Trek Tech: Tricorders

Okay, so I’m not the first to note that certain elements in our society and technology are rather like certain elements of a certain science fiction franchise. How can a person fail to note it these days? Look at my phone, for crying out loud: a Motorola Razr that looks about as much like a TOS (The Original Series for those of you who are unhip) communicator as the real props did. A BlueTooth headset clipped to a person’s ear summons shades of Uhura.

But now Purdue has taken it a step further, aiming at an even more advanced piece of Trek hardware: the tricorder. A tricorder is a handheld sensor used by characters on the show to sense/detect…well pretty much anything and everything, from life signs to molecular structures.

I saw an ad for one of these in Omni magazine many, many years ago, before it went out of print. It was a tricorder that could sense plant life, ambient temperature, and do a few other nifty tricks. However, Perdue’s 20-pound unit seems to be more like the “real thing.” It can analyze chemical compositions from a short distance without harming the samples.

What comes next? I hope matter/energy converters. Though I know they are physically impossible, the idea of a transporter or food replicator sounds really cool to me!

A New Approach to the Memex

In 1945, Vannevar Bush published his now infamous article in the Atlantic entitled “As We May Think.” In that article, he proposed the idea of the memex, a computer like device that would record its user’s interactions with the world for easy retrieval later. The system was based on microfilm (it was 1945, after all), and was meant to emulate human memory’s associative powers. The memex became the working inspiration for hypertext technologies, which now drive the Web and its 2.0 applications.

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An Extended Metaphor

Imagine two bathtubs in the same room, about five feet apart. One is mostly full of blue water. The other is mostly full of red water. You are sitting on a stool between the tubs, and you would like to get some of the blue water into the red to make a lovely purple hue.

Now rename the tubs. The blue tub is the author, and the red the audience or reader. The space between where you sit is the medium through which the author’s message (the blue water) must travel where it mixes with the reader’s existing knowledge (the red water) and where it will leave a permanent impression on the reader (a purple hue).

Writing is the colander you have to use to move the water.

You see the point? Writing is imperfect. At no time will all of the author’s meaning make it to the reader. The medium has holes in it through which some of that meaning leaks. The result, in more scientific terms, is a low rate of transmission.

The metaphor is drawn out, and I intend to confuse it a bit further. Next imagine that you, sitting on that stood, colander in hand, are part of the writing process. You may do things to that colander to help the transmission process, to make it go more smoothly. And these things you can do, these are the skills learned when you practice the craft of writing.

At first, you cover the holes at the base of the colander, right? The same is true with writing, you “cover the basics”: grammar, punctuation, definitions of words, the forms of sentences, the idea of thesis, effective paragraphing, transitions, and conclusions. When you have that down, you work your way up the colander, patching holes as you go.

Next come the harder parts, because as you move up the side of the metaphorical colander, it gets broader, wider. There are more holes to choose from. You don’t have enough epoxy to get them all, so which ones will you patch?

Will you patch the hole that deals with style and grace, or will you choose to patch up your clarity and concision? Will you choose to patch up your vocabulary or your verb usage? Your sentence pattern variation or your parallelism? The choices are endless, and it is possible to partially patch every single hole.

But it will still leak.

Don’t worry, though. Writing was never intended to be a perfect transmission of thought. If that were the case, there would be no wiggle room for interpretation, and a world without the room for your own ideas sounds very boring to me. Besides, think of that bathtub and that colander. Even if you had patched all the holes, the colander still isn’t the right shape to get all the water out of the bottom of that writer tub, now is it?

Writing is a process designed to be imperfect, if we could say that it was “designed” at all. Some prominent and deceased critics would argue that writing is eternal, that it was there before speech and that all means of communication are in some way related to or derived from writing. Maybe. When those theories are fully elucidated they are interesting and fun to ponder, but they are not our point. The point here is that writing is complicated, old, and half-broken at all times. It’s kind of like baseball. In that game, we praise the person who hits .400, which, if you think about it, is the guy who managed to hit the ball four times out of ten. The guy with a 40 percent success rate is our hero. Hmm.

Maybe there’s something to becoming comfortable with failure. We live for that imperfection. We live for the flaws that are inherent to the system. We live for the holes through which meaning escapes. And the sooner the budding writer becomes comfortable with that fact of life, the sooner he or she can get down to the serious business of patching colanders.

Academic Freedom

What does academic freedom mean in the digital age? I was browsing the Wired Campus blog, provided free courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and saw two stories that interested me in particular. At the university in Fresno (Cal State or UC, I can’t recall), a new policy has been put in place that allows the campus police to put surveillance cameras in teaching and research labs, though not in classrooms or faculty offices. However, undercover cops can be in classes without notice.

Why do the campus police need to conduct undercover investigations in classrooms and research labs? Maybe I’m spoiled by a smaller university, where the biggest concern of the campus police is making sure the parking lots are plowed in winter (I exaggerate of course), but I can’t conceive of a need for undercover investigations in classes or even in dorms for that matter. When we let non-warranted surveillance into our academic world, aren’t we giving up some of our freedom just by allowing it to happen?

Another story from the same issue of the blog: a professor writes of his run-in with campus police and IT officials over his research into Tor, a browser that lets users surf the Web anonymously. He was looking into it for legitimate research purposes, so that he would be experienced with it before discussing it in his class; still the police asked him to desist, waving a vague acceptable-use policy in his face along with inaccurate records of his Tor usage. They even asked him to avoid discussing Tor in class! He stood up for himself, however, and lectured the officers and IT guy on the legitimate uses of Tor (like allowing reporters living under repressive regimes to conduct much needed research) until he was blue in the face.

Good for him.

How much surveillance should we stand for? None, in my opinion. This is an issue I’ve had my students discussing for a while: how many of our rights are we willing to give up for security?


An interesting story from the AP. Farmers have begun using Web forums to chat about farming issues, a practice the author of this report quaintly said was replacing the local coffee shop and feed store. While those of us who grew up in rural areas with coffee shops and feed stores know better, it is yet another one of those stories about how the Web is finding a place in everyone’s life.


My first major session of thesis drafting is now winding down. I have about six pages drafted right now, roughly drafted; but at least the work is under way. I hope any readers of this blog understand that for the next three weeks, I won’t be posting much so that I can get this done (I even had to cancel my WoW subscription, gor blimey!). I have about 50 to 60 pages of notes spread out across various Word docs, so I hope this won’t be too bad. I’ve been working on this thing for two years (officially) and probably four years unofficially. I hope it comes together well. At any rate, it’s got to be in my committee’s hands by March 1, 2007. Grr. Here we are already at Feb. 10. How did things move so damned fast?

A classmate of mine has a meter on his blog showing how many pages he’s got done. I’m envious and want to put one here. Perhaps in time, when I have time…

My typing ability is failing me for the night. Too many errors, too much pinky-reaching for the backspace key. I’m out.