Saturday, October 04, 2008

Extremely Drug Resistant Tuberculosis
This site launched yesterday and is worth exploring. XDR-TB stands for Extremely Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis. There is an overview slideshow of XDR-TB victims around the world that features the photographs of James Nachtwey. The website was designed by Dean Kamen of Radical Media. Nachtway was a TED Prize winner a couple years ago and is an amazing photographer. His TED wish was to be able to reach more people using his skills as a photographer to document the World's problems.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

National Investments

I find what unfolded over the last week quite ironic. When it comes to
discussing healthcare, something all Americans need and want, the
Republicans think nationalizing the service is unthinkable. But when
it comes to insurance, bad debt, and bad mortgages... things we don't
really "want" (even when they're healthy) somehow the Republicans have
found a way to justify these massive, multi-decade national
investments. Not that I'm disagreeing with the decision but isn't
healthcare kind of an important investment too?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

China's Hidden Export: Air Pollution

The run up to the Beijing Olympics was full of photos and news reports of Beijing's legendary smog. Almost any distance shot comes automatically with a smog-induced atmospheric view. The reports talked about concern over the affect of the air pollution on athlete performance. Well I'm starting to wonder, with everything that China is making and exporting over there, How soon before they start exporting their air pollution all the way to California?

The Bay Area has been environmentally concious for a long time. But I can't help thinking that some of this came easy. When it comes to air pollution, we of course have rules designed to minimize power plant and factory emmissions but we are also blessed with a steady stream of fresh air off the Pacific.

I went to school in the 80s in upstate New York. Acid Rain was a common topic of interest at that time. Lakes were dying because the coal induced pollution was raising the PH of the lakes to a level where they could no longer support life. It was particularly dramatic in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains. The Adirondacks are one of the larger wilderness areas on the East Coast and yet they were being heavily affected by the output of far away industries. At the time, NYPIRG, the New York Public Interest Research Group was spending a lot of time on the issue. They determined that industries based in Ohio were partially to blame. Ohio's coal, tire and steel industries were releasing a tremendous amount of sulfur into the atmosphere. Once in the air, the pollution would move east with the weather. Eventually it would rain and the sulfur would mix with the water to create sulfur dioxide: "acid rain". It became an eye opener to many that actions in one state would have most of their impact felt in the next state.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I remember thinking how lucky we were to live on the Pacific coast with regards to air quality. There's no Ohio sitting next to us spewing sulfur into the air. But now I'm starting to wonder. It might not be next to us but China is a lot bigger than Ohio and putting a lot more up into the air.

How bad does it have to get before California, the most ecologicaly-minded state in the US, gets on the pollution watch list. Of course LA is already legendary for its smog. But smog in LA is a very local phenomenon. It is a combination of locally generated pollution, weather and geography. The hills surrounding much of the city give the smog no easy exit so the problem is both contained and concentrated.

According to this article, China is now opening up two new coal-fired power plants a week. Coal represents one of our biggest challenges with respect to global warming. It is possible the dirtiest carbon-based fuel but the only one the countries like the US and China have a large supply of. With oil prices skyrocketing, the temptation to burn even more coal will continue to grow. How long before our beloved cool Pacific breezes start to feel a bit warmer and take on a brownish tint?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Thousand Drums in China

2008 to be precise. If there's one image that I will remember from the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies it will be this one (photo by Michael Macor of the San Francisco Chronicle). 2008 individual drummers in perfect synchronization. What made it even more amazing is to see them drumming independently one second and then in absolute sync the next. The effect was all the more apparent when the lights were out and each drum lit up as it was hit. You could see all these drummers with separate heart beats playing independently and then, with some invisible order, they were all in sync. I can't think of a more potent symbol of today's China... 1.4 billion people who are more and more independent yet willing to march in perfect step when the government asks. Amazing and scary.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Science of Gods and Variables

It occurred to me that there is a similarity between the number of variables in scientific models and the number of gods worshiped by people of faith. It seems like the trend over the millenia has been to reduce the number of variables and gods respectively. In the case of variables, the goal is zero while in the case of gods worshiped the trend has been towards one. But it makes me wonder if the ultimate trend for both is zero.

The evolution of science starts with a world where almost everything in human experience is a mystery. Over time, as cause and effect are discovered, the mysteries are removed. As science becomes formalized, scientists sought to broaden their knowledge by coming up with new theories for how the universe works and testing those hypotheses through experiments and measurement. Early in an area of study, there are multiple variables. But as theories are refined, more and more of the equation becomes known resulting in fewer variables. Theories on the cutting edge of how the universe works try to unify all the known forces into a single, elegant equation. There are still variables that are not fully understood but fewer than there were a decade ago.

Computer modeling follows a similar but inverse path. Predicting the weather is done by running complex models. Early models were simpler due to the limits of both understanding and computer power. Simpler models have more external variables in that fewer of the contributing forces are being factored into the equation. Over time, our understanding and processing power have increased and this has allowed us to reduce these external variables by incorporating them into the models.

This sounds very similar to the history of religion. To early humans, everything is a mystery. Cause and effect is beyond understanding and so, to compensate, gods are created that "cause" certain things to happen. With so many mysteries in the world, many gods are created, each responsible for one or more effects. One god is the sun, giver of light, another god brings the rains and yet another brings abundant or scarce harvests.

I don't know when the religions of the world peaked in numbers of gods worshipped. Poly-theistic religions remain to this day. But eventually a turning point was reached and religions decided that there were too many gods. This resulted in a slow but steady trend towards worshipping fewer gods. Religions that worshipped multiple gods were seen as engaging in "idol worship".

Catholicism tried to sit on the poly-theistic/mono-theistic fence by introducing the concept of the holy trinity: essentially saying that their one God is simulataneously made up of the father, the son and a very fire-like holy spirit.

Islam took a firm, mono-theistic stance with the Koran saying, "there is no God but God". Islam was laying down the law... that's it, there's only one.

Sir Richard Dawkins made this trend humorously clear in a speach I heard him give on problems of discrimination against atheists in the US. With all the focus we put on a candidate's faith here, an atheist, even if he/she was an amazing statesman, could never be elected president. Dawkins then made an interesting point. The general history of religion has been towards worshipping fewer and fewer gods until we reached the current situation where Islam, Judaism and Christianity all worship one god. "Atheism is not that different", Dawkins said, "we just go one god further."

I don't know if the two trends are linked. But it would seem natural that as science has illuminated more and more of the World's mysteries it would impact religious beliefs. As the sun is revealed to be a ball of burning gas, it makes less sense to keep telling everyone that it is a god. Perhaps the current debates over things like evolution are because some of the more extreme faith-based leaders worry about what comes after "1" when you are counting down.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Death and Future of Paper

I first heard about this William Powers article, "Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal" in an NPR story on the radio. The article celebrates the wonders of paper and fears its undoing by cold and cruel digital media devices like ebooks. Its ironic that I heard the piece on the radio since radio once faced the same types of arguments that are being made for paper relative to an encroaching new technology called TV.

Kirsten Reach wrote a nice summary of Power's article in the online version of the Kenyon Review, a traditional, paper-based literary journal. Her review is both sympathetic and fortunate. Fortunate because the original article is 75 pages long. Sympathetic I expect because of the paper legacy of the Kenyon Review. I wrote a comment which has not yet been accepted. I'm not sure if its because my comments were among the only in support of a future where both paper books and ebooks could co-exist. Here's what I tried to post.

"The most compelling argument I've heard for the evolution of paper towards digital/re-usable media is the environment. The amount of resources (wood, water, chemicals, etc.) we use for paper has an enormous negative impact on the environment. A significant percentage of the paper we use is paper we use for a only few minutes and then throw away.

So many arguments for or against a new technology hinge on an all or nothing world. But as is hinted in the radio example, older technologies don't have to go away for new ones to be valuable. I agree with Power's assertions that paper will be with us for many more years. He makes a great case for where paper is a valuable and ideal media. But that doesn't mean there might be a few places where an electronic book or medium might be good while also being much better for the environment. Many people who work in the corporate world have to read multiple reports... industry reports, sales reports, business plans, etc.. Most of these are printed, read or scanned quickly and then thrown out or put on a shelf never to be touched again. Couldn't some of these be consumed on an ebook for the benefit of the environment? Carrying 4 or 5 reports in an ebook format will leave extra room in your backpack for that paper copy of "Ulysses" you've been meaning to read all these years.

I love reading the Sunday New York Times. But I feel guilty about getting all that paper knowing I won't read it all. There is now a healthy movement across many cities in the US to replace plastic and paper bags at the supermarket with reusable bags. I feel good every time I do it and know that I'm reducing my environmental footprint.

If we all used less paper for our "disposable" content, there would be plenty of paper left for more permanent and important uses. As Powers also notes, there is plenty of content out there for paper, ebooks and computer screens to all be busy and useful for a long time to come."

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Mississippi River TypeMap

This is the latest map in my "Typography of Place" series... a map of the cities and towns that lie along the Mississippi River. For a larger, readable image, you can view it here on my Flickr site.

The last two maps I did in this series (Silk Road and the Aleutian Islands) were very horizontal. So I wanted to try one with a vertical format. One of the things I am trying to achieve in these maps is to have the words that make up the maps read as a sort of free-form poem. In this one, I think that comes across strong since you can "read" it from the river's source in the top left to the mouth in the bottom right.

I have not color coded the place names on this map as I did in my Aleutian Islands Map but the same theme is present with many towns having Native American names (including the river itself). French names are also quite prevalent as you travel down the river. Then there is the intriguing sequence of Egyptian-inspired names that includes Memphis, Thebes, Angola, and Cairo.

I assembled the map from a general map of the river. After re-drawing the path of the river, I added all the towns and cities by referencing a live page from Yahoo! Maps. I originally placed the cities on the appropriate left or right bank of the river so my base would be geographically accurate. But I know as I was building it that I was going to re-orient the towns so that they were all centered on the middle of the river to emphasize the meandering path the river takes.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Where in the World is "Coco Channel?"

In case you were wondering, its here in between Little Coco and Landfall Islands. I stumbled upon this map today while reading about the remote tribes of the Andaman Islands. The Andamans are a chain of islands in the Bay of Bengal. Most are claimed and administered by India. Seeing "Coco Channel" made me smile.

Friday, May 23, 2008

...and justice for all

Yesterday, a Texas Appeals Court rejected the lower court decision that had authorized siezing the children from the FLDS compound. This photo, by AP photographer Tony Gutierrez, was attached to the story. As a designer, I love images that are artfully composed but still relevant and meaningful. There is an elegant symmetry here between the repetitive columns of the court and the repepetitive dress codes of the FLDS women. There is a sense that a system other than their own has never-the-less served their interests (though maybe not that of all the children).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thomas Barnett's Bold Plan for War (& Peace)

This TED talk is not a topic (how to improve the US Military) I would normally be interested in even less so one that I would want to promote. But Thomas Barnett is worth listening to.

There are two ways to correct a problem. One way is to undo what was done and institute your plan; the other way is to embrace the problematic approach and propose a way to move forward. The latter approach is embodied in this spirited talk by Thomas Barnett. A Washington insider, Barnett mocks but embraces many of the failed strategies of the Bush administration while proposing a way to make them work.

Not too long after we invaded Iraq, I remember reading a piece in The New Yorker about the plan for post-war Iraq. The State Department had developed a comprehensive plan for winning the peace after the initial invasion. The article detailed how Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney decided to ignore the State Department Plan and go with the plan the Defense Department had drawn up. That plan failed and led to most of what happened after Bush's famed, "Mission Accomplished" speech. I was so angry after I read this article. But Barnett proposes a bold initiative to keep moving forward with a military-dominated "winning the war" plan while also making them responsible for "winning the peace". He proposes a grand re-structuring of Washington Institutions. The plan is so bold that it might just work.

The talk is highlighted by a powerpoint presentation full of cheesy animations and sound effects that while funny; support Barnett's message. It succeeds despite breaking all the rules. The talk is definitely worth watching.

eBooks and the Future of the Keyboard

Nicholas Negroponte announced his vision for the next generation OLPC (one laptop per child). The new design takes its inspiration from a book although it can still be used as a laptop. Having worked on eBook concepts in the past, I've always felt that a dual-screened ebook was taking the "book" metaphor too seriously. But the new OLPC design uses the 2nd screen as a keyboard when in "laptop" mode. I thought this was a decent idea. It would enable the display of virtual keyboards in every language where the OLPC is used.

I recently started to wonder if Apple will do something similar since Steve Jobs hates button clutter and it would allow him to get rid of 30 or 40 keys in one action. They easiest way to get rid of 10 keys on a remote or cell phone is to move the number keys off the keypad and onto the screen. This is exactly what Steve Jobs did with the iPhone. Similarly, the best way to get rid of the visually-busy keyboard on a laptop would be to replace it with some sort of virtual one. This would allow Apple to replace the entire surface with a multi-touch touchpad. They could easily create a modal version that could be backlit with a keyboard layout when needed but appear empty and pristine otherwise. Of course the major challenge to this is losing the tactile feedback a physical keyboard provides. But there are work-arounds to this such as haptic feedback. Steve is just the guy to make the jump because he has shown a consistent interest in removing buttons in the past starting with his resistance to a 2 button mouse, then with the utter simplicity of the iPod clickwheel and most recently with iPhone's 1 button. Even the MacBook Air forgoes an explicit power button in favor of the inferred intent of simply opening it up.

Multi-touch seems to be gaining momentum with Jeff Han's TED demos, Microsoft's Touchwall and even some of the Wii hacks for interactive displays. Since Apple was first to market with a successful product, I would bet that they want to push to broaden their lead with yet another product. But I don't think it will happen at this year's Apple WWDC as the upcoming 3G iPhone will probably be the star. Maybe MacWorld 2009. I type a lot but I'd probably by one.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Zooming, Reading and Education

Bob Cringley has written several interesting columns about technology and the future of education recently that got me thinking about my experiences designing a Zooming User Interface (ZUI) for Sony. In his most recent column he talks about the video game paradigm as a model for the future of education. In the spirit of Steven Johnson's, "Everything Bad is Good for You" Cringley argues that the popular and financial success of video games means they have already proven their power as an education platform. Today, gamers may be learning about air guitar but the same paradigm will continue to grow and work for other subjects.

While at Sony, I was part of a skunkworks-style startup developing a media navigation platform based on the concept of zooming. The basic concept was zoom in for more detail and zoom out for more context. The idea was simple and we worked keep the interaction equally simple. This evolved into a web/hyperlink model where you selected something on screen to zoom into it and see more detail and then used the back or “zoom out” button to get back to where you were. This was all before Macromedia/Adobe Flash which can be used to create similar effects. But our software was built on a data space that allowed all types of data, content and media to be placed in the space... even webpages. Once in the space, whatever navigation rules were set would work for all of the content without any further coding. While working on the navigation scheme and rules, one of my designers, Tom Grauman came up with the term, ZUI or “Zooming User Interface” because the combination of scaling content, buttons and interaction rules really was a complete UI experience. There is good coverage of projects in the ZUI space on Nooface and a nice general write-up on Wikipedia here. The genesis for zooming was Pad++, a software application that was developed by Ben Bederson and Ken Perlin at NYU. Ben eventually moved to the University of New Mexico and then to the University of Maryland where he is now.

There are several alumni from the Sony days that have zooming in their blood and have felt compelled to continue the mission. This includes Franklin Servan-Schreiber (project director for the Sony “Galileo” Project), Eduardo Sciammarella and myself. Franklin has kept our old zoomorama domain alive and has been building and shipping several zooming applications in his native France including a zooming version of a show at the Louvre.

After living, breathing and sleeping zooming for several years at Sony, I put it aside to focus on a broader range of projects. But it was always there in the back of my head. Then, in 2000, I started working on maps in my spare time. Recently, I have been working on several with a narrative that progresses as you zoom in. I did a map of border disputes between India, Pakistan and China where you can see the major disputes from a macro zoom level but the most interesting story only reveals itself when you zoom in. The Siachen Glacier occupies a small section of Northern Kashmir but at 20,000 feet, it is known as the highest battlefield in the World. It is the micro-scale example of the overall conflict between Pakistan and India.

As I read Cringley's article, I realized that this is inherently true for maps. Whether it’s a globe, Google Earth, Yahoo Maps or an antique paper map, we interact with it by scanning it and then zooming in on interesting details. That experience of a dynamic visual information space has the potential to be every bit as engaging as a video game provided the subject is interesting.

Reading a newspaper involves the same zooming interaction as a map. You scan the headlines and pictures until you find something you're interested in and then zoom in. It is abundantly clear that the traditional paper newspaper is slowly going away. When you hear how many trees are felled for one issue of the Sunday New York Times, I think, this is probably a good thing. But when I think about the benefit of scanning and consuming news on the large "display size" of a newspaper, it saddens me that it might go away. From a technology perspective, the explosive growth of the Web combined with the much slower growth of better displays has conspired to squeeze newspapers out of existence. In order to recreate the benefit of a newspaper page, displays need to be large, durable, affordable, portable, and legible… a tall order. Laptops, Amazon’s Kindle, and Apple’s iPhone are all attempting to serve the need for a portable display for reading with varying levels of success.

Of course there is probably more behind the decline of print newspapers than display technology. Many would argue that reading itself is becoming a thing of the past but books continue to sell well. Why?

I think the future of the book and the newspaper lies in transforming them into scalable experiences. By scalable I mean two things. First, an experience that can be read at a summary or detailed level (meaning you can read the book jacket or the whole book). The new experience has to fit into the web model where you may only read the Amazon summary and reviews before clicking on one of the "people who bought x also bought y" links. That's how people read now. It’s no different than browsing books in a physical bookstore or library. Scaleable also means that the navigation of that experience can happen in a zooming space where the text, images and headlines all combine to create a visually rich and immersive experience.

The ZUI experience includes features that make zooming more than just a static plane that a camera zooms in and out on. Two examples of this are semantic zooming and "sticky z". Semantic zooming understands that different levels of information are relevant at different scales. So as you zoom in on a piece of information, additional information is added... the caption for a photograph, a link to a related article, the next paragraph or page of the book. Pad++ and our Sony ZUI both programmed this capability into the system by allowing data to appear or fade based on its relative size on screen. Sticky Z was a simple setting that allowed you to place an object such as type or an image in space and lock its size on screen. This can be combined with other scaling media and semantic zooming to create an endless set of dynamic information displays.

The launch of Amazon's Kindle took the evolution of the ebook to an important next level. Building a wireless connection into the platform allows it to connect to the Amazon store, Wikipedia and news sources all the time. The e-ink display allows a relatively high resolution display to be visible in bright light or dark rooms. I’m not a huge fan of the physical design of the first generation Kindle but they got the overall service offering right. I ride a corporate shuttle to work every morning and often read the SF Chronicle on my way. I noticed recently that there are never more than 1 or 2 people on the bus reading a paper but many riders are surfing the Web on their laptop. It may take a while but the last hurdle to get ebooks into the mainstream is a better and faster display, one that is capable of quickly moving and scaling content on screen. When you bring up the subject of ebooks to general consumers, so many of them say something like, “Oh, I’ll never use an ebook… I’ll always prefer paper books”. To this I have a number of responses but the best argument I’ve ever heard was the simple case of the environment. Eventually, consumers will realize reading single use documents on paper is a waist of resources. Paper will continue to make sense for some documents and books but be phased out for more transient media.

As Cringley hints in his article, kids gravitate towards the most engaging media and right now that is video games. It is hard to believe but at one point newspapers were a very engaging media. Its combination of local and international coverage and its large, flexible and portable media made it as good for reading the Sunday leisure section on the sofa as it was for the Monday morning news on a commuter train. As a writer and visual designer, I believe in the importance of words and reading. I believe that reading is not going the way of the dinosaurs... just transforming itself in the wake of new technology and stiffer competition. TV has been the dominant media for 50 years but the Internet is slowly gaining on it. TV and video are powerful persuaders but video can sometimes persuade without getting you to think. Words almost always compel you to think about what you're reading. Meaning is created in your head, not on screen and this makes it more powerful. The hyperlink allows both the writer and the reader to connect to related content throughout the process.

In some ways, video games represent the ultimate combination of all these technologies, visual, text, interaction, play, even socialization. But reading and visual media will be with us for a long time to come. As the Kindle and iPhone are starting to show, zooming will almost certainly play a part in making it more engaging than a static piece of paper.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Protesters & The Rule of Law in San Francisco

I walked through the Iraq War protest march on my way home from work tonight. It was great to still see so much passion about ending the war after 5 years of Bush and Cheney not listening. I was walking a bit faster than the parade and that led to an interesting experience. The police were all around... on foot, on motorcycles, monitoring the protesters but also monitoring car traffic which was being heavily backed up and re-routed. There was a group of policemen out in front of the parade that kept moving forward a block to make sure the streets were clear for the protest march. They were doing their best to support the march as much as keep it under control. What made me take notice of this was what I saw after I left the route of the march. About 2 blocks up on Upper Market, there was a whole collection of policemen... in vans, on foot and on motorcycles, all ready to go in a moments notice. They were there in reserve in case things took a turn for the worse. The potential was there for problems on both side but I came away thinking the police were doing their best to be ready but be out of sight. Most were carrying a bunch of plastic zip ties that replace hand cuffs in these situations. Again, a sign that there could be problems but much better than hands on holsters or tear gas canisters. I left the area feeling that both sides were doing a much better job dealing with their differences than Bush has with the Middle East.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

China & Tibet

As I've been reading the news this past week about China squashing Tibetan protests, the image of a map with China dominating over Tibet typographically as much as militarily popped into my head. So I decided to quickly draw it up so I could post it. If it had a title it would be "A Political Map of China & Tibet". I find the term "political map" funny as so many of them involve unintentional political statements.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Heath Ledger and the Death of a Man

Hearing about the death of Heath Ledger was very sad news. He had so much to say even when saying very little.

Despite what most people thought "Brokeback Mountain" was about, Heath Ledger's character gave me new insights into what it means to be a man. Everyone makes decisions in their life that they regret... men and women. But men seem to deal with regrets differently than women. Ledger's character in Brokeback is transformed over the course of the movie and not by the question of whether he is gay or not. What I saw was far deeper in its implications for a man's character and integrity. First, Heath's character is transformed as he wrestles with what it means to be gay AND a cowboy. Although meaningful in its own right, this is really a bluff by director Ang Lee for the superficial. He fakes us into asking, "Is this about the image of a cowboy or, who this cowboy really is?" But as the movie continues, Ledger's character is transformed, far more deeply, as a gay man who has decided to marry a woman and have a child. In maintaining this double identity, neither of his lives achieves its full potential and he is left with regret.

But it is what his character, and ultimately Ledger the actor does with this regret that I found so profound. Regret can lead a man to many things. He can lash out and blame others for his situation or pretend it has no affect and act as strong as ever. But regret can also turn a man inward. When that happens it can make him at best, intraspective or at worst, overcome with an internal dialog that leaves little room for the world around him. This is exactly what happens to Ledger's character by the end of the movie. He knows he has not made all the right decisions. He knows he has let people down, people he loves deeply.

So in the end he becomes a man of few words... full of turmoil and yet a true man for accepting responsibility for everything he has done. His words remain well chosen and true but gradually retreat inside his throat until at the very end, they are barely more than grunts. But the truth is still there. Somehow Ledger communicates his love for his daughter, his regret for his decisions, and ultimately his identity as a man, while barely saying a word.

One could look at the last scenes of Brokeback and say, he's just playing the cowboy. But as one who has had regrets in his life, I know. He was being a man.