All posts made in Apr. 2003:

"We do not feel horror because we are threatened by a sphinx; we dream of a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel", so no sphinxish reasons. CV here.

Whoa. Alan Kay does what looks roughly like a Powerpoint presentation about the history of computing (the coolness leaks through once, when he authors a little in the middle, but not much). Half-way through, they begin to demonstrate Open Croquet, a 3d collaborative environment on two screens. Screen left is travelling around a tabletop world, looking in portals to different 3d scapes. Pretty cool. Then Kay, on the right screen, zooms out: the entire presentation has been in a scape, a window in this collaborative environment. !

At the end of the first day of sessions, my Emerging Tech Conference 2003 notes (see also, my 2002 notes and roundup). The sound of keyboards in sessions is noticably louder than last year - more people typing - and it sounds like a summer rainfall, or a marina. But just the same is the constant darting, furtive glancing at your chest. Not tits, conference badge.

Kottke's ultimate Emerging Tech Conference 2003 coverage. Excellent.

Two things.

  • I'll be arriving at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference later this afternoon.
  • The absolute utter utter best thing about San Francisco, we saw even before passport control. The corridor walls at San Francisco airport, from the arrival gate to immigration, are decorated with god damn Penrose Tiles. Alas I have no photographs. But shit that's cool.

(See also: Previous post about Penrose Tiles.)

Small world systems and power laws. This paper reviews some early papers about "small worlds" -- what they are, and how they arise. Social networks are often small worlds: you can connect yourself to any other person through a surprisingly small number of steps, given you don't already know everyone! Also explored is how to search such a network if you only have local knowledge: ie, who you are connected to by the first or second degree and nothing else.

Short (good!) Introduction to Social Network Analysis, covering the various metrics used to talk about people in networks, and the network itself: degrees; betweenness; closeness; boundary spanners; peripheral players; network centralisation.

Recently I read somewhere, I'm not sure where but that's not important, about the early vocoders, and about how they would not record the voice, but write out symbols that represented the phonemes of the speech. So playing back the symbols would not be the voice, but be recognisable. A stream of modulated sound, yet speech.

Then I was asleep in the park a couple of days ago (and got sunburned, yes, enough of that) and I dreamed of social networks but from the inside/ locally/ embedded in the network, with the perspective of a node: what would my environment look like? I saw a kind of coloured globe, the surface of which represented my surroundings.

The next day, after a few drinks, I saw that social networks - nodes and arcs - were a lossy compression of how people actually formed networks: that groups, interactions, etc were multileaved; that the data recorded was just the stuff most easily recorded, and that what was really important was how people move and think together [like flurries of snowflakes]. But so much is obvious.

In the same bar, the phonemes being captured by the vocoder and the social features of the rhizome became similar. Institial agents could filter my personal input/output streams and bind to certain patterns of interaction; customised for important structures (loosely bound stable groups; couples; tightly bound short-lived groups; adversaries) my social life could be constructed as a series of symbols. A recombinant grammar that would still lose the truthly complexity of my actual life, but would replace it with a map/ a toy social life, one that could be analysed.

[The local life is all that matters. Why should I care about conversations three degrees away from me? If I want information, timely or otherwise, I'm not interested in personalities (although I am interested in what they would give me: reputation, etc); if I want conversation I want it to be local, and then I won't demand the high correspondance to my interests. I'll pursue serendipity.]

In my head: a brightly coloured sphere, its surface a symbolic map reflecting the important features of the social landscape in which I live, cartographically captured from the inside; like a large room with a sphere at the middle, where you can't tell whether it's the sphere that is a mirror reflecting the room about it, or lit from the inside, projecting its surface pattern all around.

A chat with the man behind mobile phones: "Something that would represent an individual so you could assign a number not to a place, not to a desk, not to a home but to a person".

(Tom and I are going to the Tonga Room tonight for tacky tiki, music, fake thunderstorms and cocktails. Come along, we'll see you there at about 8ish.)

A history of Semantic Networks [via robot wisdom]: "A semantic network or net is a graphic notation for representing knowledge in patterns of interconnected nodes and arcs. Computer implementations of semantic networks were first developed for artificial intelligence and machine translation, but earlier versions have long been used in philosophy, psychology, and linguistics. What is common to all semantic networks is a declarative graphic representation that can be used either to represent knowledge or to support automated systems for reasoning about knowledge. Some versions are highly informal, but other versions are formally defined systems of logic. Following are six of the most common kinds of semantic networks, each of which is discussed in detail in one section of this article." Those six network types being: Definitional; Assertational; Implicational; Executable; Learning; Hybrid.

Moments of San Francisco culture shock:

  • Buying a magazine in Borders and - did I hear this right? - the cashier offers to send me my receipt by email. If true, how cool! Receive the email, pull out the book titles, and mark those books as 'already owned' at Amazon to improve the quality of my recommendations. That would be nice. Oh, and the man who was rearranging the magazines was wearing latex gloves. Why I don't know.
  • The credit/debit card swiping machine in 7-Eleven lets you swipe the card yourself and you sign on to the screen.
  • Realising that all the tiny things about America that I've seen in films, comic strips and so on aren't enormous cultural symbols or meaningful things at all. People skateboarding down the street, wearing baggy trousers, Twinkies et al: they're normal, like Hula Hoops (the crisps). This is what cultural imperialism is all about.
  • Coates twigged it: San Francisco is SimCity. The bridges over the water; the tunnels through the steep hills. The high/low density housing, the hills and the way the grid system breaks up over them. The building themselves, the actual designs of the financial and residential ones: they're lifted from the SF skyline! So familiar.
  • Come to that, the entire Bay Area (and I noticed this last time, the first time I was here) was instantly familiar from Kim Stanley Robison's Mars trilogy and his descriptions of harbour towns, shorelines, cities and values. A bizarre feeling of being here before, from books about the colonisation of another planet. (See also: Robinson's Three Californias trilogy.)

America is unarticulably weird|cool.

A topical Upsideclown up at the moment. "A sin every three or four days. One hundred sins a year. That's a good market. Jesus died for all our sins, but wouldn't it be better, more certain, if he could die for each one? [...] Cloning is really a simple matter. We farm the embryos in vats, keep them growing long enough that it's absolutely certain the spark of life has entered the cell cluster, then ship them out in little plastic cartridges. People pop them like breath-mints, whenever their soul feels dirty". New story: Seeing the Light.

Girls Are Pretty (April 15th entry) is still the second-best place on the entire www. "Also, I hope this doesn't fuck things up in some way, the way you can alter destiny bytime traveling. I'd hate to think that you'll end up underneath someone's moleberry tree and look down at the ground and see a whole mess of black and red and purple moleberries ground into the ground and you'll think "Oh shit, this is it. It's gonna happen right now" and then you'll run away or move too fast or something. If the kiss doesn't take place, we'll probably all end up all of a sudden being ruled by cats who know how to use phones".

(While you're there, scroll down to the April 3 entry, A Golden Glow Inside The Baby Day!. It's even better.)

Now this could be interesting. Apple's Safari includes a AppleScript-to-JavaScript bridge, so you can use OS-level scripting to interact with web pages [via macosxhints].

Some good views on the way to San Francisco. Beautiful.

Too many positive feedback loops [via boingboing]. We've forgotten our cybernetics.

Edward Tufte on the London Tube Map [via robot wisdom]. Also mentions the London Tube Map Archive, maps back to 1908, of varying quality.

"As scientists, we are concerned to build a simulacrum of the phenomenal universe in words. That is, our product is to be a verbal transform of the phenomena." -- Gregory Bateson, 'Redundancy and Coding' (in Steps to an Ecology of Mind).

Bruce Tognazzini (Tog) on Apple Squandering the Advantage, on interface innovations Apple could make. Lists extra screen objects including: Piles (stacks of documents); visual cues on folders; various object/application collections.

By Paul Graham, The Hundred-Year Language: "What kind of programming language will they use to write the software controlling those flying cars?" [via slashdot].

Things about Penrose Tiles:

I had fun this weekend making my own. (And I have to get this down before I forget the sensation. That when I started putting the tiling together, I was getting holes after only two or three. The first patterns were nice, but it wasn't tessellating. Then I started seeing patterns and simularities and putting down the tiles became easier, but there was something else behind my eyes. Unarticulable hypotheses being created and tested. I felt shifted into a different world of interaction, shifted sideways. Making those original patterns was unworkable, I could see imperfections I hadn't noticed before. Certain configurations were ugly in ways I hadn't seen a minute or so earlier. It felt like learning a new computer language, only more fundamental; or reading a book from a different field, only less to do with words. As if all lever-like behaviour in the world because turning behaviour instead. Then it was time for dinner, and it was difficult because the act of laying down the tiles correctly was compelling. The pattern demanded to extend.)

A couple of personal notes:

  • Given what's happening where I work, I'm prudently putting myself on the job market. If you've a London-based project happening - involving any of technology, government, society, or anything else in which I may be interested - please read my CV and drop me a line for a chat (ah yes, and to let me know about typos).
  • I'm in San Francisco from the 17th till 28th of this month for the Emerging Tech Conference and some general mooching around. Let me know if you fancy meeting up -- I have no plans.

My email address is

The New Media Reader: "The new media field has been developing for more than 50 years. This reader collects the texts, videos, and computer programs-many of them now almost impossible to find-that chronicle the history and form the foundation of this still-emerging field".

I wouldn't usually mention marketing emails, but this is a well-targeted marketing email (and I like that). Check out the list of essays -- an absolute string of classics (Borges, Bush, Turing, Engelbart, Ted Nelson, Marshall McLuhan... just to start). I'll report back once it's been bought+read.

This is good, tasty words. Geometry, and our descriptions of networked space: "In the first stages of public understanding of the net, it was important to describe it as a space - to map its topology and the geometry in a way that elucidated its similarities and differences with 'real' space. As it has matured as a medium and become integrated into social behviour patterns, the dynamism of these social behaviours creates centres of 'gravity', and this creates warps in the abstract maps we have of the topology of the net. A non-euclidean geometrical paradigm is needed, and I think the interest in Power Laws and related network-theory has started to provide this. These geometrical paradigms factor in dynamics, so the static topology of the net is curved according to the patterns of behaviour that occur within it.

"If we follow the historical development of geometry further, what would a relativity theory of the net look like? How would it help us describe the effect of social behaviour as a gravity-like force within the topology of net-space? And further still - what about a string theory of the net?"

The magic number 150 "seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship" -- perhaps (for example) it's the tipping point between a band and a tribe (one having formal leadership, the other tending not) in Jared Diamond's Types of Societies. Anyway, this number could arise from the cost of maintaining the network versus its complexity. An interesting thought.

So SmarterChild is back online (and surprise, back on AIM! Their message last year about technology costs looked pretty bitter. I wonder what happened?) -- with a raft of new abilities and a $9.99 annual subscription. Some of the features look pretty interesting too: Polls and Surveys; Leave a Message; Send a Crush. Nice and viral. Not as interesting as the subscription though. Good price point. I hope it doesn't go up too much once the introductory period is over.

Two favourite passages from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

  • (From the introduction to section 9)
    And from the mixture of those two cities a third emerged, which might be called San Francisco and which spans the Golden Gate and the bay with long, light bridges and sends open trams climbing its steep streets, and which might blossom as capital of the Pacific a millennium hence, after the long siege of three hundred years that would lead the races of the yellow and the black and the red to fuse with the surviving descendants of the whites in an empire more vast than the Great Khan's.
  • (From Cities & The Dead 5)
    [...] you must think that the number of the unborn is far greater than the total of all the living and all the dead, and then in every pore of the stone there are invisible hordes, jammed on the funnel-sides as in the stands of a stadium, and since with each generation Laudomia's descendants are multipled, every funnel contains hundreds of other funnels each with millions of persons who are to be born, thrusting their necks out and opening their mouths to escape suffocation.

There's another extract on Purse Lip Square Jaw.

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (at is excellent: how communities identify and understand a field through the use of paradigms, and how changes in these occur. A great mine of vocabulary for things I knew but was unable to articulate. And an interesting bridge between individual understanding, how people learn and communicate ideas, and group dynamics.

: Good synopsis and outline of the book.

More social software rambling:

  • Social software acknowledges that in the real world people like to work in groups of more than two, so this person-to-person versus person-to-unbounded_group in email is missing a step. (It's because there's an abstraction, or breakpoint at the sendee/receiver. The email address is just a pointer.) And therefore triads must be treated differently... but only as the first possible manifestation of few-to-few, which bleeds into other forms/axioms with larger groups.
  • Social software acknowledges that social capital starts to appear as people get together (favours swapped, debts owed), ditto groupthink, ditto norms/traditions: and therefore the design has to accomodate routes for people to reciprocate at the same proportionate effort-levels as real life, otherwise all members are going to feel annoyed. (More so: The software could complete the loop and make use of the concept of social capital too.)
  • An example of a feature that could've come from social software design: The IM-online icon in Apple's Mail. It would be better if it appeared closer to the email itself. Or maybe, closer to your focus of reading only when it's an email to/from a group, because then misunderstandings could be extinguished before they blossom.

And some rambling about social software as pre-paradigm:

  • Social software is like the early days of thermodynamics, before stat mech. Or maybe pre-Newton. Or maybe early electricity: we had to make do with rules-of-thumb. Some day all of this will be filled in with limits so we'll say: these approximations apply with this number of people; these others with this number. (This is already happening.)
  • It's different from this kind of science because the models only existed in maths, and now they exist in real life and people can live in them (Outlook). Or maybe not: having a good rule for electricity was important when they were dropping the telegraph cable across the Atlantic. Getting the amps wrong there was an expensive mistake.
  • Normal science/ exploration of an idea includes: fact finding, proposing theories, testing theories. We're proposing, but not testing. We're exploring, but not deriving the facts -- even if it's "this works, this doesn't"; we don't because with social software it comes for free: the ones that work are the ones that are successful. Successful and social should probably be decoupled so we can more easily examine them.

What we need:

Is a proper theory of folk psychology, a proper theory of folk physics, a proper theory of how people classify/understand. And not from the perspective of normal science, which is to say: "When these people have folk X, what is the real X they're thinking of?"

But rather: "What are the evolved attributes of folk X, so we can design for them?"

I like it when people say "I'm a tool guy". That means we (equals me. I'm a paradigm person myself) can take what they do, extract the attributes that made it successful, and reuse elsewhere. Some people can just create social software without thinking about it, like some people are great interior designers, or great orators, great at articulating themselves. Leaving these qualities in the hands of the people who were born with them isn't enough: that's why we teach people how to structure an argument, how to make use of rhetoric, why people go on courses for presentation skills ("What do I do with my hands?").

This is why we have Fung Shui: Folk interior design. Democratising aesthetic sofa positioning.

Social software is pre Fung Shui, pre folk anything. It's hard to slice and dice even, which is a characteristic of things that haven't been shaped and paradigmised. And it's hard because the term "social software" applies to all of:

  • the social software that people make
  • the process of understanding what it is about social software that makes it tick
  • thinking about social software and making rules, finding commonalities

And this is all without even defining what "social software" even means! We can't. It's like putting plumbing, engineering and fluid dynamics in the same box. But that's what electricity was like, what steam power was like early on, so there's hope.

No conclusion.

Arts and Crafts as a design aesthetic [thanks Matt Jones]: "Ideals: Simplicity, honesty (it is what it looks like), utility (form should follow function, but it also needs to feed the soul), organic, craftsmanship (includes innovation within convention), harmony (a simplified and unified environment). Used structural ornamentation - using joists and joints exposed. Wonders out loud how we could do that with web sites. Treat compositions of a web site as building on a series of harmonies". I like.

Slices of the ongoing conversation on social software.

Try and ground all of this; try and explain social software to someone who has a background in evolutionary psychology/ dynamics of group decisions, and it's very hard (as discovered a few nights ago). What's the objective? So I'll ramble:

There's no single defining feature of social software, no common thread. But some attributes which may or may not be shared: software which uses as data social relationships/properties; software which acts as an intermediary in social activity (conversation, decision making, wearing the same band's tshirt, clapping); software which uses human nature in the design process; software that has moved from providing an environment to providing an environment and tools, or more.

The human nature one interests me at the moment. Architecture or shop design does this: people walk into a shop and look to the right. Typography and logo design do: the total of the meaning of a logo is not just its form, but the form plus the perception. If the perception changes (over time, over a generation) then the form has to change in order that the logo stays the same. These are deliberate design decisions, but others are accidental/evolutionary: the physical form of cities, the operational form of social institutions (university, churches). These are shaped by feedback. And I mean evolutionary both in the short term (the evolution of successful social institutions; evolution within the institution itself) and in the long now: brain adaptations, real deep-down human characteristics. (Handshakes? Pointing? How the desks of powerful people are positioned? Cultural, or genetically emergent?)

Oh and of course! The www, instant messaging. Accidentally successful technologies. What makes them popular, useful, great? How do we build this stuff deliberately?

Then as for providing the environment. A group performing telic activity, do you give them email? Or something else? Email provides the environment and lets human nature do the rest. Outlook tries to give tools: meeting requests, calendars. There's a lot there. How has this been driven, decided?

So what are the problems to solve? How to make a technology popular? How to make people's lives more efficient/enjoyable? How to annoy the government into listening to you? How to work with someone on a document? But more than than: How to design software to defuse useless flamewars before they start.

Performance metrics: Two groups with the same task but different software. The group with this Software-Software-T.M.-enabled application will work faster, happier, with less fallout afterwards. And: Two technologies for sharing contacts, helping each other out. The Social Software Inside system will result in more favours, less bowling alone.

Look for rules of thumb. We've got some, for technologies: Look for the secret properties of software, copy them. We've got attributes and models (four types of players). I'm not sure these are enough.

There's so much to learn!

Look at philosophy, human behaviour, psychology, biology: extract commonalities of human nature. How do people work with distance? People prefer big effects to have big causes. How do people respond to pointing, clapping, shouting, unexpected people chipping in? Look at how people work in cities: those are the best examples of things-for-a-purpose with massive, group feedback loops. And how people sit round tables in pubs.

"You're looking to reconstruct the whole social world. That's a big job," was the response from the other night. Well yes and no. A cut down version -- but for that we have to know which are the important bits. We need a social rhetoric: a cut down way of acting socially, a way of democratising groups so that anybody (and not just people/software built that way) can be successful and happy.

I want a Fitt's Law for social software. Like: When there are twelve people who mostly haven't met talking in text, the chance of a groupwide flame war is 50%, so the button to respond person-to-person (over IM) needs to be a maximum of twice the cognitive distance as the button to respond to the group. For example.

So then: Experimental social software continue (FOAF springs to mind, weblogs too). Derive rules of thumb. People who are good at being theoretical, try and find paradigms. Learn about human nature - the kind of human nature which is important here, emotional response curves maybe - groups dynamics and so on. Model, break down. Put in the implicit design laws into the requirements document, things that aren't usually thought about: people need to be able to share their address books with this application because X, people need to taskswitch to this other app because Y. The purpose of this app is to do Z therefore there needs to be capability to 1, 2 and 3. And not just proximate: is socialising in group software just as important as the Meeting Request button?

Use cases, examples, models, falsification, experiment, theory, talking, above all: learning.