May 2005

Wearables have hit the mainstream

I’d like to officially declare that wearable computers have hit the mainstream.

When I started wearing a hat-mounted display connected to a 50 MHz shoulder-strap Linux box back in 1996, I defined a wearable computer as having five features: portable while operational, supporting of hands-free use, equipped with sensors into the environment, ability to be proactive in supplying information or aid to the wearer, and always on, always running. When sponsors or journalists would look at my contraption and ask how such a beast could ever become mainstream I’d just point to their cellphones, which strictly by my definition were already wearable computers and which were becoming more wearable-like all the time.

Motorola HS810
Wireless Headset

The thing that made cellphones only borderline wearables was that they’d usually be in a pocket or bag rather than worn — that meant their access-time was greater than that critical one or two seconds that make wearables so compelling. With bluetooth phones and the most recent round of wireless headsets I think there’s finally been a shift in how non-researcher, non-techies are using cellphones, and it looks a lot like what we self-described cyborgs were doing a decade ago.

I first started noticing about six months ago that people around my lab were wearing these bluetooth headsets even when not talking on the phone. These weren’t just researchers, these were the venture capitalists and financial planners that occupy the rest of our building. Then a few days ago I landed in the Atlanta airport and noticed not one but three people turn on their bluetooth-enabled cellphones, put on an ear clip and then not talk on the phone. These were early adopters but not techies, and yet they looked just as fashionable and comfortable wearing their headsets as they did in their expensive suits. I talked to two of them about their new fashion accessory, and both gave the same explanation: it’s now so comfortable and so simple that they prefer to wear the headset just in case a call comes in. The woman I talked to said it was just more convenient to wear the device than find a place to carry it, and now she never had to go hunting for her cellphone when she got a call. It was so light and comfortable, she said, that she soon just forgot it was there altogether. The man talked about what a pain it used to be to be carrying suitcases on the escalator when the phone rang, and how now he just pushes the button on his ear and starts to talk. He also showed off the hands-free dialing feature: just tap your ear and say “office” and the phone’s speech recognition system automatically connects you.

This sort of technology has been creeping up on us for years, so it’s easy to miss the progress. It’s nice to take a step back and see how seamlessly these people integrate with their technology compared to when I was “packing iron” on a daily basis. In many ways, they’re far more cyborg than I ever was.

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What happens when content providers make “legal” hard to do…

I never bothered seeing Star Wars Episode II, but I figured I should do it before going to see Episode III tonight. Unfortunately this was also the plan of about a thousand other people, so all the video rental places in the area were out of anything Star Wars related. According to the woman at one local store, they get a bunch of DVDs in when a movie first comes out, then over time they start selling off their extra copies until they only have a few left. When a sequel comes along they’re invariably swamped, but there’s no way for them to have more disks on-hand just for that period.

Of course, an obvious solution would be to license video stores to burn DVDs on-site whenever they have increased demand. The store could keep track of the number they rent out and kick back some of that revenue to the movie companies. I’d get to watch my movie, the rental place would get my money and the movie company would get paid. It’s not like allowing on-site burning of DVDs would open the door to illegal copying any wider than it already is. But the movie companies haven’t gone for it — I have to assume it’s more important to them to maintain the fiction that they sell little plastics disks rather than content than it is to provide better service to potential customers.

The trouble is they’re driving those customers to other alternatives. In this case, after checking four different video places we eventually gave up and all watched a copy a friend of mine had downloaded via the P2P networks. In spite of my strong political opinions about fair use and abuse of copyright, I have no problem with paying for my entertainment and I prefer that over going to the P2P networks. It’s unfortunate that the content cartel can’t get its act together enough to provide a reasonable alternative.

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2000-page report on Afghanistan abuse leaked to NYT

The latest abuse report leaked to the New York Times is absolutely medieval. Beating prisoners to death, chaining them to the ceiling… and now it’s suspected that at least one of those murdered was just an innocent bystander arrested by an Afghan guerrilla commander who wanted to win the trust of the US by handing over insurgents.

Can our military chain of command really be so dysfunctional that higher-ups didn’t have an idea of what was going on? And after they did know what was up, why on Earth did they wait so long to do anything about it:

Even though military investigators learned soon after Mr. Dilawar’s death that he had been abused by at least two interrogators, the Army’s criminal inquiry moved slowly. Meanwhile, many of the Bagram interrogators, led by the same operations officer, Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, were redeployed to Iraq and in July 2003 took charge of interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison. According to a high-level Army inquiry last year, Captain Wood applied techniques there that were “remarkably similar” to those used at Bagram.

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Free speech and free will

I’ve always believed that a healthy society encourages free and open debate among its citizens, and am a strong supporter of technology and trends that support free and independent speech. At its heart is a belief in the Darwinism of ideas — that out of a cacophony of voices somehow the the good ideas will beat out idiocy and lies. Between the incredibly polarized US politics and the rising prominence of Islamic and Christian fanaticism, the past few years have seriously tested my faith in this belief. The myth of the Internet and the free speech movement in general is that by allowing many voices to flourish the good ideas and behaviors will push out the bad — that the best way to fight the harmful effects of “bad” speech is not through censorship but through still more speech. I think it’s important to question that assumption from time to time, especially for those like myself that design technology to make communication even more frictionless.

My recent thinking has been shaped in part by two editorials. One is the recent op-ed in the NYT in which John Tierney calls on the media to show a little restraint in reporting on suicide bombings to “give the public a more realistic view of the world’s dangers.” To this, security expert Bruce Shneier responds that reports on suicide bombings may make us feel more insecure than we should, but that

…the danger of not reporting terrorist attacks is greater than the risk of continuing to report them. Freedom of the press is a security measure. The only tool we have to keep government honest is public disclosure.

The second editorial is Mark Danner‘s chilling analysis of the political positioning that led up to the Iraq war, based on the recently leaked secret Downing Street memo. One quote from that piece that’s relevant is by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister:

Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.

I’m now starting to see speech as a duality, made up of information on the one hand and emotion on the other. Information is communication for the head — the factual, objective component of what is being communicated that speaks to the analytical parts of our minds. Emotion is the punch that goes right to our guts — the difference between a logical but dry speech and a rousing call to arms. All communication has aspects of both. While a particular speech, document or medium may emphasize one more than the other, human-to-human communication necessarily is encoded in ways that speak to both our heads and our hearts simultaneously.

Both information and emotion are used to convince, seduce, cajole and manipulate others, either to their benefit or detriment. It’s beneficial to society and to the people being convinced when parents raise their child to be a responsible and caring adult, when religion convinces a criminal to lead an honest life and when a book inspires someone to go out and follow his dreams. It’s detrimental to society and the person being manipulated when a con artist bilks a widow out of her life savings, an advertiser fosters the addictions of new potential customer and a politician lies to hide the fact that he’s working against the voters’ best interest.

On the whole I still believe the myth about many voices favoring good ideas when it comes to the information part of speech — just look to The Pajamahidin of bloggers who fact-check a news story to death as soon as it hits the Net. My fear is that a plethora of voices does not have the same filtering effect when it comes to the emotional impact of society’s various conversations, and if anything has a magnifying effect on powerful, wrong ideas.

Assuming I’m correct, I can see two possible reasons the emotional speech that is most healthy for society doesn’t rise to the top. The first is that, at least in the US, our primary emotion these days is fear. Terrorism is the obvious fear, of course, but that also functions as a proxy for all sorts of other fears: fear of losing our jobs, our investments and our retirement; fear of a housing bubble, or that we’ll never be able to afford a house at all; fear that the world has shifted in fundamental ways, that our old ways of thinking are becoming obsolete and that we’ll never be able to adapt. Our natural human response to fear is to emphasize our connection and similarity to those most like ourselves — to speak as one voice rather than question what is said by members of own tribe. Fear is also a strong and infectious emotion, and tends to overwhelm less primal ones. The net result is that the communication that is rising to the top varies in informational content, but speaks with one voice when it comes to emotional content. It’s “Social Security is going bankrupt! Boogah boogah!” versus “The Republicans are trying to dismantle Social Security! Boogah Boogah!”.

The second reason is more subtle: our society is very bad at recognizing or even admitting the role emotion plays in determining our beliefs and behaviors. We cling to the myth that man is a rational creature, the truth is that man is a rationalizing creature. But because our society values rational response over emotional reaction, when we do get carried away by our emotions us we rationalize excuses for our behavior rather than take a step back and examine how we’re being manipulated.

I agree with Shneier that the solution is not censorship, even self-censorship. Any system that relies on individuals to police their own ideas is doomed to fall to the first idiot with a strong belief in a stupid idea, or more likely to someone with something to gain by gaming the system. What we need is a better way to defend ourselves, as individuals, from this kind of manipulation. Educating ourselves in how manipulation works is a good first step, but to avoid just fooling ourselves that education itself needs to be both informational and emotional in nature. I don’t know whether such a thing would look more like logic, religion, psychology, self-help, yoga or stand-up comedy, but I know we could certainly use more of it.

Update 7/26/05: Eric Nehrlich weighs in that emotional speech may have a natural tendency to die out due to “emotional speech exhaustion.” I think that’s true at the individual level (certainly I’ve become much less emotional by politics in the past year). I have to wonder whether emotional exhaustion can be directly applied when looking at a culture as a whole though, given that there are always new young hot-headed 20-year-olds to replace the burned-out 30-something activists that preceded them. Certainly society goes in cycles with regard to polarization and emotional thinking, but when looking at patterns over years or decades I expect that’s much more due to demographics, economics and insecurity than one generation becoming worn out by the previous generation’s passion.

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Acupuncture good for migraines — and so is random poking with needles

A study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for migraine headaches against “sham acupuncture” where the doctors used needles at non-acupuncture points. The results of the two groups were virtually identical: a 2.2-day reduction in the number of days with moderate or severe headaches in a four-week period. That’s significantly better than the 0.8-day reduction for the control “waiting list” group that got no treatment, but begs the obvious question: why spend years studying acupuncture if needle location doesn’t really matter?

As a side note, I’m too cheap to pay the $12 to to download the full paper, but there’s a nice breakdown of the study at the UK National electronic Library for Health. (Thanks to Bob Park’s What’s New for the link!)

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Self replicating robot

image courtesy Cornell University

Cornell Researchers Viktor Zykov, Efstathios Mytilinaios, Bryant Adams, and Hod Lipson have built a self-replicating robot (video). The robot itself is just a basic proof-of-concept — their real contribution is how they try to redefine the whole concept of self-replication from being a “you either have it or you don’t” binary property to being a continuum. From their FAQ:

Contrary to previously held views that self-replication is a property that a system either has or has not (“you can’t be half pregnant”), our theory suggests that it is actually a continuum, where different systems can self-reproduce to different extents. The extent to which a system is self replicating depends on things like how fast does it self replicate, how accurately does it self replicate, how dependent is it on its environment to self replicate, how complex are its building blocks, how complex it is itself, etc. etc. For example, crystals self replicate, but only in a solution; rabbits self-replicate – less accurately and more slowly than a crystal – but they are less dependent on having a specific environment.

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