Monthly Archives: July 2005

Born Free and Equal

Ansel Adams’ book Born Free and Equal, about the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in Manzanar Relocation Center, California, is available in digital form on the Library of Congress web site. Nancy Newhall, who organized a 1944 exhibit of the collection at the Museum of Modern Art, also wrote a review. Peter Marshall writes about the history behind Adams’ work in Manzanar. In Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, Adams noted that Dorothea Lange’s "earlier photographs of this tragic event have priceless historical value." Four of Lange’s photos documenting this era,  Raphael Weill School — 1942, are accessible at the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. About 20 images by Lange and Clem Albers are downloadable in Powerpoint format.

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Looking for Something to Wear

Unlike some wearable computing scientists, I do not think I could turn myself into a “cyborg.” Audacious souls, they have taken to wearing computers every waking hour. They say the visors and wearable keyboards they don daily mediate or heighten their perception of reality. In other words, not virtual reality, hyper-reality. Add in wireless, and they are able to constantly troll the Internet for answers to questions in real-time. Steve Mann, the wearable computing pioneer, says that wearable computing allows him to filter out content, like billboards, signs and other advertising, that has been essentially thrust on him.

Some wearable computing scientists have been brave—or foolhardy enough to have even experimented with implantation. Our reluctance to quickly follow suit should not surprise wearable computing scientists and developers when many of us still resist putting on the sweaters that our moms used to try to get us to wear. Those of us still shy about laser eye surgery might get positively leery about wearing displays over the eyes. PDA wristwatches have not caught on. They are essentially just a different way of binding PDAs to our bodies, when a good holster or coat pocket will do for most people. As road warriors, we happily lug our laptops, PDAs and cell phones (or devices that have begun to converge some of those capabilities) to meeting after meeting, but voluntarily weighing oneself with the tools of a road warrior still tends to be more about business than pleasure. Research in Motion (RIM) would probably admit that they would like to have pushed their market share further out of the business community that is its mainstay.

When I was still in finance, I used to keep a RIM Blackberry on me all the time. Actually, my firm insisted on it. My wife says I used to check my Blackberry frenetically every 10 to 15 minutes or so (much like she does now that she herself has one). Now that I am out of finance, though, I try to keep less technology on my body. Of course, that probably makes me somewhat of a luddite, at least compared to other white collar professionals. Mann’s vision of how wearable computers can mediate and recapture our ownership of our physical space sounds appealing, but do the rest of us want to feel tethered to technology? What if we like technology’s ability to heighten our experience but do not want it to be obtrusive?

What kind of device is going to get us to wear or at least tote our computers more? The current center of portable “computing” seems to be the cell phone and its multi-function counterparts. To be enticingly wearable, a device has to be indispensable. The phone function alone makes it so for some people. We all love to talk. In Europe, they have extended the capabilities of cell phones to digital purchases so that you can, say, buy a soft drink from a vending machine. If something as quintessentially American as digital cash cannot entice us to wear, though, what else can?

Other developers have focused on the entertainment aspect. News headlines, sports scores and stock tickers first filled our cell phone screens. Now writers like Yoshi and Zuan Huang have experimented with SMS novels, while The Guardian newspaper has sponsored SMS poetry contests. Multimedia remains a bit of a holy grail. Music files are more than common, but now purveyors are trying to get us to watch videos on our cell phones. India’s “Bollywood” tried distributing its movie “Stop If You Can” to Bharti Tele-Ventures customers. Camera phones have been popular with photobloggers, and users have turned their iPods into devices for listening to homemade radio shows. (Apple continues trying to find ways to use its iPod to back into other markets). Usability, as part of form and function, are paramount: Jeff Hawkin’s Palm, not Steve Job’s Newton; Steve Job’s iPod, not earlier iterations of mp3 players.

Entertainment value powerfully incentives us to wear devices. Those who grew up on Sony, Nintendo, Sega and Xbox (and not on primitive video games like Pong) are essentially already used to being less tied day and night to some kind of microprocessor. They are less apt to have qualms to being tethered. MP3 players and gaming devices underscore that well, but they are not computers in the sophisticated sense. Our devices still have quantum leaps they can provide in the way we connect to each other; wireless gaming and Howard Rheingold’s “ad hoc” communities, where wireless capabilities facilitate social networking, are steps in the right direction. Yet the adoption of 24/7 computing will remain limited if corporations ignore interactivity and look simply to monopolize or push information on us. Consumers need devices that enhance their experiences, not ones that simply make device accessibility ubiquitous. Devices need to be simultaneously accessible and unobtrusive. Today’s modern soldier cannot exist on the battlefield without the vision enhancement, communications devices and armor that have become de rigueur, but they still take off their equipment when they gather in the mess hall (as we tragically saw in Mosul) or when they climb into their bunks.

Developers continue to make strides in “smart fabrics,” the process of essentially weaving microprocessors into clothing. In the meantime, what might us “non-cyborgs” be willing to wear? Cell phones that fit perfectly in our ears (bluetooth devices only get us partially there, because they require a device that should be extraneous). Eyeglasses that look and work like eyeglasses (or sunglasses), but instantaneously become information display screens when called up or needed. (Or maybe screens that clip on or flip down over our glasses?) Input systems, whether joystick, glove, keypad or voice (or Thad Starner’s “twiddler” device) that are convenient, not cumbersome. Modular components that allow us to quickly add—or subtract functionality, literally the way that we might layer our clothes to suit the weather. Computing that reacts to us the way weapons systems in a modern assault helicopter like the Apache turn and target with the turn of the head or a flick of the hand. Wearable computers that are reliable and not overly susceptible to viruses and spam, since computing needs to enhance experience, rather than distract from it, to be pervasive. But most of all? Devices that go beyond information and file storage to embrace interactivity in ways that will surprise us.

Technorati Tag(s) – technology, computers and Internet.

Motorola Q

Engadget gives its initial impressions of the new Motorola Q, and the site shows side by side images of the Motorola Q and the Treo 650.

The Edge of the Alphabet: Writers in Repressed Societies

From The Redress of Poetry by Seamus Heaney.

And the project of the [Christopher Marlowe] plays can be represented to some extent by an analogy first proposed by the South African writer Andre Brink in relation to the role of writers in a repressed society. People in such societies, according to Brink, typically employ only a portion of the alphabet that is available to them as human beings. In matters of race or sex or religion, citizens will confine the range of their discourse to a band of allowable usages, say, A and M. This will be a more or less conscious act of self-censorship, as much a collusion as a consensus. So it then becomes the writer’s task to expose this state of affairs, to extend the resources of expression up to perhaps N or V, and thereby both to affront and enlighten.

Lance, Allez, Allez

The Los Angeles Times ponders Lance Armstrong’s legacy as a cancer survivor and a seven-time winner of The Tour de France.

"Lance brought a new level of professionalism, a different level of professionalism to the sport," said Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour winner who is director of the CSC team. "He also brought about the idea of focusing everything on the Tour de France and using every other race as just a preparation for the Tour. "Is this good for the sport? I don’t know. … But in the way he trained, the way he paid attention to details, that would be what I would think of as Lance Armstrong’s legacy to the sport of cycling."

Brendan Gallagher in The Telegraph writes that "perhaps his brave and ultimately successful battle against cancer
finally enabled Armstrong to make sense of everything and released an
unstoppable life force." Yet Gallagher says the focus on Armstrong’s cancer detracts from the fact that Armstrong won because he was simply one of the toughest hombres in cycling.

Some Armstrong myths need to be debunked, or at least modified, notably that his phenomenal success on the Tour is totally down to massive changes in lifestyle and a hardening in attitude after his recovery from cancer. Winning that war affected him profoundly and kick-started his career, but there is every possibility that Armstrong would have been a high achiever anyway. He has a resting pulse in the low 30s and nearly seven litres of lung capacity, one of the highest ever recorded, and his body also produces almost negligible lactic acid, hence his ability to ride harder and longer than anybody else. In other words, he is a freak.

"People have the false impression that Lance was a regular guy who got cancer and then came back to win the Tour de France," says trainer Chris Carmichael. "The truth is that he was one in a million before and he’s one in a million now."

Part of Armstrong’s legacy is the strong backbench of U.S. cyclists he leaves behind, says The Christian Science Monitor. See also Matt Seaton’s Top 10 Books about Cycling at The Guardian.

Embodied Mind

Writer Matt Bai talks about how the ideas of linguist George Lakoff have been incorporated by politicians looking to better "frame" debate ("The Framing Wars," The New York Times magazine, July 17, 2005).

How this came to be is a story about the unlikely intersection of
cognitive science and political tumult. It began nearly 40 years ago,
when, as a graduate student, Lakoff rebelled against his mentor, Noam
Chomsky, the most celebrated linguist of the century. The technical
basis of their argument, which for a time cleaved the linguistics world
in two, remains well beyond the intellectual reach of anyone who
actually had fun in college, but it was a personal and nasty
disagreement, and it basically went like this: Chomsky said that
linguists should concern themselves with discovering the universal
rules of syntax, which form the basis for language. Lakoff, on the
other hand, theorized that language was inherently linked to the
workings of the mind — to ”conceptual structures,” as a linguist
would put it — and that to understand language, you first had to study
the way that each individual’s worldview and ideas informed his thought
process.

Chomsky effectively won this debate, at least in the sense that most
American linguistics departments still teach it his way. (To this day,
the two men don’t speak.) Undeterred, however, Lakoff and his
like-minded colleagues marched off and founded the field of cognitive
linguistics
, which seeks to understand the nature of language — how we
use it, why it is persuasive — by exploring the largely unconscious
way in which the mind operates.

In the 1970’s, Lakoff, verging into philosophy, became obsessed with
metaphors. As he explained it to me one day over lunch at a Berkeley
cafe, students of the mind, going back to Aristotle, had always viewed
metaphor simply as a device of language, a facile way of making a
point. Lakoff argued instead that metaphors were actually embedded in
the recesses of the mind, giving the brain a way to process abstract
ideas. […]

Joan Jett

Joan Jett performing Wednesday in New York’s Central Park