Convergence 08

I just learned about Convergence 08, a two-day event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA featuring a bunch of futurists and other thinkers on technology. From their buzzword-heavy blurb:

On November 15-16, 2008, the world's most dangerous ideas will collide in Mountain View, California. Convergence08 examines the world-changing possibilities of Nanotech and the life-changing promises of Biotech. It is the premier forum for debate and exploration of Cogtech ethics, and ground zero of the past and future Infotech revolution. Convergence08 is an innovative, lively unconference, the first and only forum dedicated to NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno) technologies.


The speaker list includes some heavyweight futurists/technologists like Paul Saffo, Aubrey de Grey and Peter Norvig, and at least one critic, Denise Caruso.

I'm not sure I get the idea of an "unconference" as the main event, though. I thought those were typically free, alternative forums that took place outside big conferences.

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.

Does Kids’ Reading Need to be More Interactive?

That’s what the new LeapFrog Tag promises.  From the New York Times:

This week, LeapFrog pulls the wraps off the LeapPad’s successor, the
Tag, a thick, white and green plastic stylus that turns paper books
into interactive playthings. LeapFrog is betting that the $50 Tag,
which will be available this summer along with an 18-volume library
that includes children’s classics like “The Little Engine That Could”
and “Olivia,” will be the hit it badly needs. It calls the Tag its
“biggest launch ever.”

The Tag, officially called the Tag Reading
System, works a lot like the LeapPad. Children can tap a word with it
and the stylus reads the word, or its definition, aloud. They can tap
on an image to hear a character’s voice come alive. Interactive games
test their reading comprehension. At its simplest, the Tag can also act
as an audio book and simply read a story from beginning to end.

Link: LeapFrog Hopes for next hit with Interactive Reading Toy, via Crooked House, Popgadget.

The Tag also tracks reading progress, which parents can monitor on a website.

I know LeapFrog puts a lot of research into its products so I’m sure the design of this toy is well thought out, but this seems like technology in search of a problem.  Is gadgetry like this going to promote more love of reading or more love of gadgetry?

Engadget did a post on this device recently, and one of the comments includes this:

I have 2 small children, and while we do a lot of "conventional" work
on their reading, the Leapster has been useful and effective.

well, the Leapster has gotten my kids using technology, and getting
comfortable with it, from an early age. Both of my kids (4 and 7 years
old) read well above their age level, and their tech-literacy is far
above their peers.

What kind of tech-literacy do 4-7 year-olds need?  Nobody needs that early a start, do they?  I don’t have kids, so maybe I’m just out of touch.  Getting kids familiar with the tools they’ll use in school makes some sense, but there’s got to be a limit to how young the pressure for techno-literacy needs to go (check out the i-grow PC concept for an idea of where we may be headed).

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.