Charlie's Diary

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Wed, 19 Feb 2003

Trans-Atlantic schadenfreude

Having spent a week or so in the States, I still don't have much to contribute about the current mid-east situation. However, two things did strike me as noteworthy.

Firstly, the newspapers. I was aghast at the lack of discrimination between editorial and news coverage (ex, USA Today, and others -- the NY Times was a notable exception) on front page items, where raw editorial opinion was mingled indiscriminately with news. This was at its worst in the New York Post which succumbed to a bout of rabid Francophobic nationalism that was at best distasteful, using photoshopped images of a UN Security Council session (with the French and German diplomats' heads replaced by those of weasels, and a caption dripping with vitriol that even Goebbels would have balked at), and at worst libelous. But there were elements of it everywhere -- opinion and hot-blooded nationalism replacing cool consideration and analysis. If this is what passes for news coverage in the USA today, it's no surprise that xenophobia and militarism seem to be on the increase there.

Happily, it is largely a media illusion, rather than reality. Maybe I self-select for liberal-minded friends, but their general mood was one of disbelief in the actions of their own government. It struck a strong chord with me, until I realised I'd seen it before -- in the UK, during the first couple of years of the Thatcher period, before the reality of the situation had quite sunk in. The Bush administration displays exactly the same high-handed autocracy, radical policies pursued without reference to public opinion or political consensus, secretiveness, pursuit of goals that are not publicly announced by means which are, and the same mood of "there is no alternative" -- it's deja vu, all over again. (Except that Thatcher had at least the minor mitigating virtue of intelligence, which is something nobody has accused the Shrub of recently.)

Bush is America's Thatcher. (And to those of you who wondered why us Brits were always whining about the Iron Lady, here's your chance to experience it at first hand.)

[ Discuss politics ]

posted at: 21:00 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Future Shock, Unlimited

I'm back, although I'm still a bit startled to still be alive after the flight. For those of you who haven't been following the news, the eastern seaboard of the US has been hit by a rather severe blizard. Feorag and I were on what was probably the last Airbus out of Logan -- all the domestic outgoing flights had been cancelled some hours before Lufhansa decided to pitchfork all the passengers who'd made it to the airport for their flights to Germany onto a single Airbus and attempt to make it through the snowdrifts. Feorag's photographs (on Livejournal) should give you a feel for what it was like -- what they don't show is the horizontal sheets of snow driving across the terminal windows!

While I was gone I got up to quite a lot of things; meetings with my agent and David Hartwell of Tor about the new books, visits to the Boston Museum of Science, a weekend at Boskone, and of course a guided tour of the MIT Media Lab ...

Which triggered complete future shock, thuswise:

Imagine you step out of an elevator on the third floor of a university building. You're in a beige carpeted corridor, with whitewashed walls on one side. On the other side, a glass wall separates you from the Disruptive Technology Laboratory. Open the door and look inside. The lab is about thirty feet square, with small offices off to either side. It's cluttered with open plan desks; at one corner a cluster of black sofas sit in a circle around a big television set with a stack of video equipment and an Xbox. At the opposite corner, there's a bench with oscilloscopes, soldering irons, and the other detritus of electronic prototyping. In this room, a bunch of students are trying to reinvent the car steering wheel. The intelligent steering wheel. Approaching a busy roundabout your hands tense and your pulse rate soars; it's a bad time for your cellphone to ring, and this steering wheel knows it -- so it switches the incoming call to voice mail until you're calm enough to talk. You look around the back of the room. Under a sign identifying it as an experiment in Borgables you see the waistcoat that ate Silicon Valley -- the unlikely offspring of a mating between a sewing machine and a laptop computer, bristling with memory, sensors, and i/o devices. (It runs Linux, of course.)

Go down a floor. Walk through another glass door beneath a sign proclaiming the Opera of the Future; you're in a room full of brightly coloured baloon-shaped musical instruments plugged into a rackful of experimental electronics and controlling computers. It's the children's Symphony, and the object of the project isn't to reinvent the Stradivarius but to change the way toddlers learn to make music -- by giving them brightly coloured toys that provide immediate feedback, letting them explore the shape of sounds for themselves rather than struggling for years to master the piano keyboard or the guitar fretboard. Against one wall there's a table covered in gadgets that look like oversized computer mice. They're percussion instruments -- toys that you can teach a beat to, then beam the sound to your neighbour.

Take the down elevator again and you're in the quantum computing lab, next to a two-metre high dewar flask full of liquid nitrogen. This is where they're trying to build a quantum computer -- exploiting the eldritch physical phenomenon of quantum decoherence to solve complex iterative problems in linear time. (It's a bit of a culture shock after the children's symphony and the sympathetic steering wheel, but you're beginning to get a feel for how off-balance a tour of this building can make you -- if you expect a random surprise around every corner you won't go wrong.)

Round the bend you come into a huge open-plan room where Seymour Papert (inventor of Logo and pioneer of computer education for pre-teens) and his research students came up with Lego MindStorms. (At the other side of it there's a comfy sofa in front of a webcam and a video projection screen -- one of the ongoing six-way teleconferences that knit the Media Lab campus together. Just plonk yourself down, pick up the trackball to select a window, and wave "hello" to someone, somewhere -- a far cry from the stiff formality of a pre-arranged video conference.) On a bench at one side of the room there's a stack of Lego bricks and some microcontrollers. At the other side of the room they're working on personal media -- the convergence between weblogs and video, or collaborative tools designed to let classrooms of children build their own newspapers: thee's another group building a software environment that lets you compose music by painting in broad swatches of colour (and turns the resultant picture into conventional musical notation, as well as playing it).

Fleeing the open plan environment full of brightly coloured Lego parts and video cameras, you find yourself in a machine shop full of robots, laser cutters, and prototype inkjet printers that print integrated circuits instead of pictures. There's a hard engineering back-end behind the brightly coloured toys -- you're slowly realising that most of the experimental gadgets surrounding you were built right here in this building by research students and engineers.

Welcome to the future. Welcome to the Media Lab. (And just as soon as I get my head screwed back on I'll go and write the trip up in detail for my column in Shopper.)

[ Discuss new art forms ]

posted at: 19:42 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Lenin's Tomb ]
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Kathryn Cramer ]
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Fistful of Euros ]
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Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
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Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
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Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
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BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

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