Saturday, October 19, 2013

Income Inequality in America

I watch this video and find myself torn.  On one hand, it's terrible that we have a declining middle class in this country.  If the class of people that is comprised of the primary workforce can't see a path toward self enrichment, then we're screwed.  The wealth of the top one percent isn't going to be able to realize their wealth, because it's value is determined by the economic standing of the entire nation.  The economy of the rest of the world will bolster things some, but the crash of the American economy is large enough to put a serious dent in the rest of the world's wealth as well, unless China or India make some radical, immediate changes.

On the other hand, I take exception to the presenter's implication that there's something wrong with the rich being the primary stock holders in our markets.  Yes, the middle class needs to have the resources to invest, but the whole purpose behind stock markets is that people with disposable income have a place to invest their excess capital.  Those with ridiculous amounts of excess capital should be the ones investing in our nation's companies.  If they weren't, we'd have an even larger problem.

The value of our societal structure is that we have the option to choose what happens.  The fact is, we're not choosing what's best for us, just what's easiest, or what feels good (which also points to our national obesity rates, but that's another story).  Where the presenter hits the nail on the head is the concept that we need to be making decisions with actual information rather that perceived (whitewashed) rhetoric that keeps the middle class, and by association anyone making less than a middle-class income, suppressed.

I think an effective tool would be to see a comparison between the curves presented here and the curves of other countries.  If, for instance, we THINK we relate economically to Germany or France, yet we ACTUALLY relate to India or China, then maybe that would be a wake up call.  Waving banners based on what's "fair" speaks to the subjective.  Showing someone reality, and asking them if they like it or not, is the path to successful change.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

ADX Portland

So, I've recently discovered the recently-opened ADX Portland, a place for local "thinkers and makers" to get ideas out of their heads and into reality. I have some projects that have been germinating in my brain case for years, and now there's a place for me to work on them. Along the way, I plan to learn to weld, something I've wanted to do for years.

Friday, January 21, 2011


I'm really looking forward to the premiere of "Portlandia" tonight. Unlike many of my co-dwellers in this fine city, I haven't watched it on Hulu or YouTube or any other "I want my media when I want it, not when it's given to me" service. Not that I don't appreciate those services, I just haven't for Portlandia. I did, however, hear Ari Shapiro (who, it seems, lives in Portland) on NPR this morning doing a "touring interview" with the writer. My wife and I found ourselves cringing at the embarassing truths behind the comedy about the culture here. Okay, it's not all embarassing. Most of it, though.

I've thought for some time that the culture here in Portland needed to be exported. We've been watching for years as the rest of the world fights among themselves about things that we see as simple matters of right and wrong. Do what's right, stop doing what's wrong. Seems simple, right? Well, we do want you to be allowed to have your views, whatever they are, regarding what's right. Just don't try to force those views on us, see? Now, if the rest of the world would just think the way we do, everything would be better. No, no, no, I'm not going to listen to you when you tell me that I've just contradicted myself. I live in Portland.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'm officially old.

I think I'm officially old. I joke about it all the time, but it's starting to hit home. Case in point: lacking anything worthwhile to watch on our dozen-dozen TV channels, we took a shot at a collection of pop music videos on Fuse TV. Other than the not-unreasonable hip-hop rhythm of the music, I had no ability to connect with any of it. Couldn't understand one bit of lyric, couldn't follow what, if anything, was going on in the video (beyond raw, disjointed sex and violence imagery), and didn't know anything about any of the "artists."

One thing to say: I'm certainly glad I'm not raising a teenager right now, having to explain to them what's wrong with what they're seeing in the music videos they're watching. I think it's more than I could take on.

Another indicator: I tried to post this rant on Facebook. It's too long as a "status," but I couldn't figure out where to click to post something longer. I see other people doing it. I'm Facebook-disabled as well, evidently.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Future is Arriving

We still don't have flying cars, a space elevator, or colonies on other planets, but the future is arriving (better late than never).

It seems we have consumer-available brainwave readers, an alternative to the much more invasive, yet much more capable surgically-implantable, non-penetrating electro-corticography arrays, either of which will very likely mean direct brain control of remote devices in the not-too-distant future. Combine that with the quadrotor drone project being worked on at U of Pennsylvania, and suddenly we can imagine a crazy near future where mind-directed, semi-autonomous drones are flitting around doing... well, a wide variety of things. Watch these videos to get an idea of what these little things can do:

Advances in machine vision and touch-sensitive artificial skin (here and here) are helping along machine autonomy, pushing us toward sci-fi androids that interact like humans. And it seems that we're going to start living longer, with lifespans stretching toward immortality, so we should be around to see a lot of changes. Not that we'll be able to handle them emotionally, but that's a different story.

I still want a flying car, and the ability to take an elevator ride to space, but I guess I'll have to wait for those. For now, it seems, there's plenty to pay attention to.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Is it time to re-think OpenDoc?

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about human-computer interaction. In my quest to learn the art of iPhone app development (which, mind you, is going poorly; I can't seem to get out of the blocks, as they say), I attended a CHIFOO presentation given by James Keller of Small Society, a local iPhone development agency of some note. Wearing a different hat, I've also been chipping away at a bit of science fiction for the last couple of years. I started it as a short story, but it seems to be heading for novel length all on its own. I'm not sure what length it will end at, but, like Spalding Gray's Monster in a Box, I'm just waiting to see how it comes out. The story involves people living and working on the moon, and I addressed the difficulties of interacting with a modern computer while wearing a space suit.

So, as I said, I've been thinking a lot about HCI lately. My thoughts took me back to a concept that Apple held forth back in 1992 called "OpenDoc." To quote Wikipedia:

The basic idea of OpenDoc was to create small, reusable components, responsible for a specific task, such as text editing, bitmap editing or browsing an FTP server. OpenDoc provided a framework in which these components could run together, and a document format for storing the data created by each component. These documents could then be opened on other machines, where the OpenDoc frameworks would substitute suitable components for each part, even if they were from different vendors.[2]

Browsing an FTP server. Um... yeah. Well, like I said, it was 1992. The latest release of the software, which never made it out of the 1.x series, came out in 1997. In short, it was a neat idea, but it didn't last, partly because of the "giant" (1 MB) footprint it took to load up the basic framework. There were other problems, such as problems opening documents that used elements for which you had no component, a poor implementation of a transportable file format, and (probably the biggest hurdle) competition from Microsoft. Indeed, OpenDoc was a direct response to Microsoft's OLE (Object Linking and Embedding). If you've heard of OLE but never OpenDoc, it's because Microsoft won the war. So far, anyway.

But perhaps OpenDoc was an idea ahead of its time. The basic concept, as stated above, was to create documents with an ad hoc set of tools that the writer calls up as they need them. Need to write a letter? Bring up a text editing toolset. Graphics? Call up a painting palette. In a connected, post-web world, this seems very achievable. Vendors like Google could provide a basic environment for document creation, much like they do with Google Apps now. But if the document format were changed to be non-proprietary and standard, and the basic environment allowed for other vendors' tools to be loaded and used, then small development shops, open source project groups, and even competing large companies could provide add-ins via remote services that would be transparent to the user. From the user's perspective, they would add widgets to the environment, selecting the widgets from a catalog of those available from all over the web. Using the tools at their disposal, they would create complex documents of all types (text, graphics, spreadsheets, web pages, etc.) and save them into a storage system, share them, or publish them for broad consumption.

Storage in the modern era doesn't have to be in a monolithic, single-source file system, either. We're already seeing storage services based in the "cloud" model. Current offerings are targeted at large firms and their IT services, but there's no reason they couldn't be scaled down to accommodate individual users. The idea of cloud-based storage is that it de-couples the location of the data from the application acting on it. Users of web-based e-mail services are familiar, whether or not they know it, with having their data stored "somewhere," but not having any physical access to it. For most people, where their data is stored really doesn't matter just so they can have access to it when they want and they can feel secure that no one is looking into it without permission.

Notice that I keep mentioning "data" instead of "files." Since the dawn of computing, people have been getting used to the idea of discrete files containing individual datasets. We open and close files, save files, organize files (well, okay, not so much), attach files to e-mail messages... We're lost in a forest of files, and frankly the concept is outdated for most purposes. People create and consume content, and today, the vast majority of the consumption is done via the Internet. None of the web-based services such as e-mail, message boards or blogs use traditional file systems in any way that's perceivable to the content creator or consumer (the writer or the reader, if you prefer), and those systems are thriving. In an online, connected world, there is no reason to manage files any more, only content. If a discrete piece of content needs to be exported from the cloud for some reason, a file may be the storage method to use. But saving something to a file should be the exception rather than the rule. Users need to realize that there's a new set of rules; ones they've been working under for some time.

From a technical perspective, an open standard is needed to describe the complex content that people are going to create. This is the only way to be certain of interoperability across editing environments, toolsets and storage systems. XML is a viable format to choose as a base to build from, and its possible that current schemas like ODF would support the system with little or no modification.

For users, the shift in the way they do things wouldn't necessarily have to be that great. As I said above, many people (possibly most computer users) already use some form of online content creation tool. And Microsoft Office products have for years used OLE to embed objects from different applications into documents, for instance inserting an Excel spreadsheet into a Word document. Users who need to be able to work offline or work behind a firewall could have the option to cache toolsets or work in an editing environment that's installed as an application.

The general ideas and practices to support a modern implementation of what OpenDoc set out to do have been around for quite some time, and the infrastructure is now here to support a more integrated approach to content creation and distribution. Microsoft, who won the early technology battle with OLE, has focused more on building on their Office suite than changing the way people use computers. But when you have a product that is in a leadership position for the market it's in, deciding to make a sea change in the way the product operates is not a decision to be made lightly, or at all, so it's understandable that they've held course. But for others, the story is different.

Almost twenty years after Apple released OpenDoc to the world, it's time to re-evaluate the pros and cons of the technology and see how they can be re-addressed in this post-web, connected world of online editors and cloud-based storage. It may not be Apple that creates the next great shift in the way we work, but they're in a good position to bring it about. Open source development could certainly produce the technology, but the mindshare of the computer-using world would have to be changed to accept the new way. Google is probably the logical choice to carry the banner, with their existing Google Apps suite, and an uncountable number of users around the world. But if they build it, will anyone come? I certainly would. How about you?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Congratulations to the New Orleans Saints!

For the first time ever, the New Orleans Saints have won the Super Bowl. And they did it by playing out-of-the-ordinary ball. I mean, it's one thing to try and run on the fourth down from the 2 yard line rather than kick a field goal, but it's quite another to try for a two-point conversion after running in a touchdown. Who does that ever, let alone in a Super Bowl game?

The Saints played outstanding ball today. They didn't let their mistakes phase them, and just stayed focused on moving the ball down the field. After a slow start, they took possession of the game early in the second half and stayed with it for the balance of play. The biggest excitement was Tracey Porter's interception and 74 yard runback for a touchdown, setting the final score at 31-17 Saints. Their defense held the Colts at bay by blocking passes, pinning receivers to the field, and sacking Manning, the Colts' much-feared quarterback.

I'm no sports fanatic. I could hardly care less about which teams are where in the ranks, let alone the statistics that go on ad infinitum regarding the players' performance. But one thing I like is watching a good football game. And tonight's Super Bowl was just that. Thank you, New Orleans Saints, for bringing a well played game to television.

Oh, and we should give a nod to the Colts. Thanks for showing up and giving the Saints something to mop the field with.

Oh, snap!