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Bluetooth, Neural Networks and Talking Toaster Ovens

by Kai Staats
for MacNewsWorld
08/25/04 10:47 AM PT

The original story may be found at MacNewsWorld.

Perhaps some day soon, I will be able to access recipes from home through the LCD touch screen mounted to the handle of the grocery cart and warm dinner by simply talking to my microwave through my cell phone while walking home from the office.

There exists in my life a complex duality in my relationship to electronics. As a purveyor of Apple and IBM computers, I am, of course, interested and excited by the latest makes and models, their incremental improvements constantly narrowing the gap between the brains of the devices we, as humans, create and our own grey matter.

At the same time, I remain concerned about how quickly, mindlessly we, as consumers, purchase products without regard as to why we are doing so.

I am by no means stating that anyone should deny themselves the opportunity to simplify their life with an improved product, or to knowingly complicate their life with a completely unnecessary, but equally enjoyable, toy. However, I do believe we, as consumers, should remain cognizant of our behavior and select products based upon an awareness that is beyond that of the televised marketing or product packaging.

Yes, even before you purchase Linux, you should study the Web sites and read what customers have to say. Make certain it will meet your needs.

Gone Shopping
Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I truly enjoy interacting with other humans directly far more than through a web interface to an online store. I prefer to call my account manager of six years at MacMall or to chat with the incredibly positive, supportive and proactive account manager with our local distributor. It seems he can find anything, anywhere on the planet, and at a fair price. I don’t mind paying for his personal attention.

Generally speaking, I prefer to shop in retail environments when time allows. Compared to the incredibly high energy environment of working at Terra Soft, it can be relaxing, even engaging, when the need for a particular product is met by a knowledgeable salesperson.

Herein lies the challenge, to find a local electronics store that employs a human being who knows more than my neighbor’s dog about electronics.

Typically, I am sorely disappointed for lack of intellectual stimulation. But once in a great while, I stumble across an individual whose knowledge of USB Latest News about USB devices is more than simply being able to differentiate them from LCD monitors.

Bluetooth Possibilities
I walked into Circuit City last week to purchase a USB WiFi card, wanting to test the readily available models against Yellow Dog Linux v4.0. And so the conversation unfolds:

Kai: Where might be your USB WiFi devices?

Salesperson: Next isle over. This way. (We walk down the main isle and exit right, into a side isle.)

Salesperson: Right here. (Pointing to the selection.)

Kai: Do you know which models are supported by Linux?

Salesperson: I run Red Hat at home, I’ve had good luck with the Linksys. It’s pretty cool. Decent range. I borrow (smiles) bandwidth from either of two neighbors or just walk into a coffee shop and get online.

Kai: Nice. I’ll try this one. And glad to hear you run a real OS.

Salesperson: Yeah. You too?

Kai: (I nod, and notice other products.) Tell me about Bluetooth.

Salesperson: Not much yet, as far as I know. Mostly cell phone kits.

Kai: No need for one of those. What else?

Salesperson: I hear it is suppose to enable all kinds of devices to communicate with each other, starting with cell phones, printers, computers — eventually home theater, security systems, appliances.

Kai: Appliances? Like toaster ovens? (smiling.)

Salesperson: Yeah, I guess so. (playing along.)

Kai: (pause) What do you believe is the goal? What would be the ultimate implementation of Bluetooth?

Salesperson: Dunno. Maybe a more intelligent household — you know, to make things simpler, to save time.

While I personally find that the only way to save time is to make time, I was not in the mood for a debate. I paused to read the back of the package in my hands and study the diagram of a stick figure woman connected via a dotted line to her cell phone, laptop and printer.

Kai: You think a talking toaster oven would save time?

Salesperson: Maybe. Never thought about it. Sounds cool.

Kai: If one could talk, what would it say?

In the United States and many countries worldwide, we enjoy a free market where original equipment manufacturers (OEM) move to create products new and exciting. Some promise the savings of time and effort in our daily activities, while others entice us with “Now you can do [this] without having to do [this]!”

Great Potential
I find Bluetooth in particular to be the beginning of something with great potential.

I recently visited bluetooth.com to learn about the consortium that is driving this international product initiative. I was surprisingly impressed. It is a well orchestrated Web site with clear presentation (and a lot of photos of people connected to things with dotted lines). The companies involved are all seemingly top notch.

It appears this is one of the more well organized and focused technological consortiums of this decade. Best of all, it is presented for the average consumer, not the geek.

If you have read my introduction to this column, and read between the lines, you will recognize that I am not one to rush out and purchase the latest, greatest electronics. In fact, I am personally rather conservative in adopting the new, driven perhaps by my grandfather’s practice of conducting research, waiting for the product to stabilize, and then buying the best he can afford.

“Do it right the first time,” he says, “And take care of it so it lasts a long time.” While this wisdom is more readily applicable to a tractor than a cell phone or laptop whose lifespan is a few years at most, it has provided a slightly conservative foundation for my behavior as a consumer

Some Day Soon
It appears Bluetooth will finally do what infrared data association (IRDA) attempted a few years ago, offering a less cluttered desktop and the ability to move through ones home or office without a phone in hand. I like this. Of equal interest is the ability to tie multiple devices to each other and perhaps a common, shared database.

Perhaps some day soon I will be able to access recipes from home through the LCD touch screen mounted to the handle of the grocery cart and warm dinner by simply talking to my microwave through my cell phone while walking home from the office.

But for someone who is soon to replace Teflon-coated pots and pans with cast iron, I would prefer to cook over a wood fire than have a kitchen full of appliances that require firmware upgrades or must be replaced because the new models are not backwards compatible.

What does appeal to me, however, is the reduction of complexity. Removing the memory stick from my camera and inserting it directly into the printer Trade in your old desktop printer without having to power on my laptop is indeed a step in the right direction. What I see on the LCD screen is what I get, every time. That level of interconnected simplicity is warmly welcomed.

So where does this lead? Where will Bluetooth be in 10 or 20 years? What is the ultimate goal of any emerging technology? What could be the goal of all emerging technologies?

Gadgets and Gizmos
In general, I personally find personal electronics to be too compartmentalized. The PDA, the cell phone, the laptop, iPods and DVD remote controls –so many little boxes for so many functions. While I do not necessarily desire a single box to replace them all, it does seem overwhelming at times to keep track, tending to their proprietary batteries and charging stations.

Earlier this summer, I spent twice as much time making the cables to interconnect the components of my home theater as I did programming it once assembled. I do not desire that they dangle to the floor or run parallel to the power cables, for fear of picking up interference.

This is where Bluetooth could excel, if applied to the transmission of digital sound. But let’s take this one step further.

Little Change
While Bose and a few other OEMs have presented unit-wall-mounted CD changers, and the original piezo membrane speakers are making a comeback, home audio/video equipment has not changed in three decades: black boxes of identical width and height that stand on small gold ringed, felt-padded feet. They stack. They collect dust. And they produce a lot of heat. The quality of sound is by no means improved in line with the delivery of features, as the return to analog tube amplifiers a few years ago demonstrates.

I have a very reduced gadget household simply because even if the gadgets are interconnected via invisible transmissions, they remain isolated boxes with individual functions.

They sit on shelves or stands or in cases with smoked glass fronts. They are encased motherboards whose embedded operating systems offer a complex (and in many cases, amazing) series of algorithms that help to reproduce a specific sound environment. They do not gain value with age and are by no means a complement to my 1912 piano or century-old furniture.

A Synthesis
But as Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” proposes, there may be a not so distant future whereby the gap between our homes, our appliances and ourselves is elegantly reduced.

Let’s walk into a home whose walls contain not strands of copper that conduct either 110V, phone or ethernet signals, but, instead, invisible molecular networks that may be rearranged with the simple pressure of a finger along a path between two points, or an automatic reconfiguration based upon the presence of a human in a given room.

I envision ceiling, walls and floor whose surface is painted with a thin coat of interconnected LCD cells that come to life at will and transfer the stars or the motion of the moonlit clouds and falling snow directly into my bedroom as though the shelter above were transparent.

The television is no longer a physical appliance, but a response to a verbal request independent of where I am in my home, and a 5.1 DTS surround sound system becomes the subtle vibration of any section of the house. If the hardwood floors vibrate to the rumble of thunder, why could they not create the sensation of thunder when I desire a rainstorm on a hot summer day?

This intelligent household will not only know where it’s insulation has settled in the attic, but can offer real-time analysis and suggestions for how to reduce the electric bill (assuming it is not already off-grid and dependent solely upon the thermal couples and photovoltaics embedded in its shingles).

Neural Network
When I arrive home, I am recognized by my personal heat or voice signature, and each room I enter adjusts instantly to my preferred lighting, perhaps even adjusting according to my apparent mood.

While fixing dinner, I desire to contact a friend to plan a day of climbing and need only say his or her name. The space above the stovetop comes to life and presents a human image, the wall itself vibrating to offer the voice.

And when I arrive to the home of a friend the next morning, but forget to bring the family pancake recipe, I need only ask and my friend’s home connects to my home to transfer the data from the holographic database, which is not housed within silicon wafers, but in the very stone foundation of my home.

My home itself houses an embedded, organic neural network. It monitors the moisture content of the soil, warns of radon gas (and tracks the resident mouse population), and easily holds 1,000 years of conversation, music, televised programs and data — never corrupting, never requiring a backup.

After a good day of climbing, the evening gives way to night and I head home, craving yesterday’s pizza. The toaster oven is pleased to comply with my request for warmed leftovers, its voice distinct from that of the fridge, but equally comforting: “Thank you. See you soon.”

© Kai Staats 2004

By |August 25th, 2004|Humans & Technology, MacNewsWorld|0 Comments

First Boot Feels Like Bringing Life to Inanimate

by Kai Staats
for MacNewsWorld
08/19/04 8:43 AM PT

The original story may be found at MacNewsWorld.

I have experienced the pain and reward of many development cycles of Yellow Dog Linux. Some come together quickly, others through a great deal more frustration and seemingly insurmountable barriers. But always, in the end, it works. I have come to trust this statement for there seems to be no limit to what can be done when individuals driven by a desire for improvement focus their talent and energy on one goal.

It’s 10 p.m. and I have been sitting in this chair, fingers tapping on the keyboard, for nearly 13 hours.

Across my six desktops I have KMail with 10 or more drafts awaiting my closing thoughts; Mozilla with a half dozen tabs offering interfaces to various server-side databases; YDL.net; one or two Web sites where I am conducting research for current customer projects; and, of course, a minimum of two terminal emulators on my laptop that keep me connected to our primary Web server and local file access.

X-Chat is open as well, a rarity for me as I tend to leave my engineers to their development efforts and not distract them. Nor do I find the need to be pulled into conversations that swim between the size of their new television, bootable iPods, preferred beverage for serious coding, or the latest buzz on slashdot, which usually starts with, “Some guy has Linux booting on his [brand, model] cell phone! That is s-o-o-o cool!” and ends a few minutes and 100 responses to the thread later with, “The guy’s an idiot. Why do you have to have a reason to put Linux on your cell phone!#@$ You can, therefore you should! Man, some people should just keep using Windows …”

Different Locations
One engineer is in Canada. Another is in California. A third is in Texas. And an industry expert is in Australia. No two engineers are in the same room, let alone the same state. This seems, at first glance, to be a challenging means of developing something as tightly integrated as an operating system. And yet, surprisingly, at times, it works very well.

With a build-box and CVS server connected to each other via an isolated gigabit crossover and then each to our fiber optic backbone, these two machines form a central focus to the development effort. And around these machines we revolve, a virtual hub with spokes made of Internet connectivity.

In order to give Yellow Dog Linux life to the latest Apple G5 PowerMacs, whose Northbridge was modified midproduction (causing the kernel to “oops”), I have become the physical hands for my team in these final hours of development and testing.

Back and Forth
In this role, I stand in the server room atop a raised floor, through which a dedicated exchanger forces 50F-degree air past the backside of the mobile rack and onto my face, as I lean over the PowerMac to insert the power, USB Latest News about USB, video, and Ethernet cables. I open my PowerBook, gain an IP address, log on to the IRC server, and engage:

eng1: hey bossman!

kai: let me remind you that “boss” is a 4-ltr word

eng2: we can think of other 4-ltr words, if you prefer

kai: remember who writes the checks :)

eng2: right, good point boss

kai: nice … so where are we? let’s get this thing done

eng1: the patched kernel is building … give it a few minutes

eng3: parted is crap

eng1: why

eng3: won’t make a blessed boot partition properly

eng2: did you use holy penguin pee?

eng3: yeah, didn’t work … yaboot can’t see it

eng2: try pdisk

eng3: pdisk is crap too … dies on large drives

kai: this is not a large drive

eng1: good point … I’ll post it to cvs in a minute

kai: what would you guys do without me? :)

kai: going to eat … back in a few

(I move into the Terra Soft kitchen to fix a late dinner and then return 10 minutes later)

kai: Mmmm! 3 egg omelet with sauteed onions, mushrooms, diced red pepper, and curry powder … you guys are missing out … should I post a photo? :)

eng2: I had cold chinese food

eng3: this is why I hate all of you

kai: huh?

eng3: I had 3-day old beer

(pause)

kai: hey, how about that kernel?

eng1: done

kai: nice … so tell me what to do!

I downloaded the new kernel RPM from the CVS server onto a functional box, edited yaboot.conf, ran ybin, and shut the machine down. I removed the drive, installed it into the new PowerMac, and booted. Back to IRC.

kai: it’s booting

eng1: well?

kai: it’s still booting

eng1: has it hit the kernel yet?

kai: yeah, just made it … looks like it’s working

eng2: no sh__?

eng1: what? surprised? I knew it would work :)

kai: I got a prompt. Y-E-S! We got it.

eng1: ok, this goes to YDL.net tomorrow …

kai: thanks everyone, nice work … we’ll start building machines tomorrow … we have a lot of G5s waiting to ship … very nice :)

I have experienced the pain and reward of many development cycles of Yellow Dog Linux. Some come together quickly, others through a great deal more frustration and seemingly insurmountable barriers. But always, in the end, it works. I have come to trust this statement for there seems to be no limit to what can be done when individuals driven by a desire for improvement focus their talent and energy on one goal.

Human Creative Spirit
While each member of my team is motivated by different aspects of this effort, it is for me the thrill of having given life (as a team) to something that was inanimate just a moment before.

When the kernel boots for the first time — in fact, every time I power-on my PowerBook — I am reminded why I love my job — not because of the computer nor Yellow Dog Linux itself (I can live without computers) but because the human creative spirit is reflected on the computer screen when it offers “localhost login:”

I read this as “You have given me life. Now what can I do for you.”

© Kai Staats 2004

By |August 19th, 2004|Humans & Technology, MacNewsWorld|0 Comments

A Ghost and the Machine

by Kai Staats
for MacNewsWorld
08/11/04 9:11 AM PT

The original article may be found at MacNewsWorld.

If I didn’t try too hard, if I let go completely, perhaps I could hear the voice of the welcomed visitors from abroad — not through the trail of security logs, nor from voice-synthesized speech, nor from video conferencing, but through the simple touch of the computer case and subsequent, passive receipt of the intended message.

Several years ago, as a junior at Arizona State University, College of Architecture and Environmental Design, I conducted my internship with Robert Leathers & Associates in Ithaca, New York. I had the great fortune of being provided a room in a house once owned by Ezra Cornell, now in the ownership of Leathers employee Dave Ianello.

The house, more than 200 years old, sits atop a hill a few miles outside of town, overlooking rolling fields of green crops and deciduous trees. My rent for the summer was paid through assistance with the remodeling. Some evenings and each weekend, we removed original siding whose natural stain was derived, if I recall correctly, from the ocra plant.

We replaced each plank, one at a time, with new shiplap. Every length of pine was given a generous bead of silicon caulk on its backside before the holes were predrilled and the nails driven home. Dave was intent upon perfection, and rightfully so, for his home offered a history unlike most others.

Secrets of House
The house was very large, with vaulted ceilings and soft pine floors. It both welcomed by day with warm southern and western sun, and taunted by night with boards that creaked and beams that moaned for no apparent reason.

One night, we sat in the kitchen from dinner until midnight while Dave told the secrets of his home. It had once offered safe haven to the escaped slaves of the south, in a time when those who granted passage were as much at risk as those who fled.

Above Dave and I hung a light, inducing singular, subtle reflections upon the cookware that hung to my front, over the sink and against the wall. It cast a luminous cone just slightly beyond the space that Dave and I filled.

In many ways, the kitchen was a theater with attention focused upon two actors, while the stage behind us was left in shadow. Had other actors been present, it would have been difficult to determine.

A Ghost
In a hushed voice, Dave carefully explained that in the middle of the house, between the walls of two interior rooms, was a staircase that led from the basement to the attic without exit at either level between. This unique architecture provided safe haven for runaway slaves, the stairway designed to quickly, quietly allow persons to move from one level of the house to the other in order to evade detection.

The more Dave’s story unfolded, the more the cone of light seemed to contain us, the kitchen outside of our immediate conversation darkening with each quarter hour that passed. The reflections on the kitchen utensils seemed to dim.

He spoke of what he knew, that entire families lived here atop this hill. When it was safe, the families played in the yard between the house and field and slept at night in the barn, which during my stay housed a piano that was so weather worn that the hammers had to be manually retracted with one hand while the other played simple melodies. They cooked meals and ate in the same room where we were sitting and talking.

In the next brief moment, Dave’s story was both interrupted and confirmed. At midsentence, we both heard the clatter of metal pots and pans, the laughter of children and the conversation of adults.

Another Time
My hands were instantly coated with sweat. The cone of light was broken. I could see the kitchen walls clearly again — and I searched for the source of the sounds.

But when I returned to Dave, he was smiling. This told me, without words, not where but when I could find the echoes that had moved through that room. They were not of that moment, but of years long since past.

There was no reason to speak. We chose to leave the perfection of that spellbinding moment unaltered. We stood up, left the kitchen and climbed the wooden flight of stairs to find our beds and sleep. We never again spoke of what we heard.

More recently, late last year I was giving a quick tour of the Terra Soft Solutions facilities. We wound round the twisting corridor of our offices then situated in Loveland, Colorado’s original Light, Heat and Power building. Careless additions had swallowed exterior doors, transforming them into curious transitions between otherwise unassociated rooms.

My friend was not technically inclined and certainly not interested in the width of our datapipe nor redundant nature of the fiber optic ring. The pulsing heartbeat of the fail-over connection between our primary Web server and its trusted mirror was about as interesting as a dissertation on the efficiency of Linux over Windows.

Thousands of Visitors
In a moment of hesitation in which I contemplated how best to describe what was contained in the server room, I placed my hand on the primary Web server, moving to explain that it housed the Yellow Dog Linux and Terra Soft Solutions Web sites. I explained that with an average 3,000 to 5,000 visitors each day, at any given time there are likely to be a dozen people viewing our site, and from at least two or three countries.

In that space between words where the cool plastic shell of the computer met the warmth of my human hand, for a very brief moment, I considered the movement of electrons through the Ethernet port across the PCI bus, to the North bridge, CPUs, and back again — all just inches below my palm.

This journey was not random. In a very real way, these electrons were the ghostly extension of human beings. And if every electron were traced back to its origin, it would find a human with keyboard, mouse and monitor in reach.

Each human had reason to visit our Web sites. Each human had a lifetime of stories to tell. In that instant, the otherwise uni-directional pull of data from my server to those who requested became a bi-directional communication.

The Machine
What if I could place myself back in that cone of light in the kitchen of Ezra Cornell’s house, focused upon the story unfolding, with both the teller and audience lost in the words, and hear the laughter of a child whose fingers tapped lightly on the keyboard of a computer 10,000 miles away.

In that moment, I felt as though I could hear that child. If I didn’t try too hard, if I let go completely, perhaps I could hear the voice of the welcomed visitors from abroad — not through the trail of security logs, nor from voice-synthesized speech, nor from video conferencing, but through the simple touch of the computer case and subsequent, passive receipt of the intended message.

What if technology could move past this crude presentation of thinner, lighter and faster to the ability to enable a truly dynamic, yet passive, connection between two distant human beings? What if we can one day share thoughts without the need to transcribe emotion into the logical construct of language and, yet again, into the confines of a keyboard?

What if the stories of generations past were not confined only to one place and time, but instead were reissued at will, enabled to echo across centuries?

This would be technology come full circle, back to the humans who gave it life. This potential would be a reminder of how far we have come — but that for now remains elusive, a vision for how far we have to go.

© Kai Staats 2004

By |August 11th, 2004|Humans & Technology, MacNewsWorld|0 Comments

The Cell Phone Calls –part 2

by Kai Staats
for MacNewsWorld
08/04/04 6:00 AM PT

The original story may be found at MacNewsWorld.

As I placed seemingly countless miles between me and my Phoenix home, I became less concerned for the trivial fears that had plagued my mind while packing. With recognition that I was on my own, I was not only free to, but bound to, make my own decisions. I gained a wonderful sense of accomplishment, independence and confidence, which has since carried me to many countries around the world.

With the close of part one of this column [Kai Staats “The Cell Phone Calls,” MacNewsWorld, July 28, 2004], my first reaction was to toss my cell phone from the car, to teach it who was in control.

But the thought of the look on my bookkeeper’s face when I would explain why I needed a new phone kept me from enjoying the experiment in high-speed trajectories. I removed my left hand from the window controls of my vehicle. But the internal struggle remained. I should not have been fighting as I was. I knew this was not how I used to be. When did this occur?

I quickly searched my memories, seeking a time and place when I would not have conceived of owning a cell phone, much less using one there in the middle of Nevada — on a weekend.

I then recalled a memory some 14 years prior: my very first solo road trip, a winter trek from Phoenix to the lava tubes outside of Flagstaff. With several gallons of water, a tent, sleeping bag, shovel, fire extinguisher, stove, cook set, atlas and ample clothes to keep me warm should another ice age hit that weekend; with my full tool kit, camera and food enough for a small army, I was not only self-sufficient, I was prepared for all possible natural disasters.

Reliance on Technology
As I placed seemingly countless miles between me and my Phoenix home, I became less concerned for the trivial fears that had plagued my mind while packing. With recognition that I was on my own, I was not only free to, but bound to, make my own decisions. I gained a wonderful sense of accomplishment, independence and confidence, which has since carried me to many countries around the world.

Now, at age 33, I felt I had somehow fallen into reliance upon technology rather than on my own preparation, confidence and intuition. I recognized that now, instead of preparing to go to the office of a customer or industry associate by asking for detailed directions or downloading maps the night before, I often drive in the general direction and then call to ask for assistance. If necessary, I call again, usually from the wrong side of the correct city block.

Ridiculous. That tiny black box with numbers 0 through 9 was stealing my independence and, more important, my ability to live in the moment. How could I enjoy the here and now, the rich beauty of Nevada’s multiple, parallel mountain ranges or the company of my travel companion if my mind was occupied by concern for, and anxiety with, the work-week to come?

Taking Note
I therefore drew upon that rich memory of my first road trip and, with little hesitation, powered down the cell phone, tossed it into the glove compartment, held the warm hand of my companion, and was once again free.

Both prior to and since this recent trip, I have taken note of, for instance, my own desire to check messages immediately after deboarding an airplane. I have decided that given the context of a business trip where I am to meet someone or I have a tight agenda, it makes sense.

But what concerns me most is the nearly autonomous reach for the jacket pocket or outside compartment of the shoulder bag as I race through the terminal corridors, bumping and pushing against the hoards of other humans with cell phones seemingly surgically attached to their ears.

Moments to Observe
For me, even a few moments of taking it all in makes the difference. And so I stop, usually to the side of the walkways, and just observe. I watch the families with excited children tugging on shirt sleeves and skirt pleats. I watch lovers scan the horizon with a look of sadness until their partner is found, their face exploding into smile, laughter and then tears as they embrace.

And I watch the hurried business person in a near sprint, polished leather shoes reflecting the recessed overhead lights like a shiny car beneath street lamps at night, the reflections racing in reverse. I feel the rumble of the next jet as it leaves the earth and the nearly unintelligible attempt by the pager to pronounce names of those travelers who are lost or temporarily missing in transit.

It takes only a few moments, accompanied by one or two deep breaths and a cool drink from a fountain, to remind myself that I am the human, and the cell phone is the invention of my kind. I exist without this device. But it cannot exist without me. And when I do power it on, I do so by choice. Therefore, I do so with greater pleasure and far less anxiety.

I abruptly pulled the car to a stop on the side of the road. Without concern for traffic — for it does not exist in the high desert of Nevada — I planted myself in the middle of the road, arms outstretched to become a human antennae. No matter how hard I tried to intercept them, tens of thousands of microwave transmissions passed through me every second, completely unnoticed, for I am missing the feature in my human frame required to receive them.

And this caused me to smile.

© Kai Staats 2004

By |August 4th, 2004|Humans & Technology, MacNewsWorld|0 Comments

The Cell Phone Calls –part 1

by Kai Staats
for MacNewsWorld
07/28/04 8:27 AM PT

The original story may be found at MacNewsWorld.

It was Saturday. No one was in the office. None of my customers would expect a call, even if they were working. While there seemed to be no reason for it, the nearly overwhelming desire persisted. I realized then, in that moment, I was suffering from lack of connectivity.

This is the first of many discussions built upon my observation of my own behavior and that of those around me as my generation and the next move into a very near future of hyperinterconnection.

My immediate writing will be concerned with how we as human animals offset our natural instinct, intuition and independence with a reliance on technology, if not to make a decision for us, then to enable connection to another human or group of humans.

To contrast this, and to look at both sides of the equation, I will also explore, in subsequent columns, the incredible possibilities of interconnection. This interconnection even now enables, for instance, multiple generations spread across vast distance to remain in contact; or the common citizen to capture via digital photo and cell-phone uplink a public uprising, protest and associated military response; or for companies to provide 24/7 tech support to customers 10,000 miles away.

Freedom and Flexibility
My latest lesson in the connection between humans and technology came during the first week of July, when I completed a 4,380-mile road trip from Loveland, Colorado, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I rock climbed and camped in the Pines. The next day I arrived in Phoenix two hours before the start of a 48-hour film challenge that I co-directed with my brother. The following week found me in the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) and countless meetings from morning until night.

I headed home with a travel companion. We ventured to Portola State Park, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Lehman Caves in New Mexico, a quick walk on the shore of a dry lake bed (a few hours south of Salt Lake City), where the hot grey/green clay oozed between and over barefoot toes. Finally an evening and night in Arches National Park, Utah, before crossing the Rockies on I-70 the following and final day.

This two-week venture, like more than a dozen before it and many more to come, was a business trip. This means 8 to 12 hours a day with e-mail, phone calls, meetings and remote management of my company. During these extended journeys, it is imperative that I remain connected to my team and my customers in order to keep things running smoothly. The climbing, camping, even the 48-hour film challenge keep me running smoothly, or I would break down far faster than would my company without sales or my Subaru without oil.

My nontraditional means of travel is an attempt at balance, compensation for long days and lack of regular weekends. More importantly, it is a reminder of who I am. But with this thought in my mind, I noticed something on this particular trip that caught me off guard, something I am not pleased to have discovered.

Despite the expressed freedom that I personally enjoy, for the flexibility and mobility that millions of people now have with cellular phones, high-speed internet connections and virtual private networks (VPNs) into their home offices, even with major improvements made to video conferencing — something doesn’t feel right to me.

Lack of Connectivity
As I crossed the wonderful distance between Reno and Wells, Nevada, a truckstop town at the intersection of I-80 and Highway 93, the northern entrance to a splendid high-desert valley bordered by snow fields on 10,000-foot peaks, I looked down to the cupholder between the two front seats that held my cell phone (used only during road trips). I felt the overwhelming urge to check voice mail, to call someone — anyone.

The anxiety that drove this sensation was similar to that which people must experience when exiting an airplane, restaurant, or movie theater: the impulse to immediately check voice messages. Perhaps this is the same, underlying reason people put their cell on standby — as opposed to just turning the thing off — even though they are not able to answer.

It was Saturday. No one was in the office. None of my customers would expect a call, even if they were working. While there seemed to be no reason for it, the nearly overwhelming desire persisted. I realized then, in that moment, I was suffering from lack of connectivity.

My copilot grabbed her cell to call her family and check in, and that was when I found my own cell in my hands, the power on, my fingers ritualistically navigating through the phone book to my parents back in Phoenix — to check in.

Humans and Technology
As we maintained a cruise-controlled velocity of about 87 miles per hour in a place vast and wonderfully devoid of humans, I could not help but consider the time required, just two or three generations ago, to cross this same space. And I contemplated the solitude that one would have experienced in the days, the weeks that were required in comparison to our speedy traverse in mere hours. Without CB, cell phone, pager, satellite phone, and certainly without AAA-assured roadside assistance, these individuals on foot, horseback or wagon were far more isolated and, therefore, made truly independent decisions.

In years past, I have soloed in Denali National Park, Alaska, for two weeks among the rock marmot and grizzly; in the Saguaro Desert of the Superstitions for days on end, and more recently ventured to Mexico and the Caribbean without even hearing a phone ring let alone using one for weeks.

I had been without communication with family or coworkers for less than 24 hours but was feeling that low-level anxiety, the kind that starts in the abdomen and creeps into the chest and upper arms. When I became aware of the experience, when I realized what was driving me to call, I was shocked to discover — I had been reprogrammed. And I was my own hacker.

© Kai Staats 2004

By |July 28th, 2004|Humans & Technology, MacNewsWorld|0 Comments

Humans, Technology Mesh in Fascinating Ways

by Kai Staats
for MacNewsWorld
07/21/04 10:46 AM PT

The original story may be found at MacNewsWorld.

Before I open a book, I always turn to the back page to read about the author. I find it helpful to know about him or her, for in my mind I desire to picture this person when the words were first applied to keyboard, screen or print. It helps build a foundation for what I am about to read, even if idealized or oversimplified.

I am honored to be invited to write for MacNewsWorld. As one who is daily entrenched in Linux and high performance computing, it may be expected that I would write about the battle between Linux and Windows, PowerPC and Intel. But I do that for a living. I need a break, a creative outlet for those thoughts that otherwise remain trapped between brain, fingers and keyboard.

In this column, I plan to explore the subjects of human interconnectedness and isolation, interdependence and independence in a rapidly evolving age of technology and telecommunications. In so doing, I will derive as much as I am able from my own experience in order to share first-hand what I have observed within myself, my immediate associates and the world within my sight and touch.

I will also call upon conversations with customers, articles and books I have read, and the creative liberty of extrapolation for events and places that either I have not explored in person or to create those that have not yet come to exist.

Building the Foundation
Before I open a book, I always turn to the back page to read about the author. I find it helpful to know about him or her, for in my mind I desire to picture this person when the words were first applied to keyboard, screen or print. It helps build a foundation for what I am about to read, even if idealized or oversimplified.

Therefore, I offer to you a bit about me: I am the co-founder and CEO of Terra Soft Solutions, developer of Yellow Dog Linux for PowerPC. I am an avid rock climber, I prefer sleeping in a tent rather than a bed and I have traveled to many countries around the world. I would claim to live alone in my 1912 sugar mill home in Loveland, Colorado, were it not for the animals that live with me within the walls (literally): birds, mice, spiders and bees.

I purchased the oldest (by choice), ugliest (not much of a choice), fixer-upper (a third generation, seemingly incurable disease) house in this historic neighborhood. My mother cried when my parents first visited my home, asking if I could get my money back. Knowing it was too late, she promptly called in a 30 cubic yard dumpster, which we filled twice while gutting all 900 square feet of home. One more dumpsterload and I might as well have hung curtains in the dumpster instead. Six years later, I continue to prepare my food over plywood, for my countertop is not yet complete. I have more projects started than complete.

A Mixed Bag
Seemingly caught between two worlds, I am often perplexed by technology unfolding at a breathless pace whereby humans are able to conduct that which was written about in science fiction just one generation ago; and my own craving for a time since past when one could drink from mountain streams without concern for giardia or the outwashing of acid rain.

I use a 15-inch Apple PowerBook with immediate access to a dozen servers, routers and fibre optic backbone scalable to 100 MB with the click of a mouse, a gigabit with a phone call. I have employees in three states and Canada, one of whom I have never met nor even seen his photo. I don’t need to. We are connected daily via e-mail, electronic calendars, CVS, chat and phone.

At home I do not own a television, computer or game console. I have a 1914 piano, many books, and, as one who enjoys quality sound, a decent home theater system connected to my 1978 Commodore 64 monitor for watching DVDs. I have a peach, a plum, a mulberry and two apple trees. This year I am growing corn, beans, carrots and “a” strawberry (despite my best efforts, this plant seems to produce no more than a single fruit per year).

Ever Evolving
I am simultaneously thrilled by the possibilities of a space ladder to hoist payloads to orbiting cities without massive pollution — and frightened by the very real desire for some parents to embed GPS beacons in their children’s arms to make certain they are neither lost nor stolen.

If I recall correctly, just a few years ago, half of the human population had never used a telephone, let alone the Internet. But I am in awe of the rate at which intercomputer connectivity is increasing, not only in speed but in the number of persons online. It seems the gap between the connected and the disconnected will soon narrow.

This transformation will occur as a function of desire for interconnectivity and, oddly enough, independence. Therefore, I am fascinated with the potential for shifts in power when once-isolated peoples have access to the entire connected world, and of equal importance, the entire world has access to them. But what will happen when individuals fail to recall what it means to be alone and their desire for independence grows to become interdependence?

When microchips give way to nanobots which are replaced by organic arrays nearly indistinguishable from our own cells — passed from one generation to the next, evolving by design — then our own connected future may lie not in the light of fiber optics, but in the spectrum of a new kind of ESP (what I will call “Engineered Sensory Perception”), a means of interpersonal communication that makes a gigabyte per second look like two children with a garden hose, funnels held to mouth and ear.

Interdependence and Independence
My writing will be a one-way communication in most respects, from me to you. Given this constraint, I will do my best to write as a catalyst, offering material for discussion. While I do write with an agenda (or I would find no compelling reason to write), I will do so based upon the premise that “This is what I have experienced …” in hope that it stimulates thought, consideration, awareness, action, reaction, even debate among you and your associates.

I will remain attached only to the hope that I may cause the occasional “Hmmm,” or “Ah-hah!”

Given this introduction, please return to this column next week for the first of what I hope to be many thought-provoking ventures into the experience of being human in a world rapidly evolving to extend humanity’s reach through innovation in technology.

© Kai Staats 2004

By |July 21st, 2004|Humans & Technology, MacNewsWorld|0 Comments