Ubiquity

June 4, 2008

No place to hide!

I just read this post from Tech.Blorge about “Polar Rose” – software that combines social bookmarking with face recognition. The company claims that they developed a software capable of recognizing faces based on the visual elements (and not text or meta-data) and they rely on their users to create a database of recognized pictures to train the program. So, tomorrow, when you upload yet another image of yourself to FaceBook and your friends tag it with Polar Rose, you will be leaving another, rather deep, footprint in the digital world.

Both spooky and amazing at the same time.

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Technologies that help

June 2, 2008

It’s been a while since i read this article (HE) about two young Israeli entrepreneurs who participated in developing GPS software that would be friendly for the visually impaired people. If you ever used a GPS, you would know that many (most?) of them are capable of providing voice directions. However, it is not good enough if you cannot see properly. The program that they developed makes more use of voice. For example when you select destinations or want to find out where you are at the moment and what is there in your surroundings. One interesting feature of the program is its adjustment for the use of public transportation – it will tell you what bus stop you are at and when you should get off. The main downside of the program at the moment is its price.

Recently I also read this news update about a free email service, RoboBraille, that translates text into audio or Braille. According to this article, it takes the program “can return a simple text in Braille in under a minute while taking as long as 10 hours to provide an audio recording of a book”, which i think is still very impressive (provided that the final quality of the output is good). They report to work on about 500 documents a day and have translated a quarter million texts so far. My only unanswered question here is how a visually impaired, probably blind person is supposed to send that email. That would probably require some more expansive hardware and software, which still maintains a barrier.

Even though I still have some questions, I am really excited when the information technology is used to solve real, substantial problems. If you have more examples, please share!

Limited “neweness” or lack of tact?

May 29, 2008

Thanks to Veronica, who mentioned this to me, i read the following debate (HE) about whether or not it would be appropriate to announce a funeral via FaceBook(FB). The primary argument is around whether or not it is tasteless or not to invite people to a funeral using “events” on FB. On its face it is a ridiculous question and my guts reaction was “hell no!”. But as it also go me thinking…

When somebody dies in Israel, the closest relatives and friends are usually receive a phone call, and more distant acquaintances and colleagues are getting the message through the grapevine or through institutional channels such as an organizational memo. Recently, i hear more people using SMS to announce the tragedy to wider publics. To a great extent, these practices are dictated by the Jewish tradition, which requires the body to be buried as soon as possible. In many cases this means that the funeral is taking place on the same day of the death or the following one, but rarely later than that.

One particularly interesting practice of announcing a funeral is using the media. Frequently people would publish an announcement in a newspaper about a death of a person, the time of the funeral, and the location of shiva. Another common practice is to place notification with the same information in public places, particularly in the area where the person lived.

These latter practices prompted me thinking about the FB case from a different angle. What is the principle difference between placing an ad in a newspaper and placing an announcement on FB? The popular claim is that alternative media and social networking platforms replace mainstream media outlets, particularly for the younger generation. If people consume political, economic, cultural, and other news through personalized feeds, why would it be wrong to announce a personal tragedy using the same medium? If we are to talk about the “new” media, why (or where) is this newness limited to the not serious stuff only? In a way, this may be even more humane compared to a newspaper ad, because you know that the message goes only to the people who cared to one degree or another about the passed away person.

What do you think?

Empowerment

May 27, 2008

Erik shared with me a a pretty funny dance remix of Bill O’Reilly flipping out during filming of one of his shows. Checking out replies to the original video, i came across a YouTuber Josh. What differentiates Josh from the vast majority of YouTubers is that it takes to get used to the way he talks. Josh has Arthrogryposis, which keeps him in a wheel chair and gives him a look that causes people to ask if he is an anorexic. Yet, he sees himself a stand up, or since cannot really stand up, a sit-down comedian and actor.

He has a number of channels on YouTube and a Google page, and appears to be a rather active YouTuber doing all the other things that other YouTubers do. Apparently he is doing it well since when i was checking out his channel, it was #40 most viewed (that week) comedian. I think this is pretty amazing also because Josh is making an excellent point. First i felt uncomfortable watching some of his video but then i think i got it – his comedy is making fun of us making fun of him, which is a rather interesting mirror for the physically healthy part of the population. And he is making it step by step with over 550 subscribers and over 650 friends on YouTube.

According to his own words humor keeps him going, but it also seems that the communication he manages to build through these videos on YouTube is what keeps him going. There is a lot of talk about whether or not technology can be used to empower or make people’s lives better. But this is a concrete example of a guy for whom it seems to be an enormous empowering tool and i doubt he would have this opportunity in the regular physical world without having these platforms in place. I think this is pretty amazing and apparently Josh is not the only one who uses YouTube to help dealing with the physical realities.

Here is a video of Josh with his cousin performing a rather good lip-sync and i assume original words:

Innovation and confusion

May 20, 2008

XO-2 Laptop AI read some exciting news today. OLPC project revealed its plans for the next generation of the “$100 laptop.” It looks really neat and i think has a number of really innovative ideas. For example, the double touch screen one part of which can also be used as a keyboard, sound really fascinating. Reading about it makes me really wanting one.

Then, as i continued reading, i got confused, particularly by looking at the feedback provided by people who own the current version of XO (read the comments here for example). It seems like while concentrating on technical innovation, the OLPC crew neglected mundane things such as production, service, and implementation. Although XO-1has been deployed, it seems too soon to conclude this phase as successful. Particularly with the recent changes iXO-2 Laptop Bn the project’s leadership and the ongoing debate about the identity of OLPC as a technological vs. educational project, there are still a lot of question marks. One of the more obvious ones is whether or not it will be relevant by the target date of 2010 with the recent exposure of low-cost laptops.

So, at the end of the day, i think the ideas in XO team are rather brilliant (looks like they can also design in an Apple style!) and i truly hope they will be also capable of translating this innovation into substantive change.

Net-neutrality through legislation?

May 19, 2008

Now, this looks like an attempt to deal with questions of net-neutrality through legislation. John Conyers (D-MI) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) are trying to promote a new bill aimed at making it “unlawful for any broadband network provider … to block, to impair, to discriminate against, or to interfere with the ability of any person to use a broadband network service”. Apparently it is already second attempt to assure net-neutrality through legislation and it will be interesting to see how things evolve. Interestingly, there was practically no mention of this in the mainstream media…

The best of YouTube and South Park combined!

May 17, 2008

This is totally random, but ridiculously funny! Whether you like South Park, YouTubeian phenomena, or both, this one combines them in a rather creative manner (it was a matter of time until someone would do it with this episode :). It definitely made me smile and i hope it will have the same effect on you. Thank you Veronica for sharing this!

Optimisitic numbers

May 16, 2008

Even though I didn’t make it to Telecom Africa, I couldn’t escape the African motive. Recently, I came across some optimistic numbers about adoption of ICT in the region. The ITU report, cited here, suggests that (a) there is currently more technology in Africa and (b) it is more evenly spread across the continent (the more interesting observation in my view). At the same time, it suggests that people in Africa find mobile more useful, compared to the internet, which is not surprising provided the price of internet access (the cite states a figure of $50 and that is a lot!). In fact, the mobile market is showing impressive growth in other developing countries, which makes it supposedly an interesting aim for foreign investors.

I wonder though, what is the impact of adoption of these technologies on the lives of people? Do they make their lives easier? Happier? More prosperous? How do they use it? How different these ways are from what we are used for? What business and technological innovation is taking place in this process?

Quite fascinating…

Old concerns 2.0

May 13, 2008

I blogged earlier about thoughts prompted by reading students’ papers in Tarleton’s COMM 320 course. In my previous posts I wrote about perception of social networks as a platform for unifying “digital culture”. Another common idea in numerous papers was that the “new” media offer an open platform where users can create any content they want, particularly in the political context. The “new” media are often discussed in comparison to the “old” media (newspapers, TV, etc.), which suffer from institutionalized bias and are constantly under political and economic pressures. The “new” media are different – they are open platforms and the “new” media companies do not intervene in discourse as long as it is within the limits of the law.

The questions however, is it so? Is it so black and white and are the differences between the “old” and the “new” so great?

I thought about this now because I ran into an interesting example on YouTube. A few days ago, i heard about Mike Gravel’s attempts to recruit Obama Girl for his campaign. For those of you who do not follow, Mike Gravel is still in the race for Democratic nomination to run for the presidency (yes, there are more candidates than just Clinton and Obama). In fact, Gravel’s campaign is a good example to support the “new” argument about the “new” media. He has been continuously marginalized in the mainstream media and as a result he is trying to rely more and more on the alternative channels such as YouTube.

Watching the video of Gravel dancing with Obama Girl, lead me to his YouTube channel, where i found the following video, where Gravel is complaining about YouTube now marginalizing him as well:

Indeed, i went and checked. If you look at the “You Choose” page on YouTube there is no doubt that there are only two candidates in the democratic camp. While i can understand that Gravel has no chances to win and thus it seems like a logical decision to keep the page cleaner for maybe aesthetic purposes, i cannot stop wonder about the questions this act rises about the neutrality of the platforms.

In this case we have YouTube priming certain political preferences on expanse of the others. They may not do it for political/ideological reasons, but the result is the same – the marginalized are pushed back to the margins. Of course there are differences and you can still find all Gravel’s videos on YouTube, but would you know that he is still running if you’d look at the main political page on YouTube these days?

I think this is an interesting case that is bringing back a series of concerns we had previously about the mainstream media. Moreover, it raises questions about the interaction between the mainstream media, “new” media, and perceived public opinion. I find it really interesting.

What do you think?

The rise of the rest / Newsweek

May 10, 2008

I read quite an interesting article in recent Newsweek.  In the article Fareed Zakaria (who is apparently the editor of Newsweek International) is summarizing the main thesis of his recent book, “The post-American World“.  I would say that this is an interested and a quite optimistic take on current affairs including globalization, raise of nationalism, violence, and shift in the balance of power.  Although the article is written from a very US-centric perspective, it is read as a call to US public to re-assess current geopolitical situation and acknowledge that things have changed – the US-led globalization project succeeded to a great degree and US has to adjust, or more so to reconcile to this new environment.  The article made me definitely interested in reading the book.