Tragic hitchBOT and Camera Surveillance

The hitchhiking robot and social experiment called hitchBot came to an end in Philadelphia this week. It had survived crossing Canada and being in Germany and Italy. But it turns out the US was not friendly enough for it to survive. Message from the family:

hitchBOT’s trip came to an end last night in Philadelphia after having spent a little over two weeks hitchhiking and visiting sites in Boston, Salem, Gloucester, Marblehead, and New York City. Unfortunately, hitchBOT was vandalized overnight in Philadelphia; sometimes bad things happen to good robots.

The bot was a relatively simple device with a vaguely human shape – or more like a rough robot shape; two arms and two legs a torso and a screen for eyes.

The robot was able to carry on basic conversation and talk about factoids, and was designed to be a robotic travelling companion while in the vehicle of the driver who picked it up. It had a GPS device and a 3G connection which allowed researchers to track its location. It was equipped with a camera which took photographs periodically to document its journeys. Wikipedia

It’s sad that the robot was destroyed and it could probably have happened anywhere – even if it did happen in Philly. The interesting part for me is that a couple of days later this surfaces: Here’s Video of the Jerk Who Killed hitchBOT talk about surveillance society.

There is always a camera somewhere. The question is: are we doing anything that makes it worth the effort to find the footage?

Wearable camera takes 2 photos per minute

Lifelogging has been a buzzword for some time now, but its still a cumbersome task for most of us. But this is not going to last long.

One device that’s going to make this all too easy is the Memoto, which has the tag line “Remember every moment.”

The product is small and simple, clip it on and it takes two photos per minute until you take it off. In the promotion video Memoto says: “What if we could build a camera small enough to never be in the way, but smart enough to capture life as we live it.”

The mass of 5 megapixel pictures are stored on Memoto’s storage surface, and include the time and the location where they were taken. Via an app the photo’s are searchable via gps and time.

When the images are stored on the cloud they are organized into moments, represented by the algorithmically chosen most interesting image.

Sure this is a cool toy, its small, light and colorful. But it also raises several ethical implications. Such as:

  • Many of the people around will have no idea they are being photographed by the device
  • People may object in general to having their time and location and image stored
  • What happens if the device carrier walks into sensitive areas such as hospitals, courts, police stations
  • Who controls the images
  • Who accesses the images (legally or illegally)
  • Copyright questions
  • Trade secrets

Despite all these questions the devices are available and will probably be around soon. A day will produce over 1000 pictures – which explains the need for the algorithm to help us sift through the garbage. But even then I suspect that most of us will realize that we live fundamentally boring lives, probably not worth documenting.


Toilet brush covert surveillance camera

Via BoingBoing comes the story of a creepy man secretly filming women in a Starbucks restroom.

A 25-year-old man hid a video camera disguised as a plastic coat hook inside the women’s restroom of a Starbucks in Glendora, CA, and secretly recorded more than 40 women and children using the toilet over two days. The man “downloaded the device about every hour to his laptop computer while sitting in his car,” according to police. (LA Times)

Most of us would be in agreement that the actions of the man are creepy. But what I find interesting is the point that nowhere in the original story (LA Times) is the manufacturers responsibility discussed. What moral responsibility does a manufacturer/designer have for a camera, disguised as a plastic coat hook, that can be affixed to a wall?

The coat hook is – in this context – an almost a reasonable product. There is a whole range of hidden bathroom camera devices on the market. How about the toothbrush camera, toilet brush camera, shower radio camera, bathroom light camera, toothpaste camera, hair clipper camera, soap dish camera, shower mirror camera, shampoo bottle camera… (all from the same manufacturer)

There may be certain situations where invading someones privacy with the help of covert surveillance cameras is legitimate – maybe even necessary. But the mass market for goods to cover these situations is hard to envision. It is even more difficult for me to understand when it could be a legitimate need to covertly film people in the bathroom. And yet there are mass market cheap goods that cover this particular situation.

So when the creepy 25-year-old uses these products – he is being creepy. But when would the use of this stuff not be creepy?

Does the fact that these products exist and are easy to buy promote and encourage creepy behavior?

The perfect laptop bag

The laptop has made us mobile – both free and enslaved – by the fact that we are able to work elsewhere. Not anywhere as even this technology has its limits. And mobility has its costs, among which is the need to carry our technology with us when we are practising the art of mobility.

Before ever leaving my home I check to make sure that I have the three basic necessities of life: keys, wallet and cell phone. Most often I carry more but this is the minimum of equipment needed to survive the city. But life is almost never lived at a minimum level and leaving the apartment usually entails a long list of equipment.

  • Keys, phone, wallet
  • Laptop (power source, VGA adapter, wireless presenter)
  • headphones
  • second cell phone
  • Memory stick, whiteboard markers, pens, highlighters, post-its
  • Cables to connect iPod, Camera & cell phone to laptop
  • Assorted work papers, at least one book & notebook
  • Work keys & key cards
  • Small digital camera (canon ixus 750)

in my bag

And this is just an ordinary day. If I am travelling to give a lecture outside my home university I will usually have an extra book for the trip and small portable speakers (my lectures often require sound). If I am travelling further afield (or to an intersting local location) I will also have my other camera if the trip is going somewhere good I will also have a large second lens. If I am going abroad the case will include travel documents and a guidebook in addition to everything else.

The best way to cart all this stuff around is with a laptop bag since I travel a lot I can honestly say that I push my bags high on the endurance scale so durability is probably more important than style (even though style counts). Another important characteristic is that the bag should be reasonably discreet so as not to attract attention while travelling. A bag filled with expensive technology should not look like a bag filled with expensive technology.

But what makes the perfect bag?

Lifestyle & transportation choices: If you wear a suit, never travel far and usually in your own car then a backpack or a messenger bag are not really for you. My work means that I rarely wear suits, usually use public transportation and walk/bike over relatively long distances. Which means I need my hands free and a comfortable strap.

Obviously the backpack is a very good choice for the heavy bag, it works well on a bike but is not too much fun on crowded buses or stores. So I prefer the messenger style. Its over the shoulder good for heavy loads and can be quickly taken off – also slightly more formal (huh?) when this is required.

Color and patterns: It’s up to you – but never pick a bag with a dark interior… it’s amazing how much can be lost in the dark corners of a laptop bag.

Size is everything!

Obviously the bag needs to be large enough to carry everything you need. But not too big! Spinoza said “Nature abhors a vacuum”  to express the idea that empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural as they go against the laws of nature and physics. The same applies to bags. Bags are never empty and if there is space for yet another book then it will be filled with yet another book (weight be damned).

Right now I use a Crumpler The Sophisticator 15 Inch Brown/Orange Laptop Bag which they have stopped making. The bag

is excellent and durable and fits all of my needs. But (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) It suffers from the enormous drawback of being too large. So much too often I end up carrying to many books and slowly killing my shoulders.

Being too big is a very big deal. As is being too small. I am a big fan of Crumpler the Sheep Scarer backpack. But unfortunately this was too small for any situation where you needed to carry documents without ruining them.

So now I am begining to look for a new cool bag. The LAbesace Classic looks pretty good for carrying the tech stuff but I think that any books you attempt to shove in will be spoiled by the experience.  The Cantour Messenger bag looks like an intriguing choice – what it loses in usability it makes up for in mystery. The Australian company STM makes a whole line of bags which look good (Small Loft, Cargo, Brink and Alley). Booq makes the slightly boring yet cool Vyper Exo M[system] and the cooler Mamba Sling. MacCase looks like a big leather handbag. On the more odd side Renaissance Art makes a very cool and unusual leather laptop bag while Fuchs makes them in wool (very nice)! ZeroHalliburton does it in aliminium so does MacTruck.

Ah, the agony of choice!

The problem is that it is impossible to have a one-size-fits-all laptop bag solution since whatever I chose will be too much and too little depending on what I need to do.

Pointing a camera at the police

The United Kingdom is going totally bananas in it’s misguided battle against terror. For a long time they have been hounding photographers with very bad results for the countries image but hardly preventing any crime or terror. But this next step is absolutely misguided.

Basically it’s an amendment to the the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 that will have the result of criminalizing, amongst other things, the photographing of a police officer. Here is a quote from the British Journal of Photography:

Set to become law on 16 February, the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 amends the Terrorism Act 2000 regarding offences relating to information about members of armed forces, a member of the intelligence services, or a police officer.

The new set of rules, under section 76 of the 2008 Act and section 58A of the 2000 Act, will target anyone who ‘elicits or attempts to elicit information about (members of armed forces) … which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’.

A person found guilty of this offence could be liable to imprisonment for up to 10 years, and to a fine.

Now we have all seen silly laws before but can you even begin to imagine who could sit down and think this is a good idea? I think almost any tourist to London could look through their snaps and find a picture of a bobby with the distinctive helmet. Also this law will be used to prevent civilians taking photographs of police abuse. Imagine the effect if the reporters who took the Rodney King video faced ten years in jail?

This is a serious blow against civil rights and individual freedom – not a step towards ending terrorism.

Support a photography project

I read about this photography project on Boing Boing and thought it was worth the advert on this blog. Giving alternative groups of people access to photographic technology leads to the production of exciting new material.

Los Angeles-based photographer and blogger Dave Bullock says:

The Skid Row Photography Club‘s first show, The Beauty of the Street, premiered last Thursday during the Downtown Art Walk. The participants were ecstatic to see their beautiful work on the walls and the hundreds of people who came into the gallery loved what they saw.The SPRC started as an idea I “borrowed” from the movie Born Into Brothels . I wrote a proposal to the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council to buy digital cameras which we then gave to people living in Skid Row. I gave the participants brief lessons in composition and turned them loose. For the last six months we’ve met every Tuesday at UCEPP in Skid Row.

During that time they shot over 20,000 photos between them. An amazing body of work ranging from flowers to architecture to a man defecating in the middle of the street.

Dave asks if any Boing Boing readers might want to donate digital cameras to folks living in Skid Row, so they might extend the project. “The cameras we’ve been using are about $200 each,” he explains. “We’re just a club, not a non-profit as of yet.”

More info here on how you can participate. The short version: if you would like to donate digital cameras please email Dave directly at

Skid Row, in case you don’t know, is a massive, permanent homeless encampment in downtown Los Angeles — the largest such community in the United States. About 8-9,000 homeless people live there. This “heat map animation” provides a compelling visualization of the site, though data hasn’t been updated in a while.

To indulge

It’s black, phalic and sits nicely in my hand. It evokes feelings of joy and guilt at the same time. In what must be seen as a moment of total indulgence I bought a new lens for my camera. Yes I succumbed to the temptation I have carried with me for the past months and bought the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5,6 IS USM. And the best thing is that it’s great! I just love it.

The magnification is a huge improvement and it has a really fast internal motor. It has also got me rearing to go out and take lots of photo’s this summer.