The devil doesn't wear data

July 26th, 2014

Excellent piece from Evgeny Morozov on the downside to governments' infatuation with the notion that they can 'nudge' citizens into doing the right thing (whatever that is) without any of that messy politics getting in the way:

[…] consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. "We propose 'payment by results', a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus," they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what's expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It's certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one's poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn't wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

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Anvilicious

June 11th, 2014

MeFi user zabuni neatly sums up why some of us have read enough Cory Doctorow novels to last us a lifetime, even if we broadly agree with the political points his books make about the uses and abuses of technology:

I once mocked Doctorow, and said that he wrote EFF fan fiction, he then had his main character (in the sequel to LB) meet the founders of EFF:

At Burning Man.
While playing a game of DnD with them.
DM'ed by Wil Wheaton.

I had to literally say, out loud, "For Fuck's Sake!" to that. […]

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PaperLater

June 9th, 2014

If you think the only thing wrong with Instapaper is that you have to read the articles you've saved on a phone / tablet / computer screen, Newspaper Club have just the product for you: InstapaperOnPaper PaperLater. From their blog:

PaperLater lets you save the good stuff from around the web and enjoy it in a newspaper made just for you. When you find yourself on something you'd prefer to read in print, just press the 'Save for PaperLater' button in your browser, and we'll do the rest.

When you've got enough articles, hit print and we'll automatically layout, print and ship you a newspaper. It'll be on your doorstep in a few days.

What gets me isn't the 'read it on paper' angle; I get that a lot of people prefer to read long form pieces on paper, and I'm sure Newspaper Club do a nice job of formatting a piece from the web so that it works well in print. But I just can't get past the 'on your doorstep in a few days' thing. A few days! Are we living in the Dark Ages?

[Via @cityofsound]

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Very non-enterprise

May 27th, 2014

The future that everyone forgot:

I came across a website whose purpose was to provide a super detailed list of every handheld computing environment going back to the early 1970's. It did a great job except for one glaring omission: the first mobile platform that I helped develop. The company was called Danger, the platform was called hiptop, and what follows is an account of our early days, and a list of some of the "modern" technologies we shipped years before you could buy an iOS or Android device. [...]

[Via The Tao of Mac]

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Winter on Georgian Bay

May 18th, 2014

Highlights of a four month-long Winter on Georgian Bay, captured by way of cheap hardware and some clever software that tried to ensure that the time-lapse images were taken in similar lighting conditions:

Pleasingly, it turned out to be a particularly turbulent winter, so the lake got to freeze and partially thaw quite a few times.

[Via MetaFilter]

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QOTD

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

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Un(fore)seen consequences

March 21st, 2014

Power lines look like terrifying bursts of light to animals:

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. [...]

[Via jwz]

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'You make it seem as if the capitalists would entirely remove all human labor from their businesses in deference to robots, if they could. This would constitute an egregious disregard for the communal good, and so I'm afraid it's impossible to imagine proprietors acting in this horrible way!'

March 16th, 2014

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.)

[Via MetaFilter]

  1. No, not the character from Lost.

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THUNDEROUS, SUSTAINED APPLAUSE

February 28th, 2014

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.

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The TARDIS of furniture

February 24th, 2014

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.

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Much as your mind is screaming, 'Go for it!' it is definitely not okay to have a strategy session with Chloë.

February 4th, 2014

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.

I want you to know I love you, even if you've experimented with JavaScript or started wooing venture capitalists. I'm just worried. [...]

[Via Pop Loser]

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A**h*l* Reality, more like

January 30th, 2014

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?

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Glass, Darkly

January 12th, 2014

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.

  1. Sorry, that's "Opportunities to view a piece of art like nothing we've ever seen before." If we can pick them out amongst all the exhortations from local shops to take advantage of their latest sale offer, designed just for us.

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How Britain exported next-generation surveillance

January 9th, 2014

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.

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Refusing to be 'useful'

January 5th, 2014

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.

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Let there be light (all year round)

October 27th, 2013

Using Giant Mirrors to Light up Dark Valleys:

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.

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The Quantified Employee

October 25th, 2013

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."

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Syncing…Sunk

October 7th, 2013

Syncing…Sunk:

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.

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How We Got To Now

August 6th, 2013

Steven Johnson is working on a TV series, a six-part PBS series to be distributed outside the USA by BBC Worldwide1 called How We Got To Now:

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.

[Via stevenberlinjohnson.com]

  1. So with any luck it'll turn up on the BBC eventually…

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Maths problems

August 3rd, 2013

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]

  1. For non-UK readers: Michael Gove is the current Secretary of State for Education in the UK. Within a week his department would be announcing that schools would have to produce returns demonstrating that 75% of pupils could solve such problems in a below-average time..
  2. Speaking of which, in theory Tim Bray has a point. In practice, Rui Carmo has a much better one.

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