Archive for ‘Technology’

April 3rd, 2011

Flights of Fancy

Time Magazine recently ran an article encouraging readers to think of airports as small cities. From Beijing to Dubai, the last decade or two has seen mammoth new airports built in expectant hotspots. (Although the US has generally lagged in building new airports or rehabilitating older ones, part of our multi-generational failure to invest in our own infrastructure.) Airplane orders are sometimes looked at as a sign of economic health, given the average cost per passenger jet (upwards of $300 million for a Boeing 747) and the broad supply chain of manufacturing needs and services that go into building each one. Orders are up so recent indicators suggest that, indeed, things are improving in our economy.

All of this was on my mind a couple weeks ago as I sat with a colleague at the airport in Buffalo, New York, waiting for my flight back to JFK. Before you jump to the wrong conclusions, the fault this time was not with the airline (JetBlue, which was generally strong on service and on its communication around the delays) or with weather in Buffalo. It was raining and windy in New York, and JFK was suffering from a range of unspecified delays, which meant that my 6:30pm flight didn’t leave until 11pm, and didn’t land until 1:30am. The only good thing about the situation was that flying into JFK meant we were able to get home: the flights into LaGuardia airport were all canceled.

If you live virtually anywhere in the United States, you will know that 2010-2011 has been an especially rough winter. The eastern states, from north to south, were hammered with snow, causing numerous kinds of shutdowns. So was the Midwest. There was even snow in San Francisco, definitely not the norm there. While “winter” is technically over, and temperatures in New York are a bit warmer, this only means that what would be snow has been replaced by a lot of rain. Much of this can be attributed to global warming, and specifically to the environmental impact of having a few percentage points more moisture in the air than we did a decade ago. More moisture in the air means more moisture that’s likely to come down in the form of rain or snow. And if the pattern of more rain or snow—more in frequency and more in volume—continues, it means we won’t be flying as much as we think we will in the future.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics provides a database of flights, including those that were canceled. As you can see from these two charts, cancellations in January 2011 from two airlines at two airports were significantly higher than in the previous four Januaries: for USAirways, a high of 140 in 2011, compared with only 68 canceled flights the year before; for American Airlines, 95 cancellations in 2011, compared with a previous high of 30 in 2008. (I chose USAirways and American Airlines based on an awareness of their frequency of flights from LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports respectively. I selected LGA and JFK because they are my two local airports.) Sorry, you’ll have to click to see the charts at full size.

Sure, it’s possible January 2011 was an anomaly, the weather-and-airline-traffic equivalent of an earthquake. Only time will tell. But if this past winter’s weather continues as the norm, we may need to reevaluate our expectations about the role of air travel in the global economy, not to mention as a means of getting around. Perhaps there will be some environmental benefits as a result, though one gets the sense sometimes that it may be too late to reverse the damage.

February 1st, 2011

Googly Eyes For Google?

I have to admit: a little part of me was rather saddened today to see the launch of the Google Art Project.

The arguments in its favor make perfect sense, in the abstract.  It offers easy access to a lot of art, globally (or at least, for those with a good internet connection and a good computer).  In mapping galleries and providing scanning options of the space, it can help someone understand a work of art in its museum context – what works are adjacent, what surrounds it, etc. – as well as get a feeling for a place they may be planning to visit.  Providing selected works for high-definition, very detailed viewing offers some joys, too; it can be hard to see most paintings at this level of magnification while they hang on the walls of a museum.

And then there’s the broader trend: museums are digitizing their collections, developing online companion pieces to 3-D exhibitions, creating Smartphone apps, developing teaching tools, and more.  All of which – I can say unambiguously – is the right thing to do, and must be done.  The museum person and the technologist in me are in agreement on the need to embrace this challenge.

Still, I felt sad by the digital rigor mortis of this art, and those clinically captured galleries. For one thing, it’s hard to see even a small work of art effectively on a computer screen.  (In my office set-up, I have two; that is, one computer running two, new, 19″ flat panels. Even with that luxurious arrangement, I still don’t feel like it’s adequate, not least because Google compresses the viewing picture into an inset box.)  Zooming in on specific works of art shows you much detail, but you lose the three-dimensionality to which the human eye responds so well in person, as it moves back and forth between different zoom levels and focal points in nano-seconds.

You might (rightly) ask yourself whether my perspective means much, as an insider: that the value of this system is for the people who cannot get to these museums in person.  But if you are a regular museum goer, it’s hard to see this really taking the place of an in-person visit.  And if you’re not a regular museum goer, either because you don’t like museums or you don’t find art particularly stimulating … well, I just wonder how much allure – or benefit – there is to seeing works of art you probably are not familiar with as they hang in galleries you haven’t visited.  In fact at some level, this is a very elite take on the idea of accessibility: you need to be able to appreciate art in order to appreciate art in this context.

I admire Google for trying this out, just as I appreciate so many of the company’s Beta and Lab initiatives; Google has the resources to test out solutions to problems real and imagined, and I consider myself generally better off for their experiments.  Certainly the museums that participated made the right choice: why wouldn’t you want to collaborate with Google on such a project?  If it had been my client, I would surely have recommended they move ahead.  But this whole thing feels cold to me, demonstrating once again the challenge of trying to replace (or even supplement) the in-person experience of an authentic work of art with a simulation, where so much detail and context is lost.  Untangling the gordian knot of digital solutions for art museums is not going to be as simple as one slice through the center with the Google Art Project.

Update: Also read this piece by Menachem Wecker on the Iconia blog, with other perspectives (as well as mine) on Google Art Project. Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee weighs in. ArtInfo has a piece on another company that created and deployed a similar (perhaps better) technology.

December 16th, 2010

Public Fun

I woke up yesterday feeling intellectually under-caffeinated. When that didn’t change after a large cup of coffee, I decided something else needed to happen—and in the random and mysterious ways of the subconscious, I started thinking about some wordplay around letters of the alphabet. I started, of course, with “A,” and came up with almonds, alfalfa, and asparagus off the top of my head. As I wrote them down on a scrap of paper, next to my computer, my conscious mind took over, and I thought about Tweeting my three words. But … why?

Why indeed. My three words all happened to be foods, and I thought it might be fun to focus my brain teaser a bit further by requiring all the words for each letter to be foods. The alliteration was clear (if nonsensical—but then, the whole thing was nonsensical), so I thought of calling them “alliterative diets.” But who would do a diet of almonds, alfalfa, and asparagus? It seemed more fun expressly calling them fake diets. Alliterative fake diets. And so a Twitter hashtag was born.

If none of this sounds funny, well, you had to be there. It’s not funny the way that most humor isn’t once you start dissecting it–so I’ll stop, and just point out that you can see the (public) list of my Tweeted #AlliterativeFakeDiets by clicking on that link. Then I’ll move on to say that what you (most likely) cannot see is the way this took off on Facebook with a couple of friends. They responded to my silly idea precisely because it was silly, and because they like food, and by the time I’d gotten to “F,” the theme was fairly clear and they were off and running. All the letters not at the link above were covered by my friends, on Facebook, from their own inspiration.

And this, you might say, is why I love the internet—and have come to love social networking in particular. Not so much because I created a nonsensical brain teaser for myself and then others thought it was fun, but because it makes it possible to have fun with people, in near-real-time, over distances large or small. If I had just mentioned it to my wife, she would probably have brushed it off as early morning nonsense. My three year old might have enjoyed playing, but I couldn’t stick around all day to hear her come up with food words. My colleagues might have enjoyed this (at least some of them) but I didn’t want to forcibly interrupt—and, anyway, some of them follow me on Twitter and could join in there. Why share them over Twitter in the first place? Because my “alliterative fake diets” concept is exactly the sort of thing that works well on the internet generally and Twitter and Facebook in particular.

I got combinations for the first few letters fairly quickly, and popped them into Twitter, and it had served its original purpose for me: my word recall had improved, my brain was firing a bit faster, and the caffeine was now doing its neuron-connecting job more effectively. But the “conversation” around this with friends took it to a whole new level: it went from brain teaser to mood changer. How could it not be uplifting to see them coming up with combinations like “wasa, waterzoi, watermelon,” and then discussing whether there were rules about what could be included or why one combination worked better than the other? The internet was built for this. Maybe not purpose-built, but it serves the purpose nonetheless. And while it’s easy to laugh off as a means of wasting time, in this case I think the intellectual and emotional benefits were well worth it. We finished the alphabet, which felt good, and that’s a feeling I won’t dismiss easily.

October 7th, 2010

Are You Ubuntu Experienced?

Ever used Linux? Well, I have. Thanks to Ubuntu, I have rescued two old laptops from the clutches of Windows. Of the two machines, one is a virtual miracle, the other a solid improvement.

A few years ago, my brother bought a small (10″) Sony Vaio to use for travel and keep around the house for easy internet access. It was a popular model machine for many years, in the ultralight laptop category before the full-on arrival of the “netbook.” Except that it also came with one built-in deficit: Windows Vista. This brand new machine took several minutes to boot-up each time it was used, to say nothing of the other hassles with that now-discontinued operating system. Less than a year after buying it, he gave it to my mother. Because of it size, my mother found it great for traveling, except if she actually had to use it. It wound up with me.

My initial thought was: perhaps I can find a way to make this work. In short order, I discovered that the answer was no. Despite different system tweaks, stripping the machine of unnecessary programs, and the installation of newer, faster firewall and anti-virus software, it only got slower and slower: it took close to 10 minutes to boot up, only 18 months after purchase. The Vaio sat in the corner for a while, until one day I had an idea.

A little research (thanks, Lifehacker!) directed me to Ubuntu as an easy-to-install, easy-to-use version of Linux. The installation process was simple, and once it was up and running the Ubuntu interface felt very familiar, like an inverted, slightly more organized version of Windows. I discovered that Ubuntu has, by default, many of the same tools that Apple includes on their Macs, and of which I have become quite fond—such as the ability to use multiple desktops. I copied over a number of word processing templates, and that all worked fine: Ubuntu comes loaded with, the same office suite I have been using for years. I moved a selection of music over, and the built-in Rhythmbox music player lined them up and played them back perfectly. Firefox browser? Pre-installed. DropBox, for file syncing? Available and easy to load. XMind, for mind- and process-mapping? Available and easy to load. In fact, the only things I haven’t been able to do are install Evernote (because there’s no Linux version) and figure out how to get the VPN to work, for a better connection to my office’s server—and that is hardly a deal breaker.

Best of all: it’s fast, light, and trouble-free. The Vaio now takes under 30 seconds to boot-up fully, including login time. Ubuntu runs very efficiently in terms of memory demands, which means it not only loads fast but continues to run fast when I’m using it—and makes efficient use of the machine’s power systems, with the battery running for for more than 6 hours. And it has never crashed on me, not once.

Given the stellar example of the Vaio, I decided to apply the same approach to my old Fujitsu P5020 “Lifebook.” This computer, running Windows XP, had served me very well for more than 6 years—but with each new Windows service pack release, and the bulking-up of Norton’s antivirus and firewall programs, began to run ever more slowly. Something about one of the updates also affected the wireless card, so the computer would periodically crash whenever the WiFi was on. It is too old to run Ubuntu’s current release, but I installed Ubuntu’s 9.10 release—and now this computer also works like new.

I am still a Mac person; I love my MacBook Pro and have no plans to leave it behind. No do I have any intention of going back to PC land. But these ultra-small, ultra-light machines are useful in a number of situations where I don’t need to bring the MacBook with me. And there is definitely value in having recycled and saved two old computers. If you have an old machine lying around, dead as a result of impenetrable operating system failures, let Linux save the day: try Ubuntu.