Posts Tagged iPad

Moses Maimonides’ iPad

“Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries” at the Jewish Museum, New YorkRecently, I saw an amazing exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City. “Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries,” shows rare Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic manuscripts from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries.

Among the scores of texts on display were the Kennicott Bible (a magnificently illuminated Hebrew bible) and a book handwritten by the great philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides.

Obviously, these texts were too old and valuable to handle, but luckily the curators at the Jewish Museum had a clever technological solution. Beside each book was an iPad, so visitors could look at every page virtually. It was very cool, and made for a very odd juxtaposition.

It’s harder to get closer to a long dead philosopher than to see a book written in their own unique hand. On the other hand, it’s harder to get farther away from an original text than reading it on a tablet, where code creates the illusion of paper and ink.

Of course, this is all out of necessity: seeing an image of Maimonides’ book is better than not seeing it at all, and few people would even know of Maimonides if his books had never been mass-printed.

Still, it begs a question: What artifacts will the great writers and thinkers of today leave behind? Will the efficiency of typed notes and digital publishing erase the writer’s mark, denying future generations a reminder that great books are a product of human beings?

Digital tools make creating and reading written works much easier than ever, but that doesn’t mean all of the changes it brings will be positive. The printing press made the books on display obsolete, not the Internet, but there’s still a reason why they attract so much attention today.

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Is it a car, or a tablet?

Cadillac XTS dashboardIn its ads for the XTS with CUE (Cadillac User Entertainment), Cadillac likes to emphasize how much its infotainment system’s interface has in common with a smart phone or tablet. You can pinch and drag on the XTS’ touch screen to your heart’s content, but what about the rest of the car?

Digital devices are the hot technology of the moment, just as cars, jets, and trains were in decades and centuries past. To keep with the times, cars are starting to take on some of the look and functionality of phones and tablets.

Design wise, that creates many good-looking cars that lack the sheer verve and optimism of the classics. But it creates a host of more practical problems when car companies start turning their products into giant tablets.

At the very least, it makes driving a car very difficult. Controlling a touch screen is easy when you can look at it, but you really need to keep your eyes on the road at all times while driving.

Carmakers continue putting these systems in their vehicles, but they’ve pretty much left it up to the owners to figure out how to use them without crashing. So much for surfing radio stations on the go.

Or even checking to see if your brights are on. A small dashboard icon suffices in most cars, but the Tesla Model S uses its industry-best 17-inch screen to show the driver a picture of the entire car.

That’s cool when you’re sitting still, but it’s hard to imagine looking away from the road while carving through traffic to fiddle with the screen.

Driver shouldn’t get into the habit of ignoring the road to play with infotainment systems, and they shouldn’t ignore the rest of the car either. The Model S’ touch screen is the cherry on top of a technology sundae that includes a high-performance electric powertrain and super-low drag coefficient, but what if someone slapped that interface on a less-than stellar car?

A car needs to do much more than be a wheeled platform for a tablet. Customers shouldn’t let carmakers off the hook, or let themselves get cheated, by ignoring the things that make a car a car. After all, would you buy a Ford Pinto if someone strapped an iPad to the dashboard? We really on our cars for transportation and our mobile devices for communication. Let’s try not to confuse the two.

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Science fiction future

USS EnterpriseScience fiction is pretty depressing. At least, that’s what Glenn Harlan Reynolds said in a piece for Popular Mechanics. In his view current sci-fi, characterized by writers like Neal Stephenson, is too dystopian. Reynolds wants a renaissance of the upbeat sci-fi of the ‘50s and ‘60s, where science solved problems instead of causing them. I couldn’t agree more: today’s sci-fi is decidedly negative, which is odd, given how much we rely on technology.

We live in the Digital Age. Our smart phones, computers, and tablets were science fiction a generation ago, and now they are like appendages. They give us access to people and knowledge that we never had before, yet they don’t seem to be the path to a utopian future. In the near-future America of Stephenson’s Snow Crash, computers are used to spread a neurolinguistic virus. In contrast, it’s hard to think of a sci-fi story about a hero who saves humanity by tweeting.

The kinds of technology depicted in each sci-fi story may have something to do with this dissonance. Star Trek is the most optimistic of classic sci-fi series; it’s about a future where war, hunger, and sickness are virtually eradicated with science. Does your iPad feed you? Is it as much of a technological achievement as the USS Enterprise?

We are constantly being told that the Internet represents a revolution in human communication, but perhaps the people that harness it are thinking too small. NASA is being marginalized while brilliant young minds slavishly court “angel investors,” looking for cash for the next app or website. Shouldn’t they be looking to the stars?

As for the sci-fi writers, they should take the leadership position they used to have. Science fiction used to chart the course for actual science, but not anymore. Dystopian stories that comment on the potential ramifications of our behavior are vital, but in addition to describing the problem, someone needs to describe the answer. Writers in the ‘50s and ‘60s could have exclusively written stories about nuclear war, but they didn’t. They tried to look on the bright side.

That is becoming harder and harder to do. The negative impact of our tech-driven lifestyle is painfully obvious. Building our devices harms the environment and ruins people’s lives. It also makes us more lethargic and less willing to connect with that boring, tactile realm known as “reality.”

People can sense that there is something wrong; if they didn’t, writers wouldn’t create so many negative works, and people wouldn’t buy them. That says a lot about us, as all good literature should.

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Apple’s taxes: What is the right thing to do?

Ben Franklin famously said that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Over 200 years later, it’s still impossible to cheat death, but not taxes. The New York Times recently published an expose on how Apple and other tech companies use perfectly legal loopholes to finagle their way out of paying state and federal taxes. Apple uses subsidiaries in states (Nevada) and countries (Luxembourg) with more favorable tax rates in order to hang on to as much cash as possible.

Apple isn’t the first American company to be accused of cheating on its taxes, but that doesn’t explain why. Apple wants to maximize profits like any other company, but it also has a reputation for good citizenship. Doesn’t being a good citizen include paying taxes?

In a statement, Apple noted that it gives a significant portion of its untaxed profits to charitable organizations. “We have contributed to many charitable causes but have never sought recognition for doing so,” the company said, “Our focus has been on doing the right thing, not on getting credit for it.” Over the past two years, Apple has donated $50 million to Stanford University, another $50 million to an African aid organization, and started a matching donation program for employees.

If Apple is willing to give freely to charity, why does it squirm at the thought of paying taxes, which fund the same good works. Taxes take away from a company’s profits, but so do donations. At least taxes pay for the infrastructure required to keep a company in business and, you know, keep it in compliance with the law.

Some people believe that, by headquartering itself in California, Apple has “done enough.” The company does not need to pay more taxes, because paying some is better than paying none. If we were still talking about charity, that would make sense; you can’t force an organization to donate a certain amount of money to African aid.

However, taxes are a legal, not a moral, issue. For both individuals and companies, being in the United States means paying taxes. The amount is determined by a duly-elected representative government. Apple needs to pay its fair share, because otherwise everyone else will have to pay more than their fair share. Paying the correct amount of taxes is not optional, at least not for most people.

Companies may hate to part with cash, but taxes benefit them in other ways. The government programs funded by taxes make our society work. How can we help people in Africa if we can’t even maintain streets in Worcester, Massachusetts?

It’s a point that often goes unnoticed in our modern society of corporate worship. Yes, Apple gives us amazing technology that makes our lives easier. It also creates jobs and pays some taxes. Still, Apple needs the United States as much as the U.S. needs Apple. Steve Jobs gave his customers personal computers, and his customers made him rich. He took advantage of America’s entrepreneurial spirit, and rich economy, to found a company. Would things have worked out as well if Jobs was born in Russia?

I’m a huge fan of Apple products (this piece was written on an Apple computer), and I’d like to think that there is more than sheer greed behind the company’s actions. Apple said it just wants to do the right thing, regardless of public recognition. Not dodging taxes is definitely the right thing to do. If Apple continues to scrimp, it may getting some unwelcome publicity, and not the kind that includes awards and pats on the back.

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Instant Isolation

Pandora logoI really hate “Moves Like Jagger.” It’s a mediocre pop song with a stupid premise. Is Maroon 5 so lame that they have to invoke Mick Jagger? Are they too uncool to sing about themselves? But I digress.

That song came on the radio this morning, so I had to start flipping through channels to get away from it. If I had satellite radio, an iPod dock, or some form of internet radio, I could be reasonably assured that I would never have to hear about Jagger’s moves ever again. However, that’s not a world I would want to live in.

The Digital Age gives people the opportunity to focus on what they like, to the exclusion of everything else. No matter how esoteric your taste in music is, you can build a playlist  around it. Like Indy-emo-punk rock played on the hubcaps of a 1977 Chevy Caprice? Just do an iTunes Power Search, or punch some keywords into Pandora.

That is definitely a good thing, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are other things out there. Most people listen to the radio while driving, but thanks to digital music, they never have to listen to the same music as everyone else. Many cars come with internet or satellite radios, and internal hard drives that can store a person’s entire music library. The iPod has become a shape-shifter.

Hearing your favorite song on the radio used to be a moment of joy, because you had to wade through all the dreck of bad songs, commercials, and annoying DJs to get to it. Today, we live in an age of instant gratification. Again, everyone deserves to hear what they want, when they want (power to the listeners!) but we have to consider the adverse effects of this technology.

Is it possible that we’re getting too compartmentalized? We have a good idea of what we like, but do we know what other people like? It helps to at least be aware of what other people are reading, watching, or hearing. At the very least, it helps us figure out what we don’t like and, consequently, who we are. It can also help us relate to each other more easily, instead of walling ourselves off from the rest of the world in little boxes of taste.

Derivative pop songs can be very annoying, if you’re not into bad music, but not everyone has the same taste. Along with opposable thumbs, difference is the most essential part of being human. With that in mind, remembering that there are other people out there besides ourselves can’t be a bad thing. It might even create a little empathy (gasp!). Alright, maybe this is taking things a little too far. However, one thing is for sure: traditional radio helps you appreciate the little things, like every blessed moment “Moves Like Jagger” is off the air.

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Is your iPad all it can be?

In one of its recent iPad commercials, Apple tried to show consumers all the wonderful things they could do with Steve Jobs’ little black tablet. From reading classic books to learning a new language, the iPad looks like the key to enlightenment. But is that really what iPad users do with their devices?

You probably have an Internet-connected electronic device at home. What do you use it for? Do you go on Facebook a lot? Do you watch other people make fools of themselves on Youtube? Do you read random blogs written by curmudgeon-y writers?

The Internet brought the world to our fingertips, and devices like the iPad and iPhone make that interface even easier. However, traditional, pre-Internet, goals of learning can’t beat distractions that were designed for the Internet.

There is considerable debate about whether it is better to read a physical book or a digital one, but you can only play Angry Birds on a screen. In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr described how the Internet encourages the brain to skim through materials instead of examining them closely. That makes it very hard to learn a new language, but very easy to scan the latest Tweets.

If Apple’s own commercials are the benchmark, the iPad may not be living up to its potential. Or maybe Apple needs to reassess. Its device is the perfect platform for all the Internet frivolity we know and love. That is its true function, although that may not be the best ad material.

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