March 1, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Robots

“Just don’t call them drones. People in the business dislike that word, which brings to mind a robot with no pilot; there is a pilot, but not on board.”

-Matthew Wald, Just Don’t Call It a Drone
The New York Times, Feb 1, 2013

There is a growing body of literature—if news reports, essays, blogposts (reflexivity duly noted), etc. constitutes such—concerning the contemporary phenomenon of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, an easy shorthand for technologically-optimized efficacy in modern warfare. (The epigram is from an article on college-level UAV training from a recent Times Education Supplement.)

But if UAV has the euphemistic ring of a state school or an STD, or a prophylactic measure obliquely related to the latter—the letters ‘U’ and ‘V’ tend to suggest as much—common parlance prefers the slangy alternative.1 Drones have increasingly made headlines not only as an indication of America’s purported Omega-level superiority in strategically targeted carnage but also as a threat to a justifiably paranoid citizenship. The semantic irony, of course, is that naturally occurring drones are precisely the hive or colony members who do not work, the small fraction of ants or bees whose sole duties are to feed and mate (as opposed to gathering sustenance).2

Yet insofar as its homonymous forms are polysemous—etymologically related despite their semantic divergence—the third meaning of “drone” has particularly relevant subtext for the hapless hoi polloi, an uncannily felicitous connotation for the masses who may be in denial about UAVs.

As a function of human agency, to drone denotes a dull, monotonous manner or tone, colloquially equivalent to ‘carrying on,’ for which alternate descriptors such as discursive, meandering, aimless, etc. vaguely suggest sense of purposeless motion; second-order associations such as ennui and banality evoke a contrary metaphor of inertia or stasis qua static. This twofold characterization ultimately represents a kind of nothingness, specifically a empty signification, vocalization without peaks or troughs, speech sans the variation or modulation that conveys passion, emotional investment, or, as it were, fallibility.

To drone implies background noise, a low-pitched hum that does not register consciously, rather more subtle than the liminal roar of an airplane engine; not stimulus but possibly its very opposite, a soporific or otherwise anesthetic blanket of white noise. A drone becomes part of the landscape, an ontological given of an environment: in a word, omnipresent—the auditory evidence of existence.

Thus, on one hand, a drone is essentially senseless or meaningless, that which goes unnoticed (albeit not necessarily by design); on the other, to drone connotes persistence, super- (or sub-) human degree of endurance that comes at the expense of intelligence or autonomy.

But if the English Language informs our concept of aerial technology as much as it betrays and elucidates our ambivalence towards a paranoid present, another now-quotidian acronym belies its equally bleak subtext. Almost exactly half a century after Turing’s eponymous test entered the lexicon of artificial intelligence, a team at CMU has turned the concept on its head with the CAPTCHA, an oblique insinuation that any upstanding netizen might just be a malicious machine.3 The inverted imperative defines us as that which we are not—bot until proven human—capturing, so to speak, the vague concession that the robots have already won.

Insofar as the current generation of UAVs in service are instruments of mortal hand and eye, these glorified (and lethal) remote-controlled vehicles are not yet autonomous. In fact, both cases underscore the shortcomings of artificial intelligence (cf. employing humans to crack CAPTCHAs), and I was curious to learn of a new service that ‘learns’ from one’s Twitter behavior in order to publish 140-character missives from beyond the grave. Contrary to the social-media-soteriological morbidity of its intended purpose, I can only assume that it would also be possible to use _LivesOn in vivo as well, such that particularly lazy or otherwise uncommitted Twitter users can train their bot-ghosts to emulate their musings for perpetuity.

But I digress: Like its digital analogue, airspace is (for all intents and purposes) infinite, and the point has less to do with whether robots are actually out there than the fact that they are a permanent possibility of our ever-new reality—hovering out of sight as opposed to merely blips on the horizon.

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Postscript: I initially stumbled upon (or Wiki-walked into) the notion of sousveillance last year, so I was curious to read Mark Hurst’s recent rant about Google Glass, a lengthy hypothesis about the new AR gadget in the real world, where it becomes an instrument of sous-surveillance, a quasi-parallel development to mostly legitimate concerns about domestic drones.

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1.) It should go without saying that capitalized appellations also suggest opaquely abridged defense-related subject matter, cf. DARPA, perhaps the most ominous acronym of all.

2.) I’ve always been interested in the congruence between the words etymology and entomology, though this is purely serendipitous. It does, however, explain the image.

3.) Issues of identity verification and/or authentication are also paramount, but beyond the scope of this otherwise free association. See also: Captchart.

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February 4, 2011

Beijing Sim City

Reprise: YACHT – Psychic City (Classixx Remix) (4:13) – 4.2MB mp3 @ 128kbps

Explore Beijing from the comfort of your living room with Baidu’s 3D maps:

I used to live in the future...

I used to live in the future...

I can only assume that Google is still reticulating splines for NYC…

The map ends a few short blocks from Rem Koolhaas' CCTV building...

The map ends a few short blocks from Rem Koolhaas' CCTV building...

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May 24, 2010

End of an Era

“Let’s go to another commercial.” –PC (1:45)

Apple’s iconic “Get a Mac” ad campaign is no more: Jobs & Co. have pulled the plug on the cheeky TV spots that pitted stuffy-button-down-middle-aged-guy John Hodgman against relatable-young-hip-dude Justin Long (human representations of PC and Mac, respectively).

Here’s a montage of some memorable moments between the two titans of technology:

via Mashable

It’s an easy metaphor for the shift from the PC vs. Mac decade to a full-fledged, multi-platform war between Apple and everyone from Google to Adobe to Amazon—not to mention Microsoft ever-looming in the background—though it’s far to early to tell who will be the next Hodgman.

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April 26, 2010

Staring at the Sun

» TV On The Radio – Staring at the Sun (Diplo Remix) (4:12) – 3.9MB mp3 @ 128kbps


NASA’s recently launched Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, is returning early images that confirm an unprecedented new capability for scientists to better understand our sun’s dynamic processes. These solar activities affect everything on Earth.

Some of the images from the spacecraft show never-before-seen detail of material streaming outward and away from sunspots. Others show extreme close-ups of activity on the sun’s surface. The spacecraft also has made the first high-resolution measurements of solar flares in a broad range of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.


via 3qd

“These initial images show a dynamic sun that I had never seen in more than 40 years of solar research,” said at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “SDO will change our understanding of the sun and its processes, which affect our lives and society. This mission will have a huge impact on science, similar to the impact of the Hubble Space Telescope on modern astrophysics.”

Richard Fisher, Director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division


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Mystic Mountain

Speaking of which:

NASA’s best-recognized, longest-lived, and most prolific space observatory zooms past a threshold of 20 years of operation [since its launch] on April 24, 1990

Hubble discoveries revolutionized nearly all areas of current astronomical research, from planetary science to cosmology. And, its pictures were unmistakably out of this world. This brand new Hubble photo is of a small portion of one of the largest seen star-birth regions in the galaxy, the Carina Nebula. Towers of cool hydrogen laced with dust rise from the wall of the nebula.

Hubble Site / via Gawker

Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543)

Boingboing also has a gallery of Hubble images from the “stunning new book Hubble: A Journey Through Space and Time by Edward J. Weiler, published by Abrams in collaboration with NASA.”
Read the rest of this entry »

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April 21, 2010

Memetic Downfall

Constantin Films has just pulled the plug on the hundreds of Der Untergang parodies (aka the Hitler Meme) that have been circulating around the YouTubes for a couple years. TechCrunch has a nice summary of the takedown of the New York Times-reviewed meme.

As the Times notes, the most successful incarnations of the meme transcend National Socialist ideology to reveal bare psychology: Bruno Ganz channeling a visceral, abject rage, immeasurably amplified by the linguistically opaque German tongue. Similarly, the scene is a testament to brilliant pacing—the best videos realistically exploit the tension as well—and director Oliver Hirschbiegel writer/producer Bernd Eichinger are duly flattered by the meme (both are quoted in the TC article). Conversely, I’m curious as to why certain remixers opted to interpolate certain names and terms, such as “Mein fuhrer,” “Steiner,” etc., while others are more liberal in their subtitles.

A full postmodern/contextual analysis of the Hitler meme as a semiotic case study, including a look at the PC barrier, can be found here.

As for my own underdeveloped insight, I would propose that the Hitler meme is, in many ways, the inverse of Ramin Bahrani’s “Plastic Bag”, just as Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present is the inverse of Chatroulette (a dissertation-worthy topic in itself). I have no further comment.

A couple of the videos are still live on Know Your Meme; the original is below:

Updated with a few more videos after the post: Read the rest of this entry »

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April 5, 2010

Obligatory iPad Post

*Updated on 4/7.


So I happened to be in Midtown on Saturday morning (long story short: I was trying to get to MoMA early enough to see Marina Abramović) and I decided to swing by the cube.

While I didn’t have a chance to see the iPad in person, I’ll probably swing by an Apple store some time this week to check it out. I don’t plan on getting one at this point but I’m intrigued by the device, which may or may not revolutionize computing and media consumption as we know it. If the iPad has been criticized for being some kind of hedonistic Swiss Army Knife for entertainment at the cost of productivity (citation needed?), I should think that it is rightfully billed as more of a grown-up supertoy than anything else—it is neither overgrown iPhone nor underpowered laptop; the iPad is something else entirely.

Furthermore, insofar as the iPad represents Apple’s foray into the space(s) currently occupied by netbooks, e-books, textbooks, regular books, magazines, newspapers, television, digital picture frames, portable gaming devices, board games, and (lest we forget) tablets, I think it has the potential to redefine media in new and possibly unexpected ways. The fact that it is an easy point of entry for a mass audience to own a piece of the Apple brand (/marketing machine) almost certainly belies its true significance, whatever that may be.


Of course, I suppose that anyone who is curious about said significance has already been inundated with news, reviews, photos, videos, etc.—the iPad has been broken, jailbroken, jailbait, photoshopped and photo-opped—from the likes of Engadget, Gizmodo, TUAW, et al. Love it or hate it, we’re far past the point of making jokes about its name.

For superbly-curated and less overwhelming opinions and aggregation, I recommend John Gruber’s Daring Fireball. Similarly, I still think that Dan Hill’s essay on the iPad is the best analysis of the its true significance (I buried a link to it in another post, but here it is again).

There are tons of demo (and demolition) videos already out there, but I happen to like this overview of magazine app art direction:

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March 2, 2010


Some Google news.


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