Wired News: Hang Up and Drive

Tony Long writes:

Why is it that only a handful of states
have made it illegal to talk on the phone while driving? Driving is not
something you do as an afterthought, OK? You’re hurtling down the road
behind the wheel of a 3,000-pound vehicle (more like 7,000 pounds in
that idiotic destroyer of worlds, the Hummer) and it doesn’t take a
physicist to figure out that if you hit a human being — astride a
motorcycle, riding a bicycle or on foot — you’re going to do some

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or an IT guy or a
professional poker player to understand that anything you do — like
talking on the phone — that distracts you from the business of driving
increases the chances of causing a serious accident.

Link: Wired News: Hang Up and Drive.

See also: Cartalk’s "Drive Now, Talk Later" campaign.

What Google book search advocates aren’t telling you

I haven’t been writing about Google Print/Book Search because so many others are, and I don’t really have a strong opinion on it either way.  But here’s one side issue that irritates me, and that I haven’t seen mentioned.

You often see pro-Google people making statements along the lines of "this isn’t Napster for books, dummy — nobody’s talking about making these books available for free!" (example).  Well, no, Google is not creating Napster for books, but this is a little dishonest.  It’s naive to think this project won’t encourage those who want a Napster for books.  You can bet that some clever geeks will hack through Google’s copy-protection schemes and figure out a way for you to save this content.  And it’ll probably be publicized widely and seized on as the way things ought to be.

Why am I so sure of this?  Because it already happened, last year when Google was testing an early version.  Some hackers figured out how to save the content, and it was publicized on BoingBoing, one of the web’s most popular sites.  See Boing Boing: HOWTO break Google Print DRM (October 8, 2004).

Can Google do no wrong? Good intentions aren’t enough.

Lauren Weinstein writes about the risks of Google:

Google currently represents virtually a textbook example of the complex interplay between innovative, socially positive inventions and developments on one hand, and oppressively dangerous technological arrogance on the other.  Or as the fictional David St. Hubbins of the film "This is Spinal Tap" put it more simply around twenty years ago: "It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever."


[A] very real mix of extremely potent positive and negative impacts on society, and a range of complex risks that need to be fully understood, are increasingly coming into focus relating to Google’s operations.

Such powerful forces can sometimes be managed successfully to truly exclude evil, but only when those in charge recognize that their own intellects and even good will are insufficient to prevent the "great machines" from being used in ways that can seriously damage individuals and society.  It’s all too easy not only to be blinded by science, but also to create mechanisms that can be horrendously abused by entities who don’t necessarily share the benevolent philosophies of their creators.

Link: The Risks Digest Volume 24: Issue 9 — Whither Goes Google?

Selling Anti-Consumerism


Poor Charlie Brown.  His one-of-a-kind tree, chosen out of frustration with shallow consumerism is now a hot-selling product — buy yours here!  (Spotted at Wil Wheaton dot Net and many other places.)

This reminded me of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s book, known in Canada as The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed and rebranded in the US as Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.  Their thesis is that the anti-consumerist counterculture inevitably gets marketed and becomes part of the mainstream, and that this is not "selling out" — it’s just the way capitalism works.

The Charlie Brown tree is kind of a silly example.  Heath and Potter start with the example of Adbusters, the anti-corporate "culture jamming" magazine, which now sells its own brand of sneakers.  There are many others: "alternative" music, hippie culture, etc.  I recommend the book if you’re interested in this stuff.  It’s not at all a right-wing screed, which the US blurbage kind of suggests.  They’re coming mostly from the left, but they dig a little deeper than Adbusters, Naomi Klein (No Logo), Michael Moore et al. usually do.

You can also read their 2002 article, which preceded the book — The Rebel Sell: If we all hate consumerism, how come we can’t stop shopping? (This Magazine).

Google and Ads

The NYT describes how Google has changed the look of on-line advertising:

FIVE years ago, Web advertisers were engaged in an ever-escalating competition to grab our attention. Monkeys that asked to be punched, pop-ups that spawned still more pop-ups, strobe effects that imparted temporary blindness – these were legal forms of assault. The most brazen advertiser of all, hands down, was X10, a little company hawking security cameras, whose ubiquitous "pop under" ads were the nasty surprise discovered only when you closed a browser window in preparation for doing something else.

Today, Web advertisers by and large have put down their weapons and sworn off violence. They use indoor voices now. This is a remarkable change.

Thank you, Google.

Link: How Google Tamed Ads on the Wild, Wild Web – New York Times.

I’m still amazed that this advertising model works for Google.  I used Gmail for months before I remembered one day that it was ad-supported.  I finally looked and there they were.  They’re so unobtrusive that I had never noticed them.  More and more web users must also be learning to block out ads subconsciously.

Fewer pop-ups is certainly a good thing, but it still seems like the overall level of advertising on the web is increasing.  The trend is towards unobtrusiveness, yes, but probably also towards tighter integration between content and advertising, as with TV, which I think is uglier.

Jerry Mander, in his classic book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television argued that television, by its very nature, is first and foremost a tool of advertising.  It’s inevitable that corporations control it and use it to persuade.  (I’m paraphrasing badly here.)

His argument could apply even more to the web.  Who was it who said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from advertising?  Oh wait, maybe I’ve got that wrong…

New $100 Laptop Critique

Lee Felsenstein, inventor of the Osborne PC, has written a good critique of the project:

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project (http://laptop.media.mit.edu/) rests upon a fundamental assumption that the creation and widespread distribution of a single type of computer will solve the problem of the “digital divide” in the developing world. By creating a laptop computer priced at $100 each (when sold in quantities of millions), the thinking goes, schoolchildren throughout the developing world will all be equipped with powerful tools for learning and exploration.

The educational theories behind this approach were developed by Alan Kay and Seymour Papert starting in the 1970’s, and gave us both the LOGO language (Papert) and the concept of the laptop computer (Kay’s Dynabook). While their work led to important advances in the shape and use of computers, it has not been generally validated as bringing about new paradigms of child learning. Children do not go out to play bringing along their laptops, and have not been generally observed to create LOGO programs spontaneously.

By marketing the idea to governments and large corporations, the OLPC project adopts a top-down structure. So far as can be seen, no studies are being done among the target user populations to verify the concepts of the hardware, software and cultural constructs.  Despite the fact that neither the children, their schools nor their parents will have anything to say in the creation of the design, large orders of multi-million units are planned. […]

Link: The Fonly Institute: Problems with the $100 laptop (via BoingBoing).

Clive Thompson also has a review (Link: collision detection: Does Africa really need the $100 laptop?).  Excerpt:

A computer is a tool that creates new modes of thought — just like a
paintbrush or a new language. As the seminal education thinker Seymour Papert argued in his superb book Mindstorms,
one of the reasons people don’t learn math is that it is a language
that requires immersion in "mathland," much as learning French requires
living amongst those who speak French. If you try and learn French in
an English-speaking country, with no one and no place to practise it,
you’ll fail. Same goes for math.

Apparently Papert has never heard of Ramanujan (famous self-taught Indian mathematician).  Lots of people learn math in isolation.  And LOGO was a wonderful accomplishment, but it teaches only a tiny subset of math and computer programming.

More to the point: people’s learning styles vary greatly.  This laptop project doesn’t seem to appreciate that.

More Laptop Talk

Great post over at if:book about the $100 laptop demo bumbles:

[…] Negroponte wasn’t able to get past the screen lock on the slick lime-green device, so the mob of assembled journalists and technofiles had to accept the 100 dollar gospel on faith, making do with touching anecdotes about destitute families huddled in wonder around their child’s new laptop, the brightest source of light in their tiny hovel. All told, an inauspicious beginning for the One Laptop Per Child intitiative, which aims to put millions of cheap, robust, free-software-chugging computers into the hands of the world’s poorest children.

Sorry to be so snide, but we were watching the live webcast from Tunis yesterday… it’s hard not to laugh at the leaders of the free world bumbling over this day-glo gadget, this glorified Trapper Keeper cum jack-in-the-box (Annan ended up breaking the hand crank), with barely a word devoted to what educational content will actually go inside, or to how teachers plan to construct lessons around these new toys. In the end, it’s going to come down to them. Good teachers, who know computers, may be able to put the laptops to good use. But somehow I’m getting visions of stacks of unused or busted laptops, cast aside like so many neon bricks.

Link: if:book: hundred dollar laptops may make good table lamps.

See also: if:book: the fly — a hundred dollar "pentop" for the overdeveloped world

$100 Laptop Moves Forward

Today Nicholas Negroponte and Kofi Annan unveiled a working prototype.  From  Reuters:

Researchers unveiled a $100, hand-cranked laptop computer on Wednesday and said they hoped to place them in the hands of millions of schoolchildren around the globe.

About the size of a textbook, the lime-green machines can set up their own wireless networks and operate in areas without a reliable electricity supply, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers said at a United Nations technology summit.

"These robust, versatile machines will enable children to become more active in their own learning," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at a press conference where the machine was unveiled.

The goal is to provide the machines free of charge to children in poor countries who cannot afford computers of their own, said MIT Media Lab chairman Nicholas Negroponte.

Link: Researchers unveil $100 laptop for schoolkids | Reuters.com.

Earlier this week it came out that Apple offered to put OSX on the computers for free, but Negroponte, Papert & company, by some sort of strange logic, rejected the offer in favor of an open source OS.  See: The Stalwart – The $100 PC and the Open-Source Dogma Knows no Bounds, Techdirt, Wall Street Journal.

See also this excellent post at Ethan Zuckerman’s blog — One Laptop Per Child – a preview, and a request for help.  He describes conversations he had with Negroponte about details of the project.  A revealing excerpt:

My questions largely had to do with how the laptop would be used in the
classroom. I made the mistake of asking a question of how the laptop
would be used as “a teaching tool”… like Papert, Negroponte’s a big
believer that students simply need access to technology and can use it
to teach each other and to make discoveries themselves.

Essential reading: Todd Oppenheimer, The Flickering Mind.

Previous entries about the $100 laptop: November 9, July 27, June 6, March 20, January 31.

Crossing Streams of Self-Absorption (NPR & Blogs)

Probably the only writing more irritatingly self-absorbed than blogs are those precious little commentaries on NPR, the ones that usually play late in the hour during All Things Considered and reminisce on topics like grandma’s famous apple pie recipes.

So I found it slightly ironic to happen upon a commentary about everyone’s favorite topic — blogs!  From Taking a Pass on the Blogging Bandwagon:

Commentator Amy Alexander explains why she hasn’t started a Web log, or
"blog" — an increasingly popular way to comment on current events that
has elevated some commentators to Web celebrity status. Alexander is an
author and media critic living in Silver Spring, Md.

"Why write for free?"  Indeed — I’d give up blogging in a heartbeat if NPR would pay me to produce bits of fluff commentary filler.  I don’t mean to be especially hard on Ms. Alexander — this commentary is not all that bad, just kind of pointless.

Update: Transcript and more comments at Atrios and The News Blog.

Anti-iPod Fun


An article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail rounds up recent anti-iPod activity:

If we can draw a lesson from Yegor Sak’s adventure, it’s never to underestimate the public’s desire to watch an iPod be destroyed.

We know this, because Sak, a 19-year-old Toronto concierge who goes by "Yegor Simpson" on-line, is the force behind SmashMyiPod.com, a website that’s gained global attention for its violent premise. Sak made web surfers an offer: If they could raise $400 toward the purchase of a new iPod, he would videotape it being smashed to pieces right in the showroom.

Earlier this year, a New Yorker named Andy Rementer put up posters
in Manhattan, showing a crudely-drawn iPod, with the words "You don’t
need me" written on its screen. Photos of the posters became popular
on-line; like Sak’s video, they quickly stirred up a debate.

"I was frustrated by the way iPods were forced upon us," says
Rementer, adding that protest is tough in an iPod world. "Most people
were complaining about the fact that I drew the wrong number of buttons
on the iPod."

Link: Globetechnology: Get ready for the anti-iPod movement.