All posts made in Oct. 2003:

George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics: "Language always comes with what is called 'framing.' Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like 'revolt,' that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That's a frame. If you then add the word 'voter' in front of 'revolt,' you get a metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and this is a good thing and all things are good now." The interview goes into the differences between the conservative and progressive worldviews, and why one puts effort into defining the language frameworks and the other doesn't. Good read.

Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center has some incredible satellilite photography of the fires in southern California [via scribot], at impressively high-resolution too. Those photos are from October 29th; there are more for the 24th, 27th and 28th.

netObjects is a "collection of everyday objects for the home that present real time information from the web." (They all look fantastic, but my favourites are -Gossip and -Umbrella, for the interface design, and -Peep cos it's funny.)

I went to buy some new trainers the other day, and did, in fact [or in actual fact: I didn't], and wearing these trainers I walked over the anti-slip pattern by the traffic-lights crossing Oxford Street from the north to south -- and actually I can't remember exactly where it was, possibly near where C&A used to be, but that's not important, what is, is this: the combination of the bumps of the anti-slip overlaid (underlaid!) on the modern pseudo-random bumps that are the tread of my shoes spelt out a message in braille on the bottom of my feet: the message directed me to such-and-such portion of the night sky at such-and-such a time and date, with blah magnification.

And so you know what, I did that, thanks to my new handheld GPS and some free binoculars I picked up at a server farm launch party at the tail end of the dot-com goldrush, and there was another message, also in braille: The Lord's Prayer, written nearby M31, in nebula and stars and the glints of satellites, and actually for one point, the taillight of a 'plane. You won't be able to see it now, a miracle!

Actually, that reminds me of another story, of before Transport for London when the tubes lived underground like moles, before we sunk the escalators and elevator-terriers, when the tracks were fresh, and the trains ran on time, and they painted beautiful mandelbrots with chalk and clay, and made love in the dark, and if you stood under where Centre Point is now - in that hub that we're digging up and trashing - and faced east, you could feel the sea air on your face, the wind from Southend-on-Sea.

The trains used to call to one another down the foot tunnels, their clacking voices whispering poetry as they passed, seducing, romancing in the 30 seconds before their doors would have to close, sometimes dwelling for up to a minute and - if they were lucky - a signal would get stuck on red and they would enjoy sometimes a quarter of an hour more in muttered sweet nothings, voices zigzagging down the corridors like light down fibre optics, or transmitted in the changing arrangement of the wall-tiles, every second more beautiful than the last thanks to the growing intimacy, but more painful because the end must be getting closer.

At Green Park once, long before it was called Green Park, the love to end all loves came to be between a train on the Piccadilly Line and a train on Jubilee. This was in the middle of an age of irony, and shone like a diamond, even brighter for being surrounded by aging tracks and scuffed seats. A chance broken rail meant these two lovers were granted hours together, and as they finally broke through the lack of earnestness that characterised those years, opened up to one another, they admitted with full frankness and not caring whether it was reciprocated, because this was so true, the truest most pure thing there had ever been, etc, they sung down the foot tunnel, simultaneously

I love you

and these two messages met in the middle of the tunnel-conduit and set up a standing wave, and in a catastrophe this wave crystallised and became fixed, lodged in the walls, and whereas before the decoration of the walkways acted as a substrate for encoded signals to zoom along at a much greater group velocity, these messages become solid, like concrete: and this fixedness spread through the tunnels and the trains and the tracks and the interconnects and the ticket barriers like a virus, and it killed them all.

So that's where we find ourselves now, travelling in the fossil shells of an ancient civilisation, trotting down lava tunnels where the lava has gone, and that's why when we tapped our first boreholes down through London we didn't hear singing.

But if you walk at Green Park down that walkway, between the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines, look at the intricate tile pattern on the wall, blues and whites and turquoise, and know what it really says, in the language of the London Underground.

And, as it happens, if you decode it into ASCII instead, into English, the tunnel walls spell out the whole of Beowulf too. But that's just coincidence. It doesn't mean anything.

Actually, Dunbar's Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size and language in humans is worth a good read -- there's more in it than the magic number 150 I referred to yesterday. The argument goes roughly like this: the maximum cohesive social group of 150 comes from the size of the primary network - intense friends - which is itself correlated with the neocortex size (in relation to the brain) and the proportion of time spent on social grooming. These three figures seem well matched across different primates.

However, if you look at humans we maintain a group size (of about 150) which matches our neocortex size but which is way over the time budget we allow for it (we'd need to spend about 42% of our time on one-on-one grooming, but it doesn't seem we do).

Dunbar contends that humans evolved vocal grooming (language) as a more efficient form of bonding. Assuming that our closest ancester, the chimpanzee, has hit the time budget limiting factor, and that our extra efficiency has all come about with the transition to vocal grooming, this means language is 2.8 times more efficient for bonding than the mechanism nonhuman primates use. That is, "a speaker should be able to interact with 2.8 times as many other individuals as a groomer can. Since the number of grooming partners is necessarily limited to one, this means that the limit on the number of listeners should be about 2.8. In other words, human conversation group sizes should be limited to about 3.8 in size (one speaker plus 2.8 listeners)." (Which makes sense if you think about the different qualities of a conversation with three versus four participants. A study is quoted to back this up.)

And for supporting evidence, showing that disparate human characteristics are coherent with this: "It turns out that there is, in fact, a psycho-physical limit on the size of conversation groups. Due to the rate at which speech attenuates with the distance between speaker and hearer under normal ambient noise levels, there is a physical limit on the number of individuals that can effectively take part in a conversation. Sommer (1961), for example, found that a nose-to-nose distance of 1.7m was the upper limit for comfortable conversation in dyadic groups; this would yield a maximum conversation group size of five individuals with a shoulder-to-shoulder spacing of 0.5m between adjacent individuals standing around the circumference of a circle."

All extremely amusing.

Two things:

  1. In the paper Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size and language in humans, Robin Dunbar predicts that the maximum group size that humans can maintain as a cohesive social unit, based on the ratio of neocortex volume to brain volume, is 147.8 (100.2-231.1 at 95% confidence). Consulting the literature, he finds that there's a trimodal distribution of group sizes: bands at 30-50 people, tribes at 1000-2000, and an intermediate one. The mean size of the intermediate level group societies is 148.4.
  2. The AOL Instant Messenger servers impose a hard limit on the number of people you're allowed to put in your buddylist: 150.

(For more, and a better summary of Dunbar's paper, read The Magic of 150. Malcolm Gladwell also refers to the number 150 in his book The Tipping Point.)

Some Mac OS X 10.3 ("Panther!!!1!") notes:

  • The MySQL 4.0 package for Mac OS X 10.2 installs fine, as does the startup item for it.
  • For Perl interfaces to MySQL, DBI installs fine but there's a bug in the system version of Perl that prevents going any further. Make the simple (ish) fix, then use cpan to install Bundle::Msql and choose the MySQL items and not the Msql ones. Or at least: you could do otherwise, but for some reason (despite loads of errors printed on screen) that was the only way I got it all to work.
  • The Fink package management system has already updated for 10.3, but I'm not using that for a while: I'm trying DarwinPorts (instructions also here) which is smaller but comes with a graphical Ports Manager (and is nicely BSDish). It built expat fine (but don't forget to add "export PATH=$PATH:/opt/local/bin" to your .profile).
  • I haven't had a play yet, but the Python bindings to CoreGraphics look really interesting. In the Mac OS X Unix Users technology brief [pdf], it mentions command line scripts to render html to bitmap (which otherwise is hard).
  • I was going to say iChat was finally AppleScriptable, but it looks like although all the stubs are there, the return values aren't useful (but I may be doing something wrong).

This feels like a good release, even if there are a whole load of scrappy UI decisions. It's close enough to 10.2 that most of the weird hacks still work and there's not much more to learn. And it runs well on my aging iBook, which is a pleasant surprise.

The Media Lab Europe Human Connectedness research group has exactly the right manifesto: "Humans have a fundamental need for contact with other humans. Our interactions and relationships with other people form a network that supports us, makes our lives meaningful, and ultimately enables us to survive. A variety of personal factors, such the need to travel or live in a different place apart from family and friends, threaten our ability to form and attain balance in the kinds of relationships that we want and need to have with others. The impact of customs and trends that exist at a societal level, such as the widespread use of certain technologies that may have isolating effects, is a subject of increasing study. These conditions put our mental and physical well-being at risk and, in turn, jeopardize the health of our communities and civilizations as a whole.

"The Human Connectedness research group explores the topic of human relationships and how they are mediated by technology. Our mission is to conceive a new genre of technologies and experiences that combat the effects mentioned above and allow us to build, maintain, and enhance relationships in new ways."

Their list of projects is no less impressive.

Fantastic Media Lab Europe project: TunA [via Purse Lip Square Jaw] is "a mobile wireless application that allows users to share their music locally through handheld devices. Users can 'tune in' to other nearby tunA music players and listen to what someone else is listening to". What's more explicit in the paper (TunA: A Mobile Music Experience to Foster Local Interactions [pdf]) - and what I really like - is that it's targeted to a. build social capital through micro [subtle, non intrusive] interactions, and b. strengthen existing social links instead of just forming new ones. This is spot on -- technology is rarely built to work better with friends than indiscriminately with friends and strangers unless there's a technogical limit that forces the issue (eg buddylists cause IM to work better with friends).

We've talked about the tech side of this idea before so it's wonderful to see it being done. Backtrace: Dan Hill on wireless, pervasive music sharing (and glowing jackets) refs Chris Heathcote on instant psychogeographic radio refs Philip Greenspun on transparently sharing music libraries.

Oh yes. I've been accepted to present Glancing at O'Reilly Emerging Tech 2004 (here's the proposal). :D

Clay Shirky's essay, File-sharing goes local covers a really interesting progression. Firstly, "The RIAA is now attacking these networks using a strategy that could be called Crush the Connectors. A number of recent books on networks, such as Gladwell's The Tipping Point, Barabasi's Linked, and Watts' Six Degrees, have noted that large, loosely connected networks derive their effectiveness from a small number of highly connected nodes, a pattern called a Small World network. As a result, random attacks, even massive ones, typically leave the network only modestly damaged. The flipside is that attacks that specifically target the most connected nodes are disproportionately effective." Then Shirky highlights the reaction to this attack: from a global sharing system (Napster), decentralisation is introduced (Gnutella is client, server and router) but this has the effect of defining a subjective space: for performance reasons a search horizon is introduced. Next this horizon calcifies into a social membrane (the system adds a firewall to each application which requires an invitation to get through) and the fabric organises into social cells, each with its own filesharing ability.

  1. It's a shame we can't build something online that really does subvert distance so completely that there's no search horizon, no social cells.
  2. But I guess distance is always acquired from somewhere, like knowledge. I'm still never going to be able to download music I like if I don't know what it's called, or I don't know that I like it.
  3. Social cells, semi-permeable membrances? An optimal size for internal environments? Sound familiar? Organisational cells within a sea of free market activity. Factory-like cells exposing interfaces to the outside world. The limit of the kinesthetic sense and the boundary step change of sensory data. What lessons are there? How should the inside of the social cell be organised; how should information migrate across the boundaries; what interfaces should be exposed?

Tom Coates remembered Microsoft's music-sharing-for-groups app Three Degrees the other day: Get into a group with your friends, share music by dragging it into a shared playlist (with shared controls); an icon (that appears the same on everyone's desktop) acts as a well to chuck around photos, and (what's more) winks -- little animations that go to everyone in the group simultaneously and just say "hi!". This is the way to go, certainly. Define a space that breaks up the global domain; within a local group get rid of space entirely and disallow direct person-to-person communication (unless the group has visibility of that connection). That's like rooms (real world rooms), like pub tables, like the way the world works. (Too much to say!)

"Tibetan Buddhists believe that saying the mantra (prayer) Om Mani Padme Hum, invites the blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. They also believe you can produce the same effect by spinning the written form of the mantra around in a prayer wheel (called 'Mani wheels' by the Tibetans). The effect is said to be multiplied when more copies of the mantra are included, and spinning the Mani wheels faster increases the benefit as well." But because your hard drive spins, it becomes a Digital Prayer Wheel: "Right now, your hard drive is serving as a Mani wheel, because there are several copies of the mantra 'Om Mani Padme Hum' on this page, and they are all stored on your hard drive in the cache for your browser." [via boingboing]

The Semiotics of SimCity [via Tesugen]: "When does a game cease to be a game? Is it when the computer feels like an organic extension of your consciousness or when you may feel like an extension of the computer itself? This paper explores SimCity and its significance as a simulator not only of reality but consciousness. Computer gaming is essentially process of demystification, discovering how software is organized for a certain set of goals and actions."

"And do you remember how you felt the very first time you entertained the notion that you and your universe are constituted by language -- that reality is a cultural construct, a 'text' whose meaning is determined by infinite associations with other 'texts'?" (Jenny Jones, on the Perils of Theory.) "It was impossible for me to experience life with any emotional intensity. I couldn't control the irony anymore. I perceived my own feelings as if they were in quotes." [via Erik Benson]

Paul Thurrott on computer interfaces metaphors, on the subject of XP (task-based, iterative) versus Mac OS X (the desktop). The Mac interface is consistent with clear differences between applications, documents and the file-system -- but Windows is contextual and makes use of "special folders exposed through the Start Menu that make handling photos, music, and other documents simple. When you launch these (and other) folders--directly from the Start Menu that Mac users think to be so silly--you'll see good examples of the task-based aspect of XP in action. Select a photo, open a folder full of photos, or whatever, and you'll see a list of tasks applicable to those file types. Including print. You don't have to worry about the app. There's nothing like this in OS X, which make you think app first. An odd approach: Shouldn't the computer do the heavy lifting?" Wizards (Windows' iterative approach to common tasks) also get a mention -- the Mac has previously tried to make all tasks atomic so there's no special mode to follow a process (modeless interfaces being a good thing), but this is lapsing in recent years. Could the Window's alternative make sense?

I very much like that there's a clear interface design vision behind Windows. It's improving steadily, and I also like that it's fundamentally different from the Mac 'vision' (quoted because I don't believe there's currently such a deeply grounded one). I'm not a fan of the Windows vision myself, but so long as there are bright, deep-thinkers there, that can only be a good thing. Some of the roots of the recent direction can be seen in this 2001 article on Microsoft's Inductive User Interface as trialed on Microsoft Money 2000 (there are before-and-after screenshots).

Looking at what people really want, rather than just what they're doing to achieve that: Creating a Killer Product [via Erik Benson]. "Managers need to realize that customers, in effect, 'hire' products to do specific 'jobs.' That's one reason why retail formats like Home Depot and Lowe's have become so successful: Their stores are literally organized around jobs to be done." And specifically, a bunch of people who buy milkshakes not for the milkshake itself but to avoid getting bored during their commute: "The milk shake did the job better than almost any available alternative. It could take as long as 20 minutes to slurp one through the thin straw. That staved off boredom on the commute. It could be consumed cleanly with one hand, with little risk of spillage. The customers felt less hungry after consuming the shake than after using most of the alternatives. And never mind that it wasn't the healthiest thing to consume. Making you healthy wasn't the job the milk shake was hired for." The rest of the article is stuffed full of examples from Blackberry, Sony, Kodak.

A Brief Overview of Linguistic Features of the Blogosphere [pdf] covers some interesting topics, including some good definitions and a look at choice of words and language register, the role of hyperlinks in communication, and how language in weblog posts makes use of oral and literary features [via Tesugen].

Matt Jones is collecting timelines. Some additions:

(Nearby keywords: Time-binding (timelines as civilisation); Lifestreams (timelines as user interface); time as metaphors we live by.)

Presence in Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVEs) as extelligence: virtuality and collectivity (1998) by Mike Holderness. Presence may be easier than we think: "The author modestly proposes that CVEs are best seen as 'channels of communication' between participants in Lévy's 'collective intelligence' or Stewart and Cohen's 'extelligence'; and therefore that an effective design principle for CVEs is not fidelity, but the avoidance of noise."

This pulls together Deleuze's concept of the virtual (a matrix of possible/real, virtual/actual is given), and Lévy's 'collective intelligence'... or what Stewart and Cohen call extelligence: "Extelligence is all of the 'cultural capital' that is available to us in the form of tribal legends, folklore, nursery tales, books, videotapes, CD-ROMs, and so on" (I would argue it's also our behaviour encoded into dynamical processes, placements, structural assumptions etc: culture is unfolded architecture). (Incidentally, Stewart and Cohen also came up with complicity - "two or more complex systems interact in a kind of mutual feedback that changes them both, leading to behaviour that is not present in either system on its own" - which sounds to me like re-entrant behaviour in the brain, which is something different from the more basic cybernetic feedback loops.)

More: "Lots of people have discussed this kind of interaction in terms of Karl Popper's 'Third World', Teilhard de Chardin's 'noösphere', or Medawar's 'extrasomatic evolution'. Our notion of 'extelligence' differs from these, we think, and from the general word 'culture', because we look at the external influence from the point of view of each complicit individual."

In summary, "Your extelligence, then, includes all the elements of what it is like to be you which do not reside in that unlikely grey goo in your skull. From now on, this (whether through your acceptance or rejection of it) will form a part of your extelligence; and should you choose to respond, a part of the author's extelligence will thenceforth reside in you."

Back to the shared environments... "It is surely the point of a CVE, in the terms discussed here, to serve as a channel of communication between the parts of the participants' extelligences."

And then, beautifully, and correctly: "The goal of realism in CVEs is arguably a category error" which is a major step and something we now take for granted, but don't really think of why. It continues, and presents the current view of presence:

"The alternative goal of reducing noise allows the participants to maximise for themselves the arrival of events of communication. At times, to be specific, the sparsest of channels may be preferable to the richest - allowing the participants, perhaps, collectively to 'close their eyes to think together'."

At the Heart of it All: The Concept of Telepresence (1997) by Matthew Lombard and Teresa Ditton: "A number of emerging technologies including virtual reality, simulation rides, video conferencing, home theater, and high definition television are designed to provide media users with an illusion that a mediated experience is not mediated, a perception defined here as presence". (While this paper concentrates on immersive media - such as virtual reality - it still applies to media like instant messaging -- you can be communicating with low-bandwidth text-only and still have a concept of presence.)

Six conceptualizations in the literature are identified. Presence as...

  1. Social richness, "the extent to which a medium is perceived as sociable, warm, sensitive, personal or intimate when it is used to interact with other people".
  2. Realism, "the degree to which a medium can produce seemingly accurate representations of objects, events, and people".
  3. Transportation. "Three distinct types of transportation can be identified: 'You are there,' in which the user is transported to another place; 'It is here,' in which another place and the objects within it are transported to the user; and 'We are together,' in which two (or more) communicators are transported together to a place that they share".
  4. Immersion, "the degree to which a virtual environment submerges the perceptual system of the user".
  5. Social actor within medium. "In a parasocial interaction media users respond to social cues presented by persons they encounter within a medium even though it is illogical and even inappropriate to do so", (people respond to actors on television even though the interaction is one-way).
  6. Social actor as medium. "Certain viewer mannerisms suggested that television [not the people on television] was perceived as a communicative partner and not merely as a physical object", (so a computer can pretend to be a social actor and have 'presence', and this has been found to occur).

This is summarised into the Illusion of Nonmediation: "Presence in this view can not occur unless a person is using a medium. It does not occur in degrees but either does or does not occur at any instant during media use; the subjective feeling that a medium or media-use experience produces a greater or lesser sense of presence is attributable to there being a greater or lesser number of instants during the experience in which the illusion of nonmediation occurs".

A lengthy analysis of causes of presence then follows -- but these concentrate on the "realism" of the medium, the closeness of the appearance of the medium to the real world (body suits, three dimensions, etc). However, I think we've found that virtual reality isn't necessary for presence, only that the behaviour of something that appears to be "human" is transmitted through the behaviour of the medium. If the medium is either transparent or its behaviour is mechanical and easily understood, the channelled behaviour can be identified. Only an aspect of the medium need be human -- we're pretty good at identifying agency in the non-human (and often go too far in attributing it...). Also given are causes for the medium itself to be 'present'.

Effects of presence on the user are identified, and areas for further research.

(It seems this paper conflates a number of meanings of 'presence': the feeling that you, the user, are inside a medium; the feeling that a medium can be related to like a person; the sensation - to you - of other people also in the medium (which may or may not be transparent) with you. I don't think it's useful to regard these three together, especially if we're looking at the overall effects of presence. And the overlap between the three uses of the word would explain the over-concentration on VR, especially since - now - we tend to look mainly at the third use, that of multiple human actors in social software.)

The Extended Mind, by Andy Clark and David J Chalmers: "Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?" This paper proposes that there are functions of the mind that are embedded in the physical world, a so-called "active externalism".

The premise: "Epistemic actions alter the world so as to aid and augment cognitive processes such as recognition and search. Merely pragmatic actions, by contrast, alter the world because some physical change is desirable for its own sake (e.g., putting cement into a hole in a dam. [...] Epistemic action, we suggest, demands spread of epistemic credit. If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process.

"In the cases we describe, by contrast, the relevant external features are active, playing a crucial role in the here-and-now. Because they are coupled with the human organism, they have a direct impact on the organism and on its behavior. In these cases, the relevant parts of the world are in the loop, not dangling at the other end of a long causal chain."

(And I can't help thinking of the basal ganglia, acquiring learning to encode into their long, long unconscious loops, but now being looped round a nanometre-scale circuit in a computer's CPU.)

An analogy: "The extraordinary efficiency of the fish as a swimming device is partly due, it now seems, to an evolved capacity to couple its swimming behaviors to the pools of external kinetic energy found as swirls, eddies and vortices in its watery environment. These vortices include both naturally occurring ones (e.g., where water hits a rock) and self-induced ones (created by well-timed tail flaps). The fish swims by building these externally occurring processes into the very heart of its locomotion routines. [...]

"Now consider a reliable feature of the human environment, such as the sea of words. This linguistic surround envelopes us from birth. Under such conditions, the plastic human brain will surely come to treat such structures as a reliable resource to be factored into the shaping of on-board cognitive routines. Where the fish flaps its tail to set up the eddies and vortices it subsequently exploits, we intervene in multiple linguistic media, creating local structures and disturbances whose reliable presence drives our ongoing internal processes. Words and external symbols are thus paramount among the cognitive vortices which help constitute human thought."

(Except our vortices - words - persist over time in the environment, can be shared and depended on. And it's not just words: it's objects, arrangements, dynamic processes, behaviour of others.)

And to finish: "And what about socially-extended cognition? Could my mental states be partly constituted by the states of other thinkers? We see no reason why not, in principle."

(Agreed! Intelligence/expectances (that is, hard-coded assumptions of 'the environment') is articulated as behaviour, which folds into the environment, and becomes extelligence (the ubiquitous computing term for external knowledge). Extelligence then constrains behaviour in the same way as intelligence does... it's habit encoded into the universe - into other people - a cybernetic governer, in a way, part of the causal loop -- time-bound like individual learning, or evolution. Oh, I wrote an Upsideclown on the subject of extelligence a while back.)