Rivers and Tides
I found out today about a new documentary on artist Andy Goldsworthy's fantastic environmental art. It's called Rivers and Tides, and hopefully plans are announced for a Detroit showing before I start seriously considering a roadtrip to Louisville. :) If you're not familiar with Goldsworthy's work, do a quick google search. I haven't found any great online resources, although this one is a decent introcution.
Oct 31, 3:58 PM
I've been implementing some minor changes to the style of this site, and they don't seem to be working well in Internet Explorer at the moment. My apologies to IE users -- I hope to have the issues corrected soon. In the meantime, the site looks great in Mozilla :).
Update 10/25 7:43 PM: The IE CSS layout is much improved now, still having trouble with some strange IE behavior with the link hover classes however.
Oct 24, 1:27 AM
Michael Pollan on Obesity and Cheap Food
Michael Pollan is one of my favorite writers, and this week he published an intriguing article in the New York Times about the complex relationship in America between food production, farm policy, economics, marketing, and obesity. The Times has archived the story now, but it is still available (for the time being) here: The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity. An excerpt follows:
Sometimes even complicated social problems turn out to be simpler than they look. Take America's ''obesity epidemic,'' arguably the most serious public-health problem facing the country. Three of every five Americans are now overweight, and some researchers predict that today's children will be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents. The culprit, they say, is the health problems associated with obesity.
Nowadays, for somewhat different reasons, corn (along with most other agricultural commodities) is again abundant and cheap, and once again the easiest thing to do with the surplus is to turn it into more compact and portable value-added commodities: corn sweeteners, cornfed meat and chicken and highly processed foods of every description. The Alcoholic Republic has given way to the Republic of Fat, but in both cases, before the clever marketing, before the change in lifestyle, stands a veritable mountain of cheap grain. Until we somehow deal with this surfeit of calories coming off the farm, it is unlikely that even the most well-intentioned food companies or public-health campaigns will have much success changing the way we eat.
The underlying problem is agricultural overproduction, and that problem (while it understandably never receives quite as much attention as underproduction) is almost as old as agriculture itself. Even in the Old Testament, there's talk about how to deal not only with the lean times but also with the fat: the Bible advises creation of a grain reserve to smooth out the swings of the market in food. The nature of farming has always made it difficult to synchronize supply and demand. For one thing, there are the vagaries of nature: farmers may decide how many acres they will plant, but precisely how much food they produce in any year is beyond their control.
The rules of classical economics just don't seem to operate very well on the farm. When prices fall, for example, it would make sense for farmers to cut back on production, shrinking the supply of food to drive up its price. But in reality, farmers do precisely the opposite, planting and harvesting more food to keep their total income from falling, a practice that of course depresses prices even further. What's rational for the individual farmer is disastrous for farmers as a group. Add to this logic the constant stream of improvements in agricultural technology (mechanization, hybrid seed, agrochemicals and now genetically modified crops -- innovations all eagerly seized on by farmers hoping to stay one step ahead of falling prices by boosting yield), and you have a sure-fire recipe for overproduction -- another word for way too much food.
All this would be bad enough if the government weren't doing its best to make matters even worse, by recklessly encouraging farmers to produce even more unneeded food. Absurdly, while one hand of the federal government is campaigning against the epidemic of obesity, the other hand is actually subsidizing it, by writing farmers a check for every bushel of corn they can grow. We have been hearing a lot lately about how our agricultural policy is undermining our foreign-policy goals, forcing third-world farmers to compete against a flood tide of cheap American grain. Well, those same policies are also undermining our public-health goals by loosing a tide of cheap calories at home.
Oct 23, 2:42 AM
Ambient Information Environments
Ambient Devices is offering a really intriguing new line of products, the goal of which is to "embed information representation in everyday objects". They make small objects which softly change color based on feeds of data they receive wirelessly. Feeds include information like the latest stock market prices or weather forecasts. Imagine one of their Orbs which will glow progressively more red as your portfolio declines, perhaps inducing you to sell.
There is an ever-widening interface between computation and the physical environment, and this company seems to be one of the few which is working intelligently on the question of how to adapt the incredible power of computation to the ways in which humans really think and perceive, while at the same time making technology more humane and enjoyable.
Ambient Devices identifies their approach as lying somewhere between the "push" and "pull" models of information access. Pushing information from its source to the end user can be annoying and obtrusive if the information isn't needed immediately. Pulling information requires thought and effort on the part of the user, which is sometimes too high a cost for information which is not always needed or relevant. What is needed is a "third way", which allows people to acquire information in the ways most natural to us.
Think of how well people can absorb information about their environments without even trying to. Have you ever anticipated a coming storm while working in an office cubicle by almost-subconsciously registering a subtle shift in the indoor ambient light caused by the darkening skies outside? Humans' perceptual systems are very finely-tuned to our natural and social environments. We have sophisticated peripheral sensory thresholds which allow us to concentrate when needed &emdash; e.g. the second hand on the wall clock is moving, but don't interrupt the brain with useless information &emdash; while at the same time snapping us to attention if something important or startling happens in the periphery. This fact about how we perceive the world is what suggests to me that the future of human information interaction will rely heavily on ambient information environments which are rich with data when focused on, but unobtrusive enough to truly be "lived in". When was the last time your news was calm and glanceable??
Speaking of glancing, Matt Webb explains his idea of glancing as an application of social software. The concept seems to be in a nascent state, but is intriguing nonetheless. He also points us at a fascinating tidbit about a new text messaging trend among Japanese kids -- sending an empty text message to someone as a way of communicating "hi, just checking in, send me a message if you'd like to". Think of it perhaps as a disconnected wink -- a form of communication which is nearly empty of information in the conventional sense, but rich (and perhaps rife) with meaning in a social context. Could a wink be one of the most densely packed and efficient mode of communication humans have yet found?
Tangentially related are a few of the more interesting new applications of social software: Upcoming.org is a simple-but-social event tracking database, and Tribes.net is attempting to harness the millenia-old human (not to mention primate) predilection for making their most important decisions while deeply rooted and informed by their immediate social context, or "tribe".
My Upcoming.org event listing
Oct 10, 2:28 PM