All posts made in Jun. 2004:

Whoa. Mac OS X Tiger, out early 2005, is going to ship with Safari RSS, an RSS (and Atom) aggregator on top of the built-in web browser. And: The Server version of the OS is going to ship with Weblog Server: A new Weblog server in Tiger Server makes it easy to publish, distribute and syndicate web-based content. The Weblog server provides users with calendar-based navigation and customizable themes, is fully compatible with Safari RSS and enables posting entries using built-in web-based functionality or with weblog clients that support XML-RPC or the Atom API. The Weblog Server, based on the popular open source project 'Blojsom,' works with Open Directory for user accounts and authentication. That's big news. I wonder whether there's going to be an Atom Enabled weblog authoring tool shipping with the client too?

Other intriguing features: Spotlight, system-wide search with metadata support in the filesystem. Really very cool, finally adding Smart Folders to the filesystem, after only a decade after Copland, where the feature was first proposed (and called 'Views') but never shipped. Alas it appears to steal LaunchBar's position in the top-right on the menu bar, and report its results in an extremely similar way. (And yes, I know the Spotlight search is much deeper and so on, but LaunchBar's spent a decade making an incredibly fluid UI, and Apple have ripped it off.)

Automater wins the prize for the best icon. Shiny robots can convince me of anything. Think of it like Unix pipes for high-level scripts: Rename images, pipe them to iPhoto, make a gallery, publish them online, for example. Or write a porn scraping script. I love that people are being introduced to programming like this. I feel bad that I'm able to get so much more out of my computer than other people, by being able to write such simple 10 line scripts for it in the shell. NetNewsWire 2.0 will have scripted feeds, which is awesome: stdout in RSS. If people can graduate from Automater to scripting NetNewsWire, that's great. Photoshop Actions for the rest of the Mac. It's still a piece of functionality that's 10 years late however, called the Assistance Manager when announced for Copland.

Oh yes, and Dashboard. Little gadgets that sit on the desktop and get shown by an Exposé mode, like calculators, address book views, and an iTunes controller. Oh, and a clock that you turn over in 3d to change the time zone. Stunningly manages to steal the name from Gnome's Dashboard, and the entire concept, the entire damn thing, from Konfabulator, right down to implementing the widgets (Konfabulator originally named them widgets too) in Javascript -- Konfabulator's big great idea. Come on Apple, that's terrible, buy the rights to the application.

(Two things about Dashboard. iTunes controllers currently have to poll the iTunes app every few seconds to see what tune is being played. Does this mean there's a more efficient event-based system to use? Oh yeah, and anybody remember Desk Accessories?)

What would I like to have seen? First, OS X needs a pubsubhub. AppleEvents only go one way, to control the application. But they need to be published too (a new person has come online, a new email, the music has changed). And we need to be able to write simple Applescripts - in Automater perhaps - that subscribe then sit and listen to events, and chain applications together. Event-based OSs are unfashionable at the moment, I know (although the whole www is event-based), but cmon. iChatStatus should be a three line script, easy to write yourself. It should be trivial to write a script to listen for when an iChat voice connection is accepted and turn the iTunes volume down. And when I say trivial, I mean everyone should be able to do it. Apple, we need a pubsubhub: Collect events, distribute them to interesting applications (and a mechanism to install subscribed apps, like services maybe). Second, XRA should be bought and built in: Everything I type should be published to plug-ins, including the Remembrance Agent: it watches over your shoulder and suggests information relevant to what you're reading or writing. While search engines help with direct recall, Remem is a tool for associative memory. Combine these wish-list features, and you've got Gnome's Dashboard again, which could be the biggest desktop UI leap forward for years and it's coming from the open source world. Publish structured data in an open format over the desktop, and let applications produce their own serendipity and pump it out. (See also: Microsoft Research at Etcon in 2002, talking about query vs hierarchy in the OS.)

(Ooh, couple more bits of coolness. Tiger Server includes a local iChat server that's Jabber based (iChat's Rendezvous service has had little bits of Jabber in it for a while. Looks like they've finished the job). And the Tiger Unix layer allows command-line access to file metadata (used by the Spotlight search system) which is a damn huge deal. How fast would it be to back my text-mode email client onto a metadata-based email store?)

While my weblog was down, I posted a number of time in flat html. Those files are now here:

  1. 23 December 2003
  2. 1 February 2004
  3. 3 February 2004
  4. 18 February 2004
  5. 27 February 2004
  6. 5 March 2004
  7. 12 March 2004
  8. 23 March 2004

I've changed some of the links to work, but that's all. I should get back to writing like that. there are no periods, only clauses indeed.

Two things I've been interested in recently are the brain's visual processing, and the metabolic cycle.

Visual processing seems to me to have two mains tasks. One is to assemble a world that is easily abstracted (the root of the semiotcracy in action perhaps, as well as the spectacular). We create objects, textures on the objects - or rather, we create boundaries and surfaces - from condensations and potentials and locality and unfolding.

That's why I feel okay about reinscribing terms like distance and place in terms of the human understanding (is/was too). When we discuss the universe, we're discussing the whole organisation of human perception + society + the universe + tendencies and becomings. But we shouldn't forget that this means the universe is capable of a whole lot more than is visible to us, and therefore so are we as we shift our human-pov. Anyway. A lot of philosophy is collapsing into neuroscience for me, at the moment. Some cognitive neuroscience/psychology/the rest takes a position I'm very happy with, very reflexive. I like.

I mean, the thing is there are surfaces, surfaces exist in the human perception + universe world. "Ape" is a surface. A platform on which tiny tweaks create bonobos or Homo sapiens. All that going on underneath, and we're waves on the ocean. My laptop as a wavefront: Each key I press is a byte, but a huge number of Bits of Surprise (Moravec), surprise being based on pov. It's weaving a millions positions at once, knitting a stable fabric I can type on. A shockwave. But a platform anyway. (Will we get overtaken by the Unix-Ape? The apes are Long Now monks to our upstart monkey humanity.) Often deep isomorphism doesn't matter. Often it does.

The other task of visual processing is to throw information away. What to do with too much information is the great riddle of our time. (Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, p18) There are a lot of mechanisms to do that. Hard-wired heuristics about what matters and what doesn't. It happens on a small scale (movement). But then we can see imitation starting on a small scale too (people are influenced by the answers in crosswords, measurably; semantic priming too), and that scales up to being born into a society and baselining on VCRs, or the military-industrial complex. The mind filter (which implies direction, sorry, I don't mean that) scales up too, leads us to see nuance in moving lights that look like people, or what higher levels? Do we simply look past certain otherwise pathological social situations because we haven't evolved to see them? Posthumanity will be able to listen to social harmonics like the ocean, hearing a storm coming. Literature will be visceral, as synaesthesia is reaching towards already.

We can learn lessons about how to throw away information. The two perceptual jobs are combined, of course. Surfaces are a great way to throw away information to live around objects; seeing insides is a learned skill. Maybe after a million years of evolving to be carpenters or sculptors we'd see insides too. But mainly they're to throw away information so we can communicate. We all share the same public key of semantics (actually, we pick it up at birth, and perhaps that's what babies crying is. High-bandwidth communication before the public key exchange takes place. The last remnants of the umbilical cord, translating chemical communication into air vibration. Not noise, but utterly pure signal: Human telemetry, the last time we ever communicate so completely with another person for the rest of our lives). The brain's visual system is as "known" to language and cognition as the frequency window at which air is transparent is "known" to the eyes. The early visual system assumes light comes from the top of the visual field. Polarised sunglasses assume that the reflective surface is flat and pointing up from the lower half of the axis of the head. (Popper, expectations. Continuums of knowing, like Dennett's continuums of free will.) Landmarks exist in the real world, but only because perception assumes the landmark-hashing algorithm in the hippocampus is robust to environment changes and will respond reliably, and respond the same whichever brain it's in (so landmarks can be communicated, the hippocampus acts like a wrist-watch, giving time-knowledge to anyone who wears it). And our cities are unfolded instances of the hippocampus, as a game of Ludo or, rather, Stuck in the Mud is the first and second and n-order unfolding of the game rules + social behaviour + history. Surfaces, ha!

Intelligence is distributed over the environment because we throw information away. On the long scale (light from above), and the short scale (you know the time, but you haven't looked at your watch yet). Artificial objects, created interfaces that don't obey distance, or object-hood, or texture: they're either confusing, or, if used right, remarkably useful illusions (television).

I'm also interested in the metabolic cycle. It's an autopoietic system (self-creating, an evolved system that's reached this point), with allopoietic components (parts that can't exist on their own, but that are used for creating something other than the autopoietic system). An analogy: Human society (auto); cars (allo). Not an analogy: The metabolic cycle (auto); life-instances (allo).

You need the whole cycle for the cycle to exist. There is no beginning or end. It's like the puffer in Conway's Life. It exists, it continues, it cycles, it emits gliders (people) that go out to infinity, a side-effect of the cycle. (But not optional. Transformations are always conserved. If the plane of Life wasn't infinite, would the gliders pollute/inscribe, and would life in Life eventually emerge?)

The cycle is instantiated in life, and passes from one instance to another in the form of chemicals. Are these chemicals the cycle? No. They're just slices of the organisation, in the same way my laptop screen is a slice of the human-computer-internet-society-history-equation_solutions assemblage. They're both easy-to-refer to slices, with no real importance other than their semiotcratic affordance (in much the same way the selection mechanism 'attention' has high semiotcratic affordance but no actual reified existence in the brain).

Oh, anyway. An important one of these chemicals is citric acid. We've got a herb garden now, on the roof terrace. I still have a reflex to say "flat roof area" but it's registered now and legal and everything. Thanks to A. coming round with cuttings, we have some lemon herb stuff outside. You rub your fingers on the leaf and smell the citric acid. Wasted, of course, but the metabolic cycle's more robust than that (famous last words; ecological apocalypse coming soon). Smelling the cycle. Inside the cycle. Well, really it's a chemical. Another sense of the 2.5-dimensional spectacular surface. Making contact with another life. Lemon.

Hey, what is life anyway? A world with earthquakes, and soggy ground that keeps its shape when dry, and mudslides. There's a rock, with a shape such that it has a probability of being blown by the wind (it's shaped with a sail on it). It lies on the soggy ground.

There's high wind: The rock is blown away, and lies on the soggy ground again making another hollow. The original hollow, which has dried solid, fills with mud which dries and creates a rock shaped like the first. An earthquake nudges the new rock and it breaks free, going off to create its own hollows.

In this world, is that rock alive? In a world where hollows may form, rocks may form in those hollows... it's soon going to be dominated by self-replicating rock-hollows. Or rather, rock-hollow-earthquake-mudslide-wind assemblages. And I say soon as in billions of years.

But what are we? Carrying the proto-ocean in our cell sacks and blood stream, relying on sunlight and plants and animals and air and the whole of society and history now, too, the constructions previous instances have left behind (and coral reef islands are made from the sand that fish have shit, having chewed up the corals, and fertilised by the birds that pause on the sand dunes). What kind of assemblages are we? After billions of years, we arose.

Entropy is an inevitable bulk process of bulk properties, of multiplicities. There's a space limit there, entropy doesn't really function for tiny numbers. But is there a time limit too? Over even vaster numbers, vaster times, is there a new law that over-rules entropy? Perhaps it's inevitable that a reproducing thing always emerges out of random motion where history is inscribed and there is the possibility of time-binding. Out of oceans, sediment will always build up, discontinuities will always form, tides will always inscribe and time-bind, symmetries will break, and life will always form. If not cellular life, then maybe a population of nuclear volcanos that reproduce by exploding and China Syndroming through the crust. Whatever. Entropy++.

I would say, let's redefine life in terms of information. Hayles opens chapter 2 of How We Became Posthuman with a line from Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind: We might regard patterning or predictability as the very essence and raison d'être of communication [...] communication is the creation of redundancy or patterning. [p412]

Which is just a wonderful way of talking about information. Or rather, communication which is successful transfer of information. Communication is anything that duplicates itself at different physical coordinates, possibly transformed. So a telephone is communication because the air-pressure ripple patterning is duplicated (more or less) from speaker's room to the listener's room. If you were to gzip the universe instantaneously before and after the call, it'd compress better afterwards.

What is life? Is it the medium-mechanism by which information is doubly-transformed, to an intermediate, temporary (and therefore matter-like) state, and back again? Information is a process, not a state. It's a becoming, but a becoming that folds back. Like a miniature metabolic cycle. And information puffs out matter-like states as it goes (people, eggs). Which is which, the rocks or the muddy holes?

But then, I feel we look at matter and information and we see the dichotomy because it's semiotcratic to do so. Just as we look at particles and see fermions (things that can't be in the same place at the same time) and bosons (things that can be so). Perhaps it's just an artefact of our measuring equipment. It's all string vibrations, further down. And rooms and corridors. Buildings and streets (tell that to those in Catalhoyuk!). And objects and textures, of course, animate/inanimate, background/attended. Mesh/tree, mesh-becoming/tree-becoming, branching/canalising, push/pull. But we've talked about that, or we will. We've created an arboreal world, we've also been created. We can't assign causality, only proximity. Does it makes sense to talk about any thing if everything is every thing?

Life is what life is. We need a correspondence principle for philosophy. Whatever you say, when you unfold it it must correspond with what we, as humans, are and see. No argument (although we can argue about timeframe and what it means to be human). And when we argue cybernetics, or the internet, or product design, it's worthless unless it corresponds and is coherent with both social politics and ethics. We're developing ethics and politics of the inhuman (well it is human of course, the physical and system analogues of extelligence) gradually, rooted in the fight again entropy.

Smell lemon. Exist not inside like whales, or outside like people, but as both like dogs. I didn't talk about urban planning or the time before streets. Or Go or stand-off (homeostasis, filamentary superclusters). This'll do as a start,

A stereoscopic textfile with a message. Doublepluswickedest.

I was chatting to my mum the other day about the day she got the lino salesman round with his book of tile-effect, brick-effect and patterned flooring. It was probably vinyl, not lino, but that's not important. We needed something for the floor that was easy to clean and pretty tough, so carpet wouldn't do, and it was lino or tiles. Tiles were harder.

Lino's not bad. I quite like lino. The catalogue was full of lino that looked like different tiles, complete with grouting pattern and texture, and that's the kind my mum liked. I said it was stupid, and was quite rude about it as I remember (my mum agrees). I was 14. If she wanted tiles, I said, she should get tiles. Things that pretend to be other things are stupid. It should be proud to be lino.

It's the first time I remember articulating that particular aesthetic, and it's one that's really strong with me today. I demand a kind of product honesty.

I was also quite rude about gas fires that are made to look like log fires, around the same time.

I still don't really understand why people want things that pretend to be other things. Here are some. Fire flickers in an appealing way, wood crumbles to ashes and spits. A rotating red bulb under semi-transparent plastic molded to look like logs is just dumb. Now maybe if it was proud to be a rotating red bulb under etc, that would be fine.

There's a nice word in Hayles' How We Became Posthuman: Here I want to introduce another term from archaeological anthropology. A skeuomorph is a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time. The dashboard of my Toyota Camry, for example, is covered by vinyl molded to simulate stitching. The simulated stitching alludes back to a fabric that was in fact stitched, although the vinyl "stitching" is formed by an injection mold. Skeuomorphs visibly testify to the social or psychological necessity for innovation to be tempered by replication. Like anachronisms, their perjorative first cousins, skeuomorphs are not unusual. On the contrary, they are so deeply characteristic of the evolution of concepts and artifacts that is takes a great deal of conscious effort to avoid them. [p17]

I started this thinking I'd be able to lead some campaign against skeuomorphs in product design, but now I think again it's not really correct. That vinyl stitching on the dashboard is funny. It's cool. It tickles me. As long as it's not too much like stitching though. The Aibo's good because although it looks like a dog, it doesn't clearly isn't a dog in some very upfront ways: It dances. Being programmable and upgradable are features. It's not ashamed to be a robot (though I would like to see a true-to-the-medium robot).

The log-effect gas fire on the other hand seems embarrassed that it's gas powered. The glowing red light isn't a skeuomorph, it's false advertising. It's lying with affordances and expectations.

In Gibson's The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, the chapter "The Theory of Affordances" opens, I have described the environment as the surfaces that separate substances from the medium in which the animals live. But I have also described what the environment affords animals, mentioning the terrain, shelters, water, fire, objects, tools, other animals, and human displays. How do we go from surfaces to affordances? And if there is information in light for the perception of affordances, is there information for the perception of what they afford? Perhaps the composition and layout of surfaces constitute what they afford. If so, to perceive them is to perceive what they afford. This is a radical hypothesis, for it implies that the "values" and "meanings" of things in the environment can be directly perceived. Moreover, it would explain the sense in which values and meanings are external to the perceiver.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. [p127]

I'm going to leave a number of points unexplored in Gibson's concept of affordances, because they're too large to do justice to here: That objects afford many uses (some seats also afford throwing) completely disrupts the hierarchy of products and modes we live with. That surfaces visually encode the affordances, the root of our spectacular world.

I'll just pick up on instead how, in the world humanity was forged, affordances emerged from embodiment and habit and object surface (shape, properties such as strength: anything measurable without being embedded in actual use).

Now there's something to be said here about how we learn to read the surfaces of objects, and what our expectations are (certain expectations are hard-coded, of course, in body shape). Since Gibson's already made the point that affordances don't belong in either body or environment but are in some sense emergent from both, let's take the same approach to expectations and cognition and get rid of the body-environment divide completely.

From Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs: [...] a prime characteristic of transparent technology is their poise for easy use and deployment as and when required. Daily, unreflective usage bears this out. As you walk down the street, you are accosted by the familiar cry of the temporarily watchless. "Excuse me, sir, do you happen to know the time?" Asked this question on a busy street, most of us will unhesitatingly reply, even before consulting our wristwatches, that we, we surely do. [...] For you do know the time. It is just that the "you" that knows the time is no longer the bare biological organism but the hybrid biotechnological system that now includes the wristwatch as a proper part. [...] Perhaps, then, you may be properly said to know the time before you actually look at your watch--just as you can be said to know the date of the moon landing even before actually retrieving it from your biological memory. [p41]

A just-right story. Time-knowledge as extelligence.

Anyway, where was I going with this? You know, I've no idea. Objects have functional surfaces; they also have visual surfaces; we're hard-wired to assume there's a correlation between the two (we live in a spectacular world). We learn the exact correlation, but following Clark we can delegate learned knowledge back onto our actual experiences of what's behind those visual surfaces.

A log-effect gas fire, a thing which pretends to be another thing, is not only a free-loader on my pleasant recollection of open fires, but actually corrupts the community of open-fire-ness in my experiences that sits behind the flickering-red visual surface. It's a liar that, by lying for its own success, damages the rewards for behind honest in any future product that has a choice of pretending to be an open fire.

I guess I'm talking about a kind of social capital of product design, mediated by our learning, experiences and response to these products, and the decisions faced by anyone who designs the visual surface of products to communicate the functional surface - whether they're designers or marketing folk - are much the same we experience every day in queuing for a bus or giving way at road junctions.

Another step on the road to a system of non-human ethics. Manners, at least.

Got to say, a cracking article on the story of Ikea in the Guardian last week. The construction caught my eye. Over the first couple of columns, there are a number of references building the Ikea-as-religion/cult metaphor. It's a fair one to pull, and easy too. Kamprad published The Testament of a Furniture Dealer in 1976, setting out his new company's sacred concept, and the quotes from it are indeed remarkably evangelical. This anecdote opens a chapter of the article (which is about ten inches), and foreshadows the creepy workplace, creepy people, and the pop-fact that there are more copies of the Ikea catalogue produced every year than the Bible. Okay, end of section and a move to history, which should be a complete change of pace. But the next section opens with a wonderful line: Like at least one other major world religion, Ikea began in a shed. It's completely unexpected because the Ikea-as-religion metaphor has already been set up (having been established, it's never openly referred to again after this line, although it lingers in every mention of ethics or ritual that follows), and knits the article together in just the right way. Great touch.

My current favourite blog.fiction is Today in Alternate History - Important events in history that never occurred today - so go read. Each paragraph is so potent, each just wanting to expand into a whole continuum.

From there I followed a link to This Day in Alternate History, which I guess is the same site in a parallel universe. Actually, it's completely different, collaborative, and stuffed full of timelines. You can read all the various timeline events for today's date. Now how about a syndication feed for this, or an iCal calendar? (The spec's not too hard - just text - and if you stick to vCalendar version 1.0 and avoid the 'duration' field, it'll import into Outlook too.)

First, today is the 100th Bloomsday, celebrating the day on which the book-I-most-should've-read-but-haven't, James Joyce's Ulysses, is set.

Second, I bloody love the web. Jason White has made Ulysses: One Page Every Day -- an RSS feed with a new page every day, and on the web too. Start reading today and read along with the rest of us, or catch up later. Excellent, exactly what Project Gutenberg is for, and precisely what I need to make me read the thing.