Tuesday, February 9, 2010

KQED: Making Sense of SF

For the past year, Julie Michelle has been photographing city residents and posting their portraits on her deceptively simple website I Live Here:SF. They are a mix of Bay Area natives and transplants from across the States and beyond. In short texts the subjects write themselves, some tell linear stories that begin with where they were born or grew up, while others talk about specific moments or events, like how they fell in and out of love, or found their calling. Many describe the journey that brought them to this city. Some entries are fragmented to the point of poetry, like one person's random snapshots of the city.

This city, any city, has as many narratives and perspectives and ideas of itself as it has inhabitants, which means there is no shortage of tales to tell. My favorite is by Travis, the writer, photographer, and skateboarder who is pictured above. The story he tells revolves around the homeless guy who used to hang out in the street outside his Victorian in the Lower Haight. It is touching and beautiful, but its emotional punch sneaks up on you from a place you might not expect -- a description, like so many, that could just as easily apply to San Francisco itself.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Computer Is Dead, Long Live the iPad?

There's something I've never really understood about computers: Processors speed up, memory grows, software evolves ... and yet, where's the real benefit of all this breathless, constant development to the vast majority of end users? All we seem to be getting is added complications. Sure, computers these days are marginally cheaper than they used to be, and there are tasks you can perform with today's machines that you simply couldn't in years past for want of power or memory. But most people don't use their home laptops to edit video or design three-dimensional models. Plus, many of my elderly machine's most impressive capabilities, such as video streaming, rely more on external factors like fast internet and WiFi than internal ones.

In fact, the majority of users generally only need a computer for a limited list of relatively simple tasks -- surf the web, send emails, play MP3s, write a letter, store some pictures -- none of which require much raw power. And yet, year after year, it seems that computers must increase in speed to cope with the increasingly bloated operating systems and expanding software suites that few of us know how to use properly because they're so complicated and change so frequently.

Which is why I've been so excited about the idea of netbook-style computers. None has yet delivered the right mix of usability, price, battery life, and size, but the general movement toward simplicity and value seems like a shift in the right direction. Why should you have to buy the computing equivalent of a powerful, temperamental sports car when all you need is a cheap, reliable runabout to get you to the shops?

And this, of course, is the hole that Apple is hoping to fill with the iPad. Lots of tech-focused commentators have been quick to point out its various perceived flaws: it doesn't multitask, the software is closed, it has a silly name. But the reality is there's an army of people who simply don't care about the first points, and will quickly get over the third as long as the thing works as intuitively and reliably as promised (and, judging by the iPhone, it probably will). If it does what you want it to, who cares what's going on inside?

Which is not to say that the iPad is perfect (a front-facing webcam wouldn't go amiss, for example), but I don't think Steven Frank's talk of it heralding a new age of computing is too far off the mark, either. This is the machine that is getting Rob Foster's grandma and technophobic friend excited, people who don't like computers as they are right now. And it's this huge untapped market of non-technically minded end users, not tinkering enthusiasts and experts, that Apple is aiming for.

Originally published at Ludovician.com.

Scoop! Local Reporting Not Dead After All

Living on one of San Francisco's more vertically inclined streets, I don't get many unexpected visitors. Even the most dedicated charity workers and zealous religious evangelists rarely climb the steep hill and stairs leading to my door. So I was doubly surprised -- and impressed -- when a pair of Mission Local reporters turned up last night making inquiries about an attempted burglary near our house this past weekend. I thought this kind of labor-intensive doorstep journalism was a thing of the past, especially at such a local, police-jotter level. Seems I was wrong.

Now all we have to do is come up with a way to pay people for doing it.

Originally published at Ludovician.com.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Digital Life After Death

SFGate.com has an interesting report about what happens to our online identities when we die. The main focus is the difficulties bereaved relatives have when trying to obtain access to their deceased loved ones' password-protected email accounts, social networking profiles, and so on. Apparently there are companies now selling solutions to this problem, basically offering to set your online status to "dead" after you check out.

This article, and another in last week's New Yorker about cryonics, got me thinking: why not aim for online immortality instead? It would be simple enough to write an application that would offer digital life after death. After signing up with the service, it could analyze your status updates, likes and dislikes, favorite links, etc. for as long as you remained connected to the land of the living. Then, after you logged off for the final time, the program would continue posting similar items -- "ooh, isn't the weather cold," "loving my new iPad 5," "still breathing," and so on -- creating an online presence that would never expire. It could even copy your face and paste it onto new photos posted by your living friends, to make it look as if you're still having a fine old time with them all.

If the idea took off, soon there would be a thriving online community of the undead, filling out Facebook quizzes about the afterlife, retweeting one another's posthumous musings, and making amusing mashups of Adolf Hitler in Downfall. Hrm, perhaps there's money to be made from offering this service to the living too.

Originally published at Ludovician.com.

Monday, January 25, 2010

KQED: Nneka Is Here To Save Us All

If the past decade has taught us anything, it's that mainstream American music can be subverted in many suprising and subtle ways. Sure, the bestselling artist in the nation right now may be the vanilla-voiced, bland-as-bread Taylor Swift, but just take a look at Rolling Stone's 100 best singles of the 2000s. It's a list dominated by massively successful outbursts of eccentric pop genius: "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley, "Hey Ya!" by Outkast, "Paper Planes" by MIA, and on and on. All huge commercial hits, but each, in their own wonderful ways, really rather odd.

And it is this America that stands ready to welcome an unlikely pop hero called Nneka and her album Concrete Jungle. It switches through smoky blues, biting rap, and howling soul without missing a beat. But it also has something extra, something you don't normally hear in the US charts: the sounds of unfamiliar cultures and places. With a Nigerian father and German mother, Nneka spent her childhood in Africa before moving to Europe to study aged 19. This transcontinental journey has given her both an impassioned political perspective and an unusual set of musical influences. And now Nneka arrives on these shores to promote a record packed with more pop hooks than the Jackson 5 dressed in Velcro.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

KQED: Lymbyc Systym - More Fun than Your Sofa

So you overdid it during the holidays. You've resolved to subsist on a diet of raw vegetables and fruit smoothies for the month of January (and possibly February too). Right now, you probably want to do nothing more active than retreat to the sanctuary of your sofa and watch reruns of Scrubs. But let's face facts: you can only find solace in Zach Braff's puppy-dog eyes for so long. Eventually, you're going to have to leave the house. So why not get your year off to a proper start by braving the arctic chill of our northern California winter and going to see Lymbyc System play the Cafe du Nord?

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.