Saturday, March 29, 2008

Let the Automatic Food Utility Do It

Reading these 1968 predictions of life in the year 2008 reminds you of a few axioms.

  1. Predictions of the future inevitably overestimate progress in transportation and medicine, and usually underestimate progress in communication and media. This one actually gets a lot of what's happened in electronic banking right, though. ("Money has all but disappeared. Employers deposit salary checks directly into their employees’ accounts. Credit cards are used for paying all bills. Each time you buy something, the card’s number is fed into the store’s computer station. A master computer then deducts the charge from your bank balance.")
  2. Predictions of the future surprisingly overestimate the difference between the future and the present relative to the difference between the future and the past. This is actually stated explicitly in this piece: "Despite the fact that the year 2008 is only 40 years away—as far ahead as 1928 is in the past—it will be a world as strange to us as our time (1968) would be to the pilgrims." The 1960s appeared to many as a precipice of tremendous technological change, but it seems safer to assume that the rate of change within a generation or two would be reasonably recognizable to members of that generation, and reasonably similar to the rate of previous changes. In other words, if you want to predict changes as drastic as domed cities and undersea vacations, it's safer to predict them hundreds or thousands of years in the future rather than forty.
  3. Predictions of the future -- at least popular ones -- overwhelmingly underestimate the interplay between social change and technological innovation. "The housewife simply determines in advance her menus for the week, then slips prepackaged meals into the freezer and lets the automatic food utility do the rest." The assumption is that new technology plugs in perectly into already existing social relationships, without transforming them in the slightest. Personal computers replace secretaries and file cabinets, robots replace servants and blue-collar workers, but the structure itself remains the same. In effect, it's the inverse of axiom #2, and it's inversely wrong. If anything, social change has been accelerated since the industrial revolution, especially at the micro-level (i.e., how office and information workers do their stuff).

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Muxgeist

Yes, I too have a Muxtape -- a 5-song EP companion to my Best of 2007 CD. It's reasonably coherent, and you can listen to the whole thing in 20 minutes. Check it out.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Nonquestions and Nonanswers

The headline of this story from (Palm Beach/Treasure Coast, Florida) is pretty big: U.S. Rep Tim Mahoney floats the idea that a brokered convention could emerge with neither Clinton nor Obama at the top of the ticket but Al Gore. A big question, and a big answer.

But this paragraph just made me cringe:

A recent statewide poll of registered Democratic voters by the St. Petersburg Times and its television partner showed that the campaigning boycott of Florida had little effect on Democratic voters’ choices in the Jan. 29 primary. The poll showed that 56 percent said the lack of campaigning had “no effect at all” on their vote. Also, 77 percent of the people polled said that it is “very important” to them that the results of the Jan. 29 primary count.

Seventy-seven percent of Floridians want their primary vote to count; no problem. But read this again: "56 percent said the lack of campaigning had 'no effect at all' on their vote." First, I hope this wasn't a simple majority, and that another twenty or thirty percent said the lack of campaigning had "little effect" or "very little effect" or whatever the other choices might be. But wouldn't that be the more meaningful statistic, not the 56% who said it had "no effect at all", at least in isolation?

My bigger concern is with the question itself. I don't think Florida owners are actually equipped to answer that question. How can anyone be expected to give a thoughtful answer on whether an event which didn't happen affected or didn't affect their voting decision, especially when that event affects all of the candidates? Non-events are sometimes real causes, but rarely are we actively conscious of that as agents. You may as well ask whether the fact that all of the candidates refrained from bursting into flames affected their vote.

Am I just kooky about this, or does this seem like a nonquestion plus a nonanswer turning into something posing as important news?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Like Bricks In A Firewall of Romance

Indian flirts fall in love with text messaging:

Text messages have invaded courtships everywhere. But the short messaging service, or SMS, is proving particularly revolutionary in India, where it is paving a secret passageway for the young around deep-rooted barriers to premarital mingling.

"The cellphone has become India's new organ of lust and love," said Suhel Seth, an advertising executive based in New Delhi who contributed to an anthology about being single in India.

The somewhat alien notion of free love is trickling into India. But for young middle-class men like Chettri, who still bear the burden of making first moves, the challenge is to seduce without the tools available to the Western male flirt...

Western-style courtship does not work for reasons that stack onto each other like bricks in a firewall of romance. Young Indians, and girls especially, are taught not to exhibit any interest in the opposite sex, regardless of their inner feelings. The prohibition extends to such behaviors as giggling at a man's jokes.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Digital Renaissance and Feudal Lords

One of the ideas that I've been kicking around for a while is the comparability of our own digital moment (and its new flows of information) to the early Renaissance, when older texts were (re)discovered, translated and put into new patterns of circulation by dedicated humanists (soon with the aid of transformative new technology, especially the printing press).

Well, if some of us are the humanists, Nick Carr's identified the feudal landlords: the owners of closed social networks (in this case Bebo) who capitalize on the work done by hundreds of thousands of peasants (in this case musicians).

When challenged in this way, the plantation owners counter that they are doing musicians a favor by providing them with a place to promote their work. But this, too, as Bragg notes, is disingenuous: "Radio stations also promote our work, but they pay us a royalty that recognizes our contribution to their business. Why should that not apply to the Internet, too?"

The fact is, it should. And arguments to the contrary are ultimately specious and self-serving. Exploitation is exploitation, no matter how lovingly it's wrapped in neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production, and the gift economy.

Digital sharecroppers of the world, unite!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Stories Everyone Else Has Forgotten About

... are usually covered admirably by Scott Horton:

The Guantánamo Commissions are being whipped ahead by the Bush Administration, but as things progress does anyone mistake this process for justice? Certainly not the participants. The military lawyers who serve as prosecutors, defense counsel and judges have denounced the entire charade in terms as explicit as could be imagined.

The most passionate denunciations have come from the prosecutors. The chief prosecutor, Colonel Morris Davis, quit and has delivered a series of public statements—the most powerful of them carried in the Washington Post and then in the Nation–in which he recounts his own discussions with the mastermind behind the commissions process, William J. Haynes II, the former general counsel to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and now a corporate counsel at Chevron Inc. In these discussions, Haynes makes clear that he desires the commissions to be a political show trial worthy of Andrei Vyshinsky, and that his principal objective in arranging the process is to furnish red meat to fuel a Rovian campaign agenda as the Republican Party attempts to hold the White House in 2008. And, as if there were any room for ambiguity, he goes on to insist that there can be “no acquittals.” A model of justice of which all Americans can be proud.

Horton goes on to note that Haynes has refused to testify before Congress and ordered his subordinates (including Col. Davis) to do the same. Five prosecutors so far have resigned from the Guantanamo Commissions, and more may follow.

But haven't you heard? The war isn't a news story anymore.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bookish Ingenuity

The Brooklyn Public Library doesn't have (or won't give) enough money to support all of its branches. Nate Hill has a solution: retail-store sized "Library Outposts":

• Strategic location. The Outpost is a small space in a commercial area, a business improvement district, or a transportation hub. Rather than bring the patrons to the library, the Outpost brings the library to the patrons.

• Extended service hours. The Outpost will be open from 8AM until 10PM, giving the community access to library materials, exhibitions, and programs during the times most convenient to them.

• Collection available via online holds system. Rather than providing a localized browsing collection, the Outpost will connect users to all library materials via the catalog.

• Reference service. Outpost staff will provide exceptional reference services using online databases and internet searching strategies. All reference sources will be electronic.

• Wireless access and digital library content. The Outpost will be a comfortable WiFi zone to work in from a table or play in from a lounge chair. Through patrons’ portable devices they can access digital content via the library website.

• Programming and Exhibition space. The Outpost will feature exhibitions that pair the library’s collection and services with art related to community interests. The space will also be flexible enough to accommodate performances, lectures, concerts, discussions, even meals during evening hours.

Hill had developed a pilot version of this kind of access point at a library in DUMBO, but it was killed (get this) for lack of funds.

Further demonstrating that neighborhood libraries may very well morph into the futurist dream of Library-as-Starbucks, Hill spells it out:

(T)he Outpost has NO LOCAL COLLECTION. Every single piece of print material (with the exception of magazines and newspapers, and those can be eliminated digitally in a different manner) is an item that was requested online for pickup at the Outpost location. This in turn frees up 1500 sq. ft. of library space for programs, exhibitions, classes, movies, concerts, community meetings, serving coffee, and virtually any community-building, social capital-creating activity. The library of the 21st Century has to maintain a physical presence, but that presence cannot always be in the form of a well-organized, publicly accessible book warehouse.

Friday, March 14, 2008

From Gutenberg to the Galaxy

A memo from Washington Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett:

Newspapers cling to an assembly-line model for news production even though computers and other technologies have rendered it obsolete. Information, which once marched in orderly lines from sources to reporters to editors to mammoth printing presses to fleets of delivery trucks to readers, now caroms every which way in a network.

Jack Shafer adds:
The reason many newspapers rely so heavily on editors—a reason rarely spoken—is that some reporters can't write. Their copy isn't edited as much as it's rewritten. Bennett has a message for them: "Reporters who can't write are a dying breed."

Digital History

Via Found History: "Feeds," a single feed aggregating a whole lotta buncha digital history sites.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I Call It The iBook. Have You Heard Of It?

Adam Engst at TidBITS on the need for an "iPod Reader." (The name "iSlate" has been tossed around; but again, I say, bring back the name iBook!):

[T]ime spent online is largely time spent reading (and writing), whether email (57 billion messages sent in 2007 by IDC's estimate), blogs (over 70 million, with 1.5 million posts per day, according to Technorati), or more traditional online news and entertainment sources. People read more than they ever have, thanks to the Internet, and new forms of reading are appearing all the time. Witness the Japanese "cell phone novel," meant to be read in serialized form on the ubiquitous mobile phone. The Economist reports that since appearing in 2001, the genre has grown to become an $82 million business in 2006, with some ebooks receiving over a hundred thousand downloads per day.

I've called out all these numbers in order to encourage Apple to acknowledge that people read vast quantities of text and to focus hardware and software design efforts on making it easier to read on the iPod, iPhone, and future devices. The iPod and iPhone can be used to read some online content now, along with small bits of text synced from a Mac, but the experience could be significantly improved with native support for PDF, better user interface support for stored text documents, and more.

But I, speaking as a reader and a publisher, would really like to see Apple create a larger version of the iPod touch optimized not just for a better video experience, but also for a best-of-breed reading experience. Apple has the hardware design and user interface chops that Amazon lacked when creating the Kindle, plus the knowledge gleaned from the iPhone and the iPod touch in terms of underlying operating system, physical design, and wireless capabilities. Equally important is the iTunes Store, which offers an unparalleled browsing and shopping experience for digital media - it could be extended to support commercial ebooks, subscription-based periodicals, and free blogs in exactly the way it currently supports commercial audiobooks, TV show season passes, and free podcasts.

This one got picked up by Sullivan. So who knows? Maybe a buzz is really building here.

Update -- (Fake) Steve Jobs responds:
Honestly, people. If we wanted your ideas we'd hire you. It's ridiculous. That's not where we get our ideas. Yet people keep trying... Could we do this? Um yeah. In our sleep. Will we? When the time is right I'll let you know.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Data Inputs vs. Picture Outputs

Via Worldchanging, "Information Visualization Is A Medium":

Information visualization is becoming more than a set of tools and technologies and techniques to understand large data sets. It is emerging as a medium in its own right, with a wide range of expressive potential.

Stamen's work in visualization and mapping is among the most high profile online today, with the live dynamic displays at Digg Labs and Cabspotting being just two of many examples.

The studio's approach is deeply pragmatic, always starting with real data and aiming to work with graphics on screen as soon as possible. Though all analysis is a work in progress, a project is usually finished when it shows something nobody has seen before, or builds a vocabulary for describing a system, or offers more questions than answers. And then the process begins again.

Worldchanging's write-up of the presentation adds this:
The idea is not to offer a search programme that would give you a way in but rather to give a map display as a way out for users to explore. It is not enough to simply analyzes and it is not enough either to simply entertain.

In Stamen's project there is always an editorial choice, their projects are not totally value free, they are more than just a pretty accumulation of data. They attempt to give people a way to access information they care about, to engage them in data and keep them interested.

See also "Coming Soon: Nothing Between You And Your Machine":
Last year...the arrival of the Nintendo Wii and the Apple iPhone began to break down the logjam in technological innovation for the way humans interact with computers.

Both devices extend the idea of directly controlling objects on the screen and blending that ability with visually compelling physics software that brings computer screens to life in new, immersive ways. With a Wii, a wave of the hand can slam a tennis ball in cyberspace; with the iPhone, a flick of a finger can slide a photograph across the screen like paper on a table.

The idea of directly manipulating information on a computer screen is almost as old computer graphics terminals, going back at least to 1963, to Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad drawing system he created at M.I.T. for his Ph.D. thesis. Since then, a thriving scientific and engineering discipline has sprung up around systems that bridge what was originally called the man-machine interface. There has been a broad exploration of pointing devices, alternatives to keyboards for entering information, voice-recognition technologies, and even sensors that capture and interact with human brain waves.

What is new is a convergence of more powerful and less expensive computer hardware and an inspired set of mostly younger software designers who came of age well past the advent of the original graphical user interface paradigm of the 1970s and ’80s.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Too Close To Home

From Stuff White People Like:

In coffee shops, bars, and classes white people will engage in conversations about authors and theorists that go nowhere as both parties start rattling off progressively more obscure people until eventually one side recognizes one and claims a victory. By the time they graduate (or a year or two afterwards), white people realize that they will need an edge to succeed in the cut-throat world of modern white society.

That edge is graduate school.

Though professional graduate schools like law and medicine are desirable, the true ivory tower of academia is most coveted as it imparts true, useless knowledge. The best subjects are English, History, Art History, Film, Gender Studies, <insert nation> Studies, Classics, Philosophy, Political Science, <insert European nation> Literature, and the ultimate: Comp Lit. MFA’s are also acceptable.

Returning to school is an opportunity to join an elite group of people who have a passion for learning that is so great they are willing to forgo low five-figure publishing and media jobs to follow their dreams of academic glory.


Monday, March 03, 2008

An Amazon Trojan Horse

Macworld's "25 native iPhone apps we hope to see" is a good read, even if you don't have an iPhone (maybe "especially if," if like me, you're hoping for extra functionality while you run out the clock on your Verizon contract). But number 25 (right on top) is particularly worth noting:

Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader is half brilliant and half failure. The brilliant part is Amazon’s Internet system, which allows you to easily search for and buy electronic books or periodicals and download them directly to the company’s reader hardware. The failure part is the reader hardware itself, so poorly designed that it practically cries out for Apple to redesign it. Since Apple’s not in the business of doing Amazon’s work for it, how about this instead: Amazon takes the part of Kindle that’s brilliant—its Internet and payment services—and sticks them on a piece of hardware with a design that’s approximately 1 billion percent better than what Amazon’s selling. Will people really buy and read books, magazines, and newspapers on their iPhones? If you’re Amazon, it’s worth a try.

This all depends on whether Amazon's best opportunity is to build the market for e-books, build the market for the Kindle, or build a closed/interdependent ecosystem.

I'm more inclined to believe that Amazon's skills and infrastructure is best built to sell e-books on a wide variety of devices, and that the Kindle is a high-profile (if not exactly awesome-in-itself) means to that end. You could say that the Kindle is Amazon's e-book product for people who prefer an experience closer to that of reading a book, while the Kindle store sans Kindle is for people who like e-books, but prefer the reading experience of a different device -- a laptop or iPhone or Nintendo DS, whatever.

The wrinkle is that Amazon and Apple are competitors, especially for music and movie downloads. So here, too, Amazon has a couple of different strategies to take. It could freeze Apple out, either by sticking with the Kindle or (perhaps) by encouraging a range of other developers to create Kindle-compatible devices -- just not iPhones or iPods. Or, the bigger gamble -- by marketing eBooks and the Amazon store to iPhone users, you try to wedge some of the traffic away from the iTunes store and towards your own ecosystem -- where, by the way, you happen to sell DRM-free music downloads and digital movies.

When the e-book reader market was anemic and iPhones and iPods were closed, Amazon didn't have much choice. It had to create a reader worth buying (and talking about) if it wanted to sell e-books. But now the landscape has changed. Amazon can continue to make and sell the Kindle -- as a hobby, like Apple TV 1.0, until e-readers take off for real -- while it sells e-books to anybody and everybody who wants one, wherever they want one. After all, the real money isn't in the razors, even when the razors cost $400. It's in the blades -- especially if you're the only one seriously selling them for everything resembling a razor on the market.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Analog Days

Admittedly I've got a brain-crush on Virginia Heffernan, but this has got to be the smartest reading of Tootsie I've ever seen.

The Hidden Stakeholders

There's so much rhetoric about the demographics and symbolism of the Clinton-Obama split in the Democratic electorate (young/old, black/Latino, male/female, rich/poor, vision/experience, change/restoration, etc.) that it's refreshing to read journalism that breaks down what this means, and why campaigns for candidates who don't differ sharply on much really don't seem to like each other.

This Washington Post piece on union organization in Ohio reads in part like typical on-the-campaign-trail stuff, but also notes that while most of the AFL-CIO unions have backed Clinton, Obama's won most of the the splinter group Change To Win, including the Teamsters, the hotel and service workers, and others. Change To Win broke with the AFL-CIO over political and organizational strategy, and has a greater emphasis on grassroots organization and expanding the base of union workers.

Likewise, The Nation has an excellent piece that reads the Clinton/Obama split in the light of Howard Dean's 2004 Presidential campaign and his management to date of the DNC. Since Dean lost in 2004, it wasn't clear whether his message and his strategy was really the wave of the party's future or just a neat new way to raise some money. Likewise, Dean was criticized for devoting DNC funds to organization in all fifty states rather than focusing on a few battlegrounds to build a larger congressional majority.

Well, now Obama is riding Dean's wave, connecting with younger and affluent voters on the web, organizing precinct-by-precinct from the bottom up, and winning delegates by rallying Democrats and independents in heartland states. He's Dean with vastly more charm, more profile, and more discipline. Meanwhile, the Clinton folks are stinging at the fact that they're not only unable to beat back Obama, but may find it difficult to win the war of ideas and resources against a vindicated Dean at the DNC.

It all goes to show you that many stakeholders in the party have a lot more at stake than who's at the top of the ticket -- and why strategists may be quick to attribute whatever happens in this election to the personalities and capabilities of the two people running, and not how they ran. Otherwise they could find themselves marginalized not just for backing the wrong horse, but the wrong direction.