A Vacuum Cleaner that Phones Home

Dyson has a new vacuum cleaner that will talk to the manufacturer over the phone when it needs repairing.  It’s silly, but also a little frightening, as Clive Thompson points out:

I am literally beside myself with joy at the vision of thousands of housecleaners holding a phone up to their vacuum so
it can transmit some mysterious parrot-modem-sqwauk-language to the
mother ship. But quite apart from the silliness of it all, it’s a
usefully concrete, physical metaphor for what much of our software already does.

… But the time will come, and come quickly, when an increasingly large
number of household products — fridges, stoves, microwaves, phones,
vacuums, hot-water systems — will be networked. They’ll be able to
skip the hold-the-phone-for-me step, and simply tell their
manufacturers what we’ve been doing with them. And you probably won’t
be able to buy a household tool that doesn’t do that.

Link: collision detection: I told you never to call me here!,
The Sun: It’s Dyson the Windbag

The Religion of Wikipedia

A few months back Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, published an article criticising Wikipedia, "The Free Encyclopedia."  That got the pro-Wikipedia forces hopping mad.  In January, Aaron Krowne published a long rebuttal, which is gaining attention right now due to a post on BoingBoing.  (Links to the articles are below.)

Krowne scores a few points, but for the most part I think McHenry’s arguments are stronger.  Maybe I’ll do a little point-by-point analysis later, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort… Read the articles and decide for yourself.

A couple of quick observations:

By god Krowne is angry!  His first tack is to label McHenry — he’s one of them, a non-believer, a "FUD" as it’s called in the free software encyclopedia community.  From Krowne’s article:

For the uninitiated, FUD stands for “Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.” It
is a term popular within the free software community, used to describe
the use of lies and deceptive rhetoric, aimed chiefly at free software
projects. It is an accurate term. In brief, the goal of FUD is to make
money when the free software competition cannot be defeated fairly in
the marketplace. This can be done by scaring consumers through wild
propaganda, or more recently, confusing courts through more subtle

So from the start, Krowne makes it clear that this is more than a debate on substance; this is a religious fight. (And that is an accurate term, or at least I say so. 🙂 )

I personally think that Wiki the technology (not the encyclopedia) is excellent.  It has clearly worked for some things, but it won’t make a good encyclopedia.  It works for narrow, uncontroversial domains with expert users — e.g., for collaboratively writing user manuals for open-source software, or for sharing information on a particular interest, like Sensei’s Library on Go.


Robert McHenry: The Faith-Based Encyclopedia

Aaron Krowne: The FUD-based Encyclopedia: Dismantling fear, uncertainty, and doubt, aimed at Wikipedia and other free knowledge resources

(via Boing Boing: Why Wikipedia works, and how the Britannica bully got it wrong)

Why John Gilmore won’t show his ID at airports

Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore refuses to show ID to get on an airplane (or a train, and he doesn’t drive either — he doesn’t travel far, apparently), and is taking this issue to the courts. Cory Doctorow (himself an EFF employee) at BoingBoing gushes:

Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette has an amazing, balanced, in-depth profile on
John Gilmore, the guy who Sun hired to write their first code, the guy
who co-founded EFF, the guy who won’t show ID to get on an airplane:

From the Post-Gazette article:

John Gilmore’s splendid isolation began July 4, 2002, when, with
defiance aforethought, he strolled to the Southwest Airlines counter at
Oakland Airport and presented his ticket.

The gate agent asked for his ID.

Gilmore asked her why.

It is the law, she said.

Gilmore asked to see the law.

Nobody could produce a copy. To date, nobody has. The regulation that
mandates ID at airports is "Sensitive Security Information." The law,
as it turns out, is unavailable for inspection.

What started out as a weekend trip to Washington became a crawl through
the courts in search of an answer to Gilmore’s question: Why?

In post 9/11 America, asking "Why?" when someone from an airline asks for identification can start some interesting arguments.

I think he has a strong point about secrecy and the law.  Homeland Security should have to produce the text of the law or at least a more specific explanation.  This legal "rabbit hole" needs to be fixed, but Gilmore’s true mission is clearly broader.  He says:

"I will show a passport to travel internationally. I’m not willing to
show a passport to travel in my own country," Gilmore said. "I used to
laugh at countries that had internal passports. And it’s happened here
and people don’t even seem to know about it."

He apparently forgets that this is a daily reality for the millions of immigrants in this country (having to produce their passport on request).  So it’s not exactly unheard of.  Airlines presumably also use identification simply to verify that the person boarding the plane is the one who bought the ticket.

Link: Grounded: Millionaire John Gilmore stays close to home while making a point about privacy
via Boing Boing: Why John Gilmore won’t show his ID at airports.

Fear the (Fake) Squid

If, while Googling for interesting pages about squids (we all have hobbies), don’t worry if you stumble across this page reporting on a scary new skull-eating squid called the "exocell".  Despite the authentic look and the links to real marine biology pages, it’s all a marketing hoax for a videogame.  I smell a class-action suit on the part of well-mannered squids everywhere.

Via Near Near Future and Selectparks.

Ellen Ullman on “Attentional User Interfaces”

Ellen Ullman has a great op-ed in the New York Times today about computers and attention:

"There are unused icons on your desktop": this message sometimes appears
in a balloon on the lower right-hand corner of my computer screen. I
can’t imagine why I should be alerted to this fact. The condition of my
personal workspace is my own business, as I see it. But no matter what
I might be doing at the moment – writing, reading, coding, thinking or
(God forbid) simply letting my thoughts trail off where they may – the
designers of the Windows XP operating system seem to think I should
stop right now and clean up my desk.

That is why I was surprised to read that Microsoft researchers now feel
confident that they can figure out when it’s all right to interrupt me.

Link to full article: The Boss in the Machine.

Kurzweil Doesn’t Tailgate

New interview with Ray Kurzweil about his plan to live forever:

Ray Kurzweil doesn’t tailgate. A man who plans to live forever
doesn’t take chances with his health on the highway, or anywhere else.

As part of his daily routine, Kurzweil ingests 250 supplements,
eight to 10 glasses of alkaline water and 10 cups of green tea. He also
periodically tracks 40 to 50 fitness indicators, down to his "tactile
sensitivity." Adjustments are made as needed.

"I do actually fine-tune my programming," he said.

Once again, I think Sherwin Nuland’s assessment is right on:

Sherwin Nuland, a bioethics professor at Yale University’s School
of Medicine, calls Kurzweil a "genius" but also says he’s a product of
a narcissistic age when brilliant people are becoming obsessed with
their longevity.

"They’ve forgotten they’re acting on the basic biological fear of
death and extinction, and it distorts their rational approach to the
human condition," Nuland said.

As to the increased demand for resources when he and his friends start living forever,

Kurzweil says he believes new technology will emerge to meet increasing
human needs. And he said society will be able to control the advances
he predicts as long as it makes decisions openly and democratically,
without excessive government interference.

But there are no guarantees, he adds.

Link, via Kottke: Inventor believes humans eventually will be immortal (AP)

Studies Show…

Studies show we are amused by this article written by Ellen Vanstone, published in the November 2004 issue of The Walrus.  An excerpt:

My study has pointed inexorably to three main truths:

1) A study with encouraging results will always be followed by a study with contradictory results.
For example, a study showing that aspirin prevents heart disease will
be followed by a study that says this may not be true, depending on the
individual heart. Likewise, a study that says drinking two glasses of
wine daily increases longevity will be followed by a study that says
women who drink two or more glasses of wine a day are twice as likely
to develop breast cancer as non-drinking women. Acrylamides in
deep-fried French fries definitely cause cancer. Oops, maybe they don’t. …

Computers and pseudo-A.D.D.

Speaking of distractions at the computer… This NYT story talks about the problem and some people studying it.

"It’s so hard, because of the incredible possibilities we have that
we’ve never had before, such as the Internet," said John Ratey, an
associate professor at Harvard Medical School who specializes in
attention problems. Dr. Ratey said that in deference to those who live
with clinically diagnosed attention deficit disorder, he calls this
phenomenon pseudo-A.D.D.

A growing number of computer scientists
and psychologists are studying the problem of diminished attention. And
some are beginning to work on solutions.

The article mentions possible technology-based remedies to distraction ("semantic e-mail", predictive interfaces that will guess when to politely interrupt), though

Many people, even the experts, have devised their own stopgap solutions to the attention-span problem.

But to call non-technological solutions "stopgaps" gets it backwards.  It’s not like  humanity has just been waiting, distracted and unproductive for millennia, or even since they’ve been sitting in front of computers, for some magical AttentionFocuser 1.0 software to come along.  These silicon-based technologies will never surpass personal, proven mental practices for improving concentration, whatever the form: from a simple routine for when to check e-mail to a strict meditation or yoga practice to train the mind.  And those will stay with you long after the software becomes obsolete.

Link: NYT > You There, at the Computer, Pay Attention


Google and Inquisitive Kids

Ed Gottsman writes at ZDNet about how Google makes kids more inquisitive… and maybe even smarter:

… Some elementary school teachers (unscientific survey coming up) say that kids today are asking more questions than their predecessors–possibly because their parents use Google, so they hear fewer "Because!" responses and more actual answers, which encourages them to ask yet more questions. … So, Google may actually be nurturing a very different attitude toward life-long learning, and in so doing may be creating a fundamentally new kind of person–someone who’s less patient, more inquisitive, less willing to take "No" for an answer and more certain of his or her facts. In other words, a pain in the neck. Oh, well. I suppose it couldn’t all be good news.

I doubt it’ll cut down on ADD either.  Inquisitiveness is good, and a little bit of Googling on the side isn’t hurting anyone, but there’s a limit, of course.  Instant access to factoids can’t replace real knowledge and understanding (i.e., you can’t just trade breadth for depth).  As kids get more and more websearch-savvy, will they still develop the patience to learn any subject that’s too difficult to grasp in 30 seconds?  You could argue that search engines (and the web in general) are a recipe for distraction; their very structure discourages the kind of sustained attention that’s vital for true, meaningful learning.

(Begin grumpy old man story)… In my day we had an instant-answer technology at home too — it was called an encyclopedia.  Sure it was one of those crappy grocery store sets, but it got the job done (and it was exciting, for a nerdy kid, to anticipate each new volume arriving in the mail).  It didn’t double as a video game.  If it didn’t satisfy your curiosity, you went to the library and got some books on the subject, etc. etc.

Link: Google as mental prosthetic | Between the Lines | ZDNet.com.