Tuesday, July 31, 2012

mohamed somji

Little Free Library Movement

Jonathan Beggs wanted an easy way for his neighbors to share books.

Using odds and ends of fiberboard and Douglas fir, the retired building contractor fashioned a hutch the size of a dollhouse. He gave it a pitched cedar-shingle roof capped with copper. The door, trimmed in bright red, opens to three shelves filled with books by Joyce Carol Oates, Tony Hillerman, James Michener and others. Below hangs a sign: "Take a book or bring a book or both."

In the half a year that Beggs' Little Free Library has perched on a post in front of his Sherman Oaks home, it has evolved into much more than a book exchange. It has turned strangers into friends and a sometimes impersonal neighborhood into a community. It has become a mini-town square, where people gather to discuss Sherlock Holmes,sustainability and genealogy.

"I met more neighbors in the first three weeks than in the previous 30 years," said Beggs, 76. (...)

His Little Free Library is part of a movement that started in Wisconsin and has begun to catch on in Southern California.In large cities and small towns, suburbs and rural communities, advocates see the libraries as a way to keep the printed word in the hands of seasoned and budding bibliophiles.

The concept of passing along a favorite book speaks to people's desire to connect in person at a time when much communication takes place via texts and Facebook, said Dana Cuff, a UCLA professor and director of cityLAB, a think tank.

"The small-scale sharing of something that was special to you seems like a great version of borrowing sugar and bringing tomatoes to your neighbor," Cuff said. "It helps you make connections to people who live around you."  (...)

Little Free Library was the inspiration of Todd Bol, who in the fall of 2009 landed on a way to honor his late mother, a book-loving teacher. He built a miniature wooden one-room schoolhouse, mounted it outside his Hudson, Wis., home and stocked it with books. Even on rainy days, friends and neighbors would happen by to make selections, drop off books and remark on the library's cuteness.

Bol, an entrepreneur in international business development, enlisted Rick Brooks, a community outreach specialist in Madison, Wis., to help spread the word. In the last two years, nearly 1,800 library stewards, as Bol calls them, have registered cabinet-size athenaeums in about 45 states and dozens of countries, including Ghana, England and Germany.

Each owner pays $25 to the Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization, for a sign and a number. The group's website features a locater map and photos of people attending grand openings for libraries.

Bol anticipates nearly 3,000 registered libraries by the end of July.

by Martha Groves, LA Times |  Read more:
Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez

Lin Decai(林 德才 Chinese, b.1948)

How Speedo Created A Record-Breaking Swimsuit

In 2009, Speedo’s research team began to brainstorm innovative ways to help swimmers go faster. The polyurethane bodysuits that contributed to an astonishing number of swimming world records over the previous 18 months had been banned. To think outside the box, the Speedo representatives met outside the lab, joining academics, coaches and research consultants at hotels, conference centers and even an English country house to spawn ideas, ideas inspired more by Captain Avengerthan Mark Spitz.

“Lots of conversation was had around wild and wacky ideas,” says Joe Santry, the research manager for Speedo’s Aqualab in Nottingham, England. “Some of the initial sketch concepts brought to the table looked like a superhero suit with a sleek cap, goggle, and suit combination that wouldn’t look out of place in a Marvel comic.”

They were trying to replace the now infamous full-body LZR suit. Dubbed “the rubber suit,” it compressed a swimmer’s body into a streamlined tube and trapped air, adding buoyancy and reducing drag. Speedo says 98 percent of the medals at the 2008 Olympics were won by swimmers wearing the LZR. Michael Phelps set world marks in seven of his eight events at Beijing wearing the suit, but applauded its ban.

The new rules, in effect since 2010, permit only “jammers,” suits from the kneecap to navel for men, and from the knee to shoulder for women. The fabric must be air permeable, and a suit may not have any fastening devices such as a zipper, a response to companies that began creating wetsuit-like neoprene suits after the 2008 Olympics.

Ultimately, Speedo decided to rebuild not only the suit, but create a “racing system” that it claims combines the suit and the goggles and cap working in synergy to reduce drag and improve performance.  (...)

For the suit, the team spent a year inventing a new fabric that creates compression changes across its surface where more lycra is knitted into some areas. In the end, Fastskin is Spanx on steroids, compressing a body three times more than the LZR. The suit constricts the stomach the least and the chest, buttocks and hips the most, attempting to mold swimmers into an unblemished tube.

Speedo has applied for nine patents for the Fastskin-3. The company says only six machines in the world are capable of producing the compression fabric; it owns all of them.  (...)

“It’s like miles per gallon in a car,” Santry says. “You can swim at the same speed, but use less fuel. It allows a swimmer to go harder for longer.”

Speedo scanned its key athletes to create a 3-D avatar to size the suit. Just wearing the Fastskin requires athleticism. Some female swimmers, who step into the suit through an armhole, reported it took them as much as an hour to wriggle into it on their first attempt. Santry says it can be done in 10 to 15 minutes with practice. “The first time you do it, it’s daunting,” he adds. “There’s quite a bit of compression in the suit. It can feel a bit alien.”

by Jim Morrison, The Smithsonian via Sports Illustrated |  Read more:
Photo courtesy: Speedo

Can an Algorithm be Wrong?

[ed. For example, from today's NY Times, see: Social Media Are Giving a Voice to Taste Buds.]

Throughout the Occupy Wall Street protests, participants and supporters used Twitter (among other tools) to coordinate, debate, and publicize their efforts. But amidst the enthusiasm a concern surfaced: even as the protests were gaining strength and media coverage, and talk of the movement on Twitter was surging, the term was not “Trending.” A simple list of ten terms provided by Twitter on their homepage, Twitter Trends digests the 250 million tweets sent every day and indexes the most vigorously discussed terms at that moment, either globally or for a user’s chosen country or city. Yet, even in the cities where protests were happening, including New York, when tweets using the term #occupywallstreet seem to spike, the term did not Trend. Some suggested that Twitter was deliberately dropping the term from its list, and in doing so, preventing it from reaching a wider audience.

The charge of censorship is a revealing one. It suggests, first, that many are deeply invested in the Twitter network as a political tool, and that some worry that Twitter’s interests might be aligned with the financial and political status quo they hope to challenge. But it reveals something else about the importance and the opacity of the algorithm that drives the identification of Trends. To suggest that the best or only explanation of #occupywallstreet’s absence is that Twitter “censored” it implies that Trends is otherwise an accurate barometer of the public discussion. For some, this glitch could only mean deliberate human intervention into what should be a smoothly-running machine.

The workings of these algorithms are political, an important terrain upon which political battles about visibility are being fought (Grimmelmann 2009). Much like taking over the privately owned Zuccotti Park in Manhattan in order to stage a public protest, more and more of our online public discourse is taking place on private communication platforms like Twitter. These providers offer complex algorithms to manage, curate, and organize these massive networks. But there is a tension between what we understand these algorithms to be, what we need them to be, and what they in fact are. We do not have a sufficient vocabulary for assessing the intervention of these algorithms. We’re not adept at appreciating what it takes to design a tool like Trends – one that appears to effortlessly identify what’s going on, yet also makes distinct and motivated choices. We don’t have a language for the unexpected associations algorithms make, beyond the intention (or even comprehension) of their designers (Ananny 2011). Most importantly, we have not fully recognized how these algorithms attempt to produce representations of the wants or concerns of the public, and as such, run into the classic problem of political representation: who claims to know the mind of the public, and how do they claim to know it?  (...)

Twitter explains that Trends is designed to identify topics that are enjoying a surge, not just rising above the normal chatter, but doing so in a particular way. Part of the evaluation includes: Is the use of the term spiking, i.e. accelerating rapidly, or is its growth more gradual? Are the users densely interconnected into a single cluster, or does the term span multiple clusters? Are the tweets unique content, or mostly retweets of the same post? Is this the first time the term has Trended? (If not, the threshold to Trend again is higher.) So this list, though automatically calculated in real time, is also the result of the careful implementation of Twitter’s judgments as to what should count as a “trend.” (...)

Twitter Trends is only one such tool. Search engines, while promising to provide a logical set of results in response to a query, are in fact algorithms designed to take a range of criteria into account so as to serve up results that satisfy not just the user, but the aims of the provider, their understanding of relevance or newsworthiness or public import, and the particular demands of their business model (Granka 2010). When users of Apple’s Siri iPhone tool begin to speculate that its cool, measured voice is withholding information about abortion clinics, or worse, sending users towards alternatives preferred by conservatives, they are in fact questioning the algorithmic product of the various search mechanisms that Siri consults. [link]

Beyond search, we are surrounded by algorithmic tools that offer to help us navigate online platforms and social networks, based not on what we want, but on what all of their users do. When Facebook, YouTube, or Digg offer to mathematically and in real time report what is “most popular” or “liked” or “most viewed” or “best selling” or “most commented” or “highest rated,” they are curating a list whose legitimacy is built on the promise that it has not been curated, that it is the product of aggregate user activity itself. When Amazon recommends a book based on matching your purchases to those of its other customers, or Demand Media commissions news based on aggregate search queries (Anderson 2011), their accuracy and relevance depend on the promise of an algorithmic calculation paired with the massive, even exhaustive, corpus of the traces we all leave.

We might, then, pursue the question of the algorithm’s politics further. The Trends algorithm does have criteria built in: criteria that help produce the particular Trends results we see, criteria that are more complex and opaque than some users take them to be, criteria that could have produced the absence of the term #occupywallstreet that critics noted. But further, the criteria that animate the Trends algorithm also presume a shape and character to the public they intend to measure, and in doing so, help to construct publics in that image.

by Tarelton Gillespie, LIMN |  Read more:

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Dog

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" is an adage which began as the caption of a cartoon by Peter Steiner published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993. The cartoon features two dogs: one sitting on a chair in front of a computer, speaking the caption to a second dog sitting on the floor. As of 2000, the panel was the most reproduced cartoon from The New Yorker, and Steiner has earned over $50,000 from its reprinting

Peter Steiner, a cartoonist and contributor to The New Yorker since 1979, said the cartoon initially did not get a lot of attention, but later took on a life of its own, and that he felt similar to the person who created the "smiley face". In fact, Steiner was not that interested in the Internet when he drew the cartoon, and although he did have an online account, he recalled attaching no "profound" meaning to the cartoon; it was just something he drew in the manner of a "make-up-a-caption" cartoon.

In response to the comic's popularity, he stated, "I can't quite fathom that it's that widely known and recognized.

The cartoon marks a notable moment in the history of the Internet. Once the exclusive domain of government engineers and academics, the Internet was now a subject of discussion in general interest magazines like The New Yorker. Lotus 1-2-3 founder and early Internet activist Mitch Kapor commented in a Time magazine article in 1993 that "the true sign that popular interest has reached critical mass came this summer when the New Yorker printed a cartoon showing two computer-savvy canines".

The cartoon symbolizes an understanding of Internet privacy that stresses the ability of users to send and receive messages in general anonymity. Lawrence Lessig suggests "no one knows" because Internet protocols do not force users to identify themselves, although local access points such as a user's university may; but this information is privately held by the local access point and not part of the Internet transaction itself.

via: Wikipedia

From the Library of Your Soul-Mate: The Unique Social Bond of Literature

Could geeking out over a mutually beloved novel surpass even alcohol as the ultimate social ice-breaker? In my three months of solo travel in India, shared literary interests have opened the doors to several new friendships. Quite like the bond formed between travelers on similar journeys, the bond formed around a favorite novel is one of shared immersive experience, usually open to impossibly wide interpretations. When we meet someone else who’s “been there,” there’s a biting urge to know exactly what the other person saw, what scenes remain strongest in her memory, what crucial knowledge or insight was retrieved, and what her experience reveals or changes about our own?

If we try to extend this “traveler’s comparison” to other narrative mediums — television programs, movies, plays — it can often lose some of its steam. Why is this? Relative limitlessness in physical and emotional sensory potential is the privilege and burden of the reader. The book, more so than any other form of narrative media, rings true, more synonymous, with the limitlessness and loneliness to be found while facing the open road or holding a one-way airline ticket to Azerbaijan. In my hypotheses, it is the loneliness quality in particular, physically and intellectually inherent to the act of reading, that lays the bedrock for the powerful social bonding achieved through literature. The limitlessness is critical too, as it promises a bounty of fertile avenues for conversation, but it’s the loneliness of the reader — or, as Rainer Maria Rilke might say, it’s how “two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other” — that assigns to a very special category those friendships formed over books.

Enjoying a good work of literature entails getting lost. Vast and foreign is the journey, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. If the book is good, then the intelligence that guides us through the story will appear many degrees superior to our own. Even in the case of a child narrator like Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, or an impaired one, like Christopher John Francis Boone — the autistic 15-year-old narrator of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night-Time — the narrative intelligences of our books should leave us feeling a bit pressed intellectually, a bit outmatched, amazed ultimately by the talent of the author who brought such an exquisite intelligence to life. It should be our expectation as readers to be transported into a compellingly drawn, but very foreign and unique reality. Our guide, the local aficionado, attempts to help us understand everything we’re taking in, though we’ll inevitably overlook and misunderstand things from time to time, sometimes big, important things. ReadingPynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, was an experience similar to that of using one’s brain; I was able to intellectually command perhaps 10 percent of the content at hand. If this was part of Pynchon’s intent for his novel, I commend him for crafting an impressive and very odd reflection of the human condition. Yes, reading is both a richly gratifying and lonely act, at both intellectual and sensory levels, which is why meeting someone with whom we share a favorite book has a way of jump-starting our social batteries, even on our more quiet nights.

Maya Dorn, a 41-year-old copywriter, musician, and avid reader from San Francisco, uses shared literary interests as a litmus test for social compatibility. “Liking the same books is like having the same sense of humor — if you don’t have it in common, it’s going to be hard to bond with someone. You risk ending up with nothing to talk about.” Maya specifically cites Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, as popping up again and again on the fringes of her social circles. Funny she mentioned that title; though I’ve not read The Master and Margarita, it was recommended to me a month prior to meeting Maya, at a café in Goa, where a vacationing Russian day-spa owner — stoned to a point of spare, clear English and silky slow hand gestures — explained to me the premise of Bulgakov’s post-modern “Silver Age” classic. “It’s about different type of prison, a prison of the mind!” The Russian pointed meaningfully at his own head. Sharing such intensely themed, café-table book-talk with a strange Russian proved quite an adventure in itself, with our caffeine jitters occasionally morphing into anachronistic, Cold War-era paranoias of Pynchonesque mirth. He was the first Russian I’d met abroad.

by Bryan Basamanowicz, The Millions |  Read more:
Image Credit: Flickr/nSeika

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mayer Hawthorne, Daryl Hall

Desperate Living by Dan Halen, 2012

The Most Important Trade Agreement That We Know Nothing About

Imagine being invited to formally offer input on a huge piece of legislation, a proposed international agreement that could cover everything from intellectual property rights on the Internet to access to medicine to investment rights in the agreement’s signatory countries. For 10 minutes, you’d be able to say whatever you’d like about the proposed law—good, bad, or indifferent—to everyone involved in the negotiations. But there’s a caveat: All of your questions, all of your input, on what may be the most controversial part of the package, would have to be based on a version of the proposed international agreement that was 16 months old. And in that 16-month period, there were eight rounds of negotiations that could have changed any and all of the text to which you had access, but no one could tell you if that version was still accurate.

Would you still take the deal? This is not a hypothetical question; rather, this is the take-it-or-leave-it offer made to the public in May by the United States Trade Representative regarding the intellectual property rights chapter of the massively important but little-known Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). Unfortunately, this modest but sad excuse for public participation was the best offer to ask questions and offer input to TPP negotiators since the public phase of the negotiations began more than two years ago. So civil society groups, academics, experts (“nerds”), and regular Joe concerned citizens said yes.

The above Kafkaesque scenario reveals a truly odd and disturbing 21st-century situation. Asking informed questions is probably man’s oldest form of letting someone know his views. But in 2012, with all of the technology that allows for unprecedented (if not totally unfettered) flows of information, the vestiges of 20th-century secrecy continue to permeate international lawmaking, as reflected in the negotiations of TPP.

TPP is misleadingly labeled as a trade agreement, making it seem like a relatively narrow and limited agreement involving traditional topics like tariffs and exchange of goods—the sort of government-to-government discussions that seem too esoteric to have much impact on the everyday citizen. It is, in fact, much more than that. As explained by the USTR, TPP is an “ambitious, next-generation, Asia-Pacific trade agreement that reflects U.S. priorities and values.” President Obama, who announced the goal of creating TPP in November 2009, hassaid that TPP will “boost our economies, lowering barriers to trade and investment, increasing exports, and creating more jobs for our people, which is my No. 1 priority.” That sounds pretty important—and more than a little vague. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about it beyond those platitudes.

Here’s what we think we know. Based upon the leaks that have occurred, it seems thatan enacted TPP would require significant changes in U.S. and/or other signatory countries’ laws. It would curb public access to vast amounts of information in the name of combating intellectual property infringement (or piracy, depending on your choice of words). The owner of the copyright in a song or movie could use a “technological protection measure”—what are often called “digital locks”—to prevent your access to it, even for educational purposes, and regardless of whether the owner had the legal right to do so. Your very ability to read this article, with hyperlinks in it, could be affected by TPP. So, too, might your access to works currently in the public domain and available free of charge. And these concerns are only related to the intellectual property rights chapter of TPP. There are apparently more than 20 chapters under negotiation, including “customs, cross-border services, telecommunications, government procurement, competition policy, and cooperation and capacity building,” as well as investment and financial services. Technically, TPP would only take effect in the 10 negotiating countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States, and Vietnam. Mexico joined recently, and Canada and Japan may soon follow. But in reality, it would also affect citizens of any nations that interact with at least one of those 10—which means even the shut-off North Korea might feel its influence.

by David S. Levine, Slate |  Read more:
Photo by Hemera/Thinkstock

A Vision of the Future

[ed. By coincidence I stumbled across an article about Lyfe Kitchen just after posting this. Life imitating parody.]

It’s the year 2367 and all food is gluten-free. No restaurant, grocery, or bakery serves anything with gluten in it, and guess what? Everything still tastes great. This is because a consortium of scientists of all nations, now united under the umbrella of the “Socialist States of America” and led by their leader, “The Obama-Tron,” have devoted millions of hours of research and effort into eradicating gluten in food. But that’s not the only thing that’s changed.

The amount of time people save by not having to ask, or answer, the question, “Is that gluten-free?” when ordering food has lengthened every individual’s life span by an estimated fourteen hours. This extra time is used by most people to write negative reviews of things they see, or hear, or have heard about, on their twitter-think devices, and these negative reviews are instantaneously circulated to anyone else who has paid the monthly fee for that service.

Any distance can be travelled in seconds by any individual using a “personal atomizer,” so people can be just about anywhere at any time. Still, many people are often late to appointments. Gluten cannot be blamed for this lateness, as it has been eradicated. It’s simple thoughtlessness—clearly they just don’t care.

Cars run on gluten-free fuel, which is an improvement on the green fuel that replaced gasoline completely in 2056. The original green fuel was a combination of wheat, seaweed, and curry powder. It was loaded with gluten, and then there was the fact that everything smelled like curry. I mean everything—the whole outside. People got used to the curry smell and now, even though it’s not necessary, they can choose curry-scented fuel—and there’s also patchouli. Does that sound awful to you? Just remember, there’s no gluten in it, so … gotta take the good with the bad, eh?

by Bob Odenkirk, New Yorker |  Read more:
llustration by Bendik Kaltenborn

Is Yours a Red Wine and Cola?

In Argentina it's known as "Jesus juice", in South Africa it's called katemba, in Croatia bambus and in Chile it's known as jote (black vulture). But most fans of red wine mixed with cola – typically young people who want to make a rough red wine more palatable – know it by its Spanish name calimocho, because Spain is where this cheap and cheerful "wine cocktail" is believed to have originated.

Soon it could be known by a different name again, and to a much wider audience via the launch of a new 36% proof (18% ABV) fortified red wine that's been made to be mixed like a spirit. The advertising brain behind it, Steven Grasse, who masterminded the launch of Hendrick's Gin and Sailor Jerry Rum, believes that Spodee, which contains high proof moonshine, will bring a bit of excitement to the "staid" wine category and that it mixes well with pretty much everything. "From simple highballs like Spodee and Coke and Spodee and orange juice, or even Spodee and tonic," he says.

Not that he'd exactly planned things this way. The inspiration for Spodee is Depression-era hooch, which was made from cheap country wine flavoured with whatever was close to hand – garden herbs, fruits, berries - and pepped up with moonshine. It was typically made in dustbins or bathtubs and served at parties (thankfully the modern version comes in a retro style milk bottle sealed with a cork). "Spodee is something I discovered while doing historical research for a new spirit I was pursuing," says Grasse. "I became intrigued because I thought I knew everything there was to know about Depression Era beverages. So I mixed up a batch and holy shit! So I did what I tend to do naturally, I started mixing with it like I do with spirits. What a magnificent surprise. I've created a wine that mixes like a spirit."

But what does the famously conservative wine world make of all this? Somewhat surprisingly it's warmly welcomed the move. With volume sales of wine down 27 million bottles in the off trade (according to trade magazine The Grocer) producers are increasingly turning to winecocktails to help revive the market.

by Simon Creasey, The Guardian |  Read more:

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Pat Metheny Group

The Best $100 Earbuds

To say that the headphone/earphone category is crowded would be an understatement. There are hundreds of models, all with their own sound and style, some costing as little as a hamburger and fries, others as much as a used car.

But why earbuds? And why the best earbuds under $100? The answer to the first question is portability. Just like we all celebrated the downsizing of the discman into the MP3 player, having a pair of earbuds that you can ball up and toss in your pocket, purse or backpack is tremendously convenient. Big, over-ear headphones, even those that cleverly fold up into a smaller package, just can't fit in all the same places. The answer to the second question is quality. For under $100, you can get a pair of durable, portable earbuds that sound really, really good. There are more expensive pairs out there that offer superior sound quality to the models we'll discuss, but frankly, casual listeners aren't likely to see a big enough jump in that quality to justify the higher price tag. And you have to ask yourself if you'd want to spend several hundred dollars on a product that gets sat on, rained on and yanked around as much as earbuds typically do.

But first things first. Your ears are not identical to my ears. And make no mistake: These things are really going in your ears. So it's just a fundamental earbud reality that no single pair will satisfy everyone in terms of comfort or sound.

That being said, I think the Velodyne vPulse buds are the best value under $100 when judged by those two central earbud criteria: how comfortable they are to wear and how they sound in the real world, compared to other headphones in this price range. Let me explain why.

Until this year, Velodyne was known for making really good subwoofers. The vPulse is the company's first stab at headphones, and nearly everyone agrees that it was successful in putting its bass-master pedigree to work on a smaller scale. In his Audiophiliac column on CNET, high-end audio enthusiast Steve Guttenberg called them a "bass lover's delight." An early review on headphone-enthusiast forum Head-Fi was subtitled "Bass lovers rejoice!!!"

The thing is, whether you realize it or not, you're probably a bass lover. Today's radio pop is fairly bass-heavy across the board, and popular headphones like Monster's Beats by Dre and Bose's Quiet Comfort cans are generous with the bass, even though they don't expressly advertise it. It's a very bassy world we're living in.

Now, sets like the Beats by Dre have been routinely dismissed by serious headphone types for being too bassy. They're bassy at the expense of the overall balance of sound; bassy to the point that it obscures detail at the mid- and high-range. And when you're listening at home, that balance is something you'll want. At their best, a good set of home headphones, like our favorite,the Audio Technica ATH-M50, will reveal new richness in your favorite music. They'll give you an accurate picture of how that music was supposed to be heard.

But earbuds are a slightly different beast. Their use is typically not confined to the sonic vacuum of your own home. They have to compete with the rumble of the subway, the roar of a jet engine, or just your own huffing and puffing on the treadmill. In general, when you're using earbuds, it's more a matter of entertainment and diversion than rigorous sonic analysis. Of course, accuracy is still a primary concern when talking about earbuds. But it's also important to consider how they'll sound when you're out and about.

Yet another factor to consider is what you're listening to. When it comes to most contemporary pop music, if you're cranking up compressed digital files on unforgivingly accurate headphones, things won't sound very pretty. Guttenberg, in a different piece, explains as much. "Trust me on this: You wouldn't want a super accurate speaker or headphone if you mostly listen to contemporary, heavily compressed music; there's simply too much distortion and aggressive treble on today's music, so you'd probably be happier with speakers or headphones with boosted bass and softened treble to take the edge off."

The vPulse don't sacrifice bass quantity for bass quality

So, back to the Velodyne vPulse buds. I don't want to give the impression that they don't have great sound quality. They do. But every earbud has a slightly different sonic personality, and the vPulse's is certainly a bit more bass-heavy than that of some of its competition. What I'm saying is that's a good thing.

by Kyle VanHemert, Wirecutter |  Read more:

Is Algebra Necessary?

[ed. Read the comments section if you're interested in this topic. I think it's worth thinking about how we teach mathematics, as well as whether it should be taught.] 

A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

by Andrew Hacker, NY Times |  Read more:
Illustration: Adam Hayes


[ed. See also: San Francisco Considers Teeny-Tiny Apartments: Is Small Living the Future?]

At the 41-second mark of the YouTube blockbuster “Shit New Yorkers Say,” a young man stands in a friend’s tiny bedroom and exclaims with disbelief, “This place is huge!”

It’s a knowing wink aimed at other locals, and in fact, the entire video is a deftly edited drumroll of the pedestrian concerns and biases of the city’s young, recent arrivals. The same type of people whom Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to lure to the city with more “huge” apartments. Last week, Bloomberg announced that the city will construct a “micro-unit” building on city-owned land. A pilot project to test the idea of rezoning the city to allow smaller units in general (the current minimum is 400 square feet), the building’s apartments will be around 300 square feet and rent at the market rate, now about $2,000 a month.

Reactions ran rampant. News outlets wondered if such small apartments were inhumane — Tokyo, the world’s go-to city for “people living in drawers,” became a common point of reference. Others, like the New York Times architecture critic, praised the plan as an innovative way to add density and studio apartments to a city that needs more of both. A few linked the proposal to the tiny-house trend, dubiously insisting that Americans suddenly love cramped quarters. And in a fit of self-parody, a game of one-upsmanship commenced as Manhattanites insisted that the micro-units are palatial. “What’s the big deal?” asked one online commenter. “I lived in a 200 square foot apartment on the [Lower East Side]. 300 square feet sounds huge…”

That’s a silly statement, but it illustrates a point: There’s no baseline “normal” for dwelling size. What seems crazy to suburbanites is routine for city people, just as a 300-square-foot studio might seem luxe to someone with four roommates. As if observing an exotic tribe, the AP marveled that “Some New Yorkers, desperate for storage space … turn their ovens into storage for clothes,” as if to insinuate, how dismal a life! (For the record, hardly anyone does this.) But a New Yorker might find it more cruel and unusual to be stuck in a big, roomy house 10 miles from any decent Thai food or public transportation.

by Will Doig, Salon |  Read more:
Photo: Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)


The Oracle of Girl World

[ed. I'm not sure why this article seems so fascinating. The improbability of Ms. Gevinson's success? Its velocity? The depth and appeal of a certain type of culture she's tapped into?]

An hour into her summer of freedom, Tavi Gevinson was stuck somewhere between La Guardia and Degraw Street, inching her way through the rain-soaked traffic in Brooklyn. It was a Monday afternoon in early July, and about 200 teenagers had gathered at Littlefield, the Gowanus performance space, to see the 16-year-old fashion blogger turned online impresario.

“Tavi is on her way — her flight was delayed,” a girl in a floral headband told the expectant crowd, many of them raised on Ms. Gevinson’s offbeat pronouncements over the years (“I strongly feel that daisies are literally the best thing ever”).

In the meantime, the audience of mini fashionistas snacked on cupcakes and listened to readings from Rookie, the online magazine that Ms. Gevinson started last fall. The magazine grew out of Ms. Gevinson’s blog, The Style Rookie, which she started at the ripe age of 11. Writing in a spunky, discerning voice, Ms. Gevinson shared ruminations on everything from Proenza Schouler to gym class, and posted unsmiling self-portraits taken at her home, in Oak Park, Ill.

Then, in a whirlwind so sudden it now seems inexorable, Ms. Gevinson became the darling of those she’d revered, like John Galliano, Miuccia Prada and the Mulleavy sisters. Soon she was warping through the celebrity rinse cycle: sitting front row at fashion week, interviewing Rei Kawakubo in Tokyo and drawing praise from Lady Gaga. She even garnered some backlash from old-timers, including a Grazia editor who complained at a Dior show that her bow was blocking the runway.

By the time Teen Vogue named her “the luckiest 13-year-old on the planet,” in 2009, Ms. Gevinson had appeared on the covers of Pop and Love magazines and starred in a video for Rodarte’s Target line. Later, she was profiled by both The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. With her thick glasses and dyed blue-gray hair (Tavi was sometimes mistaken for an outré granny), she was a petite tastemaker.

But all little girls grow up, and Ms. Gevinson wasn’t content to remain a novelty. In late 2010, she announced a new project: an online magazine inspired by Sassy, the Nirvana-era teen magazine that folded in 1996. Sassy’s founding editor, Jane Pratt, nurtured the venture, and within six days of its start Rookie broke one million page views.  (...)

As her online empire has grown, Ms. Gevinson has branched out. This year, she gave a TED talk (“Still Figuring It Out”), appeared onstage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the nonagenarian fashion icon Iris Apfel, and sang a plaintive Neil Young cover for the animated short film “Cadaver,” in which she voices a character opposite Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates.

The Brooklyn event was the kickoff of the inaugural Rookie Road Trip, a 16-city tour across America. For the last month, Ms. Gevinson and her cohorts have been traveling through cities like Omaha, Salt Lake City and Boise, in search of kindred spirits and the open road.

by Michael Schulman, NY Times |  Read more:
Photo: Emily Berl

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011

Kids With Guns

The Equity Poor

Rates are at historic lows of 3.53% for 30-year mortgages. Rents are at record levels all over the country, hitting highs in 74 markets tracked by real-estate-data provider Reis Inc. And housing prices appear to have finally begun increasing, with gains posted for three months in a row according to the index put out by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. So why aren’t more Americans buying houses?

The answer to that is rather complex, but one major factor is that trade-up buyers — folks who upgrade from smaller, cheaper “starter homes” to pricier properties, and who classically are a pumping piston in the engine that drives the housing market — are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to trade up right now. This key segment of the market is especially likely to be “equity poor.”

Unlike underwater borrowers — who have negative equity, with more debt on their homes than those homes are worth — equity-poor borrowers have less than 20% equity in their homes. Why 20%? In the current tight lending climate, buyers generally need to put 20% down on a home in order to get a mortgage. So if you’re currently in a $400,000 home, even if you have 20% equity, you can’t trade up to buying a $600,000 home solely on the basis of the money you would extract if you sold.

According to CoreLogic, a real-estate-data provider based in Santa Ana, Calif., roughly 45% of homeowners with mortgages have less than 20% equity in their homes. This tally includes owners who are underwater. Approximately one-quarter of this group can be described as equity poor. In other words, more than 11 million households have some equity, but not more than 20%, and they are not far enough up the ladder to easily attempt a jump up to the next rung.

by Alison Rogers, Time |  Read more:
Photo: Moodboard/Getty Images

well that’s not good
maybe you should pour water on it


I born in factory. They put me in wrapper. They seal me in box. Three of us in box.

In early days, they move us around. From factory to warehouse. From warehouse to truck. From truck to store.

One day in store, boy human sees us on shelf. He grabs us, hides us under shirt. He rushes outside.

He goes to house, runs into bedroom, locks door. He tears open box and takes me out. He puts me in wallet.

I stay in wallet long, long time.

This is story of my life inside wallet.

The first friend I meet in wallet is Student I.D. Jordi Hirschfeld. He is card. He has been around longest, he says. He introduces me to other cards. I meet Learner Permit Jordi Hirschfeld, Blockbuster Video Jordi Hirschfeld, Jamba Juice Value Card, GameStop PowerUp Card Jordi Hirschfeld, Business Card Albert Hirschfeld, D.D.S., Scarsdale Comic Book Explosion Discount Card.

In middle of wallet, there live dollars. I am less close to them, because they are always coming and going. But they are mostly nice. I meet many Ones and Fives, some Tens, a few Twenties. One time, I meet Hundred. He stay for long time. Came from birthday card, he said. Birthday card from an old person.

I also meet photograph of girl human. Very beautiful. Eyes like Blockbuster Video. Blue, blue, blue.

When I first get to wallet, I am “new guy.” But time passes. I stay for so long, I become veteran. When I first arrive, Jamba Juice has just two stamps. Next thing I know, he has five stamps—then six, then seven. When he gets ten stamps, he is gone. One day, Learner Permit disappears. In his place, there is new guy, Driver License. I become worried. Things are changing very fast.

Soon after, I am taken out of wallet. It is night. I am scared. I do not know what is happening. Then I see girl human. She is one from photograph. She looks same in real life, except now she wears no shirt. She is smiling, but when she sees me she becomes angry. There is arguing. I go back inside wallet.

A few days later, picture of girl human is gone.

by Simon Rich, The New Yorker |  Read more:
Illustration: Bendik Kaltenborn

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hermes, after a painting by W. B. Richmond.
From The magazine of art vol. 9, London, Paris, New York, Melbourne, 1886.

Making the Most of Mentorship

[ed. Good advice. This sounds a lot like my mentor, Lance Trasky (one of the most unsung, pragmatic and accomplished conservationists in Alaska's history). Extraordinary people who lead by example.]

Earlier this month, my mentor, former boss and business partner, Marvin Traub, passed away at the age of 87. Marvin was a defining figure in the American retail industry and the man who, in his longtime role as president and CEO of Bloomingdale’s, pioneered the concept of bringing entertainment to retail. With his out-of-the-box ideas and ability to rally people around his vision, Marvin put an indelible stamp on the way the industry operates today. And even in his later years, possessed of a rare energy and passion for life, Marvin worked harder than anyone I have known. I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with him, learn from his vast experience and meet many of the industry contacts that he nurtured over half a century of work.

Marvin’s passing got me thinking about the extraordinary importance of good mentors. In life, in general, we often rely upon select people — parents, teachers, spouses — to help mold us into who we are. The business world is no different: we need bosses to grow us into successful business people. And, in turn, we need to mentor those who are looking to become the same. Marvin was a boss and mentor who greatly shaped my career. And now, with him gone, he has inspired me to do the same for others.

Not all bosses are Marvins. Sometimes a boss is and will always be nothing more than somebody you work for. But even in a more favourable scenario, mentoring and being mentored isn’t easy. We don’t always like to be shaped and it’s not always fun doing the shaping. Indeed, many of my most important learnings from bosses like Marvin came during bumpy moments when we did not see eye to eye on a particular issue. Similarly, the process of mentoring some of the people of whom I am most proud was almost as painful childbirth. The fact is, great mentors and mentees are not necessarily great friends. With that said, here are some words of advice on how to mentor and be mentored effectively.


1. Lead by example — and stick to it.

Good bosses and mentors take a stand on how they want things done, which sets the standard for the organisation at large. No manager’s style will make everybody happy. The key is to be consistent, so that employees learn how to operate within your particular approach.

While at McKinsey, I worked on a project for a manager with incredible attention to detail. His reports were premeditated and polished to a tee: the structure of the document, the choice of words, the rigour of the analysis, even the labeling and placement of the footnotes. At first, I grumbled about his “anal-retentiveness.” But I soon learned that his painstaking approach drove real results and I benefited greatly from employing it throughout my time at the company.

In my next job, I made investments for a billionaire entrepreneur who was a risk taker, unbound by process, structure and other norms. At first, this was chaotic and confusing. But he, too, was incredibly successful and he taught me to be comfortable operating in an environment in constant flux. I learned how to anticipate the unpredictable. And without this guidance, launching and running an internet start-up would have been a daunting task indeed.

The key is: whatever your style, teach it and bring others onboard. They may not love your approach, but they will adopt it. Nobody respects a flip-flopper.

2. Inspire through conviction.

The best mentors and bosses are those who inspire through passion and conviction. Marvin was a master at getting people to do things they normally wouldn’t do because he believed in his ideas so strongly. He got Diane von Furstenberg to ride an elephant to a Bloomingdale’s store opening event. He convinced the city of New York to change the direction of traffic on a major avenue so that the Queen of England could visit Bloomingdale’s. For Marvin, the sky was the limit and his passion inspired those around him to dream big. Whatever you believe in, whatever you stand for, broadcast it with all of your heart. Conviction is infectious — demonstrate it and your people will dream big with you.

3. Give honest feedback frequently.

You need to be extraordinarily honest and forthcoming about the feedback you give your mentees, positive and negative. Your people can’t be proud of what they don’t know they’ve done right and they can’t fix what they don’t know is broken. A month into my job at McKinsey, I was shocked by a performance review from the partner leading my first project, detailing my need for improvement in several areas. But I sucked it up, made changes and came to really appreciate granular criticism on a regular basis as critical to my growth. I probably would not have progressed at the company without the constant, tell-it-like-it-is feedback loop.

Last month, when M’O completed its latest round of financing, I received a message, out of the blue, from that same partner who gave me my first performance review. “I am so proud of you,” it said. So the cycle of feedback continues. Be honest, be critical, be forthright.

4. Share yourself

Have the confidence and willingness to share your experiences and relationships with your people. That’s half of what they are looking for.

Marvin Traub went out of his way to share with me his vast network of contacts. Over daily breakfasts at the Regency and lunches at the Four Seasons, Marvin and his business partner, Morty Singer, introduced me to hundreds of colleagues and associates — including my co-founder, Lauren Santo Domingo. Many of these introductions have formed the basis of my professional community. And Marvin’s generosity in this regard motivated me to work even harder for him. The point: be generous with your network of knowledge and contacts and your mentees will bend over backwards for you. Hoarding only slows their growth and fosters resentment.

5. Encourage debate.

Just because you are the boss, it doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Sure, you know that, but you really have to believe and show it. Encourage debate among your people. Get them to speak up and voice their opinions, even if they’re unpopular opinions, particularly with you. Let feisty people tell you your idea is stupid. Help timid people articulate their support for your idea. Good mentors listen and learn and develop outcomes that take into account different personalities and all sides of the argument. To be clear: this is not about letting people be rude — it’s about enabling people to say whatever they think about the idea at hand.


1. Debate respectfully

In keeping with the previous point, when your mentor encourages debate, be vocal in expressing your opinions. Articulate your point and provide evidence to back it up. But don’t get out of line if your boss doesn’t see it your way. Your boss is usually your boss for a reason. Pattern recognition and concern for other factors may influence the final decision, even if the outcome seems counter-intuitive to you.

by Áslaug Magnúsdóttir, The Business of Fashion |  Read more:
Photo: LaVanguardia.com

The Swimmer, Felix Elie Tobeen. French (1880 - 1938)

The 'Chemputer' That Could Print Out Any Drug

Professor Lee Cronin is a likably impatient presence, a one-man catalyst. "I just want to get stuff done fast," he says. And: "I am a control freak in rehab." Cronin, 39, is the leader of a world-class team of 45 researchers at Glasgow University, primarily making complex molecules. But that is not the extent of his ambition. A couple of years ago, at a TEDconference, he described one goal as the creation of "inorganic life", and went on to detail his efforts to generate "evolutionary algorithms" in inert matter. He still hopes to "create life" in the next year or two.

At the same time, one branch of that thinking has itself evolved into a new project: the notion of creating downloadable chemistry, with the ultimate aim of allowing people to "print" their own pharmaceuticals at home. Cronin's latest TED talk asked the question: "Could we make a really cool universal chemistry set? Can we 'app' chemistry?" "Basically," he tells me, in his office at the university, with half a grin, "what Apple did for music, I'd like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescriptiondrugs."

The idea is very much at the conception stage, but as he walks me around his labs Cronin begins to outline how that "paradigm-changing" project might progress. He has been in Scotland for 10 years and in that time he has worked hard, as any chemist worth his salt should, to get the right mix of people to produce the results he wants. Cronin's interest has always been in complex chemicals and the origins of life. "We are pretty good at making molecules. We do a lot of self-assembly at a molecular level," he says. "We are able to make really large molecules and I was able to get a lot of money in grants and so on for doing that." But after a while, Cronin suggests, making complex molecules for their own sake can seem a bit limiting. He wanted to find some more life-changing applications for his team's expertise.

A couple of years ago, Cronin was invited to an architectural seminar to discuss his work on inorganic structures. He had been looking at the way crystals grew "inorganic gardens" of tube-like structures between themselves. Among the other speakers at that conference was a man explaining the possibilities of 3D printing for conventional architectural forms. Cronin wondered if you could apply this 3D principle to structures at a molecular level. "I didn't want to print an aeroplane, or a jaw bone," he says. "I wanted to do chemistry."

Cronin prides himself on his lateral thinking; his gift for chemistry came fairly late – he stumbled through comprehensive school in Ipswich and initially university – before realising a vocation for molecular chemistry that has seen him make a series of prize-winning, and fund-generating, advances in the field. He often puts his faith in counterintuition. "Confusions of ideas produce discovery," he says. "People, researchers, always come to me and say they are pretty good at thinking outside the box and I usually think 'yes, but it is a pretty small box'." In analysing how to apply 3D printing to chemistry, Cronin wondered in the first instance if the essentially passive idea of a highly sophisticated form of copying from a software blueprint could be made more dynamic. In his lab, they put together a rudimentary prototype of a chemical 3D printer, which could be programmed to make basic chemical reactions to produce different molecules.

He shows me the printer, a nondescript version of the £1,200 3D printer used in the Fab@Home project, which aims to bring self-fabrication to the masses. After a bit of trial and error, Cronin's team discovered that it could use a bathroom sealant as a material to print reaction chambers of precisely specified dimensions, connected with tubes of different lengths and diameters. After the bespoke miniature lab had set hard, the printer could then inject the system reactants, or "chemical inks", to create sequenced reactions.

The "inks" would be simple reagents, from which more complex molecules are formed. "If I was being facetious I would say that to find your inks you would go to the periodic table: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so on," Cronin says, "but obviously you can't handle all those substances very well, so it would have to be a bit more complex than that. If you were looking to make a sugar, for example, you would start with your set of base sugars and mix them together. When we make complex molecules in the traditional way with test tubes and flasks, we start with a smaller number of simpler molecules." As he points out, nearly all drugs are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as readily available agents such as vegetable oils and paraffin. "With a printer it should be possible that with a relatively small number of inks you can make any organic molecule," he says.

The real beauty of Cronin's prototype system, however, is that it allows the printer not only to control the sequences and exact calibration of inks, but also to shape, from a tested blueprint, the environment in which those reactions take place. The scale and architecture of the miniature printed "lab" could be pre-programmed into software and downloaded for use with a standard set of inks. In this way, not only the combinations of reactants but also the ratios and speed at which they combine could be ingrained into the system, simply by changing the size of reaction chambers and their relation with one another; Cronin calls this "reactionware" or, because it depends on a conceptualised sequence of flow and reorientation in a 3D space, "Rubik's Cube chemistry".

"What we are trying to do is to combine the notion of a reaction with a reactor," he says. "Conventionally the reactor is just the passive space or the environment in which a reaction takes place. It could be something as simple as a test tube. The printer allows it to be a far more active context."

by Tim Adams, The Guardian |  Read more:
Photograph: Murdo Macleod

I’m Lonely. Is That So Odd?

I come home from work. The lamp on a timer that has welcomed me back through the gloom of the last few months burns, unnecessarily, in the sunny kitchen. I’m reading a thriller, which is living up to its name. I sit down with my coat still on and return eagerly to chapter three.

Two hours later, I put the book down and realise it’s dark. The lamp provides the only pool of light in an otherwise pitch-black house. It’s also quiet, deathly quiet, without even the hum of the central heating or the swoosh of the washing machine to break the silence. Radio 4, also on a timer, tuned itself off before the Archers. The mobile phone on the table beside me is silent. It hasn’t rung, beeped or throbbed, probably since yesterday, maybe the day before. No calls, no emails, no texts, no Facebook notifications, no tweets, and there’s nothing blinking on the answerphone, because the landline hasn’t rung since December, except people in call centres who can’t pronounce my name.

All these methods of communication and yet nobody’s communicating with me.

There was a time when coming back to an empty house would fill me with pleasure – like a snowy day at school. I’d luxuriate in the extra, unexpected bonus of having the place to myself, and happily breathe in the peace and quiet. But now, as anticipated, when, two years ago I wrote here about my very empty nest – with the kids grown, gone, or not yet home from college – it’s just lonely. There, I’ve said it. I’m lonely.

We’re all so popular now, so connected. Social networking is the buzzword. We have all these new verbs – we blog, we Skype and tweet our thoughts in fewer than 140 characters. We post our status on Facebook and talk and surf constantly on our mobiles so that the trains or buses in the evening are a sea of heads, all bowed as though in prayer, worshiping their Blackberries and iPhones, tap, tap, tap – the rosary of the text message. It’s a mark of shame to have no friends, real or virtual, no followers, not to be linked-in to everyone you ever met for five minutes at a party – once – in 1974. So finding yourself at home, alone, with only 30 followers on Twitter, four of whom are the same person, a silent phone, and nobody you care to call must mean there’s something wrong with you. You’re unpopular, friendless, abandoned, alone. Lonely.

Surely somewhere there’s a party you should be at, a dinner you should be invited to, a partner who should be partnering you, a family who should be missing you?

In my case, I have four kids and my solitude is only temporary. In a week, a month, my newly graduated son and student daughter will arrive to re-colonise their bedrooms. For the next year or two, even without David Cameron’s edict, my semi-adult offspring will continue to be reluctant, economic refugees in the house.

Children need their parents, even grown-up children – but they just need them to be alive, they don’t need them in the same room. They want you to be uncomplainingly happy somewhere over there. In the background. Out of the way. And only to step forward when needed. They don’t want you to tag them on Facebook. This is as it should be. You raise them to be confident, caring, well-adjusted, independent adults with rich, fulfilled lives and friends of their own. You can’t whine about being lonely if they then do just that. If mine were still clinging to me for company, I would feel I had failed them. Like surely, I myself have failed at this popularity contest called life if I’m lonely; as, apart from Eleanor Rigby, the elderly and the recently bereaved, apparently I’m the only one who feels this way – alone in this club too.

by Marion McGilvary, The Guardian |  Read more:
Photo: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

How Microsoft Lost Its Mojo

To the saccharine rhythm of a Muzak clip, Steve Ballmer crouched into a tackling stance and dashed across a ballroom stage at the Venetian Las Vegas. A 20-foot wall of video screens flashed his name as the 55-year-old Microsoft chief executive bear-hugged Ryan Seacrest, the ubiquitous television and radio host, who had just introduced Ballmer’s keynote speech for the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show.

More than 150,000 techies and executives were swarming the city’s hotels last January in the annual bacchanalia of cutting-edge gizmos and gadgets. Attendees ran from one vendor to the next, snapping up fistfuls of freebies, inhaling flavored oxygen, and rubbing elbows with stars such as LL Cool J and Justin Bieber.

But this night, an air of discomfort filled the Palazzo Ballroom, where Ballmer was about to give the show’s opening presentation, one delivered by Microsoft’s C.E.O. for 14 of the previous 17 years—the first 11 by Bill Gates and the rest by Ballmer. Weeks earlier, the company had declared that this would be its final keynote—and, worse, that it wouldn’t even be back next year as an exhibitor to showcase new innovations. The timing for big news about its products, it said, didn’t match that of the annual high-tech pageant.

Rumors had swirled throughout the day that Ballmer planned to go out in a blaze of glory, offering a peek at a yet-to-be-released stunner from a company whose recent innovations had too often been lackluster or worse. Instead, what emerged was a gonzo spectacle, structured as a confab between Seacrest and Ballmer. Cookie Monster showed up, as did a gospel choir that belted out a bizarre song composed entirely of random tweets shot into cyberspace by who-the-hell-knows.

As for announcements of quantum leaps into the technological future: nothing. Ballmer applauded the still-long-awaited Windows 8 operating system (which as of this writing is available only as a release preview online). He burbled about his expectations for Xbox, the game console that successfully competed with Sony PlayStation. Out came Windows Phone 7 again, which, despite widespread praise from users, had experienced bleak sales results. A demo followed, which proved an embarrassment; the device’s voice-to-text messaging failed and then another glitch forced a Microsoft staffer to reach for a different phone. The media response was dismal—the company’s last presentation, a prominent blogger wrote, was a “cruel joke.”

Microsoft’s low-octane swan song was nothing if not symbolic of more than a decade littered with errors, missed opportunities, and the devolution of one of the industry’s innovators into a “me too” purveyor of other companies’ consumer products. Over those years, inconsequential pip-squeaks and onetime zombies—Google, Facebook, Apple—roared ahead, transforming the social-media-tech experience, while a lumbering Microsoft relied mostly on pumping out Old Faithfuls such as Windows, Office, and servers for its financial performance.

Amid a dynamic and ever changing marketplace, Microsoft—which declined to comment for this article—became a high-tech equivalent of a Detroit car-maker, bringing flashier models of the same old thing off of the assembly line even as its competitors upended the world. Most of its innovations have been financial debacles or of little consequence to the bottom line. And the performance showed on Wall Street; despite booming sales and profits from its flagship products, in the last decade Microsoft’s stock barely budged from around $30, while Apple’s stock is worth more than 20 times what it was 10 years ago. In December 2000, Microsoft had a market capitalization of $510 billion, making it the world’s most valuable company. As of June it is No. 3, with a market cap of $249 billion. In December 2000, Apple had a market cap of $4.8 billion and didn’t even make the list. As of this June it is No. 1 in the world, with a market cap of $541 billion.

How did this jaw-dropping role reversal happen? How could a company that stands among the most cash-rich in the world, the onetime icon of cool that broke IBM’s iron grip on the computer industry, have stumbled so badly in a race it was winning?

by Kurt Eichenwald, Vanity Fair |  Read more:
Photo: Dan Gluskoter/EPA/Landov

Google Fiber - 'Bring it On'

[ed. Nice to see somebody with muscle and deep pockets bringing some competition to the cable companies.]

Google unveiled the details of its coming TV and Internet services Thursday — even offering “free” access to the web — and the novel rollout strategy that transforms customers into marketers.

The web-search company announced that a bundle of TV and ultra-fast Internet will sell for $120 a month. That includes three devices needed to stream Wi-Fi signals and to store large amounts of computer data and TV programming. It will also come with a Nexus 7 — an iPad-like device that runs on Google’s Android operating system.

“Not just Internet TV, but real TV with your favorite channels,” said Milo Medin, vice president of access services at Google.

The company’s demonstration of the TV service appeared as impressive as any DVR-type service on the market. It allows people to control the TV with the Nexus tablet, with their smartphones or with old-fashioned remote controls. A household will be able to record eight shows at a time, store 500 hours and search through “tens of thousands” of on-demand movies in Google’s catalogue, in addition to Netflix accounts.

The TV package has big holes in programming, however. It lacks ESPN, the most popular and expensive part of most cable packages, and other Disney Corp. offerings.

“We’re launching Google Fiber with content providers who share our vision,” a Google spokeswoman said in an email when asked about the missing channels. “Over time, we will be expanding our TV package well beyond the channels it currently includes.”

Or you can get stand-alone Internet at speeds more than 100 times faster than most broadband for $70. By comparison, Comcast Corp. recently announced it would sell speeds of 305 megabits per second — Google’s offering is three times faster — for $300 a month.

Both the TV and Internet-only deals come with two-year contracts, for which the company said it will waive a $300 installation charge.

There’s a third option. The arrival of Google had set off worries that people with no Internet would be left out of a community transformation fired by faster-than-fast Internet. So Google announced it would provide free Internet service — albeit at far slower speeds — for seven years to customers who pay for installation. That $300 charge can be paid off in monthly $25 installments.


Google’s fiber optic network will run slightly different from how Google described it in early 2010. Then, the company said it would “operate an ‘open access’ network, giving users the choice of multiple service providers.”

On Thursday, Google Fiber project manager Kevin Lo confirmed for the first time in an interview that Google decided not to open the network to other Internet service providers.

“We don’t think anybody else,” he said, “can deliver a gig the way we can.”

Google’s entry into the TV and Internet service is enough to make a cable man’s knees buckle. Comparing the prices on the services is difficult — particularly because no other company comes close on Internet speed and Google’s TV package is so different from standard services. Somewhat surprisingly to analysts, Google is not offering landline phone service.

Still, it’s a bold declaration by Google that speeds of a gigabit-per-second are practical and affordable in the home.

The cable and telephone industries have long said that the cost of stretching fiber optic wires all the way to the home has made such speedy Internet impractical. They also contend that customers rarely express interest in speeds much beyond 10 megabits a second, much less something 100 times faster.

Google looks as though it’s able to cut the cost of deploying such a network in two ways.

First, by targeting neighborhoods with the strongest interest, it can lower its installation costs by going only where there are large numbers of eager customers, stopping by once and moving on.

Second, it brings the same electronic engineering and manufacturing know-how that has increasingly scaled down the cost of building football field-sized data centers around the globe.

“We’re an engineering company,” Google chief financial officer Patrick Pichette said in an interview Thursday. “Google has a knack at looking at things in a different way.”

The competition spoke boldly in the wake of Google’s announcement Thursday.

“We compete with anyone, anytime, anywhere,” said Time Warner Cable spokesman Michael Pedelty.

The company’s 900 local employees, he said, can stand up to Google’s challenge. “Bring it on,” he said.

by Scott Canon, Kansas City Star |  Read more:

[ed. My favorite laugh...who would've thought there'd be a site dedicated to Muttley?]