Sunday, February 28, 2010

That New-internet Smell

I'll bet a good search of turn-of-the-20th-century newspaper and magazine archives would uncover at least a few awed stories of how horseless carriages helped save people's lives. It is part of the process by which a culture accommodates rapid technological change. It is also, I think, a sign of how "new" the technology seems in people's minds.  A story about the use of automobiles to aid the victims of the earthquake in Chile simply isn't news, these days, without some other distinguishing angle.  That we see stories such as this one, about the use of texting and of twitter to communicate information about post-quake Chileans tells us something about how new our attempts to absorb these media.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

For A Good Time...

Check out this book on  Read the description and take special note of the sales rank.  Now click on "Search Inside This Book".  In the window which pops up, click on "Copyright" in the left panel.  Examine the page.  Contemplate the page in its totality.

Now, chant your mantra...

Don't Be Still, My Heart

Karen Sandler has a heart three sizes too big. Once you get past the Grinch jokes it isn't too hard to see how this might be a problem. Her heart is three times too thick -- and therefore too stiff to reliably function. She is susceptible to sudden death.   She has a 2%-3% chance of dying every year.

The solution is an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, which combines heart monitoring with defibrillation functionality.  A crucial component of such a device is its software.  The medical technology firms which make these devices will not release the software which runs them under Open Source licenses.  They will not allow the patients whose lives hinge on the correctness of such software to examine the code.

Think of it:  Scientists and doctors strive mightily to achieve an ever-greater, ever-more detailed understanding of the heart, its functions and its genetics so that they can spread this information widely in the world and thus improve heart health and heart safety.  Medical knowledge helps more people the more freely it is available.

Medical electronics manufacturers, on the other hand, patent their devices and will not reveal the software underlying their function in an effort to keep the knowledge of such matters as narrow as feasible. Even such companies as Medtronics, which is regarded favorably by doctors because of its willingness to step in early and help extensively if problems arise will not share its code.

So Karen Sandler has an implanted medical device, on which her very life may someday depend and the company that makes that device has in place an elaborate legal mechanism to prevent her from understanding exactly how it works -- and how it might fail.

Luckily, Karen Sandler is a lawyer.  Even more luckily, she works for the Software Freedom Law Center.  Lucky for us, she is ready and willing to talk about the whole situation.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

V.S. Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization

Ramachandran is a brilliant neuroscientist. In this brief talk he discusses mirror neurons, which differ from ordinary motor command neurons in fascinating ways...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"30 Rock" Joins the Valentine's Day Resistance Movement

I don't, as a rule, enjoy sitcoms. "30 Rock" is an exception because, well, even though it is a half-hour of (loosely) story-based comedy I don't REALLY think it is a sitcom. And, watching this episode on Valentine's day (via Hulu) I found myself laughing out loud a LOT...

New Frontiers In Historiography

(Western Edition)

Chinese Hit Songs of the 1930's and 1940's

Great stuff!  Close your eyes, as you listen, and try to imagine the world from which these songs came:

Thursday, February 04, 2010

My Life In Post-Racial America

I have just returned from a 7.25 mile walk, the highlight of which was being called "nigger" by a bunch of middle school girls in Ft. Tryon Park.

I had stopped to rest after carefully making it halfway down a still-somewhat-icy hill. I was staring out, from my perch, over the playground and past Dyckman Street, into Inwood, when I heard "What you staring at, nigger? Keep walking!". It took me some time to figure out that I was the intended recipient of this helpful bit of advice.

It was, I confess, somewhat disorienting. I have, in my lifetime, been called "fairy", "faggot", "lardass", "hump", "blubber butt", "jewboy" and (my favorite) "putrid synagoguer" -- I swear! -- but I never have been nor ever expected to be called "nigger". I have not yet decided whether this is some sign of progress...