teacher took his phone and set a passcode. He gave him this back with his phone and said good luck unlocking it.
My first thought upon seeing the above-linked image was 'I hope nobody forwards this link to Michael Gove.'1
My second thought was that unless someone comes up with a better solution than passwords for logging in to web sites2 then one day CAPTCHAs will evolve into something like this and I'll have to give up using the web.
[Via Flowing Data]
Fact of the day: the world's first pocket calculator was designed by a concentration camp inmate.
Curt Herzstark's fate seemed to be sealed in 1943 when the Nazis sent him to Buchenwald concentration camp. But then Herzstark, the son of a Jewish industrialist, received the unexpected opportunity to become an Aryan.
"Look, Herzstark," one of the camp commandants said to him, "we know that you are working on a calculating machine. We will permit you to make drawings. If the thing is worth its salt, we'll give it to the Führer after the final victory. He'll certainly make you an Aryan for that."
The engineer had made a pact with the devil. Night after night, after daily forced labor in the camp, Herzstark made detailed design plans for the world's smallest mechanical calculating machine. He was given special rations as motivation, and he eventually survived the concentration camp. [...]
I'd seen a CURTA Calculator before, but I didn't know the story behind it.
My favourite part of the story on the BBC News web site about how the BBC Trust has upheld a complaint about the fact that the BBC home page's clock simply repeats the time shown on the user's computer and thus "is not consistent with BBC guidelines on accuracy"1 is the section at the foot of the page of the BBC News report on the decision, linking to the story as it's presented elsewhere:
Trust the Daily Mail to turn it up to 11. "Slammed"? Really?
[Via Martin Belam]
Google's Larry Page bids us Welcome to Google Island (as related by Wired's Mat Honan):
"I hope my nudity doesn't bother you. We're completely committed to openness here. Search history. Health data. Your genetic blueprint. One way to express this is by removing clothes to foster experimentation. It's something I learned at Burning Man," he said. "Here, drink this. You're slightly dehydrated, and your blood sugar is low. This is a blend of water, electrolytes, and glucose."
I was taken aback. "How did you…" I began, but he was already answering me before I could finish my question.
"As soon as you hit Google's territorial waters, you came under our jurisdiction, our terms of service. Our laws – or lack thereof – apply here. By boarding our self-driving boat you granted us the right to all feedback you provide during your journey. This includes the chemical composition of your sweat. Remember when I said at I/O that maybe we should set aside some small part of the world where people could experiment freely and examine the effects? I wasn't speaking theoretically. This place exists. We built it." [...]
The nineteen-forties Bing Crosby hit "White Christmas" is a key part of the national emotional regression that occurs every Christmas. Between Christmases, Crosby is most often remembered as a sometimes-brutal father, thanks to a memoir by his son Gary. Less remarked upon is Crosby's role as a popularizer of jazz, first with Paul Whiteman's orchestra, and later as a collaborator with, disciple to, and champion of Louis Armstrong. Hardly remarked upon at all is that Crosby, by accident, is a grandfather to the computer hard drive and an angel investor in one of the firms that created Silicon Valley. [...]
Ford mentions one other technical innovation in broadcasting that Crosby allegedly inspired, but you'll have to read the article to the end to find out about that one. It's worth it.
Jan Chipchase's You Lookin' At Me? Reflections on Google Glass. urges us to take advantage of the opportunity we have now that Google Glass is on the verge of escaping into the wild to think about how Glass (or something like it) is going to transform privacy expectations over the next decade or two:
One could argue that the form taken by Glass offers up a lazy futurist's vision of what might be – take the trajectory of one product (displays becoming smaller/cheaper/more efficient over time) and integrate it with another (eyeglasses), sprinkle in connectivity and real-time access to content and big-data-analytics. Our expectations of what it could be are raised in part because this join-the-dots vision of the future fits neatly into Western un/popular young-male culture, from "The Terminator" through to Halo. Glass has a certain inevitability about it, like the weight of expectation on of child born to a great composer or, if you will, to a middle-aged suicide. As any visitor to Yodobashi camera over the past decade will tell you, the hardware technologies that make Glass hardly feel novel (and for recent competitors, see Sony, Golden-i, or this Telepathy device prototype) but neither do they need to be, because this is all about how they are brought together into a holistic experience.
I have a feeling that the prospect of walking round wearing a device that requires an eyeglass-mounted interface is going to be a lot less popular among the ordinary, smartphone-carrying public than Google hope. I can't help but think that if Google/Apple/whoever just pushes speech-driven interfaces a bit further along1 then a fair number of ordinary people will find that the ability to tell their phone to show them maps and directions, pull up details of the person they're speaking to and so on will suffice for now.
Still, even in that scenario we'll have people walking round our towns and cities and homes and workplaces carrying permanently-on devices that default to capturing and storing sound and video2, so almost all the issues Chipchase raises will still apply.
[Via The Browser]