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Clay Shirky on Newspapers: How the Unthinkable Happened

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Clay Shirky is an adjunct professor of New Media at NYU. He writes about technology (okay, pretty much just the internet) and its effects on relationships and culture. Recently he posted a brilliant essay called Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, about what happened to newspapers in the 90s, how they saw the internet coming (and what it meant for the newspaper's business model), and what happened to those pragmatists who observed what was happening. In short, Shirky explains "the unthinkable scenario" for newspapers -- the one in which the internet's inherent strengths and behaviors (sharing content for free, reaching mass audiences on the cheap) would change the economic landscape for newspapers so much that none of their planned responses (micropayments, DRM, advertising, litigation) would work.

The piece opens (emphasis added):

Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry's popular column, which was published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry's work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something to the effect of "When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem." I think about that conversation a lot these days.

This is a really smart essay. Shirky knows what he's talking about, and his writing is entertaining. Here's one more key snippet:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the '90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: "Here's how we're going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!" The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.

Read the rest for a smart look at newspapers in the online era.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matt Callow, used under Creative Commons license.)

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Courtesy Umbrellium
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Design
These LED Crosswalks Adapt to Whoever Is Crossing
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Courtesy Umbrellium

Crosswalks are an often-neglected part of urban design; they’re usually just white stripes on dark asphalt. But recently, they’re getting more exciting—and safer—makeovers. In the Netherlands, there is a glow-in-the-dark crosswalk. In western India, there is a 3D crosswalk. And now, in London, there’s an interactive LED crosswalk that changes its configuration based on the situation, as Fast Company reports.

Created by the London-based design studio Umbrellium, the Starling Crossing (short for the much more tongue-twisting STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) changes its layout, size, configuration, and other design factors based on who’s waiting to cross and where they’re going.

“The Starling Crossing is a pedestrian crossing, built on today’s technology, that puts people first, enabling them to cross safely the way they want to cross, rather than one that tells them they can only cross in one place or a fixed way,” the company writes. That means that the system—which relies on cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor both pedestrian and vehicle traffic—adapts based on road conditions and where it thinks a pedestrian is going to go.

Starling Crossing - overview from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

If a bike is coming down the street, for example, it will project a place for the cyclist to wait for the light in the crosswalk. If the person is veering left like they’re going to cross diagonally, it will move the light-up crosswalk that way. During rush hour, when there are more pedestrians trying to get across the street, it will widen to accommodate them. It can also detect wet or dark conditions, making the crosswalk path wider to give pedestrians more of a buffer zone. Though the neural network can calculate people’s trajectories and velocity, it can also trigger a pattern of warning lights to alert people that they’re about to walk right into an oncoming bike or other unexpected hazard.

All this is to say that the system adapts to the reality of the road and traffic patterns, rather than forcing pedestrians to stay within the confines of a crosswalk system that was designed for car traffic.

The prototype is currently installed on a TV studio set in London, not a real road, and it still has plenty of safety testing to go through before it will appear on a road near you. But hopefully this is the kind of road infrastructure we’ll soon be able to see out in the real world.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Live Smarter
How to Make Sure Your Cell Phone Receives Emergency Alerts
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iStock

Thanks to smartphones, we’re more plugged into the world than ever before. Some of us receive notifications for everything from Amber Alerts to trending news stories, so it makes sense that we’d also depend on our phones to alert us to emergencies in our neighborhoods. But as The Daily Dot reports, relying on your cell phone alone for such news might leave you in a dangerous situation.

Unlike Amber Alerts, local notifications for natural disasters like wildfires don’t operate on a broad alert system. If counties were to contact every single resident every time a specific area was threatened, it would lead to traffic jams and unnecessary panic, putting more lives at risk. So instead, the police only contact people in their database that live in the affected location.

The Reverse 911 law allows law enforcement to contact you at your home in case of emergencies. If you have a landline you can expect to get the call there, but because the law was enacted before the age of cell phones, receiving a call anywhere else isn’t guaranteed. To make sure your county knows to contact you on your cell phone, you need to reach out to them and ask for that number to be listed as your primary mode of contact. Just over half of all households in the country use cell phones for all personal phone communications, which means that most Americans need to opt in to receive life-saving emergency notifications.

Fortunately, getting your cell number into your county’s database isn’t hard. You can starting by searching your county’s name and “emergency alert” online. There’s no uniform system across the U.S., but on Los Angeles County’s emergency alert page, for example, residents are asked to indicate their name, address, phone number, and the type of alerts they wish to receive. This information can be updated at any time—so if you get a new phone number, make sure your local police department is one of the first to know.

[h/t The Daily Dot]

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