All posts made in Jan. 2006:

12:22, Saturday 28 Jan., 2006

I am Genmon. Here I am. As I've said before, I live in Londra, and I spend my time in Animal Crossing: Wild World doing things like paying off my mortgage, fishing, chatting with my computer-generated friends, tending my orchard and turnips, and digging up fossils. This is me about to dig something up. You can also see Lyle, who's hanging around trying to sell me insurance, and a red turnip that I've been watering 2-3 times a day since last Sunday. Digging up fossils is great. You take them to the museum where an owl identifies them, and if the museum doesn't have a stego torso (or whatever) already, you can donate it. If not, you sell it. It's either lucrative or you contribute to the town's culture--good both ways. The thing is, those holes in the ground appear slowly: 1-5 holes appear every day, overnight. Sometimes you fall into the hole, sometimes it's a fossil, and sometimes it's some dancing, clanking fire hydrant thing. It's random. Well, not quite.

This is my house. I have a cupboard and a chest, a bed, a bunch of plants, a table and some portraits of a couple of friends. I also have - totally out of place - a stove on the east wall. I had that stove there for a few days a couple of weeks ago, a time that coincided with a particularly lucky streak of fossil hunting (4 holes a day). I got rid of the stove because it didn't fit in, and around the same time my streak came to an end.

But now I've bought it again and put it back in its place, after I read something online which gave me a hint. When it was back on the east wall, I had that hint perhaps confirmed by Hopper (a grouchy penguin I'm friendly with), who said "Sasquatch!" (that's how he greets me) "Sunshine," (that's his nickname for me) "there's something better about your house today, I can't put my finger on it," (I paraphrase). Now I'm waiting to see if my lucky stream returns. It may, it may not. The thing is: Animal Crossing has built-in Feng Shui.

In terms of interaction design, I've never played anything so incredible as this game. I base my living - in real life now - on designing systems and items that fit in and augment sociality. I talk about things like locality of information, multiple win conditions, different levels of achievement and learning, multiply-entwined incentive loops and so on. But I have never seen anything so well designed as Animal Crossing.

There are several levels of mortgage so you learn how to earn, how to save and how you get something back. You make friends and eventually they may give you a picture. Sometimes your good friends move away, and you're sad and they're sad, but they say you shouldn't make too much of a fuss because then they'll stay, but really they want to see the world. So you let them go. When you're fishing, the music drops away and you learn how to drop into a super-focussed, super-dreamlike state where you can only hear the sound of running water and see the shadow of the fish. You learn mindfulness. You can run everywhere, but then you damage the flowers. If you recycle the tins and boots that sometimes you find in the river, instead of letting the shop-owner take care of it for you, you might find a nice shirt in the recycle bin. If you listen to your friends, you might be able to find them furniture they like and they might find something for you back. By trading white turnips, which have fluctuating prices, you learn about the market, investment and risk. I chat with Mable and Sable in the tailors each morning, and now I've built up a rapport with them, and that feels good. It's complex, and totally simple. All of social psychology and child development has been folded into Animal Crossing. When I play, I'm training my social empathy and diligence. I can feel myself identify issues in microcosm, and improving when I need to act the same way outside the DS.

And a lot of it is based on luck, right? Whether you shoot a present down from a balloon, or find a particularly good wallpaper in Tom Nook's place, it's just random numbers making it happen.

I don't believe it is just luck, and what gives Animal Crossing its special power is the fact that, at its heart, it's determinist.

When you move into your town, you chat with the taxi driver about the weather and what you like to do. This is the seed for your appearance. When Lyle asks you questions, that seeds whether he sells you insurance (and which type). Nook doesn't expand his shop after a set time: It's based on your activity.

Likewise, your luck in shaking money out of trees, finding items, and digging up fossils is based on the arrangement and pattern of furniture in your house. These are the Animal Crossing Feng Shui rules (more). Furniture generally has a favoured direction and if it's placed on the matching wall, you get that kind of luck. If I look up my stove in the master item list I can see that the east wall is where it's supposed to be. My house is my luck seed.

Animal Crossing is slowly teaching me about a certain kind of aesthetic. There's the Happy Room Academy who send me a weekly score of how well my furniture and decoration matches, but the Feng Shui is the brilliant part. It's the ultimate in an invisible but all-pervasive rulespace. It's the glue that joins the entire game, but it's never referred to. Whether I want to collect all the fish (I'd better get the right kind of luck), a bigger house (so I need to sell items, so I need more luck), or collect fossils (luck again), it all comes back to manipulating the thing that connects. And because the Feng Shui permeates everything, it's the kind of pattern recognition that my unconscious can be trained for. The training says that strategy and rationality can get me so far, but being in tune with the world and allowing my gut to arrange the furniture in my house is a valid and useful way too.

And what a lesson! In addition to illustrating that invisible currents underlie the world, it teaches that everything is interconnected: The behaviour of the self constructs the controlled surroundings, the aesthetics of which unfold into luck, which allows the self to move forward in the world. It teaches me that the self is a fish that propels itself in the turbulent flow of a self-created ocean. I can't mine this game enough for ideas of what I want to build myself. Animal Crossing is not just (with its wireless play) a stunning technical achievement and mapping of metaphors; it's very close to the perfect combination of play, social education, interaction design, and subversion of Western individuality.

Interconnected

A weblog by Matt Webb.

Korbo, Lorbo, Jeetbo.

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19:52, Friday 27 Jan.

Talking about the Umdo key the other day reminded me of what I did when I bought a Griffin PowerMate a couple years back. It's a large silver knob that you connect to your computer via USB, and can have application-specific configuration.

I used BBEdit text editor back then, and it has fantastic infinite Undo and Redo functionality. The Undo is smart too: It groups actions together so that you don't Undo a word one letter at a time--the whole word goes at once (TextMate has a painfully step-by-step Undo, which is almost my only gripe about it).

I hooked the anticlockwise action of the PowerMate up to Command-Z (Undo) and clockwise to shift-Command-Z (Redo), and suddenly I could use it to scrub through my work. It was easy to try really broad changes in code, scrub back to grab a snippet I'd deleted, scrub forward and paste it back in. Handy.

Branching breaks using this for some kind of speculative mode, of course, because you can't try something out, scrub back, start typing again and also include code from your tryout--the Redo buffer has been cleared. And it's also hard to tell where the stable points are, in time, of the code changing. The knob needs to click, or resist moving, when you're going through an inflective point of change.

12:30, Wednesday 25 Jan.

Er! I say "er" when I've said a word and it was incorrect. That's not really saying enough about it: I don't think it's really possible to mis-say. Speaking is part of thinking. Speaking is a mind-organ I have which performs the function of linearising thoughts. So I'm not mis-saying when I say, um, words, er, speak, er, express some concept but don't say it right the first time round. I'm iterating. I'm making a depth-first search of possible linear packs and I hit a dead-end. I'm thinking by speaking. The "er" there wasn't just a busy cursor. It was a verbal backspace keypress.

The "er" isn't just an inward facing signal. I say it to step backwards and ask all listeners to disregard my previous word or two. I suspect this signal is so strong that you could do trials, er, experiments, and listeners would actually here the erred word less. It would be backwards masked.

From this perspective, how could Undo on my computer be different? "Undo" is functional "er" in a way. To say "er" is to safely experiment with a way forward. If my computer had pervasive "er", I'd try out different routes forwards more playfully. Say, in Photoshop, I'd try one sequence of actions, then if I was happy I'd commit to it and if I wasn't I'd, er, try another. How is this different to undoing now? I think the very name "undo" implies I've made some kind of mistake or error. No! Doing is part of thinking. To say that I can make a mistake when writing or photoshopping is saying I'm like a computer operator, dominated by time-and-motion and effectiveness. I'm not a machine. Undo makes sense if I slip with the mouse and choose the wrong menu item; its use for trying things out is an unintended consequence.

My computer needs a speculative mode. When I'm in Excel, I should be able to drop into a sandbox where I can play with my spreadsheet. Maybe reorganising this, calculating that, seeing what happens if I change these fonts. In the sandbox, "Save" should be switched off. There should be no way for the document to save. If I'm happy with it, those actions (maybe just a couple of them) should be re-run on the real document. If I'm not happy, no harm done. How often do I try things out, figure out it doesn't work, and end up having to painfully backtrack by making a half dozen small revisions? The "Revert" function is not good enough when you're working on 20 interlinked files. Version control is too heavy-weight when you're playing like this.

My computer needs a new function, pervasive er. It should be promoted to its own key on the keyboard. I'll steal Jack's joke: We could call it Umdo.

15:42, Tuesday 24 Jan.

God that was weird. I started hearing really strange music coming out of my laptop. Like, guitars and different people speaking over the top of it. It must be some stupid advert, I thought, in some browser window, over my regular music. So I flicked browser tabs and it seemed to synchronise but then I couldn't find anything. So I flicked again, and it didn't synchronise. Oh, odd music then! What was this? I went to iTunes... but nothing was playing. Wah? Then I realised I had my iPod on and my earphones in. Thank goodness. I thought my computer was haunted.

(Don't Even Sing About It, The Books, on The Lemon on Pink.)

13:23, Monday 23 Jan.

Music video for Daft Punk's Around the World: as RealVideo; Flash on YouTube [via robotwisdom]. Brilliant. Now, how can do me a machanima version, hook the dancer groups into different frequency ranges, and make the entire thing into an iTunes/WinAMP visualiser that I can use for any mp3? Come on! Visualisers should be way better than they are now.

See also, Michel Gondry's video for Star Guitar by the Chemical Brothers. Architecture dancing to rhythms as seen from a train window, what could be simpler to generalise? I bet you could write the entire thing in Lisp and run it right in AutoCAD if you wanted, but a music visualiser would be cool too.

11:20

Reading the Ask MeFi thread on good intense/complex classical music [via Phil] (there are a number of modern composers I now need to check out), one comment caught my eye, on not getting, then getting classical music: Then I listened to Beethoven's 9th about 50 times, until finally, at every point, I vaguely knew what was going to come next. (I was a german student at the time, so I appreciated the choral movement.) Now it's my favorite piece of music, bar none. The problem was that it was simply too complex to appreciate on the first several (dozen) listenings.

When I'm describing what I experience when I listen to modern classical music I really love (or when I have a similar reaction to some wordy philosophy), I usually liken it to being tickled. I want to laugh out loud (I do, when I'm reading) and gasp at some audacious or unexpected leap of abstraction or musical manoeuvre. And when I think about what being tickled is, it's all about pleasure and the unexpected. It's not just random: The tickler gets the tickled used to something in particular, then jumps suddenly to a different tickle.

For tickling to work, you have to be able to anticipate, and not know when your anticipation is going to be countered. You need to be able to read ahead. Perhaps that's how it is with music and the good books: You need to know enough about the pattern to have a model of what's coming next, but the pattern needs to be complex enough that it can always surprise you.

I could end this by speculating that pop music is stupid because it has a pattern that can be grasped in the first listen, but I'm not sure that's true. The reason pop music all sounds alike is that really there aren't many separate 3 minute songs--they're all one piece. Maybe the patterns and rhythms across the whole corpus of UK early millennium girl band music is just as complex and exciting as, say, listening to the whole of Beethoven's 9th. That the crowd goes wild and sends to the top of the charts a particular song - a song that, to me, sounds no different from the rest - just means that, without that pattern, they've heard some virtuoso leap in the patterning. In some tiny way, they've had their expectations confounded and been tickled by the music. Any audience, in the Royal Albert Hall or the Top of the Pops studio, responds the same. I can't hear it because I haven't given that subgenre of pop the requisite 50 listens. Perhaps, perhaps.

11:59, Saturday 21 Jan.

In the video for Such Great Heights by the Postal Service, which, yes, is like the much better director's cut of the Apple Intel ad, there's a scene near the end where the camera zooms from Earth orbit down through the atmosphere to the city. And what it reminds me of, more than any Powers of 10-like sequence I've seen, is using Flash Earth, pulling all the way out and zooming all the way in. Only instead of passing through layers of clouds, I'm passing through layers of compression artefacts. Each zoom layers pixelates, fragments, then resolves as the higher-resolution map tiles stream in. The video does this too, or maybe it's the way the video is presented at youtube.com. Somehow, because Google Maps is something I've directly experienced, and I've never been in space, zooming through artefacts seems more authentic than passing through clouds.

10:51, Wednesday 11 Jan.

My Nokia N70 just arrived as an upgrade from Vodafone. Colour me impressed. Good touches: It runs without the sim card, and you don't need to charge it the whole way before using it. Straightaway I could run the Transfer app, which sent - via Bluetooth - a corresponding application to my old phone (an ancient Nokia 6600), and transferred my images and video clips across (it offered to do my contacts and calendars too, but I declined). Very good. Ease of moving between handsets has been the big missing feature.

Plus, it works with Mac OS X 10.4.4 and iSync. Here's how: Download the files from this article, How To iSync A Nokia N70 With An Apple Mac (it even includes an N70 icon). Copy them to the suggested place (I also used the Terminal to check the ownership and permissions were the same). On the N70, enable app installation: Go to Tools > Manager > Options > Settings, and turn application installation "On" (and make sure certificate checking is off) [instructions via All About Symbian]. Use Add Device from the Bluetooth menu on the Mac, then use iSync! Fantastic.

Last thing. The sim fits under an easy-to-lift holder, so you don't cut up your fingers on sharp metal edges as on all the other mobile's I've used. I've no idea what the phone's like to use yet, but I already like it.

16:05, Monday 9 Jan.

Why software competition is good: A couple of months back, Apple released Aperture, a pro photo management app with some fancy features (auto stacking, non-destructive tweaks, the lighttable). While not a direct competitor to Photoshop or other apps from Adobe, it was regarded as taking a bite out of that pie. Now Adobe have released their public beta of Lightroom, their pro photo management app. Lightroom's been in development for years [via Daring Fireball] and although it does a similar job, this appears to be a result of convergent evolution: Both teams looked at the existing practice of photography, and made the best app they could.

Here's the good bit. Apple released an app because they saw something that wasn't being done as well as it could. They folded in functionality from the OS (CoreImage), previous expertise (iPhoto and the pro apps), some innovative ideas, and released it. Far from quashing competition, Adobe came back strong. Lightroom is on the Mac platform first. It's a free public beta till June, which implies they'll use the feedback to improve the app (it's not just a marketing move, in other words). Lightroom has some nifty features of its own--it's snappy on Powerbooks (unlike Aperture) and check out that 'Lights Dim' feature.

But my favourite consequence of the competition? Read this from the Lightroom FAQ: But we're not interested in trying to pack more knobs and switches into Lightroom than Aperture, or than in Photoshop for that matter. The goal of Lightroom is to have the RIGHT knobs and switches, in the cleanest, least cluttered, easiest to use package. It’s not about having every tool in the hardware store. It’s about having a focused set of features that are just right for photography, are intuitive, powerful, and easy to learn. And there's more: One of the goals of Project Lightroom is to create an application that is so easy to use, you may never even look at the user manual. A basic tenet of the product team is that a new user should be able to get up and running easily after learning no more than five basic rules about a new application.

Usability ruck! When interface design, and not feature count, is the subject that's debated - and competed on - in public, I'm a happy man indeed.

(Take a look at MacMothership's excellent Apple advertising and brochure archive, and see how much the "anyone can use it" selling point comes up. More of that please.)

14:53, Friday 6 Jan.

Science's 10 most beautiful experiments [via del.icio.us/popular]. Enjoyable, although I'd put experiments like electron diffraction down as illustration instead.

My personal favourite, not on the list, is the Michelson-Morley experiment (see also this simulation in Flash). It showed that light isn't, like sound, a wave travelling in some other medium. Until this experiment, in 1887, such a universal medium, called the aether, was suspected. The equipment is simple: A empty box and some mirrors. By looking inward and closely at a careful arrangement in your lab, a property of the whole physical universe is revealed. Michelson-Morley was one of the first lab experiments I did at college.

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