Archived entries for technology

Is paying for news bad news?

NewspapersYou’ve most likely read or heard about the various news agencies starting to erect “pay walls” around their Web sites – that is, instead of being able to view the content for free, you’ll have to pay or subscribe before you can access it. The problem is that content has traditionally been delivered via a physical medium, i.e. paper, which consumers have been happy to pay to receive. As physical beings we implicitly understand when we get a wad of printed material, that it includes the total cost of its production, manufacture and delivery. Online however, the lines are blurred. We already pay for the distribution medium, i.e. internet access, so if the publisher is charging separately for the content and we get nothing more than information (which in the case of news is so fleeting and transient), we feel as if we’re being ripped off.

The Internet has devalued information. Take the Encyclopaedia Britannica for instance – once the epitome of human knowledge, now relegated to bit-player by the likes of Wikipedia. Here’s the interesting thing about Wikipedia: it is nothing more than a repository of information sourced from brains like yours and mine, written down (or typed out, as it were). Everybody knows something. It might be common knowledge such as “the sky is blue” or it might be highly specialised knowledge, but if it’s in your head it costs you nothing to access. Taking this idea further, maybe your mum works for Centrelink (hi mum!), you have a friend who is a doctor, or you attend church and know the pastor. Therefore when you have a question about government benefits, health, or religious views, you can simply ask those people and again, it costs you nothing to get that information (other than maybe time, both yours and theirs). Now imagine that you’re friends with the whole world – and you’ve got Wikipedia.

Holding hands

But back to news. News is one of those things where timing is everything. Also, you don’t just want to hear one side of the story – in order to make up your own mind you need to get a balanced view of the topic. Hence – and this is just a partially formed opinion – the value that Journalism adds to the ecology described above, and the areas that it should focus on, are announcing and aggregating.

  • If a happening is of interest, and pertinent to you and your social circle, you’ll eventually hear about it through the grapevine. An announcement means not only that you know about it as soon as possible, but that it is as close to first-hand as possible so that it doesn’t suffer from the Chinese Whispers effect.
  • For complex issues, particularly in the area of politics, people will inevitably take sides and therefore be biased. Journalism, therefore, is a unique profession in that its workers are paid to thoroughly investigate both sides of an issue and report on it in a fair and unbiased manner. (Whether that happens in reality and how successful they are is a whole other kettle of fish.)

If media outlets were successful in delivering that, I’d be happy to pay for it. Sadly most news sources today are soundly beaten by a bunch of nerds on the Internet with blogs funded through advertising. Many of these are even quite reputable now, like Ars Technica – one of my regular haunts – which was bought by Condé Nast Publications a couple of years ago.

There’s talk of a resurgence of pay-for news as publishers look to the Apple iPad as their saviour, stitching up content deals and offering new interactive media experiences. But it’s foolish hope, since any amateur with a bit of design skill can offer a compelling interface – just look at the plethora of rags-to-riches stories brought on by the iPhone. If there’s any hope of salvation for the news industry, it’s going come from providing something greater than simply communicating information, which the Internet is already helping more and more people to do each day.

Don’t talk to me, I’m just a computer

Kostas Pagiamtzis's cat, Frankie - a bit of a technology freak, I’m one of those people that just can’t help laughing whenever a movie uses computers in a way that is patently ridiculous – think of how many scenes you’ve seen like this one: where the detective asks the forensics boffin to “zoom in on that photo. No, more. More. Pan up a bit. Enhance three-thousand percent. Ah hah! That’s the image of the murderer right there, in the mirror’s reflection of the shine from the nail-polish on the victim’s left big toe!”

Another personal bugbear is how many writers and directors seem to think that the computers of the (near) future will be controlled by talking to them. It probably taps into a basic human desire; voice recognition is a technology that mimics how we communicate with each other, i.e. using spoken language, so that’s what we want our computers to do. In spite of that, I believe speech-control will be a niche at best and not the next major epoch of human-computer interaction, and that the only viable advancement in human-computer interface is mind-control.

Why? Imagine a classroom full of students chatting to their computers. It’s bad enough that in a typical lecture theatre today, the scritch-scratching of pens, and more recently the tap-tapping of keyboards, is a constant source of annoyance. If we had to take notes verbally, the lecturer or teacher would never be able to get a word in. Or imagine your office if your colleagues (especially that man or woman with the Really Annoying Voice) use voice dictation to compose e-mails. It’d be like working in a call centre in Bangalore – with just as little privacy. The majority of ways in which we use computers today are not socially compatible with voice control – it’s that simple.

But before we get to mind-control, what other types of human-computer interface can we consider?

  • Handwriting-recognition: handwriting is an archaic method of transcribing thoughts and ideas onto a physical medium. Evidentially, most people I know can type faster than they can write – nobody I know could crank out a lazy 60 words-per-minute using a pen and paper, let alone the crazy speeds that some of the technology-savvy are capable of (I clock in variously at somewhere between 80-90wpm). With the ubiquity of computers, there is no question that handwriting-recognition is more of a bridge from the past to the present, than a viable technology for the future.
  • Gesture-recognition tools currently available on the market can detect points in 2D space, e.g. drawing symbols with your mouse like in the Opera Web browser, or with your fingers like multi-touch on the iPhone. Once the technology evolves, it will allow us to make symbols with either our hands or other input devices in 3D space, which the computer can then interpret, like deaf-sign language. But I think this is an ergonomically bankrupt idea because it requires people to learn a new meta-language. I have enough “Learn how to speak French/Japanese/Chinese” books lying around the house to support my idea that companies will have a difficult time convincing people to learn a new language to talk to computers, when I haven’t made any inroads to learning ones that allow me to communicate with my fellow man.
  • Today’s concept of virtual reality conjures up images of people in full-body suits full of sensors. It’s hilarious to think that you affect movement in a virtual world by replicating real-world movements – picture a room full of people wearing goggles bumping into each other, as well as the walls, and you’ll see how ludicrous this idea is. Lawnmower Man and The Matrix both got it right. Tron – if I remember correctly – did not.

If you think that controlling technology with your mind is far-fetched, then consider this: the science is already quite far along, and there are already applications such as allowing disabled people to control prosthetic limbs.

The potential for using technology to overcome our physical limitations is huge – imagine if the computer can take that tune you dreamed up and turn that into a score without having to know the first thing about musical notation. We will be able to do business at the speed of thought (credit for that phrase goes to Bill Gates). Your next Wii or PlayStation might not even need controllers – you play purely through the power of your mind!

Now that’s something to think about.

An open letter to Rich Burlew

The Order of the Stick - On the Origin of PCs

Dear Mr Burlew,

I am a regular follower and fan of your Web comic The Order of the Stick. Although I don’t have a Role Playing Game background, I have been exposed to just enough of it to understand most of the humour relating to desktop gaming, and find the comic very funny and charming overall.

As a Christmas present, my wife bought me On The Origin of PCs, and it is concerning this that I wanted to write to you. Specifically, I noticed that after the first introduction to the book by the character Redcloak, you included “second introduction” as yourself, explaining some of the background behind this book.

While it is a funny piece overall, it was towards the end when I became a little bit sad that the behaviour of some “fans” must have made it necessary for you to explain why you did or didn’t include certain things in the book. In another time and age, an artist might have had to defend his work, but to explain it so plainly would have been unheard of – the interpretation is as significant a part of the piece as the piece itself. Nick Usborne wrote in his book Net Words: Creating High-Impact Online Copy along the lines that the Internet has enabled the consumer to become an active participant for the first time in history, and maybe some simply cannot resist the temptation to make their own personal interpretations heard, and to force it onto others (including the artist) hoping to influence future outcomes for their own personal gratification.

Therefore, I admire you for your choice in continuing to use the Internet as your preferred medium for OotS; salute your commitment to your art in spite of whatever setbacks you may face with your health, demanding fans, Intellectual Property theft and other issues unique to the Internet; and thank you for your integrity in creating the comic purely as a product of your own wonderful imagination.

Caesar Wong

It's so… depress-iat-ing

I bought my first ThinkPad notebook computer a couple of years after moving to Sydney. There was a fantastic deal in Hong Kong, and a mate and I got one of our colleagues over there to help us to secure some. It was wonderful – the machine was basically my life in a portable black slab of circuitry. It stored personal information, allowed me to play games, functioned as a portable DVD player and a whole lot more besides. My back was turned to the world of desktop computing.

However, the Geek Lust™ does not give up so easily. Notebooks weren’t designed to be upgradeable, and as the march of technological progress continued, I found myself with a less and less capable machine. Great games were passing me by! Then, a few years down the track, let’s just say I was very pleased to find myself in possession of a brand new top-of-the-range model (long story). But the pleasure was hollow, since with the pinnacle of anything, there is no way up, only down. Never have I felt this more accutely than when I finally decided to throw in my love of portable computing for the upgradeability of a desktop computer.

At this stage of my life, with mortgages, babies and other costs looming, one of the consolations I gave myself for splurging on a brand new desktop was that I should be able to recoup a decent amount from the sale of my notebook, which would have cost over $5,000 when I first got it (if I had to pay full price for it). However when I checked around on eBay, the prices being offered were no more than a thousand or so. That’s four-bloody-thousand dollars worth of depreciation in around 12 months! That is absolutely ridiculous. I mean, yeah technology, like cars, is a commodity that depreciates very fast, but surely not four-grand-in-a-year fast?!

Well, I guess it’s a great buyer’s market right now. My new desktop (a Dell Inspiron 530 with a 24″ widescreen monitor) was cheaper than I could have ever imagined for a machine of that calibre, and now I have the luxury of upgrading incrementally. Oh, and having a huge screen is nice, very nice…


I was just reading my previous post about the laptop and I realised that if you’re actually bothering to follow my blog-life, I haven’t really provided any closure about that whole laptop affair, and closure is important to people with melancholic dispositions and the like. Without it they go crazy and get depressed and do silly things like listen to heavy metal music (or Celine Dion… I can’t decide which is worse).

Well since it’s getting a bit late and I have an early start tomorrow, I’ll keep it brief.

There was a whole debacle involving my debit card being billed twice, and then they took down my address wrong, so it was almost mis-delivered but for the vigilant actions of our most excellent mail staff. It’s a pity that none of them will be reading this blog, and also that none of them are in any position to help me boost my social, financial or any other status. Suffice to say I need not dwell too much longer on how great they are, ‘coz I’m not getting anything out of it.

Right. Ahem.

So yeah, at the time of writing, my dear Jenny is now the proud new owner of what must be the most sexy little black laptop ever, and I’m still awaiting the outcome of an escalation/complaint into why the heck my order was so stuffed up.

So there. Closure. (Well except for the bit about the escalation, but that’s what’s known in the industry as a cliffhanger, in order to trap you into coming back to find out what happens next. Mwahahahaha…)

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