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Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Maya Lin, Ai Qiu Hopen, and acceptability of art by Chinese-American artists – some things never change

Some works of art are initially resisted before they become beloved. It’s fair to say that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is beloved today. When you consider the opposing opinions on the war, it’s miraculous that people aren’t protesting over the memorial even today.

But there was a little controversy when the winning design was selected – or, more accurately, after the winner was announced.

According to Kristal Sands, the competition took place in 1981:

All entries were judged anonymously by a jury of eight internationally recognized artists and designers who had been selected by Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The winning design was chosen on May 1, 1981. The designs were displayed at an airport hangar at Andrews Air Force Base for the selection committee, in rows covering more than 35,000 square feet of floor space. Each entry was identified by number only, to preserve the anonymity of their authors.

So the winner was selected, and the winning name of Maya Lin was announced.


Many critics, veterans, veteran organizations, and public figures argued that Lin was too young and of the wrong nationality to be designing this “American” monument. Many Americans of that time did not see Asians as United States citizens. To these people, the definition and image of an American was someone who is white or of European descent. It is hard for any Asian American artist to see their works as an individual ability to create without anyone judging their work because of their ethnicity/race. With all the hardships and criticisms, the Vietnam Veteran Memorial is the most visited national park today. As a result, Maya Lin was one of the many Asian American artists who has struggled and overcome discrimination.

So at the end of the day, Lin was vindicated – although she does say that people often praise her English language skills, despite the fact that she was born in Ohio.

Well, all of that happened back in the 20th century, when creating a monument to a controversial war. I’m thankful that all of those issues have gone away in the 21st century, and we can all come together as people to create a monument to something like the civil rights movement.

OK, maybe not. Pradheep Shanker shared a story from the Tennessean (warning: limited accesses to the story before the paywall goes up) about a planned monument in Nashville. No one has been selected, but one of the finalists has already been criticized:

A Chinese-born artist competing for the chance to produce a civil rights memorial calls an outspoken Nashville activist a hero but says he’s wrong to question her age, ethnicity and ability to do the project justice.

Ai Qiu Hopen, one of five finalists for a public art project being organized by the Metro Arts Commission, said the students who helped sit in at Nashville lunch counters made them accessible to people like her, too.

So what exactly did former Freedom Rider Kwame Leo Lillard say?

In a story published March 19, Lillard told The Tennessean, “There’s no way in the world a Chinese kid from California who’s under 50 years old can come here and develop a piece of art that symbolizes the struggle of the Nashville Movement.”

For the record, Hopen is from West Virginia, not California. But she’s not from Tennessee, she’s under 50 years old…oh, and she’s Chinese.

But it gets worse. According to this 2006 video, Hopen has created a sculpture of Charlie Chaplin. Some would argue that she has no business creating a sculpture of an English-American filmmaker who became popular during the silent era.

But it should be noted that it is not only Chinese Americans who are subject to this kind of criticism. After all, Edward Gibbon wrote about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, even though he was not Italian and lived 14 centuries after the Roman Empire fell. He therefore had no business writing about the Roman Empire, and he was roundly criticized for even attempting to do so…

Wait…he wasn’t criticized?

Well, that’s different.

Never mind.

Why are some revolutions imperceptible?

I recently read something by Jim Ulvog, which referenced something written by Matthew Yglesias. But before I talk about what they wrote, I’d like to share an example of what they were both talking about.

When I first entered the fingerprint identification industry in 1994, the computational power required for fingerprint encoding and matching exceeded the capabilities of the general-purpose computers available at the time – even high end computers from Digital Equipment Corporation. Because of this, my employer had to build special-purpose cards to insert into these computers to allow them to keep up with the computations that were required. I was writing proposals at the time, and spent a lot of time enthusing about the fact that these special cards were much smaller than the ones used in the prior generation of automated fingerprint identification systems. Because of this small size, I wrote at the time, these products – Printrak’s “Fingerprint Processor 2000” and “Minutiae Matcher 2000” – were truly revolutionary.

Within a few years, the computational power of computers had increased, and Printrak was able to do away with the Fingerprint Processor 2000 and the Minutiae Matcher 2000 altogether. We no longer needed special purpose boards to crank out these processes – and, as an added bonus, some of the computers didn’t have to be expensive Digital Equipment Corporation computers any more. We could buy a computer from Compaq (which, coincidentally, purchased Digital Equipment Corporation), and this computer was completely capable of performing all of the fingerprint processing without any special card.

This completely revolutionized the automated fingerprint identification system industry, since it was now possible to use general purpose computers for fingerprint identification. Rather than depending upon the AFIS vendors such as Printrak to provide souped-up computers, government agencies could (if they wished) now buy the computers themselves, from the same purchasing schedules that they used to purchase their other computers.

A huge revolution, but most of you never heard about it. Why not? Because the automated fingerprint identification industry was, and is, extremely small. The four leading AFIS vendors in the 1990s had aggregated annual revenues of much less than US$1 billion dollars. So it’s safe to say that Printrak’s reduced need for DEC computers was not the catalyst that sent DEC into the arms of Compaq.

Back to Ulvog and Yglesias. Ulvog’s post Impact of the technology revolution has barely begun states that the recent technology revolutions have taken place in industries that don’t play a huge role in the economy. But when technology changes impact larger industries – Ulvog cites education and health care as two examples – then we’ll REALLY see changes.

Ulvog’s thoughts on this were crystallized when he read Yglesias’ article, Why I’m Optimistic About Growth and Innovation. Yglesias begins by talking about a huge technological change that took place several hundred years ago – yet at the time, that change was imperceptible to the broader public.

A printing press based on movable type, for example, was an enormous boon to productivity in the book manufacturing sector. It had almost no impact on economy-wide productivity, however, simply because the book manufacturing sector of 17th-century Europe was trivially small.

So when, according to Yglesias, did the Industrial Revolution really take hold? When technological changes were applied to a much more important industry – apparel manufacturing.

In a similar manner, Yglesias (and Ulvog) note that recent technological changes have occurred in industries such as journalism and music. “But,” you argue, “journalism and music are HUGE. Rupert Murdoch and the music company heads control huge companies.”

Not really.

Take a look at the 2012 Fortune 500. This list doesn’t measure companies based upon stock valuation; it measures companies based upon actual revenue. (An argument could be made that profit is more important than revenue, but I don’t think that a ranking by profit will significantly impact my point here.)

Number one on the list? Not a journalism company. Not a music company. Number one on the list was ExxonMobil, with over $450 billion in revenue.

Number two was WalMart, with revenue of over $445 billion. Yes, they sell music – along with everything else under the sun.

You have to go through a number of companies – other oil companies, auto companies, banks, health firms, diversified companies such as Berkshire Hathaway – before you get to a company that makes a substantial amount of its revenue from journalism or music. That company, News Corp (Murdoch’s firm) is 91st in the Fortune 500, with revenue of about $33.4 billion – or an order of magnitude lower than the revenue of an ExxonMobil or a WalMart. Time Warner, by the way, is 103rd at about $29 billion.

So, for example, if News Corp and Time Warner were both to be completely devastated by technological change, and were to be liquidated, it would cause some discomfort. But if ExxonMobil, Chevon, or ConocoPhillips were to be liquidated, we’d probably be plunged into another Great Depression.

This is one of the reasons why Jim Ulvog talks about the oil industry so much. In his post, he provides this example:

…the astounding ability to change direction on a drill and control its location 10,000 feet underground and out 10,000 feet horizontally from there. Could you push a 20,000 foot piece of steel piping through solid rock and have the tip be exactly where you want it to be, plus or minus a few feet?

What has this technology – and others – done?

Turned North Dakota into the second largest oil-producing state in the country. More than Alaska or California.

Put US oil production back to where it was over 20 years ago.

Makes it a reasonable possibility the US could be a net energy *exporter* in a decade or so. An exporter.

And that’s going to make a bigger difference in our lives than the New York Times’ efforts to work out a monetization model. Not that this isn’t important – I know a number of journalists who have been displaced or adversely affected by change, and it’s undeniable that the music industry is changing. But a $1 per gallon increase of decrease in the cost of gasoline will have a huge impact on the ENTIRE economy.

But where is the doctor?

I recently wrote a futuristic post in which most of the medical examination process is automated. One of my sources for the post was this VentureBeat piece that referenced the views of Vinod Klosla.

Accomplished Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla likens modern healthcare to witchcraft, and says technology will replace 80 percent of doctors….

Khosla said that machines, driven by large data sets and computations power, not only would be cheaper, more accurate and objective, but better than the average doctor.

Khosla made his remarks at a Health Innovation Summit, which was naturally attended by a number of doctors.

These remarks were about as successful as Ronald Reagan’s 1975 suggestion that Social Security be made voluntary – a suggestion that cost Reagan the Florida primary. Reagan lost because of the self-interest of older Florida voters, who felt that fewer young participants in Social Security would endanger their own benefits.

And there is certainly evidence of self-interest in the debate about health care. Khosla himself is an investor in medical technology companies, and would naturally benefit if these companies (rather than doctors) were handling medical needs. The doctors, who do not want to be unemployed, obviously took offense; one was reportedly “nauseated” by Khosla’s remarks. (I’m not sure how the doctor remedied the nausea.)

And there are other self interests out there, as evidenced by those who warn against the great doctor shortage.

With a growing, aging population, the demand for physicians will intensify over the coming years. According to AAMC estimates, the United States faces a shortage of more than 90,000 physicians by 2020—a number that will grow to more than 130,000 by 2025.

Needless to say, AAMC has a solution for this – increases in residency training. By the way, AAMC stands for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

However, AAMC probably does not represent the interests of another group.

At present, Belize is home to four offshore medical schools. These and other offshore medical schools in the Caribbean target students, who although they may be motivated and talented, cannot get admission to med school in the U.S.

And I haven’t even touched upon the basic composition of the death squads in the United States. Some argue that “Obamacare” will result in “death squads” of government officials who will make life or death decisions. This, of course, is contrary to the current system of privately-owned “death squads,” in which private companies deny benefits and thus make life or death decisions. Not surprisingly, some doctors who aren’t getting paid by either the government or by the insurance companies have taken matters into their own hands:

“About four years ago, one insurance company was driving me crazy saying I had to fax documents to show I had done a visit,” said Stanford Owen, an internal medical doctor in Gulfport, Miss. “At 2 a.m., I woke up and said, ‘This is it.’ ”

Dr. Owen stopped accepting all insurance and now charges his 1,000 patients $38 a month.

“When I decided to abandon insurance, I didn’t want to lose my patient base and make it unaffordable,” he said. “I have everything from waitresses and shrimpers to international businessmen. It’s a concierge model, but it’s also the personal doctor model.”

Dr. Owen, who once had three nurses and 10 examining rooms, said it was now just him and a receptionist. He has become obsessed with keeping overhead low, but he said that, for the first time since the 1990s, his income was going up.

So perhaps Dr. Owen will be one of those doctors who buys a machine from Vinod Khosla or another investor. Or perhaps Obamacare or private insurance companies will quit paying for medical care from a human.

Where does that leave the medical schools in the United States, Belize, and elsewhere?

You will still take a cab to the doctor’s office. For a while.

In May of 2003, Edith was a 75 year old widow. Though she missed her husband terribly, she still maintained an active life. This was complicated by the fact that she never learned to drive, but what are friends – and cab companies – for?

Being somewhat set in her habits, she would always have her medical checkup on the first Tuesday in May. The routine never varied. An hour before her appointment, Edith would go to the living room, pick up the phone, and call the cab company. The cab driver would arrive half an hour later and take her to the doctor’s office. Edith would pay the cab driver with a credit card – she didn’t like using the cabs that required cash – and then go into the doctor’s office, see the receptionist, and wait. She’d then spend some time with a nurse, and toward the end of the appointment would spend some time with the doctor. Edith was amused by the fact that she was now older than her doctor.

Edith remained in remarkably good health, so she continued to visit the doctor every year. And even in 2013, when she was 85 years old, the routine never varied – or it didn’t vary much. She still scheduled her doctor’s appointments for the first Tuesday in May, and she still took a cab to the doctor’s office. She still went to the living room to call the cab – not because the phone was there, but because she always liked to make her calls from the living room. It was easier to make the call to the cab company, because she had the number pre-programmed into her Jitterbug phone. And her daughter had set things up so that she could pay the cab driver in advance, through her computer. Edith could have booked the cab through the computer also, but that just didn’t feel right. She did appreciate the safety of paying online, though. The cab driver took her to the doctor’s office, just as before, and she had to wait in the waiting room, just as before (well, maybe a little bit longer). These days she spent much more time with the nurses than she did with the doctor, but the doctor always made sure to spend a few minutes with Edith. The doctor actually liked to spend time with Edith; some of his patients would probably just as soon have the doctor email his findings to them, and skip that whole “discussion” bit.

Time continued, and while Edith slowed down a bit, she was still able to maintain her independence. So in May 2023, when Edith was 95 years old, she still scheduled her doctor appointment for the first Tuesday in May, and she still took a cab to the doctor’s office. The routine never varied – well, maybe a little bit. Edith had booked and paid for the cab a month before the appointment, using the online Gacepple Calendar service. (Gacepple, of course, was the company that resulted from the merger of Google, Facebook, and Apple – the important merger that saved the tech industry in the United States from extinction. But I digress.) An hour before the appointment, Gacepple Calendar reminded Edith of her appointment, and five minutes later the Toyota in the street let her know that it had arrived. No, not the driver – there was no driver – but the Toyota itself.

Edith was the expert on driverless cars. Outside of the techie circles, most individuals didn’t own driverless cars. But the cab companies that Edith used sure did. While some cabdrivers protested over their job losses, many of them got jobs with churches, nursing homes, and other groups that didn’t have the money – yet – to afford a driverless car. Edith was secretly pleased with the elimination of cab drivers – all of the cab drivers in the past had listened to that horrid country music, and Edith liked the freedom to choose her own music on the way to the doctor’s office. Edith, of course, usually listened to oldies music – early Katy Perry was her current favorite.

After the Toyota delivered Edith to the doctor’s office, she went to the front door, was identified by the multi-biometric reader, and walked in. She announced her presence in the waiting room. “We’re ready for you, Edith,” said the friendly voice. “Would you like someone to guide you through the examination?”

“Yes,” replied Edith. “I’m not that good with all of this electronic stuff. Yesterday I set my alarm for seven o’clock PM instead of seven o’clock AM! Not that I need an alarm to wake up.”

The friendly person opened the door for Edith and told her to go to Examination Room C.

“So do you still need people to perform some of the tests?” asked Edith as she sat in the comfortable chair.

“Actually,” replied the friendly voice, “none of the tests requires human intervention. In fact” – the voice paused for a bit – “we’re already done.”

“Wow, that was quick!” replied Edith. “And I didn’t even have to get poked or take any clothes off.”

“We try to make the experience as comfortable as possible for all of our patients,” said the friendly voice. “We know that medical appointments in the past used to be very uncomfortable for some people, but with today’s scanners and medical reading devices, we can complete the examination without laying a hand – or sensor – on you. We’ll mail the results to Edith Smith at Gacepple dot com. Did you have any questions?”

“Actually, I had two,” replied Edith. “First, will there ever be a time when me – or my children – won’t have to come down to the office for the examination?”

The friendly voice replied. “Actually, we offer this service right now, and some of our REALLY elderly patients prefer it, because it allows more constant monitoring of their medical condition. Unfortunately, insurance doesn’t cover the cost, but – just a moment – I’ll mail you the information on our home service.”

“Thank you,” said Edith. “And if you have a minute, I do have one more question for you.”

“I have the time,” replied the friendly voice.

“I have to admit that I was unnerved a couple of years ago when I came to the medical office and no one was here. I had been warned that this would happen, but was told that a person would guide me by voice to the office and conduct the exam. After a while, I’ve gotten used to the idea of talking to you, even though you’re not here.”

“Well, I’m glad you’ve gotten used to the procedure,” replied the friendly voice. “I hope you like me!”

“I do,” said Edith. “You’ve been very helpful. But I’ve always wondered exactly WHERE you were. If you were in Los Angeles, or in Mississippi, or perhaps in India or China, or perhaps even in one of the low-cost places such as Chad. If you don’t mind my asking, exactly where ARE you?”

“I don’t mind answering the question,” replied the friendly voice, “and I hope you don’t take my response the wrong way, but I’m not really a person as you understand the term. I’m actually an application within the software package that runs the medical center. But my programmers want me to tell you that they’re really happy to serve you, and that Stanford sucks.” The voice paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, Edith. You have to forgive the programmers – they’re Berkeley grads.”

“Oh,” said Edith after a moment. “This is something new. I’m used to it in banking, but I didn’t realize that a computer program could run an entire medical center. Well…who picks up the trash?”

“That’s an extra question! Just kidding,” replied the friendly voice. “Much of the trash pickup is automated, but we do have a person to supervise the operation. Ron Hussein. You actually know him – he was your cab driver in 2018 when you came here.”

(DISCLOSURE: I am employed in the biometrics industry.)

For further information, see this discussion of Vinod Khosla’s views on the future of medicine, and this discussion of the future of driverless cars. And it shouldn’t surprise you to know that Tad Donaghe has commented on both of these stories.

What if Walter Cronkite’s Twitter account were hacked?

Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Or so they tell me.

-Ashton Kutcher

First things first – that quote was fake. But there was a period when Cronkite was considered to be a trusted source of information. Oh, not by everyone – but certainly by enough people that a negative statement on the Vietnam War from Cronkite could potentially have ramifications at the White House.

Several years later, when an incredible story broke about significant illegal actions in the Nixon White House, many (again not all) eventually began to trust the sources that were reporting this. As part of this process, many people considered these sources (the Washington Post, Walter Cronkite, and others) to be trustworthy, while other sources (the National Enquirer) were not so trustworthy.

But sometimes the not-so-trustworthy sources get it right, and the trustworthy sources get it wrong.

Take the National Enquirer. When the Enquirer first reported the marital shenanigans of John Edwards, many people regarded the story as similar to a story of the latest Elvis sighting. But eventually, the Enquirer was proven to be correct.

I could cite any number of examples of trustworthy sources that get it wrong, but I’ll confine myself to this morning’s tempest in a teapot. Whatever I may think of the Associated Press’ policies, I do consider them a trustworthy source. This morning, a Twitter account associated with this trustworthy source shared the following:

Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured

By the time I heard about the story, it had been denied. It turns out that the Associated Press Twitter account was hacked.

I don’t know how many minutes elapsed before the story was denied, but within that brief period, the Dow Jones Industrials plummeted. It has since recovered.

I can’t say how I would have reacted if I had seen the hacked tweet, but I can’t really blame the people who reacted the way that they did. The Associated Press is a trusted source of information, and Twitter is a technological marvel that is used by a number of trustworthy sources. What could go wrong?

But the AP account on Twitter, while supposedly trustworthy, is one thing. Your best friend from high school is another. Most of us cannot name anyone who works for AP, but we have spent a signficant number of years with our best friend from high school. In fact, we may trust our best friend from high school more than we trust the AP and Walter Cronkite put together.

So when your best friend from high school forwards you an email stating that the president of Procter and Gamble admitted his Satanic ties on Phil Donahue’s show, we tend to believe it. After all, your best friend would never lie to you.

(Incidentally, this comment does not apply to MY best friend from high school. When we would go to Mr. McCaskill’s class at lunch to watch Donahue, we’d go to see what wild freak was there that day. Times have changed.)

Now I’ll admit that most of the people who read this post do not fall for spurious or scam emails, and at least some of us would look askance if the AP Twitter account reported such a story. We’d want corroboration. But that is sometimes hard to get; how can you confirm something when all information sources sometimes become an echo chamber? Here’s an example that I presented:

Choosing a non-inflammatory example, let’s say that the Washington Times reports that Justin Bieber was seen drinking a strawberry milkshake. You go to another source to corraborate the news, and end up at Mashable:

“Justin Bieber was seen drinking a strawberry milkshake, according to the Washington Times.”

Still searching for independent confirmation, you end up at the Huffington Post:

“Various sources are reporting that Justin Bieber was seen drinking a strawberry milkshake.”

Well, we’re obviously in the echo chamber here, so we go to a U.S. Senator. The Senator would certainly know the truth, right?

“My lobbyists – I mean staffers – have informed me that Justin Bieber was drinking a milkshake, and that it reportedly had strawberry flavor.”

Finally, you end up at a really thoughtful source:

“Hey, is there anyone other than the Washington Times that can confirm that Bieber was really drinking that strawberry milkshake?”

This results in a comment:

“What are you, one of those crazy deniers? Everyone knows that Bieber was drinking a strawberry milkshake! It’s all over the news, so it must be true!”

But that comment results in a comment:

“No, that’s just what the Illuminati mass media WANTS you to believe. Not only did Sun Myung Moon (who’s not dead, by the way) order that this story be printed, but you should also know that Justin Bieber was kidnapped two years ago and is being held in an underground bunker in Brussels….”

21st century schizoid man

Mayo Clinic:

Schizoid personality disorder is a condition in which affected people avoid social activities and consistently shy away from interaction with others.


According to the demo video, the vibration sensors are supposed to mimic real human touch. You use the smartphone app to specify the portions of your partners body you’d like to stimulate, which are represented through circles on those body parts. When you touch those circles, it activates the [Durex “Fundawear”] underwear’s vibration sensors.

More here.


The sad thing is that there will be couples, sitting next to each other in bed, each holding a smartphone and touching their touchscreens.

21st century schizoid man, indeed.

Which leads us to King Crimson:

Nothing he’s got he really needs

Retailers, don’t entertain us. We will entertain ourselves. #apmp

I have signed up for tomorrow evenings’s APMP California Chapter webinar. For various reasons, I will not be attending the webinar from my office. It is nearly impossible for me to get home in time for the webinar. So I’ll be attending from a point in between the two – preferably a spot with free wi-fi and with food. However, I need to make sure that the free wi-fi is robust enough to allow me to participate in the webinar. Ideally, I’d like to test the connection beforehand.

Today a testing opportunity presented itself – sort of. I left my lunch on the kitchen counter this morning, so I was going to have to eat lunch somewhere anyway. Why not try one of the potential wi-fi hotspots?

My test, however, would not be a complete test of the restaurant’s wi-fi capabilities. For one, the webinar itself is not going to take place until tomorrow. For another, I left my netbook at home (unlike my lunch, this was intentional). So instead of listening to a webinar on my netbook using the restaurant’s free wi-fi, I would be listening to Spotify (specifically, the radio station based upon deadmau5’s “Clockwork”) on my mobile phone using the restaurant’s free wi-fi.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t named the restaurant in question. That’s because my experiment didn’t work out so well.

Most everything was great. The wi-fi worked (once I connected to the public network, rather than the private network for the employees). Spotify worked perfectly. And the food was good.

So what was the problem?

Diamond Dave.

You see, this particular restaurant chooses to play music. This is because decades ago, a scientist (I think his name was John Muzak) determined that if you played music at a retail establishment, people would buy more. So now almost all retail establishments play background music. Of course, the background music varies from place to place – “Hank’s Old-Timey Country Emporium” uses a slightly different playlist than “I Want to Die Teen Clothing Hangout.”

And this particular restaurant was playing a Van Halen song from the David Lee Roth era – I had to turn my volume way up this afternoon to hear the deadmau5 sound-alikes.

Obviously this would present a problem if I were to go to the same restaurant tomorrow night. I can picture it now.

The California Chapter of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals is pleased to present Nancy Webb, who will provide a preview of…


…which she will present at the APMP Bid & Proposal Con 2013 in…


…Page Architecture is an integrated visual approach to page design that encompasses…


Now if I were working on a proposal for Panama, these interruptions may be appropriate. But it makes it hard to listen to my music – or to a webinar.

I’ll grant that my need is a special case, but there are a number of instances in which we don’t want to hear a retail establishment’s music because we have our own music. Many people, especially young people, have personal music devices that are very easy to carry around, and the smaller headphones allow you to listen to your own soundtrack. Yes, it’s anti-social – but the imposition of someone else’s soundtrack is equally anti-social.

What are the chances that retail background music will…um…fade away in the next decade?

Animation by hand? Not at Disney

Jonathan Hardesty shared the news that Disney has laid off nine of its veteran animators from its hand-drawn animation division.

The fact that none of the names meant anything to me indicates how unimportant the mechanics of animation creation have become to most of us.

Even Jonathan Hardesty, who knows a thing or two about animation, commented:

When it is all said and done, I blame us as an audience for letting this happen. I mean, our money stopped going toward hand-drawn animated films, and this is where we are.

But in a sad way, none of this is surprising.

We watch animation to be entertained. When Walt Disney himself was supervising the animation of films, we were entertained by it.

When Disney and other American companies began outsourcing their production overseas, we were still entertained by it. The stories were still entertaining stories – I personally rank “The Lion King” up there with Disney’s greatest classics.

When foreign companies began providing animation to United States audiences, we were still entertained. I was entertained by Speed Racer as a child, and I had no idea that it was a Japanese import, reordered and rewritten to suit American tastes. The stories themselves were compelling, with the whole backstory about the mysterious Racer X; it didn’t matter to me that Speed Racer’s original name was Go Mifune (go Speed Racer go, indeed).

When companies like Lucas and Pixar did away with hand-drawn animators altogether, we were still entertained. The stories themselves were again compelling, and if you’re getting caught up in the adventures of Woody and Buzz Lightyear, most people are not going to be obsessing about whether Buzz was drawn by a computer.

So now that Disney is apparently doing away with hand-drawn animators entirely, will we care? After all, we’re still being entertained.

A pen in the hand of an animator is a tool, just as a computer in the hand of an animator is a tool. If we truly believed that the old ways should always be imitated, then we’d put saddles on our cars and hay in our gas tanks.

Google Transit will NEVER be enough? Maybe not.

I recently needed to research a particular mass transit problem. Because of the large size of southern California, I was required to consult three different transit agency websites: Metrolink (a local commuter train service), the Orange County Transportation Authority, and Omnitrans (the mass transit provider for western San Bernardino County).

Well, actually I started with Google Maps. Google Maps incorporates a service called Google Transit that attempts to calculate transit connections that use multiple agencies. However, at present Google Transit is not perfect, so I have to go to the underlying transit agency web sites to refine things.

One of the services that I mentioned, Omnitrans, recently tweeted a link to a post entitled “guest post: nate wessel on why google transit will never be enough for small to medium-sized systems.” Omnitrans tweeted this because it is a medium-sized system. Nate Wessel wrote it because he lives in a city (Cincinnati) served by a medium-sized system.

My first reaction, when looking at the post title, was that Wessel was a little strong. As Romeo Void reminds us, “Never say never.” Certainly, I thought, improved algorithms and additional information on Google’s end will allow it to improve the information that it provides.

So I started to read Wessel’s post to see how wrong he was. (Read to the end of the post for my conclusion.)

Wessel started with an explanation of the two things that a traditionally printed map provides to the reader:

[M]aps show us what’s possible in the physical world. They tell us that Spain is a place in Europe, that Queens is connected to Manhattan by subways and bridges, and that it’s not similarly connected to Britain. We can’t think of taking transit until we know what transit does and doesn’t.

The other critical thing maps (and some other media) do is provide us with answers to specific questions. These might be:
• “Which line can I take to Queens?”
• “Are there coffee shops within walking distance of my current location?”
• “Exactly how much will the bus cost?”

Wessel then asserted that Google Transit is very good at answering the second question (answer specifically), but is terrible at answering the first (inform broadly). He explains:

…Google Transit suggests we take the #19 northward, but says nothing of the invisible #17 that runs parallel to it at more than twice the frequency. You can easily imagine someone who’s once looked up their route on Google Transit regularly letting a #17 pass by while they wait for a #19 and complain about headways. Similar situations must happen a thousand times a day.

Exploring a transit system with Google Transit is like blind men trying to understand an elephant by touch. This part is thick, this part is bumpy, we don’t know how any of the parts attach to each other, and the whole thing is constantly, inexplicably moving.

Once I read this, I absolutely knew that Wessel was dead wrong. As I mentioned above, algorithms can take care of suggesting possible alternatives, and Google is perfectly capable of layering information about other routes so that I can compare the alternatives in Google Transit itself.

But once again, I figured that I’d hear Wessel out.

It turns out that one of Wessel’s talents is his ability to create a thoughtfully hand-rendered transit map. The word “thoughtfully” is important here. Rather than throwing a bunch of information into Google’s engine and displaying it, Wessel asserts that there is an additional requirement to “thoughtfully” abstract the information into something meaningful to the reader.

The example that Wessel provided was of Washington DC’s Metro system – a system that I used for several years. If you go to the Metro “maps” page, you can see two views of the Metro system. One of the views is called the “Google Map” view.


The other view is called the “Rail Map” view.


As it turns out, the map used by the majority of Metro riders is the latter view, the Rail Map view. This view is inaccurate, is not to scale, and is missing the information that you would find in a regular map. But the “rail map” serves as an easy-to-understand abstraction of the rail system, providing the exact information that a rider needs.

For example, let’s say that you want to get from Franconia-Springfield (in the lower left corner of the map) to Shady Grove (in the upper left). If you look at the “Google Map,” you can’t even find the stops. But if you look at the “Rail Map,” you can easily see that there are several different ways to get between the two points. I won’t go into the details, but anyone who has lived in the Washington area can recite the options to you – and tell you which option is the best around 5:45 pm on a Friday.

Well, now I knew that Wessel was wrong. Google could incorporate those abstracted maps into Google Transit.

But then Wessel said something that stopped me in my…um, tracks.

It seems like most big American cities put these questions, at least so far as transit is concerned, largely to rest decades ago with their famous metro maps but that many small and mid-sized cities, particularly those that primarily use buses, provide little if any coherent, holistic map of how their system operates. They often seem content with either no system maps at all or only topographically accurate maps that de-emphasise and confuse the areas that can benefit from transit the most: those that are dense and well served by multiple lines.

In essence, Google cannot incorporate information into its data-crunching machine if the data itself doesn’t exist. For a place such as western San Bernardino County, a nice neat abstraction of the Omnitrans system does not exist. (Whether such an abstraction could be created for a bus system, which is more complex than a rail system, is open to question.) And Google isn’t going to create such an abstraction. And Nate Wessel can’t run around everywhere and create them for every single transit system in the entire world.

So I was forced to agree with Nate Wessel. Google Transit will NEVER (or, as Taylor Swift would put it, never ever ever) be enough for small to medium sized systems.

Is he wrong? Am I wrong?

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