13 2 / 2013

Okay, just a bizarre coincidence, but it is kind of incredible that a Pope resigns (first) in almost 700 years and within hours, a bolt of lightening strikes St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. From the Gothamist:

Alessandro Di Meo, one of two photographers who captured the ominous event on camera, told the BBC he was met with much skepticism after his photo went public. "I understand that the picture may be incredible," he said. "Photos of lightning have always been done, but the only difference, in this case, is that it is the right place and at the right time." But the cries of “fake” persisted, until video footage of the lightning strike finally emerged (see below). 

But you have to wonder what people would have thought 700 years back - today it is a cry of “It’s Photoshopped!” Back then, it would have meant something entirely different. The last Pope to step down resulted in much deadlier drama - he was hunted down by his successor and died in prison. So a bolt of lightning is on the tame side. Whew! 

31 1 / 2013

Handgun Since we had the Congressional hearings today with the incredible testimony of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, it’s worthwhile looking at a map of gun violence in United States cities compared to the rates in other countries. I am a realist here - I don’t see a reason for high capacity clips and assault rifles but the data is clear that most gun violence is due to handguns.

NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelley was on CNN tonight and admitted as much - shootings here would drop less than 3% with a ban on assault rifles as it’s concealed handguns that are the weapon of choice. But tracking sales and background checks would help - as would addressing mental health issues. Ultimately, there is no single answer here.

The sports announcer Bob Costas was on The Daily Show January 28th and said in response to the recent controversy he stirred up: it is the culture of violence and permissiveness that needs to change. Smoking has gone from being cool to seriously not cool and we’ve managed to limit verbal bullying of people without taking away the First Amendment. But in too many subcultures in the U.S. it’s cool or hip to have a gun … and in some cases to use it (or at least threaten to). This is what has to change dramatically.

The map on gun violence in American cities published in the Atlantic comes from a number of sources - data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with work done by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute using additional data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and collated by The GuardianOf course, the map is comparing urban areas to entire countries but it still reveals the staggering level of gun violence there is in some cities. New Orleans, sadly, takes the top honors for having the highest gun homicide rate, the same as Honduras:Gun Violence Map of United States Cities
A few more details from the article by Richard Florida:

The pattern is staggering. A number of U.S. cities have gun homicide rates in line with the most deadly nations in the world.
  • If it were a country, New Orleans (with a rate 62.1 gun murders per 100,000 people) would rank second in the world.
  • Detroit’s gun homicide rate (35.9) is just a bit less than El Salvador (39.9).
  • Baltimore’s rate (29.7) is not too far off that of Guatemala (34.8).
  • Gun murder in Newark (25.4) and Miami (23.7) is comparable to Colombia (27.1).
  • Washington D.C. (19) has a higher rate of gun homicide than Brazil (18.1).
  • Atlanta’s rate (17.2) is about the same as South Africa (17).

This level of violence should has no place in the United States. But like the issue of smoking, laws and restrictions are only part of a much larger, and much needed, cultural change.

24 1 / 2013

New York City Ice Bridge in 1871 New York City Ice Bridge in 1871

If you live in New York or much of the United States, you’ve noticed the weather this week - temperatures (in Fahrenheit) down near single digits at night. Having to sleep in the living room of my small West Village apartment with its leaky windows (I’m having issues with the ceiling in my bedroom - long story) it’s been one of those pile-every-blanket-you-have-on-the-bed kind of weeks.

But temperatures now pale in comparison to what people endured in the 19th century. Ice regularly blocked the rivers, and ice bridges formed (or were built) by enterprising New Yorkers on a regular basis. It seems that a few individuals were even able to skate to work from Brooklyn. The Gothamist has some great images and accounts of the cold weather and its impact on a very different New York. There are stories of people getting stuck on ice floes as the ice bridges broke up and having to rescued by tug boats, and young boys who charged for use of their ladders to get down to river and back up on the other side (perhaps like the umbrella sellers of our own era that appear every time it rains).

But the absolute best story is the enterprising soul that built a tavern on the North River one winter and dispensed food and drink to those walking across. Honestly, if it’s so cold that you can walk across the Hudson River to Hoboken, you do need a place to stop for a bite to eat. With ferries not running and the tunnels to a yet-to-be-built Penn Station still a few decades away, you can visualize people having to drag their luggage across the ice to catch a train from the New Jersey side down to Philadelphia or beyond. I’m trying to imagine how a modern day 1010 Wins radio station with it’s every ten minute traffic and transit news would have described this.

But (local) weather and (global) climate are not the same so we still seem to be in an era of massive global warming. Yesterday, the news pointed to a new study that concluded that glaciers in the Andes have melted at an unprecedented rate since the 1970’s, receding from 30% to 50%. Regardless what you see as the cause, global warming is a reality.

So don’t despair,  we’ll soon be back up to our  seasonal temperatures (if not warmer) and New York will seem downright balmy.

22 1 / 2013

Watching the Inauguration, one thing was undeniably clear: we live in a world awash in technology, where every moment is a media moment, where everyone carries a camera and digital video device through their smart phone. You almost have to wonder how people survived earlier inaugurations where the only cameras were in the hands of the credentialed press corp.

What would Jefferson and Adams had done if they could have put aside their quill pens and picked up Smart phones? With years of  animosity between them (before the touching correspondence of their final years), you can only imagine the Tweets, the Instagrams, the Facebook posts that might have flown back and forth. Not that the other “Founding Fathers” got along all that well with each other. Twitter would have been overburdened with its servers going down just like they did on this year’s  Inauguration.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21:  U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) (L) takes a photo as he arrives during the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC.   Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) (L) takes a photo as he arrives during the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Two quick observations:

  1. Technology is a great democratizing force - perhaps in ways we do not fully understand but definitely in terms of human behavior. In this Inauguration (and one assumes even more so for those that follow), everyone takes photos and videos with their Smart phones - not just those in the audience, but celebrities and others on stage. Heck, even Piers Morgan of CNN was going on about how he did a Smart phone video of an event he was covering. Wherever there’s a crowd, people are holding their phones above their heads, recording what they see for later.
  2. Taking photos with your Apple iPad just doesn’t make sense. Okay, maybe the iPad Mini, but not the full size one. It just looks ridiculous and it’s hard to manipulate. Just because you can take a photo with an iPad doesn’t mean you should.

Red Fedora iPad Guy at Inauguration. Image; mashable.com Red Fedora iPad Guy at Inauguration. Image; mashable.com

Sasha Yawns at the Inauguration

Sasha Yawns.

Anyways, you can have a laugh at other photos and GIFs put together over at mashable.com. I doubt anyone at the Inauguration did not have at least one awkward moment, one badly timed yawn, or at least one inappropriate glance at someone else. In truth, that’s the way human existence has always been.

It’s just that now we record every single moment of human existence (at events like this), both on stage and off.

Of course, most of this will look somewhat silly four years from now - in the next inauguration in January 2017, people will be wearing Google Glass devices and other wearable video recorders. You won’t have to hold your phone above your head. Though on second thought, it may look even more unusual - people may have to hold their eyeglasses above their heads in order to get an unobstructed shot.

We’ll see soon enough.

16 1 / 2013


On the pace of Technology change, by Kevin Kelley, posted over at PopTECH:

Five hundred years ago, technologies were not doubling in power and halving in price every eighteen months. Waterwheels were not becoming cheaper every year. A hammer was not easier to use from one decade to the next. Iron was not increasing in strength. The yield of corn seed varied by the season’s climate, instead of improving each year. Every 12 months, you could not upgrade your oxen’s yoke to anything much better than what you already had. 

Whatever you learn today, you will need to relearn tomorrow.

(Source: marginlines.com)

16 1 / 2013

Even if you didn’t who Aaron Swartz was before his suicide the other day, you probably do now. A tech prodigy (co-developer of RSS code and the website Reddit) and thoughtful young activist who fought to fulfill the real potential of our communications revolution - who Lawrence Lessig called an “incredible soul” - Swartz was facing up to 35 years in jail and millions in fines for taking documents via MIT’s network from the non-profit JSTOR repository. JSTOR was willing to settle; it seems that MIT was not. Clearly the Department of Justice was determined to prosecute this case to the bitter end.

I didn’t know Aaron but have followed his work for years. Some of the tributes by those who knew him can be found at the Guardian site.

Whether or not Aaron’s suicide is directly attributable to the legal case against him is hard to say - I tend to think that it is is but we never truly know the source of the inner demons in someone else’s mind. The family feels strongly that the court case is to blame.

What is truly frightening in all of this is the disproportionality of our intellectual property and copyright law. Mind you, Aaron was facing far more time in jail than if he had gone out and shot someone, robbed a bank, trafficked slaves, or threatened the President. Think Progress has a summary of the time you face for these crimes - if we learn anything from Aaron’s tragic death, it should be that the fear (largely from the corporate world) of the incredible ability to share ideas and resources in the digital age has spurred to a profound overreaction to protect intellectual property. Whatever Aaron did - even if one does draw the conclusion that it was outright theft - it does not measure up to the following.

Here is some of the list from Think Progress:

To put these charges in perspective, here are ten examples of federal crimes that carry lesser prison sentences than Swartz’ alleged crime of downloading academic articles in an effort to make knowledge widely available to the public:

  • Manslaughter: Federal law provides that someone who kills another human being “[u]pon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if subject to federal jurisdiction. The lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of only six years.
  • Bank Robbery: A person who “by force and violence, or by intimidation” robs a bank faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. If the criminal “assaults any person, or puts in jeopardy the life of any person by the use of a dangerous weapon or device,” this sentence is upped to a maximum of 25 years.
  • Selling Child Pornography: The maximum prison sentence for a first-time offender who “knowingly sells or possesses with intent to sell” child pornography in interstate commerce is 20 years. Significantly, the only way to produce child porn is to sexually molest a child, which means that such a criminal is literally profiting off of child rape or sexual abuse … . 
  • Selling Slaves: Under federal law, a person who willfully sells another person “into any condition of involuntary servitude” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, although the penalty can be much higher if the slaver’s actions involve kidnapping, sexual abuse or an attempt to kill … . 
  • Helping al-Qaeda Develop A Nuclear Weapon: A person who “willfully participates in or knowingly provides material support or resources … to a nuclear weapons program or other weapons of mass destruction program of a foreign terrorist power, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be imprisoned for not more than 20 years.”
  • Violence At International Airports: Someone who uses a weapon to “perform[] an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that causes or is likely to cause serious bodily injury” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if their actions do not result in a death… .

May his passing help us rethink our priorities and ensure that the Internet is a place of freedom.

(Source: marginlines.com)

15 12 / 2012

More gun violence. My heart goes out to those affected by the tragedy in Newtown Connecticut as 20 small children and seven adults die in one of the worst massacres in U.S. history. One recoils at the horror of what the children in that school went through; and it’s impossible to fathom the pain and suffering that the families, the communities and so many others will feel. 

At the same time (or the same day more or less), a man in China walked into a primary school in the Henan province village of Chengpin and attacked 22 young children and one adult. We don’t know what was troubling him, but the difference was that all the children are still alive.

He used a knife.

Here, someone picks up a Glock semiautomatic pistol and puts on a military vest before entering a primary school to shed blood. Glocks seem to be a favorite of those bent on a deadly rampage, used in killings in Arizona, Wisconsin, and Colorado. Perhaps because they’re so effective.

But I don’t see an easy answer to the gun violence here. It goes beyond access to the weapons themselves - it’s not video games, movies, or television but something else. Those are all the easy targets, the easy answers to something we do not understand.

For now, a short piece by Roger Ebert from his review of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and reposted in Kottke.org:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Everybody was happy, indeed.

Sadly, we’ll probably make ourselves happy again, finding something easy to condemn for the shooting, bemoaning the gun violence we hear about so frequently and missing the deeper issue entirely. But there will be no comfort for the people in Newtown.

(Source: marginlines.com)

23 11 / 2012

Thanksgiving is over and now Black Friday is here - an American social phenomenon I’ve never quite understood. I get waiting in line for a good deal (though it would have to be a really good deal) yet this seems much more about the mass psychology than any real bargains. The numbers are fairly staggering: in 2011, an estimated 226 million people spent an average of $398 dollars each. But did they get a deal?

A study in an October Wall Street Journal article revealed Black Friday shoppers often pay more than they would have if they waited until closer to Christmas or even bought what they wanted three or four weeks prior to Thanksgiving. Yes, there are many cases where there’s an increase in prices in the weeks leading up to the infamous Friday ordeal.

After crunching two to six years’ worth of pricing data for a number of typical holiday gifts, The Wall Street Journal has turned up the best times to go deal hunting — and they almost never involve standing in the freezing cold all night.
It turns out that gifts from Barbie dolls to watches to blenders are often priced below Black Friday levels at various times throughout the year, even during the holiday season, and their prices follow different trajectories as the remaining shopping days tick down.
Watches and jewelry, typical last-minute quarry for well-heeled shoppers, get more expensive as the season progresses, according to Decide Inc., the consumer-price research firm that gathered and analyzed the data for this article. Blenders, which might sit around for months if they aren’t bought in the holiday window, get much cheaper at the end.
The results reveal a lot about how retailers plot pricing strategy ahead of the year-end shopping frenzy that can account for a fifth or more of their sales. They also highlight how the industry has managed to use more sophisticated technology to turn Black Friday into a marketing bonanza by carefully selecting items for deep discounts while continuing to price broader merchandise at levels that won’t kill profits. 

So a few deep discounts can lead to a “marketing bonanza” as prices generally do not fall that much. Quite possibly the scarcity aspect factors into this - that limited quantities create the illusion of value greater than the actual discount. 

So my plans for Friday? Go for a walk, see some art, and spend a little time in a cafe writing. And avoid the stress and the chaos that will be particularly acute in Manhattan. Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving.

(Source: marginlines.com)

19 11 / 2012

A very cool short time-lapse video of planes lining up for a landing at London’s Heathrow airport. Speeded up 17x, the jumbo jets appear as small toys buffeted by the wind. There’s enough time-lapse videos out there, but this one is nicely done with a matching soundtrack. They look like puppets on strings.

(Source: marginlines.com)

07 11 / 2012

Election night is ending and the networks have called it for Obama. Politico has a quick view of the many pundits who were off - some very, very off - base in their predictions.

No doubt there will be much more analysis of who was right and wrong in the coming weeks but in the heat of the final night of a long election year (really more than 18 months), it’s a fun read. 

Here’s some of the quotes from those who were most off-base:

Newt Gingrich:

“I believe the minimum result will be 53-47 Romney, over 300 electoral votes.” – Oct. 25, on Fox News. Karl Rove: Romney 285, Obama 253. “If crowds at his recent stops in these states [NV, WI and PA] are any indication of his supporters’ enthusiasm, Mr. Romney will likely be able to claim victory in these states as well.” — Nov. 5, on his website. Fox News contributor Dick Morris: Romney 325, Obama 213. “It will be the biggest surprise in recent American political history. It will rekindle the whole question as to why the media played this race as a nail biter where in fact I think Romney’s going to win by quite a bit.” — Nov. 4, on Fox News.  Conservative columnist George Will: Romney 321, Obama 217. “The wild card in what I’ve projected is I’m projecting Minnesota to go for Romney.” — Nov. 4, on ABC’s “This Week.” UnskewedPolls’ Dean Chambers: Romney 311, Obama 227. “Despite the pattern of skewed polls, most of them commissioned by the mainstream media, the overall electoral landscape is looking more and more favorable for Romney.” — Nov. 1, on examiner.com. The Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone: “Bottom line: Romney 315, Obama 223. That sounds high for Romney. But he could drop Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and still win the election. Fundamentals.” — Nov. 2, writing in The Washington Examiner. CNBC’s Larry Kudlow: ”I am now predicting a 330 vote electoral vote landslide. Yes, that’s right — 330 electoral votes.” — Oct. 25, on CNBC. Rush Limbaugh: “All of my thinking says Romney big. All of my feeling is where my concern is. But my thoughts, my intellectual analysis of this — factoring everything I see plus the polling data — it’s not even close. Three hundred-plus electoral votes for Romney.” — Nov. 5, on his radio show.

(Source: marginlines.com)

23 10 / 2012

Take a look at Memoto. A long look … this may be a game-changer.

Lifelogging has been around for some time - at least two decades if you look at the work Steve Mann with his “wearable computer” and “reality mediator” inventions. I remember watching Mann walk through the streets of Florence, Italy in the early 90’s and thinking this is just too cumbersome to be practical. But you knew the technology would shrink and with the advent of Smart phones and the pending Google Project Glass, we’ve gone from chest-mounted cameras and batteries to the latest innovation that may put lifelogging firmly on the map - Memoto’s lifelogging camera.

Memoto is a Swedish company and their new product is an incredibly small and beautiful camera (think Apple here) that you wear around your neck or clip on your shirt or blouse. The device is postage-stamp size and drop-dead simple:

The Memoto device measures 36x36x9mm and contains a five-megapixel camera, a GPS unit, an accelerometer and 8GB of storage – enough for two days’ worth of photos, seeing as the device takes a photo every 30 seconds. It will cost $279, or nothing for early backers who give $199 or more. The user will need to hook the device up to their computer every couple of days, both to upload the photos and recharge the battery. The photos will go onto Memoto’s servers and be made accessible for time-lapse-style playback through Smartphone apps. (Gigaom)

They launched the project on Kickstarter today and reached their $50,000 goal in five hours. At this point, they’re over $131,000 with 37 days to go. And they’ve stretched the goal to $150,000 and will allow backers to crowdsource the color of one of the models. $199 now gets you one when it comes out at a serious discount to the retail cost.

On one level, this kind of stuff can freak you out - every moment of one’s life recorded, and your life becoming the recorded moments of others. But on the other hand, it is deeply fascinating. Yes, I put my money down so I’m a backer. I want one as soon as they come out.

Here’s the nicely done video from Memoto on the device and the possibilities of lifelogging:

We’ve come a long way from the early years of Steve Mann’s clunky devices (state-of-art at the time). I have no idea what lies at the end of this road (privacy, anyone?) but it’s fascinating. 

(Source: marginlines.com)

22 10 / 2012

A visualization of Facebook activity and how a photograph goes viral. The short video below reproduces the acts of hundreds of thousands of individuals on Facebook as they share a photograph, Famous Failures, first posted on Star Trek actor George Takei’s Page.

Each visualization is made up of a series of branches starting from a single person. As the branch grows, re-shares split off on their own arcs, sometimes spawning a new generation of re-shares, sometimes exploding in a short-lived burst of activity. The two different colors show gender, and each successive generation becomes more and more white as time goes by.

The data is taken from a three-month period from July to September 2012 and utilized  Facebook news feeds. Our activity appears almost fractal in the video, or perhaps we are collectively like a budding flower in what we do.

You can see two other videos on the Facebook Stories site; all three were done by Stamen, an art and design studio based in San Francisco. If you are interested in the details of how the project was completed over a two-week period, Stamen has an account on their blog at Facebook: Evolution of the Flowers that is worth reading.



19 10 / 2012

Great video on copyright law, remix and free culture. Disney was one of the great mashup artists of his time and way ahead of everyone else in the use of technology to remix culture. But through the lobbying of corporations, the concept of copyright went from supporting creativity to a situation where a new generation of digitally literate kids are in regular violation of the law. This isn’t about stealing music and down downloading movies illegally; it is about fair-use and that the law needs to adapt to the new landscape of the digital revolution.

I’m not that hopeful in the short term, but perhaps down the road, Lawrence Lessig may be the inspiration for kids to effect change. After all, it’s the world they are inheriting and right now it’s a contradictory mess between the forces of innovation on the one side and legal codes that were written for a wholly different era.

17 10 / 2012

When politicians nearly come to a fistfight at a debate (forget Obama and Romney circling each other last night - that wasn’t even close), you know the end result will be a new political ad and this one is very effective. The episode was a forum for a very bitter race between two redistricted democrats in a congressional race in California, featuring Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA).

You can find more details at the LA Times if you’re interested (and as you might expect, the candidates do not actually disagree that much). You can almost get into each others face at a debate, but you cross a line when your arm goes around your opponent’s shoulder or neck. What next? Actual slug fests for those running for office?

More than a few have noted that the American psyche has its coarse edges though other countries have had entire Parliaments descend into fistfights. Perhaps we should cherish our modicum of restraint before it completely disappears.

(Source: marginlines.com)

26 9 / 2012

I usually don’t post crash videos like this of a truck crash (they’re everywhere on the Web) but this particular one is remarkable. From Russia, a near head-on collision that sends the driver of one truck through his windshield with his blanket. And he’s thrown out, well, not gracefully, but almost like a practicing gymnast stepping off the pummel horse at the end of a routine. And yes, he walks away from the incident, a little dazed but completely intact.

The accident was caught by a dashboard cam, which is starting to appear more frequently as it can resolve insurance claims for accidents. With all of the technology being added to motor vehicles (including rear-facing cameras and seats that provide warning alerts), one might anticipate that the days of freewheeling driving will become a thing of the past.

If Google cofounder Sergey Brin’s prediction is right, within five years Google will have self-driving cars available for the public. Google has already driven over 300,000 miles with the vehicles. But with greater power and flexibility will come demands for increased accountability - it won’t do for a driver to say, “I didn’t cause that accident, my car did it on its own.”

Welcome to a world of dashboard cams and route and driver sensors.

But I digress. Back to Russia, and one lucky person, in a country where for now luck is still an essential commodity for a career as a truck driver. (from kottke.org)

(Source: marginlines.com)