Small Streams

January 2, 2011, 10:08 am
Filed under: awareness, cities, ecology, railbelt, technology, thinking, Tourism, walking | Tags:

This story in the NYTimes caught my fancy. It’s about urban adventurers, sewers, media, the wilderness, and the unconscious. Two or three men and a media entourage take a trip through the sewers and tunnels below New York.

Futurama and others have already explored NYC’s underground as metaphor, but these earnest explorers — one of them a climber of Mt. Everest — show the satisfactions of life in the urban wild.

When you’re not worried about getting caught or dying, . . . it’s really nice being underground.

Wilderness is, indeed, our refuge, though I would hope for one less smeared in feces. I also think of the brook corralled into a sewer and think that maybe it will see daylight again, someday.

I must also mention that writer Alan Feuer’s scene setting, commentary, and picaresque detail (cough drops and whisky for breakfast, anyone?) turns the travelog inside out in a delightful manner.

Technology did not exist before you were born
January 17, 2010, 9:30 am
Filed under: awareness, media, mind, technology | Tags: ,

I just tagged an article in the P-G by Jeffrey Rogoff about computers. I’m still amazed by the humans versus computers model that people — even computer scientists like Rogoff — use. We keep being amazed by the machine when we should be amazed by the people who built and programmed the machine.

Rogoff starts by saying the teens will be transformed economically by artificial intelligence. Then spends the meat of the article talking about how Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in chess (This makes me think that Kasparov could have easily beat Deep Blue with a hammer or a garden hose, which made me think of
an XKCD comic
.) Computers have no doubt made great advances and the computer beats man gambit is a good way of making that point. It does so at the expense of reinforcing the idea of a computer, indeed all technology, as alien devices, proceeding from their own whims.

What we call technology has changed. In the words of personal computer pioneer Alan Kay, “Technology is anything that didn’t exist before you were born.”

Let me state the obvious, indeed so obvious I wouldn’t want to say it if people like Rogoff wouldn’t keep reiterating the “Computers versus Humans” argument: computers are built and programmed by humans. In fact, Deep Blue wouldn’t have returned to beat Kasparov had not some chess experts tweaked the code based on Kasparov’s moves.

I think you could make the case that a computer playing chess is more human than a horse and buggy.

I don’t think I’ve always believed that computers were just extensions of people, that our paths are coevolutionary. After a lot of reading –Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Donna Harroway, and Douglas Hofstadter — and a little thought, though, I believe our separation from the machines, any machine, indeed any technology, is a not very useful construct.

Some might say that’s what the computers want us to think. We have a whole body of literature that shows how easily computers will start stealing our lunch and shooting us in the kneecaps. I particularly like The Simpson’s “Treehouse of Horrors” episode with Pierce Brosnan as the ultrahouse. Our ability to imagine malevolent technologies is a problem with our nature. We can use fire or not, how we use it determines how constructive it is. We can mine as much coal, eat as much sugar, or watch as much television as we want, each of these may bring us to our death — or at least to a vegetative state — that can’t ascribe contrary intent. We don’t say “Sugar versus Humans.”

The temptation to look into the abyss has the abyss looking back in the form of a silicon chip. If you really want to see how we can kill ourselves with our computers go see Manufactured Landscapes.

Because I’m taking an an online computer science course , I’m increasingly seeing how computers can be a sort of communion with others — Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Grace Hopper . . .– punch a few words or numbers in and you get an answer. What if you could magically evoke the names and works of all the people who discovered the logic, soldered the wires, translated the machine language, or engineered the touch screen. It’s kind of like sticking your finger in an ancient glyph, you know that something’s at the other end.

The Continuing Adventures of Agrobots
December 31, 2009, 8:09 am
Filed under: ecology, eutechnics, Pittsburgh, research, technology | Tags: ,

The Economist has a summary of what servo-control devices are doing on farms. It seems mostly they’re doing a lot of speculative, expensive work. Robots, though, will invade our countryside soon enough.

I’m hoping that robots won’t look sophisticated. I think that farms will be best served by small and cheap cultivators and sensors, hundreds of little spidery devices that will weed and prune and detect insects or blights. This machinery as opposed to the current six figure tractors that are air-conditioned, Internet-enabled enclosures 10 feet off the ground might provide a greater appreciation of the health of the soil.

Also in the article is the continued fetish of increasing production and reducing labor. I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s constant harping on the need to increase farm labor. Although few of us really want to work on the farm.

The best line in the article comes from a Pittsburgh robotics engineer:

“It is actually not hard to pick an orange, but it is very hard to pick an orange cost effectively,” says Tony Stentz of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

World’s Deepest Rubbish Bin
October 30, 2009, 7:31 am
Filed under: awareness, ecology, education, eutechnics, mind, research, technology | Tags: , ,

Volkswagen started as the people’s car company. During the ’60s they embodied an ethos of do-it-yourself auto-maintenance and tongue-in- cheek subversiveness. A generation later I believe they’re at it again. Their fun theory initiative is part Candid Camera, part Big. Yes, it’s about branding, but it’s about the joy of using things and making things and not accepting the status quo.

Here’s a fun way to throw away the trash.

July 11, 2009, 4:46 pm
Filed under: awareness, technology | Tags:

Am rather weathered from celebrating our 98th. Liz has known me for almost half her life and I have known her for more than half of mine. Better stop. This is sounding like an algebra problem.

One of last night’s guests said she has observed me driving and has given me the nickname Putterer because of my slow pace and the absent look on my face.

Like most of the nicknames I have been tagged with over the years, I am not overly fond of it. For one, one of my childhood pets was named Putter. My mother, when she wanted the attention of one of us, had a habit of running through the family names, including the dog, until she got to the right child, sometimes overshooting the mark, so to speak: Sharron-Randy-Jeannie-Johnnie-Susie-Mark-Putter-Mark.

The other reason I wouldn’t like being called Putterer is because it’s true, but
only partially true. I sometimes drive slower than normal not through habit but by choice; my absent look is sometimes due to being absorbed by the scene, the scene being more than what is beyond the windshield.

As unamerican as it may seem I’m tempted to go beneath the speed limit–at least when nobody’s behind me. As I travel at what I call flivver speed, I can inhabit a certain consciousness that some experienced in the early part of the last century. The first trip in an automobile, one capable of moving at 25 miles per hour, would be mind bending for an adult. You get the feeling of going faster than your feet could take you, faster than nature provided for.

At 20-25 miles per hour, your pulse can quicken. Your lifebeat increases. Culturally we adopted musical forms, jazz and ragtime, that provided the accompaniment for our movements.

Past the age of the flivver, to the time of the Model A, what music complements the speed: Benny Goodman, Chuck Berry, Flatt & Scruggs, Booker T. & the MGs? The tempo of a speeding auto I believe corresponds to none of them. The quantitative change bears a qualitative change, one that leaves the concept of music in its tracks. We may play music as we travel. But it is vestigial and alien? Crack a window and you’ll hear the music, the tires on the asphalt the wind rushing into the car. It’s a crazy sound we still haven’t caught up with.

And don’t even mention jet travel.

Tricorders for Everybody
January 3, 2009, 9:28 am
Filed under: eutechnics, research, technology | Tags: ,

In the future, everything will look a lot like Star Trek not because of the prescience of the show’s creators, but because of the desire of engineers to make things look like Star Trek.

The adjacent Bizarro cartoon reminded me of this maxim and I quickly thought, “What a great app, to have a tricorder on your iPhone!” A quick search of the app store found that there are at least four makers ahead of me.

Of course, they’re only novelty apps for now and (since I’m not such a diligent trekkie) what I was thinking of was not the tricorder but that wand “Bones” McCoy used. But the apps all look like great fun and if you do a YouTube search for tricorders you’ll find iPhone apps and other simulations of tricorders and you’ll find this concept video of a pen that holds terabytes of data and can project on walls. Apparently we will have wonderful tools in the future, but, as you’ll see halfway through the video, we’ll still have to downgrade the software to Windows XP.

Law of Diminishing Returns
December 7, 2008, 1:13 pm
Filed under: awareness, eutechnics, research, technology, video | Tags: , , ,

A wonderful web page wherein Johnny Lee addresses suggestions for his $14 steadycam. Although JL seems slightly defensive, in point after point he shows how you could put lots of time, money, and effort into building a better steadycam, but if you want to make a cheap steadycam that’s sufficient to meet the needs, follow his plans.

Food Miles Myths
November 15, 2008, 1:53 pm
Filed under: ecology, eutechnics, food, gardening, technology | Tags: , , ,

Via Andrew Sullivan:

An article in ReasonOnline by Ronald Bailey about food miles.

As one who rec’d a free “Eat fresh. Eat Western Pennsylvanian” t-shirt and wears it proudly, I look skeptically at Bailey’s attempt to debunk the beliefs of some foodies’ fondest myths that eating locally saves energy and is food for the planet.

Transporting food, Bailey reports, accounts for little of the energy use and for fewer greenhouse emissions. In some ways the article is an unblinkered look at food economics: Reality doesn’t favor us stocking the corner market with local goods; hothouse plants emit five times the amount of greenhouse gases than transported tropical plants do.

On the other hand, I have a feeling that a society conscious of the origins of its foods, that devoted more time and attention to the cultivation and preparation of its food, is a society that will be paid off.

Bailey says that such time is better spent in leisure or in doing something more productive (I’m guessing he means something more productive for the GDP.). But in the Amish/Wendell Berry sense, such work, agricultural work, is good for the soul, and for the community, and is an asset that trumps the others.

Sorry to be short on specifics. Perhaps I should just plant something.

Manufacturing in Pennsylvania
December 10, 2007, 10:30 am
Filed under: eutechnics, technology

Gary Rotstein covers a matter of great importance in today’s “The Morning File,” what to do with all the cow manure that’s lying around Crawford County. According to the article, a dairy farm there got $600,000 from the state to install an anaerobic digester to harvest the methane from the farm’s cow manure. Apparently, there’s a lot of it, 1,400 cows worth.  The article was partly titled “Bessie could be our ticket to energy independence.” But in a farm with 1,400 cows, I doubt they spend the time naming the cows. So Bessie is probably named “Cow #781.” The farm is shooting to produce around 250,000 kilowatt hours per month, or about 500 times what a house like ours uses. If the P-G’s figure and my calculations are correct, the Bortnick farm will produce about $25,000 worth of electricity per month. You have to wonder why the state is subsidizing a factory farm for a nickel a person. But you can consider about three factors: containment of smell, reduction in use of fossil fuels, and its worth for demonstration purposes. If we could show that you can run 5oo households of electricity off 1,400 cows, why can’t we run 300,000 households (nearly one-twentieth of the population) on half a million cows.  Of course, the opportunities for employment are significant, too. We probably need about a thousand laborers and engineers to operate all the digesters. 

Two Paths
October 18, 2007, 10:56 am
Filed under: awareness, technology | Tags: , , , ,

asphalt pathPeople’s Path
I walked through Schenley Park’s Flagstaff Hill on the way to work today, and I saw two paths. One path was a nine-foot wide swath of asphalt, and the other path was a thin trail of bare earth. The first represents what people want other people to do, and the second represents what people do. This reminded me of Liz‘s talk at the Technology in the Arts conference “RSS and You: Teaching th Web to Surf Itself,” where she mentioned tags and folksonomies. Liz used the second path as a metaphor for the way folksonomies represent the paths that we make for ourselves.