New Uses of Technology

Today, I’m going to talk about a couple of interesting uses of technology. If you find the first discussion uninteresting, please skip ahead to the second; that said, I’ll keep them both short, so you shouldn’t be running too much risk of falling asleep at your computer.

Take a bow, Lior. You ought to get some sort of award for provoking the most blog posts.

This time, Lior’s spotted the Jewish Google Glass App, originally known as “JewGlass”.

It’s an interesting idea. I suspect Lior thought I was going to get snarky about it, but if so, I’m afraid he’ll be disappointed. If one accepts that Google Glass is a reasonable idea (my jury is still out on that), this seems like a perfectly logical app.

To save you the trouble of browsing the site (though you should take a look if you have any interest in the details), this is an app to provide time- and location-sensitive information via pop-up screens in your sight. The page talks specifically about “prayer time deadlines, where to find kosher eateries, what or what not to say while praying in synagogue and Shabbat start or end times”, but notes that there is plenty of room to expand.

The first example it gives is a reminder that it is almost time for a prayer and help you find a synagogue or display the correct text of the prayer. If you choose to go to a synagogue, it can provide directions via Google’s mapping functionality, so they can be appropriate for walking, driving, or biking, and include relevant traffic updates. Pretty slick, especially in the ability to mix Hebrew and English text in the same display.

There are some unanswered questions on the page. For example, it’s not clear if the app can be customized to the user’s specific beliefs. An Orthodox-only app, for example, is unlikely to be acceptable to members of more liberal movements. On the other hand, if the app can be customized, it might be necessary to allow for very detailed prayer-by-prayer tweaking to allow for local variations in prayer text and language. On a similar note, the question of whether the use of such an app on the the sabbath is somewhat in question, not so much for the app itself, but for whether the use of a computer or similar device is permissible. Still, questions can be answered.

All in all, I find the app an interesting use of technology, and intend to keep an eye on it (no pun intended) to see where it goes.

From one interesting bit of tech to another.

I’ve used this space to complain about harmful Kickstarter projects, so it’s a pleasure to be able to point to a project that’s strictly for fun, with no harmful side effects I can point to.

Full disclosure here: I’m already a backer of the project, and I’m hoping it will meet all of its stretch goals, so it’s to my benefit if you read this piece and then run out and back it yourself.

The project in question is PowerUp 3.0, the latest incarnation of an ongoing quest to create a cellphone-controlled, battery-powered paper airplane.

Yes, you read that right. The plane can be any of a number of standard or not-so-standard designs folded from any handy piece of paper. The guts consist of a pusher-propellor, rudder, and rechargeable battery, and the brains of the operation come from your iOS (and hopefully soon) Android device, controlling the guts via Bluetooth.

The charge lasts long enough for several minutes of flight; the plane can be steered by tilting the phone. That allows for formation flying, and–inevitably–dogfights. In fact, the Kickstarter just crossed the $1,000,000 level, triggering a dogfight stretch goal: if two planes get close enough together, a proximity sensor will trigger and allow the pilots to try to “shoot” each other down. No actual bullets are involved, much to the disappointment of some; the losing pilot’s engine just turns off, causing the plane to crash.

Unfortunately, with a bit over a week left, the project is well short of the final stretch goal: at $2,000,000, the design will be modified to include a tiny camera, allowing for the capture of “pilot’s eye” video and still images. Personally, I think that’s a much cooler thing than the dogfight mode.

The whole idea is an impressive indicator of just how powerful microelectronics are getting, and at a minimum investment of $30, it’s a much cheaper way to get into remote flight than a conventional radio-controlled airplane.

Go for it. Sign up as a backer and help reach that $2 million target. If you do, I promise a least one tandem flight (offer subject to some limitations, not available in all geographic regions).

Side note to my former cow-orkers: imagine flying one of these off the balcony on 7A and dive-bombing the folks in the cubes on 7…

The Worst Job In the World

OK, so we’ve got BART making national headlines again. Not content with a four day strike last month, BART directors and union representatives are flirting with another.

Wait, wasn’t the contract ratified? Well, yes and no. The unions ratified it, but BART has not. Seems there’s a clause in there–the now-infamous section 4.8–that grants workers six weeks of paid family leave. BART officials are claiming that it could cost as much as $44 million over the length of the four-year contract, they never meant to agree to the clause, and it was included in the ratified contract by mistake.

The unions say that the estimate is outrageously overblown–$22 million is a realistic high-end estimate, and under $10 million is more likely–and that regardless of what they meant to do, they not only signed off on it in July, but didn’t raise any objections to it during the final review to resolve any questions before it went to the unions for ratification.

BART wants to reopen contract negotiations, a notion that the unions are flatly rejecting. The sides met to argue over the actual projected cost of the provision, but the unions explicitly stated that the meeting “should in no way be construed as interest on our part to resume negotiations.”

The contract includes the same “no strike” clause that the unions declared inapplicable and the same clause that prevents BART from hiring replacements until after a strike is called. Consequently, many Bay Area residents feel that BART caved into union demands, and that the current flap is a desperate attempt to save some face by “getting tough” at the expense of commuters’ jobs.

Both sides are acting like children here. BART is on one side of the room whining “It’s not my fault!” and blaming an unnamed “temporary employee”, and the unions are on the other side of the room, jumping up and down and screaming “No takebacks!” Commuters just want to spank both sides and send them to bed with no dessert.

Meanwhile, in hopefully unrelated news, Google is promoting an initiative to actively remove links to child porn. They say they’ve cleaned up over 100,000 queries, and 13,000 more queries will result in warning messages that child pornography is illegal.

Kudos to Google for taking steps to make such material harder to access. (None of the articles I’ve seen say whether suspected kiddy porn will also be reported to authorities, but since they have reported such material in the past, presumably they’ll continue to do so.) What’s especially interesting to me in these reports is that Google is taking active steps to avoid false positives. They’re not trusting computer algorithms to automatically remove links, which would have the potential to block legitimate content. Apparently, every image flagged by the software is reviewed by “a team of 200 Google staffers”. Those are the people that I really take my hat off to.

Not only do those staffers have to spend hours looking at some of the most depressing scenes possible, but they have to make very sensitive decisions about each one. It’s not just a question of whether the participants are actually children, but whether the images are pornographic–one article mentions “something innocent like a child taking a bath”. Keep in mind that Google is attempting to honor local (i.e. national) laws in making their decisions. That means that a given picture could be an “innocent” bathing image in one country and an actionable obscenity in another.

Not only do the reviewers need to look at the materials and make repeated sensitive but subjective judgments, but they’ll be under very close scrutiny while they do it. In many jurisdictions, possession of child pornography is an offense–possession, not viewing. Google is going to have to closely monitor reviewers to ensure that questionable materials don’t wind up on their computers; one hopes that reviewers are not able to use BYOD machines for the task. Given the number of prosecutions that have taken place when computer repairers have found images in browser caches or temporary folders, one failure to wipe a machine at the end of the day could result in nasty accusations or even jail time for someone who really was just doing his job.

I think I’d rather be a BART contract negotiator.

PS: I had already decided on the title for today’s post when Lior reminded me of this. Good timing!

Equal Time

OK, so you can blame today’s post on Lior. In all fairness, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to trigger a post when he sent me an email about last week’s posts, but that’s just what he’s done. So if you’re sick about my curmudgeonly rantings about mobile devices, send your complaints about today’s post to Lior.

The gist of his email was that I hadn’t done full justice to Google’s decision to merge the Android Home Screen app into the Search app. What I said was that it’s “an interesting move on Google’s part to tie Android users closer to their own tools.” That’s true, but Lior is correct that it doesn’t really address what’s going on.

The immediate results of the change are small; essentially, it allows Google to easily integrate Google Now cards* into the Home Screen. In KitKat, they’ll only show up on the leftmost screen, but they could easily spread to other screens, and they’re well-positioned to move into the rest of the system.

* Google Now, for the uninitiated, is Google’s ongoing project to provide relevant information before you search for it. For example, by noting that you frequently search for movie showtimes on Friday afternoons, it might start showing you movie information on Fridays. Similarly, receiving an airplane boarding pass in your Gmail account could trigger Google Now to create a calendar event for the flight, offer directions to the airport, and suggest attractions and events at your destination–all based on searches you’ve made in the past. Those directions, for example, might be for public transit if you’ve frequently searched for bus or subway routes. The events might emphasize concerts if you search for music.

Don’t forget that Google search goes beyond the traditional keyboard entry these days. Tapping the microphone icon allows you to use voice input, and the most recent iterations of search steal a page from Google Glass and let you trigger voice input by saying “OK, Google”. The Moto X phone has voice input integrated throughout the phone, not just on the Home Screen–and remember that Motorola is now owned by Google. I expect that we’ll see “OK, Google” spreading across the rest of the OS in the next Android release.

A bit of additional evidence that Google is pushing Android toward tighter and tighter integration with Google’s own services: In KitKat, the familiar Gallery app has been decoupled from the Camera app and pushed aside. It’s received almost no updates in KitKat–not even a new high-resolution icon like the rest of the Google apps. At the same time, the Google+ Photos app has been renamed to simply “Photos”. It looks like the next Android release may well do away with Gallery and push users into the Google+ service so that all your photos are tied to your Google identity. Fun, fun!

And one more change in KitKat is the integration of Search into the dialer and incoming call screens–they’ll now automatically do Google searches for phone number information. Next time Lior calls me, I won’t just see his name, I’ll get his picture (which will probably be added his entry in my address book), and perhaps a link to his Google+ profile. That’s going to happen even if Lior is calling from his new cell phone with a number that isn’t already in my address book.

Google is the new Santa: They see you when you’re sleeping, they know when you’re awake (and given how deeply the NSA has penetrated Google’s infrastructure, you damn well better be good.) The Apple patent I griped about last week has some serious implications for physical security. Google’s moves don’t have the same physical ramifications, but they sure do have some nasty implications for your privacy and online security.

The Future Is…

I’ve been threatening you with this post for a week. Yes, at long last, it’s the much-delayed Curmudgeonly Rant You Can Blame On Lior.  (Say it with me: Thanks, Lior!)

I bet you thought I was going to delay it again so I could give you the scoop on Apple’s “A Lot To Cover” event. Much to my surprise, though, every single tech blog on the planet is planning to cover Apple’s announcements, many of them with live posts from on-site. Since Apple seems to have neglected to send me an invitation, why should I even try to compete with the rest of the world? I’ll let you get your up-to-the minute news from the anointed outlets, and save my usual snarky commentary for Thursday’s post. Deal?

OK, on with the rant.

Lior and I have been talking about the intersection of the Web and writing, specifically the possibilities for doing fiction using blogs and other social media. And then he found this.

Let me save you the pain of reading it. “The Future of Storytelling: Phase 1” is the first part of Latitude 42s’ vision of the inevitable next stage in the evolution of fiction. According to this manifesto, today’s readers don’t want to be passive consumers. They want their fiction to tell them what else is going on in the world while the story is happening. They want to take control of the story. They want the story to spread across all of their electronics. And they want it to inspire them to do something in their real life.

OK, what?

Maybe some examples would help. These were taken directly from the document, so don’t blame me for making anything up. “What else was going on in the world when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were falling in love?” “I want to really friend Bond, and have him call me by name and listen to my advice.” “I’d love to be a part of a real-word game, whereby, citywide, everyone is reading the same book.” “While reading Cinderella, I’d like if actions and recipes for the perfect scrubbing of floors or green window-washing could be accessed.”

Is it just me, or does this seem like it boils down to “Entertain me, and sell me stuff. Oh, and let me tell you how the story should go!”

Exqueege me? If you don’t like the story I’m telling, how about you tell your own story instead of co-opting mine? Want to know what else is going on, do a little research — I did, that’s why I know the background. But you can’t include everything, or every short story would be buried in 900 pages of “meanwhiles”. Like the sculptor removing all of the stone that isn’t an elephant, it’s the author’s job to cut out everything that isn’t part of the story.

Ooh, here’s a good one. “It would be amazing if my e-reader kept track of days I read and days I didn’t. For example, if I had just read a part of Ender’s Game where Ender was about to engage in a big battle, and then I stopped for a few days, it would send me a ‘news’ email telling me about the victory—or about the loss.”

Are you out of your flipping mind? Look, if I stop reading a book, it’s for one of two reasons: either I hated it and want nothing more to do with it, or I’m too busy with something else and I’ll get back to it. In either case, why would I want to be interrupted with spoilers? And that doesn’t even consider the implications of a third party knowing what I was reading down to the specific sentence where I stopped.

Look, if you take inspiration from something I write, that’s great. Whether it’s inspiration to write something of your own, to learn about something going on in the world, or even to buy some floor wax, I’m glad to know I touched your life. But if you insist that everything I write has to provide you with “your perfect glass slipper (read: high end shoe)”, I’m not going to be inspiring you, I’m going to be advertising to you.

Oh, wait.

Let’s take a look at Phase 2 of Latitude’s magnum opus. If you’re really feeling brave, you can find it with a quick web search. I’m not going to spoil your adventure by giving you the URL.

Again, I quote: “At Latitude, we work with some of the foremost companies in media, technology, and advertising, helping them to grow their audiences through great storytelling. As the landscape evolves, we’ve been exploring possibilities for next-gen narratives—including how technology is enabling more immersive and interactive experiences with content and brands.”

Yup. The future of storytelling is advertising, folks. Forget those antiquated ideas of entertainment and teaching. In the Wonderful World of the Future, it’s all about selling. Their entire study population is smartphone owners, more than half of whom are also tablet owners, and all of whom are TV watchers to the tune of “at least six hours a week”). Clearly this is not a biased group, nor one that has any need for non-commercial storytelling…

Think I’m exaggerating? Page 8 is dominated by an infographic (don’t you just love that word?) titled “Which elements should next-gen advertising include?” The text assures us that the public is demanding “innovative advertising” and that “Stories could be one-click storefronts”.

Not my stories, thank you. I’ll stick with my advertising-free tales, even if that does seriously curtail my audience.

Latitude’s idea isn’t new. I invite anyone who thinks it is to read Pohl and Kornbluth’s “The Space Merchants” from 1952. There is literally nothing in Latitude’s documents that wasn’t covered in the book.

One final ironic note: That infographic (shudder) on page 8 gives percentages of their study group who agreed with various statements about kinds of advertisements that would engage them. The winner, with 47% of respondents agreeing was “I’d like to see more advertisements that feature a deal.” Yup. The best thing this company can do to help you improve your advertising is to tell you to offer a discount. Now that is interaction I can believe in.