Saturday, December 11, 2010

You Never Had a Camera in My Head

The medium is the message, the medium is the message, the medium is the message. I can say it over and over again and painstakingly meditate on its meaning. I always get confused even though I’ve been studying this vague yet powerful construct of Marshall McLuhan’s for many years.

Enter Wafaa Bilal. Have you heard of him? He’s an Iraqi American artist who has made waves in recent years by producing art forms that have blurred the line between media stunt, public protest, and the boundary of art and real life.

He’s the guy who wrote the book, “Shoot an Iraqi”. This book is about a living art exhibit in which he confined himself at the Flatfile Gallery in Chicago. The exhibit was called “Domestic Tension” and it was Wafaa home for one month. Living art has been done this way before but he added a twist. If you visited him on-line not only could you video chat  he gave you ability to fire a yellow paint ball at him at 300 feet per second, all day, every day. I don’t know if that’s really domestic but it’s certainly qualifies as tension as over 60,000 paint balls were fired at him during his month long ordeal.

He’s also the guy who asked for people to vote for whom they would prefer to see water-boarded. An Iraqi citizen or a dog named Buddy. Wafaa received the most votes. It is rumored that he actually got the treatment.

Most recently he’s the guy that put 105,000 tattoos on his back. A tattoo artist inked a small red dot for each of the 5,000 Americans who have died in Iraq as well as an invisible ultraviolet dot for each of the 100,000 Iraqis who have died as well. Obviously when viewed normally the Iraqi deaths are hidden, and that’s the point. But when viewed under a black-light his tattoo serves as a sobering reminder of the larger cost of that war.

But all of these art forms have a well traveled lineage albeit with slight variations and levels of extreme. His latest artistic endeavor however could be a game changer. It’s called “The 3rd I” and you can find the link to this latest exhibit at

Basically Wafaa has surgically imbedded a video camera in the back of his head. Imagines from the camera are sent live at the rate of one frame per minute to produce this art exhibit. Generally speaking, with the exception of the extreme measures he underwent to have the camera imbedded in his head, walking around streaming pictures doesn’t seem like a big deal considering everyone has a camera phone these days as well as the live streaming video that already comes from webcams the world over. How then is this new medium different, vastly different from emerging social norms as I now contend, and what is the message?

First, always remember that McLuhan has stated that content is disconnected from the medium. The content is not important. That’s why streaming pictures as a rate of 1 per minute versus streaming video in HD 1080i in 3-D doesn’t matter. Certainly it’s easy enough to do if he’s already going through the pain of imbedding a camera in his head. But, for the first time, here is a crystal clear example of a medium in which the content is completely unimportant and therefore separated from the medium.

The message however is extreme. Would you invite Wafaa to your house knowing he has a camera imbedded in his head and will be recording and broadcasting his every move… or is it your every move? Privacy issues immediately come to the fore. Wafaa claims to have been disinvited to a few social events and has already offered his employer the concession that he would cover the camera lens while he was at work, on the campus of the New York University, this apparently to protect the privacy of the students. What is so different from his medium than the medium of the same multitude of protected student’s who video text daily from campus?  Or for that matter the casual friend holding up a video phone at a private party to record a rising young pop star taking a bong hit to celebrate her 18th birthday? Of course the agents for Miley Cyrus report that the bong contained salvia and not weed but that’s hard to deduce from the video that’s already all over the internet.

But something more than privacy changes when the camera becomes biologically attached to you. That’s not to say Wafaa’s camera is always on or that there isn’t an off switch on version 1.0.  But the medium is fast approaching when the camera will always be on. Remember the Truman show? Truman (Jim Carey) is debating with God (The Character Christof played by Ed Harris). He says, “You never had a camera in my head”. Meaning that while there were hundreds of cameras capturing his complete life in the ultimate reality show, the cameras could never capture his private thoughts…the cameras were never in his head. Are we now moving one step closer to our private thoughts being netted together in one universal broadcast? Wafaa’s camera is on the back of his head. We will see in his photo exhibit exactly what he is not looking at, which by inversion rules out what he has deemed of interest. But the next imbedded camera easily looks forward and we know where that leads…we can’t hide from the occasional glance in the direction of the jogger in the bikini that shows up on the web. Currently we can still edit the contents of our camera phones before the pictures get home.

We also edit our tweets sufficiently to conceal all but what we want the world to know of our thoughts. I am happy, I am sad, I am tired, I am hungry, I just went through the car wash, My plane leaves in 30 minutes, I just saw Justin Bieber at the airport, I just ran into my friend’s wife at the gate, I just had a carnal thought, I just boarded my flight, I just thought about the plane exploding at 35,000 feet, The guy sitting next to me has an iPad, I am jealous, I want to steal his iPad, I have to quit tweeting the plane is about to take off, there’s something on the wing, I have gas, I love you,…artificial airline induced blackout period..., the plane just landed safely, see you in an hour…

Of course when Wafaa flys the guy sitting directly behind him will be not be able to figure out exactly why there is a robot eye staring straight back at him that keeps winking every minute. Keep your thoughts on the seat back and tray table directly in front of you. Keep your fingers away from your nose.

In March I blogged about our journey to becoming one with the Borg. See “Assimilation Has Begun” . It doesn't help that Wafaa’s camera is distinctly Borgish in style. And I don’t think in general Wafaa’s aim is to promote our general assimilation into a technological collective. He is an artist making political statements through his medium. His message is one of peace and it is achieved by opening our eyes. He has opened our eyes in a multitude of ways with this latest technique simply taking another bold step by physically opening a robotic eye into his world. His message is not contained within the images that will stream back to his art exhibit. His message is contained within the art form itself. And while this medium is certainly effective in leading us towards a greater understanding, it plunges us further into the abyss. We’ve already stepped into it and are falling fast. There’s no turning back. Ironically as Wafaa falls he will capture our images in free fall behind him, at one minute intervals.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Global Warming, a Horse’s Ass, and the Preservation of Our Species

There’s a good piece of internet lore that makes the circle every few years. It’s the story of how the width of common railroad tracks came to be. The distance between the common rails (or gauge) is 4 feet 8-1/2 inches. Depending on which version of the story you read you get various details about British trams, wagon wheels, ruts, and Roman chariots. Finally, and the reason for these stories, is that everything is then reduced to the width of two horse butts. Whenever you can reduce anything to a horse’s ass there is a bit of comedy in it. Yes it’s funny and it might very well be true, but if this story is true, its implications are far greater than simply laughing at the legions of engineers who based their transportation designs for the past several millennia on the width of a horse’s ass. It would seem that the decisions were deliberate and therefore locked in time, rather than optimal and based on a comprehensive search of the available decision space, which indicates that an evolutionary algorithm is, or in this case is not, at work.

My thesis here is simple. If we as human’s, with our free will and ability to choose options, choose paths forward in the development of our technologies that lock us into certain standards, we may miss the powerful ability of evolution to keep us viable as a species. The ability to move, or migrate, has always been a fairly important trait of many species that has kept them alive. Legs allowed us migrate but trains allowed us to conquer the land masses. Yes we can swim and stay afloat, but boats allowed us to conquer the island nations. Many other species have used their ability to move about, and in some cases travel great distances, in order to survive. They physically adapt or die. Ours is the first species that because of our technology do not have to physically adapt in order to survive. Harnessing electricity tops the list. This is where global warming creeps in.

Freeman Dyson contends that we will adapt to changes in our environment with technology. If we really begin to destroy our environment, sooner or later, since we are smart innovators, we will invent the technology that saves us from ourselves. Not the least example of which has been our ability to invent the nuclear bomb but then not to use it to our own demise…at least not yet. We have been seeing the signs and hearing the warnings associated with the destruction of our planet for several decades now. So the innovation and technological need has been surfacing. We are forced to decide between paper or plastic, and now the reusable lead laced shopping bags made in China. The problem, if we choose to face it, is big…very big. This month’s Atlantic reports that to stabilize the carbon in our atmosphere the “entire world would have to reduce its per capita emissions to the level of Kenya.” That’s stepping back a few years. Certainly since before we harnessed electricity. And this is where decisions and the standards that we choose become so crucial to our survival.

In his book “Collapse”, Jared Diamond explains to us what happens to a civilization that has a tree based economy that happens to live on an island. What happens when all the trees are gone? When eco-systems are in balance the evidence of evolutionary adaptations are amazing…witness the foraging patterns of the army ant. Over a 20 day bivouac a colony of army ants systematically forages 360 degrees around their mobile colony in 14 raids, each raid separated by 123 degrees of separation before the next raid. This search algorithm naturally developed over millions of years of evolution. At the end of 20 days the entire colony picks up and moves. What if one of those ants felt tired and decided they didn’t want to move this month? Well we can speculate on how the colony handles dissidents and I can guarantee you their constitutional rights are not being protected. In an ant colony the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one”, as Spock would say. The same is not true in our society. This whole business of standards in transportation has never been based on the needs of the many; it has always been based on the needs of the few. And that’s the problem. Transportation must serve the evolutionary needs of the species, not the commercial needs of those with intent to exploit the species the cheapest way possible. This is not an essay to describe all the various times in our transportation history that bad decisions were made that changed the direction of our country…but we continue to witness more of them every day. The point of this essay is to make clear that we might have unwittingly broke the evolutionary algorithm with regard to human transportation.

If we believe the internet lore that the standards that have emerged for rail transportation have locked us into a rut, no pun intended, we have a problem. The version of the story I read recently carried the 4 foot 8-1/2 inch standard even further. It seems distance between rails also restricted the final size of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the space shuttle. As we so painfully know down here on the Space Coast, the shuttle program is over. Would larger SRBs on the space shuttle have saved the program? Hard to say…the cost to weight ratio would have been significantly improved with more initial boost…would this have allowed us to do more and to have demonstrated far more value to the Country with regard to our manned space program? I don’t know but the point here is evolution. If the restricted size of the SRBs can be traced to the design specifications for Roman Chariots we are broken as an evolutionary species.

If this is true then Freeman Dyson’s belief that we will be able to overcome our own environmental disasters through innovation and technology and that one day, if necessary, we will escape to other planets to preserve our species has suffered a serious set-back. We have created an island in space from which we cannot escape. And one day, when all the trees are gone, we will not be able to carve a wooden raft upon which we can float to the natural preserving resources of another island within our galactic chain.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Contrails, Missile Plumes, and the Birth of Conspiracies

It’s been a few days since a KCBS News Helicopter in Los Angeles caught the spectacular rising plume of a missile launch thirty-five miles off the OC coastline. Looking at a still photo of the column of smoke it’s hard to believe that the image is not exactly what we are told we are looking at...the exhaust plume of a very big missile launched off the California coast. If you read the reports what we have is primarily a series of self proclaimed experts weighing in on the video. In one sad case, KCBS dug up retired Ambassador Robert Ellsworth and showed him the video clip of the launch …not only did Ellsworth confirm the footage as the “spectacular” and “breath taking” launch of a “very large” missile he offered his expert testimony that it could have come from a submarine and that it could be an ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile).

When you watch this news report not only does the station offer no explanation for the launch other than that of a missile they lend credence to the theory by showing a video clip of a real missile launch for the viewer to compare for themselves. If you even realize that the video clip of the real missile is not the same footage you might take the time to make this comparison and see the distinct differences. If you don’t, witness the birth of a conspiracy.

As the days go by and the official response from the Government does not adequately explain where the missile came from…the conspiracy grows. Since it’s already been ruled a missile launch anything less than a full disclosure confirming what we have already been told is a massive government cover-up. 48 hours later the Pentagon denied the event as a missile launch and explained that it was an aircraft contrail. That was too late.

Spectacular video and immediate expert testimony that gets picked up and reported by the news service is a strong medium for the message. I’ve looked at the video over and over again and I agree it’s pretty amazing. It’s hard not to believe the story unfolding before my eyes as true. So we wait patiently for the government to tell us it’s a Navy missile test gone awry or another Country is putting us on warning, or the best yet…another quip coming from Ambassador Ellsworth, the US is conducting a show of force pointed at Asia (at this point Ellsworth’s reliability as a witness get’s called into serious question). We are seeking explanations for that which we know to be true, a missile launch. Not explanations for that which might be deceiving our eyes…that something other than a missile launch caused this phenomenon.

When I studied the JFK assassination a number of years ago I became interested in conspiracy theory and what it takes for a conspiracy theory to really take root in the psyche of a population. It’s actually fairly simple. If the magnitude of the underlying cause of the occurrence is out of balance with the magnitude of what has actually occurred, conspiracy theories spring forth to fill the gap. It’s that simple. JFK was the President of the United States, well loved by many he represented a great future, “Ask not what your Country can do for you, ask what you can do for your Country”, and all the symbolic rhetoric. Balance that with the actions of a lone gunman. A single deranged individual who changed the course of the world history. It can’t be that simple. It’s totally out of balance. But it actually is that simple. The same thing holds true with the conspiracies surrounding 9/11. The magnitude of that one cannot be balanced out even with the colossal evil that is Al Qaida bursting into the public awareness.

Now we have the pretty simple and extremely common occurrence of a jet aircraft generating a vapor contrail at cruise altitude while being viewed head-on against the bright pallet of a California sunset. The contrail is so spectacular in appearance but from such a marginal a source, water vapor, we have a mental disconnect. Further, the image it paints is so similar to a missile launch it appears Southern California must be under attack. That presents an even greater disconnect. Known experts weighed in early, John Pike, always looking for quick paycheck tried to dispel the growing myth early on, but slanted his opinion with his typical shot at the Federal Government’s inability to respond with the truth early enough. (This is another topic altogether but I’m not sure which Federal agency he thinks is responsible for responding to vapor trails – it’s not NORAD, it’s not NASA nor is it the Navy or the USAF at Vandenberg, AFB. No one seems to have asked the Federal Aviation Administration).

The next day a web site known as did a pretty rigorous debunking of the missile launch theory with a lot of technical detail and evidence of another contrail that looked very similar to a missile plume that happened last December. It’s a very common occurrence. Yet the missile theory continued to grow along with the conspiracies and the wishful thinking that we are once again witness to a large Government cover-up. Let’s pin this one on Obama is perhaps the unconscious theme.

Perhaps the balance is upset by an incessant search for the guilty as if someone is to blame for acts of nature and their inability or unwillingness to respond quickly enough to quell our anxieties. George W. Bush, in his new memoir, Decision Points, regrets the photo of himself taken on Air Force One looking out over the New Orleans flooding in the wake of Katrina with what has been interpreted as an unconcerned and detached expression on his face. We have to believe that although he might have been slow to react, the expression on his face could not possibly have been detachment, yet that’s what we are told and or lead to believe. Another conspiracy is born.

In an earlier post, March 2009, I provided a “spectacular” eyewitness testimony of a space shuttle launch at sunset, about the power of God and the power of man. I posted about the launch of STS 119. In this post I describe what a column of rocket smoke looks like as it billows skyward in a vertical column changing colors as it climbs higher and higher into the atmosphere. The same powers of God that paint the unbelievable pallet of pink and orange hues of a California sunset reveal that which separates the horizontal from the vertical. An actual missile would have burst into the white light of the California sunset as it rejoined with the sun on its vertical flight skyward. The same thing happens at sun rise (see photo). This did not happen…nor would it happen with an aircraft traveling west to east in level horizontal flight. The plume remained orange until the contrail ceased to be produced (according to when UPS Flight 902 entered the drier air mass of the coastline).

Nevertheless the extreme optical illusion presented to us by nature demonstrates that the power of God’s hand trumps the imaginative and perceptive powers of the human mind, every time.  The reporter who captured the spectacular images should not be held responsible for shooting the footage rather the media should continue to remember that they are in possession of a powerful medium, too, but never all the facts. Their cameras are certainly not the watch dog for missile launches. Our Country has spent billions of dollars on knowing when and where a missile launch occurs anywhere in the world.

When NORAD reports that there is no threat or danger, if that message doesn’t get out far and wide, I’m not sure the purpose of a news media anymore. If stirring up conspiracies is their main focus they have ceased to be of any value to the public. They might as well be reporting on crop circles…and of course vapor trails.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Los 33 and Sir Richard's Teeth

Los 33, trapped in the hellish underground deep beneath a mountain in the Atacama Desert. This is not a “Journey to the Center of the Earth” alongside the dapper Brendan Frasier and his hot co-star finding an underground oasis of life abounding within the underground chambers of a sound stage. Shades of the "Genesis Cave" ala Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn without the dramatic discovery that indeed cadet James T. Kirk beat the Kobayashi Maru scenario by cheating. For sure Los 33 will cheat death, but they will not have cheated either Ricardo Montalban nor will they ride from their purgatory via a Hollywood lava tube. They will arrive to the surface on Wednesday because a dedicated army of professionals, the best in the business, came to their rescue renewing our belief in technology and the human spirit.

But how did they get there in the first place?

Every country in the world digs holes in planet earth to extract the wealth locked beneath our feet. Whether they be the underground network of caves in Afghanistan used to dig for sapphires, coal mines in Pennsylvania, blood diamonds in Africa, open pit alumina mines in Hungry, or even the drilling for oil in the Gulf. Each is a different industry, each driving a market, each extracting a significant toll on the planet along with the wealth it extracts for its owners. Each brings technology, extreme conditions, and amazing individuals together in a macabre dance of prosperity for society with the risk of damage to the environment, while employing individuals who are doing incredible and dangerous things, for very little compensation.

Aside from the massive spill and deaths of the explorers aboard Deep Water Horizon, based on our love affair with oil, we are seeing the aftermath of our love affair with the aluminum can. As I drink my 23 oz Arizona Tea, which I purchased two for $2 dollars, another levy threatens to break and a sea of red sludge will blanket a few more small cities in Hungry. Apparently 4000 people are on the scene working to build a new retaining wall, the president of the company that owned the red sludge has been arrested and charged with negligence, and Hungarian government has taken over the company. Do a search on Karst collapse...see also man-made collapse...see also sink hole. It seems we have whole cities that are sinking and flooding with red ooze and other types of ooze as a result of mining activities. Yet we bore on...fields of untapped wealth...awaiting discovery and harvest.

So just yesterday Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic smiles into the camera declaring the success and safe glide back to landing of the first commercial spacecraft, “Space Ship Two”, after it's captive release from the carrier ship. Branson emerges as the great explorer. Somewhat fitting in a way since it is Columbus Day here in the United States. Come on people it’s 2010. Even the Hollywood version of Space Exploration, “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before” hasn’t been achieved by this feat. The Virgin Galactic success comes 48 years after USAF Pilot Robert White did the same thing in the X-15 aircraft...he was the real explorer. I do not remember his flight because I wasn’t born yet. But I do remember the first captive release and glide back of the Shuttle “Enterprise” off the back of a 747 aircraft in 1977; I was thirteen and wrote a report on the Shuttle for my 8th Grade Science class. That was 33 years ago. Now, as I write this and the US emerges from the recession (or so we are told), thousands of NASA workers at Cape Canaveral are being told it’s time to go home, all because there seems to be a myth surrounding what is real engineering and what is Hollywood fantasy.

If the administration believes we can explore space on the shininess of Sir Richard’s teeth we have evidence of the real problem in our Country, which is a total lack of understanding of basic science and engineering principals. What it really takes to go to space. Sir Richard and his followers are capitalizing on 50 year old technology. Their eye is on the potential profit from high dollar thrill rides. If they really have signed up 700 adventures at $200,000 a seat, that’s $140 million dollars, which is incidentally, the cost of about one third of a single space shuttle mission. Why? Because two completely separate things are being achieved but the package is sold together.

The line separating the upper atmosphere from space has been arbitrarily drawn at 50 miles. Perhaps NASA made a mistake when in 2004 they awarded the brave pilots of the X-15 program astronaut wings. The precedent was set. If you venture above 50 miles you join the likes of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. Other than the fact that White and the others were brave test pilots who will live immortality in the hearts of aircraft and space enthusiasts, they fall short of the reaching an altitude to do much of anything useful in space. It’s practically straight up and straight down on these missions. To do anything useful an orbit must be achieved. Beyond that, one must escape the gravitational pull of the earth. Virgin Galactic will achieve neither so we shouldn’t applaud their successes any more than the success of a new roller coaster at Six Flags. I’m not going to completely bash investment in commercial space. SpaceX, for instance, is moving forward, however that is a longer and much more difficult story, and still includes a large influx of government support.

But doing useful things in space is also somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Some may view the scientific frontiers that have opened up as not useful to those of us who remain on earth. By the way I’m not going to attempt to justify NASA’s budget because they weighed in on the Chilean mining incident, but it is nice that those in the business of the extreme can come together in times of crises.

But space exploration, manned or unmanned, cannot be achieved because there is no profit in it. Not for decades to come…50 years is a nice number because we are on the brink of seeing commercial profit from space tourism 50 years after it was first achieved. This means that even with the technology explosion of the past century we did not improve our ability to move from government sponsored exploration to commercial enterprise by a full order of magnitude. It took 200 years from Columbus setting foot in the New World to the Hudson Bay Company turning a profit from his endeavor. The promise of riches to come took 200 years to generate commercial interest to do something useful.

So space exploration is not ready to turn a profit. Yes we are undergoing a serious explosion in technology, which will help. But more government investment is still necessary. Profits do not materialize in terms of cash. They materialize in the form of new technology and most importantly new maps. That’s what explorers do. They map. In order to map they create new technology. Maps help us explore further. They push us to go beyond the map, to go beyond the world’s end. And they are pushing us higher, faster, farther, and in the case of Deep Water Horizon and the Chilean miners, deeper.

But before the mining machines show up on Pandora and we have to displace the Na’vi people we must explore and draw maps. In the past two years we have witnessed the discovery of huge pockets of ice on the moon. The promise is for the moon to be our first stage into the solar system. By mining the moon we can leave the resources necessary to travel into the solar system here on Earth. The discovery of water was a major first step. Although miners are still many years away, nothing will happen without more government investment. If that investment doesn’t come from us then it will come from other countries vying for a piece of the action and the glory. We will be left on the sidelines.

Not since Apollo 13, during our voyages and conquest of the moon, has the world held its breath as humans now reach down to rescue the miners trapped at 6000 feet. They might as well be on another planet. By most accounts it was easier to bring the crew of Apollo 13 home. At least it didn’t take three months. But indeed we have learned several lessons about the extreme. With technology and the human spirit we can still tame mountains…but not without the maps made by the explorers first.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Meat Bikini's, Russian Torpedo's, and Investment Advice

I write another blog in another forum called "The Medium is the Message" where I try to relate issues back to what Marshall McLuan had said years ago. I'll introduce a blog with a similar theme today. My thoughts tend to wander but I will try to stay focused on the Medium as the Message. Although I may wander, when I finish, I will have you reaching for your check books.

So let's talk about the big five subjects that have been making headlines...namely meat bikini's, burning the Qur'an, ground zero mosques, Russian torpedoes, and the new Google Instant Search algorithm. All of them are to some degree publicity stunts aimed at gaining media coverage. Let's take care of the easy one first--meat bikini's. In case you missed the story Lady Gaga wore a Meat Dress to receive her eighth VMA of the evening at the MTV Awards ceremony. It's not clear whether or not it was an actual meat dress, it sure looks like one. But it didn't look as realistic as the meat bikini she wore on the cover of the Japanese Vogue Magazine a few weeks ago. Clearly a publicity stunt. Whether Lady Gaga thought too deeply about blow back from the revulsion some of us surely feel when we think about what she is actually wearing, or whether she was just trying to obtain more camera clicks than anyone else...the medium by which entertainment and stardom is most surely judged...I doubt we will ever know. There is no deeper meaning here. Content is completely and unequivocally without importance. Lady Gaga wins the picture clicking contest hands down thus the medium is the message...Gaga rules the industry.

Next award for best publicity stunt of the year goes to Pastor Terry Jones for yelling fire in a crowded movie theater. Shouldn't we be arresting this guy rather than following his every move? Once again the content here is of no importance. There is no content derived message at all. Terry Jones needed a publicity stunt for his wounded ego and chose to insight a riot. If he walked out of his Church wearing a meat bikini nobody would have noticed him. If he would have said his prayers in the privacy of his Church and burned his Qur'an's in the privacy of his Church, nobody would have noticed. We can only hope in our own prayers that had he carried out the planned fire the conflagration would have raged out of control and burned his sanctuary to the ground. Did I say that out loud? That might have made the local headlines in Florida. I doubt it. Florida residences seem to have a fairly high incidence of burning down their own homes... despite the fact that we don't have fire places. It simply isn't news worthy unless the whole family dies...which unfortunately all happens frequently down here. But the medium here isn't the press coverage or the photography. The medium here is the national security incident. It's within all of our potential, free citizen's living in free society, to yell fire in a crowded theater and thus create panic...we don't do it. It's actually easier to pick up the phone and call in a bomb threat...we don't do it. It's not too much more difficult to create an international incident...we don't do it. Choose something controversial, call the news desk, and hope it's a slow day. It works. The only thing left to decide is whether or not this little publicity stunt was a crime. It reminds me of my favorite Nicholas Cage quote from the movie Raising Arizona, "Awh's not armed robbery if the gun isn't loaded". The medium is the message...doesn't matter if it's loaded or not.

I could write for days on the Ground Zero Mosque...which isn't at ground zero, and is also not a mosque. The medium here is loud and clear. Fear. Fear based on ignorance primarily with the some bigotry thrown in. Nobody wants to call it by it's real name. There can be no content in this message because the content is wholly fabricated. Then politics took over. Fear is one of our primal protects us from the saber tooth in the tall grass. Should we ignore it? No. Should we use it to fan our political aspirations? I can't discuss in this blog without violating one or two of our policies. Shame on us.

Stay with me and keep your checkbooks handy. I will now move on to the subject of Russian torpedoes. Creating an international incident is what Terry Jones would do if he was the dictator of his own Country. KJI has the benefit of his own Country to create these situations. Do we think KJI intentionally wanted to kill 47 South Korean's? I think his little demonstration got out of hand. Had he sunk the ship and all the sailors got off with their bet he would have stood up for the sovereignty of North Korea. This is like chopping down a tree in the forest and hoping that it doesn't make a sound...or only annoys those living in the tree...only to find out the tree fell over the only creek providing cooling water to a nuclear power plant...BOOM! Once again we have the medium of the international incident. The only question is why doesn't the international community want to recognize it for what it really was and how it happened? Easy. The only sound louder than an international incident is an act of war. Terry Jones can't commit an act of war no matter how hard he tries. KJI can. When he want's to he will. I don't think he was ready to declare war and certainly the international community doesn't want to either. KJI has tried to erase the's neither an international incident nor act of war if he didn't do it. Too bad they found the torpedo.

So let's talk about one last thing...if you're still with me. Google Instant Search. I loved it from my first two letters typed into the search box. It will easily save me the five plus seconds that Google suggests it will save me per search. And the thought of saving hundreds of hours world wide...that's an incredible feat. Some of what I've read says it's only a gimmick. It's not a gimmick if it works. Google's desire to organize the world's knowledge just took one step closer. Since it's now easier to type in an "a" to bring up "AOL", I never have to book mark my AOL URL again. I only have to type in an "f" to bring up FaceBook. The medium here is one or two letter's leads us to our thoughts or what we were thinking. That's really powerful. And as cool as it is, it will rapidly aide the Assimilation I spoke about in a recent blog. Google has reduced us in their quest to organize the world's knowledge to the 26 letters of our alphabet. Whether we are searching for it or not, "a" now means "AOL", "b" means "Bank of America", "c" means "CraigsList", "d" means "Disney", and so on. Keep going, "e" means "Ebay", "f" means "FaceBook", "g" means "Gmail". Ok you get the point. The problem is clear. In our winner take all world, these winners will simply grow more and there is nothing we can really do about it. Google has given the seat of honor to these websites. It's a brand new medium but this medium unfortunately has room for only 26 entries. Our world is shrinking, it's not growing. Just like our vocabulary is shrinking. LOL, OMG, etc. We should have seen it coming. I use Google for it's simplicity. Simplicity is our enemy. We cannot evolve without diversity. The medium is the message. The message can be found by typing the letter "g" into your search box.

So now grab your check books. Immediately invest in the company's that appear for each letter. If someone hasn't created it yet there should be a mutual fund that only invests in the top company of each letter of the alphabet that shows up in the Google Instant Search. Try it. I went through the alphabet already. Now I wish I had some cash.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tokyo Mew Mew and the Vocaloids Slip to Number Three

Are you keeping up with kids and the Japanese culture? You may be thinking it’s a good idea for your kids to learn Spanish…but that was so…80’s. How about Japanese? How many of your kids own a DSi, watch Anime or read Manga comics? My daughter has immersed herself in Japanese culture and frankly I’m having a hard time keeping up. She’s taught herself how to speak and read. It’s hard to find instruction in the Japanese language here in Central Florida so she did it herself. Hiragana and Katakana are the scripts and Romanji based on the Latin alphabet (I had to ask her). She knows the alphabets and the pronunciations…she is now building her vocabulary. It’s pretty scary because when I see a symbol I have no idea how to look up the translation.

In a futile effort to keep pace I purchased Rosetta Stone. We will see where that leads. But that’s not the point of today’s essay. In honor of Japan’s economy slipping to number three behind China I want to tell a story that I wished “never happened”…from a file I wish, “didn’t exist”.

A few weeks ago we were flying back from a visit to Northern Virginia. On the plane down to Orlando a family from somewhere in East Asia was sitting ahead of us. They were speaking in a language my daughter hoped was Japanese. We could not hear them clearly due to the din of the engines. With them was a little girl about my daughter age of eleven or twelve. The two girls kept making eye contact with each other but both were too shy to speak. My daughter wanted me to break the ice but I’m pretty shy about talking to strangers and the opportunity never presented itself.

Fast forward two hours and we are standing at the baggage carousel. The Asian family was still close by and in fact we were alone with them. It seems two sets of luggage remained behind at Dulles Airport although we were yet to figure that out. So with the unexplained spare time and some prodding from my daughter I was able to muster the courage to break the ice. I approached the women who appeared to be the little girl’s mother and asked her as innocently as I could what language she was speaking. She immediately smiled and in a very friendly voice said Chinese. My daughter was immediately bummed as I could catch her shoulders drooping in my peripheral vision. Undeterred and wanting to receive some credit for a long summer of self-study, rather than the possibility of creating an international incident, she blurted out, “I’m learning Japanese”. The nice women took it in stride and immediately delivered the accolades that my daughter was seeking. She said, “…Japanese was a good language to learn and that she must be very smart to learn Japanese”. But then she took it one step further. She said, “...Chinese was also a good language…and you should learn Chinese too because you might find it useful in about ten years”.

Before I had time to digest what she had said, she called over her sister and introduced her to my daughter. It turns out that although the mom did not speak Japanese, her sister did. And so began my daughter’s first cultural language exchange.

Meanwhile we figured out that our luggage was not coming so we moved our United Nations exchange over into the lost baggage office. While we waited at the desk out came my daughter's English to Japanese dictionary and the dialogue continued. Now I’m not trying to say this was a fluent conversation in Japanese. This was an exchange of words. How do you say this? How do you say that? But I was unable to keep up and it was clear my daughter knew what she was talking about. I was blown away. And then it was time to depart.

One thing my daughter has taught me in Japanese is how to say Thank You or Arigato. But that’s easy. What I didn’t know is that saying, “Arigato” alone is the casual form. If you want to be formal you say, “Domo Arigato”. Which is exactly how my daughter thanked her new language partner. Instinctively upon hearing the formal thank you the women stiffened, dropped her hands to her sides, and bowed to my daughter. It blew her away…and I was speechless. It was really cool for my daughter and more than worth the drive home without our luggage, which wouldn’t be delivered until the morning.

But as we were driving home my mind reached back for the quote that was so innocently dropped on us by the nice women from China. “…you should learn Chinese too because you might find it useful in about ten years”. Was it a threat? Was it useful advice? For now I’m going with useful advice but with today's news about China over taking Japan to become the world’s second largest economy I might just be shelling out a few more bucks for yet another version of Rosetta Stone…just saying.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bloody Mary and the Paradox of 6th Grade Math Teachers

I've mentioned my fear of flying before. But have I also mentioned that I am also afraid of the dark? Yeah, I'm pretty much a ninny when the lights go out. These days I'm glad I live in Florida where we don't have a basement. There's nothing worse than turning the lights off in the basement and having to turn your back on the darkness to climb the stairs. I used to just leave the lights on. It's easier that way. So imagine my great surprise when my daughter comes running in and tells my wife and I that Bloody Mary is alive and well and living under her bathroom sink. "Come check it out" she says. I asked her, "Are you saying you stood in front of the mirror, turned out the lights, and spun around three times chanting, Bloody Mary, Bloody..." Ok, I'm not even gonna type it three times, "...and she appeared?" "Yep", she said, "And she grabbed my leg, see the scratch marks?, come with me". Yeah right. No thanks. I didn't see my wife jumping up to try it either.

But wait, I thought my daughter was afraid of the dark just like me, or so she claims. How is it that she musters the courage to do something like friends over daring one another to do it? Apparently her curiosity about the legend outweighs her fear of dying a ghastly death at the hands of "Bloody Mary". My daughter is curious and willing to take risks in order to learn things, even if that means in the dark.

So what could muster a kid with high curiosity, but "low self esteem and very little confidence" to overcome what should be a natural fear of the super least at her age. Some level of courage I would suggest. It's probably the same low self esteem that causes my daughter to teach herself to play the piano or to teach herself Japanese or to wear entirely different clothes at school. It's probably why her grades have suffered this semester. Heck, three A's, one B, and a D in math. Now there's a kid not trying very hard, she must have some emotional problems. She brought home a D in math after all. Yeah, that's a big problem. It surfaced back in the late fall. An eleven year old girl in 6th grade struggling in math. Wow! In the history of the world that's never happened yet it's her math teacher's theory that my daughter has "low self-esteem with very little confidence" and is therefore struggling in school.

Let me caveat this right up front by saying my daughter is not Hillary Clinton. She is not an overachieving extrovert with boundless confidence. She is however full of energy. Although by the end of the school day, her math class is her last period, her energy drops off a cliff. Math in the afternoon, just after lunch, hmmmm? Well I guess since the teacher says it's "low self-esteem and very little confidence" that's what it has to be. Regardless of the cause we did take action. I'm paying for a math tutor. A 5th grade teacher takes her after school for an hour every week. It's costing me $200 bucks a month but I consider it to be money well spent. Reports from the tutor have been positive, "She really understands the material, she just doesn't execute well on tests". OK, another clue. The pressure situation of tests might be stressing her out. Seems reasonable. Turns out we've discovered that she's been allowed to bring a page of notes with her to the tests she's been taking in class...but hasn't been bringing the page of notes with her. That's odd...truly odd. If she lacked confidence in a subject it seems like she would want to bring that kind of a crutch to class, I guess if she knew about it. Well, when I asked her math teacher, it seems that my daughter is a bit unorganized and she really should get organized because she will be going into middle school next year and all the responsibility will fall on her. She has 120 kids to worry about and can't keep up with them all. It seems her math teacher has been trying to prepare her students for middle school...has been since the first day of school. "These young mathematicians", she said at the open house last fall, "should really be in middle school, 6th grade is middle school and therefore they need to be working to take that level of personal responsibility". I'm not sure I'm down with that theory, but heck, I'm not down with the "New" math either. So what do I know?

I do know that my daughter has been trying. She really likes her math tutor, comes home and does her math homework, and by the end of the next semester she was up to a C in math. That's good progress from my perspective. I'm not pushing her into rocket science or anything, she's a artist and likes to write. I would like her to be able to balance her checkbook, or at least do decently on college entrance exams, but that's about it. And then last week happened. Interim grades rolled in. Looks like she dropped from three A's and a B, to one A and three B's with an F in math. That's right, after four months with a private tutor, putting the full court press on math, she walks home with an F. All that hard work and she's achieved something she's never achieved in seven years of school, she failed a subject. And not just any F. Her score for the first part of term was a 20. As in 20%. What quickly followed was a series of phone calls and emails to her math teacher. When we finally got through to her my wife did the talking. When she hung up the phone my wife was in tears. It appears that our daughter, according to Ms. Sigmund Freud, has "low self-esteem with very little confidence" which is why she has a 20% in math. How does she know this?

What followed was another series of email and phone calls until I was finally able to speak to Ms. Freud personally. Well it appears that while taking the first test my daughter would repeatedly walk up to her to ask for clarification on a problem...apparently the teacher did give her some hints but also a lecture on how she wouldn't be able to leave her seat to ask a question in middle school, or was I getting the lecture? Anyway she got a 20% on that test. So only one grade was reported on the interim report card. What about the second test? Well the teacher said my daughter finished the test early, like in 15 minutes, faster than any other student. She was told to go back and check her work. "Well what was her grade?". I asked. It appears that those tests haven't been graded yet. So what does finishing early have to do with her interim grade if we don't even know how well she did or didn't do? I'm perplexed. So then I asked, "What else have you noticed?" Well my daughter has missed a number of school days and therefore missed the third test. OK, can she make it up? She already has. OK, what did she get on the third test? Well I haven't graded it yet. OK so we have three test grades but we only know about the one that has been graded which is driving the "F". And what about homework? Well she has a zero on two homework assignments because she was absent from class on those days. This was followed promptly with another description of how she has told my daughter to come to her to get the homework that she missed, or was it another lecture parents getting the assignments from the office? I don't know, I was having trouble listening because I was in the middle of an out of body experience.

Now we are by no means perfect parents. Our daughter was really sick on a few of those days, and we did allow her to take a mental health day or two. Also, I can't blame her lack of fondness for math on my great love for the subject...I'm not the most patient of father's when it comes to helping her with the "New Math". But why worry too much, I was throwing money at the problem and the reports coming from the math tutor, who does conference with her teacher weekly, was that things were progressing smoothly?

Yet here we sit. Two weeks left in the school year with a 20% in math for the last semester and very little we can do about it. An "F" shining like a beacon of failure on her report card...threatening to be what she carries forward with her into middle school, or worse in my daughters mind, being held back. You came to the 6th grade with an open and inquisitive mind. All subjects still in play -- science, social studies, English, reading, and math. But somehow math has now slipped into the abyss. A subject forever lost, like so many young girls before you, as a subject that girls are just not that good in. At fault..."low self-esteem and confidence"...or essentially her parents inability to build her self-esteem and confidence in math.

As with all criticism lodged in my direction I shake my head yes, yes, yes...say it a million times, say it a million more times and the word that you will have said two million times is...YES...we are to blame. I should have been more patient. I should have worked with her more on the fundamentals. I should have infused in her the confidence to solve word problems. I should have made sure she was organized enough to come home with the homework when she was sick and to make-up the tests that she missed. I should go with her into the dark bathroom and stare into the mirror and chant, "Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary", and turn in three circles and prove too her that nothing will happen, she should not fear the supernatural, and that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. It's not too late. I can do better.

Except she already knows that there is no Bloody Mary. She wants to take me into the dark bathroom and show me there is nothing to fear. Unfortunately there is something to fear -- something she is too young to realize. There is an impervious wall, a battle if you will, that all girls hit about her age. It is a transitional phase from which those characteristics of self-esteem and confidence are indelibly etched into their psyhce and when they emerge on the other side of the wall they are either ready to conquer the world or they face a continous life long struggle with confidence. We, her parents, are charged with equipping her for this battle. This is a wake-up call to us, that we will not be receiving any support from Ms. Freud, and that's sad. A good role model in class, particularly in the subjects of science and math can be so confidence building for young girls. Not this year, we've been walking backwards.

I hope we have not lost her completely to math -- she is our only child -- we only have this one shot. I just never expected a distructive force helping our young girl lose her battle with math, and hence her interest and confidence to pursue the subject, would come from the very one who should be building her up at such a critical age. But as always has been the case in elementary schools, the majority of teachers are women, so in this particular case, it's hard to blame men for the bias, since the ratio has always been this way and since the distruction has been going on for decades. The paradox is now completely obvious.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Assimilation Has Begun

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Star Trek. When Star Trek: The Next Generation came out I was really hooked. Whereas the former was full of leadership anecdotes, and the exploits of one each, Captain James T. Kirk, the latter explored more explicit ramifications of life in space, technology, and our future trek through the galaxy albeit with the full effect of a perfect earth like gravitational pull. Perhaps the greatest contribution of TNG to SciFi and forward thinking futurists who have trouble seeing beyond the coming technology singularity is the concept of the Borg. The Borg didn’t firmly take hold of the Trekie culture until the release of the 8th motion picture of the Star Trek franchise and the first with the cast of TNG. The movie was “Star Trek: First Contact”. Who doesn’t remember the grim face of the new hero, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, as the Borg began their assimilation of his ship and crew? Finally he agrees to sacrifice the Enterprise in order to destroy them.

Maybe there is an advanced cyber-borg based civilization somewhere out beyond the reaches of the galaxy waiting for the day when we begin colonization of the planets, only to have them sweep down and assimilate us into their collective…or maybe they are already here.

I signed up with Google Voice about six months ago. I really have been jazzed by the technology which allows me to check my voice messages on my cell phone from my computer at work. Cell phones are not permitted in my office so I either have to take time to walk out to my car to check my messages, or I have to dial voice mail every few hours from my office phone. Neither option is very convenient. What is nifty and fast is getting an email with a transcribed text of the voice message someone has left on my cell phone directly into my inbox. Google Voice enables this to happen. Since I’ve toyed with the idea of buying voice recognition software so I could dictate messages and turn them into memos for the past couple of years, gaining access to the power of Google and the software they are using the drive the translation, for free, is staggering. So I signed up and as of today, I’ve called to check my voice mail messages approximately two times in the last six months. That bought back a significant part of my life and I no longer worry about missing an important message on my cell phone. Now this is not to say that the quality of the translation is all that good, in fact it’s not that good at all. But it’s sufficient to understand the nature of the message and to gauge its level of importance. My next call will be to take action on the message, not to call to check my voice mail.

As the last few months rolled by I seem to be doing an impromptu test of the quality of the voice to text translations. It’s a very interesting to see some of the messages that result. Some weird words can be created, and sometimes those words could be embarrassing to the individual who left them. I have noticed which of my friends tend to speak very clearly with not much of an accent. My friend from Arizona for instance gets translated with great accuracy. My neighbor from Brooklyn New York, however, is barely legible. One interesting result is that digits seem to be at or near 100%. Or I haven’t detected an error so far, even with my neighbor’s accent. And that I find very interesting.

Now I will tell you about the most interesting test of all. Yesterday my cable went out. I called the cable company to report the outage. Through an automated menu of options I was directed to further options and then advised that at my location they already knew about the outage and they were working to correct the problem. Then I was given the option for a call-back when they believed the problem was resolved. I missed the call-back when it came in so naturally Google Voice picked up and recorded the message from the cable company. I didn’t think about it at the time but the call-back itself was a computer generated message. A machine was generating a voice which was being recorded by another machine and then translated into a text message which was sent to my email. The machine voice nailed it. The scary translation accuracy of the computer generated voice was 97.25%.

Apparently I can now officially communicate with an artificial language more accurately then I can a real human voice. It's not scary in the sense that computers can talk better than us -- it's scary because the digital signal that represents the word "satisfaction" has been copied and pasted. Meaning the word “satisfaction” now has a digital signal. It’s sealed in stone. It’s permanent. The digital signature should, in theory, never change. Language as we know it, along with its unique role in human development will soon begin to stagnate. It will not change, and we humans will move toward the standard. Language will cease to evolve. As language technology propagates and becomes ubiquitous, it is not the computers that will begin talking like us; it is us that will begin talking like computers.

For instance, unwitting of what I was doing, I've already instructed some friends to speak more clearly when leaving a voice mail -- those from accent free zones already have voices that are translated accurately and need not change yet. And I do it too and have done so for some time. When face to face with a telephone menu with voice recognition, I try to speak more clearly, because I’ve already learned the frustration that will result if the call fails, so I move towards them. We are being assimilated. It works like this. First we will lose our accents, then we will speak in crystal clear monotone, then we will have chips imbedded in our head...isn’t that the Borg. The very idea that artificial intelligence is about making artificial things more like us is dead wrong. We will be getting closer to them. We have the biological ability to evolve, not them. They will not become human they will strip humanity from us. They will not turn into us and one day gain a soul. We will turn into them and one day be forced to lose ours. It seems that the Borg is already here and assimilation has already begun. Are you excited or scared?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Here's to an Energy Efficient 2010

In the fall of 1980 I enrolled in a high school elective called “Power and Transportation”. This was primarily because I liked cars and wanted a simple industrial art’s course to balance the rest of my college prep courses, like French and pre-calculus. We didn’t get to work on cars, or build the go-cart like some students got to do on an occasional lucky year. Instead my class got to do a lot of academics…what was with that guy, my instructor, Mr. Kosko. It was his first year teaching. He lectured everyday – hydraulics, pneumatics, power generation, internal combustion engines…I guess he wanted to teach. He even required us to write a term paper and present it to the class—an oral presentation. What the heck? A term paper in an industrial arts course, with a speech—maybe I was in the wrong class. But I digress; the importance of this class to my rambling today was my term paper. I don’t remember the exact title but I remember the topic well--using off shore wind mills to generate electricity in order to use electrolosis to generate hydrogen as an alternative power source.

Thirty years ago a high school student was writing about alternative energy sources to reduce our reliance on foreign oil. If I felt so strongly about it, perhaps I shouldn’t have attended college in Texas. There were not a lot of alternative energy course available in my Mechanical Engineering program at that time – so my direct interest in alternative energy sources diverged. I remember looking for them in the course catalogue, which I still happen to have…let’s see…in 1982 the number of courses offered in ME that could be considered alternative energy…zero. Things that make you go hmmmm? Again, I digress.

I look around me today with all that has happened in thirty years and I wonder how much real progress has been made. Are we as a country more energy efficient? Has our reliance on foreign oil been reduced? Am I personally helping or hurting the situation? I don’t know exactly what my daughter is learning in her 6th grade science but I do know that if I don’t turn the water off while I’m brushing my teeth she comes in and shuts it off. If I throw an aluminum can in the regular trash she corrects me on the spot.

I have been thinking about alternative energy, reducing our reliance on foreign oil, increasing my energy efficiency, and since the two go hand in hand, reducing the impact to environment, for many years. But I appear to have done nothing about it, at least not personally. I've just been thinking about it. I seem to have been waiting for someone to do it for me…like letting my daughter turn of the water or waiting for industry to make solar energy affordable, for instance. I could definitely afford to put some solar panels up on my roof or throw an additional foot of insulation into my attic. I haven’t. In fact I still live in an energy inefficient house. And I still leave the lights on. About the only thing I’ve done is replace my incandescent bulbs with fluorescent, but I don’t thinks that’s to save energy, I’m just tired of changing light bulbs. And then there’s that little issue with mercury…my head hurts just thinking about it. I need help but it’s tough to know where to turn.

It’s tough to know who’s telling the truth these days…are we warming the atmosphere or is it the result of increase solar activity during the 11 year solar cycle. To me that’s a stupid debate. To even suggest that 6,794,333,145 people are not having an impact on the environment in a very big way is to be completely dissociated with reality. We are having an impact. So we should do something...even if some of those will never pan out. Just like we no longer test nuclear weapons, the world woke up one day and said let's stop, that's bad for our collective health. Or let's stop dumping toxic waste into our fields and streams...the list is short...but progress has been made...we do wake up from time to time.

What exactly is that impact of almost 7 billion people on this planet? I’m not sure but whatever the impact it will only get worse. What if all those people owned a house like mine, drove cars like mine, left the lights on like me, left the water running like I do, kept their house as warm as I do, and generally think that by using florescent light bulbs they are doing their part to help? Well if the Country has been asleep for 30 years, so have I. It’s time for a change. I can’t do it all by tomorrow, but by January 2011, with my daughter’s help, I hope to have done something. So aside from my standard resolutions of getting closer to God, being a better husband and father, losing weight, eating better and reducing my cholesterol, I resolve to be more energy efficient in 2010. Don’t know what I will do yet, but stay tuned, I’m sure I will talk about it here.