Friday, March 27, 2009

A stroll through computer history

The best way to visit the Computer History Museum is with someone who worked on early computers. That's what I did last week when my favorite uncle, Jordan Spofford, and my Aunt Bev were in town for a few days.

I enjoyed seeing the Apple computer prototype, but my uncle (at left) got most excited about seeing the Cray computer and a reproduction of the Babbage Engine, the first automatic computing machine. I'd never heard of the Babbage before, but he knew all about it.

My uncle worked at Western Electric in Massachusetts in the early days of computing. Here's a photo of him testing the wiring in the D2 computer bay at Western Electric. (He said Hughes Aircraft made the test equipment they used back then.)

This pic shows my uncle and me, reflected in the glass covering over the wiring of the Cray computer.

Tags: computers, Cray, Apple, Babbage

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Unexpected guest

Alzheimer's came to my door last night, and I let her in.

She was wearing pink flowered pajamas topped by a green V-neck sweater. She was standing at the end of my driveway, after ringing the doorbell at 1:30 a.m. From a distance, her blondish page boy hair reminded me of a friend.

"Pat?" I asked from the doorway.

"No," the woman replied, turning toward me, but remaining at the end of the drive. I walked out to meet her, tugging my bathrobe close against the cold.

She was frail, much shorter than my friend Pat, maybe five-foot-two. She said she'd been driving a friend home and had gotten confused. Her car had run out of gas and she'd been walking for a while around trying to find her way home.

I said we'd figure it out and led her inside. She said her feet were cold. I looked down and saw she was barefoot. I sat her down in the family room and went to get her a pair of socks -- a pair of thick, warm woolen ones. As she slowly tugged them on, I asked if her car was nearby. She didn't know. How about her address? She couldn't tell me. Anyone we could call to help? No answer. Her name? That she could tell me, so I looked her up in the phone book and found she lived just three blocks away.

My husband and I took her out to the car and drove a few blocks, then started looking for her address. She gave no sign of recognition, no "That's my house!" I got out with a flashlight so I could read the house numbers. According to the phone book, this was her house. There was one light on inside. I tried the door. Locked. I rang the bell. No response. A car parked on the street directly in front of the house was also locked.

I went back to the car. She was still sitting quietly in the back seat. What next?

"I think we should take her to the emergency room," my husband said. It was either that or call the police.

The emergency area was quiet. I asked her to take a seat in the waiting area while I talked to the admittance clerk, who had a hard time figuring out our relationship.

"No, I'm not related," I told him. "I think she lives in my neighborhood, but never met her until she rang my doorbell about half an hour ago."

Another young man -- a nurse, a doctor? -- came out and asked her some questions. Did she know what day of the week it was? Could she give him the name of a family member to call? Did she know what year it was? No, no and no.

"How old are you?" the young man asked.

"Umm ... 28?" she responded.

"I don't think so," he said. "I think we need to admit you."

She followed him without protest into the hospital, and my husband and I drove home.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Journalism as remix?

Is it art ... or appropriation? Creativity or theft?

Take a look at the web's latest phenom, Kutiman, who makes music videos by mashing up and remixing short clips of other people's YouTube videos.

Daniel Sinker, a member of the journalism faculty at Columbia College in Chicago, comes down on the side of art. So do I.

In a recent Huffington Post piece, Sinker said, "If your reaction to this crate of magic is 'Hm. I wonder how we'd go about suing someone who did this' ... instead of, 'Holy crap, clearly, this is the freaking future of entertainment,' it's probably time to put some ramen on your Visa and start making stuff up for your LinkedIn page."

Perhaps the Associated Press might want to consider taking that advice. Instead of acting like RIAA gestapo and suing Shepard Fairey for "copying" an AP photographer's campaign photo for his now-iconic Obama "Hope" poster, the AP might want to consider adopting similar techniques instead. Instead of regarding Fairey's poster as "a threat to journalism," the AP might want to lighten up and bask in the glow. After all, I doubt anyone would remember that photographer's name, or that photo, if it weren't for Fairey's poster.

I think Kutiman's music ... video ... whatever you want to call it ... is seriously cool and creative. But I also like Sinker's larger point ... that musicians and artists aren't the only ones who can take advantage of the proliferation of raw material on the web. He says journalists should be tapping into that mother lode of material too, instead of viewing the web as a threat.

Sinker advises journalists to "Be like Kutiman: use the millions of blog entries, photos, tweets, and videos that find themselves on the web every day to build something new."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

iPhone envy

Just got a call from my hubby. He's in downtown SF and apparently his car got towed. Bummer!

What next? Is there a BART station nearby? How do you find if your vehicle's been towed ... or stolen? And how do you get it back?

It just took me one Google search and a couple of clicks to find out. Called the SFPD number listed ... yup, it was towed. Got the details, called him back, told him where to go (so to speak).

But I couldn't help thinking ... if he'd had an iPhone, he could have sorted it out without my help.

Yes, I want one! I'll be so glad when my current phone contract expires!

Tags: iPhone, Google, SFPD, towed

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Deck Chairs

Oh, no ... say it isn't so! My favorite local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, is on the ropes.

According to the Hearst Corporation, the Chron lost $50 million last year, and if the company can't make major cutbacks "within weeks ... it will be forced to sell or close the newspaper."

Of course, I guess I should have seen it coming. After all, plenty of other newspapers are falling by the wayside ... most recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Register, Journal Register chain and the Tucson Citizen. And then the Chronicle's management appears to have wasted the past 6-12 months fiddling with fonts and negotiating a 15-year contract for a new printing plant ... otherwise known as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Even if the Chronicle survives, it will be in a significantly reduced form with a decimated reporting staff. Either way, I will miss my daily dose of Chron.

Linking and sharing

As I work on my computer and listen to music on, I take a moment to read an LA Times article on musician J.J. Cale. Apparently he's been a source of inspiration for a number of well-known rock 'n' rollers, including Eric Clapton ... but here's what I'm wondering: Why doesn't the LA Times include a link to one of his songs along with the article? Seems like a pretty simple and pretty obvious thing to do ... if they want to make their website more useful.

And it's not like there aren't plenty of links available ... they're just a Google search away, after all. Really, would it be that hard to include a link to the guy's web site?

If newspapers want to compete online, they've got to pay attention this kind of stuff. It's not just about "telling" anymore ... it's also about linking and sharing.

P.S. Here's one more link to a 2004 NPR interview with Cale.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Grandin suprise

Reading a Philly Inquirer article about Temple Grandin this morning reminded me of my own favorite Temple Grandin story.

Grandin, who is autistic, is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and noted livestock industry consultant. She is also the author of several books on livestock handling, animal welfare and autism, and an autism advocate. I first met Grandin in the mid-'80s, when she was beginning to become known in the livestock industry.

It was the summer of 1987, as I recall, and I working at the Livestock Industry Congress, an annual conference put on by my employer, Livestock Marketing Association. I'd helped develop the conference program and recruited most of the speakers, including Temple Grandin, who was scheduled to speak on livestock handling, and Ellen Haas, then executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, representing consumer concerns.

It was an ambitious program for its target audience of leaders in the livestock and meat industry, most of whom had little awareness of (or interest in) the budding animal welfare and consumer movements.

The late Orville Sweet, then president of the National Pork Producers Association, opened the program by bringing out two big cartons full of postcards proclaiming bacon and eggs as the "breakfast of cruelty." The postcards, all sent to the NPPA, were part of a campaign against factory farming organized by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). PETA had also helped organize the animal rights protest that was going on outside the conference hall that morning.

Haas and Grandin were up next, with Haas speaking first. She was interrupted almost immediately by an animal rights protester who marched up to the stage, shouting, and took over the microphone. After a couple minutes, someone thought to turn off the microphone, and an security guard asked the protester to leave. She did, and Haas resumed her talk.

Then it was Grandin's turn to speak. Instead of stepping up to the microphone, she strode over to the cartons of postcards, still sitting at the side of the stage, grabbed one and upended it while turning toward the audience. Postcards spewed in an arc across the stage, some showering over the edge to land at the feet of the people in the front row. No one moved. All eyes were on Grandin, astonished, wondering what she'd do next.

What she did was proceed to tell the group, in no uncertain terms, that they needed to clean up their act when it came to livestock handling and production -- or they could expect to see a lot more animal rights protests. I like to think that speech helped launch her career.

Afterewards, some conference attendees told me they thought we'd choreographed the whole thing just to get their attention. I didn't need to choreograph it ... not with Grandin as a speaker.

Now, Grandin's story is headed for a larger stage. HBO is making a movie about her, starring one of my favorite actresses, Claire Danes. I can't wait.

Tags: Temple Grandin, animal welfare, livestock industry, HBO, LMA

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Teacher's nightmare

I'm having that dream again, the one where I'm rushing around campus after my morning class, talking to students and colleagues and such, when I realize I've totally forgotten about my second class, the one that's at noon.

Of course, it's mid-afternoon now so it's too late. And I realize I've stood up that whole class of students not just once but twice ... because it's my second day of classes, and I realize I forgot them on the first day of classes too. (What happened to my iCal alarm?)

I look around for a place to set down my bookbag and laptop so I can email my forgotten students to apologize. In this class, we are supposed to produce a play, and I fret that we are now so far behind schedule that we'll never catch up. Worry, worry.

Too many people, no place for me to sit. I wander the halls, wondering if I should fess up to my department head, or just to my students. Wait a minute ... maybe my students have already complained to my department about my absence ... why, of course, they must have! I head back to the office. But why didn't one of them email me? Worry, worry.

Then I wake up. And I realize four things: 1) My second class doesn't start until tomorrow; 2) my first class is fully online and has no on-campus meetings; 3) I do not teach in the theater department or produce plays; and 4) I've had this dream before. Whoa!

Yes, it is the teacher's nightmare ... variation #32, I think ... and I am glad to be awake and over it. Thank goodness tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We all breathed a sigh of relief when we saw ...

... get on that helicopter and fly away.

He's lucky it was a polite group and he didn't get a more appropriate farewell salute.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Words fail

Watching the inauguration with friends, I am ...