Gender, sport and technology at the Olympics July 31, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
In this blog, I would like to raise the issue of gender. The Olympic Games tend to simplify the identity of sports. That is, sporting events at the Games are differentiated largely on the grounds of:
- Type of sport, e.g., soccer, 100m dash, synchronized swimming, etc., and
- Type of competitor, e.g., male and female, individual or team, or weight category.
In other competitions, one might find sports broken down along further parameters, e.g., age groups, ability levels, recreational versus professional experience, and so on. The point of creating all these categories of competition seems to be inclusiveness, that is, to allow as diverse a range of participants as is feasible. The point of the Olympics, however, seems to be to be exclusiveness, that is, to produce and to showcase a select number of elite performances.
Perhaps the main exception to the ideology of exclusiveness at the Olympics is the breakdown of competitors according to gender. The first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 had no women’s sports, but each Olympics thereafter has included an increasing number of them. The number of male athletes and events still dominate (the Beijing 2008 Games included 1,704 more male than female athletes, and 38 more male than female sports events/classes), but addition of women’s events have increased the scope of the Games to a large degree. It seems that the tension between the values of exclusivity and inclusivity has moved in favor of inclusivity over time: The types of competitors allowed has increased the number of events, in spite of continuing emphasis on exclusivity in the types of sports.
Technology has, in most ways, played a minor role in this development. Very few sports stipulate that men and women must employ different equipment in their events. The only one that comes to mind is gymnastics, in which only men compete on the horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, and the rings, whereas only women compete on the uneven bars and the balance beam. In other sports, women and men could use the same equipment, if they so choose.
The most controversial application of technology to gender is in gender tests. Because they tend to be physically stronger than women, there is an incentive for male athletes to compete as women. There have been a few competitors in the women’s events who were suspected of being men. The IOC introduced gender tests in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, which involved a physical examination by a series of doctors. However, since these tests were humiliating and invasive, they were discontinued in favor of a more high-tech alternative: genetic testing. Only athletes with XX chromosomes could be considered female for purposes of competition. Of course, this test also proved unsatisfactory, as some people have genetic conditions that call into question the mapping of womanhood to XX chromosomes. For example, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska had cells that were a mosaic of XX and XXY chromosomes.
The IOC has thus abandoned genetic definitions of men and women. Instead, an athlete is now considered male if their testosterone level is in the male range:
The new rules, announced last month, disqualify athletes from women’s events if they have testosterone levels in the normal male range, which is 7 to 30 nanomoles per liter of blood. Because the top range for women is slightly below 3 nanomoles per liter, such levels could give athletes an unfair advantage that officials have a duty to root out, said Dr. Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of IOC’s Medical Commission and a former Olympic high jumper.
Note that this new test is essentially like a drug test: It is less a test of maleness as much as a test for a performance-enhancing substance. However, it is far from clear that this test will do any better since the relationship between testosterone levels and performance in female athletes is not well understood. It is quite possible that the new rule will give rise to the same sort of problems as did the older one.
In brief, technology has done little to support the value of inclusivity as far as gender is concerned. With the exception of gymnastics, technology has done little to establish any contrast between men’s and women’s events through the development of gender-specific equipment. Neither has it done much to sustain the distinction between male and female competitors.
The question then arises: Is technology neutral with respect to exclusivity or inclusivity within Olympic sports? Or, does it tend to reduce the difference between genders in that arena? What is your view?STV100 , comments closed
There are some people who believe that technology creates cultural convergence: that using similar technologies leads to cultural homogenization. It’s a deterministic view, and often comes up in discussions relating to technology and globalization. However, to continue the theme I started last week, we could easily draw the Olympics into this discussion. After all, it is a global event with over 200 countries participating, and the signs of globalization are omnipresent in logos of a select few multinational sponsors. Moreover, I hope you’re not visiting the games with a hankering for french fries — at least not the non-McDonald’s kind:
To sell fish and chips, the London organising committee (Locog) had to get a special dispensation from McDonald’s, the official restaurant sponsor, which is expected to provide 10% of meals served at the Games. Under its deal with the International Olympic Committee, the fast-food chain had the sole rights to sell chips or french fries. It allows Locog’s caterers to sell fish and chips, but not chips on their own.
The Olympic menu sounds pretty bland, given the hundreds of cultures that could have been represented. But even if there were hundreds of different cuisine available at the Games that might not matter. As David Nye points out in Technology Matters, such a choice might be illusionary. Consider the microcosm of a multi-ethnic food court at the mall, with a variety of different meal options, including curries, kebabs, pizza, and Timbits:
On the level of the technological systems used to produce and deliver the food, most differences evaporate. The food court’s businesses all use the same kinds of freezer, steam trays, fryers, and microwave ovens. They prepare dishes suited to the demands of a cafeterias, an assembly-line operation that functions best when food does not require much on-site preparation before it is is served. (p. 83)
Somehow, that passage reminds me of Olympic athletes: all using the same gear, the same training programs, the regimented and biomechanical pursuit of efficiency and maximization of the human body.
And yet, I’m not worried about cultural convergence. Not after learning of the American television broadcaster NBC deciding to cut a segment from its own coverage of the Opening Ceremonies last Friday. A somber tribute to “terrorism victims” and others who could not join in, depicting the struggle between life and death, was replaced by NBC with an interview of a star American athlete because:
“Our program is tailored for the U.S. television audience,” said NBC Sports spokesman Greg Hughes. “It’s a credit to [ceremony director] Danny Boyle that it required so little editing.”
So I guess the ceremony just wasn’t American enough. Huh. I don’t think it was Canadian enough either, because I don’t recall seeing that bit on the CTV broadcast in Canada. I also missed Lord Voldemort and dozens of flying Mary Poppins. Too British for our post-colonial tastes?
Finally, if we’re going to poke NBC’s lack of global awareness, or perhaps just awareness in general, I was a bit gobsmacked by the NBC reaction to the mid-ceremony appearance of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who was sitting at a computer inside a giant house. Maybe not everyone has to remember the name of the very famous British man responsible for the creation and growth of the World Wide Web, but I’ll let Twitter take it from here:
“If you haven’t heard of him, we haven’t either.” NBC Olympic anchor on Tim Berners Lee. Co anchor: “Google him”. Breathtaking.—
The Firm (@TheFirmOnline) July 28, 2012
Faster than normal isn’t really normal July 26, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV205 , comments closed
In honour of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, I thought I’d try to take note of a few relevant stories from the games over the next few weeks.
First, I’ll note that the Oscar Pistorius, aka the “Blade Runner” qualified this year to run in the 400m dash event. Somehow, we’ve never discussed him on this blog, but Pistorius is something of a high-profile and controversial track athlete because he was born without any bones in his lower
legs. Shortly thereafter, his lower legs were amputed, and he walks on regular leg prosthetics and he runs on advanced carbon fiber prosthetics that look nothing like a human leg.
There are some interesting issues worth discussing here. The most obvious question most people ask is he gains an unfair biomechanical advantage. The science, as best as anyone can determine, suggests not, to the best of our limited understanding of the science of running. He might swing his lighter legs faster, but he has to push harder to maintain the same thrust as his competitors so it appears things even out with his prosthetics. And, it must be said, he only barely qualified in the event, as the last person added to the South African team; he only runs as fast as other 400m runners, not faster. These are prosthetics that bring him up to normal, not beyond.
If it wasn’t clear, we aren’t talking about Pistorius running in the Paralympics (although he did win gold in 100m, 200m, and 400m in the Beijing Summer Paralympics). In 2012 he qualifed for the, uh, “regular” or “normal” Olympics. This is what seems to be causing the controversy because no-one complained about his Paralympic presence, but could also be load of hogwash because an Olympic track athlete is not normal. They are just a few thousand people who were blessed with “unfair” genetics, or “unfair” social or economic advantages that allow them to train and compete at the highest levels around the world. That’s not normal. Almost by definition, they do things that normal people can’t: “faster, higher, stronger” is the Olympic motto, is it not?
The question I’d ask is faster, higher, stronger at what exactly? There is no 400m backward-hopping-on-one-leg race, for example. But why not? Each Summer and Winter Olympics sees some events added and others dropped, and for a variety of reasons the female events are not the same as the male events. In 2012, women’s boxing is new, and softball is out. Ultimately, each event at the Olympic games is a socially selected test of some arbitrary human ability. What’s normal actually changes from from time to time, and may, in time, come to include virtually any prosthetic.
In any case, pointing to his prosthetics hardly seems fair given other amateur sports have been employing high-tech devices for years to give themselves a known biomechanical or fluid-dynamic advantage. Remember when clap-skates were introduced? Or the full-body swimsuits? They both provided technological advantages to some athletes and not others. Not to mention the many professional athletes have had elective eye surgery to improve their visual acuity. I’d wager than Pistorius will be running next to athletes wearing a variety of expensive and optimally selected track shoes. No Olympic event, to my knowledge, takes place in a technology-free zone. Unlike the original Ancient Greek games, modern athletes do not compete nude.
Somehow, I doubt that Oscar Pistorius, aka “the fastest man with no legs”, will be the most controversial aspect of this years games.
Bicycle cameras July 24, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Today’s New York Times brings a couple of interesting articles about cyclists. The first concerns cameras that cyclists can wear to record their rides. Originally designed so that epic rides could be re-enjoyed later, the cameras are now being used by cycling commuters to record any accidents they may have while on the streets. For example, a cyclist named Evan Wilder was sideswiped by a car and knocked off his bike. The driver sped away but Mr. Wilder was able to obtain the license plate number from the video stored in his camera. Police arrested the owner and charged him with leaving the scene of an accident.
(Alisdair McDiarmid/Wikimedia commons)
Many cyclists will see such gear as a way of leveling the playing field, that is, of addressing an imbalance of power with motorists who, after all, have a big advantage in size and power on the roadway. Some drivers, it seems, also have an adversarial attitude towards cyclists, that cameras might help to curb:
“It’s a fact of life that on American roads that you get punked, cut off purposely, harassed, not once but on a regular basis,” said Bob Mionske, a former Olympic cyclist who is now a lawyer representing bicyclists in Portland, Ore. “If motorists start to hear about bikes having cameras, they’re going to think twice about running you off the road.”
So, cycle cameras may help to make things fairer for cyclists.
The next article concerns how New York City is sending errant cyclists to remedial classes. Cyclists who are written up for violations such as riding outside of bicycle lanes (where they are available) or riding on sidewalks are sent by judges to a class hosted in a sports store in the Upper West Side. The idea is to remind cyclists what the laws concerning cycling require of them, or simply to educate them where they are not clear on the matter:
“You couldn’t possibly ticket all of the stuff you see irresponsible cyclists do,” said Judge Felicia Mennin, who worked with the nonprofit organization Bike New York to develop the new sentencing option.
But, she acknowledged, some riders may be honestly confused about what is allowed. “There are a lot of laws and not always clarity about abiding by the law,” she said.
Cycling education is rudimentary in North America, so most cyclists learn the rules of the road informally. As a result, their behavior will tend to vary with their personal and cultural background. Perhaps our approach should be more systematic, as it is in the Netherlands.
In any event, the introduction of cameras for cyclists could have unforeseen consequences. If an accident occurs involving a bicycle, the video might be subpoenaed in court, even if the video weighs against the cyclist. In a recent case in British Columbia, a hang glider pilot was charged with obstruction of justice after he swallowed a memory card containing video of a flight where his passenger fell to her death. I imagine that the courts would take a similar view of videos recorded by cyclists in the event that they are caught violating the law.
It seems inevitable that we will be surveilling one another more and more with cameras. As with the recent case of Steve Mann, the results may not alway be what we expect or would like.
Espresso cup takes off July 23, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Today’s Daily Bulletin at the University of Waterloo contains’s an interesting entry about a novel espresso cup designed by Professor Craig Kaplan of the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. The mug is special in at least two respects:
- It has feet that resemble the fins of rockets from 30s-style science fiction rockets, and
- It was fabricated using a 3D printer.
In the bulletin item, Professor Kaplan explains that the opportunity for the design arose by accident:
One day, I accidentally snapped the handle off one of the cups in the Computer Graphics Lab (where we maintain a range of espresso-related paraphernalia). I took that as an opportunity to experiment with designs for new espresso cups.
Hey, a range of espresso stuff. Well, I have a kettle.
The rocketship look was a natural one for an espresso cup, Professor Kaplan explains, since coffee is the (rocket) fuel of research. Of course, the design is also cute, given its diminutive size and rounded shape. Consumer items shaped like rocketships are not entirely unprecedented; I am reminded somewhat of the “rocketship” version of the Waring blendor, introduced after World War II. It also was used to make drinks, although intended more for cocktails than coffees.
Added to its aesthetics, the cup is cool because it is produced by a 3D printer. Professor Kaplan has been interested in them for some time, and the cup design lent itself to prototyping on this technology. In fact, you can order copies of this cup from Shapeways, where it will be printed and shipped to your door. In fact, the cup has sold well, having attracted attention on influential blogs such as Gizmodo and BoingBoing. As a result, Professor Kaplan is setting up a run with a ceramics producer so that the cup can be sold more widely and more cheaply.
The topic of 3D printing and 3D printers has been discussed previously on this blog. The rocketship cup illustrates the potential of this technology to turn designs into artifacts, and to disseminate those artifacts in a new way.
What is true Greek yogurt? July 20, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From NPR comes an interesting piece about food technology and Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is yogurt with a thick texture, making it almost a solid rather than a liquid. Traditionally, the yogurt is made in the regular way, but is then strained to remove some of the water content, leaving behind a thickened material that retains the slightly sour taste of regular yogurt.
(Rainer Zenz/Wikimedia commons)
Greek yogurt has become very popular in the US. Sales of Greek yogurt have taken off of late:
Last year, Greek yogurt accounted for 20 percent of total yogurt sales, according to market researcher SymphonyIRI, and 15 percent of volume sales. In each of the last three years, sales of Greek yogurt have surged more than 100 percent, while non-Greek yogurt has grown at a single-digit pace, according to consumer data tracker Nielsen.
Industry experts credit Greek yogurt’s tart flavor and creamy texture for wooing consumers from traditional varieties, and in some cases persuading them to start eating yogurt. Greek yogurt also has better nutritional credentials, with more protein and sometimes more calcium and less sugar.
So, it should be no surprise that competition for the American Greek-yogurt marketplace have heated up.
This point is where the controversy comes in. According to Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of the yogurt maker Chobani, Greek yogurt is made through straining. Chobani uses high-tech centrifuges to strain away liquid so that its product achieves the required density. The result is yogurt that matches the taste and texture of the yogurt his mother used to make using cheesecloth in her kitchen back in Turkey.
However, other companies have created Greek yogurt by the addition of thickeners, such as starch, instead of the removal of liquid. Erhan Yildiz, and head of food research company Ingredion, invented a process in which such additives precisely re-create the taste and feel of strained yogurt, but at a lesser cost. Yildiz, who also grew up in Turkey and enjoyed home-made Greek yogurt there, says that the result is a yogurt that is, to all appearances, the same as the strained variety.
Hamdi Ulukaya argues that such products are not truly “Greek yogurt”. Instead, they are some kind of facsimile. So, we have an issue of authenticity: Is the yogurt made with starch truly Greek yogurt or not? It seems to reproduce all the perceptible qualities of true Greek yogurt but with a non-traditional ingredient. Does that matter? If you think so, would you change your mind if it turned out that some Greeks used to make their yogurt using thickening agents?
Of course, you could argue that Chobani’s yogurt is not authentic either, as it is made by using centrifuges rather than by pressing the yogurt through cheesecloth. Although both methods force the yogurt through some kind of sieve, the new method employs a non-traditional, industrial technology. Does that matter? Perhaps the Greeks who made yogurt by pressing it through cheesecloth might have jumped at the chance to use centrifuges, had such things been available.
(And neither is authentic in the sense of genuine, that is, actually originating in Greece the way that authentic champagne actually originates in the Champagne district of France. So, what we are talking about here may not be authentic “Greek yogurt” so much as authentic “Greek-style” yogurt, which might seem like an oxymoron to some people.)
There is also an issue of fairness here. Both yogurts compete in the marketplace as Greek yogurts but the recipe using starch is cheaper, thus giving that product a price advantage. Is that fair? If both should be considered Greek yogurt, then consumers can have their Greek yogurt at a lower cost. Yet, Ulukaya argues, identifying both as Greek yogurt would confuse the public regarding the strained product:
“That ruins the expectation in the consumer’s mind of how pure and simple this product is.”
Ulukaya argues that there should be legal definition of Greek yogurt, one that differentiates his product from the cheaper variety. This measure would work to his advantage in the marketplace but would also tend to dampen efforts to innovate improved methods of producing Greek yogurt.
My own feeling is that Chobani should look first to their own resources. An advertising campaign might well persuade consumers that Greek yogurt made without starch is a superior product, worthy of a little extra expenditure. This style of advertising and branding seems to work for organic products, so it might also work for authentic ones. Getting the government to enforce the establishment of such a distinction implies that there is a public interest in it, which does not clearly exist.
In any event, this story ties together some important themes of this blog and shows how technological progress can create novel challenges for society.
Surveillance and resistance July 19, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Steve Mann, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Toronto, has endured a strange experience at a McDonalds in Paris. Professor Mann wears a special set of augmented reality eyeglasses called EyeTap. Apparently, the device drew the ire of some employees of the restaurant, who confronted Mann and tried to take the glasses away. In his blog post, Mann notes that the device is attached to his head and “does not come off my skull without special tools”. In the end, Mann and his EyeTap were forcibly ejected from the premises.
(EyeTap blog/Steve Mann)
It is unclear what motivated the alleged assault. However, Mann points to an incident last year in which an American woman was forcibly ejected from a Paris McDonalds after she photographed the menu and, in the process, one of the employees. In both cases, McDonalds has denied that any physical altercation took place. However, it seems plausible to conclude that, in both cases, the employees were responding adversely to what they took to be intrusive surveillance on the job.
There is some irony in this situation. Both Professor Mann and his assailants view their actions as acts of resistance, that is, opposition to the introduction of unwelcome technologies. Professor Mann’s EyeTap device is meant, among other things, to promote sousveillance, that is, the surveillance of the authorities by members of the public. Through such sousveillance, government authorities such as the police can be held to account. This use of technology acts as a counter to the powers of surveillance that authorities can acquire through technology.
However, the difference between sousveillance and surveillance is only one of perspective. It may be that the McDonalds employees took Mann with his EyeTap as a surveilling authority figure, whether official or self-appointed. Not that this consideration excuses their hostile response.
The incident illustrates the tensions that come along with the arrival of ubiquitous, networked, and now mobile sensors such as Google glasses. It seems that the time has come to start resolving these tensions. McDonalds, for example, needs to set a policy for how employees may deal appropriately with members of the public wielding cameras and other recording devices. What should that policy do?
Calling Dr. Pager July 18, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
Without meaning to, I seem to have started on a thread about obsolescence on this blog. Today’s addition concerns pagers, those little devices that beep when they receive a short message from a central source. As this piece from NPR points out, pagers were commonplace in North America in the 1980s. Many people, from rappers to Wall Street bankers, carried a pager. Carrying one meant that you were “on call”, that is, that your presence was critical to the functioning of some enterprise. Usually, the beeping of your pager meant that some crisis had erupted in your absence from work, and that your intervention was necessary to put the fires out. So, when someone received a page, they often had to run to a payphone in order to contact their colleagues and get the scoop on the problem.
If you are unfamiliar with pagers, that is because they are now mostly considered obsolete. Mostly, people use cell phones to perform the functions that pagers used to perform. However, pagers are still common in some niche settings. The NPR piece points out that pagers remain common in hospitals, where doctors and other staff often continue to carry them. When a crisis erupts, the paper beeps and the doctor has to drop everything and contact someone. According to the report, over 90% of American hospitals continue to use pagers.
The pager is now facing increasing competition from the smart phone. Not surprisingly, many doctors now own smart phones, which are able to provide essentially the same functionality as the pager, and more. Thus, many doctors would prefer to use their smart phones instead of pagers for communication purposes.
Although many hospitals are experimenting with smart phones, the pager is not dead yet. It still has key advantages: it is cheap and reliable, it is highly standardized, and it does not bring the data security issues that apply to data kept on smart phones. Although the report does not mention it, I would think that another problem would be that many hospitals prohibit cell phones from certain areas in order to prevent interference with medical equipment. In brief, pagers work and are safe and simple, which slows their slide into extinction.
The story of the pager illustrates a seeming conundrum of obsolescence. The pager survives in a niche setting because it is simple and its potential replacement, the smart phone, is what Bruce Sterling calls a gizmo:
“GIZMOS” are highly unstable, user-alterable, baroquely multifeatured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief life span. GIZMOS offer functionality so plentiful that it is cheaper to import features into the object than it is to simplify.
Because it is a gizmo, the smart phone can replace all the functionality of a pager. Yet, because it is a gizmo, the smart phone presents many challenges to designers looking to adapt them to the role of pagers. Eventually, the gizmo will win, especially if its advocates can find new and additional functions for it to fulfill. The increased utility would justify to hospital administrators the increased headaches that come with the transition.
Adieu, Minitel July 12, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
The French Minitel system has been taken offline, as of the end of June 2012. The system provided an Internet-like service to French subscribers, who received a text-based terminal connected to a network through a telephone modem. Minitel allowed subscribers to access phonebooks, government databases, make purchases such as air and train tickets, and participate in chat rooms.
(Deep silence/Wikimedia commons)
The system was created around 30 years ago and had as many as 25 million users in the mid 1990s, according to the New York Times. There were still 810,000 terminals in service in 2012, according to The Independent, but this is not adequate to justify the cost of the service. Minitel, it says, was antiquated by the Internet:
There are still 810,000 Minitel terminals in France, mostly used by older people who dislike computers. There are still 1,800 services available through Minitel, although most people these days contact them (final indignity) through the internet.
The New York Times suggests that many of these stubborn Minitel users are farmers in Brittany, who use the service to access agricultural service and find PCs to be too fragile for their liking.
Yesterday, I discussed the obsolescence of shortwave radio or, rather, how it has become more and more specialized. It is interesting to compare the two cases to understand why Minitel is now dead whereas shortwave is not, even though both have been marginalized by the ‘net. One difference, I suspect, is that shortwave has a much broader reach. Although the French government did try to export Minitel, the attempt was not successful:
Early on, the French authorities had hoped to export their invention, but they insisted that the Minitel be sold as an “all inclusive” system, said Valérie Schafer, a telecommunications historian. That inflexibility helped make the Minitel a commercial failure outside France, Ms. Schafer said, especially given the varied telecommunications norms in Europe and elsewhere.
It seems that Minitel was too tied to the French way of organizing online activity. You might argue, correctly, that the Internet is tied to the American way of doing so, but that way proved to be more flexible (and maybe sexier) and, therefore, adaptable. Being limited to France meant that Minitel’s niche could shrink quickly once it faced competition from the Internet.
Perhaps other factors played a role. Since Minitel came to duplicate a set of Internet services, it would be hard to justify supporting both networks in today’s straitened economic times. The very centralization of Minitel meant that the whole system could fall to the budget axe in one blow. No one government could terminate the pocket calculator, even if it decided that this category of device is obsolete.
Undoubtedly, the causes of the demise of Minitel are complex. However, it is interesting to contrast the fate of Minitel with that of other obsolete technologies like the shortwave radio.
Shortwave radio: The end of an era? July 11, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
The recent edition of The Economist has an interesting little piece on the increasing silence of shortwave radio. It notes, for example, that Radio Canada International recently ceased shortwave transmission, a result of Government cuts to the CBC and other services.
Shortwave radio consists of broadcasts in relatively high frequencies. One of the key advantages of these frequencies is that radio waves broadcast in them tend to “bounce off” the ionosphere and reflect back to Earth. Thus, shortwave broadcasts can be sent worldwide from a small number of sources. Also, shortwave radio sets are relatively cheap, so that people almost anywhere in the world can afford a radio that is able to receive the broadcasts. The main downside is that broadcasts are sensitive to atmospheric conditions, so that signals arriving at a given location can vary quite a bit in strength over time.
The article describes shortwave radio as largely a creature of the cold war: Shortwave provided countries, both capitalist and communist, with a means of getting out their message when other channels, such as newspapers, were blocked. In the post cold-war era, it seems, this need is less compelling.
Furthermore, notes the article, shortwave broadcasts have been superceded by the Internet. That is, instead of using a shortwave radio to listen to news, people worldwide can simply download their favorite podcasts. Thus, as the reach of the Internet increases, the utility of shortwave as a broadcasting medium decreases.
Of course, this tale of obsolescence is not so simple, as the article notes. The end of the cold war has indeed lessened the interest in countries on either side of the East/West divide to propagandize the other’s population. However, Internet access is not yet as cheap or widely available as are shortwave radio sets. Many millions of people in poor and remote regions still rely on shortwave to stay in touch with world events, for example. As such, the article notes, the Chinese government is expanding its shortwave offerings, and the Voice of America has no intentions of cutting back on its services.
Perhaps the moral of this story is that shortwave radio, like the pocket calculator, is not as obsolete as it might seem. Certainly, new technologies like the Internet have shouldered shortwave out of some of its old niches. Yet, the penetration of shortwave into some niches will not be equalled by the ‘net for some time. Also, long experience has enabled designers to make shortwave sets very cheap and reasonably robust, which is not true of Internet access technologies, certainly in remote areas. Thus, in spite of the demise of the cold war and the advent of the Internet, shortwave is not ready for relegation to the museum just yet.