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Archive for the month “September, 2012”

If you think Presidential campaigns are tough today…

In the United States, we are in the final stages of a Presidential election campaign. The two major candidates have spent substantial portions of the last two years flying around the country in planes, and in these final days the flying will accelerate until everything becomes a blur, and neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney will know whether they are in Charlotte, North Carolina or Cleveland, Ohio. They, as their predecessors before them, will be very tired and will probably make some verbal gaffes along the way. President Gerald Ford, when he ran in 1976, was spared that agony at the end of the campaign because he lost his voice.

But candidates today have it easy.

Yes, I know that they’re blanketing the entire country and have been doing so for years. But at least they get to ride on planes when they do it.

Consider Stephen Douglas. Douglas was the 1860 Democratic candidate for President, except for the teeny tiny little fact that the Democratic Party split into two that particular year, so Douglas only really represented the Northern Democrats. Despite this, Douglas spent nine days campaigning in the South in late October 1860. And he didn’t use a private plane on his trip to St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Mobile. The result? Not a single electoral vote in any of those states.

But Douglas wasn’t done. After the attack on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln asked Douglas to return to their home state of Illinois to aid the Civil War cause. Lincoln made the request of Douglas on April 14, and by April 25 he was speaking before the Illinois Legislature.

That final trip killed him. He never left Illinois, and died of typhoid fever in June.

Look at all of the Presidential candidates of the past few years, including those who sought but did not receive their party’s nomination. Obama, Romney, Mrs. Clinton, Kerry, Bush, Gore, Dole, Mr. Clinton. Did any of them die from the effects of travel?

The only two recent Presidents that have come close to death in the last few decades were Reagan, who was shot, and Nixon, who was under extraordinary stress by the time he left office. Imagine if Nixon wasn’t able to take a plane from Washington to San Clemente – he might not have survived the trip West.

Does technology breed stupidity?

Of course the answer is “yes,” but I’m going to look at the question from an extremely limited sense – does technology provide us with new ways to share stupidity with others?

Steven Hodson has written a post entitled The Rise And Glorification Of Stupid In Our Social Media World. Hodson goes through great pains to clarify that stupidity is nothing new – but he has found something that he asserts is new.

[T]here is a difference between what great actors like Charlie Chaplin or even Red Skelton did as entertainment and what we see propagating through the web today.

Where Chaplin, Skelton, and other comedians like them made an act out of stupid things, and part of a larger humorous look at life, today we find that stupidity is the act and the only act, there is no larger part, there is no explanation; humorous or otherwise, just the stupid act there for all to see.

This is the new generation of stupid as being made famous by the likes of the Jackass bunch [whose] whole intent is just to get other people to do stupid things. Not to do anything else, not to provide any life context, just perform the stupid act….

From my perspective, I was sure that this was untrue, and that other generations made themselves famous by doing stupid things for no good reason. So I thought about it, and realized that stupidity goes back at least as far as 1989. That happens to be the year that America’s Funniest Home Videos first appeared. If you haven’t seen this TV show, it consists of clips of people unintentionally or intentionally doing stupid things, accompanied by comments from the host(s) and laughter from the audience. Back in 1989, before YouTube existed, this is how we watched stupid stuff.

But as I continued to research this, I discovered something. America’s Funniest Home Videos was itself based upon something that originated in a Japanese show, Kato-chan Ken-chan Gokigen TV. The show was not exclusively dedicated to funny videos – this formed only a part of the show. However, it’s interesting to see WHY the funny video segment was introduced, according to Wikipedia:

[The show] is notable for having a segment featuring funny home videos sent in by viewers, as the home camcorder became more popular in Japan, which Ken and Kato would comment on.

That’s when it struck me – whenever we get a new technology, we try to do something stupid with it.

We obtain access to a technology like Facebook, and millions of us (myself included) use the technology to play games that consist of constant mouse clicking.

We obtain access to a technology like YouTube, and we create and watch videos of people doing really stupid stuff.

Japanese people obtain access to the camcorder, and do they use it to film beautiful vignettes of the Japanese countryside, or instructional videos in the (then) dominance of Japanese industry? No, they use it to film regular people doing stupid stuff.

Take television itself. Some people thought that television could serve as a university of the home, providing access to the wide world around us. But what do we remember from the first decade of television? Lucille Ball being wacky at a conveyor belt, Jackie Gleason exploding, and Milton Berle wearing a dress. And those were the GOOD shows.

But let’s look at an older technology – newspapers. Publishers of newspapers were often threatened with imprisonment or worse, with the 1733 trial of John Peter Zenger marking an important turning point in freedom of the press. And when the press obtained this freedom, what was the result? The Election of 1800, which makes the Election of 2012 look like a lovefest.

I think if we continue to look back, we’ll find that the inventor of the wheel probably used it to drive off a cliff.

Thoughts on netbooks…from 2008

I was searching for a picture of the famous National Lampoon cover from its January 1973 issue – the one that says “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” When I searched for the picture, one of the top results was a Flickr share by Dave Winer. This happens to be a picture that Winer used in a December 2008 article about netbooks. With the passage of time, it’s interesting to see what Winer thought of netbooks back in those days.

And in those days, Winer was a huge proponent of netbooks, provided that they met certain criteria. Winer is of course an advocate of open systems, and some of his criteria related to this – user choice of what software to run, the ability of the user to replace the battery, and “competition.”

For those of us who forget exactly when particular things happened, Winer’s 2008 post was written over a year before I mentioned the unannounced iSlate product which ended up with a different name. This device failed most if not all of Winer’s criteria listed above, but in the process succeeded in wiping the shine off of the netbook market.

It would be nearly two years before I would buy my own netbook, a computer that I still use today (although that 1 GB RAM limitation is becoming harder and harder to live with). Let’s compare my 2010 purchase with Winer’s 2008 criteria.

Some of the items that Winer listed were key selling points for netbooks, and for my purchase in particular. Small size (Winer didn’t explicitly mention low weight, but that’s a related benefit), low price, and long battery life were all key selling factors. The aforementioned open/competition features were also important – in 2010, I had a number of netbooks from which to choose. Of the technical specs that Winer listed, the most important to me was built-in wifi.

Winer’s ninth and final item needs to be understood in the context of 2008 – “Windows XP.” This was during the time when Microsoft users could choose between Windows XP and Windows Vista, and many were opting for the older model. By 2010, I was at a point where I didn’t want to buy a netbook until it had Windows 7 pre-installed. As it turns out, this was a limtied version of the OS, but the limitations haven’t really affected my use of the netbook, and they of course contributed to the low cost of the device.

OK, maybe the limitations have affected my use of the netbook. By November 2011, developers weren’t willing to design sites that took the netbooks’ limitations into account. Here is part of what Jason Suss said on the topic at the time:

My point is that the direction of design / development shouldn’t be dictated by a user base who have chosen to provide themselves with a limited computing experience. Netbook hardware (processing power, graphics, etc) is intentionally generations behind in order to hold the line on costs….

I just believe that an unfortunate side effect of the netbook fad has been to similarly cheapen the web experience that devs like me are asked to build.

This is something that Winer didn’t take into account in his 2008 post. While he didn’t explicitly say that netbooks should have limited memory, the low cost pretty much guarantees that they won’t be memory powerhouses. And the small size obviously dictates a small screen size. This means that to properly support netbooks, developers would need to take these limitations into account.

If everybody and their mothers (literally) were using the platform, then developers would have an incentive to do so. (But even then, developers were not willing to develop for Internet Explorer 6 even though a sizable portion of the enterprise market still used that generation of the browser.)

But by the time Jason Suss wrote his comments in 2011, the writing was on the (physical) wall for netbooks. Asus estimated that its tablet sales would increase, and its netbook sales would decline. In essence, the tablet has become today’s version of the netbook. “Open” tablets are available that meet most if not all of Winer’s criteria, some tablets have very attractive price points, and the forthcoming Windows 8 provides an operating system that has been designed for tablets.

And I find myself in a similar situation to where I was in 2010 – I want to upgrade my computer, but I’m not doing anything until Microsoft’s new operating system comes out.

As a lover of keyboards, I doubt I’ll go the tablet route (Microsoft’s new Surface will probably be out of my price range). But I may surprise myself.

Bear at the White House! Turn on the radio!

Today, Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. issued a proclamation declaring September 9, 2012 as Admission Day, celebrating California’s admission as a state. Within the proclamation, Governor Brown included this bit of history:

The observance of Admission Day was once prominent in the civic life of our state and nation. On September 9, 1924, by order of President Coolidge, the Bear Flag flew over the White House in honor of California’s admission to the Union.

(source: Wikipedia)

Because of our federal form of government, this is an unusual occurrence, so I wanted to find out more about it. This page includes some newspaper articles from 1924 that discussed this event. One sentence in one of the articles shows how much has changed regarding the speed and form of communication.

Thousands as they pass the White House will wonder at that flag. It will be commented upon in the newspapers and stories told of it when the bedtime program over the radio starts.

This reminded us of a time – prevalent even during Jerry Brown’s initial time as Governor – when we were used to getting news at a certain time of the day. You’d get news when the morning papers came out. You’d get news when the afternoon papers came out. In the initial Governor Brown era, you’d get news in the early evening, when Walter Cronkite and others would present The Evening News.

It was not impossible to get news at other times, but it was extremely difficult. Certainly the television and radio stations would interrupt programming for a very important news item, but the appearance of a strange flag probably wouldn’t warrant such an interruption. Now if Billy Carter were driving down Pennsylvania Avenue and saw something odd at his brother’s house, he could always get on his CB radio and announce it, but the audience for that transmission would be limited. (Back then, of course, you were able to drive on Pennsylvania Avenue by the White House.)

All of that has since changed because of Cable News Network (and its competitors) and Twitter (and its competitors). Today, if President Obama were to fly the Ohio flag over the White House, you wouldn’t have to wait for the evening news or the newspaper to find out about it. Those who are interested in such things could find out within minutes.

Self-assembling structure theory, then and now

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, programmer Bill Kline created a ProBlocks DOS simulation program. At the time, he explained the concept of ProBlocks:

Imagine a time when the structures that people want to build can simply assemble themselves! Using a number of identical cubes or Programmable Blocks (ProBlocks) with electromagnets in their 6 faces and simple electronics inside, structures can be built block by block by themselves. Starting with just one seed block, other blocks will be attracted to the faces of that seed block that have their magnets turned on. These other blocks will attract other blocks and so on, until the entire structure is built.

The outer part of a space station can self-assemble from a large bag of ProBlocks floating in space. An underwater dwelling can self-assemble from a bag of ProBlocks on the ocean floor. The average person could use ProBlocks around the house. Instead of having many specialized items that are only used for certain occasions, a set of ProBlocks floating in a liquid medium can be called upon to self-assemble into whatever is needed at the moment. The user could self-assemble a chair, table, desk, stairs, partition, bed frame, or counter when it is needed, then dissolve it back into ProBlocks when it is no longer needed.

It’s taken twenty years, but we’ve finally gotten to the point – well, actually we HAVEN’T gottten to the point yet. Research is still being conducted, such as this research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

The team from MIT’s Distributed Robotics Laboratory have developed a testable algorithm that uses interlinking smart systems – in this case, “smart pebbles.” These are cubes one centimeter across that contain four magnets and a basic processor, which map out the shape of objects they surround and communicate it to each other.

Once the shape of the object has been identified, the position of the smart cubes is remembered and used to replicate more copies of the original.

When self-assembling objects are finally available, it will be a blessing from me, since the phrase “some assembly required” often causes me to utter words that cannot be printed in a family-friendly blog such as this one.

A time to die – a slight change in obituaries

Russell Limprecht (@russellreno) called my attention to an “In Memoriam” message that is different from those we have seen before.

Megan Lee Meadows In Memoriam

If you didn’t catch it immediately, let me help you find it.

In the past, when a newspaper would publish an obituary of a person, the picture would usually come from a professional photographer. For example, my father’s obituary included his latest picture from his church directory.

But Meadows’ picture is a self-portrait, taken with a smartphone.

Times are changing.

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