Pretend News

I remember as a kid putting together a little pretend "newspaper" by
selecting and rewriting stories that came from the real newspaper.
That was fun and maybe a little educational.  Wikinews ("the free news source (BETA) that you can write!") is reminiscent in spirit and quality.  Some key differences:
Wikinews writers are not 10 (presumably), and they expect people other
than their parents to read their work.

Wired had an interesting article last week about the Wikinews experiment.  Excerpt:

Nearly six months into an experiment to apply the collaborative, information-gathering model known as a Wiki to the deadline-driven field of breaking news, operators of Wikinews are finding their mission rife with frustrations and challenges.

The site, an offshoot of Wikipedia, the volunteer-maintained online encyclopedia, is facing pressures its parent organization rarely had to contend with, such as ferreting out fake posts, incorporating original sources and updating coverage to reflect rapidly changing current events.

Link: Wired News: All the News That’s Fit to Wiki.

Annoyances of Interactive Art

From the New York Times:

Interactive art is irritating. Let’s count the ways at the 2005 Boston Cyberarts Festival …

… problem No. 4: moral superiority. Consider "Applause," by Jeff
Lieberman, Josh Lifton, David Merrill and Hayes Raffle. You stoop to
enter a curtained booth. (Already you’re in the weak position.) There’s
a movie screen divided into three parts, and in front of each is a
microphone. Clap vigorously into one of the microphones and the movie
screen in front of it comes to life, playing its movie. Stop clapping
and the action grinds to a halt.

Now, wouldn’t it be great if
you could get all three screens going at once? You can! Just run from
mike to mike, clapping in front of all three. Now they’re all going!
Uh-oh. It’s Hitler giving a speech. And there you are clapping like
crazy, you idiot.

Link: NYT > Critic’s Notebook: Art That Puts You in the Picture, Like It or Not.

Revenge of the Third Brake Light

Here’s one of my little techno-peeves: The abundance of cars with third brake lights that don’t work.

Well-intentioned technology can "bite back", to use Edward Tenner’s phrase from his book
Why Things Bite Back : Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.  (He or Donald Norman or someone like that may well have already discussed this issue somewhere… if so I don’t recall.)

Roughly 1 in 20 cars I see has a burnt-out third brake light, and I’d argue that a broken third brake light is more hazardous than having no third brake light at all.

According to an article from the American Psychological Association, the third brake light was made mandatory on US cars in 1986, based on studies that showed fewer rear-end collisions in cars equipped with them.  The government’s study showed a 4.3% reduction in accidents.  But that study probably didn’t anticipate 5% broken lights.

When a third brake light is broken it’s worse than not having it at
all, because of (a) adaptation to seeing a brake signal closer to our
center of vision, and (b) the negative visual cue of the unlit third
brake light hardware.

It seems people don’t notice or fix burnt out third brake bulbs as quickly as other bulbs, for whatever reason.  That could probably be remedied quite easily in the wiring, by using a buzzer or some other cue as is done with turn signals.  It’s kind of insane, actually, that today’s cars don’t warn the driver when any lights are out.

Happy TV Turnoff Week

Poster_smallCheck out all the festivities at Adbusters.

TV Turnoff Week is no ordinary social ritual. The goal is simple: to
shake up routines and get people questioning the role of TV in their

Sure, it’s a statement against dead-end couch culture. But it’s
also about cleaning up the mental environment. Like our oceans and air,
our shared mindscape is littered with pollutants — distorted news, manipulative
ads, violence and top-down culture.

Links: TV TURNOFF 2005 (Adbusters), TV Turnoff Network, TV B-Gone.

Amazon’s Text Statistics

Amazon now shows you various statistics for selected books, such as grade level, percentage of complex words, words per dollar and words per ounce, as well as a concordance of the 100 most frequent words.

Apparently Bigfoot writes at a grade 6.5 level: In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot.  ("I AM not chewbacca me think chewbacca jerk.  He no can act.  He ride Bigfoot coat tails.")

I looked for a similar writer for comparison, but unfortunately they don’t yet have stats on the new Thomas Friedman book.  (Read Matt Taibbi’s review instead.)

Pamela Ribon has a great post about this new "evil feature" at her blog.

Don’t Forget the Toddlers!

18mobileBecause when it comes to mobile phones, age eight just isn’t early enough.  From the NYT:

When a toddler’s wails soar to piercing volume, do you shake the baby rattle or dangle the mobile phone?

unlikely group of entertainment companies is betting on the mobile
phone. The target customers are children who may be incapable of
coherent telephone conversation but will cuddle with a portable phone
to watch Ernie deliver an ode to his chubby rubber ducky.

Ken Hyers is one of the market-research geniuses behind the idea:

To test the personal appeal of mini-entertainment, Hyers turned to
his own children, ages 3 and 5. He downloaded movie trailers for "Harry
Potter" and "Finding Nemo" to a personal device and passed them the
little screen. "They watched it over and over," Mr. Hyers said.

"It’s really convenient because there’s only so much ‘I Spy’ that you can play out the window."

Link: The New York Times > Technology > A Way to Calm Fussy Baby: ‘Sesame Street’ by Cellphone.

Cell Damage

Douglas Rushkoff has a great article about the new Firefly mobile phone for kids:

Just as we all know
that some scientist in a strange renegade country will be reckless
enough to clone a human being or develop a killer strain of anthrax no
matter what the international scientific or legal consensus, we have
also always known that some company, most likely in the United States,
would be foolish enough to breach the unspoken pact not to market cell
phones directly to children.

Enter Firefly Mobile.
Clearly inspired by the news that only 1% of American children under
the age of 9 owned cell phones in 2004 (how can an eight-year-old
actually own anything?) the company has created a handset for pre and pre-preteens.

In other news this week: "Mobile Phones ‘Safe for Brains’".  Oh, and by the way:

They recommended people use hands-free kits to cut the amount of radiation entering the brain.

UK experts have recommended children should also limit the amount of time they spend using mobiles as a precautionary measure.

That BBC article was one of many reporting on a recent Danish study (a sampling from Google).  Looking at just the headlines, you’d think the question has been resolved once and for all ("Cell Phones Exonerated", "Cell Phones Don’t Cause Brain Tumors").  One hopes this is true, but the fact is that cell phones just haven’t been around long enough to know the long-term effects, and as the above quotes show, the researchers are still recommending caution.  WebMD’s headline is a little more honest: "Cell Phones Don’t Cause Brain Tumors, So Far".

Also more honest is Firefly’s own Product Manual:

What research is needed to decide whether RF exposure from wireless phones poses a health risk?

… Epidemiological studies can provide data that is directly applicable to human populations, but 10 or more years’ follow-up may be needed to provide answers about some health effects, such as cancer. This is because the interval between the time of exposure to a cancer-causing agent and the time tumors develop – if they do – may be many, many years.

Link: Douglas Rushkoff :: Another Kind of Cell Damage.
Via Smart Mobs: Firefly Mobile To Market CellPhones To Pre-Teens.

BlogHer Conference in July

The new BlogHer Conference has just been announced.  From the mission statement:

BlogHer is a network for women bloggers to draw on for exposure,
education, and community. By holding a day-long conference on July 30,
2005, and establishing an online hub, BlogHer is initiating an
opportunity for greater visibility, learning and success for individual
women bloggers and for the community of bloggers as a whole.

Via BlogHer Conference.


The Technorealism project was an effort started in 1998 by twelve technology writers to encourage more balanced and in-depth discussion of the social and political implications of technology.  Here’s their list of principles, as true today as they were way back then.


1. Technologies are not neutral.
2. The Internet is revolutionary, but not Utopian.
3. Government has an important role to play on the electronic frontier.
4. Information is not knowledge.
5. Wiring the schools will not save them.
6. Information wants to be protected.
7. The public owns the airwaves; the public should benefit from their use.
8. Understanding technology should be an essential component of global citizenship.

Though the project ended in 2002, the site is still a very useful resource with dozens of articles, and thanks to some thoughtful person it is being preserved:

Technorealism.Org is an important historical site. On its original launch, it raised issues, regarding values and technology, which were rarely debated elsewhere.

These values and issues, however, are as important today as they ever were. This site is therefore being preserved, and protected, for your current and future enjoyment.

Link: Technorealism.

Keyboards, germs, and knee-jerk bloggers

There’s an annoying tendency among bloggers to jump on a news headline and quickly dash off a misleading post without getting the whole story (or even more than a headline’s worth).  For high-traffic sites like BoingBoing and Slashdot, it seems a bit irresponsible, especially when these misinformed posts incite sprees of hate-mail and the like.  (Phil Gyford recently started an interesting discussion about this sort of thing on his blog.)

This is nothing new — I’m sure it’s very difficult for even the best science reporters to simplify a story without misrepresenting it — but bloggers seem especially adept at it (the misrepresenting part).  An example:  This recent CTV story does an okay job of reporting about a scientific study looking at how much dirt and germs collect on computer keyboards in hospital environments.

BoingBoing and Slashdot jumped on this with their typical depth of analysis… From Slashdot:

Techguy666 writes "Gee, this is a suprise [sic].  Researchers have found that keyboards harbor bacteria and super-germs.
This is particularly interesting this time because this research noted
that there is a lot of computer use in hospitals and they’re finding it
really difficult to sterilize them."

Most subsequent discussion or posts were either product mentions for washable vinyl keyboards or ideas for how those dumb scientists could have got it right.  For example:

They could put a plastic cover over the keyboard, with molds for each
of hte
[sic] keys, and spray/wipe that plastic cover with bleach every now
and then.

I quote that statement because if its writer had taken a minute or two to read further, he’d know that the researchers did use keyboard covers.  Look at, for example, the news article that you can find at the website of the hospital that did the study.  Below are some excerpts, with emphasis added:

Harmful bacteria can linger on computer keyboards
in hospitals, making it easy for the germs to spread to patients, a new
study finds.

… The researchers put each bacterium on
keyboards and keyboard covers to see how long they survived. They also
typed on the keyboards to see if the bacteria could be transferred to
the fingertips.

Noskin’s team found that VRE and MRSA could survive up to 24 hours
after being placed on keyboards or keyboard covers. However, PSAE could
survive only up to one hour on the keyboard and five minutes on the
keyboard cover.

Noskin doesn’t think it’s realistic to make
computer keyboards sterile
. "We live in an era of bacteria, and they
are all over our environment," he said.

Tierno agrees that hand washing is most important, but he also thinks that keyboards should be disinfected after each use.

It seems to me, still without claiming that I fully understand this story, that the point is not at all about whether the keyboards are washable or made out of the latest space-age rubber.  They were trying to determine how long bacteria survived on a keyboard or keyboard cover, and the rates at which they were then transmitted to people’s hands.

So, my point about blogging is that it’s not that hard to be semi-responsible and get your facts at least half-way straight before you blast your knee-jerk reactions over the blogosphere.  Even a bit of common sense should tell you that doctors have probably heard about washable keyboards and keyboard covers before.  Do you think they just plug in any old Dorito-and-Coke-encrusted keyboard that’s lying around, like you do?  I think it’s safe to assume that hospitals are pretty smart about how to keep things clean.  (Though I’m breathless in anticipation of Wikipedia’s entry on hospital sanitation.)

Getting back to the actual study, I think it points to some interesting questions about how technology gets adopted in hospital environments in contrast to others.  Medical professionals are possibly among the most slow and careful to thoroughly test technology because there’s so much at stake.  I wonder if there are side benefits to that, meaning that the slower adoption could filter out the more faddish or hastily designed tools.