The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

It’s a soda machine. No, it’s a headline service!

Technology has not always marched inexorably and inevitably forward. For example, to stand in the Pantheon in Rome and gaze upward at its 142-foot-high dome (circa A.D. 126) is to be reminded that, once Rome fell, the required technology for awe-inspiring domes essentially could not be duplicated by what remained of “Western civilization” for roughly a thousand years. (In the 15th Century would ultimately come Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome in Florence and Michelangelo’s for St. Peter’s Basilica, both of which Linda and I also saw on our trip to Milan, Venice, Florence, Siena, and Rome last month.)

Owen meets the GestureCooler

Give me where to stand, and I will move the news …

I would submit that another pertinent example of my opening point, also arising from my recent travels, might be the gesture-controlled Pepsi machine I encountered at a convenience store while taking a motorcoach from Lake Como to Venice.

You say you’re excited by the prospect of using the Leap Motion Controller to play games on your laptop? You say you have always dreamed of feeling like Mickey Mouse in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of “Fantasia”? You say you want to have people stare at you even when you’re not wearing Google Glass?

Well then, meet the GestureCooler from Prosa, a magical contraption that will interpret your hand signals, take your picture, give you news headlines and the weather forecast, connect you to Facebook, and maybe even sell you a soft drink. Continue reading

Radio (or, more properly, audio) days

Chicago Tribune famous front page drinking glasses

75 years of headlines on a single bookshelf, including two versions of GREAT WAR ENDS

Last week I popped down to WBEZ (or do you say Chicago Public Media?) at the invitation of my former colleague Rick Kogan and his producer, my former Medill grad student Katie O’Brien. The purpose: to appear on “Afternoon Shift,” the program that Rick has begun hosting since Steve Edwards left to take a position at the University of Chicago’s new Institute of Politics, or as folks are wont to call it, “David Axelrod’s new thing.” (Rick’s also still at the Tribune, and it’s also worthwhile to troll to find him.)

Anyway, Kogan’s opening essay about his long involvement with and regard for newspapers is pretty evocative, and as you can see it put me in mind of the two sets of Tribune headline drinking glasses I have sitting on one of my bookshelves at Medill. The essay is followed by a three-way discussion among him, Katie, and me that tries to ask and answer questions like, Why journalism? and Why journalism for you, Katie? called it “The Future of Facts.”

Chicago Public Media is using several different platforms for putting its archival material online, and here are two:

  • A Storify collection of tweets and links that includes pointers to all of the individual segments of the program. One swell feature is that it appears you can add comments to the audio track at any given point along the audio stream, though I haven’t tried it.
  • An audio link on SoundCloud that takes you to a fairly straightforward interface. Continue reading

As to what I *read* on my summer vacation

Newspaper rack at the Frankfurt airport

Lufthansa makes sure its passengers are fully ready for the day with racks and racks of free newspapers (this is in the airport at Frankfurt).

Well, of course there were the newspapers (see photo at left); but what else? At this time of year, I get asked this question more often than at any other, so I thought perhaps I would attempt an accounting.

First, on the more or less continuing education / professional front, I finished and am happy to recommend:

Tubes, by Andrew Blum — To quote an aside in an interesting review by Alan Jacobs of a couple of the other books I’m going to mention in the new issue of Books & Culture, this book is a reminder “of the stubbornly physical nature of the Internet.” Our wireless world is an awfully long way from wireless, and this is a fascinating look at the wires — and, yes, the tubes they’re in, and the locations those tubes meet one another. Blum decided not to be satisfied with wondering where the Internet is, and we’re the better for it.

The Man Who Invented the Computer, by Jane Smiley — A biography of John Atanasoff, a claimant to that title who at least had part of his claim upheld in a court of law. The key locations in this account are no less interesting than those in Tubes: Rock Island, Illinois, and Ames, Iowa, to name two. Sure, the title is hyperbolic, but Jane Smiley is Jane Smiley. Among her other nonfiction, I like to recommend 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005).

Turing’s Cathedral, by George Dyson — Alan Turing is in the title of this book, but perhaps you could say that the cathedral was in New Jersey, at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where in the 1950s you would find John von Neumann, some interesting faculty dynamics, and a very very early digital computer. George Dyson is Freeman’s son and Esther’s brother, BTW.

(Books in this category that I didn’t finish but should have: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson; The Power of Habit by Richard Duhigg. Book that I didn’t start but evidently would have encountered before: Imagine by Jonah Lehrer.)

On the general-reading-list front, not as much as I should have. But still:

The Greater Journey, by David McCullough — We’ll always have Paris. 19th Century Paris, anyway. I guess I could tie this to the Internet by saying there’s a lot of Samuel F.B. Morse, and Morse invented the telegraph, and the telegraph was (as Tom Standage’s wonderful book would have it) The Victorian Internet. But it more than stands on its own.

A Killing in the Hills, by Julia Keller. The first in a projected series of mystery novels by my former Tribune colleague; she tells me she has submitted #2 to the publisher. No regular mystery reader, meaning I have little basis for comparison; but the intricate plotting was to me as breathtaking as the prose.

And, saving the best for last:

When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson. Her novels of course deserve their accolades, but her collections of essays, such as The Death of Adam (2005), seem the pinnacle of her art. The present collection is in somewhat the same vein. Last year I enjoyed her Absence of Mind, actually a series of lectures she gave at Yale; as in that one, every piece in this collection is worth putting down to ponder immediately upon conclusion. The book I’ll be giving away this Christmas, I think.

Classes at Medill resume Sept. 27. Will I get Steve Jobs read by then? The suspense is palpable.

What I learned on my (early) summer vacation

Top ten lessons from a 13-day trip in the early summer of 2012: Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blindingly obvious given that this is the start of my fourth decade at an Apple keyboard of one sort or another…

10. As long as there’s no need to check versioning and edit/commenting trails in a Word document, or to create 8-stage builds in Keynote that rely on carefully masked images, an iPad is all the computer a person needs for travel.
9. Particularly if that iPad has a Logitech cover that doubles as a Bluetooth keyboard.
8. If all the materials, agendas, resolutions, and ancillary documents for a multiple-day board meeting can be retrieved as a PDF in iBooks on one’s iPad, a dramatic decrease in the risk of rogue meeting-room power cords ensues.
7. The trickiest thing about reading an e-book is learning not to advance the page too quickly.
6. The Chicago Tribune digital e-edition is a fine substitute for the printed paper when a person leaves the distribution area.
5. As long as there is a Starbucks nearby, a person never leaves the distribution area of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
4. As long as there is a New York Times or Wall Street Journal within driving distance, there is never a need to turn on a television set.
3. One size of update will not fit all 1,500 of one’s Facebook friends.
2. 90-plus degrees Fahrenheit in the Central Valley of California is nothing like 90-plus degrees Fahrenheit on the shores of Lake Michigan.
And the No. 1 lesson from a 13-day trip during 2012:
1. One voicemail message and fewer than 5 telephone calls across two phone lines over 13 days would seem to indicate that no matter how important the news, intentionally asynchronous communication is forever where it’s at.