Sunday, April 21, 2013

Just Fade Away: A Memorial to the Boston Marathon Victims

I was in Boston on Saturday morning to attend a meeting just a block away from one of two "makeshift" memorials to the Marathon bombing victims.  This one had sprung up from the ground at Berkeley and Boylson streets.  I took a walk over to see it.

Boylston was still cordoned off and deserted except for a half dozen lab technicians hard at work a quarter mile away, small white-coated shapes across an eerie urban landscape.

Historians have watched the rise of these stunning, organic, "makeshift" memorials over the past few decades.  (Michael J. Lewis of Williams College has a particularly good essay on the topic here.)  They make powerful if fleeting statements, not unlike the memorials that arise on Facebook or other social media sites.  This particular one at Boylston was very sad and very moving.  Lots of people visited--fittingly, many runners who apparently stopped by as part of their Saturday morning workouts--and everyone to a person was quiet and most respectful.

What's particularly healing for me about this sort of makeshift memorial is that, while it will disappear soon enough, I will never cross Boylston Street again without seeing it in my mind's eye.  I don't know if it can ever crowd out the other awful images, but it's not a bad start.

Ironically, the most lasting monuments of all are sometimes those that just fade away.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Living in Fear of Google Glasses

I’m a gadget guy.  I loved my first Palm Pilot so much I bought it four times: once new, and each of the three times I accidentally left it in the seat pocket of my last flight. Those of you who go back a few years with this blog know of my adoration for the HP-12C, and the Tassimo.  I also had a fleeting affair with the Kindle, which I left for a younger iPad.  And I sleep with my smart phone on my bedside table, despite dire warnings to resist.

But I say all this as preamble to my profound fear and loathing of Google Glass.

My fear comes from the sure knowledge that once placed on the bridge of my nose they will never come off.  In other words, after I've experienced augmented-reality then I'm afraid reality will seem lacking.  That is a terribly depressing thought, since I have gotten to mostly understand and kind of like reality.  I am able, after all, to find a head of lettuce in a grocery store without little red arrows and coupons appearing before my eyes--just like I could once find my way with a paper map.   Yet I know, if the GPS isn’t on (even between home and work) it feels like a black hole in the middle of my dashboard.  Google glasses will place that black hole in the middle of my reality.

The nice thing about Google glasses is
they also make us beautiful.  No extra charge.

My loathing comes from the price of Google glasses.  Not that price--I’m sure they’ll be affordable, probably even free.  It’s the price of having my brain and emotions placed in the feeding trough of global advertisers.  Did I look at the Colgate and then the Crest?  For how long?  Which did I choose?  They can fix that.  

Just imagine Google and P&G and the Chinese military crawling around inside your head all day.  Just imagine your life last May 28th from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. being subpoenaed for a court case. All I can picture is Malcolm McDowell with toothpicks propping his eyes open and being made to feel nauseous whenever Beethoven plays.  I do not want that happening to me or my droogs.  

I have never, ever understood people who go without TVs, computers, or smart phones.  I have never had much sympathy for Luddites.  But that may change.  As long as technology was rummaging around in my bookshelves, music collection and kitchen cabinets, I was ok; once it gets into my frontal lobe, it might be time to resist.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why History Students Should Love Big Data

It's Spring 1976, Wilson Hall, Brown University.  Professor William McLoughlin has just informed his 85 students in “American Social and Intellectual History” that they are to write their first paper. All he has given us is the title: “The Age of Jefferson and Adams.” We groan. Then he adds: “Keep it to three pages or less. Double-spaced.” We smile. Three pages? How hard can that be?

“If you make the margins too narrow,” McLoughlin adds, “I’ll mark you down a grade.”

Needless to say, nobody got an A on that paper. There may have been a B or two, the good professor informed us.  Not me. It was all I could do to contain my flowery opening paragraph to a single page. Some of us recovered slightly on paper two, in which we committed “The Age of Lincoln and Calhoun” to three, double-spaced pages. Some retreated to organic chemistry and other more reasonable challenges.

Little did I know, but I had just been introduced to Big Data—though it would take another generation to earn that name. Take an endless, insurmountable, seemingly disconnected pile of information, separate the grain from the chaff (or, as my engineering friends might say, signal from noise), and tell a concise, compelling story about what it all means.