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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October 7th, 2013


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.


  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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Curta Calculators

July 3rd, 2013

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.

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Time to go

June 4th, 2013

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:

BBC clock story as reported elsewhere

Trust the Daily Mail to turn it up to 11. "Slammed"? Really?

[Via Martin Belam]

  1. As opposed to, say, connecting to a centralised NTP server and getting the time from that. Which would slow down page loading significantly and probably require them to support methods of grabbing the data and displaying said clock, depending upon what type of plugin support was available on the device. Basically, far more hassle than it's worth.

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'I put the glasses back on, and took off my pants.'

May 17th, 2013

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." […]


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Bing Crosby, Nazis and Silicon Valley

May 13th, 2013

Paul Ford on How Bing Crosby and the Nazis Helped to Create Silicon Valley:

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.


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'Our moral character dwindles as our instruments get smaller.'

April 14th, 2013

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]

  1. Both in terms of reliability and the ease with which third party applications can use the speech recognition system.
  2. Via a camera mounted on your Bluetooth earpiece?

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Platform wars

April 6th, 2013

Comment of the day, from a MetaFilter thread about Facebook Home:

Android allows Facebook to do whatever it wants on the platform, and that means accessing the hardware as well.

So this why when I came downstairs this morning, my wife's Android phone was dancing, dancing around a pot of water boiling on the stove, my iPhone slowly lowering into its roiling depths at the end of some sort of crude winch made from butcher's twine and an eggbeater. In the living room, the Chromebook and Kindle Fire had chased the iPad up a bookshelf, it having seen what the pair did to the Xbox.

And through it all the blue light on the Wii kept blinking, blinking, finally glad nobody has thought about it in years.

posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:19 PM on April 5

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There's not an App for that. (I hope.)

March 16th, 2013

Paper is not dead!

[Via The Guardian]

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December 15th, 2012

Pinokio is smarter than your average anglepoise lamp.1

[Via jwz]

  1. Not to mention creepier. I was feeling a certain amount of sympathy for the poor thing being teased and tricked, with up until the moment it started flipping that power switch back on.

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Standby Mode

December 3rd, 2012

A lovely tale from tech support:

When I was nearing the end of my tenure, I had a particularly awkward customer. He wasn't being particularly rude, just extremely untrusting and uncooperative. His issue was maddeningly simple – his modem was in standby.

I should probably explain, his modem was an old Motorola model (An SB5100 if I recall correctly). The interesting quirk of this modem is that it has a standby button on it that, as you might guess, puts the modem in standby. What's even MORE interesting is if you put the modem in standby, it'll STAY in standby no matter how often you unplug the thing and plug it back in again. The REALLY REALLY interesting thing is that the modem was completely black and the standby button was also black. Most people didn't know it even existed and it was common for someone to accidentally hit it and suddenly have their connection stop working. Switching it off and on didn't fix it, those lights just wouldn't stay on. Anyway, we see this quite a lot and pushing the button fixes it within seconds – easy. However, this guy wasn't having it.

Despite actually having fixed the problem, he was adamant that his modem was broken. No matter how much I tried to explain that it's REALLY easy to accidentally hit that button ("I've done it myself a few times!"), he was determined. "Oh no, the modem isn't in a position where it could be knocked like that, it's BROKEN!". Bull. Shit. So after batting around for a bit, I had an idea. […]

A fiendishly clever, utterly hilarious, moderately evil idea.

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Quantified Self 1 – 2 Paris (aet)

October 17th, 2012

Craig Mod versus a Fitbit:

I bought a Fitbit on a whim. It was spring 2012. I bought it to understand how devices like this worked. If they worked. What it meant, precisely, for them to work. Between JawBone's Up, Nike's FuelBand, and now Fitbit, the entrepreneur in me wanted to understand this emergent product space and know how these devices affected awareness.

I assumed our relationship would proceed like this: I'd use the Fitbit for a few weeks, think it was neat, and then forget to wear it. One forgotten day would turn into a week would turn into a month. It would start off as a novelty, devolving quickly into another well-intentioned, dust-covered tech product.

Boy, was I wrong.

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The Magazine

October 16th, 2012

Marco Arment1 has been teasing us on his last few podcasts about his new iOS app, which was revealed last week as The Magazine.

Basically, it's an iOS-only magazine that asks for US$1.99 a month and promises in return to give you four articles every fortnight written by geeks, for geeks, but not necessarily about technology.

The app looks good and reads nicely even on a small screen like that of my iPod Touch, as you'd expect from the man who created Instapaper.2 Navigating between articles is slick and speedy, a huge contrast to a heavier, more blatantly commercial product like the iPhone/iPod Touch edition of the New Yorker. Limitations on tweaking the way the content looks notwithstanding, The Magazine is clearly a child of the web, and all the better for it.

As to the content, essentially it's longish, self-contained pieces from people who've been publishing similar material on their blogs over the years, but who now have a chance to stretch out a bit and get paid along the way.

It probably didn't help that the jumping-off point for the first article in the free trial issue was about one of my least favourite notions to have gone the rounds of the Mac blogosphere in the last few months: the proposition that John Gruber invented the Linked List style of blogging about six years ago. Getting over that hump, I enjoyed what I read, but there's a problem.

[Where's the quote? Where's the link?]

Because for now Marco isn't posting the content on the app's web site as it's published in The Magazine, I can't link to a piece I liked to persuade you to read it, let alone to get you to subscribe to The Magazine to read more like this.3

Obviously I understand that the idea is for people to subscribe to The Magazine rather than read the authors' work for free online, but I have a nasty feeling that'll work about as well as it did for The Times of London. If you publish behind a paywall, aren't you cutting yourself off from the conversation taking place across any number of blogs? If the content isn't trying to be particularly timely then this may not be a major issue, but it still makes it harder for customers to persuade others by word of blockquote. At the very least, I hope that work published through The Magazine is displayed in full on the magazine's web site a month after publishing, so that we don't have to go haring off to the various authors' personal sites to track all that content down again.

For all that, I'm still going to let the automatic In-App purchase go through and follow The Magazine for a few issues.

  1. Who I hope will forgive me, a total stranger, from calling him by his first name throughout this piece. I've been reading his blog, using his software and listening to his podcast for long enough now that it seems weirdly appropriate to be on first name terms with someone who has no idea that I exist.
  2. I find the lack of flexibility in setting up display preferences like choice of font, line spacing and so on to be a bit odd given how good Instapaper is at letting users adjust their reading to suit their taste. I can only imagine that Marco is trying to establish a brand here so he wants the app to look recognisable.
  3. Authors retain the right to publish their work from The Magazine one month later on their own web sites, but that's not much help when I've just read the article and want to tell you about it now.

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Rdio On

September 16th, 2012

Rob Weychert was hoping to use the Rdio streaming music service to broaden his musical horizons. The result wasn't what he'd expected:

[Last fall…] I was convinced to give Rdio a chance after a friend showed me how he used it as a try-before-you-buy service. As a discovery mechanism to augment my personal collection, the prospect of a subscription service was suddenly intriguing. At any given time, there is a ton of music, new and old, that I'd like to properly investigate before committing to a purchase. For ten bucks a month, Rdio would give me unlimited access to a lot of that music, all in one place. I decided to give it a whirl.

Moments after signing up, I dove in head first, and in the months that followed, I wolfed down music at an unprecedented rate, dutifully working my way through a mental checklist of veteran bands who had long needed my attention as well an avalanche of new releases. […]

At one level, what Weychert found wasn't a surprise: he listened to a lot more music, but with so much to explore he listened to a lot of material just once and didn't ever return to albums to get to know them well enough to decide to buy them. It'd be the same if he'd inherited umpteen boxes of CDs from a friend with good musical taste. Presented with so much material to listen to, you'd always be tempted to find out how great the next thing might be instead of stopping and concentrating on the contents of the first pile you grabbed. With a finite amount of waking hours to devote to listening to music, something has to give.1

It'll be interesting to read a further report a year on to see whether Weychert can find a strategy for avoiding the temptation to keep on pressing the Next Track button on his infinite jukebox.

[Via swissmiss]

  1. These days I primarily use Spotify – more or less the equivalent to Rdio for users in Europe – in order to sate my desire for just one listen to a track or album I've just been reminded of but which isn't in my iTunes library rather than as a preview-before-purchase service. To be fair I only have the free Spotify service, so the constraints on my streaming music are a bit different to those Weychert encountered.

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Support Ada Lovelace Day

September 11th, 2012

Suw Charman-Anderson wants to put Ada Lovelace Day on a firmer footing:

This year, it has become really clear to me that there's a lot more that I could do with Ada Lovelace Day, if only we had a bit of cash to pay for it. Since its inception, Ada Lovelace Day has been run entirely by volunteers and by partnering with organisations like the Women's Engineering Society, Association for UK Interactive Entertainment, London Games Festival and BCS Women. We have managed a huge amount through the kindness and generosity of our volunteers and partners, but there is more we could do.

I now want to create a formal charitable organisation to support women in STEM, not just on one day of the year, but all year round. Some of our goals include creating educational materials about iconic women, providing media training, and building a directory of expert speakers.

There's an Indiegogo appeal up and running if you'd like to help make this happen.

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Immaterial Weightlifting

September 5th, 2012

Dan Hill has posted an essay he wrote as an introduction to Curious Rituals, a project about "gestures, postures and digital rituals that typically emerged with the use of digital technologies".

For some years I've been collating a list in a text file, which has the banal filename "21st_century_gestures.txt". These are a set of gestures, spatial patterns and physical, often bodily, interactions that seemed to me to be entirely novel. They all concern our interactions with The Network, and reflect how a particular Networked development, and its affordances, actually results in intriguing physical interactions. The intriguing aspect is that most of the gestures and movements here are undesigned, inadvertent, unintended, the accidental offcuts of design processes and technological development that are either forced upon the body, or adopted by bodies.


Walking around "eating the world with your eyes", as the fictional design tutor in Chip Kidd's novel The Cheese Monkeys puts it, you can't help but observe the influence of The Network on our world. Yet The Network is often still spoken about as if it were somehow something separate to Us, as if it were an ethereal plane hovering above us, or perhaps something we might be increasingly immersed in but still separate to our bodies, to our selves. This doesn't feel accurate now. There is no separate world, and this list indicates how we are even changing what our bodies do in entirely emergent, or at least unplanned, everyday fashion, in response to The Network's demands. […]

The Curious Rituals team have created a video to illustrate how A Digital Tomorrow might work:

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