Archive for November, 2006

N-word Futures

The future is coming. Will the n-word come with it? In the wake of Kramer’s meltdown and public penance, Jesse Jackson and company are calling for a ban on the n-word. And it’s hard to disagree in principle; the word is powerfully hateful. But is an outright ban the answer?

After all, some would argue that when we black folk use the n-word, it can be subversive — an attempt to re-appropriate it, to take away its power, to defuse it. That approach seemed to work out alright for the LGBT community and “queer”.

And what about reporting? Take, for instance, a recent Wired article that quotes a myspace post by a woman whose boyfriend was murdered:

Soon after, police formally charged Handy – not for the Sixth and South Union murders, but for the other shootings he was allegedly involved in. The charges were two counts each of assault in the first degree and unlawful possession of a firearm. Foley posted a note to Varo’s page: We caught ’em baby! Fuck that nigger.

The quote is factual and speaks to her character and her emotional state, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the trend of using the n-word to convey authenticity in gangland films. For a recent example, see The Departed (Nicholson drops it inside the first minute) and Reservoir Dogs had characters spew it every other sentence some 15 years ago. This is how these people really speak and the use of the language is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

Still… Did I really get anything from hearing that the only black character in the Wired story is a nigger? What does it say that the person who speaks the word is portrayed in a largely sympathetic manner for the rest of the article? When does it stop being reporting and start being comment? (Not to mention Wired is a bit more suspect than most; I’m still reeling from seeing the n-word featured alongside the first black face to grace its cover, but that’s another story…)

Similarly, many gangland films end up creating a dark appeal for the bad guys and with it, an appeal for using their language. At what point does the use of the n-word stop speaking to the character and start speaking to the screenwriter’s character? (Is it me or does the n-word seem to be used more often in white-directed films these days than black ones?)

All this is to say it’s complicated. So perhaps the only thing everyone will understand is that they should just never say the word under any circumstances. I certainly would be happy to never hear it again. But part of me still wonders if making the word even more taboo really solves anything. After all, making things less accessible often makes them that much more desirable.

A thoughtful history of the n-word can be found in the Jim Crow Museum.

Kyoto Surprise

Having clocked a good deal of Wii time since picking one up in Times Square last Sunday, I think it’s fair to say that Nintendo has hardly put a foot wrong — from hardcore-friendly Zelda to the Wiimote showcasing Sports to the super slick front end to the awesome ads. And the sell outs show word of mouth spreading. It certainly spread to me. I’ve never waited in line at a product launch before this one.

If the Wii launch makes anything clear, it’s that Nintendo is determined to avoid repeating the abortive early history of Gamecube (Sony’s the launch problem child this time around). And I have to give kudos to Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. For anyone (like me) who mocked him for mismanaging the Cube or questioned the motivations for the DS, Wii continues his sweet revenge.

But of course this is just the beginning; questions abound for the future. Can N sustain this level of quality and conviction? Can they figure out how to translate their brilliant offline properties into brilliant online properties? Will the third parties come back? Can they avoid the kind of post-launch nap that added insult to injury for early Cube adopters (Luigi’s Mansion and Blue Storm and…narcoleptic fit)? Can they balance the interests of hardcore gamers with the casual? Can they convince gamers to exchange brawn for soul?

It’ll be interesting to watch it all shake out. With bits like WiiConnect24 starting to take shape and Mario waiting in the wings inside 6 months, though, there’s reason to be hopeful. But what gives me the most hope is closer to home. My wife, who valiantly feigns interest in most of the games I obsess about, somehow can’t stop talking about Wii — especially Wii Sports Tennis and a certain band of deranged rabbits. And there are similar stories all over (more here and here and here). It seems the toy company from Kyoto may yet surprise the industry that so doubted it. Fingers crossed.

Update: 600k in the first week? Hot damn.

Audio Autumn

I can spend all year obsessed with new music (mmmm… Madlib and Quantic) but the instant fall rolls around, it’s back to old favorites and the prog rock comes out of the closet. From Don Caballero to Primus to Zappa, it all just says autumn to me. But the band that seems to capture the end of summer best has to be Rush. I’m not talking the what-the-hell-happened post-Mercury Rush. And I’m not talking about the whole-album-is-one-song early Rush, either. I’m talking the wicked hot stuff in-between: Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, Exit…Stage Left, Signals, and Grace Under Pressure.

Each track says something different, but each feels fall. Subdivisions brings out the isolation of chilly suburban streets. YYZ is the impersonal chaos of a holiday airport. Jacob’s Ladder has the foreboding of an pre-winter storm. And Kid Gloves captures the cliquish start of a new school year.

It may seem like I’m saying that Rush does quiet desperation better than anyone, but that’s not quite it. It’s more that Rush does solitude, introspection, and dreams. Somehow fall says all those things to me.

And, of course, there’s Red Barchetta. Driving alone a leaf-strewn road on a clear day and it tears thorough the speakers…

Drive like the wind,
Straining the limits of machine and man.
Laughing out loud
With fear and hope, I’ve got a desperate plan.
At the one-lane bridge
I leave the giants stranded at the riverside.
Race back to the farm, to dream with my uncle at the fireside.

Ah, yeah. That’s autumn.

Game Changing Technology

What happens when you lose your glasses in a country where you don’t speak the language? I got to find out first hand when I dropped my glasses in a lake during a recent trip to China, and the experience drove home a few points. First is: cabbies are the key to the city in Hangzhou. But the second and more important point is that glasses are a luxury.

It might sound stupid but, because I’ve had glasses since I was 4, I’ve never really considered what life might be like without them. Yet the WHO reports that there are roughly 1 billion people worldwide with poor eyesight that could be corrected if only they had access to basic corrective lenses. The few hours I spent without my glasses trying to communicate, hunting for help made it quite clear how debilitating untreated vision impairment can be.

That’s why I was stunned to discover the U-Specs project (thanks houtlust), which aims to radically reduce the cost of improved eyesight in the developing world. U-Specs are glasses designed to be adjusted by non-experts (the wearer) until improved vision is achieved. The design can correct eye disorders from -6 to 3 diopters, which corrects for 90% of refractive vision errors; not as good as real glasses, but far better than nothing. So, U-Specs increase access to improved vision by removing the need for a professional optician to fit the glasses. They also improve access through price, with an estimated cost of 4 euros.

As a computer scientist at a time when there’s so much focus on innovations in computing technology (from next-gen game consoles to endless web 2.0 gadgets to the mit laptop), it’s good to be brought back to earth and reminded that, to a great many, innovations in non-computing technology matter more.

For more on U-Specs, see And find more on vision programs worldwide at Vision 2020.

image grabbed from eyebuydirect

Do You Know Air Canada?

Since it’s opening week for the NBA, I figured it might be time to revisit a recent trip to China from a slightly different perspective. You see, as far as I could tell, the Chinese are super NBA crazy (even during the off-season, even during the world cup) but the league is a bit different seen through their eyes.

Take, for instance, the Vince Carter shirt above. The guy’s got a massive fro (Vince is bald) and it doesn’t look particularly like Vince in any other regard, either. “Do You Know Air Canada?” Whoever designed this shirt sure didn’t. (Did I mention that Vince plays for New Jersey now?) But that doesn’t take away from the sheer exuberance for the sport it captures. Heck, I nearly bought it.

There are lots of similar examples and, surprisingly, most feature Vince — his jerseys were running at about 60% of all basketball jerseys I saw. (Where’s the love for Yao?)

Still, there’s the odd non-Vince player every once in a while. Take, for instance, this Wandanu ad I saw in Shanghai. Sporting an Orlando Magic jersey, it could be an endorsement at first sight…but that all falls apart on closer inspection. First off, that isn’t any NBA player I know. Second, isn’t his head a bit too big for his body? Third, doesn’t that logo look suspiciously like the Adidas logo? Fourth, the URL goes to a spam page. Fifth, boy do I wish I had a translation for the Chinese! The shoes still sell off the shelves, though. And that kind of blind enthusiasm is one more reason I love China.

Of course, many Chinese are really quite NBA savvy. It was great fun, though, to be in a place where they love the league so much but sometimes, well, don’t quite understand it.

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