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Posts tagged technology and change

from "A Cultural Conversation with John Maeda," by Dominique Browning,, 2 September 2008 (Non-subscribers can access this article through 9 September 2008 here)

A RISD education is classical and rigorous; first-year students are required to practice the fundamentals of drawing and sculpture. Foundation Studies are taught in rooms filled to the ceilings with thousands of skeletons, taxidermy, minerals, reptiles, birds. (A sign warns “The doves are out so please close the door.”) Other departments cover everything from photography to ceramics. The curriculum is so conservative as to be radical.

Some of RISD’s studios probably haven’t changed in a hundred years. The stuff of art and design is everywhere, in the charcoal dust, the heaps of wet clay, the scraps of wood. A RISD education focuses on what you can do with your hands; an architecture student is expected to be able to draw, a print-maker to use a press. . . .

“A designer is someone who constructs while he thinks, someone for whom planning and making go together,” says Mr. Maeda, cocking his head, widening his eyes, moving his hands as if he were shaping a pot. Mr. Maeda considers himself post-digital; he has outgrown his fascination with hardware and is driven by ideas. “I want to reform technology. All the tools are the same; people make the same things with them. Everyone asks me, ‘Are you bringing technology to RISD?’ I tell them, no, I’m bringing RISD to technology.” He describes a visit to the campus by an executive from Yahoo. Mr. Maeda took him to see the visual resources center in the new library. Hundreds of thousands of drawings, photographs and news clippings, and images of art, architecture and decorative arts—on slides—are cataloged and stored in old-fashioned metal and wood file cabinets. The Yahoo executive was stunned. “This is a real live Google!” Better, says Mr. Maeda.

from "Cell phones promise fairer elections in Africa," by Mike Steere,, 25 August 2008 :: via Polymeme

The humble mobile phone is driving a new revolution which some experts hope could bring fairer elections and democracy to some African states. Many African countries have struggled against rigged elections and authoritarian rule since gaining independence last century.

However, African observers say the growth of simple communication technologies like cell phones are assisting many states to progress towards open and fair elections in increasingly democratic systems. Senegal is one of a number of African countries to hold successful elections by keeping voting and counting in check through independent communication.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said many African nations now had a “very open society” and the increasing success of elections owed a lot to the existence of mobile phones. “With communication and cell phones, this is where it is difficult to cheat in elections now. You are announced at the district level and cell phones go wild so by the time you go to the capital, if you have changed the figures, they will know and you will be caught out.”

from "Cooking For Eggheads," by Patricia Gadsby, DISCOVER, 20 February 2006 :: via

“Cooking eggs is really a question of temperature, not time,” says This. To make the point, he switches on a small oven, sets the thermostat at 65°C, or 149°F, takes four eggs straight from the box, and unceremoniously places them inside. “I use an oven in the lab; it’s easier. But if the oven in your kitchen is not accurate, cook eggs in plenty of water, using a good thermometer.” About an hour later—timing isn’t critical, and the eggs can stay in the oven for hours or even overnight—he retrieves the first egg and carefully shells it. “The 65-degree egg!” he announces. The egg is unlike any I’ve eaten. The white is as delicately set and smooth as custard, and the yolk is still orange and soft. It’s not hard to see why l’oeuf à soixante-cinq degrés is becoming the rage with chefs in France.

The only meaningful use of the phrase “the culture” is embedded in a longer phrase: the culture of a particular sphere, at a particular scale, for a particular people or public (ethnicity), at a particular time. And even this much more careful way of speaking needs to always be accompanied by the awareness that the culture we are describing is changing, perhaps slowly, perhaps quickly.

Culture Making, p.60

from "The Trouble with Twitter," by Ben Kunz, BusinessWeek, 18 August 2008

Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet, noticed that communication networks tend to increase exponentially with each single addition, a logic that today is called Metcalfe’s Law. Think of a fax machine sitting alone and unplugged in your office; it has little value by itself. But plug it into a network of fax machines around the world, and suddenly that communications tool has huge potential. . . .

But Metcalfe’s concept doesn’t apply to Twitter. The explanation why comes from two fellows named Zipf and Dunbar. Back in 1935, linguist George Zipf noticed that words in the English language are used in an interesting pattern. “The” is spoken most commonly, making up 7% of all utterances; “of” is the second-most common word, used exactly one-half as often as “the”…and the pattern continues with the 100th word in popularity being used only 1/100th as often. Zipf’s Law suggests that each subsequent thing in any series (such as your Twitter contacts) has predictable diminishing value. Your spouse is more important than your best friend, who outranks your boss, colleague, and that guy you met on a plane from Chicago. Inside the 2.3 million-strong Twitter network, not all connections are equal, and some will never be used at all. You will probably never send tweets to ice skaters in Finland.

Further depressing Twitter’s internal value is a concept from British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who noted in 1992 that humans—like other primates—can handle only 150 relationships. If we try to add many more connections, our little brains get overloaded.

These are just theories, but they point out that Twitter is not a vast communications network of 2.3 million users squared. Rather, it consists of small pools of people with gaps and limits on how they interact. This is important to marketers and investors, because it puts big brakes on how internal communications could propagate inside any social media network.

from "Temporary Becomes Permanent," by Kevin Kelly, The Long Now Blog, 13 August 2008

Very few infrastructure details begin with the idea that they will last 1,000 years. Strange as it sounds it is very likely that some basic software running inside computers  today will be running in computers 500 years from now. We see that conservation in cells, where very primitive metabolic cycles present in archaic cells are still operating in cells today. All the fancy “recent” improvements run upon them. One could imagine that in 5 centuries, parts of unix will be found operating in servers.  But it is clear that no one would be more surprised than the creators of unix. Most creations, including software, are written in less than optimal conditions. Creators always have the idea that they will go back later to fix the many known imperfections. Of course they are never fixed because the shipped rev is “good enough” — and so the temporary good enough becomes a permanent good enough.

excerpt The natural way

Phaedra Taylor abstained from sex until marriage. But she began researching birth control methods before she was even engaged, and by the time she married David Taylor, she was already charting her fertility.

Taylor, a fresh-faced 28-year-old who would blend in easily with South Austin bohemians, ruled out taking birth control pills after reading a book that claimed the pill could, in some cases, make the uterus uninhabitable after conception occurred. She viewed that as abortion, which she opposes.

“I just wasn’t willing to risk it,” she said.

Taylor wanted her faith to guide her sexual and reproductive decisions after marriage. Natural family planning felt like the best way to honor God, she said.

Update: See David Taylor’s response to the piece on his blog here. “After all these years of trying to get the Statesman to print something about the church and the arts in Austin I now have the honor of having a portion of my sex life on the front page.” You go, David!

a post, 5 July 2008

In 1997, the BBC aired a three-hour documentary based on Stewart Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn. Brand has posted the whole program on Google Video in six 30-minute parts: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six.

If you’re hesitant about whether to watch the series or not, check out this two-minute appetizer of perhaps the meatiest tidbit in the book: the oak beam replacement plan for the dining hall of New College, Oxford. (via smashing telly)

Update: An old version of the New College web site says that the oaks were not planted specifically for the replacement of the ceiling beams even though they were used for that purpose. (thx, emily, david, and phil)

Google Street View, Ginza, Tokyo and Cairns, Queensland
from It's All About the Lighting, by Robert Lee Hotz,, 25 July 2008

Around the world, the night sky is vanishing in a fog of artificial light, which a coalition of naturalists, astronomers and medical researchers consider one of the fastest growing forms of pollution, with consequences for wildlife, people’s health—and the human spirit.

About two-thirds of the world’s population, including almost everyone in the continental U.S. and Europe, no longer see a starry sky where they live. For much of the world, it never even gets dark enough for human eyes to adjust to night vision, reported an international team that mapped the geography of night lighting.

a post, 23 July 2008

Constructing new LEED-certified green buildings is all well and good, but if they’re further from your workers’ homes and you have to tear down perfectly good old buildings to do so, the hoped-for energy savings are wasted.

Embodied energy. Another term unlovely to the ear, it’s one with which preservationists need to get comfortable. In two words, it neatly encapsulates a persuasive rationale for sustaining old buildings rather than building from scratch. When people talk about energy use and buildings, they invariably mean operating energy: how much energy a building—whether new or old—will use from today forward for heating, cooling, and illumination. Starting at this point of analysis—the present—new will often trump old. But the analysis takes into account neither the energy that’s already bound up in preexisting buildings nor the energy used to construct a new green building instead of reusing an old one. “Old buildings are a fossil fuel repository,” as Jackson put it, “places where we’ve saved energy.”

If embodied energy is taken into consideration, a new building that’s replaced an older building will take up to 65 years to start saving energy…and those buildings aren’t really designed to last that long.

a more than 95 theses post by Alan Jacobs

Edge-notched cards were invented in 1896. These are index cards with holes on their edges, which can be selectively slotted to indicate traits or categories, or in our language today, to act as a field. Before the advent of computers were one of the few ways you could sort large databases for more than one term at once.

from "American Murder Mystery", by Hanna Rosin, Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008

Falling crime rates have been one of the great American success stories of the past 15 years. New York and Los Angeles, once the twin capitals of violent crime, have calmed down significantly, as have most other big cities. Criminologists still debate why: the crack war petered out, new policing tactics worked, the economy improved for a long spell. Whatever the alchemy, crime in New York, for instance, is now so low that local prison guards are worried about unemployment.

Lately, though, a new and unexpected pattern has emerged, taking criminologists by surprise. While crime rates in large cities stayed flat, homicide rates in many midsize cities (with populations of between 500,000 and 1 million) began increasing, sometimes by as much as 20percent a year. In 2006, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police group surveying cities from coast to coast, concluded in a report called “A Gathering Storm” that this might represent “the front end … of an epidemic of violence not seen for years.” The leaders of the group, which is made up of police chiefs and sheriffs, theorized about what might be spurring the latest crime wave: the spread of gangs, the masses of offenders coming out of prison, methamphetamines. But mostly they puzzled over the bleak new landscape. According to FBI data, America’s most dangerous spots are now places where Martin Scorsese would never think of staging a shoot-out—Florence, South Carolina; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Reading, Pennsylvania; Orlando, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee.

Memphis has always been associated with some amount of violence. But why has Elvis’s hometown turned into America’s new South Bronx? Barnes thinks he knows one big part of the answer, as does the city’s chief of police. A handful of local criminologists and social scientists think they can explain it, too. But it’s a dismal answer, one that city leaders have made clear they don’t want to hear. It’s an answer that offers up racial stereotypes to fearful whites in a city trying to move beyond racial tensions. Ultimately, it reaches beyond crime and implicates one of the most ambitious antipoverty programs of recent decades.

a Boing Boing post by David Pescovitz, 11 June 2008

We’ve posted previously about the turfwars that can develop between pets and home robots. Today’s Wall Street Journal surveys the battleground in a feature titled “When Dogs and Robots Collide, Somebody Needs A Talking To.” From the WSJ:

According to Daphna Nachminovitch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, introducing robots into a pet household should be done with care. “There’s no way to explain to them that this is not a threat,” she says…

Sympathetic owners sometimes just retire their new purchases. In other cases, the pets take matters into their own paws. Peter Haney, a university administrator in Lethbridge, Alberta, twice found his Roomba in pieces after letting it clean while his flat-coated retrievers, Macleod and Tima, had the run of the house. “No one is talking,” he says…

“It comes up constantly,” says Nancy Dussault Smith, a spokeswoman for iRobot Corp., in Bedford, Mass., which makes the Roomba. “Dogs, cats, all animals, they have their own personalities, so they all react differently to the robots.”

IRobot tested its Roomba designs with pets, she added, incorporating safety measures in the motorized disc-shaped cleaner such as automatic deactivation when it is flipped over or sat on.

by Nate Barksdale for Culture Making

The United Nations Environment Program has just launched this Google map-enabled site with before/after satellite images showing environmental change over the past few decades: cities grow, forests are converted to farmland, glaciers shrink. We’re making something of the world, both for better and for worse.

When a great number of motorcycle functions are regulated by microelectronic rather than mechanical devices, the thoughtful inspection and tuning of the cycle beside a shady curbstone in Miles City, Montana, will have become a thing of the past. They will be impossible and unnecessary. A call for caring makes sense only within a reform proposal that recognizes and fruitfully counters the technological tendency to disburden and disengage us from the care of things.

—Albert Borgmann on the limits of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.