Big Beef vs. Small Children

April 29th, 2003
Image from

I love a filet mignon or a backyard cheeseburger. But the more I learn about the huge corporations behind today’s American beef, the guiltier I feel about financing them.

Consider Cool to be Real, a Web site funded by the big American cattlemen’s lobby and designed to persuade little girls to spend more time stuffing their faces with beef.

The site poses as a health, fitness and nutrition resource. It encourages partaking in “Nutrition-To-Go,” which means gulping down foods like chili and cornbread, and barbeque beef sandwiches. “Smart Snackin’ recipes” include “Beef Taco and Cheese Pockets,” “Beef on Bamboo,” and “Pizza Pie with Mashed Potatoes.

More choice cuts from the site:

“‘Real Girls’ are busy and need lots of energy. You can get that extra energy and build muscle – which helps your metabolism – by eating regularly, at least every three to four hours. Be sure to get both protein and carbs in every meal. Enjoy a beef wrap for lunch or spaghetti and meatballs for dinner.”

“As energy requirements increase, so should protein intake. Chow down!

I don’t want to pay these dirtbags another cent of my money. But how can I find American beef that’s not affiliated with this site? Won’t I have to give up cheeseburgers, or order my beef from New Zealand? Not for long. I hope.

Imagine: when networked wireless devices with cameras are cheap and widely used, I’ll be able to take a quick snapshot of the label on the meat that I’m considering purchasing, right there in the supermarket. Server-side software can scan the UPC code and match it to records in a database of food producers, distributors and retailers.

The database, maintained by journalists or concerned citizens, can spit back the information that I want — in this case, whether the people who brought me this package of meat helped to finance “Cool to be Real.” And whether they irradiate their meat. And whether they shoot up their animals with dangerous drugs and hormones.

At my PC, I can specify which criteria concern me. At the supermarket, I can scan a product with my device and then see a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, based on what matters to me.

Already we have technology that can do all of this. To make it happen we just need enough interested people to build it out, enough concerned consumers to read up on these corporations and update the database with the facts about what goes on behind the scenes, behind the labels on the food that we eat.

In the meantime, I’ll hold off on that cheeseburger.

(Disclaimer: I didn’t come up with the vision of consumers in stores scanning UPC codes on the fly. Versions of this idea have been making the rounds for years. I’m not sure who first wrote about this idea, but it might have been Howard Rheingold in his blog or in his book Smart Mobs. )

Baby photo courtesy of

One Conference, Two Worlds

April 27th, 2003

laptops.jpgThis week’s O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara, California was great fun. I enjoyed the presentations and the ideas, but it was the behavior of the attendees that really fascinated me.

The conference wasn’t all “there.”

Much of it took place elsewhere, and everywhere — in cyberspace. My attention was always torn between the physical conference and the virtual conference.

I’ve never seen so many networked gadgets in use simultaneously in one place. During any given session, much of the audience had their laptops open and online thanks to power outlets and wireless Internet service throughout the conference rooms, lounges and hallways. I was immersed in bandwidth; I was surrounded by a chorus of whirring laptops and clicking keys.

For me, this was a totally new sort of event — but soon, experiences like this will become commonplace.

The typical scene: up front the speaker presents her talk, projecting a slide show or a demo onto the wall-sized screens. A glance around the darkened room reveals dozens of ghostly blue-white faces gazing into laptop screens.

confab.gifMany of them are engaged in online chat rooms. ConFab, a Web-based chat tool, was built just for the conference. It allows a person to mouse-over a map of the conference rooms, to specify which physical-world room he’s sitting in, to engage in text chats with other attendees, and to see how many people are logged into each conference room. He can even pay a virtual visit to another conference room to find out what people are chatting about over there.

(Network problems made staying connected to ConFab very difficult. But people conferred in more traditional Internet Relay Chat rooms too.)

In the chat rooms people crack jokes and trade opinions about what the speaker is saying, and they write brief summaries of what’s going on for people who are tuned in to the conference from other parts of the planet.

People read other folks’ comments. They examine the speaker’s Web site. They tune in to chats going on simultaneously in the other conference sessions, judging whether to step out and join the session going on next door.

And they blog. I watched at least three people pull out digital cameras during presentations, take snapshots and upload the images to their blogs right there.

laptops2.jpgPeople collaborate to take notes on the presentations and discussions using wikis. Groups of people use Hydra, a collaborative editing tool that allows multiple users to elegantly write, edit and add to a single document simultaneously.

That pattern was repeated endlessly throughout the conference. Everyone’s energies were divided between cyberspace and the physical world. This is a fascinating phenomenon, but when the novelty wears off will such connectedness make for better or worse conferences?

Did the average attendee go home with more or less knowledge, with more or fewer useful acquaintances, with more or less encouragement than they would have acquired without the digital networking? What do you think?

The conference left me more confused about these questions than ever. For one thing, I wasted a lot of my attention and energy dealing with a couple of basic technical problems that the organizers can easily iron out in time for next year’s conference. But next year, won’t my attention be devoted to a new set of problems to wrestle or configurations to fine-tune as more real-world subtleties slip by unnoticed?

I want to experiment more with this, and I know I won’t have to wait long.

(A freakish footnote: I’m writing this entry on my laptop in a Berkeley WiFi cafe, days after the conference ended. Three other geeks bend over three other laptops by the window. They’re talking about their experiences at the same conference, as they post entries to their own blogs about it. Should I laugh or cry?)

(Photos in this entry by Derrick Story of the O’Reilly Network.)

Head Games

April 20th, 2003

Strange things are afoot in the world of Human-Computer Interactions. This month at CHI 2003, the biggest annual HCI-related conference on the planet, bathroom talk was all the buzz.

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology students Dan Maynes-Aminzade and Hayes Solos Raffle presented what I assume is the world’s first urine-based computer interface: “You’re In Control.” They built a special urinal fitted with sixteen pressure sensors that detect the location of the user’s urine stream.

    At eye-level above the urinal a video game appears, complete with jumping hamsters and a simulated urine stream that’s mapped to the location and movement of the user’s real urine stream. Hit a hamster and it turns yellow, screams and spins out of control as your score increases by ten points. The MIT students even built a penis simulator that allows women to spray water into the urinal. A urinal like this might persuade the neighborhood pub’s patrons to refuel by purchasing more beer.

    Toilet Entertainment System

  • Swedish design students Par Stenberg and Johan Thoresson presented the Toilet Entertainment System, which collects a user’s interests while he or she sits on the toilet, and then prints out customized news content on the toilet paper. It “keeps you discreetly entertained while visiting the toilet,” according to the inventors. My advice for the future: be afraid. And prepare yourself for longer bathroom lines.
  • Human Factors International distributed free calendars to conference attendees. For the month of April the HFI calendar features a cartoon about potential toilet interfaces of the future.



  • A Pivotal Month

    April 19th, 2003

    Mein Gott, has it really been more than five weeks since my last entry?

    It’s been a crazy, hectic, life-altering month. The top headlines:

    The University of California at Berkeley - Cal BearsThe grad school decision: My quest for a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Master’s degree continues. I was accepted by four great Information Management & Systems schools: Berkeley, The University of Michigan, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and The University of Washington. For reasons I won’t go into, this was an unbelievably difficult decision, but after talking to and exchanging e-mails with more than 25 professors, students, and people in the industry, and after spending countless hours reading related Web sites, papers, etc., I chose Berkeley. I’m glad the agonizing decision’s over and I can’t wait to get started in the Fall.

    CHI 2003CHI 2003: I gathered a lot of this knowledge during the CHI 2003 conference, which was held in my hometown of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida (!). How strange it was to see all these brilliant people discussing HCI less than five miles from where I was born and raised, in a region where you normally never meet anyone remotely interested in product development or software development, much less in HCI. I was just a bit overwhelmed while trying to learn as much as I could about the schools I was considering, working as a student volunteer, showing people around town, taking in presentations, tutorials and demos, seeking out my heroes in the field, and just finding my way around my first academic conference. It was an exhilarating experience and a lot of fun.

    Stanford UniversityThe new gig: Last month I started my new full-time job at Stanford University’s Department of Dermatology. Among other duties, I’ll help to manage the input, cataloguing, storage, and retrieval the thousands of digital images that the department creates every month, as well as the associated medical records. It’s great fun so far; I’m the only computer person in the department, but the doctors and staff are super-smart and they seem much more open to change and to new technology than the users I worked with during two other medical gigs. I hope to pool efforts with people elsewhere on campus working on cool medical informatics projects like the Stanford MediaServer but there’s not much time until the Fall semester begins and I leave Stanford to start classes at Berkeley. I wish I had started this job a year ago…

    Life should be a tad saner now, but now much. Among other things, I have to begin a Java class and possibly a data structures and algorithms class in preparation for Berkeley. These are busy days. But I’m lovin’ it all.