So I came across something interesting at the building that houses the Brazilian Consulate. They have a type of elevator system that I have not seen before. You would think that elevators are pretty much set in stone by now, that there would not be a whole lot of innovation in their use (Wonkavator notwithstanding). I mean, we have all seen tall buildings that have banks of elevators that go to different floors. We have seen fast elevators, slow elevators. I have been in elevators that broke down and their safety mechanisms kicked in (fortunately) to stop them. I have been in glass elevators, brightly colored elevators, disco elevators. I have been in voice operated elevators and card key and fob elevators. I have been in elevators where a full-time person sits there and pushes the buttons for you. I have been in freight elevators and others with those metal double gates you have to close, and I have been in some where the doors close vertically and meet in the middle. All of that, and I had never seen a system like the one I saw today. There were no elevator buttons inside the elevators, nor on the doors outside the elevators. But there was a numeric keypad just before entering the bank of elevators. There was no sign, so I had to ask, but then it was pretty easy: You type in the number of your floor, and it says on the screen which elevator to take. It comes, you enter, and it whisks you to your floor with no more interaction from you. They are practically personalized vehicles moving in the vertical dimension. And it made me wonder. Is this more efficient or less? It definitely saves time with people not having to fumble for buttons. Anyway, interesting system.


All the little glitches


I have long been fascinated and often frustrated by the seeming inability to make what seem like standard technical processes in the US or Europe work as expected in places like Morocco (or India, or other “developing” countries). To take one example from yesterday, WiFi connectivity. It was constantly dropping even though I was close and had a strong signal. It would ask for passwords that had already been entered. It would slow to a crawl very often. It would disappear from the network and then reappear sometime later. This is a technology that has been in use for many years, and it has a set of technical standards attached to its use. It is used millions of times over in countless places. In theory, this is not something that should be so unreliable here. But then you realize that technologies like WiFi (and many others) rely not just on the standardized equipment, but are based on a huge array of invisible items that go into making it so plug-and-play in places like the US:

1. WiFi internet connectivity is only as good and fast as the phone company or cable company or satellite company that supplies it on the other end. In the US, there are many fallbacks and safeguards that improve reliability, and these have been developed over many years.

2. Following on from the above, investment in the underlying telephone network. Capital improvements for things like this seem to happen rarely here and when it does rollout is beset by all kinds of corruption and delay. Often countries like Morocco are sold aging equipment and techniques that are no longer in use by their former colonial overlords (France) and sold to them by the same.

3. Technical expertise setting up networks. There are very few people here who have formal training in these things and they often are flying by the seat of their pants. They are reluctant to ever admit not knowing something for fear of losing a valued contract, and they often patch together these networks in ways they should not.

4. Places like Morocco and India do not have strict building codes, or they are not enforced. This results in the built environment often interfering with the signals through shoddy electrical wiring. They also tend to be places where, because of environmental conditions, they built quite thick concrete or stone walls which make it challenging to get a WiFi signal through.

Present fitness


This morning I had an appointment with the Apple geniuses to deal with an overheating problem on my laptop (when connected to my new monitor anyway). I went in and dropped it off with them to be picked up later today (hopefully fixed, but I have my doubts). Being without my laptop for a few hours was, I have to admit, a slightly bewildering concept at first, not least of which because I am unable to do any work without it. My entire livelihood is bound up in it, and it gave me pause. Fortunately, it is a fairly easy thing to replace, but it is obvious that in the absence of fairly advanced technology, I would have no job. My personality is such a fit with this kind of work, that I wonder what type of thing I would have done with my life 50 years ago, or 100, or 500 even? Would there have even been an opportunity for me to exercise that part of my brain in the absence of fast-changing technology? How bored would I have been, how underutilized would my native abilites have been? How much of what we are good at is merely an adaptation to the culture and the time? Maybe in fact, I was born too early. Perhaps the best realization of my skill set is at some far flung distant future.

Apple just called (as fate would have it) a minute ago. It is time to pick up my laptop.

When is the last time you handwrote?


The NY Times recently ran a piece bemoaning the demise of cursive handwriting (“The Case for Cursive“), which quickly became one of their most heavily emailed articles. Presumably there is a lot of worry over the subject by creaky handwriting instructors and nervous parents and grandparents across the land, as this is a clear sign of moral decay. And then there are the articles rebutting the demise, assuring us that cursive will always exist in one form or another, and that the reason teaching it is so important is so that we can read each other’s handwriting. I say hogwash. Cursive is going away and I can’t see a strong argument for keeping it. In fact, handwriting in general is pretty much going away if you ask me. When is the last time you actually wrote anything other than your signature? When I tried to visualize the last time I wrote something down, I was unable to do so. My notoriously bad memory notwithstanding, it is because I never write by hand anymore. Really. Letters and other correspondance to friends or clients? Email or instant message or text. Paying bills by check? Scheduled through online banking. Paying individuals? Same thing, I use online banking to send checks to anyone I need to, or paypal. Leaving a note for someone with a map or directions? Easier to send them the link to a google map route. Short stories or blogging? Via keyboard at my computer, ‘natch. Shopping list? IPhone app. Taking notes? Typed or better yet spoken and transcribed by my phone or computer. In every scenario you can think of, there is no longer a need for me to write anything by hand. I will admit that not everyone has access to the full digital life complement yet, but make no mistake it is coming. Pardon the pun, but the handwriting is on the wall. And I will admit that my handwriting has suffered in legibility because of it, but why should I care? In every way typed text is more legible and with the variety of fonts at my disposal, more pleasing to the eye. The purpose of words on a screen or page is to communicate, after all. All the handwringing about what we are losing boils down to simple nostalgia and fear of change.

What does “reality” look like, anyway?


A little over a week ago, I bought a somewhat fancy new television set. As with many sets today, it contains some impressive technology that promises to deliver a sharper, more detailed, clearer, and smoother picture. It accomplishes this by a number of means including a high resolution screen (much higher than we grew up with), and the ability to process images fed to it so that movement on screen appears clear and in focus the whole time (this technology is called 240hz, which you can read about here). At first I was just amazed at the jaw dropping clarity of the images. But then I started to notice that things had a kind of odd, video like quality to them, even though I could see greater detail. I messed around with a bunch of settings, turning on and off motion blur correction, color settings, picture settings and the like. The more I played around with the settings, the less sure I was of what I should be looking at. I got more and more confused about what the “best” picture should be, and came to some interesting conclusions about our relationship to represented “reality”.

The idea that a moving image on a flat surface is more or less real depends on many learned assumptions about what reality looks like in the first place. Other than the standard representations that we are exposed to growing up (that change with new technology anyway), we have no objective reference point. None of it is real, and the degree to which something feels “right” or “real” is completely culturally determined. I now find myself floating in a kind of no man’s land regarding what I should want out of a picture. In some ways this is quite liberating, as I can decide how best I want reality interpreted for me by my set. And in others it is quite destabilizing, because we seem to have lost the shared language of representation that once pervaded our culture. Who become the new arbiters of the real? Who should we trust in these matters, if anyone?

One of the funny things a new technology like this exposes, despite its marketing hooey about clarity and reality, is how completely arbitrary representations are. When photography first came on the scene a couple hundred years ago, people were amazed at how much more “real” it was than painting. Ultimately, although it often carried more detail, it was no more real than a painting or a view with ones own eyes. Which is more real by the way? A present viewing or a memory? Something seen from up close or far away? I could go on, but the point is they are all equally real, and equally unreal. They each distort some understanding of a reality, even as they enhance other aspects.

And so I am left in a brave new world of uncertainty thanks to my new TV. Will I argue with friends over what the settings should be? Will I seek cold comfort in making it conform to the style of images from my youth, or some hybrid of new and old? Now that I am freed from the myth of representation, will I still relate to my peers the same way while watching a TV episode or movie? Perhaps my mood will determine whether I seek to adjust to my subjective notions of real, hyperreal, or surreal.

Experiments in capitalism


Several weeks ago, I was walking around with Josh and came up with a few pithy quotes, something I am constantly doing (along with the rest of this disaffected, camp and irony aware generation).

He said, “you should put those on a t-shirt or something”, and I laughed.

But then I found this site, and became intrigued by the idea.

The internet has clearly put publishing into far more hands than ever before. It used to be that you needed some pretty hefty capital investments to be able to publish anything to a large audience. You needed to own expensive printing presses or TV or radio stations and equipment. With the web, the cost of entry is approaching zero, even for people who don’t own a computer. While it is of course true that those who have a lot of money to invest will have an easier time attracting the most eyes, it is also true that billions of people can get to anything you publish on the web if they can be made aware of it. This kind of reach is unprecedented and highly democratizing.

The site I found also benefits from a number of technological advances that allow the upfront costs to be reduced significantly. Because this site will only produce items “on demand”, a tiny entrepreneur with a stupid idea (read: me) can test out all manner of idea at zero cost of entry. The company makes a profit off the base items they sell, and I make money (potentially that is) off nothing other than my ideas or artwork. As a test, I uploaded one of the dumb quotes, and will probably upload others in the next few weeks, just to see how the system works (or doesn’t). The idea is pretty interesting and allows even the laziest of entrepreneurs (read: me) to take part in the process.

If you want to see what I am talking about, go for a visit to the Satoristephen Stuff Store. It is surprisingly user friendly and professional for how little time I put in to it (oh, about 15 minutes total).

Is the future here yet?


Went to see a fascinating film at the Tribeca film festival called Transcendent Man, which is a documentary about Ray Kurzweil and his attempt to achieve a sort of immortality. I won’t try to describe Kurzweil’s complex belief system here (you can read the wiki article and other sources for that), but in  a nutshell he believes that the exponential growth of technology will take us to a point in the very near future (which he calls the singularity) in which it will overtake us and (with the creation of artificial intelligence that surpasses human intelligence) direct itself. He believes (and hopes) that at this point we/he  will merge with and/or be replaced by this super-intelligence and direct our future evolution. I tend to think this will happen as well, albeit in a somewhat different manner. As I have written before, I think our technological path is leading us to a point in the future where we will be completely linked and borg like, for both good and ill (or neither if you prefer). We will at some point cease to be separate, individual entities, and will shed our humanity as we evolve into something else. I see this as a long term process that we are already well down the path towards, but I doubt there will be some single moment in time that we can point to and say, aha, this is it. Boom, we are no longer human. I believe this will happen gradually over time, as we make ourselves more interconnected, replace our body parts with bionics and such, and enhance ourselves. People will not go kicking and screaming towards this future, they will welcome it step by step, bit by bit, for convenience sake. Already when you talk to young people today about how exposed they are to the world on facebook and the like, they stare at you blankly. Why is my generation (and older ones) so bothered by our loss of privacy while they are not, for example? There are certainly all kinds of questions to be sorted out between the technical haves and have nots and the social order, and there is and will be great social upheaval, but the writing is on the wall if you ask me.

The most interesting aspect of the film however deals with Kurzweil’s body obsession and fear that he was born just a little too soon to make it to this point in time. He is obsessed with taking care of his body long enough to be able to “upload his mind”, long enough to achieve this “immortality”. It is the driving obsession of his life, as well as recreating his father (who died of a heart attack  at a fairly young age) in some new virtual world. He clearly wants to experience this new world of human evolution, and yet he uses terms like “upload” or “backup” his consciousness, which always leads me to want to ask the teleport question about what happens to the original. Does it just get destroyed but that is ok b/c the copy continues on? I don’t know about you, but it would be small comfort to me to be destroyed even if a replica was continuing on with all my memories…

Or maybe it is more like the darned sock analogy. I’ve got a hole in my sock, which I get a patch for. Then another, with another patch, and so on until there is no material left of the original. Is it the same sock? In reality, over many years our bodies’ cells have replaced just about everything that we were born with anyway, so what is the difference? The difference is, in Kurzweil’s (and admittedly our) future, the sock will no longer resemble the thing it started out as at all. It will have transcended sock-ness completely. And we will have transcended humanity for something else, something unknown.