July 31, 2006
Could Global Warming Kill the Internet?
The current summer heat wave has been blamed for taking out MySpace for 12 hours, and more anecdotally the internet does not seem to be weathering the weather to well. The few mailing lists I subscribe to are filling up with tales of server fires and emails failing or being delayed far more than usual. Tales that are mirrored pretty accurately in my own webhosting and email accounts.
The internet is a big network of servers, and servers are hot. They devour electricity, they run hot and they mainline air conditioning. When the global thermostat goes up, the servers start going down. It is all a bit of sci-fi now, but could it be that one of the big casualties of global warming might just end up being the internet?
update: Dreamhost (who I use) have posted a fascinating mea culpa about why they went down in the heat. The power demands of these hosting companies and datacenters is pretty insane...
Wireless Warfare in the Streets
It's a pretty innocuous headline and photo, but make no mistake this is an early salvo in what looks to be a heated battle over the control of the wireless infrastructure. The cell phone service providers are on one side, the equipment makers and software companies on the other. Governments? They are both omnipresent yet conspicuously absent from the core of the debate, they seem to only have a clue as to what is happening at certain key junctures (ie when municipal WiFi discussions get serious like in SF or Philadelphia).
At the core this is an issue of information, an issue of which corporations are controlling the gateways between you and the network(s) you need to access to connect to the world. To a large extent it seems the wires are already laid down, at least for the moment it seems there is plenty of fiber in the ground and the providers are reduced to the status of commodity sellers. Net neutrality might change that, but that is an issue for another day. It is the wireless protocols that are up for grabs. So far the cellular companies have a massive lead, they have the infrastructure both to provide and to profit built up, running and accepted by the public at large.
But with that advantage comes a huge arrogance, and perhaps a short-sightedness as well. The cell companies think they can call the shots and in the process they've pushed aside the handset makers and locked the software and information technology companies out almost completely. They also have with typical phone company airs completely failed to win the confidence of their users, do you know anyone who actually likes their cell phone company?
The cell phone companies are gambling on controlling the airwaves, on staying oligarchical. This threatens a whole other group, perhaps we can call them the network idealists, the coders and hackers, activists and enthusiasts that drive the networked underground of global information projects. I call them Benkler labor, after Yochai Benkler and his theory of networked productivity.
The anti-cellular company strategy combines a hodgepodge of consumer dissatisfaction, plain old desire for better prices, Benkler labor and in places old school government public works projects into the creation of a so far mythical, but theoretically very possible, wifi meshwork. If there are enough accessible wifi hotspots overlapping each other in a giant mesh of wireless connectivity, it becomes possible to route around the cellular providers. Instead of a handful of capital intensive cellphone towers, the plan is to provide connectivity via a swarm of wifi routers connected to people's broadband lines in their homes and offices. It sounds a little precarious to me, but if you were a mid to large sized company coming face to face with the fact that your livelihood is dangerously close to being controlled entirely by a handful of cellular companies any way out probably looks like a good gamble.
At the moment at least the wifi forces are all about open technology, they are at such a disadvantage compared to the already built up and profitable cellular networks that they need every advantage they can get, and open network infrastructure is a key one. Some of the players are idealistic about it, others I suspect not, but for the moment at least this is in a large part a battle of openness versus closed and controlled access to the networks, which is what the cellular companies have now and want to keep. If the cellular companies win this battle it is tantamount to handing over your personal information to your provider. It isn't pretty, but you probably have done it already. They know where you are, or at least where your phone is. They know how to reach you. They know who you talk to, and if they wanted to I'm sure they could figure out exactly what you said, although it would not exactly be legal in the US for them to do so. All they want to do is add the contents of all your emails, web browsing and file sharing. Yeah not too much.
The stakes are high, whoever controls the pipes in which your information flows essentially occupies a position where they have the potential to exert incredible control over you. Whether that potential is realizable though is a huge issue. The wifi activists offer a solution with unclear long term ramifications. They want to ramp up the wifi network to a point somewhat akin to where the wired internet lies today. One that is relatively open, somewhat balanced but with huge weakness just beginning to emerge, as American's are learning with the current net neutrality legislation churning in congress. In other words we are on the verge of a round of corporate warfare with potential to be as messy as that "real" warfare engulfing the middle east. So pick your carrier carefully, who knows where this leads...
July 29, 2006
It only took four hours for them to deny the Bulgarian Bar a cabaret license... As great as NY can be, this need a license to dance indoors business is a serious dark spot on the soul. And as fantastically diverse as this community board might be, the whole "not in my backyard" (or maybe "not on my sidewalk") business is just and dirty and sad to watch as it must be in some lily white suburb. We all have our contradictions, but I'm curious as to just how a brain can passionately argue for the need for affordable housing one minute and then turn around a few minutes later and just as passionately argue to deny a person the one document they need to pay rent.
July 24, 2006
The current madness in the middle east came so fast and stays so furious it's difficult to make heads or tails over what is happening. It is one particular question though keeps echoing through my head: just who gains from all this violence?
Clearly the peace loving people in Lebanon, which I believe is a hefty majority of the country, loose big time. They made a tacit gamble, that it was acceptable to leave Hezbollah in control of the southern portion of the country in exchange for being able to rebuild their country in peace. Israel now has made it quite clear that this is unacceptable in their eyes.
Just how Hezbollah comes out of this one remains to be seen. They may well come out stronger and more popular than ever, or they might come out depleted and with less support. Only time can answer this one really. But if reports of their fighting strength and extensive financial network are true they very may well come out looking pretty good and in position to rebound and keep growing.
How the Palestinians figure in this is utterly up in the air, they've practically disappeared from the news.
If the numbers thrown about claiming that 90% of Israelis support the recent actions in Lebanon, than clearly most Israelis think they will come out the better from this mess. But just how does destabilizing a neighboring country help the people of Israel? How does showing to the world a willingness to attack civilian targets on a large scale help the people of Israel? Even if they manage to practically eliminate Hezbollah and their rockets, which looking increasingly unlikely, I can't see this helping the people of Israel out in the long run.
So who gains? There is one very clear winner in all of this and that is the Israeli military. Or as much as I hate the term, what might be best called the Israeli military industrial complex, which I should note must include the military's supporters in the government. For while the people of Israel have plenty to gain from somehow reaching a state of peace, the military has almost nothing to gain. By bombing Lebanon into a state of chaos, the military is almost certain to win. The country will stay turbulent enough to be scary, yet unstable enough to be a serious military threat. Even if Hezbollah hands the Israeli's their asses on a platter, which just might be happening as I write this, the military walks away with ammunition for even more funding. Unless Hezbollah somehow has reached the capability of actually invading Israel, the military is in the sort of win no matter how the cards situation that intelligence agencies have abused for decades. If they fail it is because they are underfunded, if they win they have done a good job and deserve more funding.
A stable Lebanon on the other hand poses a double sided threat to the military. On one edge it might rebound enough to actually build a serious military. On the other edge it might rebound enough to begin creating strong enough economic exchanges with Israel that actual peace might develop. And very little could threaten the perpetuation of a strong and intensely funded Israeli military more than actual peace.
July 23, 2006
July 21, 2006
GAM3R 7H30RY is McKenzie Wark's experimental online book, created with the Institute for the Future of the Book. I've always found Wark's writing both fascinating and infuriating and what little I've read of this work keeps up the pace. But what is far more interesting is just accurately the digital book format mirrors the same sort of fascinating/infuriating oscillation.
In the end the format both fails and succeeds in big ways. Like Bruno Latour's similar, yet less ambitious experiment Paris: Invisible City, the content is just incredibly ill suited to be read on a computer screen. Part of the problem is resolution, computer screens today tend to have resolutions around 100 pixels per inch. Reading comprehension off a screen apparently doesn't match that of printed matter until the resolution is about 200 pixels per inch. When you are reading the news, or some blogger, or the sports scores this does not matter much. But when you are trying to grok a complex academic text, forget it. I once read the entirety of Hardt and Negri's Empire on my "smartphone". I enjoyed it completely, yet I could not recall a single thing from the text.
The other side of the problem is posture, academic texts are also not meant to be read while sitting upright at a desk, and putting a hot laptop on your lap is not exactly the same as curling up with a good book, is it? But this again is ultimately a technical issue, and like with the screen resolution issue odds are it will be solved soon enough. Which brings us to the good stuff.
What's great about GAM3R 7H30RY is the incredible amount of commentary it is generating. It is pretty much the most dynamic feeling text out there. Lots of call and response going on and it makes it all feel very alive, like a breathe of fresh air in a stagnent library. Not only does it capture the vibrant energy that occurs in good blog powered exchanges, but thanks to it's ajax interface it actually pushes past into something even better.
The real question I have, and it's one I seem to ask all the time, is how much of this scales? How much of this is repeatable and how much is just a function of time, place and circumstance. There certainly might be some first mover advantage here, the novelty generates interest, which generates more feedback than the next experiment will get. Then there is the matter of the books structure. Wark is a highly stylized writer, and he loves playing with form. In this case the form is an almost ritualized structure of rather discrete paragraphs. Chunks of text that do not need a huge amount of context to be understood.
I suspect this structure is extremely helpful in fascillitating feedback. The pauses between paragraphs are so big and so deliberate, it makes it very easy to pause to type out a comment. You actually need to actively click to get the next paragraph, so it's pretty much a choice of two actions, react or continue on. The big question here is whether that amounts to something more like a parlor trick, or a writing tactic that can be replicated with relative ease. Or maybe it's a red herring, but then again maybe every academic book in some future will be written in these little chucks, explicitly to provoke feedback.
In the end though, I'm still waiting for the printed version to read this thing...
July 19, 2006
Attention All Datamining / Music Geeks
While trying to get the correct Rakim quote for the next post I stumbled upon this: Albums by Year -- Rate Your Music. It looks like it should provide an absolutely stunning database for anyone interested in long term data visualization. How do these lists, which are just surprising enough to feel like a very valid dataset, compare to Billboard's top albums? What about to the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics poll? And perhaps most interestingly how do they change over time?
For instance 1991, a year I listened to an awful lot of music, is fascinating. At what point did the Main Source record, which almost no one listened to in 91 become higher rated than Nirvana? When did Quest hit #1 and My Bloody Valentine, who were relatively obscure back then hit #2? What about the Swans at 13? They were not just obscure and not just the underground, they were the obscure side of the underground.
It's interesting just how clearly musical peaks shine through, pick a given year and you'll probably get the sense that a certain genre is over represented, death metal in 91 for instance. But if you look over span of years it becomes clear that it is not true, the over represenations are probably accurate representations of a genre's prime eras. For instance hip hops two golden ages, in the late 80s and mid 90s shine super bright on the top of the charts. Yet by 1997 it barely shows up, the classics replaced by only churn.
It should be fascinating to watch this stuff change as bands and retros go in and out of style, classics get forgotten or dug up, tastes go sour then shine bright again and the music continues to play.
Yo, What Happened to Peace?
In the realm of universal history, balance of power was concerned with states whose independence it served to maintain. But it attained this end only by the continuous wars between changing partners... The fact that in the nineteenth century the same mechanism resulted in peace rather than war is a problem to challenge the historian.
The entirely new factor, we submit, was the emergence of an acute peace interest. Traditionally, such an interest was regarded as being outside the scope of the system. Peace with its corollaries of crafts and arts ranked among the mere adornments of life. The Church might pray for peace as for a bountiful harvest, but in the realm of state action it would nevertheless advocate armed intervention; governments subordinated peace to security and sovereignty, that is, to intents that could not be achieved otherwise than by recourse to the ultimate means. Few things were regarded as more detrimental to the community than the existence of an organized peace interest in its midst. As late as the second half of the eighteenth century, J.J. Rousseau arraigned tradespeople for their lack of patriotism because they were suspect of preferring peace to liberty.
Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation (emphasis is mine)
July 18, 2006
Prelude: Renegade Economic Objects
July 17, 2006
Well maybe it's a good teaser ad, or maybe some couple has way to much money in their joint bank account. Either way it is effective, first street ad I can remember that sparked a conversation with a stranger since the Time graffiti billboard.
update: yep an ad campaign, looks like it got the PR they wanted, wonder if it translates into any viewers? Certainly makes me feel a bit manipulated, and thus less favorable to the advertiser, despite the fact that I suspected it might be an ad from the outset.
July 15, 2006
Cass Sunstein Moments
I call them Cass Sunstein moments in honor of his widely (and perhaps deservedly) ignored book Republic.com. Perhaps they are better called Steven Johnson moments, for it might just be that Johnson's mild obsession with rebutting Sunstein's argument that keeps it from sliding into utter obscurity. Whatever it's called though I had one this morning as I surfed the web for a hit of news and information.
It was a pretty good read, food, fair trade, obscure Google and Yahoo hires, a font article and my favorite, a four month old post on a decade old interface which led me to Amazon and a used book purchase. Good surfing, nice waves. Then came the moment, a hit of discord. "Isn't the middle east on the verge of war?" What the hell was I doing digging through ancient (by internet terms) design texts, when the world was peering off on the edge of hell and threatening to take the stock market with it?
This is exactly what Sunstein is worried about in an internet era. A world of people lost in their own little "Daily Me" of information and completely unaware of bigger issues and free of events that bring people together in the way say the Super Bowl or World Cup do. And for a moment I was there, off in some designer nerd crafted info bubble. Just a moment though, for bubble's like Sunstein's argument are prone to pop.
For one thing I knew something was up in Middle East. The first thing on my morning ritual, before even getting out of bed, is to read Slate's Today's Papers, a handy synopsis of what our old media establishment think is important. I read it every morning cause I want to know what other people are thinking, what other people are talking about. I don't think I'm alone either, people are social animals, as much as they may love their niche interests they also want to stay in touch with each other. As deep and detailed as your personal interests get, most people are well aware that it's healthy to know what's going on around you. Funnily enough it seems most people don't even need a New York Times editor to remind them that a bit of perspective is helpful from time to time. I may have had a Cass Sunstein moment this morning. But it was just a moment, not some sort of permanent state, and it is that distinction that makes it so difficult to effectively take on his argument.
Sunstein is right only in the broadest of senses, he has identified (and he's far from the only one to do so) a key issue in our rapidly expanding media world. That in a world of intensely diversifying niches it's possible to lose perspective on the broader connections and issues in the world. You can't dismiss the issue, it's very real, but the details are so unformed so far that you can't even call it anything more than an issue. Whether it is even worth calling a "problem" is very much up for grabs. Sure there is enough news focused solely on your favorite sports team or obscure literary genre that you can ignore the drone planes smashing into warships off the coast of Lebanon. And it happens for sure. But those happenings are only moments, maybe you are off in your "daily me" for an hour, maybe months, heck there probably people who will spend their whole lives in it. But will you? Probably not, quite simply because you probably don't want too (although if news stays as bad as it has the past couple days that may change.)
The world is changing, the media is changing, and with it comes a deep potential to get lost in the swarm. But will we? Humans have a remarkable ability to create problems for themselves for sure, but they also have a remarkable ability to solve them, to adapt and to evolve. I've given up trying to predict the future, I'll settle for just avoiding Cass Sunstein moments.
July 13, 2006
What could be more "California ideology" than listening to intellectual ideas as digital books-on-tape (aka podcasts)?
Nothing sums up the California Ideology better than the long running TED conference. TED stands for "technology, entertainment, design" and that's a tab of acid and a pinch of pop religious psychology short of an inclusive definition. And if TED represents the 1990's core of the ideology than the Long Now Foundation must be the trailblazer, marking the direction the ideology is evolving towards in this new millennium. And conveniently enough both organizations are now podcasting, letting you tune in with out ever leaving your computer, flipping a page or moving a dirty dollar.
I've been flipping through the offerings for a bit, and most are predictably interesting. Worth listening to for sure, but don't expect to be challenged or surprised by what you hear. So far only two have managed to surprise me and both are well worth the effort.
The Long Now podcasts are not surprisingly much longer than the TED ones and Stephen Lansing's "Perfect Order: A Thousand Years in Bali" fills that hour and a half with decades worth of fascinating research on the intersection of religion and ecology in Balinese culture. Incredible stuff.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise, but listening to Tony Robbins in action was far more engaging and interesting than I had expected, particularly if you just listen to the audio, rather than watching the video. It's actually rather an inverted Nixon-Kennedy debate situation, Robbins comes off far more intelligently when you can't see his pretty face and infomercial energy. On the other hand the video is worth watching if only because it captures the now classic exchange between Robbins and Al Gore.
In any case, Robbins is a motivational speaker, so of course he knows how speak well. It's worth listening to just to observe his technique. More than that though, what I didn't know about him is that he is pop priest of Neuro Linguistic Programming. As the new age movement shifts more towards the scientific and psuedo-scientific, pretty much makes Robbins the spiritual face of the California ideology. Give him 22 minutes at TED and he'll give you the world. For all the talk of Christianity in America, this is America's real religion, in one neat tidy package.
July 12, 2006
July 11, 2006
Innovation & Design
1. The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.
2. A change made in the nature or fashion of anything; something newly introduced; a novel practice, method, etc.
5. Comm. The action of introducing a new product into the market; a product newly brought on to the market.
Just when did design start turning into innovation?
I had been waiting for Business Week's new design "magazine within a magazine", Inside Innovation, with considerable interest. My own tastes in business weeklies runs more towards Barron's and The Economist than to BW itself, so it's not that I excited about the prospective content and writing. But the very fact that BW was launching a design focused magazine is news itself and I was quite interested in just what their take would be. Peter Merholz reactions to the content itself are pretty spot on, but what really struck was the branding. I was expecting a design magazine, and indeed there are occasional indications that was what it is or was supposed to be at some point. But for the most part what came out from the title on down was not a magazine about design at all but one about "innovation". And design is quite explicitly not equal to innovation.
No one is explicitly claiming design and innovation are the same thing, but in Business Week you can see the story of innovation implicitly being used to substitute for design. Their recent extensive design coverage is mainly driven by one man, Bruce Nussbaum, who is both the editor of Inside Information and the person who has been getting all sorts of design focused articles into the plain old Business Week. His blog, dating back to September 2005, is NussbaumOnDesign. Clearly design is the focus, although it is subtitled "inside the business of innovation and design". Innovation is there, yes, but it is clearly distinguished as being distinct from design. The distinction is echoed by some of the more interesting and larger design firms. live|work for instance is in the business of "service innovation & design", while Frog splits it's site navigation into "Design Services" and "Business Innovation" at the very top level*. Meanwhile "IDEO helps companies innovate. We design products, services, environments and experiences."
The distinction remains on the Business Week cover as it introduces Inside Innovation, but the weight has shifted. Innovation occurs three times, once as the first word in the headline, once as part of the sub-magazine title and once in the blurb, where design makes it's one small appearance. Flip inside to the actual "magazine" Inside Innovation, and you'll find no mention of design at all on the cover, perhaps because the cover is nearly completely devoid of content. Meanwhile what started out as Business Week's design magazine is teetering on the edge of not being about design at all.
Innovation has always been an important aspect of the design process, but innovation alone can never be a substitute for design as a whole. Design, at least when it is good, is about solving problems. Innovation always possesses the potential to produce a solution, but the only thing it can guarantee generating is novelty. A designer must always be open to the possibility that the best solution is one that already exists. There is probably room for innovation in the realm of the book for instance, but most writers are going to be far better served by the book designs already in existence. One of the higher profile attempts to produce innovative book designs is MIT Press' Mediawork Pamphlets [sic] series, and the results are often atrocious.
This past winter I walked into St. Marks Books three times with the explicit intention of buying Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things. It's a well written and thought provoking book, and one that is relevant enough to my work that it really needs to be in my personal library. Yet the design itself is so innovatively bad that I could not bring myself to buy it the first two trips. Worse yet though is the fact that it actively distracts from the legibility of the text, although some of the other Mediawork Pamphlets, Katherine Hayle's for example, manage to be even worse. It might be an innovative series, but it sure is not a well designed one.
So design and innovation are not the same thing, but what exactly are the implications of the two increasingly entering into a slippery confusion? Innovation it seems is becoming the catch phrase under which the design world and big business are conducting their increasingly hot flirtation. Design of course has always been about business, but the relationship has tended to be small and discreet, something to be conducted on the edge of the business world.
It was of all people Tom Peters who really took the relationship public, shouting in his trademarked manner that "design matters!" But at the same time some of the larger design firms, particularly of the product design type began to see themselves as consultants. Their situation was similar to that of many of the accounting firms that birthed management consulting offshoots years ago. As outsiders working extensively inside of companies, both the designers and accountants found themselves in positions uniquely suited for seeing ways to improve a company that the insiders might never see. Suddenly design firms started to see themselves as consulting firms, with "design thinking" and then "innovation" being the pitch. In this regard the innovation movement is good for design, a trojan horse or perhaps mutual cover story under which design thinking can be applied to business.
If good design is about solving problems, well then good business is often about selling solutions. Add the two and two together and it seems like a good, perhaps even ideal mix. Design might just might be the skill set needed to seriously improve business' ability to discover the solutions that are so necessary to good business. But things are not always good in both the world of design and business. Bad design would rather cover over problems than solve them while bad business is about just plain selling, not selling solutions. Innovation might just be the buzzword under which the two worlds meet, or it just might be the way in which design thinking is dumbed down into just another consulting buzzword.
Business Week is obviously not a design magazine, so it's no surprise its design quarterly is written in a language somewhat different than what designers choose for themselves. But it's not exactly written in the no nonsense, cut to the chase, language of hardcore business either, but rather in more nonsensical cheer of management speak. Language constructed for the explicit purpose of asslicking all the way to the top, or if that fails, at least fluttering all the way out of trouble. In the case of outside consultants it also means keeping the clients both confused and scared enough to keep paying, while flattered and massaged enough to keep paying. It's a language that has no direct ways to address problems, only ways to avoid the messy truth they contain. Problems after all are bad your career if you are on the inside. Outside consultants are of course supposed to identify and help solve problems, but there is a big problem with that task itself: very few clients actually want their real problems pointed out. It makes them look bad, after all and why pay someone to do that?
If innovation in the hands of a designer is an important part of a problem solving process, in the hands of Business Week it seems it is a part of removing the very idea of a problem from design. It smoothly separates what is useful and what is just fun in the design process, and leaves a rather worthless buzzword on the other end. Innovation is a means of producing novelty and novelty is exactly the sort of stuff that is good for bad business. Novelty can be sold for the sake of selling, it can be hyped, pumped, churned, and then forgotten once the profit margins fade and the new consulting trend is catching on.
Of course Business Week is new to the innovation/design game so there is plenty of time for designer to make a legitimate impact. The only question is how? What is so worrisome about the latest trend over at Business Week is how clearly professional they are at the language of co-option. Both the magazine and the consulting companies have been in this game forever. Designers are new at it, and for all the solutions and skillsets they bring in, they lack an infrastructure to fall back on and ride. In other words they are just a bit outmatched here. But perhaps with a little innovation they will end up on top in this ride.
*Frog actually launched a new site while I was in the midst of writing this, so that is no longer true, and to their credit they have buried the innovation language deeper in the site than it once was.
July 08, 2006
Low Level Corporate Warfare, Wireless Style
Things are starting to get interesting in the world of wireless infrastructure, in a low level corporate warfare sort of way. Perhaps nothing sums up the stakes than this little bit from Wired, on why Nokia has slipped off their index of 40 most "wired" companies:
"What’s an innovator to do? Carriers, not handset makers, now dictate the cell phone feature set."
Well, what will they do? Last week they dropped a clue by announcing they will provide free wifi in New York parks. That's small time compared to what FON wants to do, which is build a world wide free wifi mesh network. Funnily enough it looks as if there is a Nokia-FON connection already existing. Nokia apparently even has a charming name for it all "Anarchic Wireless Networks". More to come I suspect...
July 02, 2006
Net Neutrality is not exactly the easiest issue to understand (just ask Senator Ted Stevens.) I have what must be an above average grasp of the issues involved, and for the longest time I couldn't quite explain it simply. But the easiest way to break it down is that the cable and phone companies want to turn the internet into cable TV. Premium internet, pay per channel basis. Want to send pictures to your friends and family, head over to the equivalent of public access, the fast connections are reserved for the big players. That's not really the bad part though, the bad part is that congress is RCH away from legislating this corporate vision into reality. Way more info over at Save the Internet