Technology & Culture Update 5/3/13

nat'l bike month

The science of safety: May is National Bike month (loads of related activities here) and we should all be spending more time on our bikes. Cycling is good for your body, mind and spirit, it’s easier on your wallet than driving and it’s a blessing for the environment (the trees will thank you!). Really, there’s no down side. Some folks worry about getting hit by a car. Don’t. Believe it or not, you are 15 times more likely to die while riding in a car than you are while riding on your bike. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. Our irrational fear is predicated on cognitive biasIn this brief presentation from Bike Summit 2013, Tom Bowden (chairman of Bike Virginia and vice president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation) cleverly explains this phenomenon.

To catch a thief: And while we’re on the subject of two-wheelin’, KALW radio (San Francisco NPR affiliate) produced a great story about using social media to track down stolen bikes. There’s also an engaging read in the February issue of Outside magazine profiling one man’s obsessive quest to craft the perfect sting operation to nail bike thieves. Interestingly, the level of law enforcement cooperation hinges on how many cyclists there are in the local precinct: “Departments that can muster a peloton, like those in San Francisco, Portland, and Houston, are generally more proactive.” The bottom line is that you should be proactive, too; you can increase the odds of seeing your lost bike again by keeping a file with your bike’s serial number and lots of photos, and blasting out info relating to your stolen bike all over the cycling forums. Cyclists are a tight community; use crowdsourcing to your advantage! It doesn’t hurt to put your name on a piece of paper, laminate it and stuff it into your seat tube. There will be no argument that this is your bike!

From the Velolinguistics Dept.: In a recent tweet, noted lexicographer Peter Sokolowski revealed that he is not a devoted cyclist:

“How unhip am I? I used to think that ‘fixie’ meant a fixer-upper. A junk bike you won’t care if stolen.”

Personally, I think the beauty of the ‘net is that you can so easily discover how little you know about so many things—and broadcast this revelation to the entire planet with the push of a button.

Alexis Madgrigal knows what a fixie is; in fact, he employs it as a metaphor in his current blog post in The Atlantic: “Online Media is a Fixie: Simple, Low-Maintenance, Fun, and Dangerous.” He offers a pretty technical profile of just what a fixie is, and suggests an analogy with online reportage. Read the comments following Madrigal’s testimonial to his own hipness; they are much more on-point (and entertaining!).

E-book sales are on the rise and the e-publishing titans are duking it out in an attempt to establish proprietary models designed to lock authors and readers into a lucrative (for the publisher) gated community. But standards are elusive, and one developer is determined to wrest the self-publishing arena from the clutches of Apple and Amazon. Called “FuturePress” (squeezed into one word, cute), the open-source project is the brainchild of the UC Berkeley School of Information (where else?). According to the website, “FuturePress aims to free books from the prisons of current proprietary formats.” The idea is to build an API based on HTML5, enabling an e-book to be read on any device. “I should be able to read a book regardless of what type of device or application I want to use,” defiantly asserted Jake Hartnell, product manager for FuturePress. “It’s like that for things like music and video! But not ebooks. 🙁 ” It’s a kick-ass concept, but an unfortunate choice of moniker (and they have no logo—has no one told them about “branding”?). It should come as no surprise that the name “Future Press” has long since been nabbed by any number of commercial outfits. So type “futurepress” into a search engine and see what comes up. Just sayin’…

Pet peeves of the word-nerd crowd: According to The Atlantic, “definitely” is the latest overused buzzword. Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Yagoda casts his vote for “literally.” Yes, some of the greats of belles-lettres have fallen prey to this tick, but that doesn’t make it correct, or even acceptable (it just makes them human). I doubt that I’ll be giving too much away to admit that both of these linguistic abuses are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I failed high school biology because my teacher, Mr. Shelsky, had a habit of prefacing every statement with, “Strangely enough …” and concluding his diatribes with a (no doubt) trenchant observation beginning, “Irregardless, ….” It got to the point that everything else he said was just white noise punctuated by those annoying exclamations. Entranced, I was reduced to a drooling zombie state in which I mindlessly counted how many times he uttered these expressions and recorded the totals on my Pee-Chee notebook. Little wonder that I couldn’t recall much about the Periodic Table of Elements.

Publishing and paywalls: The revered publication, American Heritage, is the latest in a long line of periodicals struggling with the digital revolution. Having suspended publication last fall, the publishers claim to be restructuring the book as an education-oriented digital history offering (behind a paywall); they’re hoping the “educational” cachet will prove to be a viable sales strategy. In its new incarnation, the publication will be available in print and digital formats designed to complement the company’s nonprofit project, “Education, A Transformative System for Teaching American History and English Language Arts.” With so many innovative open-source alternatives already available or coming online now (the DPLA, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the University of Houston’s impressive Digital History website and the various educational initiatives produced by George Mason University’s Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, to name a few), it’s difficult to see how a for-profit venture is going to keep its head above water.

Digital Humanities 101: The aforementioned efforts all fall under the umbrella of the “digital humanities.” If you’re even the slightest bit curious about this fascinating movement, there are many resources available to acquaint you with the basics. Defining the Digital Humanities: A Bibliography is a great place to begin your journey. A Companion to Digital Humanities is an open-access textbook on the subject (and a very accessible read), while “A Guide to Digital Humanities” (by Northwestern University) is another well thought-out introduction to the field. This should be more than enough to whet your appetite; I’ll revisit this subject frequently.

CERNHappy birthday, Web! It’s hard to believe, but the World Wide Web is only 20 years old. British physicist Tim Berners-Lee developed the idea of creating an information network, and the technology that made it possible was made freely available to all on April 30, 1993. The first website (for CERN, a nuclear research organization) wasn’t much to look at, but Gutenberg’s initial efforts were pretty crude, too. In celebration of two decades of open-access information exchange, CERN has resurrected its original website. This technology has profoundly changed information sharing—how we interact, how we tell our story—in fundamental ways. What will the third decade bring?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Is English Evolving or Devolving?

Ave Maria photograph, 1905Long before Messrs. Strunk and White entered the fray, humanist, scientist and liberal political theorist Herbert Spencer set out to create a handbook on good composition (for more, see this excellent Brain Pickings blog post). And in The Philosophy of Style (1852), Spencer produced a real honey! Eager to establish the importance of the fundamental principles of crafting compelling prose, he was equally determined to encourage his readers to expose themselves to superb writing and rhetoric: “He who daily hears and reads well-framed sentences,” Spencer pronounced, “will naturally more or less tend to use similar ones.”

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course, and it would be difficult to debate the wisdom of such learned counsel. I still recall querying one of my college professors about what I could do to improve my writing. He responded, “You already have a solid grasp of the mechanics. Read.” Of course he meant read really good stuff, and lots of it. I took his advice to heart and still fall asleep every night with a good book on my chest (for which my optometrist is grateful).

About face(book)!

But what happens if we stand this precept on its head? What if we discount the necessity of learning the rules of grammar and immersing ourselves in great literature? I think we’re about to find out. We no longer “make” students diagram sentences, write essays, or even develop a legible hand. Nor are we making great strides in providing the underpinnings of critical thought — and what’s the point of grammatically correct writing if you have nothing worthwhile to say? In the world of social media, all of this is likely moot.

Language is not static, it’s constantly evolving — a moving target. Therefore there is no absolute “correct” way to express a thought. I get that. The point of the exercise is to clearly communicate an idea with your intended audience. Or as Herbert Spencer expressed it with a classic Victorian flourish, “To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules [of grammar and usage] point.”

Tweeting, ca. 1852

Economy of words (and even syllables) seems to be the handmaiden of linguistic dynamics in the digital age, and we are now challenged to clearly express cogent thoughts in 140 characters or less (including punctuation, spaces, links and hashtags). This progressive simplification of communication becomes wonderfully obvious when one considers how a Victorian describes the beauty of expository economy:

“Not only in the structure of sentences, and the use of figures of speech, may economy of the recipient’s mental energy be assigned as the cause of force; but that in the choice and arrangement of the minor images, out of which some large thought is to be built up, we may trace the same condition to effect. To select from the sentiment, scene, or event described those typical elements which carry many others along with them; and so, by saying a few things but suggesting many, to abridge the description; is the secret of producing a vivid impression. … In the choice of component ideas, as in the choice of expressions, the aim must be to convey the greatest quantity of thoughts with the smallest quantity of words.”

Note the need to employ ellipsis — I think Twitter would have given Spencer fits. All I can say is OMG!

Turn, turn, turn

Writing for social media can be a good exercise, as it disciplines the digital scribe to pare away unnecessary verbiage and always consider the reader. But it can be disastrous to the creation of truly elegant, succulent prose. Further, while this practice discourages the development of a broad vocabulary and good diction, many “how-to” guides admonish writers to opt for the simplest possible word choice. I prefer to encourage the selection of the appropriate word (regardless of syllable count) for the rhythm and tone of the piece, as well as comprehension and delight of the reader. To every thing, there is a season…

Perhaps we’ve pursued this quest for minimalism to the point of diminishing return. What we haven’t done is convey the underlying principle for this intense focus on simplicity. The author’s job is not to construct prose that impresses the reader with the writer’s erudition, nor to churn out terse sentences that have been truncated to a series of “keywords” or simplified to the point of being readily understood by the lowest common denominator (unless of course that is your intended audience). The writer’s job is to convey an image; to paint a picture with words — setting the scene, establishing the tone, ensuring artful rhythm and pacing. All of these skills and more are necessary for the creation of engaging and compelling storytelling, regardless of the medium (okay, maybe not Twitter…).

Yes, language is linked to cultural trends; as our daily interactions become less formal, our written and spoken communication follows suit. I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing, only questioning what happens to our “ear” if most of the language we’re subjected to is fundamentally flawed. How can this help but lower the communication bar?

Humans have an innate communal impulse; we want to belong to a tribe. We adopt the fashions of the group we want to be associated with. We embrace its slang and jargon, its ideology and mores. Does this also apply to our writing style? I can’t help but wonder: is the lack of adequate education compounded by the deluge of bad spelling, grammar and usage constantly bombarding us on our electronic devices dumbing us down, or is it actually rendering communication more efficient? What do U think?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print & digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Photo: Ave Maria, Mrs. G.A. Barton (1905)/Pinterest

The Science of Coffee, Part One

I like coffee. No, that’s far too tame. I love coffee. That is, I love good coffee. There’s a fair amount of science (and a pinch of alchemy) involved in creating the perfect mug o’ mud—or if you’re an espresso aficionado like me, the proverbial “God shot.” And with the current flowering of technological gadgetry, it’s no surprise the engineers and geeks have turned their collective genius to the humble coffeemaker—and trotted out their pricey offerings just in time for Christmas.

Before I go any further, I would like to categorically state that you can produce very respectable joe with a simple press pot (aka: French press, cafetière) or AeroPress, or if you like your coffee on the stronger side, a moka pot. Any of these can be acquired for a modest investment of around thirty-five simoleons. You will also need to score some high-quality fresh beans and an adequate burr grinder (manual mills can be had for under $100). Yes, there is a bit of technique involved (that’s where the alchemy comes in), but that’s half the fun! When all’s said and done, it’s “good” coffee if you like it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Taste is a subjective thing; making good coffee is as much art as science.


Blossom One Limited

Perhaps you find the above-mentioned appliances to be a bit pedestrian for your artistic sensibilities. You’re after something a smidge more precise, a bit sexier, a little more outré—what’s the word I’m looking for… oh yes, snobby. The Blossom One Limited is just the ticket; it’s got snob appeal by the bucket-load! A minimalist, utilitarian aesthetic belies its technological underpinnings, and this handcrafted work of functional art will lighten your wallet by—are you sitting down?—$11,111 (one has to wonder why they bothered with those last three digits—must have something to do with “artful design”).

Based on the press kit, we should be suitably awed by the bios of the techno-triumvirate that cooked up this percolator-on-steroids: Jeremy Kuempel (Head Honcho) is a mechanical engineering type from MIT who worked on the Apple iPad team, and at Tesla, where he designed the 17-inch touchscreen for the Model S; Matt Walliser has the NASA Ames Research Center on his CV as a former employer; and Joey Roth is the owner of the Joey Roth Design Studio (snappy title, eh?)—he apparently conceived a really cool teapot. Not seein’ any barista background here…

Gaggia Gilda
(orphanesspresso.com)

Rather than being satisfied to improve on the current “Best of Show” in coffeemaker technology, the boys claim to have been inspired by “sports cars, premium furniture, and the Bauhaus movement.”

Though it’s not an espresso machine, the Blossom One Ltd. does incorporate technologies that are commonplace in the high-end “prosumer” espresso market, and that makes perfect sense—plain ol’ coffeemakers have lagged far behind the state of the art in espressoland, so why not marry the two? In fact, Blossom’s basic approach to the process seems to be a variation on the lever-actuated espresso machine originally patented by Achille Gaggia in 1938 (which later appeared in a more compact iteration called the “Gilda,” the first espresso machine designed for consumers—you can read a fantastic profile here).

Hark! Mr. Kuempel declared, “The world is ready for truly great-tasting coffee.” The Blossom marketing team extrapolates on this profundity: “Designed to combine the best parts of immersion brewing with the ease of a standard coffeemaker, the revolutionary Blossom One Limited makes the perfect cup of coffee every time by allowing precise control of every aspect of the brewing process.” The exalted testimonial continues unabashedly, “To achieve this, our Blossom One Limited machine employs a novel brewing process that perfectly controls important brewing variables independently of environmental influences, empowering baristas with the right tools to make truly great-tasting coffee.”

Perhaps it’s the editor in me, but I’m really leery of products pitched with such hyperbolic prose as “revolutionary,” “perfect,” “every time,” “precise,” “every aspect,” “novel,” “perfectly,” and “empowering”—all in the same breath.

In addition to computer-controlled operational variables via a proportional integral derivative feedback control loop (PID)—which is to say, maintaining the ideal constant temperature—Blossom One also boasts an onboard WiFi camera(!) that can scan QR codes allowing “users to connect directly to a roaster’s preparation recommendations making it easy to share complex coffee brewing recipes direct from the coffee roaster to the final customer.”

As we went to press, no roasters were known to be providing such key data about their beans via QR codes, but maybe the appearance of 10 Blossom One machines (the entire inaugural production run) will provide the impetus to initiate the revolution. In the meantime, at least you can take pictures of yourself making some awesome coffee and post them on Pinterest. (Update: Apparently, the camera is a dedicated unit, it only feeds data to the Blossom—there is no USB port or other means of uploading images to another device, so strike that comment about taking pictures of yourself making really expensive coffee.)

Your $11,111 coffeemaker can be clad in the exotic wood trim of your choice (premium furniture, remember?), but perhaps most importantly—and folks, this is truly the pièce de résistance—every unit comes with an official signed build placard, and will be hand-delivered by “the Blossom team” (I trust they’re really attractive and very appreciative).

Currently in its second prototype incarnation, the Blossom One Ltd. is slated for initial delivery in a few months, so you’d better get your order in quick.

Aside from bragging rights, stupid-expensive digital coffeemakers have one thing in common: the dumbing down of the process. They appeal to the convenience factor that is so prized by the self-important. Hey man, time is money! Hence, “the premium Blossom One Limited machine requires little instruction to operate, enabling brewers of all experience levels to create the absolute best cup of coffee for the most discerning coffee aficionados.” Even a minimum-wage, teenaged Starbucks barista can do it!

So is it just me, or is it patently absurd to demo this highest of the high-end coffeemakers to someone who admits he is “not as much of a ‘coffee person’ as many of my caffeine-addled colleagues and friends”? I guess he drew the short straw. Well, in an attempt to garner some good press, the fellas who are trying to gin-up enthusiasm (and seed money) for this handcrafted, limited edition product humped it over to the Huffington Post offices and did just that.

You don’t have to be able to identify the fruity notes to appreciate a really outstanding brew, but having such a philistine review this chunk of high-tech wizardry would be like having—well him—review a fine wine (“I’m the kind of guy who will gladly drink wine out of a cardboard box.” Yes, this is a quote from the same review.).

What’s the point? Why should a reader care what this rube thinks of this $11,111 wunderkind? After all, the reviewer (who I suspect would prefer to remain nameless) concludes, “I will not be one of the initial buyers.” Still, I’m sure the mission was accomplished: generate enough buzz to actually convince someone who “can afford elevators for your cars” (again, same reviewer) to lay down some serious jack to bankroll this harebrained scheme. Of course, the only person who comes to mind who meets that particular qualification is morally averse to drinking coffee. Quite the conundrum. Then again, he’s an ace vulture capitalist, so who knows?

One has to wonder why they’re showing this thing to people who are totally unfamiliar with the boutique home or professional barista scene. No matter. I’m sure it’ll be a hit in the Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog—right alongside that nifty $190,000 flying hovercraft…

Good thing you get to choose the exotic wood trim, for as the Blossom One website sagely concludes, “Simply having great technology isn’t enough.” I couldn’t agree more.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Knowledge + Creativity = Magic!

In a recent issue of Brain Pickings (one of my all-time favorite blogs), Maria Popova posited, “Though Steve Jobs may have been right in asserting that ‘creativity is just connecting things,’ it’s more than that—it’s connecting the right kinds of things. And, above all, it’s equipping oneself with the very things to connect in the first place—it’s building a mental catalog of knowledge, then cultivating the right ‘associative trails’ running through that catalog.”

This comment brought to mind Einstein’s pronouncement that “Information is not knowledge.” To which I would add (to bring it full circle): “Knowledge is not creativity.”

I have often heard it said that (ahem) older folks don’t “get” technology. Of course, this is nonsense. Despite the meme that asserts you need a 12-year-old to program your remote, young ’uns do not possess some special gene that graces them with digital intuition. There is no genetic or organic predisposition to techno-savvy. (Sorry, kids.) My friend Jeff McClurken, who does his darndest to teach digital history to college students, emphatically insists that beyond their texting and facebook dexterity, his charges are ill-equipped to employ new media in productive or creative ways. They are consumers rather than creators.

Achieving a certain comfort level with digital tools is a behavioral or social conditioning thing—we learn how to do it. Simply spending some hands-on time with devices and programs is a great place to start, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be immersed in a social network that’s using technology to do creative things every day; it tempers the fear factor.

Life experience helps, too. Steve Jobs kenned this: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” This is, according to Popova, “because creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources—ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration—that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways.” Life is an interdisciplinary enterprise.

So if you’ve been on the planet for a while and you have the willingness and desire to learn new things and then connect the dots, you actually have an advantage over the “chronologically challenged.” The longer we have functioned as “hunter-gatherers of interestingness” (as Maria phrases it), the more experiential material we have to draw upon—a much larger library, if you will.

Popova summarizes, “In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas—like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will become.”

Oh yes, and the expanded Einstein quote is: “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.”

Ergo, experience > knowledge. And knowledge + creativity = whatever you can imagine! So C=ke2 or something like that. It ain’t rocket science…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

(Illustration: Nicole Lacriola/Pinterest)

Think…

Just saw this on the Technology Rocks. Seriously blog and felt compelled to share:

Before you speak or press ‘send,’ THINK:

Is it True?

Is it Helpful?

Is it Inspiring?

Is it Necessary?

Is it Kind?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.