Trust and utility

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2011

This Freeman Dyson article/review at the New York Review Of Books has many interesting points in it, and the new James Gleick book it discusses sounds like a title I’ll need to get my hands on at some point (his biography of Richard Feynman is a fascinating work). But there was a pair of sentences that really just leapt out at me, and I offer them here without further comment (but with a little emphasis):

Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.


Comfortable in the world: ereaders vs. tablets

Paul Raven @ 17-01-2011

Tom Armitage at Berg compares the seductive gloss of the multipurpose iPad with the more homely functionality of the Kindle; an interesting (and user-centric) argument against technological convergence?

The iPad bursts into life, its backlight on, the blinking “slide to unlock” label hinting at the direction of the motion it wants you to make. That rich, vibrant screen craves attention.

The Kindle blinks – as if it’s remembering where it was – and then displays a screen that’s usually composed of text. The content of the screen changes, but the quality of it doesn’t. There’s no sudden change in brightness or contrast, no backlight. If you hadn’t witnessed the change, you might not think there was anything to pay attention to there.

[…]

Attention-seeking is something we often do when we’re uncomfortable, though – when we need to remind the world we’re still there. And the strongest feeling I get from my recently-acquired Kindle is that it’s comfortable in the world.

That matte, paper-like e-ink screen feels familiar, calm – as opposed to the glowing screens of so many devices that have no natural equivalents. The iPad seems natural enough when it’s off – it has a pleasant glass and metal aesthetic. But hit that home button and that glow reveals its alien insides.

Perhaps the Kindle’s comfort is down to its single-use nature. After all, it knows it already has your attention – when you come to it, you pick it up with the act of reading already in mind.

Provocative stuff… but in the interests of journalistic balance (yeah, right), here’s Jonah Lehrer anguishing over the observation that ereaders may be too easy to read:

I worry that this same impulse – making content easier and easier to see – could actually backfire with books. We will trade away understanding for perception. The words will shimmer on the screen, but the sentences will be quickly forgotten. Let me explain. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, has helped illuminate the neural anatomy of reading. It turns out that the literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, which are activated in different contexts. One pathway is known as the ventral route, and it’s direct and efficient, accounting for the vast majority of our reading. The process goes like this: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word’s semantic meaning.

[…]

But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The second reading pathway – it’s known as the dorsal stream – is turned on whenever we’re forced to pay conscious attention to a sentence, perhaps because of an obscure word, or an awkward subclause, or bad handwriting.  (In his experiments, Dehaene activates this pathway in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters or filling the prose with errant punctuation.) Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we became literate, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even fluent adults are still forced to occasionally make sense of texts. We’re suddenly conscious of the words on the page; the automatic act has lost its automaticity.

This suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of awareness. Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.

Someone email Nick Carr; I think we’ve found his next padawan. 😉


Form, functionality and tradition: why aren’t lightbulbs flat?

Paul Raven @ 09-04-2010

The snap answer is “because no one ever made a flat lightbulb“, but Wired UK now puts the lie to that one: someone displayed a flat lightbulb concept at a design show back in 2008, apparently, though it seems never to have made it to production.

The second (and more considered) answer would probably be “because when they were first being made, limited technology for glass manufacture meant that globular capsules were easier and cheaper to produce, and by the time the technology had improved the shape of a lightbulb was an established given that no one thought to alter“. (I’m not certain about the limitations of early manufacture, but it’s a self-educated guess; anyone who can enlighten me further?)

The paranoid answer might be “their frangibility appeals to the sort of corporate mindset that came up with the concept of planned obsolescence” – in other words, lightbulb makers make lightbulbs that are easy to break because they can then sell more lightbulbs. Pretty sure there’s a logical flaw in there somewhere, though…

But anyway, this tangential waffling is the result of that lightbulb story making me wonder how many other household objects are the shape they are, just because they’ve always been made that way. And from there, it’s a short step to thinking similar thoughts about intellectual and cultural institutions, political theories and so forth…

… yeah, so I’m having one of those Fridays where my mind wanders a lot. Lucky you, eh? 🙂


Grid2.0 – electricity as commodity

Paul Raven @ 31-03-2009

electricity pylonsMuch attention is currently (arf!) focussed on making our energy grids cheaper and more efficient, with lots of new ideas being batted around. Here’s a proposal which already appears to be working in one region: start treating electricity as a commodity as well as a utility.

Treat electricity like a commodity—something for which you can gauge demand and set a price in advance. That’s what New England’s independent system operator started doing last year. In its Forward Capacity Market, the ISO projects how much power the region will need three years ahead and then runs a descending-clock auction for the right to provide it. The ISO doesn’t care whether it gets its power from increased production of megawatts or from efficiencies added to the system, so-called negawatts. The agency simply sets the starting price.

Result: money saved in power plants and wires, more stable electricity bills, and a homegrown incubator for getting bright green ideas off the drawing board.

Anything that can prevent my quarterly electricty bill from doubling in cost as it did over the winter just past sounds like a good plan to me, though I’m never astonishingly keen on introducing middleman agencies into an already costly system.

Furthermore, I’m not sure how much protection the commodity trading of electricity would grant us from the civilisation-smashing power of solar weather[image by aloshbennett]


Plug In Hybrids For Autopia

Jeremy Lyon @ 10-07-2007

08Escape Hybrid PlugFord Motor Company and the power company Southern California Edison are teaming up to develop plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. What’s the big deal about plug-in hybrids? It turns out that demand for power drops at night, when plug-in vehicles are most likely to be charging. Most electric grids already have enough excess capacity at night to handle a fleet of plug-ins, which means that shifting to plug-in hybrids can cause an immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, especially as utility companies shift to renewable energy sources. This is one of Lester Brown’s favorite ways of saving the world, as described in Plan B 2.0. (One of the most optimistic assessments of humanity’s potential I’ve read.) [engadget]