Dec 052012

I upgraded my Smart phone the other week, on Black Friday, actually. But the Apple store in the Meat Market district on Manhattan’s West Side was nearly empty (let’s face it, Apple doesn’t do major discounts for holidays). So far, I’m loving the new iPhone – faster processor, beautiful screen, LTE service – even if I sometimes chafe at Apple’s walled garden. Even the upgrade was dead simple: everything was already backed up to Apple’s iCloud service so all I had to do was download the hundred and twenty or so Apps that I have to the new device.

Disrupting the Smart Phone Ecosystem

But the entire process got me thinking about how many more Smart phones I’ll purchase before this technology is disrupted by new developments – especially the Google Glass project and Microsoft’s recent patents for augmented reality glasses. Neither of these are actually phones, but the general trend is clear. The ongoing miniaturization of technology can only mean that at some point there will be no need to carry around a bulky device such as an iPhone5 or Android phone.


Big Screen Smart Phones - from Apple iPhone on up to SamsungYes, bulk is relative. Just look back at the early versions of the cell phone (scroll down to see Martin Cooper’s early portable phone) which people thought was the height of mobility.

The current size that we now have is not the end of the road and the real issue is screen real estate (with Apple opting to keep it’s slim design and Samsung going for a larger display in the Galaxy Note model). There’s advantages to small and slim and benefits in having a larger screen. But you can’t go smaller than the iPhone and type on the screen or larger than the Galaxy and fit it in your pocket. The only way to resolve display size will be to put it closer to the eye, to make it essentially transparent so that you see the world through your phone’s screen but can shift focus to a proportionally large size screen. Google Glass is a little different approach in that you actually have to look a little to the left and up to see the screen.

One More Smart Phone To Go

Either way, it seems very plausible that we’ll be wearing our phones in the near future (before we reach the point where they are embedded under our skin). Looking at my new iPhone5, I figure I’ll probably buy one more Smart phone to replace it in a year and a half (perhaps right about the time Google Glass hits the stores), and then when I replace that one, it will be a device that I wear on my face. Coincidentally, Business Insider ran a short piece that parallels my thinking:

Both gadget concepts (Google Glass and Microsoft’s glasses patent) are very interesting. 

Lots of people disagree with me, including other BI (Business Insider) writers, but I think something like Google Glass or whatever Microsoft is working on could end up replacing the smart phone as the dominant way people access the Internet and connect to each other.

First off: something has to. Disruption is inevitable.

Secondly: The trend is obvious.

Computers have been getting smaller and closer to our faces since their very beginning.

First they were in big rooms, then they sat on desktops, then they sat on our laps, and now they’re in our palms. Next they’ll be on our faces.

(Eventually they’ll be in our brains.)

By the way, you can bet that if Microsoft and Google are working on computerized glasses, so is Apple and Jony Ive.

And that’s pretty exciting.

Here’s a diagram from Microsoft’s patent for a set of augmented reality glasses:

Microsoft Patent Diagram for Augmented Reality Glasses

Image from Business Insider


Some Day, Will You Die If You Don’t Answer Your Phone?

Paradoxically, shrinking the Smart phone down to a wearable device and eventually an implant carries out the vision of Martin Cooper, the Motorola researcher who made the first mobile call in NYC back some 35 years ago. Here’s a piece on Cooper’s vision from an article in The Age in 2008:

Inventor Martin Cooper holds one of the first mobile phones in this undated handout photo.“Our dream was that someday nobody would talk on a wired telephone. Everybody would talk on a wireless phone,” the 79-year-old electronic engineer told Reuters.

Cooper said he was so enthused after his first mobile call that he liked to joke that phone numbers would become so important that “when you were born you would get a phone number and if you didn’t answer it you would die.”

“The idea is that the phone number becomes part of you,” said Cooper, who is also waiting for the day when he merely thinks about calling a particular person and the phone will automatically dial the number.

While the popularity of mobile phones has skyrocketed, with more than 3 billion people owning cell phones now compared with only 300,000 in 1984, Cooper said in telephone interviews from California and New York that he sees much more room for wireless in industries ranging from health care to power.

“Thirty-five years later we’ve finally got the idea that people want to be free to communicate while they’re moving around but unfortunately we’ve just barely mastered that for voice,” he said.

In about 15 to 20 years, he expects people to have embedded wireless devices in their bodies to help diagnose and cure illness. “Just think of what a world it would be if we could measure the characteristics of your body when you get sick and transmit those directly to a doctor or a computer,” he said. “You could get diagnosed and cured instantly and wirelessly.”

Cooper dreamed big . . . and his dream is coming true. Give it another five years. And in the meantime, think about the possibilities (and the social-cultural issues) when our phones are first worn, and eventually, embedded under our skin.

Aug 242012
NYC Shooting - NYT Front Page Image

NYC Shooting – NYT Front Page Image

The tragic NYC shooting at the Empire State Building – perhaps the paramount icon of the City – had the press once again up against the unedited stream of information from the Web. A shooting on the sidewalk in broad daylight in the heart of mid-town results in hundreds of photos and videos from bystanders through their cell phones. The Web is quickly awash in graphic photos of the event and traditional media is left with the dilemma of what images to use. Given the vast range of images available online, the decision on what photos to use is almost a lose-lose decision.

Pick something that is too subdued and readers will just go elsewhere to see what they want to see (thus, the dilemma of the UK press with the naked images of Prince Harry all over the Web). Select images that are too graphic and the media looks like it’s being sensationalist and is probably alienating the older more traditional segment of their market.

So what did they do? Reuters went with a somewhat blurry photo that focused on the police activity while the NY Daily News showed the bodies but pixelated their faces. At first The New York Times used a subdued shot from above, but then changed it to include the blood on the sidewalk. No matter what they did, of course, the Web streamed whatever graphic images people wanted to see.

At it’s best, the press can (for now) quickly pull together resources that bystanders do not have the means to create; thus, the Times graphic of the shooting and interviews with witnesses offer insights to understanding the event. It’s the kind of work the press excels at (when they don’t self-destruct by firing their newsroom staff), but at one time, they also provided the primary source of images. Now it’s a bifurcated world for traditional media where they can at best offer analysis and readers will find their images with whatever degree of graphic content they want online. Perhaps this will continue for a few more years, but the ease with which bystanders can take and upload images and video is nothing now compared to what it will be in another decade. And if at some point in the future witnesses have the ability to instantly create resources like the Times graphic through some mobile crowd source platform, I’m not sure how the traditional press will survive.


Aug 192012

France in XXI Century Air Postman

French artists in 1900 trying to predict the future – what the world (well, France) would look like in the year 2000.  The images, done as a series of postcards, are fascinating and demonstrate how difficult it is to predict the future. Details and many more images from The Public Domain Review:

France in the Year 2000 (XXI century) – a series of futuristic pictures by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists issued in France in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910. Originally in the form of paper cards enclosed in cigarette/cigar boxes and, later, as postcards, the images depicted the world as it was imagined to be like in the year 2000. There are at least 87 cards known that were authored by various French artists, the first series being produced for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. 

Some things they got right – the prevalence of air travel – but obviously our letter carriers are not flying around delivering mail. And of course there’s nothing to suggest there might be another way to deliver messages. A second card below tries to envision education a 100 years in the future. Fascinatingly, all the books just get mashed up in a large grinder – the teacher seems to do nothing more than dump them in the hopper.  In some respects it’s not unlike what the Web does. But then the books are force fed to students as if they are automatons. Granted, with standardized testing we may not be far off from this dynamic, but the interaction and collaboration that is so much part of the online environment is no where to be found here.

Nevertheless, priceless.

France in XXI Century School

Aug 082012

Think about it – as the future becomes the present our devices have gotten smaller and smaller. We already have flexible screens (both E Ink and OLEDs) though we’re not quite sure what to do with them. Smart phones and iPads are increasingly giving us options that were originally found only on desktops and laptops. But in the end, smaller devices are going to have to be flexible devices and the fundamental challenge here is the power-source – batteries are not bendable. But as Mashable notes:

Professor Keon Jae Lee of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and his team just made that happen, PhysOrg reports. Lee was able to create a lithium-ion battery that’s razor-thin and — this is key — retains its voltage even while being bent. You can see in the video above the battery powering a blue LED, which never flickers when the battery is twisted again and again. It’s later tested with a voltmeter while bending, and the voltage hardly changes at all.

Lee is now looking into mass-production techniques and the possibility of stacking the batteries for greater power output. There are also the bigger questions about the practicability and durability of flexible gadgets, but it’s good to know the main technical roadblocks are solvable. 

It will be an entirely new world – at least from a technology standpoint – when you can fold your gadgets up and stuff them in your pocket or bag. Professor Lee just took us a big step in that direction. Think about it – an iPad that is similar to smart cover for one that you now buy as an accessory. Unroll it and use it as a table (with some easy way of keeping it stiff); when you’re done, roll it up and stuff it in your bag or pocket.

What now seems so portable to us will be laughable for a future generation.

Jul 292012

Google Glass is on its way, but here’s a project by two students, Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo, at the Bezaleal Academy of Arts. Completed as a graduation project,  it depicts a fully head-up display (HUD) through the use of contact lenses. Your entire world is overlaid with data and suddenly becomes highly interactive.

Honestly, this is both fascinating and scary. Yes, it would be very cool to just lay on my apartment floor and interact with a 3D environment. And maybe I could use better data from my refrigerator – though given my eating habits, it’s never very well stocked and living in NYC, grocery stores are only a few blocks away. But no, I really do not want to live in a world where I need a HUD to help me cut up a cucumber. I don’t want to sound old fashioned, but really, a virtual guide to slicing my vegetables?

Google Glass isn’t quite ready yet, but you know full well that someday down the road (in the not too distant future) it will seem primitive and quaint. I’m not sure how close this vision comes to what we’ll get, but I have a feeling it’s where we’re headed. I’m happy to get there, but please, make the vegetable slicing and other useless information optional.

From Gizmodo.

Jul 032012

This is a little hard to follow, but four wingsuit jumpers are launched from a plane and glide down on to the roof of Moscone center – the jumpers are wearing Google Glasses and provide the live video feed. The demo was actually more than this as the team rappelled down the side of the building and mountain biked into the hall and to the stage.

I’m not sure where GoogleGlass project is going but if this is any indication, think of the possibilities - simultaneous video feeds to create movies and live feeds from multiple perspectives of social and political events. This could be so much more powerful then the YouTube videos that came out of the Arab Spring.

Google Glass may give us a glimpse of where technology is going.

May 112012
Cable TV increase and decrease in subscribers in 2010

Cable TV Market Subscriber Gains and Losses

With cable providers hurting from satellite and Web TV distribution, there’s disturbing piece from ReadWriteWeb on the effort by old media content providers to maintain the current distribution paradigm:

The Internet was supposed to change everything. Television would be turned on its head, and big cable would be screwed – finally. 

TV is different now, to be sure, and those changes will continue for some time. But the Web-destroys-cable narrative many hoped to see isn’t quite playing out that way. Recent moves by content providers, cable companies and ISPs aim to ensure that that storyline never comes to fruition.

The tension between traditional content providers and the Web’s new model of distribution is nothing new. Networks have begun to rethink the practice of making new episodes available online for free, while some of the most coveted premium content (see HBO Go) remains locked behind the gate of a cable subscription.

Last week, word surfaced that Hulu may require a cable or satellite subscription in the future, a prospect that would effectively bring an end to one of the most promising – and popular – sources of TV content on the Web, or at least transform it into something very different.

The news, which was reported by the New York Post, hasn’t been substantiated. But if it’s true, it marks the strongest sign yet that big content isn’t ready to abandon its traditional distribution and revenue models for something that, while more innovative, is still largely unproven.  

Watch Netflix and Hulu carefully as they may serve as barometers for the future, revealing to what extent traditional content providers will accept a new distribution model. Netflix expects to add about 7 million new subscribers this year but is bleeding money to pay for content. And watch for the anticipated effort this summer by ISP’s to “voluntarily” throttle down access to file-sharing networks such as BitTorrent, locking out the other alternative of just grabbing shows for free. All one can say is that the TV and cable companies are not about to willingly go through the upheaval experienced by the music industry.

Unless of course, Apple forces their hand.

Apr 262012
The Solidoodle - a $500 3D printer

The Solidoodle - a $500 3D printer

Say hello to the Solidoodle, your new $500 3D printer just waiting for you to take it home. 3D printers been around a few years, but now we’re beginning to see a significant fall in price. and down the road, less expensive models will follow:

3D printing at home is a hot segment, but it’s one that’s consistently been light on growth mostly due to the high costs. The MakerBot Replicator we covered during CES was a step in the right direction, cost-wise, but it’s still $2,000 or so. Well it turns out that the company’s COO, Samuel Cervantes, went off on his own and made the Solidoodle you see above. It’s a 3D printer that costs $500. All you need to do is add a computer and you’ll be off printing almost any object that comes to mind. That’s the kind of price point that could see this tech take off. It does its printing much like the MakerBot did: by melting some plastic and extruding a fine line which it then uses to build the object, layer upon layer.   (from

Of course, it’s likely that it will find a slower adoption rate than the Gold rush mentality that has characterized the smartphone market. Non-technical people will need to figure what one might do with such a device besides its novelty appeal. But you just know where this is heading: the cost will continue to drop, the features will get better, and once it becomes a relatively simple task to print out household objects (think kitchen utensils, cups and plates as starters), you know this will take off. Okay, it can pretty much print these types of objects now, but breaking into the consumer market will mean doing it with something other than plastic filament. If color was the main breakthrough for traditional printers, using a variety of materials in the same object will be the breakthrough moment for 3D printers.

But on many fronts, things are moving faster than you think – take a look at the opposite end of the 3D printer range from the consumer end Solidoodle to the KamerMaker project in the Netherlands. The KamerMaker doesn’t print objects – it’s a mobile pavilion that prints entire structures. Indeed, it could print smaller replicas of itself, a pavilion that makes little pavilions:

 The Amsterdam based KamerMaker is an initiative of DUS architects in collaboration with Ultimaker Ltd, Fablab Protospace, Open Coop, and a number of volunteer enthusiasts. The Kamermaker project is open source and all research data will be available online. 

And this is only the beginning. One can imagine something like a truck showing up one day at an empty lot and simply printing out a livable structure. Perhaps it starts with tool sheds and emergency structures for FEMA, but down the road this could go anywhere we let the technology take us.

Take a look a closer look at the Solidoodle, but I’m going to drop the video here for beta design of the KamerMaker:

Apr 052012
Google Project Glass

Google Project Glass

Here’s a short video for Google’s Project Glass, which made the news yesterday with Google’s latest announcements on the device. It seems like it might be a little disorienting to walk around with them on all day, but then we’ve adjusted to headphones that do much more to separate us from our immediate physical surroundings. This is technology that may actually allow you to stay more connected – once you adjust to the flow of social media popping up in front of your eyes.

I want a pair as soon as they go into production.

Mar 152012

At this year’s SXSW Conference in Austin, the British marketing company Homeless Hotspots is using homeless people as roving wireless hotspots. The Homeless Hotspots project is a pay-as-you-go arrangement where users make a donation for Internet access. Here’s the details from the ad agency:

Homeless Man as 4G Hot Spot at SXSW

Homeless Man as 4G Hot Spot at SXSW

Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations. 

As digital media proliferates, these newspapers face increased pressure. Our hope is to create a modern version of this successful model, offering homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity. SXSW Interactive attendees can pay what they like to access 4G networks carried by our homeless collaborators. This service is intended to deliver on the demand for better transit connectivity during the conference. 

All well and good. But if you glance at the Wikipedia article referenced for Street Newspaper, having the homeless sell something (it began with New York City’s Street News in 1989) is hardly the most viable fundraising or business model. Of course at SXSW, what’s offered is access, not an object (which requires inventory, delivery, accounting practices, etc.) and all of the donations go directly to the homeless. But there is something strange about having 13 participants (albeit, volunteers) wander around a convention site wearing wireless transmitters around their necks, especially with T-shirts that say, “I’m <name>, a 4G hotspot.”

Thus, David Gallagher’s comment:

It is a neat idea on a practical level, but also a little dystopian. When the infrastructure fails us… we turn human beings into infrastructure? 

Unclear if this is just a one-off or if we will see similar efforts. There’s more than a few visions of the future that see the lines between people, advertising and services vanishing.

Mar 142012

On the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth, a film titled, “The Death of Poor Joe” was accidentally discovered by British Film Institute (BFI) curator Bryony Dixon. The movie was shot in the early part of 1901, predating the oldest known film with a Dickens character, “Marley’s Ghost” shot at the end of the same year. A brief description from BBC (where you can also see the film):

Film: Death of Poor JoeThe film, which is just one minute long, depicts Joe dying in the freezing snow against a churchyard wall.

As he falls to the ground a local watchman tries to help him and cradles him as he dies.

The footage, which was directed by film pioneer George Albert Smith, was handed to the BFI in 1954, by a collector in Brighton who had known Smith.

The BFI said it believes the director’s wife, Laura Bayley, played Joe and the character of the watchman was played by Tom Green. The footage is believed to have been shot in Brighton. 

One cannot help but think of the recent Academy award winning “Hugo”, and the portrayal of  Georges Méliès, the French pioneer filmmaker. Like Méliès, Smith also worked on stage (as a magician and hypnotist), and played a critical role in the development of movies through the use of film editing and the first successful colour film process, Kinemacolor. In many ways, these early films now seem so stilted and primitive in grappling with a new medium, but was an incredibly creative time.

A few decades from now, our own era will appear much the same.

Mar 102012

An unavailable book? No problem. At the Brooklyn Public Library the future has arrived in its stately lobby. If what you want is in the On Demand Books library, you can simply print it yourself through their new Espresso Book Machine.

Alright, this may not be exactly the way the future plays out, and increasingly better screen technology (the iPad or Kindle Fire a couple generations from now) may put paper to bed for good. But it’s one plausible future, especially if everything is published ” on demand.” At the very least, it’s great to see a library experimenting with an alternative delivery model.

Espresso Book Machine

Feb 262012
Infographic - 60 Seconds of Social Media

Infographic - 60 Seconds of Social Media

What happens in social media in a single minute? More than you might imagine and the numbers continue to astound. The latest effort to visualize this from Social Jumpstart and their infographic is worth a look. The highlights:

  • 175,000 tweets
  • 700,000 Facebook messages sent
  • 2 million videos viewed on Youtube

You can draw your own conclusions about where we’re going but just remember the first Wright Brothers flight was only 120 feet, a little less than the length of the economy class section of a modern Boeing 474. The numbers above are only a minute crack in the doorway to where we’ll be in another ten years.

Jan 252012
The Pirate Bay

The file-sharing site, The Pirate Bay, introduced a new category they think will revolutionize how we share objects in the future. Termed “physibles”,  it would be for the code you would download to print out actual physical objects in 3D printers.

Definitely fascinating and probably not that far off in the future. But the cynic in me feels like the description is wildly optimistic, that there will still be – all too sadly and tragically – child labor, hunger, etc. I hope I’m wrong, but you can read the full article on Mashable or the snippet below to decide for yourself:

You will download your sneakers within 20 years,” the blog post says.

At the time of this writing, the Physibles category contained just three files available for download. Included were apparent data files for a whistle, a model robot and a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle muscle car.

The Pirate Bay says that what it believes to be the imminent advent of 3D printing and file-sharing will be tremendously beneficial to society.

“No more shipping huge amount of products around the world,” according to the blog post. “No more shipping broken products back. No more child labor. We’ll be able to print food for hungry people. We’ll be able to share not only a recipe, but the full meal.”


Dec 312011
Winter Landscape -- December 31 2011

Winter Landscape -- December 31 2011

Up in the Rhodope Mountains on the final day of the year . . . endless snow drifting down in huge lazy clumps, sticking to buildings, rocks, trees, mountains . . . covering the landscape in a blanket of white and softening the edges of the world. Good food, wine and conversation indoors, but I keep excusing myself to go out for a walk just to be in the world. For a moment, just to be.

Wherever you are and whatever your circumstances, I have one wish.


Dec 312011


Nicholas Carr wraps up the year with a beautiful mediation on electronic books, exploring both the positive and the negative aspects. The benefits of course are obvious: eBooks can be updated at will, and the “endless malleability” of the text means that it is no long a prisoner of time, locked to its publication date. New research can be incorporated, guidebooks are never out of date, and in the end, the book will be more responsive to readers (as publishers can push out revisions based on the initial reaction).

From the digital perspective there would seem to be no downside to the eBook and electronic publishing in general, but Carr points out some of the challenges of no longer having a fixed text and the ways it might be abused politically and otherwise:

The ability to alter the contents of a book will be easy to abuse. School boards may come to exert even greater influence over what students read. They’ll be able to edit textbooks that don’t fit with local biases. Authoritarian governments will be able to tweak books to suit their political interests. 

Genius that Gutenberg was, it is – as it always has been with innovations – the unintended consequences that leave their real mark on society. He gave us fixity and the possibility of a “reliable record” in science and history (though the writing of the latter has always been more complex than its superficial stability would have us conclude). The man who helped bring about the end of the Middle Ages with movable type uncorked a genie in a bottle that did much more than grant the immediate wish at hand.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type a half-millennium ago, he also gave us immovable text. Before Gutenberg, books were handwritten by scribes, and no two copies were exactly the same. Scribes weren’t machines; they made mistakes. With the arrival of the letterpress, thousands of identical copies could enter the marketplace simultaneously. The publication of a book, once a nebulous process, became an event. . . .

Beyond giving writers a spur to eloquence, what the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls “typographical fixity” served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law. The preservative qualities of printed books, Ms. Eisenstein argues, may be the most important legacy of Gutenberg’s invention. 


And so now we enter a new world, a world perpetual editing, of texts that are endlessly fluid, never fixed in time. It’s a fascinating development, a bit retro in that we are returning to the problems faced by a pre-Gutenberg world, a world where individual scribes constituted the “publication” industry and no two works were identical:

 As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text. 

Much is gained just as something is lost. And if I may add to Carr’s own conclusions, we will learn to adjust, but doing so will require something not addressed in his essay – the skills of the reader. If the mode of delivery will affect the nature of text itself, so too will the skills of readers need to be different. We are still teaching in a way that is largely premised on the fixity of texts, using an educational system designed for an entirely different era. Entering a world of movable text, we will need, if you will, “movable readers”, nimble, flexible readers who understand text as a fluid process, and learn to interpret and draw conclusions through the fluidity itself and not through a deceptive fixity. It’s not the changing nature of the book that scares me; but the unchanging nature of the reader – or rather our unchanging ways of educating readers.

As slowly as they seem to evolve, eBooks and electronic publishing are moving much more rapidly than our own digital literacy skills are progressing.

Nov 032011

Things have been a little quiet over at Rockstar since Red Dead Redemption went on sale. But now they’ve released the trailer for the fifth generation of the highly popular Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, which has shipped more than 122 million units to date. This time it returns to a setting (Los Santos) which is based on Los Angeles, site of the best-selling game GTA: San Andreas.

Underpass, GTA -V

Underpass, GTA -V

Rockstar has been both damned and praised for the series: court suits have been filed and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have argued that it takes a lighthearted attitude toward crime, violence and drunk driving. And at least one London newspaper linked playing GTA to the riots this year. On the other hand, the series has been a seminal force in transforming video games into a mature entertainment medium. The visuals are stunning and the combination of plot line and free play are compellingly realistic. Like life, it pulls you into the drama and the strange assortment of characters; but like (much of) life, it’s also easy to turn your back and walk away. You can just roam the environment – but you do so knowing that the drama under the freeway, inside the liquor store, out on the street corner, keeps drawing you back in.

The release of the new version just happens to fall on the tenth anniversary of GTA-III, which was groundbreaking in its use of an open-world format. You can take a look here if you want to see what Wired considers as the 15 most influential games of the last decade (no surprise that GTA -III came in as Number 2, right behind The Sims). And here is the trailer for upcoming GTA -V; it’s only a minute in duration but as you watch think about how primitive this will seem in another decade (and perhaps much less) as processing power and game engines continue their rapid evolution. We’re only at the cusp of designing realistic virtual environments, taking astonishing yet rudimentary initial steps, on a trajectory that has profound and fascinating implications for entertainment, education, work and relationships – ie., for nearly every aspect of our experience.

Oct 112011

Sorry I don’t watch enough TV so I missed these ads against email. The Post Office is facing massive deficits and volume has fallen 22% in five years. Given that they’re at the mercy of Congress – in no rush to resolve the retiree payment issue or allow flexible delivery schedules – about all the service can do is try and convince people of the advantages of paper.

Say what? It’s a losing argument and the ads are both sad and comical in the way they hold up paper-based delivery as safe, secure and trouble-free. True, my cork board has never gone down due to an online virus, I did end up with a stray tack in my foot and a trip to the emergency room. And lost mail? Don’t even get me started, especially living in New York. For while in the 90′s I had a great post person who would leave packages with the right neighbors (important in Manhattan) if they didn’t fit in my mailbox but it didn’t last. He moved to Los Vegas and became a Blackjack dealer – he could see what the future held as a mail carrier.

Here’s the videos, but before that, a glimpse of technology past, when railway mail cars sped across the country at the front of passenger trains and postal clerks worked exhausting and dangerous jobs (sorting 600 pieces an hour, subject to robberies, always on the road) to do drop-offs and pickups on the fly. This was one of the communication innovations of the 19th century and a backbone of the Industrial Revolution. There’s a lesson here: we were on the road toward instantaneous delivery long before anyone started tinkering with silicon chips and Ethernet protocols.

Here’s the new Post Office ad campaign pushing the advantages of refrigerator doors, cork boards and having even more paper to file away in your desk. Let those warm fuzzy feelings of security soar.

Oct 052011

In 1990 the top ten banks owned 20% of our total financial assets. Today 54%. This chart from Mother Jones illustrates a small part of why the current financial crisis has to deal with the concept of “too big to fail.” If the current trend in acquisitions holds for another decade, we won’t be talking about the “top ten” banks and their precentage of total assests – essentially, there will only be ten banks:


Bank Acquisitions Over Past 20 Years

Bank Acquisitions Over Past 20 Years

Oct 042011

Here’s a survival skill. And a quick lesson in visual literacy. A civil engineer checking his FB posts noticed something odd about the Philippine government’s Dept. of Public Works and Highways page. Something just didn’t seem right with the three officials standing in the debris by Manila Bay after the recent typhoon. A quick analysis and it turns out that the image was Photoshopped. After a rash of excuses, the Dept. announced that it was done by an “overeager” employee who has now been suspended. Since then, other bloggers have mockingly placed the three public officials in a variety of contexts all over the world.

As blogger Pierre Albert San Diego makes clear in his take-down of the fabrication:

Now, if you didn’t have knowledge in Adobe photoshop, you would’ve just glanced at it and moved on with your life

Fine, perhaps, unless you are depending on that government agency. Everyone doesn’t need to know Photoshop, but some basic observational skills go a long way toward keeping us from being deceived.

So now the experiment:

Take a look at the original image (reproduced below). Try and determine the details that serve as evidence of image manipulation. Then click on the link after the image (at the bottom) to see if you caught all the clues (I definitely didn’t).

Wait a minute, no cheating now . . . c’mon, no one will know how good or bad you did except you – and if you’re lying to yourself, you got bigger problems than a government agency lying to you. Enjoy!


Done? Okay now click on this link to see the analyzed image.

Here’s a selection of what others have done with the three officials now that the image has gone viral.


Sep 292011
Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire

Fast Web-browsing on a relatively low-end device – you know there has to be a catch. There’s a roundup of the positive (and not-so-glowing) reviews about the Kindle Fire on The Atlantic Wire, but few note how it will give Amazon the ability to develop an astonishingly extensive record of everything users do online. At ZDNet, Steven Vaughan-Nichols quotes Amazons own description of the Silk browser:

Each time you load a web page, Silk makes a dynamic decision about which of these subsystems will run locally and which will execute remotely. In short, Amazon Silk extends the boundaries of the browser, coupling the capabilities and interactivity of your local device with the massive computing power, memory, and network connectivity of our cloud.

Using Amazon’s immense EC2 backbone to pre-fetch content has major implications for Web-browsing and privacy. Chris Spinoza nails it in terms of user data:

Every page they see, every link they follow, every click they make, every ad they see is going to be intermediated by one of the largest server farms on the planet. People who cringe at the data-mining implications of the Facebook Timeline ought to be just floored by the magnitude of Amazon’s opportunity here. Amazon now has what every storefront lusts for: the knowledge of what other stores your customers are shopping in and what prices they’re being offered there.

And as he points out, this is all done on a version of Android, in effect using Google’s platform to undermine the latter’s own data gathering efforts. Spinoza offers an unsettling vision of the future:

This is the first shot in the new war for replacing the Internet with a privatized merchant data-aggregation network.


Sep 172011
Adrian Fisk Photograph

“Do not judge China from the media, because the real China is not on the papers.” Beijing, Lim, 22 years old, political science student. Photo by Adrian Fisk

A wonderful series of photos by Adrian Fisk who traveled over 12,000 kilometers to interact with a few of the 322 million Chinese aged 16 – 30. Each image in the “iSpeak China” series is a single individual holding a sheet of paper with text that captures an idea, thought or observation important to them. The messages range from the sublime to the personal, from life-spanning ideals to immediate needs. Highly recommended.

You’ll find more at Adrian Fisk’s own site, including a parallel series, “iSpeak India.” However, the China series seems more compelling, if only for the underlying context of an authoritarian political system and the defiance implicit in the very act of holding a sign.

Sep 062011

I’m almost surprised it took this long, but Obama and Bush speech Apps have been developed by for your iPhone, Blackberry or Android device. Posted in Politicalwire the other week, yes you can make either one say anything you want by typing the text you want to hear them say (or purchasing the premium version to avoid). The results are fairly good given the current state of digital speech. iSpeech is the company behind the popular app that let’s you send and receive SMS messages through voice commands. Bush App Bush App Digital Obama Digital Obama









No need to download the Apps as you can test them on the site at See What Obama has to Say and for the former President at See What Bush has to Say. Definitely a few minutes of fun as you put the improbable or utterly ridiculous into their mouths.

Of course, there’s a more serious aspect here as the technology moves toward greater realism. We’re already on tenuous ground with visual images (the fake bin Laden death photos, the Iranian photoshopped missile launch, etc.), but with speech it’s usually more quoting someone out of context – not making it up from scratch. The recent experience of NY Times columnist, Paul Krugman, and the fake sites under his name that had some prominent right-wing publications attributing false statements to him is another step on this path. But the Obama and Bush Apps open a door (only the thinnest crack, but open it will be) on a whole other environment of entirely faked audible speech. We’ll get there soon enough; the question will be how do we handle it?

Perhaps someone on the political fringe will even make use of material from one of these Apps (yes, you can share what you have them say with others). All I know is that iSpeech needs to do Sarah Palin. Even if she’s already uttered every bizarre statement imaginable, I know I could come up with something stranger still.

Aug 152011
Old Blackberry-messenger-contest

Indeed, do tell: old Blackberry-messenger-contest ad (2010)

Psychology Today has a short article on social networks and their role in the London riots. If you’re following this issue, you know that critics are saying social networks are partly responsible for the unrest (and calling for regulations on their use) while others argue that they did not fuel the riots. Rutledge casts the debate in a way that perhaps it should be framed, the dynamics of crowd psychology:

Crowd psychology or group mentality doesn’t mean that we should overlook culpability for either the destructive behavior of the individuals or the inherent issues and systems in society that underlie social unrest – both in the ability to provide opportunities and deliver structure.  Social media may have accelerated the pace of information travel, bringing groups together faster, but it did not put bricks and fire bombs into the hands of the looters.  Social media did not create the anger or sense of powerlessness against authorities.  It did not create the heightened emotions of the group, crowd leaders, the adrenalin that comes from a sense of danger and risk, the lack of empathy for others, or the sense of no consequences.  Emotion may be contagious, but social media is not.

She argues that social networks change our sense of agency, our view of our actions in the world, and broadens our view of what others are doing (or might do). But if words on a mobile screen can bring people into the streets, it is the dynamics of crowd psychology (contagious, converging, no empathy for others) that emboldens people to act. You’re not going to vandalize a store because you read a tweet; you’re much more likely to if the crowd immediately around you is doing it.

What is scary here is the number of people (though not a majority in the polls I’ve read) in favor of letting authorities control our social media platforms. If Rutledge argues that this is due in large part to a reaction of fear (so that we willingly surrender our rights), it’s equally due to our collective discomfort over the unknown. Allow me a quick illustration.

No doubt some of the riot participants made phone calls (even using land-lines) about what was going on in the streets, but no one has proposed temporarily shutting down the phone system when an outbreak of civil unrest takes place. I suspect such a proposal would bring strong opposition – and that’s simply because we are comfortable with a phone-based network, thinking that we understand its power and limitations (even if, truthfully, we don’t). But digital networks are different, throwing us onto shifting ground where new technologies mediate our relationships. None of us know where all this leads to, and for some, that’s reason enough to close the door on the future.

Aug 132011

BART Station

Just off of NPR News (and elsewhere, the Christian Science Monitor account is good), San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officials turned off the power to cellular towers in four stations to hinder a planned protest on late Thursday afternoon over a shooting. As the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) put it:

BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.

Since the cellular providers have not commented on the action, it’s unclear if they did so at the request of BART or if the transit agency simply cut the power to the transmitters (sounds as if it may be the latter according to EFF).

So one has to wonder where does this lead to? A few weeks back, we were talking about China attempting to limit the flow of information on social networking platforms such as Sina Weibo, and this past week the issue came up theoretically in the UK (though Blackberry maker RIM has said they will help the police after the fact). Now the issue has come much, much closer to home with the first ever action by a local government agency (you can read BART’s official statement here). I promise you, this will not be the last.

To quote Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University

Government can legitimately stop speech for public safety purposes, but it has to be the narrowest possible response, it has to be reasonable, and there has to be an imminent threat . . . . It can’t be done on mere speculation.

Clearly, that is how the courts have handled other forms of expression in balancing free speech and public safety issues – and granted the balance has been incredibly contentious (making its way to the Supreme Court on a number of occasions). But if social networking goes a different route, then what was once seen as innovative technologies empowering communication and people may become speech at the convenience of the authorities.

Two points this episode most definitely makes clear: the incredible power of social networks and how fragile they ultimately are. Curtailing freedom of speech may be as simple as flipping a switch to a transmitter.