In my spare time, I've been thinking about a new mobile app called WTF. This is a search app reduced to pure context.
WTF has just one function, simply select WTF and you will get the most appropriate response based on who you are, where you are, what you're doing. Your phone already knows who you are, where you are, where your friends are, what you've been searching for, who you've been talking to, etc., so we ought to be able to leverage this contextual data to provide a rich search experience.
Traffic at a dead standstill? Select WTF and you will be told "Blue Angels are in town."
Waiting for a friend at the restaurant? Just press WTF to learn, "Steve's been in the bathroom on the 3rd floor for the past 20 minutes. Maybe you should ask if he's ok?"
Girlfriend not texting you back? Press WTF to learn: "She's with Bill--maybe it's time to move on."
The thing is with smart, GPS enabled phones, there's no reason an app couldn't infer all of this information today. So why not WTF?
WTF was part of a lecture I gave November 19, 2009.
Who would you trust with the health of your child?
A) Jenny McCarthy - Playboy Centerfold and Comedian who has a child with autism.
B) Barry Marshall - Winner of the Nobel Prize and vaccine researcher.
If you chose "A" you're among a growing number of well educated and presumably otherwise sane adults who eschew vaccinations.
A recent Wired article “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All” written by Amy Wallace summarizes the vaccination debate. She reiterates the facts, which are sufficient to my mind to make disagreement sound like the deranged spoutings of conspiracy theorists. Wallace documents how medical researchers who unambiguously support vaccinations are being demonized simply for stating their professional opinions. The pseudo-science of the Web is drowning out the conclusions of legitimate research.
Thanks to Bing, one of the US Navy's most closely guarded secrets has been revealed. I learned of this major security SNAFU from "Focus on Military," a little electronic newsletter I subscribe to which is published by techonline. In short, Microsoft's mapping software clearly displays the propeller of an Ohio class submarine in dry dock in Bangor, WA. (Incidentally, Bangor Naval Submarine Base stores 1700 Trident missiles--each with multiple warheads--making it the 3rd largest collection of nuclear weapons in the US.)
Why should a picture of a propeller be such a secret? Well, the shape of the blades and placement angle are what make the submarine so quiet and therefore difficult to detect. The Navy has been at great pains to classify submarine propulsion systems since the Navy's first submarine. On the bright side, perhaps wind power generators will benefit from the design.
The exposure of the Ohio's propeller reminded me of my experience as Chief Game Designer for Zombie Studios' Spearhead, an M1A2 Main Battle Tank simulator. In a continuing drive towards realism, we took an audio engineer out to the Yakima Training Center Firing range to record all the sounds associated with a tank. We recorded everything from radio chatter, to the 7.62 loader's LMG, to the commander's .50 cal, to the sound of the engine revving up (a jet engine) to the firing of the main gun (really LOUD--can't imagine what it's like on the receiving end). The Army was quite generous in allowing us to photograph everything--well, everything but one thing. We were not allowed to photograph the main hatch at an angle that would allow someone to determine the thickness of the armor--this was highly classified.
When I was 5 my older brother, David, was on Zoom. I'm not sure how popular Zoom was to the rest of the world, but in our family, no show was more important (except maybe Star Trek).
To this day, the elevating electronic noise/music of the WGBH-TV title sequence still excites me because it signaled the beginning of Zoom. (I like the WGBH sound so much I made it my cell phone ringer. WGBH also produced Cosmos, another favorite growing up.)
The middle of November might seem like an odd time to travel to Germany--more than one person has said so. The weather is cold, but not so cold to snow. The Winter Markets that Americans find so adorable compared to the crap we're served in the local mall aren't open yet. Many of the tourist attractions are closed for the season. So why go in the middle of November? Well, I like travelling when nobody else wants to. The lines are shorter at the airport. The locals have forgiven the trespasses of summer tourists and so are friendlier. These are all good reasons, but of course the real reason we picked November for travel was because it just worked out that way with our schedules.
Now, however, we can tell people we travelled to Germany in the middle of Novemeber so we could participate in Fasching.
I'm going to have surgery on my foot next week. I'll be immobilized for two weeks and then in a hard cast for two months. I wanted to get one last good, long ride on my bicycle before the surgery. Most cyclists around here would have headed to the Burke Gillman trail, ridden out to Alki, or circled futilely around Greenlake. Not me. While those other trails were swarming with peds and other cyclists, my route was all but deserted. I feel like I know a really good secret and I probably shouldn't share it, but I will. The secret is this: You can get from downtown Seattle to Federal Way almost entirely on trails or bicycle safe roads. I don’t know, maybe I was just the last person to find out.
Riding south of Seattle
One more quarter and then I'm done with school.
Late at night is where I find I am able to think the best. Sadly, I must keep a schedule with the rest of the morning people. Damn you morning people!
In the middle of the night, I get my best work done. It can be disheartening to be under a deadline and alone with my thoughts and no sound but the distant train rumble and the grinding of my eletric-mechanical clock. Most of the time, I'd never notice the sound of our ancient 1997 HP 6p Laser printer burning ink onto my latest homework assignment, but in the middle of the night it's like a reassuring voice coming from the other room. And although I'd never admit it by the light of day, it feels good to be under a deadline and alone with my thoughts and no sound but the distant train rumble and the grinding of my eletric-mechanical clock. And my ancient printer. (Which prints beautifully, btw.)
The Muslim response to European newspapers publishing of cartoons depicting Mohammed has somewhat bewildered me. All "Sons of Abraham," Jews, Christians, and Muslims are prohibited from depicting God in image, and for the same reasons. In response to paganism, the believers of these monotheistic faiths were forbidden from idol worship. However, neither the prohibition against idolatry nor the presence of images of Mohammed is anything new. So, why the rioting now? I can only conclude that 1) The real issue is not the images themselves but other grievances, and 2) Muslim extremists are inciting riots because of images that most Muslims can accept, tolerate, or ignore.
It's important to me that TC is part of the College of Engineering. Somehow this lends legitimacy to the field. I never realized that at many universities, TC is attached to English departments. Not that there's anything wrong with that. English is good, some of my best friends read and write English. Many good people do. However, if I were to have gone the Arts and Sciences route, I would have pursued either something more esoteric, like comparative religion, or something more tangible, like history.
I dare say that I like TC, or at least the UW's TC department. My classmates come from many different disciplines (nobody else from relgion, though, imagine that). The interdisciplinary nature of TC is precisely what interests me about the subject. The following are all important components of TC: communications, engineering, usability engineering, English, graphic design, information science, information systems, sociology, education, psychology, linguistics, philosophy (esp. epistemology and the philosophy of science),computer science, and the natural sciences. I'm a little surprised that there are relatively few software developers in the program. There are several of us, especially of the web developer variety, and certainly more developers than you'd find in say, Germanics. Still, considering TC's value for crafting user interfaces, I would expect that there would be more software developers in the program.
I'd include a link to the UW's TC site, but sadly, it's something of an embarrassment. High school kids exhibit better design prinicples. The plumber's faucet leaks, I suppose.
A document's medium may be described as “the means by which we share knowledge and experience over time and distance" (David Farkas, Professor, TC). It's the transmission technology, delivery vehicle, and presentation method. How do we distinguish between this blog as a document and this blog as a medium? What do we need to say about the technology? Do we need to discuss TCP/IP protocols? Does it matter to the reader whether this blog is transmitted over the Internet, phone lines, or wireless? To some extent, method of transmittal certainly does as the transmission technology affects this document's accessibility. Does it matter if this blog is running Linux or Windows Server? To the systems administrator it does, but probably not to you, the reader. The point is that transmission technology is more or less important dependent on the context, but it is never irrelevant. Generally, the end-user's experience is dependent on the format, behaviors and features of the user interface. Granted, the format, behaviors, and features of the UI is dependent on the backend technology. But, this blog could be duplicated on a number of different hardware configurations, running any variety of web server software, and because of this blog's minimal feature set; differences in functionality would be negligible across browsers and browser versions. Most telling, this blog could have been published using technology from the mid-nineties. What does that tell us about the importance of technology with regard to document's medium? On the one hand, technology cannot be divorced from a definition of medium, on the other, technology hardly seems to matter.
The problem can be summed up asking, when I say "this blog" what do I mean exactly? Am I referring to the text of the document? The collection of blog entries by Janet and Edward, the application used to author, publish, and manage entries (the blog software, Nucleus CMS v 3.22), the server that this blog is running on, the client you are using to read it, or some combination of the above? Given that you are reading this, the context would tell you that I am referring to the content of this entry dated 11 December 2005. However, if you were conducting research on blogs you would want to be more specific. Let's say you wanted to ascertain how much time a population spent on blogs? You'd need to specify what you meant. Do you mean writing entries? Responding to entries? Modifying the layout? Administering the blog software? Writing new blog software? Maintaining the servers?
Well, back to the real thing. Wish me luck.
Many of us are familiar with the writing common to scientific journals, instruction manuals, and miscellaneous bureaucratic and legal documents. In addition to being laden with jargon and technical terms intended for a very narrow audience, scientific and technical documents are generally written in such a way that the voice of the author is completely silenced. Muting the author is done intentionally to provide the semblance of objectivity. The author isn’t presenting their findings, rather Nature itself is speaking through the conduit the author provides. This pseudo-objectivity is achieved through the use of tools such as the passive voice, the avoidance of personal pronouns, and writing in the third person.
I suspect that the suppression of the author’s voice in scientific and technical writing is due in part to the ascetic practices of Calvin and his followers. While Christian asceticism was quite old by the time of the Reformation, its significance changed considerably following the work of Luther and Calvin. The following is my attempt to explain this connection and the “author evacuated” prose that developed following the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
It’s true that self- denial and punishment—forms of asceticism—predate the Reformation. Christian asceticism predates Christ Himself, if one considers John the Baptist. However, pre-Reformation and Catholic asceticism tended toward the mystical and was contemplative and inner directed. Asceticism was a way to purify the body with the goal of making it holy. Protestant Reformation as embodied in Calvin looked askance at such mysticism and considered heretical the idea that humans could do anything to earn even a small measure of holiness.
Both Catholics and Protestants believed that Christ alone could confer grace. However, Catholics believed that while Christ’s salvation was necessary, one could take action to mitigate one’s sins (be it self-flagellation or praying the Rosary). Protestants, on the other hand, believed that Adam’s sin was so great that no such mitigation was possible.
Pre-Reformation asceticism resembled Eastern yogic practices. It was about denying the flesh so that the spirit could be liberated. The key here is that it was denial of our flesh--our carnal selves. It was not denial of the self per se . A rather radical change occurred post-Reformation. Protestant Christians, and Calvinists in particular, maintained that because not even a small measure of grace could be achieved by fallen man, punishing one’s body would not achieve anything. However, by denying the self altogether and supplanting one’s will with the will of God, one could then become His instrument and lead a profitable life. (Although, not the kind of profit that is preached in the Prosperity Gospel.)
Why does this matter to technical communication, you might ask? (Me too, but bear with me.) Because Calvinist asceticism, fertile ground of the Protestant ethic, encouraged self-effacement in pursuit of God’s will. This denial of self is manifested in post-Reformation writing where the self is obscured through pseudo-objectivity. As Montaigne says, “Custom has made all speaking of a man's self vicious, and does positively interdict it, in hatred to the vanity, that seems inseparably joyned with the testimony men give of themselves” (quoted in Chandler). I love Geertz’s term, to refer to the “author-evacuated” academese of which Montaigne wrote. The writing conventions of the Royal Society and of the Enlightenment in general as epitomized by Locke, owe their origin to the Reformation.
So in summary, Adam’s fall led to God offering His only Son to pay the wages of sin. Over the centuries, people got a little confused about their role in salvation and tried to buy their way into heaven. If they couldn’t afford a dispensation from the Pope, they flagellated themselves and contemplated their situation. Luther and Calvin had a problem with this, who was the Pope to sell tickets to heaven? But Calvin thought that the flagellation bit wasn’t bad and decided to keep it, albeit with a twist. No longer would one self-flagellate to purify oneself, but would now do so to suppress one’s own identity in the hope that one could become a vessel for God’s will.
In the process of orchestrating the Reformation, Luther and Calvin left a legacy of Biblical exegesis that sought to divine the Truth through God’s word alone and not through the mediation of man (even if that man was the Pope). Well, it turns out that this technique had some sound reasoning behind it and could be used to explicate other texts, and would in turn form the basis of scientific language in the West. However, one must never lose sight of the fact that it was God’s truth that was sought, and therefore when referring to Nature, one should “evacuate” oneself from the scientific treatise so as not to “toot one’s own horn.” Thus, we are left with passive, unreadable techno-jargon to this day.
The Gulf Coast Catastrophe was an act of nature, yet what we do about it remains in the hand's of man. What we must do is to devote as many resources to this genuine and continuing threat as we expend on the spurious threat posed by Iraq.
It would not be politicizing the disaster to say that resources diverted to Iraq have limited our ability to respond to Hurricane Katrina; it is a statement of fact. Had the Bush administration not denied Louisiana officials the funding necessary to shore up the levee's in New Orleans, much loss of life could have been avoided.
It is pathetic that the richest nation in the world must beg its citizens for donations to help the victims of Katrina. As a nation that has cut taxes to the rich while spending hundreds of billions in Iraq we must get our priorities straight.
I trust that you will continue your efforts to hold the Bush administration accountable for its pernicious policies.
Edward M. Galore
Failing to fire Karl Rove—or better yet try him for treason, but who am I kidding—would be like promising to better equip and fund police, fire and health departments to respond to terror attacks in the wake of 9/11 and then reneging. It would be like promising to do everything in our power to ensure the safety of our soldiers in Iraq and then sending them to their deaths in unarmored vehicles. It would be like asking our soldiers to risk horrible mutilation and dismemberment while cutting services and funding to veterans and their families…Yes. It’s true, we’ve come to expect hypocrisy from Bush, but I smell blood: Rove’s. Rove is ready for a fall. Bringing Karl Rove down would be a major coup for democracy and the rule of law and seriously diminish Bush’s credibility--even in the eyes of his blinded admirers.