The Case for the Office

Technology lets us work from home more and more, but Derek Thompson wouldn’t if he could:

For me, it comes down to people. The best social technology increases social connections. Facebook keeps us in touch with far-flung friends. Twitter broadcasts our internal monologues to the world. Email, texts, and phones keep us connected even when we’re remote. But none of these things forces us to not be with real live people.

Telecommuting is a choice to be alone. It reduces connections between workers. It removes us from the world of work and makes it indistinguishable from the period before and after, which we could simple call life.

Tweeting 280 Characters at a Time

Farhad Manjoo wants the Twitter character limit (currently 140) to be doubled, and makes a compelling case for why:

Why do I want more space? Forcing people to shrink their updates to 140 characters prevents meaningful interaction between users, short-circuits conversations, and turns otherwise straightforward thoughts into a bewildering jumble of txtese. Just look at Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s feed: “Pres Obama while u sightseeing in Paris u said ‘time to delvr on health care’ When you are ‘ hammer’ u think everything is NAIL I’m no NAIL.”*

Almost immediately after it launched, Twitter outgrew Dorsey’s central dispatch metaphor. Users quickly created a convention (the @reply) that allowed them to talk to one another rather than just broadcast updates to the world. While Twitter made @replies a core part of the service, it has never done anything to improve conversations. Indeed, the site’s linear, non-threaded interface seems designed to frustrate interaction between users. The 140-character fence deepens the one-sidedness—it’s easy to formulate a single pithy update, but when someone engages you in a discussion, it’s nearly impossible to formulate a rejoinder that fits within the limit. It’s a cumbersome, annoying process; nearly every day, I abandon Twitter chats because I can’t think of shorter ways to tell @JackShafer that he’s wrong.

Read the whole thing, and tell me you’re not convinced. 280 characters is still short, and will still force people to be brief and terse, but it’s long enough that we can speak like real people and maybe have real conversations.

Shawn Blanc's Lion Review

The new Mac OS is out, and if you can’t decide whether to drop the $29 (hint: you should), Shawn Blanc’s review is the one to read. He’s great at reviewing things like a regular person, and this one’s no exception. One feature he’s excited about, that’s worth $30 to me by itself, is the second-monitor-management:

In Lion, this behavior has been greatly improved:

With the laptop lid closed and the computer asleep: Plug an external display in, wake the computer, and the external display will be the only working display. If you were to then open your laptop lid, the laptop’s screen would turn on and you have two working monitors.

With the laptop lid open and the computer awake: Plug an external display in and you have two working screens. If you were to then close your laptop lid, the laptop’s screen turns off and the external monitor becomes the only working monitor.

How NOTW Hacked Those Voicemails

Gizmodo: the place for guides to doing shady things, you know, hypothetically. Rachel Swaby figures out how the News of the World hacked into so many people’s voicemails and got Rupert Mudoch in a pie-load of trouble:

To access these messages, cell providers typically offer an external number you can call to get into your mailbox. The service recognizes the phone number calling, which is convenient for everyone—including people trying to get into your voicemail. Phone numbers—that unique identity that we assume belongs only to the object in our pocket—can be spoofed using Voice Over IP and some open source software. “The caller ID is a burst of data before the signal that tells the phone to ring,” explains Chester Wisniewski, a Senior Security Advisor at Sophos. “If you’re not using a commercial service provider, you can set your caller ID to anything.” This means that that external number that you call to check your voicemail may interpret the falsified number as yours and act accordingly.

Needing an Ending

Paul Ford wonders where the ending has gone, whether Facebook, Twitter and the like have upended the way we understand time and space and structure. We need, he argues, to have a beginning, middle and end, to have context and understanding, and we’re not getting it anymore:

Social media has no understanding of anything aside from the connections between individuals and the ceaseless flow of time: No beginnings, and no endings. These disparate threads of human existence alternately fascinate and horrify that part of the media world that grew up on topic sentences and strong conclusions. This world of old media is like a giant steampunk machine that organizes time into stories. I call it the Epiphanator, and it has always known the value of a meaningful conclusion. The Epiphanator sits in midtown Manhattan and clunks along, at Condé Nast and at the Times and in Rockefeller Center. Once a day it makes a terrible grinding noise and spits out newspapers and TV shows. Once a week it spits out weeklies and more TV shows. Once a month it produces glossy magazines. All too often it makes movies, and novels.

At the end of every magazine article, before the “■,” is the quote from the general in Afghanistan that ties everything together. The evening news segment concludes by showing the secretary of State getting back onto her helicopter. There’s the kiss, the kicker, the snappy comeback, the defused bomb. The Epiphanator transmits them all. It promises that things are orderly. It insists that life makes sense, that there is an underlying logic.

Scraping the Bottom of Your Inbox

I’ve been wondering a lot recently about the shelf life of emails. I typically have a few week-to-month-old emails sitting in my Inbox, waiting for me to get over what weird neuroses prevented me from taking the three minutes to respond. Most of the time, though, it’s not even relevant after a few hours or days. After a week, is it even worth responding? What about after a month?

Henry Alford wonders the same thing in the NYT, and gets some help to answer the question:

The British linguist David Crystal said that his wife recently got a reply to an e-mail she sent in 2006. “It was like getting a postcard from the Second World War,” he said.

The roaring silence. The pause that does not refresh. The world is full of examples of how the anonymity and remove of the Internet cause us to write and post things that we later regret. But what of the way that anonymity and remove sometimes leave us dangling like a cartoon character that has run off a cliff?

Born Gaming

Ryan Bradley writes, in Kill Screen, about small children, video games, and what the latter can teach us about the inner lives of the former:

Play can be serious business, and Jackson goes quiet for awhile, adding schools of clownfish to his finger painting. When we are young and our brain is a series of islands, minds adrift in the sea of our skull, we play to make sense of the world. Sometimes, when we figure things out and unlock this new world’s secrets, we go back and repeat, just to make sure. This is probably why Jackson picked Monkey Lunchbox—he’s familiar with its rules. Gopnik takes this idea one powerful step further: We play to imagine what could be, to create rules and terms for the future. We play, in other words, to imagine and to invent. It’s play that allowed us to walk out of the Great Rift Valley and conquer the world and then some. No play, no imagination, no rocket to the moon. Because children don’t have to worry about day-to-day survival, Gopnik explains in her book, The Philosophical Baby, they “don’t choose to explore only the possibilities that might be useful—they explore all the possibilities.” Because of play, “we can consider different ways the world might be, not just the ways the world actually is.” How it is for Jackson right now is very, very fishy.

An Internet Reset

Jenn Vargas, over the 4th of July, was determined to turn off, sign out, and ignore technology for the weekend. And she did, barely:

Sure there were some points that drove me NUTS. I really just wanted to send a text message. JUST ONE. Or sometimes the quiet would drive me up a wall. There were times where Jimelle was sleeping in or taking a nap or something and I would run out ways to keep myself entertained and would contemplate sneaking a peek at my iPad, but I was determined to actually make it the whole time.

And I did! Over 100 hours, in fact!

The trip really made me realize a few things. Mostly that I’m far too dependent upon having constant internet access. There were times where Jimelle and I would be talking about something and a certain fact slipped our minds or we were curious about the answer to something and normally I would have hopped on my phone right in the middle of that conversation and would have found out the answer once and for all. With our self-imposed rules, we had to accept not knowing the answer and look it up in a few days. Not easy for 2 pretty smart gals who have to know the answer to everything.

I continue to love this idea, and love the idea of making it a regular (if not frequent) habit.

The Perils of Google As Our Memory, Ctd.

Jonah Lehrer responds to the “Google is Ruining our Brains” hype around a recent study. He focuses particularly on transactive memory, an idea focused on the notion that part of how we “know” anything is knowing who to trust on what. We can’t know everything, so we figure out who’s an expert on a given subject and we rely on them:

And this is where the internet comes in. One of the virtues of transactive memory is that it acts like a fact-check, helping ensure we don’t all descend into selfish solipsism. By sharing and comparing our memories, we can ensure that we still have some facts in common, that we all haven’t disappeared down the private rabbit hole of our own reconsolidations. In this sense, instinctually wanting to Google information – to not entrust trivia to the fallible brain – is a perfectly healthy impulse. (I’ve used Google to correct my errant memories thousands of times.) I don’t think it’s a sign that technology is rotting our cortex – I think it shows that we’re wise enough to outsource a skill we’re not very good at. Because while the web enables all sorts of other biases – it lets us filter news, for instance, to confirm what we already believe – the use of the web as a vessel of transactive memory is mostly virtuous. We save hard drive space for what matters, while at the same time improving the accuracy of recall.

It’s a clever point, and gets at the heart of what’s really going on in this debate. The fundamental question being asked here is, “is trivial, fact-based knowledge valuable in and of itself?” In other words, is there a compelling reason for me to know that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President, or can we forget those things because they’re so easy to look up?

Some things, as Susan Orlean smartly described, we can’t Google. But why not fill our heads with that stuff, and leave what’s Google-able to Google? The end of Jonah’s piece quotes Nicholas Carr, the most vocal proponent of the “Google is ruining our brains” notion, and he makes a good point, but I’m not sure I buy it.

Talking Cars Means Smarter Cars

Katia Moskovitch reports on the latest in car safety. It’s not back-up cameras, but rather cars actually being able to converse with each other wirelessly:

“By letting cars ‘talk’ to each other, we can see what happens kilometres ahead – whereas current technology, instead, allows cars to perceive an obstacle only when it is physically in front of them,” he said.

The “talking” is done via acceleration sensors built into cars that trigger an alarm message in abnormal conditions such as when a vehicle is involved in a crash.

When a car in an accident experiences a sudden change in acceleration, this change would be captured by the sensor and alert cars and drivers approaching the same spot.

I wrote about something similar for PCMag a while ago, after spending some time in a Ford car with some like technology. It’s seriously impressive stuff.