The Tender Ears of the Blogosphere

Pretty much everyone and their dog has commented on Nick Carr's piece
"Is Google making us stupid?"  Most offer up banal anecdotes to counter
Carr's claim but ignore the primary sources/studies he mentions.  I
didn't offer my own opinion because I don't think this is a matter of
opinion, it's a matter of science.  Either research shows there is a
new effect or it doesn't.

Two responses in particular bother me.  First, Seth Finkelstein
criticised Carr for not being "technology-positive" enough and for
writing too much in the style of "fogeyism."  His worry is that techies
won't listen to people who sound old or cranky.  That may be true but
the answer isn't to water down criticism.  Part of growing up is
learning to listen to people unlike yourself — even people you
disagree with.  A technology background does not teach you to think
critically about technology and society; if anything it leaves you with
a deficit (yes, I speak from experience).

Link: http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/archives/001349.html

The
second response is by Danah Boyd and I don't know whether she's talking
about Carr's piece or something else, but I'll assume she is (my second
guess is Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation).  Her post is another
meta-comment and is about how to respond to "quasi-legitimate trolls in
an attention economy."  She characterizes some writers as
attention-seeking trolls and is having trouble ignoring them so asks
for advice.  I asked in a comment for clarification of what
defines a troll vs. a rational critic you disagree with and also what
books she was talking about.  I was rebuffed so I won't ask again —
I'm afraid of appearing to be a troll myself.

My problem with Boyd's point is that it's grossly unfair to call
Carr or Bauerlein trolls (Keen and Siegel may be a little closer, but
still don't meet the definition in my opinion).  To be a troll (a term
borrowed from the Internet, of course) implies an irrational
attention-seeker who ignores logic and simply repeats their opinion to
annoy someone.  These writers, however, are drawing on real evidence to support
their arguments and are engaging in rational discussion.  They may be wrong but they deserve an intelligent response.

There's an irony in Boyd's post — she claims Internet-style trolls
are showing up more and more in real life.  What she misses is that
maybe real life is the same and what has transferred over from the internet is the habit
of labeling people as trolls as an excuse not to listen to them.

Link: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2008/06/22/feeding_quasile.html

I
started this blog three years ago to try to point out the many good
books that have been written on technology's impact on society, as well
as the excellent work that continues to be done by people in fields
such as science and technology studies.  What still surprises me is how
shallow and closed-minded most discussion on the Internet tends to be. 
Most of the smartest stuff is still offline.

Paul Boutin knows how to rant

Paul Boutin:

Engineers It’s hard to be smarter than everyone else, isn’t it?  You tech people never ask anything about my job.  Instead, you explain it to me.

  • You just know that my life as a professional writer must be
    exactly like your life as a professional software developer or
    sysadmin. Salespeople must come by my desk and demand I change my
    articles so they can close a big deal, right?
  • You’re 100% certain that if you wrote the article instead of
    me, it would have been better. Lucky for you, your fellow engineers are
    like string theorists: They’ll praise this assertion for its elegance
    and daring, instead of asking you to prove it with a real-world test.
  • You’ll explain to me that my ideas for articles start from
    press releases, and must be reviewed prior to publication by the
    companies I write about. If I recommend your competition, it must mean
    they bought an ad. You got this worldview from your company’s PR lady.
    You have a crush on her.
  • Do me a favor: 34 percent of the Internet is comments from
    engineers that begin, "It is unsurprising to me that …" Look, we get
    it. Nothing surprises you. So it’s unsurprising to us that it’s
    unsurprising to you. So shut up already.

Bloggers  There is, in fact, a special circle of hell reserved for you.  You’re keeping it real!  Real long, and real dull. […]

Link: Why I hate you — and I do mean you (Valleywag)

Risks of Mixing iPods and Pacemakers

From Reuters:

iPods can cause cardiac implantable pacemakers to malfunction by
interfering with the electromagnetic equipment monitoring the heart,
according to a study presented by a 17-year-old high school student to
a meeting of heart specialists on Thursday.
   

The study tested the effect of the portable music devices on 100
patients, whose mean age was 77, outfitted with pacemakers. Electrical
interference was detected half of the time when the iPod was held just
2 inches from the patient’s chest for 5 to 10 seconds.   

The study did not examine any portable music devices other than iPods, which are made by Apple Inc.

In some cases, the iPods caused interference when held 18 inches
from the chest. Interfering with the telemetry equipment caused the
device to misread the heart’s pacing and in one case caused the
pacemaker to stop functioning altogether.

The study was held at the Thoracic and Cardiovascular Institute at
Michigan State University. The results were presented at the Heart
Rhythm Society annual meeting in Denver.

Link: iPods can make pacemakers malfunction: study.

I imagine this is not terribly surprising and from the little I’ve read I get the impression that  people with pacemakers are told to be cautious with any electrical devices.  So I doubt this is big news for most regular people who might actually be affected by it. 

What I find most interesting is two aspects of the coverage this story is getting online, based on articles and comments I’ve read at TechCrunch, CrunchGear, TechDirt, and Consumerist.

First there’s the ageism: people assume that only old people have pacemakers and only young people use iPods.  Newsflash: old folks like music! and they too like to take it with them.  And one day you kids will be old and you’ll still want your iPods, though you’ll probably need extra large buttons by then because of the arthritis in your fingers from all the text messaging you’re now doing.

Then there’s the bizarre criticism that the study is invalid because they didn’t test other music players, as if medical research is just Consumer Reports-style product testing.  Apple virtually owns this market — it’d be strange not to start with an iPod if you were doing this sort of study.  I assume their message (to the heart rhythm specialists they presented this to) is that the medical community needs to be aware of this, study it further, and maybe make their patients more aware of it.  It’s silly to think that they’re saying to anyone "buy a Zune instead."

Of course I should know better than to take seriously the stuff at TechDirt and its ilk.  Reading TechSmug (as I like to call it) always irritates me.  I should have stayed away from it like I swore I would months ago.

(For the record, I use an iPod and a Mac too!)

NY Times says: Stop Clicking!

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I’ve mentioned before (Give Me Back My Mouse) that I have some sort of obsessive clicking/mousing disorder when I read text on the web, and how it irritates me when newfangled ajax-y sites pop up stuff unexpectedly when you idly mouse around.  This week the New York Times has taken a big leap forward in irritating its web readers.  Now if you double-click on any word in an article it (slowly) brings up a big honking window with a definition (and some ads — probably the real reason for this "feature").

The good news (for me) is that it appears I’m far from the only person with this problem.  The Grammar Police blog is heading up the campaign, with a spiffy graphic and an excellent rant:

Okay, nytimes.com, we need to have a talk. The "contextual dictionary," if that’s what you’re calling it, isn’t cute or clever. It’s not helpful. It’s just a pain. The New York Times may be the paper of record, but I’m not putting up with a pop-up record for every word I double click.

Oh, I double-click words—and how. I’m a habitual screensifter. When I’m reading something on the screen, I click, double-click, drag, and highlight words. Any and all words, whole blocs of text, I don’t care. Idly but mercilessly, and according to rules of symmetry and aesthetics so sure and precise I won’t detail them now, I highlight and grab and drag sentences, even whole paragraphs, anywhere I damn well please. If I want to just nervously click on words, that’s what I do.

But the NYT wants to ruin my games—and worse still, prevent me
from reading at all. I’ll be the first to admit that screensifting is
an obsessive–compulsive disorder (and probably a genetically inherited
trait for which I’m not to blame), but nevertheless, there it is,
absolutely unavoidable and necessary to the process of reading the
digital fishwrap.

Read the rest here: Grammar.police.

(via Get Satisfaction)

Give Me Back My Mouse

I don’t usually critique web sites or software on this blog, but I’m going to doff my grumpy Luddite hat for a moment and replace it with my grumpy armchair web critic hat.

One of the design principles behind the modern, spiffy web sites ("AJAX" or whatever the kids are calling it now) is apparently "make stuff happen without mouse clicks."  Rollover buttons are nothing new, but now we get instant popup menus and graphics.  Go to Amazon.com if you don’t know what I’m talking about.  When you mouse over some (but not all) of the headings across the top of the page, big rectangular mini-pages pop out in front, obscuring the rest of the page.

What’s bad about this?  It typically happens unpredictably, it obscures content unnecessarily, and I’d bet it doesn’t save the user any time.  Most of all, it irritates me because I am a restless mouser, and I suspect others are similarly afflicted.  When I’m reading a page, my mouse moves all over, double-clicking on words or tracing patterns.  Whether the result of ADD or some other neurosis, I don’t know.  I like to think it’s akin to doodling.  On today’s web it’s getting harder to find unadorned free space for restless mouse doodling.

Amazon is not a particularly bad example, and I’m sure they do plenty of user testing to keep it from getting too objectionable.  Earlier iterations of their site were worse.  Slate.com‘s home page
is another example.  If your mouse strays too far to the left then
boom — out pops a bit array of text links, obscuring the entire center panel of main headlines.  You
then have to mouse down to the bottom to close, which is at least better than an earlier design that didn’t have a close button at all, so you had to mouse far
away and just wait for this monstrosity it do disappear.

I doubt the designers do this to minimize mouse clicks.  Fewer clicks are often good, especially for repetitive tasks, but that’s not usually a concern with web pages.  My guess is that it’s just a fashion thing — it looks slicker and the newer code makes it easy to do, so why not?

So, while I generally like the newer, frame-free, active web pages, I object to designers hijacking my mouse for other functions.  Let me control my mouse!  I’ll click when I’m ready to click.

Ask the Grumpy Luddite

Q. Can a digital audio file ripped on a PC play on a Mac?

Stop saying "ripped".  It’s stupid.  Use a real word like "recorded".  Same goes for other invented geekspeak like "mash-up" or "remix" when referring to a web page or a Cory Doctorow novel.  Or "podcast".  You’re not impressing anyone.

Q. Do podcast shows play only on Apple iPods?

Yes, podcasts are produced by and for the anti-corporate (except for Apple) techno-hipsterati, each one of whom owns an iPod, or several.  If you don’t own an iPod you’re not cool enough.  The rest of us listen to the radio.  You’re not missing anything important.

Q. What is involved in taking a college course online?

Much technology-induced frustration and pain.  Why are you considering this?  Are you nocturnal, painfully shy, and/or hideously ugly?  Even so you can still get in to a good school (I did).  Do you not have the time?  Find a syllabus and buy the books instead.  Study it on your own time and avoid all the administrative and technical hassles.

Q. Is it legal to listen to a digital-music player with headphones while driving?

Absolutely not.  It’s unsafe.  Never wear headphones while driving a car or riding a bike.  Don’t talk on the phone either.

(Apologies to the NYT for stealing the questions.)

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.