The inevitable loss of data …

Northern Colorado Business Report
“The inevitable loss of data and the last printed photo”
By Kai Staats
11 February 2011

How many digital photos, music, and word processor documents do you store that you consider valuable? Do you have backups? What software was used to create them and when was the last time you attempted to open a five year old document?

An article in the back pages of December’s issue of Rolling Stone magazine makes clear the challenges and pitfalls of recording, preserving, and recovering information in the digital age. Major music labels such as Sony Music Entertainment are finding that some digital recordings less than a decade old cannot be recovered due to degradation of information or more often, the loss of the proprietary software used to edit the tracks.

In a world where software applications change nearly as often as the top bands, the music industry is reconsidering both analog and digital tape archives while paying closer attention to the evolution of editing software where backward compatibility is concerned. The data that recalls how the tracks were mixed is too easily lost through consecutive upgrades and in worse cases, data corruption results in the loss of songs, tracks, even entire recording sessions.

To maintain a fully functional, fully recoverable archive, every label world-wide must test every recording in their digital archive against each new editing suite version in order to make certain their valuable data remains in tact. To ignore this process, to cut corners results in the loss of data, time, and money.

You may think, “That doesn’t concern me because I use iTunes and iPhoto and … iEverything!”

Sorry. What applies to the big guys is only compounded for you. You also use software whose media formats will someday be abandoned, requiring that you also open and re-save every photo, song, and video you own. What’s more, your $15-$250 backup solutions (if you backup at all) are far less reliable than those which are used by recording and film studios. But truly, it’s less about the software and hardware you own, for the real concern is–you.

Consider that prior to the late 1970s with the introduction of personal computers, only in the memorization of story and song had our species managed data which we could not see or touch. In the ancient and medieval times, librarians and hooded monks transcribed, copied, and created archives by candlelight, using pen, ink, and parchment. But in this modern world of digital data, our minds must visualize, organize, and preserve thousands of assets, more files than all the original works estimated to have been in the ancient Library of Alexandria. While some people have an innate sense of the virtual and are able to effectively visualize and manage their computer’s storage, most cannot.

In the January 2010 article titled “Amazon Kindle ebook sales surpass paperbacks”, Amazon states it now sells 115 Kindle books for every 100 paperbacks, more than 800,000 electronic titles in all. Yes, ebooks are typically stored on the vendor’s server, available to view anywhere, at any time. But what happens when is beaten at its own game by a competitor whose prices and services are more appealing?

You will of course open a new account. A year later, another. In a half dozen years from now, you will likely have engaged a half dozen ebook vendors in addition to your then more than fifty online accounts. Even if you do not find need to manage the ebooks themselves, or do not archive myriad songs and photos, you will need to track the usernames and passwords of all your online accounts. In this digital world, you do not have a choice but to learn to organize and preserve your virtual assets, just as Sony and the other big studios are doing right now.

My suggestion? Practice. Make backups and integrity tests a habit. As home burnt CDs and DVDs scratch easy and die fast, don’t use them. USB memory is designed as a transport medium, not an archival solution. Duplicate external drives are ideal for capacity and reliability. Remote backup services offer protection against local failure, loss, or theft, but also place your personal, often private affairs onto a system over which you have very little control. Keep at least three copies of all your files at all times, one of which is not stored with the others. Use automated backup software if you are not trained as a librarian or if you are not a natural at virtual management.

When is enough, enough? Just as we sort through our physical possessions every few years to determine what is needed and meaningful, and what is just junk, I believe in the end, we all will find the value of a single printed photo held behind a chipped piece of glass in a tattered wooden frame to be of greater value than the tens of thousands of digital photos accumulated over the years. For all the time spent organizing and preserving, it will be that one photo which we cherish most when the backup drives have long since spun down.

By |2017-10-21T16:33:22-04:00February 12th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

In our own image …

Northern Colorado Business Report
“In our own image: The pursuit of living machines”
By Kai Staats
14 January 2011

We are all aware of industrial robots, programmed armatures designed to do the dirty, dangerous, tedious tasks we’d rather avoid or cannot do to the same degree of accuracy, speed, and repetition. Nearly every product you purchase is created using a semi-intelligent, autonomous robotic system: from the stamping of aluminum cans to the assembly of injection molded parts for your mobile phone; from laser engraved beer mugs to order fulfillment and shipping of everything we take for granted. All accomplished by high-speed, highly efficient robotic systems.

In our homes commercially available, low-cost robot toys continue to perform, relatively speaking, little more than collision avoidance and basic interaction with the environment while robot vacuum cleaners keep up after our kids and pets.

However, what is happening in the field of robotics as a whole is astounding. Educational, research, and military robotics are making science fact from what was not long ago science fiction. Take a look at Dean Kamen’s (inventor of the Segway) “Luke Arm”, a highly advanced robotic arm funded by DARPA and inspired by Star Wars which is giving those who have lost a limb in military conflict a chance at a normal life.

What’s more, there is significant headway being made toward synthetic skin created of both biological and mechanical foundations. When these two research efforts merge, we will have a means of repairing our own skin and at the same time providing a naturally appearing shell more sensitive than our own living skin.

In particular, I encourage you to search YouTube for “Big Dog” by Boston Dynamics, the Honda Asimo, the Akiba android actress, robots that automatically reassemble themselves, human child robots (iCub), fish, spider, and snake robots that in one form or another mimic the real thing. Each is created in an effort to study means of locomotion and interaction with the real-world.

While I could prepare a column of this length every hour of every day and not keep up with the advances in synthetic eyes, ears, hands, finger tips and joints, balance, perception, and cognition, what interests me as much as the applied technology is the motivation which compels our species to create machines in our own image.

Consider the relatively recent examples in print and film: Pinocchio, Frankenstein’s monster, Metropolis, Westworld, Blade Runner, Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man, iRobot, and many more. Look then at the ancient legends and texts which reference gods in human form and humans having been made in the likeness of God. While it is not my goal to give this column a religious overtone, I do call focus to what I believe is an intrinsic desire for humans to give life to the inanimate.

Close your eyes, for just a moment, and imagine yourself as a child again. Recall how easily you arrived to that magical world where dolls and stuffed animals spoke to you, their voices as removed from your vocal cords as were their actions from your fingers. It was real to you then, just as the creation of life-like robots are to those who animate them now.

Just a few days ago, hacker Taylor Veltrop was successful in combining the real-time feedback of a Microsoft Kinect controller with a small humanoid robot, granting an uncanny glimpse of near-future, remotely controlled robots. Every move he makes, his robot attempts to duplicate. Combine Veltrop’s hack with Emotiv’s EEG, Kamen’s prosthetic arm, bio-synthetic skin, and Boston Dynamic’s running humanoids, and we will, in only a few years, be walking alongside robot androids fully human in appearance and function—personal avatars far more 3D than the imagination of James Cameron.

Scary? Perhaps. Inevitable? No doubt. While mobile phones have slowly evolved into smart phones with highly interactive systems, the rate at which robotic devices will move into the mainstream of our commodity world will likely be far faster because we are, in many ways, prepared for the next leap. The next generation of our children will not know a world in which there was not a choice between a real dog or a synthetic pet nor will they necessarily understand what the world was like before bio-mechanical organisms catered to our needs.

Children caring for aging parents, who require daily living assistance, may soon find they are replaced (for better or for worse) by a care giver which is omnipresent, forever alert, and fully trained to prepare food, change bed sheets, and administer life preserving drugs. In fact, children and physicians alike will be able to log-in to their parents’ care giver to observe and to interact from afar, the care giver’s synthetic face automatically changing shape and voice to match that of the person who is temporarily channeled by the host.

By the time you purchase your fully electric, five hundred miles per charge Honda, a family home assistant will be bundled with the car, the transfer of your prior model’s persona and memories conducted in the sales manager’s office as easily as you swipe your smart card.

The boundary between biological and mechanical is fading. The division between natural and artificial is being merged. I believe we are fast becoming the creators of new life forms in the pursuit of living machines for there is something that drives this innovation beyond commercial gain or the desire to replace aging or disabled body parts. We are compelled to learn about our own bodies and behavior through duplication, even improving upon the very foundation of that which makes us human.

We are in the pursuit of living machines.

By |2017-10-21T16:34:22-04:00January 18th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A New Kind of Self-Awareness

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Opportunity for a New Kind of Self-Awareness”
By Kai Staats
17 December 2010

Growing up I often heard that we use a mere twenty percent of our brain, the rest left to waste, or at best, a relatively dormant lack of application. It was claimed that only true genius, such as that of Albert Einstein, enabled the engagement of anything more than a paltry, minor fraction of our full potential.

As one who hates to waste anything, I took this on as a challenge, motivation to try to gain another three, four–even ten percent of my brain’s function. But without a means by which my desired improvements could be measured, the goal remained elusive and I gave up the effort.

Three decades later, I learned about the nature of evolution of life on this planet and came to understand that nothing gains improved function in advance of environmental or social pressure, meaning it is impossible for our brains to have evolved to a capacity greater than that which we need in any given task. There is no evidence for any such quantum leap in evolutionary progress whereby a single organ gains a capacity far greater than its immediate need and then just sits there, waiting for the rest of the organism to catch up. Our brain is sized and powered exactly to the capacity required for what we do: walking, talking, hunting, eating, even sending text messages on our mobile phones.

The March 10, 2010 issue of Scientific American featured the cover story “The Brain’s Dark Matter.” In this article, a comparison is made between MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans of the past which noted that relevant to a particular conscious activity (such as reading, talking, or catching a ball) the brain would exhibit only a small increase or decrease in activity (confusing, at best) in comparison to what was then deemed “background noise,” an in-discernible wash of electrical activity not associated with any significant brain activity.

While the introduction of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has improved resolution and accuracy of brain activity imaging, it is the relatively recent recognition of the importance of the background noise which has changed our understanding of the human brain. Studies show the noise to be, in fact, the internal communication between the brain’s compartments. What’s more, the number of channels for communication within the brain, to connect one piece to another, far outweigh the number of channels for receiving and processing stimuli external to the brain (body monitoring plus our five senses).

As a species which enjoys a wide variety of external stimuli, we talk about, act upon, and focus almost entirely on our conscious brain, the functions we are immediately aware of through our daily tasks. It seems that as yogis and masters of meditation have claimed for thousands of years, we should spend a little more time looking inside, tapping into that highly evolved, complex infrastructure for internal communication and real-world problem solving.

The Scientific American article went on to show that when an individual is focused on a task, catching a ball or reading a book, for example, it is the re-purposing of the brain’s background processes to that particular foreground task that is more important than the increase or decrease in overall activity.

Now this is where it gets really interesting. When we focus on a particular task, such as reading a book, we have all experienced our minds wandering, causing us to return to the same paragraph three or more times in order to comprehend and absorb the content. The same researchers discovered the ability to predict, up to twenty seconds prior to the event, when an individual will lose focus on any given task. fMRI gives us the ability to see the shift in the brain activity that leads to distraction before it happens.

This level of research is opening new doors in the cognitive sciences which in turn will lead to advances in medicine, therapy, learning, and product development. Soon, real-time brain imaging technologies will be incorporated into portable, personal devices (“iPod EEG App”) and awareness studios adjacent to the food court in shopping malls where you can for just $9.95 see the state of your inner self.

As we are just now beginning to observe the internal reflection of the most beautiful actions which we as a species bestow on each other–love, compassion, and empathy; and the most disturbing displays of anger, fear, and hatred, I am enthralled by the potential for a quantum leap in understanding the human species. I believe if we are to find some semblance of world peace, it will start with a new kind of self-awareness gained not through self-help books, regression therapy, or channeling the dead, but through a truly deep understanding of how we function.

As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” or, “if you want to change the world, start with yourself.” I’ll bet Gandhi was using more than 20% of his brain.

By |2017-10-21T16:31:17-04:00December 20th, 2010|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A Personal Shade of Green

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Make your awareness a personal shade of green”
By Kai Staats
19 November 2010

A few weeks ago I stayed in a hotel for a night. Before heading to bed, I entered the shower and took note of two shower heads in an otherwise average shower/tub combination. While I could not recall the last time I had seen two shower heads in a hotel bath, I found the note affixed to the tile wall most perplexing: “SAVE THE PLANET! In an effort to save water, we have disabled one of the shower heads.”

I laughed aloud, “Are you kidding me!?” for the juxtaposition of the shower heads and note is analogous to driving a hybrid Hummer as claim to concern for the vehicle’s carbon footprint. This was not the first time I had seen such a ploy, for most hotels post “SAVE WATER! SAVE THE PLANET!” and then go on to state that reusing your towel saves resources.

Saving resources is of course a good thing, logical and true. However, the promotion of saving the planet through reduced laundry is what bothers me, for it reeks of a marketing engine gone awry–a legitimate need for change in the behavior of consumers lost in a nearly cliche phrase, relegated to the automatic “bless you” following a sneeze.

For, October 26, Wendy Koch writes “More than 95 percent of consumer products marketed as ‘green,’ … make misleading or inaccurate claims … ‘The biggest sin is making claims without any proof,’ said Scot Case of UL Environment, adding that companies want consumers to ‘just trust them.’ The report finds ‘vagueness’ is the second-leading problem (a shampoo claimed it was ‘Mother Earth approved’) in ‘greenwashing’ – a term that refers to misleading green claims.”

It is not the point of this column to tell you be more green, nor to disclaim all green products, rather to bring to light the need to be aware of the intended value of the word “green” in a society driven by slogans, catch-phrases, and over zealous marketing … and consumers who seldom give a second thought to that which they consume.

So let’s set a few things straight.

ONE: We are not separate from the environment. The environment is not something over there, a thing or a place we can point to. It is not removed from our daily lives. We cannot preview the environment on a Google map nor come home from it after our vacation. In “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” Buckminster Fuller suggests treating our planet as a self-contained spaceship with finite resources to manage as we do a financial budget or bank account. The environment is every cubic inch of this spaceship Earth. It is our home.

TWO: The environment does not require saving. Due to the clever nature of our species, the environment is whatever we make it, and it will continue with or without our awkward, often too late attempts at making corrections to our behavior. We do, however, risk destroying much of what we take for granted.

THREE: Green is not a short-lived trend. It is not a temporary act of kindness. The reference to green was invoked as a reminder of the need for a paradigm shift, a transition to a more sustainable means of keeping balance between our desired lifestyle and the resources at our disposal.

FOUR: Green is not a religion. To say, “I believe in global warming” is to say “I believe in burnt toast.” Worship your breakfast if you so desire. Defend your slice of seven grains to the death if you must, but to state belief or disbelief in the physical change in the environment which surrounds you is only to further create factions around what should be a logical, factual conversation, a chance to debate that which we observe to be happening.

FIVE: To misuse or overuse terms such as green, eco-[insert adverb], or bio-[insert shampoo made from organic, humanely harvested carrots and Red Sea mud] is to devalue the entire concept and actually reduce effective awareness.

(This fifth and final point may appear to counter this particular issue of the Northern Colorado Business Report, so if my column is missing in the next issue, you know what happened.)

To create marketing slogans from legitimate issues often reduces their impact. Perhaps “sustainable living” invokes a more complete mental image, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue as does “green,” … and so the trend continues. It’s not that I discourage the use of green products, rather, I encourage personal awareness and subsequent choices which lead to being a well informed consumer.

In closing, I ask that when you see the note in the hotel bathroom, or read the labels on the shampoo bottles, be critical and be engaged. Don’t allow your knowledge to stop there. Think beyond the garbage disposal, trash can, and recycling bin. Challenge the marketing and challenge yourself to be educated in the entire system.

If you so choose, be green, by all means possible, but make it a personal shade of green.

By |2017-10-21T16:29:11-04:00November 22nd, 2010|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

The Myth of Free Time

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Technology and the myth of enough free time”
By Kai Staats
22 October 2010

In my parents’ kitchen in Phoenix is a framed, printed advertisement from 1919. In this ad a woman stands next to her daughter who is dressed in her wedding gown. Both are smiling, the bride appearing fully overjoyed at the receipt of her mother’s gift: a Hoosier kitchen cabinet which the ad claims will help “retain your youthful energy and girlish appearance.” The advertisement goes on to state, “[I]n Hoosier homes, daughters know the miles of needless steps and hours of wasted time that this scientific kitchen helper saves. They honor it for the service it has rendered the “little Mother” who has been able to give more freely of her time to a happy comradeship with her children.”

The Hoosier was brought to market before cabinets, counter tops, sinks, even indoor plumbing were a part of every kitchen. It offered a flour sifter, a copper or tin clad work surface, drawers, shelves, and ready storage for just about everything a woman would need as she prepared a meal for the family.

The Hoosier was just one of many advances of modern automation in medicine, machines, and time saving devices. We now have blenders to mix food faster than we are able by hand; toaster, convection, and microwave ovens to heat our food without need to gather wood; refrigerators to keep us from preparing food every day; forced air controlled by automated thermostats to warm us without fire; washing machines to keep us from thrashing our clothes over rocks in the river, and rapid transportation which moves us in a few hours over distances which would otherwise require days, even months under our own locomotion.

We fill our kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and garages with time saving devices. We collect them and pile them high. We fix them, upgrade them, trade them in, hand them down, sell them at yard sales and in the end we bury them in mass appliance graves. We even purchase larger homes in order to accommodate our growing number of appliances. Yet, we remain without the desired, often promised free time.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond and his contemporaries surmise through archaeological remains and studies of modern nomads that our ancestors of some eleven to fifty thousand years ago enjoyed far more free time than we do today. It is believed those humans who hunted and gathered spent no more than a few hours a day, a few days a week working to provide for themselves.

The Vietnamese poet and zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Being Peace, “We are so busy we hardly have time to look at the people we love, even in our own household, and to look at ourselves. Society is organized in a way that even when we have some leisure time, we don’t know how to use it to get back in touch with ourselves. We have millions of ways to lose this precious time …”

As an avid traveler and adventurer who spends a good bit of time away from modern technology, I have often found in the past that the transition from a complex schedule to one of relative simplicity was neither smooth nor easy.

In fact, it was often more comfortable to slip back into the chaotic grind than to transition out, for my body and brain were wired for constant stimuli. When those stimuli were removed, the resulting anxiety was vivid, tangible, even scary. I often required a concerted, conscious effort to let go, to be free in the moment without concern for the location of my mobile phone or content of an anticipated email.

Every day I witness people emerging from an airplane, theater, classroom, even a river trip, and instantly checking their messages with the fervor of someone who has but a few breaths remaining in this world.

With faster, shorter bursts of communication through text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, we are literally reprogramming our species for a new kind of interaction with ourselves and with the machines that we employ.

In retrospect, I grew up as a highly focused child and teenager who spent countless, uninterrupted hours on a single project. I often forgot to eat or sleep until the project was complete. My mother would deliver dinner to my father’s workshop where I took up residence for the better part of a weekend when in school, or a full week in the summer months where I built robot arms, furniture, and toys.

As an adult who now struggles to focus long enough to complete a complex task in one sitting, I pay close attention to the intricate nature of our relationship with technology. In writing what you are now reading, I have admittedly stopped to check email and text messages a dozen times, my mind literally pulling my attention to another task or event, my train of thought derailed for the moment. I take a breath, allow myself the satisfaction of multitasking, and return fresh and focused for another round. I cannot help but wonder if Stephen Hawking is correct in “The Universe in a Nutshell” when he states (and I paraphrase) “we are not ready for the tools and technology we have created.”

If we readily embrace constant interruption under the glorified banner of multitasking such that we cannot enjoy a sunset or moonrise, a walk or a bike ride, then it becomes evident to me that the prospect of free time remains a myth for no other reason than our modern fear of being at rest. I do not speak of sitting still, but truly isolating our minds and bodies from the onslaught of stimuli in order to enjoy a direct conversation with another human … or nothing more than the exploration of what we carry in our head.

In this past year, I have paid careful attention to me time, down time, and free time. While I have never owned a television, I now make time to bake bread, make hummus from raw ingredients, and to read every night. In so doing, I have found more free time and enjoy what I eat, read, and experience even more. This is somehow contrary to what we believe about automation and mechanized assistance, but it seems that free time is something we must give ourselves when we have so many options to fill our every waking minute. Free time is a choice, the effect of saying no to the craving of more.

It seems free time comes not through better, faster, and more, but through simpler, slower, and less.


With the closing of this, my first column for NCBR in a half dozen years, I offer the first of many conversations around how we interact with the technology we create. Please know that with each column, I will be sharing with you some of my free time.

By |2017-10-21T16:21:11-04:00October 29th, 2010|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments