Jan 162013
Technology: Rusted Plow as Yard Art

Technology: Rusted Plow as Yard Art


On the pace of Technology change, by Kevin Kelley, posted over at PopTECH:

Five hundred years ago, technologies were not doubling in power and halving in price every eighteen months. Waterwheels were not becoming cheaper every year. A hammer was not easier to use from one decade to the next. Iron was not increasing in strength. The yield of corn seed varied by the season’s climate, instead of improving each year. Every 12 months, you could not upgrade your oxen’s yoke to anything much better than what you already had. 

Whatever you learn today, you will need to relearn tomorrow.

Aug 132012
Self portrait of NASA's Curiosity rover, released by NASA

Self portrait of NASA’s Curiosity rover, released by NASA. REUTERS/NASA/JPL/Handout

The landing of Curiosity on Mars is a stunning achievement, but here’s an interesting side note about the technology aspect and what it says about the speed of innovation – it’s incredibly out of date. It was built years ago and the pace of innovation has continued unabated and perhaps accelerated, resulting in a processor that is less powerful than what you have in an iPhone.  The processor in the iPhone? Ten times faster than what is powering Curiosity. According to the LA Times:

NASA said the rover is going through a four-day “brain transplant.” During this time, engineers are  updating Curiosity’s software, currently primed for its flight stage, to prepare it for its operations on the surface of Mars. The update will add two crucial functions — the ability to use the geochemistry lab’s sampling system, and to drive.

The update had to wait until after the rover landed because its processor, built years ago to withstand the harsh environment of interplanetary space, is limited compared with today’s consumer technology, said senior software engineer Ben Cichy. 

My phone has a processor that is 10 times as fast as the processor that’s on Curiosity and has 16 times as much storage as Curiosity has,” Cichy said. “And my phone doesn’t have to land anything on Mars. 

So now it’s in the midst of a digital transplant, dumping the landing software and replacing it with control software for driving around on Mars. Perhaps someday processors will rebuild themselves, but for now, a project like this ends up vastly out of date with what we carry around in our pockets.

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.

Feb 272012
First Oscar Ceremony, 1929

First Oscar Ceremony, 1929

Maybe this is just my initial reaction, but watching the Oscars last night, I felt like Hollywood had Captain Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia at the helm as it sailed a little too close to Isola del Giglio. Feel a shudder and hear the crunching of steel as the lights flicker off. Your response? Have another glass of wine, go into denial, and don’t worry about the gaping hole in the bottom of the hull.

How many times did we have to hear how fun it is the watch movies on the big screen, in a theater with others? The unspoken alternative – watching at home or through digital downloads on portable devices – was practically seeping through the walls like the Tyrrhenian Sea pouring in that ill-fated ship off the coast of Tuscany.

The pull of nostalgia. This was a celebration of the old, of movie-going in the classic sense. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with this and it remains fun to go out for the night (especially in a city like New York) and see a film with a large audience. And the Oscars have always been a celebration of movie-making, even more fitting in a year that saw the production of a near silent film and another that honored creativity at the birth of the art form. But there was a remarkable undercurrent here – the scenes all taken from classic films, and there were “extras” walking down the aisles in classic garb and handing out popcorn. You almost expected the men to light up cigars and put on top hats.

But change was in the air, even on the facade of the building itself. Even the theater’s name has changed: no longer the Kodak Theater in light of the photography company’s financial troubles, it’s now called the Hollywood and highland Center (Kodak was paying 4 million a year for naming rights). Billy Crystal got some of his biggest laughs of the evening when he said, “We’re here at the beautiful Chapter 11 Theater,” and later referred to it as the “Your Name Here Theater.” And since the Academy did not renew its agreement for next year, it’s unclear where the Oscars will be held. Somewhere, no doubt, but it won’t be associated with the film-maker.

As Variety noted, Kodak’s press release noting that 7 of the 9 nominated films were shot on Kodak film almost sounded “a little wistful and sad, particularly when it’s titled “‘Kodak Media Notes — 84th Annual Academy Awards.’” Yes, Kodak’ connection has been reduced to nothing more than a “media note” and one that may soon be only a historical note as movie-making shifts to digital format. As David Hancock noted:

At their peak, motion pictures accounted for more than 12 billion feet of film processing each year, enough to reach the moon and back five times, according to IHS. This year, IHS predicts film processing will shrink to about 4 billion feet as an increasing number of theaters receive their “films” by satellite or via hard drives delivered by courier.

But more serious problems loom outside the projection booth: movie attendance in 2011 was the lowest it’s been in 16 years and the decline shows no sign of abating. Indeed, “Hugo”, “The Artist”, “The Help”, are all good films; it’s not the quality so much as a shift in our culture. At one time, the film industry had a near monopoly on the moving image. We went to see movies and even the news (visually), as the only other sources were the printed (newspapers) and spoken (radio) word.  Now, visual media is everywhere and if a film is not entirely compelling, it’s easy for an audience to wait for a version in another format a few months down the road. I hear the water rushing in.

None of this means Hollywood is dead any more than the music industry died from the rise of the digital revolution. But it does mean that the ground is shifting and another industry – this one deeply tied to our culture – is undergoing disruptive change. They’ll still make their money, but it’s not going to come from railroading anti-piracy legislation (SOPA) through Congress and getting people to buy tickets and popcorn. No the forces are more fundamental than digital downloads legal or otherwise.

But at the moment, all seems well on the bridge of the S.S. Hollywood despite the gaping hole in the bottom. Party on while you can, but you sailed a little too close to the Isola del Change (isolo di cambiamento, if you like) and if you continue with business as usual, soon the ship will be listing on its side.

A small historical note: Did you know where the practice of the sealed envelopes for the awards comes from? During the first awards ceremony in 1929, the winners had been announced three months in advance. For the next ten years, winners names were kept secret but released to newspapers in advance:

Oscar Envelope

Oscar Envelope

This policy continued until 1940 when, much to the Academy’s consternation, the Los Angeles Times broke the embargo and published the names of the winners in its evening edition – which was readily available to guests arriving for the ceremony. That prompted the Academy in 1941 to adopt the sealed-envelope system still in use today. (The Academy website)

Even traditional media could be disruptive in its day. Such a hacker mentality, that LA Times.

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 202012
Woman with Kodak Brownie, 1900

Woman with Kodak Brownie, 1900

A nice write-up in the Independent about Kodak’s long slide into yesterday’s announcement of bankruptcy. Innovative for so many decades, Kodak started it all with the Brownie camera, a boxy contraption that had the eye-opening convenience of roll film and a simple push-button interface. It cost a dollar.

That continued in the 1920′s and 30′s as they shrunk the size and brought in designers to give the devices an art-deco look and faux-leather feel. My grandfather bought a number of these and I still have them stashed away in a closet – along with endless boxes of slides and pictures that I’ll probably never get through.

But perhaps more important, Kodak was a corporation that captured the intangible, becoming a household name and an emotion connection for people in the United States (and elsewhere). In the past five years, the final thread of that emotional bond has been cut – and no matter what the outcome of the reorganization or sale, it will never be restored.

Kodak Beau Brownie Camera: State of the Art, 1930

Kodak Beau Brownie Camera: State of the Art, 1930

One of the interesting parts of this bankruptcy story is everyone’s saddened by it,” notes Robert Burley, professor of photography at Ryerson University in Toronto. “There’s a kind of emotional connection to Kodak for many people. You could find that name inside every American household and, in the last five years, it’s disappeared.”

First Digital Camera, 1975

First Digital Camera, 1975

The irony of course, is that they invented the digital camera but feared that it would cannibalize their own film sales. That invention was in 1975, light-years ahead of its time, but with 23 seconds to take an image, they failed to see the possibilities. In one sense you can’t fault them – in 1976 they manufactured over 90% of the film and 85% of the cameras bought in the U.S. The market seemed well-ordered, dominated by their own inventions and products, and simply boundless.

And so it was . . . until it wasn’t.

Only a few years later the first serious competition (Fuji) started to eat into sales and then digital photography took hold. Kodak the corporation shrunk just like its cameras, smaller, and smaller and smaller until it was no longer relevant. This is most evident in the past decade as Bloomberg notes:

As digital dissolved its film business, Kodak shed 47,000 employees since 2003 and closed 13 factories that produced film, paper and chemicals, along with 130 photo laboratories.

The future? If there is any, Kodak is betting on digital printers (sell at a loss, make money on the supplies) packaging, advertising, along with patent suits and asset sales. Given the current state of the printing business, it’s not all that promising despite their superior quality inks. And rushing headlong into Kodak’s path is the Apple iPad, which may just make printing seem as antiquated as a Brownie over the course of this decade.

Moral of this tale: never rest on your laurels. For as safe as the environment appears to be, you may just be standing on quicksand.

Dec 142011
John Knefel being dragged off by NYC Police

John Knefel being dragged off by NYC Police

Boingboing has an insightful piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker on the journalism issues brought up by the OWS protests. Who is a journalist today? How do you issue credentials? We have policies and practices created in another era that no longer make sense given the digital tools available.

She takes the example of John Knefel, a writer and comedian arrested yesterday while documenting an OSW action in New York:

Knefel doesn’t work for a major media outlet. But he’s also not just some random bystander. He’s got a political podcast with new episodes three times a week. Do we only call someone a journalist if they have enough page views? Do they have to have a journalism degree? What’s the line?

Knefel is a biased source of information. But so are a lot of mainstream commentators. We’d call someone from Fox News a journalist. We’d call someone from Reason magazine a journalist. We’d call somebody from Mother Jones a journalist. Having a clear political angle to your coverage doesn’t make you not a journalist. Except when it does. So what are the actual criteria?

Knefel didn’t have a press pass. But, as Xeni has pointed out, the press pass system in New York is incredibly convoluted and contradictory. So what if you can’t get one? Does that mean you aren’t a journalist? This is particularly problematic given the fact that the rules seem to be set up to favor long-standing publications with lots of resources that mostly just cover New York City. How does that fit into a globalized world? Why punish media entrepreneurship?

We live in an age where publishing is easy and the tools to do it are available to a much wider swatch of people. But our standards and rules for who gets protection as a member of the press are based on a paradigm where publishing wasn’t easy and only a limited number of people could do it.

What is even more bizarre here is that the rules for obtaining a press pass in New York essentially require you to break the rules – repeatedly – as pointed out in an article last month by Elizabeth Spiers, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Observer, who ironically cannot get a press pass for herself. Simply put, it’s a form of control by the NYPD and stifling of the First Amendment.

And it gets even more twisted: the current rules are in response to a court settlement with bloggers who had argued that the prior even more arcane rules gave them no opportunity to be seen as legitimate news gathers by the NYPD.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter after all since credentialed reporters have been arrested at OWS gatherings. But it’s time for someone to breech the castle moat and let them know the world has changed.

Dec 132011

The article at Poynter.org sums up Russ Stanton’s departure from the LA Times after four years of grappling with the radical changes in the news industry in the digital era. Most interesting: the Times went to a 24 hour newsroom format since there is simply little alternative if one wants to remain viable in a highly competitive market where you are up against 24 hour online news sources.

LA Times, First Edition, December 4, 1881

A Text-based World: LA Times, First Edition, December 4, 1881

But the first paragraph of the article reads like a postmortem for the industry – cutbacks, cutback, and more cutbacks:

After nearly four years as editor of the Los Angeles Times, Russ Stanton will step down Dec. 23. Stanton became editor in 2008, replacing James O’Shea,who was forced out over disagreements with the Tribune Company about newsroom cuts. O’Shea moved to the Times from the Chicago Tribune afterDean Baquet left his post as editor, over disagreements with Tribune about newsroom cuts. Baquet was promoted to LA Times editor after John Carroll resigned over disagreements with the Tribune Company about, you guessed it, newsroom cuts. Stanton has worked at the Times for 14 years. “During his tenure, The Times’ newsroom staff shrank from more than 900 people to about 550,” the paper reports. Managing Editor Davan Maharaj will take over the top post. 

There’s a lot of out-of-work reporters these days and a lot of people who are essentially doing reporting for free. Not sure how viable this environment is for future; not sure if anyone can grasp what will replace it.

Sep 242011

FacebookZuckerberg announced major changes to the ubiquitous social networking platform at the f8 Conference in San Francisco, and news that there are now 800 million users (Mashable has a good summary and the f8 Keynote is here). And the first billion comes when? And then what follows?

You’ve probably already heard about the changes, including:

  • Timeline – a virtual scrapbook that as Zuckerberg says, will have “all your stories, all your apps, and a new way to express who you are”
  • You’re no longer limited to “Liking” something – any verb can go with any noun, opening up all sorts of possibilities in terms of user interaction
  • Embedded media, including movies, TV, music – Hulu, Spotify and other sites will be available from within Facebook
  • “Lightweight” information is going into a streaming ticker on the side of your screen
  • Apps will only need to be authorized once in order to have access to your information

Hard to say what the ultimate social impact will be, but there’s is the possibility of an exponential increase in what is shared, with user desires dynamically moving across virtual spaces as people link up to listen to music together or interact with media. There will be a lot more frictionless experiences – you will only authorize an app once instead of each time it needs to access your account. And Zuckerberg says that developers will be able to create social apps based on what people do, leveraging the highly social nature of the platform.

The new features will be enticing for advertisers and Facebook will no doubt gain from the ability of marketeers to be more embedded in the social mix. The Company is already looking at 3.8 billion in revenue this year with the 2012 projections at a hefty $5.8 billion. The only thing advertisers want is for users to spend more time on Facebook and share more of themselves. In that respect, the changes represent a commercial gold mine.

But it also means the business world will have to devote more resources to social networking. No longer will you only be worried about the “Like” to “Dislike” ratio, there will be myriad other possibilities that could impact on product/brand reputation.

Is there a saturation point? Perhaps, but it seems from the current levels of growth that we’re no where near hitting a ceiling. Instead, it moves ever more closely to being the lens through which we experience everything on the Web. How does Google respond? How will users respond? This will be interesting, indeed.

Here’s Zuckerberg introducing the Timeline feature or, as he put, “how you will tell the story of your life on a single page”:

Jun 162011

A fascinating visual from Very Small Array on the death of drama as a movie genre. Some interesting commentary by readers there but let’s note that it’s not just that drama is disappearing (though it still plays a major role in awards). So does crime, romance, horror and westerns. The major new genres that have taken over the market are action, childrens and fantasy films.

Two quick comments: first note the growth of the fantasy genre and the parallel rise of the digital revolution. It first appears in the 1970′s, expands moderately in the following decade, and then explodes around 1996.  ARPANET begins in 1969, the Internet undergoes moderate growth in following two decades and the Web takes off in the early to mid-90′s. And second,  it’s too bad the data here only refers to the highest grossing films in the U.S. The global perspective would be very different.

Jun 012011

Now that Book Expo America has wrapped up its 2011 convention at the Javits Center in New York one thing is clear, nearly everything will not be as predicted. The rapidly changing book publishing environment can be highlighted through some of the following points:

  • Apple’s iBookstore was predicted to do much better than it has. And while everyone loves the iPad, the reality is that Apple has only 10% of the eBook market while Amazon has over 60%, or put another way, a 150,000 titles compared to 950,000 for the Kindle Store. What makes this remarkable is that while the iPad has “only” sold around 20 million units, iBookstore is available on over a 160 million devices when you include iPhones and iPods.
  • Amazon is moving into publishing (both paperback and digital) with the recent hiring of the former head of Time Warner Books, Larry Kirshbaum, a veteran of the publishing world. The announcement that they are looking for office space and hiring an editorial team suggests that other publishers may be faced with the paradoxical position of competing with one of their major retailers for author contracts. A piece in the New York Observer nicely sums up the general feeling:

Amazon managed to do what it had done so many times before: give traditional publishing houses an anxiety attack.

  • Others in the publishing world are more worried about Liberty Media’s bid for Barnes and Noble, especially since Liberty’s John Malone seems only interested in the Nook and not the retail stores. Barnes and Noble has been seen as the only player in the industry that has perfected a balance between digital books and physical bookstores (though people forget that the fact that they are on the selling block suggests that the solution is tentative at best).
  • eBooks are now running 15-20% of total book sales, having doubled in the past year. And yet, while there is concern about the Barnes and Noble stores, and everyone knows what has become of Borders, many at the Expo seemed upbeat about the survival of independent bookstores – or perhaps we should say, what is left of them.
  • Finally, the textbook publishers seem to be bringing up the rear of the wagon train, if they are even on the same path. Initiatives are underway at some colleges and universities but what remains a lucrative market with a captive audience (yes, the ideal marketplace from a publisher’s standpoint as buyers are forced to make purchases) brings little incentive for innovation. One small bit of news: the digital publishing company Aptara has signed an agreement with Inkling to create rich media textbooks that include interactive diagrams and runs in multiple formats (iPad, Kindle, ePub, etc.). About time.
May 012011

Facebook Statistics

There is enough talk about viral marketing these days but this is more about the viral growth of one aspect of the Web itself.

From a recent article in Online Marketing Trends, Facebook continue to expand at an astonishing pace. It now accounts for over 25% of pageviews from the United States, and has surpassed Google in terms of unique visitors. It added 200 million users in 2009 and 275 million in 2010, with a user based now over 650 million as of February of this year.

But simple numbers aside, its broader integration with the Internet is equally significant. It is positioning itself as a central platform for accessing the Web and claims that it is “. . . getting 10,000 more web sites integrating with it per day.” In other words, it is self-replicating in the sense that you will find yourself using it even to do something else (log into another website, play a game, etc.).

While it may be reaching a saturation point in the United States (already hitting 73% of U.S. users), the potential for growth in the global community remains high. Even in Africa (which, sadly, remains one of the lightest areas of use in the above map) there is slow but steady growth in Nigeria and other countries.

More posts to follow on this later, particularly in terms of its cultural impact on education and politics. But for now, you may want to take a look at the very helpful chart that Ben Foster has put together demonstrating the overall growth in users:

Facebook Growth Chart by Ben Foster