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Airing Tomorrow on PBS: OBJECTIFIED, a Documentary About Things

Objectified airs on PBS stations in the US on Tuesday, November 24, as part of the Independent Lens series. I highly recommend that you set your DVR to record this film, if you're interested in: documentaries, computers, how things are made, how things work, or why some toothpicks have that little sculpted circular part on one end but are pointy on the other. In other words, I recommend it for everyone.

Objectified is a special documentary: it's basically about nerds, but classy ones, and definitely smart ones. It's about the particular sort of nerd who designs objects (generally known as an "industrial designer") -- objects like your can opener, car door handle, computer mouse, light bulb, toothbrush, the chair you're sitting in right now, and so on. Whether we realize it or not, all of the man-made objects we use are designed by somebody. Some are designed better than others -- and by this, I mean they work better, not just "look cool" or "are high-tech," which are often confused for good design. Objectified is a documentary about those people who design objects, but it's also about objects themselves, filled with little examples of interesting design elements that I had never considered -- flourishes that make something work better or be more delightful to the person using it.

To get back to the toothpick example I hinted at earlier, in Objectified it is explained why certain toothpicks have one pointy end and the other end rounded, with two circular bulges. I had always assumed this was purely decorative. Actually, it turns out that the circular-sculpted-end can be snapped off and used as a toothpick tray, so you can reuse the toothpick, resting the pointy end on the little tray (see a photo here). How could I have used toothpicks my entire life and not known this? Well, if you think that's handy, just imagine an hour of little tidbits like that from designers who brought you all sorts of daily objects -- like the OXO Good Grips folks, designers from Apple Computer, Dieter Rams (famed designer for Braun in the mid twentieth century), and many many more.

Objectified is by the same filmmaker, Gary Hustwit, who made Helvetica a few years back -- that was a film about typefaces and those who create them. According to Hustwit there's a third documentary coming, to finish a trilogy of documentaries about design. I can hardly wait. Here's the trailer for Objectified, which airs tomorrow night (Tuesday, November 24) on PBS stations on the Independent Lens program. If you're setting your DVR to record it, search for Independent Lens and you'll be more likely to find the program.

Note: the version of Objectified shown on Independent Lens has been edited down by 15 minutes to fit the available broadcast slot. If you want to see the rest of it, rent the DVD, which is available now. Also, if you have Netflix, Hustwit's film Helvetica is currently available for on-demand streaming.

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The Library of Congress Wants Your Help Identifying World War I-Era Political Cartoons
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. government’s official library wants your help. And it involves cartoons.

The Library of Congress just debuted its new digital innovation lab, an initiative that aims to improve upon its massive archives and use them in creative ways. Its first project is Beyond Words, a digitization effort designed to make the research library’s historical newspaper collection more search-friendly. It aims to classify and tag historical images from World War I-era newspapers, identifying political cartoons, comics, illustrations, and photos within old news archives. The images come from newspapers included in Chronicling America, the library’s existing newspaper digitization project.

The tasks involved in Beyond Words are simple, even if you know nothing about the illustrations involved going into it. The Library of Congress just needs people to help mark all the illustrations and cartoons in the scanned newspaper pages, a task that only involves drawing boxes to differentiate the image from the articles around it.

Then there’s transcription, involving typing in the title of the image, the caption, the author, and whether it’s an editorial cartoon, an illustration, a photo, a map, or a comic. The library also needs people to verify the work of others, since it’s a crowd-sourced effort—you just need to make sure the images have been transcribed consistently and accurately.

A pop-up window below an early 20th century newspaper illustration prompts the user to pick the most accurate caption.

Screenshot via labs.loc.gov

The data will eventually be available for download by researchers, and you can explore the already-transcribed images on the Beyond Words site. Everything is in the public domain, so you can remix and use it however you want.

With the new labs.loc.gov, “we are inviting explorers to help crack open digital discoveries and share the collections in new and innovative ways,” Carla Hayden, the library’s head, said in a press release.

Other government archives regularly look to ordinary people to help with the monstrous task of digitizing and categorizing their collections. The National Archives and Records Administration, for instance, has recently crowd-sourced data entry and transcription for vintage photos of life on Native American reservations and declassified government documents to help make their collections more accessible online.

Want to contribute to the Library of Congress’s latest effort? Visit labs.loc.gov.

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Slow Wi-Fi? It Could Be Your Neighbor's Fault
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If your Wi-Fi connection remains interminably slow no matter how many times you restart it, you can probably blame your neighbor. It could be that there are too many people using Wi-Fi connections on the same channel, even if you're all on different networks. But, as Tech Insider teaches us in the video below, there is a way to circumvent this, returning you to the prime TV-streaming Wi-Fi speeds of your dreams. (These instructions apply to Mac users, but if you've got Windows, How-To Geek recommends a tool called the Xirrus Wi-Fi Inspector to do the same job.) It seems like a lot of steps at first, but it'll be worth it—we promise.

If you’ve got a Mac, hold the Option key while clicking the Wi-Fi symbol in your top menu bar. Go to “Open Wireless Diagnostics,” then when that opens, go up to the top left menu bar and click the drop-down menu “Window > Scan.” That will open up a window with all the nearby Wi-Fi networks. Click the “Scan Now” button on the bottom right, and your computer should recommend the best channels for you to use—say, you’re on Channel No. 1, but the best 2.4GHz channel is No. 3. Tech Insider recommends writing those down (there are options for both 2.4GHz channels and 5GHz channels).

Now, you’ll need to break out your iPhone. Download the AirPort Utility app, and go to your phone’s settings. Scroll down to the AirPort Utility app in your app list, and enable “WiFi Scanner.” Use the app to scan your house for Wi-Fi networks and note which channels are commonly used by your neighbors’ networks. (If you don’t have an iPhone, you can also use Acrylic Wi-Fi for Android or Windows phones.) This will help you avoid the most congested networks.

Then, log onto your router on your computer by typing your router’s IP address into your browser, just like you would any web address. From there, go into Wireless Settings, and change the channel your network operates on to one of the recommended options that you wrote down from your computer's diagnostics window earlier. And don’t forget to save!

This should help you get a faster internet connection by minimizing the amount of interference from other networks around you. Because the best neighbors are the ones who don't slow down Game of Thrones for you.

See the process step-by-step in the video below.

[h/t Tech Insider]

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