Category Archives: Zeitgeist

definitely October

Recovering from a solid month of travels (Turkey, Nova Scotia, California) and visitors, all of it glorious. Fall is definitely upon us, leaves falling and climatic realities setting in (winter wood mostly stacked; we’ve already had a couple of fires in the stoves, mostly to warm visitors from less intemperate climates). Being past the 70 milestone gives pause for reflection on this and that, and opportunity for Resolutions for the onward path: more reading, more music, more photography, more [mindful] eating, more exercise. Not much less of anything, though, unless it be investment in political hoohah and righteous indignation.


Mien and moue

I’m always on the lookout for passages that articulate things I’ve observed more clearly than I’ve ever managed to express them. Here’s one from Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century that applies equally well to milieux I have experienced:

…to become an insider at Cambridge or Oxford does not in itself require conformity, except perhaps to intellectual fashion; it was and is a function of a certain capacity for intellectual assimilation. It entails knowing how to “be” an Oxbridge don; understanding intuitively how to conduct an English conversation that is never too aggressively political; knowing how to modulate moral seriousness, political engagement and ethical rigidity through application of irony and wit, and a precisely calculated appearance of insouciance. It would be difficult to imagine the application of such talents in, say, postwar Paris. (pg 56)

The details of mien and moue vary from place to place, and time to time (early-1960s Harvard not the same as late-1960s Stanford, in my own case, and present-day fashions are different again), but Judt really nails it with ethnographic precision and verbal elegance. I have the sense that Tony Judt spoke with semicolons…

This week’s New Yorker

Two fine not-behind-paywall items from this week’s New Yorker:

Adam Gopnik on Elaine Pagels’ new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

As Stephen Batchelor has recently shown, the open-minded, non-authoritarian side of Buddhism, too, quickly succumbed to its theocratic side, gasping under the weight of those heavy statues. The histories of faiths are all essentially the same: a vague and ambiguous millennial doctrine preached by a charismatic founder, Marx or Jesus; mystical variants held by the first generations of followers; and a militant consensus put firmly in place by the power-achieving generation. Bakunin, like the Essenes, never really had a chance. The truth is that punitive, hysterical religions thrive, while soft, mystical ones must hide their scriptures somewhere in the hot sand.

Hendrik Hertzberg on the Satanic Reverses of the GOP:

…the Republican “base”—an excitable, overlapping assortment of Fox News friends, Limbaugh dittoheads, Tea Party animals, war whoopers, nativists, Christianist fundamentalists, à la carte Catholics (anti-abortion, yes; anti-torture, no), anti-Rooseveltians (Franklin and Theodore), global-warming denialists, post-Confederate white Southrons, creationists, birthers, market idolaters, Europe demonizers, and gun fetishists…

…Romney has had remarkable good fortune in those he has shared the stage with. His rivals in reputed reasonableness obliged him by dropping out sooner (Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty) or later (Jon Huntsman). What remained was a kick line of clowns, knaves, and zealots for the fabled base to examine, exalt, and, as soon as each surged past Romney to the top of the polls, expunge. The Donald flashed first, but Trump the Candidate smelled less sweet than Trump the Fragrance. Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin’s understudy, muffed her lines. Herman Cain fell fast when the grievances of a disgruntled ex-mistress packed him off to political Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan. Rick Perry slunk out with an “oops,” but his most damaging lapse was to blurt that only people without “a heart” would treat as criminals the blameless children of immigrants without papers.

Not exactly moderate sentiments

Jason Scott on the Facebook:

Facebook is a living computer nightmare. Just as viruses took the advantages of sharing information on floppies and modems and revealed a devastating undercarriage to the whole process, making every computer transaction suspect… and just as spyware/malware took advantage of beautiful advances in computer strength and horsepower to turn your beloved machine of expression into a gatling gun of misery and assholery… Facebook now stands as taking over a decade and a half of the dream of the World Wide Web and turning it into a miserable IT cube farm of pseudo human interaction, a bastardized form of e-mail, of mailing lists, of photo albums, of friendship. While I can’t really imply that it was going to be any other way, I can not sit by and act like this whole turn of events hasn’t resulted in an epidemic of ruin that will have consequences far-reaching from anything related to archiving…

Now me, I don’t have any truck with the Facebook, but I haven’t tried to articulate why it squinks me out. Perhaps I no longer need to try?

Bruce Sterling’s Keynote at Augmented Reality Event 2010 (Santa Clara, June 2-3)

The Keynote is a risky gig. The audience thinks it knows all there is to know (after all, it’s a gathering of the ubergeeks of whatever the conference is about), and each individual in the audience is prepared to judge the speaker as not getting it if that individual’s own understanding isn’t foregrounded by the speaker’s remarks. But the speaker is an outsider to the specific geekdom, invited to offer a perspective that (ideally) will make the audience question and rethink something pretty basic about its individual and collective understanding. A tall order, and requiring of the Keynote Speaker a superhuman clarity of perspective and articulation. I’d argue that Bruce Sterling succeeds in this instance, and how he works the magic is worth study.
He’s introduced as “the Prophet of Augmented Reality” and begins with 10 minutes or so of pretty general observations on the AR scene, replete with in-jokes and throwaway lines that establish his cred as an observer of the current state of AR as an industry, and he notes that part of the significant context includes the fact that the Titans of 20th century media are fading fast:

…Newsweek can’t be sold, it’s worth basically nothing, newspapers drying up all over the landscape, TV doesn’t look like TV used to look, movies don’t look like movies used to look…

but around 12:00 his remarks take an analytical turn that suggests that he’s really got something to say:

What is it that you are really doing? You could argue that what you’re really doing is coding apps for early adopters of smartphones, and it’s true that’s where most of your money is, and where the press attention is, and it’s kind of a good way to make your numbers this quarter, but that’s not a very good mission statement for your very young industry.
I think it might be a good idea if you want to think of yourselves as the world’s first pure-play experience designers …and experience design as it currently stands is mostly futuristic hot air…

And then at 13:00 he kicks it into overdrive with an Aux Armes!, and THIS part is really worth your attention:

WHOSE reality really needs to be augmented? Is it really cutting-edge geeks who are eager to have the most advanced hand-held gadgets? You are those people, so of course you think of those people, but are they really the people who need you the most? Whose realtime sensory experience of the world really NEEDS to be redesigned?
I would suggest blind people, people who already have sensory problems. I would suggest foreigners, people who are bewildered in a reality they don’t understand, confused people, people who are mentally ill, handicapped in some way, people who can’t read, people who can’t speak, people who can’t hear…
…think of yourselves not as coders, not as a service business to add a little bit of sparkle to companies that are bigger than you. I think you need to cut yourself your own space, I think you need to consider yourself the torch that lights our steps…
without vision, the people perish, and we really need vision now. We could really seriously do with a good old-fashioned revolutionary Internet boom…
This meeting of yours is a precious opportunity to shape the language of your young industry… It’s your chance to bake a big pie before you start slicing it up and fighting over the crumbs.

You might want to watch the whole thing:

The Augmented Reality Event: Bruce Sterling’s keynote from Ori Inbar on Vimeo.

“Accessory to your own intentions”

I’ve had 3 days with the iPad now, and it’s been as exhilarating as other brushes with new technologies. I think of the first few days with the TI-Pro in 1984, HyperCard on the Mac in 1990, my first work with Web browsers and HTML in 1993, and the beginnings of podcasting in 2004: in each case, pennies dropped one after the other as I tried this and tried that and articulated and then found the answer to the next question… Doc Searls really nailed it with his summary of the iPad (for which read ANY new technology) as “an accessory to your own intentions”. It’s not the DEVICE we should be judging, but rather our engagement with it, and its effects upon our imagination. Often enough, what you EXPECTED as the outcome pales next to what actually happens, and it’s the unanticipated that’s the important consequence. Case in point: for several years Kate has been working on a map summarizing the Appalachian Trail adventure that occupied Betsy and me between 1992 and 2003. Here’s the topmost bit:

Kate's Appalachian Trail map

The whole map is more than 15 feet long when it’s printed out, and we’ve been wrestling with how to display it. It’s too big to hang on the wall, and clumsy to roll out onto the floor and crawl around on to read the details summarizing each segment hiked, but as a pdf on the iPad it’s absolutely perfect: you can pan and zoom and really explore, just by waving your fingers over the screen. And that experience leads one to thinking about map displays of many kinds, and other features that might go into map apps for iPad and successor devices. Not something we imagined when the iPad first arrived, and it was realized only after I’d figured out a clear path to move pdfs (via Google Documents) from computer to iPad.

A bit from Suarez at Long Now

I really recommend a listen to Daniel Suarez’ talk at the Long Now Foundation, which I missed when it was first posted. Here’s an eye-opening bit from the transcript:

Many of you have Bluetooth devices in your car but you may not know about the TPMS system; this is the tire pressure monitoring system. It was federally mandated by the 2001 TREAD Act. That’s right. You all remember voting for this, right? It says that any car manufactured up to 2007 has to have wireless nozzle pressure measurement devices that communicate with the computer onboard the car to see that your tires are safely inflated. Now, they have to have a unique I.D. so that the computer knows your tires from the car next to you and of course, it is an open standard and makes it very simple to track the unique identity of an automobile; but of course, to do that you would have to have devices scanning. Fortunately, such scanners have started to spring up at choke points throughout modern cities. These are privately owned scanners with the data being gathered and stored again because it’s cheap to store data, vast amounts of data. This data can be piled up along with your financial transactions and anything else and bots can go through it to find persons of interest or they just find patterns or even just to sell you stuff. I’ll give you an example of just a few such devices as a BlueSweep scanner and a BlueSweep scanner is a device that able to identify all bluetooth devices within its radius, identify what their capabilities are, and what exploits they might be vulnerable to. A BlueSniper can do this up to a kilometer away. Let’s go a little further down the wall. There’s the Bluesnarfer you were all expecting. Now Bluesnarfer can use an exploit and given to it by a Bluesweeper to steal your address book, your text messages, your calendar, your pictures of your kitties, and bluetooth car whisperer can push advertising into your car speakers through your car’s bluetooth system. Now more worrisome, it could also be used to hook into your car bluetooth phone system to eavesdrop on conversations in the car. Now, if you combine that with something like the TPMS system or any future open standard device, you could pretty much track a car and listen to its occupants as they move throughout the city at any point in the future or at the moment it’s happening. Now, so you’re walking through this gauntlet of scanning activity with all the wireless devices and again, I’m sure we were all aware of this, and then there’s of course financial transactions every time we buy stuff with a debit card or a credit card. Who, what, where, and when? Combine that with visual data and all of the other points that tell us who was there with you, where you were going can be used to tell some very interesting stories. So it’s a great constellation of information being gathered on us at all times and then of course privately owned devices Hoovering up all these information. So this is the world you live in right now. Who knows what it will be like 10 years from now?

Cory on Paige M. Gutenborg

Cory Doctorow’s half-formed thoughts on one future for bookselling in this morning’s BoingBoing are worth a closer look if you’ve just clicked past the posting without reading it. He mentions the Harvard Bookstore’s Espresso book printer, which I visited and patronized myself a few weeks ago:
Paige M. Gutenborg
…but it’s what he says about its implementation that caught my eye:

At the Harvard Bookstore, they have someone who spends the day mousing around on Google Book Search, looking for weird and cool titles in the public domain to print and shelve around the store, as suggestions for the sort of thing you might have printed for yourself. This is a purely curatorial role, the classic thing that a great retailer does, and it’s one of the most exciting bookstore sections I’ve browsed in years. And even so, there’s lots of room for improvement: Google Books produces the blandest, most boring covers for its PD books, and there’s plenty of room for stores to add value with their own covers, with customer-supplied covers (the gift possibilities are bottomless), and so on. I can even imagine the profs across the street producing annotated versions — say, a treatise on Alice in Wonderland with reproductions of ten different editions’ illustrations and selling them through the store’s printer and shelf-space, restoring the ancient bookseller/book-publisher role.