Despite Warnings, Drivers Talk and Text (NYT)

The New York Times has an excellent article today about driving while talking or texting on a cell phone and how difficult it has been to legislate against it, even with overwhelming evidence of the dangers: Drivers Dismiss Risks of Multitasking on the Road.

They also have a little video game that lets you test your ability to control a car while texting. Good call by the NYT to make a game, given how few people will read a 5000-word newspaper article these days.

Jonathan Franzen doesn’t want to hear your cellphone conversation

Novelist Jonathan Franzen has a good essay in the current issue of Technology Review. It's a complaint about cellphones, though it meanders into personal memoir about 9/11 and his parents (kind of an odd article to see in Technology Review). It begins:

One of the great irritations of modern technology is that when some
new development has made my life palpably worse and is continuing to
find new and different ways to bedevil it, I'm still allowed to
complain for only a year or two before the peddlers of coolness start
telling me to get over it already Grampaw–this is just the way life is

I'm not opposed to technological developments. Digital voice mail
and caller ID, which together destroyed the tyranny of the ringing
telephone, seem to me two of the truly great inventions of the late
20th century. And how I love my BlackBerry, which lets me deal with
lengthy, unwelcome e-mails in a few breathless telegraphic lines for
which the recipient is nevertheless obliged to feel grateful, because I
did it with my thumbs. And my noise-canceling headphones, on which I
can blast frequency-shifted white noise ("pink noise") that drowns out
even the most determined woofing of a neighbor's television set: I love
them. And the whole wonderful world of DVD technology and
high-definition screens, which have already spared me from so many
sticky theater floors, so many rudely whispering cinema-goers, so many
open-mouthed crunchers of popcorn: yes.

Link: "I Just Called to Say I Love You": Cellphones, sentimentality, and the decline of public space (free registration required)

Also in this issue, and also a little unusual, is a book review by Emily Gould of Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody and a new collection of Walter Benjamin writings, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. The gist of her article is: Shirky is a cheerleader, Walter Benjamin was a pessimist (and complicated). Link: "It's Not a Revolution if Nobody Loses": A new age of "technological reproducibility" is here. Ugh.

The picture at right is from a forthcoming Penguin Great Ideas edition of Benjamin's essay.

College Without Technology

Wyoming Catholic College limits students’ use of cell phones and computers, and the students seem to be doing just fine.  From the Casper Star-Tribune:

In an era when technology is king,
Wyoming Catholic College is positing an against-the-grain conviction:
that great advances in technological achievement, while widely
celebrated, might not in fact be good for people. And they might
actually get in the way of education.

Here, students are
encouraged, and in many ways required, to forgo the world of virtual
connectivity, and engage with the actual world — to go out into the
woods, the mountains and the horse stables and experience what college
officials refer to as "God’s first book."

Student Hannah Gaddis of Casper said the school’s
curriculum kept her so busy and engaged that she never had time to give
the school’s strict technology policy a second thought.

"You kind of realize how much you don’t need these things," she said.

Link: An Audacious Experiment.

I learned about this first from an NPR story (No Tech U) in which they interview a student who clearly gets that technology skills are not that big a deal and not hard to learn when you need them. 

Of course there are other aspects of this school that may not be everyone’s cup of tea — like the exclusively religious and "great (Western) books" curriculum and the apparent endorsement by Bill Bennett.  In America those don’t raise eyebrows (not that they should, necessarily) — but banning iPods sure does.

Cellphone use while pregnant linked to health problems in children

From The Independent:

Women who use mobile phones when pregnant are more likely to give
birth to children with behavioural problems, according to authoritative


giant study, which surveyed more than 13,000 children, found that using
the handsets just two or three times a day was enough to raise the risk
of their babies developing hyperactivity and difficulties with conduct,
emotions and relationships by the time they reached school age. And it
adds that the likelihood is even greater if the children themselves
used the phones before the age of seven.

The results of the
study, the first of its kind, have taken the top scientists who
conducted it by surprise. But they follow warnings against both
pregnant women and children using mobiles by the official Russian
radiation watchdog body, which believes that the peril they pose "is
not much lower than the risk to children’s health from tobacco or

The research – at the universities of California, Los
Angeles (UCLA) and Aarhus, Denmark – is to be published in the July
issue of the journal Epidemiology and will carry particular weight
because one of its authors has been sceptical that mobile phones pose a
risk to health.


The scientists say that the results were "unexpected",
and that they knew of no biological mechanisms that could cause them.
But when they tried to explain them by accounting for other possible
causes – such as smoking during pregnancy, family psychiatric history
or socio-economic status – they found that, far from disappearing, the
association with mobile phone use got even stronger.

They add
that there might be other possible explanations that they did not
examine – such as that mothers who used the phones frequently might pay
less attention to their children – and stress that the results "should
be interpreted with caution" and checked by further studies. But they
conclude that "if they are real they would have major public health

Link: Warning: Using a mobile phone while pregnant can seriously damage your baby,

via Textually.

Cellphone health risks

Okay, maybe I’m naive to argue that the wifi-resisters deserve a hearing.  But how about cellphones?  Questioning whether cellphones might cause cancer will also get you ridiculed in many circles, yet studies keep coming out that say there’s a risk, particularly for children.  Studies that don’t find increased cancer risk also keep coming out, so the issue is far from decided.

The best source I’ve found for following news of cell phone health risks is archive of health risk posts.

Stephen Fry’s Tech Column Best When Written by Others

Stephen Fry’s technology column in the Guardian is best when someone else writes it for him.  This week Douglas Coupland, having been sent for review some European gadgets that are useless in Canada, muses instead on the relationship between time and gadgets. An excerpt:

Time is measured in tech waves, and not only do these tech waves demarcate eras, they also define them.

remember in the 80s when cellphones first started to pop. I remember
how, if you saw someone using a cellphone on a street, you immediately
thought they were an asshole: gee, my phone call is so important I have
to make it right here and right now! Twenty years later, we’re all
assholes. We’re assholes at the supermarket’s meat counter at 5:30pm,
phoning home to ask if we need prosciutto; we’re assholes driving in
traffic; and we’re assholes wandering down the streets. And with
cellphones and handhelds, we collapse time and space and our perception
of distance and intimacy.

Link: Dork Talk: Douglas Coupland.

Recently Jeannette Winterson tested out some "beauty machines":

What no one needs is a thing called the Hydro Test (£24.99, from

mascara-tube size device claims to measure the moisture content of your
skin. You press it against whatever bit of the body you long to reveal
its watery secret, and the digital display pops up a number that
corresponds to a table that tells you just how desiccated you are.

tried this all over my poor old bod, and the reading was so dismal that
I felt compelled to ring my friend who is a GP. She advised immediate
hospitalisation and a saline drip. Crestfallen, but determined to
further my experiments for the sake of Guardian readers, I tried the
thingy on my cat – I can tell you now that it doesn’t work through fur.
Luckily, this cat had recently had a little shaved patch at the vet, so
I tried it on that. Result? Cat obviously ready for taxidermist.

Taking my dried-out self and my wrung-out cat to the pond, I laid a
chamois-leather car sponge (skin, right?) on the surface of the water.
The Hydro Test revealed that what I have always called the pond is, in
fact, a sandpit. At this point I thought of chucking the thingy
straight in the bin where it belongs, but it has a disclaimer on the
info that says it mustn’t be disposed of via "the waste stream". I
expect to see lots of these at Bring & Buy sales quite soon.

Link: Dork Talk: Jeannette Winterson – Beauty Machines, and see also Dork Talk: Jeannette Winterson – Camcorders.

High-Tech Driver Distraction

The New York Times has a good article today about driver distraction.  Excerpts:

Talking on cellphones and typing text messages while driving has
already led to bans in many states. But now auto companies, likening
their latest models to living rooms on the road, are turning cars into
cocoons of communication systems and high-tech entertainment.

drivers are packing their car interiors with G.P.S. navigation screens,
portable DVD players and even computer keyboards and printers.

Senator Carl L. Marcellino of New York learned this firsthand while
riding in a cab in Miami — the driver was watching a boxing match on a
television mounted on the dashboard.


have always engaged in risky behavior, whether it is eating a sandwich,
arguing with a spouse, applying makeup or studying a map while speeding
down the interstate.

But safety experts say the influx of
electronics is turning cars into sometimes chaotic — and distracting —
moving family rooms.


Some safety advocates wonder whether studies on driver behavior will
always be a step behind new technology. “It seems that society is
moving so fast that the effects on safety just aren’t fully understood
until problems arise,” said Sean Kane of Safety Research and
Strategies, a consulting firm in Rehoboth, Mass.

Even drivers who
are focused on the road can suffer from electronic overload — from
passengers who, say, might be fighting over which DVD to watch.


The Japanese automaker Nissan unveiled a concept minivan, called the Forum, at last month’s Detroit auto show.
Like most minivans, the Forum has an integrated media system that
allows children and other passengers to watch movies, play games and
hear their favorite songs.

The designers included a low-tech
feature specifically for a driver distracted by the technology — a
button that immediately shuts down all the electronics to silence
unruly passengers and, presumably, make driving safer.

“I guess
we were all saying, when is enough enough?” said Bruce Campbell, a vice
president of Nissan Design America. “At some point, you need to say
time out, no more distractions.”

Linnk: More High-Tech Invitations to Take Your Mind off Road.


Ebook Week is Coming!

Who knew there was a "read an ebook week"?  It’s apparently March 2-8 and in preparation a blog called Epublishers Weekly has posted a list of 30 reasons to read an ebook.

Link: 30 Benefits of Ebooks (via lifehacker).

Because I’m feeling snarky I’ll play devil’s advocate and tell you what’s wrong with the list, or at least the first 10 items for now.

I should say up front that I’m not totally opposed to ebooks.  I think with the right design they’ll work, especially for travelling.  I’ll probably even buy one as soon as they’re cheap enough, are free of DRM (and don’t make me pay twice to own both a paper and an electronic copy), and are pleasant enough to use.

The first item on the list:

1. Ebooks promote reading. People are spending more time in front of screens and less time in front of printed books.

How many of those people have the attention span when at a computer to read more than a few pages at a time without stopping?

Ebooks are good for the environment. Ebooks save trees. Ebooks
eliminate the need for filling up landfills with old books. Ebooks save
transportation costs and the pollution associated with shipping books
across the country and the world.

Ebook readers aren’t without environmental costs.  And is there really a "need" to fill up landfills with old books?  (Recycling? Hello?)

3. Ebooks preserve books. (The
library of Alexandria was burned and the collection ruined. Richard
Burton’s wife, after his death and against his wishes, destroyed a book
he had been working on for ten years. The original manuscript of
Carlyle’s The French Revolution was lost when a friend’s servant tossed
it into the fire.) Ebooks are ageless: they do not burn, mildew,
crumble, rot, or fall apart. Ebooks ensure that literature will endure.

Last week I went to a course taught by design guru Edward Tufte.  Among the interesting artifacts he showed: a 400+ year-old first edition of Galileo’s book, and a copy of the first English translation of Euclid.  These were not falling apart — far from it.  He was walking around with them and flipping the pages.  How likely is your favorite ebook format to last 400 years?  Ebooks are far from "ageless".  The idea that paper books fall apart quickly is a myth.

Furthermore, ebooks do not necessarily "preserve" books.  This has been discussed recently with respect to Google’s book scans.  OCR and plain text don’t save drawings and formatting.  That same Galileo book had hand drawings in line with the text — easy to do 400 years ago but a pain to preserve with today’s software and electronic formats.

Fires happen and books get lost, but so does data, and when data goes it’s usually massive and instantaneous — there’s no fire extinguisher.

4. Ebooks, faster to produce than paper books, allow readers to read books about current issues and events.

Book printing and distribution can happen very fast (think of the 911 report and other recent current events books that were rushed out).  Ideally publishers would post e-book versions in advance of print versions for early buyers, just as software is sometimes available for download before CDs are shipped.

5. Ebooks are easily updateable, for correcting errors and adding information.

True, but I’d rather have those corrections available as addenda on the web or as carefully planned second editions than have them made in real time to the book.  Am I supposed to revisit the book every time the author changes a word?

Ebooks are searchable. Quickly you can find anything inside the book.
Ebooks are globally searchable: you can find information in many ebooks.

True, if searching is what you want to do (this is mostly irrelevant for fiction, for example).  A good index can be easier to use than a search interface.

7. Ebooks are portable. You can carry an entire library on one DVD.

Can’t argue there.  Portability is the main, and possibly only, thing ebooks have going for them.

8. Ebooks (in the form of digital audio books) free you to do other activities while you are listening.

It depends on the activity and it’s debatable whether you retain the information as well as when reading.  It’s a different experience — you can’t easily back up to reread a sentence on an audio book, and you can’t search or browse it later.

9. Ebooks can be printable: and thereby give a reader most or all of the advantages of a paper-based book.

A stack of papers is less appealing than a bound book.  Sure you could take it to Kinkos to bind it, but that’ll cost you more than buying a printed version in the first place.  Book printing kiosks might work but the quality will probably be low.  Furthermore, this argument is kind of silly — I could just as easily say "you can scan in your printed book and make it an ebook; therefore a printed book has all the advantages of an ebook!"

Ebooks defy time: they can be delivered almost instantly. Ebooks are
transported to you faster than overnight shipping: in minutes or in

It’s good to learn patience.