Category Archives: tD

One Pale Blue Dot, 55 Languages and 11 Billion Miles

It was Carl Sagan’s birthday last week (November 9, to be precise). He would have been 77 years old — he returned to “star-stuff” in 1996. Thoughts of this charming astronomer and cosmologist reminded us of a project with which he was intimately involved — the Voyager program.

In 1977, NASA launched two spacecraft to explore Jupiter and Saturn. The spacecraft performed so well that their missions were extended several times: first, to journey farther in the outer reaches of our solar system and explore the planets Neptune and Uranus; and second, to fly beyond our solar system into interstellar space. And, by all accounts both craft are now close to this boundary. The farthest, Voyager I, is currently over 11 billion miles away. For a real-time check on its distance, visit  JPL’s Voyager site here. JPL is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA.

Some may recall that Carl Sagan presided over the selection and installation of content from the Earth onto a gold plated disk that each Voyager carries on its continuing mission. The disk contains symbolic explanations of our planet and solar system, as well as images of its inhabitants and greetings spoken in 55 languages. After much wrangling over concerns about damaging Voyager’s imaging instruments by peering back at the Sun, Sagan was instrumental in having NASA reorient Voyager I’s camera back towards the Earth. This enabled the craft to snap one last set of images of our planet from its vantage point in deep space. One poignant image became know as the “Pale Blue Dot”, and Sagan penned some characteristically eloquent and philosophical words about this image in his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

[div class=attrib]From Carl Sagan:[end-div]

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

[div class=attrib]About the image from NASA:[end-div]

From Voyager’s great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Coincidentally, Earth lies right in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters – violet, blue and green – and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification.

To ease identification we have drawn a gray circle around the image of the Earth.

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of NASA / JPL.[end-div]

The Battle of Evidence and Science versus Belief and Magic

An insightful article over at the Smithsonian ponders the national (U.S.) decline in the trust of science. Regardless of the topic in question — climate change, health supplements, vaccinations, air pollution, “fracking”, evolution — and regardless of the specific position on a particular topic, scientific evidence continues to be questioned, ignored, revised, and politicized. And perhaps it is in this last issue, that of politics, that we may see a possible cause for a growing national pandemic of denialism. The increasingly fractured, fractious and rancorous nature of the U.S. political system threatens to undermine all debate and true skepticism, whether based on personal opinion or scientific fact.

[div class=attrib]From the Smithsonian:[end-div]

A group of scientists and statisticians led by the University of California at Berkeley set out recently to conduct an independent assessment of climate data and determine once and for all whether the planet has warmed in the last century and by how much. The study was designed to address concerns brought up by prominent climate change skeptics, and it was funded by several groups known for climate skepticism. Last week, the group released its conclusions: Average land temperatures have risen by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the 20th century. The result matched the previous research.

The skeptics were not happy and immediately claimed that the study was flawed.

Also in the news last week were the results of yet another study that found no link between cell phones and brain cancer. Researchers at the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Denmark looked at data from 350,000 cell phone users over an 18-year period and found they were no more likely to develop brain cancer than people who didn’t use the technology.

But those results still haven’t killed the calls for more monitoring of any potential link.

Study after study finds no link between autism and vaccines (and plenty of reason to worry about non-vaccinated children dying from preventable diseases such as measles). But a quarter of parents in a poll released last year said that they believed that “some vaccines cause autism in healthy children” and 11.5 percent had refused at least one vaccination for their child.

Polls say that Americans trust scientists more than, say, politicians, but that trust is on the decline. If we’re losing faith in science, we’ve gone down the wrong path. Science is no more than a process (as recent contributors to our “Why I Like Science” series have noted), and skepticism can be a good thing. But for many people that skepticism has grown to the point that they can no longer accept good evidence when they get it, with the result that “we’re now in an epidemic of fear like one I’ve never seen and hope never to see again,” says Michael Specter, author of Denialism, in his TEDTalk below.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you think I’m not talking about you. But here’s a quick question: Do you take vitamins? There’s a growing body of evidence that vitamins and dietary supplements are no more than a placebo at best and, in some cases, can actually increase the risk of disease or death. For example, a study earlier this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that consumption of supplements, such as iron and copper, was associated with an increased risk of death among older women. In a related commentary, several doctors note that the concept of dietary supplementation has shifted from preventing deficiency (there’s a good deal of evidence for harm if you’re low in, say, folic acid) to one of trying to promote wellness and prevent disease, and many studies are showing that more supplements do not equal better health.

But I bet you’ll still take your pills tomorrow morning. Just in case.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

A Better Way to Study and Learn

Our current educational process in one sentence: assume student is empty vessel; provide student with content; reward student for remembering and regurgitating content; repeat.

Yet, we have known for a while, and an increasing body of research corroborates our belief, that this method of teaching and learning is not very effective, or stimulating for that matter. It’s simply an efficient mechanism for the mass production of an adequate resource for the job market. Of course, for most it then takes many more decades following high school or college to unlearn the rote trivia and re-learn what is really important.

Mind Hacks reviews some recent studies that highlight better approaches to studying.

[div class=attrib]From Mind Hacks:[end-div]

Decades old research into how memory works should have revolutionised University teaching. It didn’t.

If you’re a student, what I’m about to tell you will let you change how you study so that it is more effective, more enjoyable and easier. If you work at a University, you – like me – should hang your head in shame that we’ve known this for decades but still teach the way we do.

There’s a dangerous idea in education that students are receptacles, and teachers are responsible for providing content that fills them up. This model encourages us to test students by the amount of content they can regurgitate, to focus overly on statements rather than skills in assessment and on syllabuses rather than values in teaching. It also encourages us to believe that we should try and learn things by trying to remember them. Sounds plausible, perhaps, but there’s a problem. Research into the psychology of memory shows that intention to remember is a very minor factor in whether you remember something or not. Far more important than whether you want to remember something is how you think about the material when you encounter it.

A classic experiment by Hyde and Jenkins (1973) illustrates this. These researchers gave participants lists of words, which they later tested recall of, as their memory items. To affect their thinking about the words, half the participants were told to rate the pleasentness of each word, and half were told to check if the word contained the letters ‘e’ or ‘g’. This manipulation was designed to affect ‘depth of processing’. The participants in the rating-pleasentness condition had to think about what the word meant, and relate it to themselves (how they felt about it) – “deep processing”. Participants in the letter-checking condition just had to look at the shape of the letters, they didn’t even have to read the word if they didn’t want to – “shallow processing”. The second, independent, manipulation concerned whether participants knew that they would be tested later on the words. Half of each group were told this – the “intentional learning” condition – and half weren’t told, the test would come as a surprise – the “incidental learning” condition.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of the Telegraph / AP.[end-div]

Corporations As People And the Threat to Truth

In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can be treated as people, assigning companies First Amendment rights under the Constitution. So, it’s probably only a matter of time before a real person legally marries (and divorces) a corporation. And, we’re probably not too far from a future where an American corporate CEO can take the life of competing company’s boss and “rightfully” declare that it was in competitive self-defense.

In the meantime, the growing, and much needed, debate over corporate power, corporate responsibility and corporate consciousness rolls on. A timely opinion by Gary Gutting over at the New York Times, gives us more on which to chew.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

The Occupy Wall Street protest movement has raised serious questions about the role of capitalist institutions, particularly corporations, in our society.   Well before the first protester set foot in Zucotti Park, a heckler urged Mitt Romney to tax corporations rather than people.  Romney’s response — “Corporations are people” — stirred a brief but intense controversy.  Now thousands of demonstrators have in effect joined the heckler, denouncing corporations as ”enemies of the people.”

Who’s right? Thinking pedantically, we can see ways in which Romney was literally correct; for example, corporations are nothing other than the people who own, run and work for them, and they are recognized as “persons” in some technical legal sense.  But it is also obvious that corporations are not people in a full moral sense: they cannot, for example, fall in love, write poetry or be depressed.

Far more important than questions about what corporations are (ontological questions, as philosophers say) is the question of what attitude we should have toward them.  Should we, as corporate public relations statements often suggest, think of them as friends (if we buy and are satisfied with their products) or as family (if we work for them)?  Does it make sense to be loyal to a corporation as either a customer or as an employee?  More generally, even granted that corporations are not fully persons in the way that individuals are, do they have some important moral standing in our society?

My answer to all these questions is no, because corporations have no core dedication to fundamental human values.  (To be clear, I am speaking primarily of large, for-profit, publicly owned corporations.)  Such corporations exist as instruments of profit for their shareholders.  This does not mean that they are inevitably evil or that they do not make essential economic contributions to society.  But it does mean that their moral and social value is entirely instrumental.   There are ways we can use corporations as means to achieve fundamental human values, but corporations do not of themselves work for these values. In fact, left to themselves, they can be serious threats to human values that conflict with the goal of corporate profit.

Corporations are a particular threat to truth, a value essential in a democracy, which places a premium on the informed decisions of individual citizens.  The corporate threat is most apparent in advertising, which explicitly aims at convincing us to prefer a product regardless of its actual merit.

[div class=attrib]Read more here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy by François Lemoyne. Image courtesy of Wikipedia / Wallace Collection, London.[end-div]

Steve Jobs: The Secular Prophet

The world will miss Steve Jobs.

In early 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned years of legal precedent by assigning First Amendment (free speech) protections to corporations. We could argue the merits and demerits of this staggering ruling until the cows come home. However, one thing is clear if corporations are to be judged as people. And, that is the world would in all likelihood benefit more from a corporation with a human, optimistic and passionate face (Apple) rather than from a faceless one (Exxon) or an ideological one (News Corp) or an opaque one (Koch Industries).

That said, we excerpt a fascinating essay on Steve Jobs by Andy Crouch below. We would encourage Mr.Crouch to take this worthy idea further by examining the Fortune 1000 list of corporations. Could he deliver a similar analysis for each of these corporations’ leaders? We believe not.

The world will miss Steve Jobs.

[div class=attrib]By Andy Crouch for the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

Steve Jobs was extraordinary in countless ways—as a designer, an innovator, a (demanding and occasionally ruthless) leader. But his most singular quality was his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple’s early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and turned it into a sign of promise and progress.

That bitten apple was just one of Steve Jobs’s many touches of genius, capturing the promise of technology in a single glance. The philosopher Albert Borgmann has observed that technology promises to relieve us of the burden of being merely human, of being finite creatures in a harsh and unyielding world. The biblical story of the Fall pronounced a curse upon human work—”cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.” All technology implicitly promises to reverse the curse, easing the burden of creaturely existence. And technology is most celebrated when it is most invisible—when the machinery is completely hidden, combining godlike effortlessness with blissful ignorance about the mechanisms that deliver our disburdened lives.

Steve Jobs was the evangelist of this particular kind of progress—and he was the perfect evangelist because he had no competing source of hope. He believed so sincerely in the “magical, revolutionary” promise of Apple precisely because he believed in no higher power. In his celebrated Stanford commencement address (which is itself an elegant, excellent model of the genre), he spoke frankly about his initial cancer diagnosis in 2003. It’s worth pondering what Jobs did, and didn’t, say:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

This is the gospel of a secular age.

[div class=attrib]Steve Jobs by Tim O’Brien, image courtesy of Wall Street Journal.[end-div]

Googlization of the Globe: For Good (or Evil)

Google’s oft quoted corporate mantra — do no evil — reminds us to remain vigilant even if the company believes it does good and can do no wrong.

Google serves up countless search results to ease our never-ending thirst for knowledge, deals, news, quotes, jokes, user manuals, contacts, products and so on. This is clearly of tremendous benefit to us, to Google and to Google’s advertisers. Of course in fulfilling our searches Google collects equally staggering amounts of information — about us. Increasingly the company will know where we are, what we like and dislike, what we prefer, what we do, where we travel, with whom and why, how our friends are, what we read, what we buy.

As Jaron Lanier remarked in a recent post, there is a fine line between being a global index to the world’s free and open library of information and being the paid gatekeeper to our collective knowledge and hoarder of our collective online (and increasingly offline) behaviors, tracks and memories. We have already seen how Google, and others, can personalize search results based on our previous tracks thus filtering and biasing what we see and read, limiting our exposure to alternate views and opinions.

It’s quite easy to imagine a rather more dystopian view of a society gone awry manipulated by a not-so-benevolent Google when, eventually, founders Brin and Page retire to their vacation bases on the moon.

With this in mind Daniel Soar over at London Review of Books reviews several recent books about Google and offers some interesting insights.

[div class=attrib]London Review of Books:[end-div]

This spring, the billionaire Eric Schmidt announced that there were only four really significant technology companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, the company he had until recently been running. People believed him. What distinguished his new ‘gang of four’ from the generation it had superseded – companies like Intel, Microsoft, Dell and Cisco, which mostly exist to sell gizmos and gadgets and innumerable hours of expensive support services to corporate clients – was that the newcomers sold their products and services to ordinary people. Since there are more ordinary people in the world than there are businesses, and since there’s nothing that ordinary people don’t want or need, or can’t be persuaded they want or need when it flashes up alluringly on their screens, the money to be made from them is virtually limitless. Together, Schmidt’s four companies are worth more than half a trillion dollars. The technology sector isn’t as big as, say, oil, but it’s growing, as more and more traditional industries – advertising, travel, real estate, used cars, new cars, porn, television, film, music, publishing, news – are subsumed into the digital economy. Schmidt, who as the ex-CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation had learned to take the long view, warned that not all four of his disruptive gang could survive. So – as they all converge from their various beginnings to compete in the same area, the place usually referred to as ‘the cloud’, a place where everything that matters is online – the question is: who will be the first to blink?

If the company that falters is Google, it won’t be because it didn’t see the future coming. Of Schmidt’s four technology juggernauts, Google has always been the most ambitious, and the most committed to getting everything possible onto the internet, its mission being ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. Its ubiquitous search box has changed the way information can be got at to such an extent that ten years after most people first learned of its existence you wouldn’t think of trying to find out anything without typing it into Google first. Searching on Google is automatic, a reflex, just part of what we do. But an insufficiently thought-about fact is that in order to organise the world’s information Google first has to get hold of the stuff. And in the long run ‘the world’s information’ means much more than anyone would ever have imagined it could. It means, of course, the totality of the information contained on the World Wide Web, or the contents of more than a trillion webpages (it was a trillion at the last count, in 2008; now, such a number would be meaningless). But that much goes without saying, since indexing and ranking webpages is where Google began when it got going as a research project at Stanford in 1996, just five years after the web itself was invented. It means – or would mean, if lawyers let Google have its way – the complete contents of every one of the more than 33 million books in the Library of Congress or, if you include slightly varying editions and pamphlets and other ephemera, the contents of the approximately 129,864,880 books published in every recorded language since printing was invented. It means every video uploaded to the public internet, a quantity – if you take the Google-owned YouTube alone – that is increasing at the rate of nearly an hour of video every second.

[div class=attrib]Read more here.[end-div]

Tim Berners-Lee’s “Baby” Hits 20 – Happy Birthday World Wide Web

In early 1990 at CERN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau published a formal proposal to build a “Hypertext project” called “WorldWideWeb” as a “web” of “hypertext documents” to be viewed by “browsers”.

Following development work the pair introduced the proposal to a wider audience in December, and on August 6, 1991, 20 years ago, the World Wide Web officially opened for business on the internet. On that day Berners-Lee posted the first web page — a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup.

The page authored by Tim Berners-Lee was A later version on the page can be found here. The page described Berners-Lee’s summary of a project for organizing information on a computer network using a web or links. In fact, the the effort was originally coined “Mesh”, but later became the “World Wide Web”.

The first photograph on the web was uploaded by Berners-Lee in 1992, an image of the CERN house band Les Horribles Cernettes. Twenty years on, one website alone — Flickr – hosts around 5.75 billion images.

[div class=attrib]Photograph of Les Horribles Cernettes, the very first photo to be published on the world wide web in 1992. Image courtesy of Cernettes / Silvano de Gennaro. Granted under fair use.[end-div]

QR Codes as Art

It’s only a matter of time before someone has a cool looking QR code tattooed to their eyelid.

A QR or Quick Response code is a two-dimensional matrix that looks like a scrambled barcode, and behaves much like one, with one important difference. The QR code exhibits a rather high level of tolerance for errors. Some have reported that up to 20-30 percent of the QR code can be selectively altered without affecting its ability to be scanned correctly. Try scanning a regular barcode that has some lines missing or has been altered and your scanner is likely to give you a warning beep. The QR code however still scans correctly even if specific areas are missing or changed. This is important because a QR code does not require a high-end, dedicated barcode scanner for it to be scanned, and therefore also makes it suitable for outdoor use.

A QR code can be scanned, actually photographed, with a regular smartphone (or other device) equipped with a camera and QR code reading app. This makes it possible for QR codes to take up residence anywhere, not just on product packages, and scanned by anyone with a smartphone. In fact you may have seen QR codes displayed on street corners, posters, doors, billboards, websites, vehicles and magazines.

Of course, once you snap a picture of a code, your smartphone app will deliver more details about the object on which the QR code resides. For instance, take a picture of a code placed on a billboard advertising a new BMW model, and you’ll be linked to the BMW website with special promotions for your region. QR codes not only link to websites, but also can be used to send pre-defined text messages, provide further textual information, and deliver location maps.

Since parts of a QR code can be changed without reducing its ability to be scanned correctly, artists and designers now have the leeway to customize the matrix with some creative results.

Some favorites below.

[div]Images courtesy of Duncan Robertson, BBC; Louis Vuitton, SET; Ayara Thai Cuisine Restaurant.[end-div]


















NASA Retires Shuttle; France Telecom Guillotines Minitel

The lives of 2 technological marvels came to a close this week. First, NASA officially concluded the space shuttle program with the final flight of Atlantis.

Then, France Telecom announced the imminent demise of Minitel. Sacre Bleu! What next? Will the United Kingdom phase out afternoon tea and the Royal Family?

If you’re under 35 years of age, especially if you have never visited France, you may never have heard of Minitel. About ten years before the mainstream arrival of the World Wide Web and Mosaic, the first internet browser, there was Minitel. The Minitel network offered France Telecom subscribers a host of internet-like services such as email, white-pages, news and information services,  message boards, train reservations, airline schedules, stock quotes and online purchases. Users leased small, custom terminals for free that connected via telephone line. Think prehistoric internet services: no hyperlinks, no fancy search engines, no rich graphics and no multimedia — that was Minitel.

Though rudimentary, Minitel was clearly ahead of its time and garnered a wide and loyal following in France. France Telecom delivered millions of terminals for free to household and business telephone subscribers. By 2000, France Telecom estimates that almost 9 million terminals, covering 25 million people or over 41 percent of the French population, still had access to the Minitel network. Deploying the Minitel service allowed France Telecom to replace printed white-pages directories given to all its customers with a free, online Minitel version.

The Minitel equipment included a basic dumb terminal with a text based screen, keyboard and modem. The modem transmission speed was a rather slow 75 bits per second (upstream) and 1,200 bits per second (downstream). This compares with today’s basic broad speeds of 1 Mbit per second (upstream) and 4 Mbits per second (downstream).

In a bow to Minitel’s more attractive siblings, the internet and the World Wide Web, France Telecom finally plans to retire the service on the June 30, 2012.

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons.[end-div]

The Allure of Steampunk Videotelephony and the Telephonoscope

Video telephony as imagined in 1910

A concept for the videophone surfaced just a couple of years after the telephone was patented in the United States. The telephonoscope as it was called first appeared in Victorian journals and early French science fiction in 1878.

In 1891 Alexander Graham Bell recorded his concept of an electrical radiophone, which discussed, “…the possibility of seeing by electricity”. He later went on to predict that, “…the day would come when the man at the telephone would be able to see the distant person to whom he was speaking”.

The world’s first videophone entered service in 1934, in Germany. The service was offered in select post offices linking several major German cities, and provided bi-directional voice and image on 8 inch square displays. In the U.S., AT&T launched the Picturephone in the mid-1960s. However, the costly equipment, high-cost per call, and inconveniently located public video-telephone booths ensured that the service would never gain public acceptance. Similar to the U.S., experience major telephone companies in France, Japan and Sweden had limited success with video-telephony during the 1970s-80s.

Major improvements in video technology, telecommunications deregulation and increases in bandwidth during the 1980s-90s brought the price point down considerably. However, significant usage remained mostly within the realm of major corporations due to the still not insignificant investment in equipment and cost of bandwidth.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Skype and other IP (internet protocol) based services have made videochat commonplace and affordable, and in most cases free.It now seems that videchat has become almost ubiquitous. Recent moves into this space by tech heavyweights like Apple with Facetime, Microsoft with its acquisition of Skype, Google with its Google Plus social network video calling component, and Facebook’s new video calling service will in all likelihood add further momentum.

Of course, while videochat is an effective communication tool it does have a cost in terms of personal and social consequences over its non-video cousin, the telephone. Next time you videochat rather than make a telephone call you will surely be paying greater attention to your bad hair and poor grooming, your crumpled clothes, uncoordinated pajamas or lack thereof, the unwanted visitors in the background shot, and the not so subtle back-lighting that focuses attention on the clutter in your office or bedroom. Doesn’t it make you harken back for the days of the simple telephone? Either that or perhaps you are drawn to the more alluring and elegant steampunk form of videochat as imagined by the Victorians, in the image above.

The Homogenous Culture of “Like”

[div class=attrib]Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons[end-div]

About 12 months ago I committed suicide — internet suicide that is. I closed my personal Facebook account after recognizing several important issues. First, it was a colossal waste of time; time that I could and should be using more productively. Second, it became apparent that following, belonging and agreeing with others through the trivial “wall” status-in-a-can postings and now pervasive “like button” was nothing other than a declaration of mindless group-think and a curious way to maintain social standing. So, my choice was clear: become part of a group that had similar interests, like-minded activities, same politics, parallel beliefs, common likes and dislikes; or revert to my own weirdly independent path. I chose the latter, rejecting the road towards a homogeneity of ideas and a points-based system of instant self-esteem.

This facet of the Facebook ecosystem has an affect similar to the filter bubble that I described is a previous post, The Technology of Personalization and the Bubble Syndrome. In both cases my explicit choices on Facebook, such as which friends I follow or which content I “like”, and my implicit browsing behaviors that increasingly filter what I see and don’t see causes a narrowing of the world of ideas to which I am a exposed. This cannot be good.

So, although I may incur the wrath of author Neil Strauss for including an excerpt of his recent column below, I cannot help but “like” what he has to say. More importantly, he does a much more eloquent job of describing the issue which commoditizes social relationships and, dare I say it, lowers the barrier to entry for narcissists to grow and fine tune their skills.

[div class=attrib]By Neil Strauss for the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

If you happen to be reading this article online, you’ll notice that right above it, there is a button labeled “like.” Please stop reading and click on “like” right now.

Thank you. I feel much better. It’s good to be liked.

Don’t forget to comment on, tweet, blog about and StumbleUpon this article. And be sure to “+1” it if you’re on the newly launched Google+ social network. In fact, if you don’t want to read the rest of this article, at least stay on the page for a few minutes before clicking elsewhere. That way, it will appear to the site analytics as if you’ve read the whole thing.

Once, there was something called a point of view. And, after much strife and conflict, it eventually became a commonly held idea in some parts of the world that people were entitled to their own points of view.

Unfortunately, this idea is becoming an anachronism. When the Internet first came into public use, it was hailed as a liberation from conformity, a floating world ruled by passion, creativity, innovation and freedom of information. When it was hijacked first by advertising and then by commerce, it seemed like it had been fully co-opted and brought into line with human greed and ambition.

But there was one other element of human nature that the Internet still needed to conquer: the need to belong. The “like” button began on the website FriendFeed in 2007, appeared on Facebook in 2009, began spreading everywhere from YouTube to Amazon to most major news sites last year, and has now been officially embraced by Google as the agreeable, supportive and more status-conscious “+1.” As a result, we can now search not just for information, merchandise and kitten videos on the Internet, but for approval.

Just as stand-up comedians are trained to be funny by observing which of their lines and expressions are greeted with laughter, so too are our thoughts online molded to conform to popular opinion by these buttons. A status update that is met with no likes (or a clever tweet that isn’t retweeted) becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.

Conversely, when we’re looking at someone else’s content—whether a video or a news story—we are able to see first how many people liked it and, often, whether our friends liked it. And so we are encouraged not to form our own opinion but to look to others for cues on how to feel.

“Like” culture is antithetical to the concept of self-esteem, which a healthy individual should be developing from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Instead, we are shaped by our stats, which include not just “likes” but the number of comments generated in response to what we write and the number of friends or followers we have. I’ve seen rock stars agonize over the fact that another artist has far more Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers than they do.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

The Technology of Personalization and the Bubble Syndrome

A decade ago in another place and era during my days as director of technology research for a Fortune X company I tinkered with a cool array of then new personalization tools. The aim was simple, use some of these emerging technologies to deliver a more customized and personalized user experience for our customers and suppliers. What could be wrong with that? Surely, custom tools and more personalized data could do nothing but improve knowledge and enhance business relationships for all concerned. Our customers would benefit from seeing only the information they asked for, our suppliers would benefit from better analysis and filtered feedback, and we, the corporation in the middle, would benefit from making everyone in our supply chain more efficient and happy. Advertisers would be even happier since with more focused data they would be able to deliver messages that were increasingly more precise and relevant based on personal context.

Fast forward to the present. Customization, or filtering, technologies have indeed helped optimize the supply chain; personalization tools and services have made customer experiences more focused and efficient. In today’s online world it’s so much easier to find, navigate and transact when the supplier at the other end of our browser knows who we are, where we live, what we earn, what we like and dislike, and so on. After all, if a supplier knows my needs, requirements, options, status and even personality, I’m much more likely to only receive information, services or products that fall within the bounds that define “me” in the supplier’s database.

And, therein lies the crux of the issue that has helped me to realize that personalization offers a false promise despite the seemingly obvious benefits to all concerned. The benefits are outweighed by two key issues: erosion of privacy and the bubble syndrome.

Privacy as Commodity

I’ll not dwell too long on the issue of privacy since in this article I’m much more concerned with the personalization bubble. However, as we have increasingly seen in recent times privacy in all its forms is becoming a scarce, and tradable commodity. Much of our data is now in the hands of a plethora of suppliers, intermediaries and their partners, ready for continued monetization. Our locations are constantly pinged and polled; our internet browsers note our web surfing habits and preferences; our purchases generate genius suggestions and recommendations to further whet our consumerist desires. Now in digital form this data is open to legitimate sharing and highly vulnerable to discovery by hackers, phishers and spammers and any with technical or financial resources.

Bubble Syndrome

Personalization technologies filter content at various levels, minutely and broadly, both overtly and covertly. For instance, I may explicitly signal my preferences for certain types of clothing deals at my favorite online retailer by answering a quick retail survey or checking a handful of specific preference buttons on a website.

However, my previous online purchases, browsing behaviors, time spent of various online pages, visits to other online retailers and a range of other flags deliver a range of implicit or “covert” information to the same retailer (and others). This helps the retailer filter, customize and personalize what I get to see even before I have made a conscious decision to limit my searches and exposure to information. Clearly, this is not too concerning when my retailer knows I’m male and usually purchase size 32 inch jeans; after all why would I need to see deals or product information for women’s shoes.

But, this type of covert filtering becomes more worrisome when the data being filtered and personalized is information, news, opinion and comment in all its glorious diversity. Sophisticated media organizations, information portals, aggregators and news services can deliver personalized and filtered information based on your overt and covert personal preferences as well. So, if you subscribe only to a certain type of information based on topic, interest, political persuasion or other dimension your personalized news services will continue to deliver mostly or only this type of information. And, as I have already described, your online behaviors will deliver additional filtering parameters to these news and information providers so that they may further personalize and narrow your consumption of information.

Increasingly, we will not be aware of what we don’t know. Whether explicitly or not, our use of personalization technologies will have the ability to build a filter, a bubble, around us, which will permit only information that we wish to see or that which our online suppliers wish us to see. We’ll not even get exposed to peripheral and tangential information — that information which lies outside the bubble. This filtering of the rich oceans of diverse information to a mono-dimensional stream will have profound implications for our social and cultural fabric.

I assume that our increasingly crowded planet will require ever more creativity, insight, tolerance and empathy as we tackle humanity’s many social and political challenges in the future. And, these very seeds of creativity, insight, tolerance and empathy are those that are most at risk from the personalization filter. How are we to be more tolerant of others’ opinions if we are never exposed to them in the first place? How are we to gain insight when disparate knowledge is no longer available for serendipitous discovery? How are we to become more creative if we are less exposed to ideas outside of our normal sphere, our bubble?

For some ideas on how to punch a few holes in your online filter bubble read Eli Pariser’s practical guide, here.

Filter Bubble image courtesy of TechCrunch.

Art. Does it have to be BOLD to be good?

The lengthy corridors of art history over the last five hundred years are decorated with numerous bold and monumental works. Just to name a handful of memorable favorites you’ll see a pattern emerge: Guernica (Pablo Picasso), The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali), The Dance (Henri Matisse), The Garden of Earthly Delights (Heironymous Bosch). Yes, these works are bold. They’re bold in the sense that they represented a fundamental shift from the artistic sensibilities and ideas of their times. These works stirred the salons and caused commotion among the “cognosenti” and the chattering classes. They implored (or decried) the establishment to take notice of new forms, new messages, new perspectives.

And, now here we are in the 21st century, floating in a bottomless bowl of a bold media soup; 24-hour opinion and hyperbole; oversized interactive billboards, explosive 3D movies, voyeuristic reality TV, garish commercials, sexually charged headlines and suggestive mainstream magazines. The provocative images, the loudness, the vividness, the anger – it’s all bold and it’s vying for your increasingly fragmented and desensitized attention. But, this contemporary boldness seems more aligned with surface brightness and bigness than it is with depth of meaning. The boldness of works by earlier artists such as Picasso, Dali, Bosch came from depth of meaning rather than use of neon paints or other bold visual noise.

So, what of contemporary art over the last couple of decades? Well, a pseudo-scientific tour of half-a-dozen art galleries featuring the in-the-moment works of art may well tell you the same story – it’s mostly bold as well. What’s been selling at the top art auction houses? Bold. What’s been making headlines in the art world? Bold.

The trend is and has been set for a while: it has to be brighter, louder, bigger. Indeed, a recent feature article in the New York Times on the 25th Paris Biennale seems to confirm this trend in Western art. (Background: The Biennale is home to around a hundred of the world’s most exclusive art galleries, those that purport to set the art world’s trends, make or break emerging artists and most importantly (for them) set “market” prices.) The article’s author, Souren Melikian, states:

Perception is changing. Interest in subtle nuances is receding as our attention span shortens. Awareness of this trend probably accounts for the recent art trade emphasis on clarity and monumentality and the striking progression of 20th-century modernity.

Well, I certainly take no issue with the observation that “commercial” art has become much more monumental and less subtle, especially over the last 40 years. By it’s very nature for most art to be successful in today’s market overflowing with noise, distraction and mediocrity it must draw someone’s fragmented and limited attention, and sadly, it does this by being bold, bright or big! However, I strongly disagree that “clarity” is a direct result of this new trend in boldness. I could recite a list as long as my arm of paintings and other art works that show remarkable clarity even though they are merely subtle.

Perhaps paradoxically, brokers and buyers of bold seem exclusively to associate boldness with a statement of modernity, compositional complexity, and layered meaning. The galleries at the Biennale seem to be confusing subtlety with dullness, simplicity and shallowness. Yet, the world is full of an equal number of works that exhibit just as much richness, depth and emotion as their bolder counterparts despite their surface subtlety. There is room for reflection and nuanced mood; there is room for complexity and depth in meaning from simple composition; there is room for pastels in this over-saturated, bold neon world.

As Bob Duggan eloquently states, at BigThink:

The meek, such as 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright (reviewed recently by me here) may yet inherit the earth, but only in a characteristically quiet way. Hirst’s jewel-encrusted skulls will always grab headlines, but Wright’s simpler, pensive work can engage hearts and minds in a more fulfilling way. And why is it important that the right thing happens and the Wrights win out over the Hirsts? Because art remains one of the few havens for thought in our noise- and light-polluted world.

So, I’m encouraged to see that I am not yet a lost and lone voice in this noisy wilderness of bold brashness. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what a meaningfully complex yet subtle painting looks like, gaze at Half Light by Dana Blanchard above.

A beautiful and dangerous idea: art that sells itself

Artist Caleb Larsen seems to have the right idea. Rather than relying on the subjective wants and needs of galleries and the dubious nature of the secondary art market (and some equally dubious auctioneers) his art sells itself.

His work, entitled “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter”, is an 8-inch opaque, black acrylic cube. But while the exterior may be simplicity itself, the interior holds a fascinating premise. The cube is connected to the internet. In fact, it’s connected to eBay, where through some hidden hardware and custom programming it constantly auctions itself.

As Caleb Larsen describes,

Combining Robert Morris’ Box With the Sound of Its Own Making with Baudrillard’s writing on the art auction this sculpture exists in eternal transactional flux. It is a physical sculpture that is perptually attempting to auction itself on eBay.

Every ten minutes the black box pings a server on the internet via the ethernet connection to check if it is for sale on the ebay. If its auction has ended or it has sold, it automatically creates a new auction of itself.

If a person buys it on eBay, the current owner is required to send it to the new owner. The new owner must then plug it into ethernet, and the cycle repeats itself.

The purchase agreement on eBay is quite rigorous, including stipulations such as: the buyer must keep the artwork connected to the interent at all times with disconnections allowed only for the transportation; upon purchase the artwork must be reauctioned; failure to follow all terms of the agreement forfeits the status of the artwork as a genuine work of art.

The artist was also smart enough to gain a slice of the secondary market, by requiring each buyer to return to the artist 15 percent of the appreciated value from each sale. Christie’s and Sotheby’s eat your hearts out.

Besides trying to put auctioneers out of work, the artist has broader intentions in mind, particularly when viewed alongside his larger body of work. The piece goes to the heart of the “how” and the “why” of the art market. By placing the artwork in a constant state of transactional fluidity – it’s never permanently in the hands of its new owner – it forces us to question the nature of art in relation to its market and the nature of collecting. The work can never without question be owned and collected since it is always possible that someone else will come along, enter the auction and win. Though, the first “owner” of the piece states that this was part of the appeal. Terence Spies, a California collector attests,

I had a really strong reaction right after I won the auction. I have this thing, and I really want to keep it, but the reason I want to keep it is that it might leave… The process of the piece really gets to some of the reasons why you might be collecting art in the first place.

Now of course, owning anything is transient. The Egyptian pharaohs tried taking their possessions into the “afterlife” but even to this day are being constantly thwarted by tomb-raiders and archeologists. Perhaps to some the chase, the process of collecting, is the goal, rather than owning the art itself. As I believe Caleb Larsen intended, he’s really given me something to ponder. How different, really, is it to own this self-selling art versus wandering through the world’s museums and galleries to “own” a Picasso or Warhol or Monet for 5 minutes? Ironically, our works live on, and it is we who are transient. So I think Caleb Larsen’s title for the work should be taken tongue in cheek, for it is we who are deceiving ourselves.

L’Aquila: The other casualty

18th-century Church of Santa Maria del Suffragio. Image courtesy of The New York Times.The earthquake in central Italy last week zeroed in on the beautiful medieval hill town of L’Aquila. It claimed the lives of 294 young and old, injured several thousand more, and made tens of thousands homeless. This is a heart-wrenching human tragedy. It’s also a cultural one. The quake razed centuries of L’Aquila’s historical buildings, broke the foundations of many of the town’s churches and public spaces, destroyed countless cultural artifacts, and forever buried much of the town’s irreplaceable art under tons of twisted iron and fractured stone.

Like many small and lesser known towns in Italy, L?Aquila did not boast a roster of works by ?a-list? artists on its walls, ceilings and piazzas; no Michelangelos or Da Vincis here, no works by Giotto or Raphael. And yet, the cultural loss is no less significant, for the quake destroyed much of the common art that the citizens of L?Aquila shared as a social bond. It?s the everyday art that they passed on their way to home or school or work; the fountains in the piazzas, the ornate porticos, the painted building facades, the hand-carved doors, the marble statues on street corners, the frescoes and paintings by local artists hanging on the ordinary walls. It?s this everyday art – the art that surrounded and nourished the citizens of L?Aquila – that is gone.

New York Times columnist, Michael Kimmelman put it this way in his April 11, 2009 article:

Italy is not like America. Art isn?t reduced here to a litany of obscene auction prices or lamentations over the bursting bubble of shameless excess. It?s a matter of daily life, linking home and history. Italians don?t visit museums much, truth be told, because they already live in them and can?t live without them. The art world might retrieve a useful lesson from the rubble.

I don’t fully agree with Mr.Kimmelman. There’s plenty of excess and pretentiousness in the salons of Paris, London and even Beijing and Mumbai, not just the serious art houses of New York. And yet, he has accurately observed the plight of L’Aquila. How often have you seen people confronted with the aftermath of a natural (or manmade) tragedy sifting through the remains, looking for a precious artifact – a sentimental photo, a memorable painting, a meaningful gift. These tragic situations often make people realize what is truly precious (aside from life and family and friends), and it’s not the plasma TV.

What is art? The answer, from a little bird?

I’ve been pondering a concrete answer to this question, and others like it for some time. I do wonder “what is art?” and “what is great art?” and “what distinguishes fine art from its non-fine cousins?” and “what makes some art better than other art?”

In formulating my answers to these questions I’ve been looking inward and searching outward. I’ve been digesting the musings of our great philosophers and eminent scholars and authors. I’m close to penning some blog-worthy articles that crystallize my current thinking on the subject, but I’m not quite ready. Not yet. So, in the meantime you and I will have to make do with deep thoughts on the subject of art from some of my friends…


The Vogels. Or, how to become a world class art collector on a postal clerk’s salary

I’m missing Art Basel | Miami this year. Last year’s event and surrounding shows displayed so much contemporary (and some modern) art, from so many artists and galleries that my head was buzzing for days afterward. This year I have our art251 gallery to co-run, so I’ve been visiting Art Basel virtually – reading the press releases, following the exhibitors and tuning in to the podcasts and vids, using the great tubes of the internet.

The best story by far to emerge this year from Art Basel | Miami is the continuing odyssey of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, their passion for contemporary art and their outstanding collection. On December 5, the documentary “Herb and Dorothy” was screened at Art Basel’s Art Loves Film night. And so their real-life art fairytale goes something like this…


Over the last 40-plus years they have amassed a cutting-edge, world-class collection of contemporary art. In all they have collected around 4,000 works. Over time they have crammed art into every spare inch of space inside their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. In 1992 they gave around 2,000 important pieces – paintings, drawings and sculptures – to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. Then, in April of this year the National Gallery announced that an additional 2,500 of Vogels’ artworks would go to museums across the country: fifty works for fifty States. The National Gallery simply didn’t have enough space to house the Vogel’s immense collection.

So, why is this story so compelling?

Well, it’s compelling because they are just like you and me. They are not super-rich, they have no condo in Aspen, nor do they moor a yacht in Monte Carlo. They’re not hedge fund managers. They didn’t make a fortune before the bubble burst.

Herb Vogel, 86, is a retired postal clerk and Dorothy Vogel, 76, a retired librarian. They started collecting art in the 1960s and continue to this day. Their plan was simple and guided by two rules: the art had to be affordable, and small enough to fit in their apartment. Early on they decided to use Herb’s income for buying art, and Dorothy’s to paying living expenses. Though now retired they still follow the plan. They collect art because they love art and finding new art. In Dorothy’s words,

“We didn’t buy this art to make money… We did it to enjoy the art. And you know, it gives you a nice feeling to actually own it, and have it about you. … We started buying art for ourselves, in the 1960s, and from the beginning we chose carefully.”

More telling is Dorothy’s view of the art world, and the New York art scene:

“We never really got close to other people who collect… Most collectors have a lot of money, and they don’t go about their collecting in quite the same way. My husband had wanted to be an artist, and I learned from him. We were living vicariously through the work of every artist we bought. At some point, we realized that collecting this art was a sort of creative act. It became our art, in more ways than one. … I enjoyed the search, I guess. The looking and the finding. When you go to a store, and you’re searching for your size, don’t you get satisfaction when you find it?”

And Herb adds the final words:

“The art itself.”

So, within their modest means and limitations they have proved to be visionaries; many of the artists they supported early on have since become world-renowned. And, they have taken their rightful place among the great art collectors of the world, such as Getty and Rockefeller, and Broad and Saatchi. The Vogels used their limitations to their advantage – helping them focus, rather than being a hinderance. Above all, they used their eyes to find and collect great art, not their ears.

Artists beware! You may be outsourced next to…

China perhaps, or even a dog!


As you know, a vast amount of global manufacturing is outsourced to China. In fact, a fair deal of so-called “original” art now comes from China as well, where art factories of “copyworkers” are busy reproducing works by old masters or, for a few extra Yuan, originals in this or that particular style. For instance, the city of Dafen, China manufactures more “Van Goghs” in a couple of weeks than the real Van Gogh created in his entire lifetime. Dafen produces some great bargains — $2 for an unframed old master, $3 for a custom version (prices before enormous markup) — if you like to buy your art by the square foot.

You’ve probably also seen miscellaneous watercolors emanating from talented elephants in Thailand, the late Congo’s tempera paintings auctioned at Bonhams, or the German artist chimpanzee who, with her handlers, recently fooled an expert into believing her work was that of Ernst Wilhelm Nay.

Well, now comes a second biography of Tilamook Cheddar, or Tillie, the most successful animal painter in the history of, well, animal painters. Tillie, a Jack Russell terrier from Brooklyn, NY, has been painting for around 7 years, and has headlined 17 solo shows across the country and in Europe.

Despite these somewhat disturbing developments, I think artists will be around for some time. But, what about gallerists and art dealers? Could you see the Toshiba robot or a couple of (smart) lab rats or an Art-o-mat replacing your friendly gallery owners? Please don’t answer this one!

Portrait of The Dog. Image courtesy of T.Cheddar.