All posts made in Apr. 2006:

11:54, Sunday 30 Apr., 2006

In Doug Engelbart's 1968 demo (also on Google Video) of the computer as a personal tool (rather than a programmable calculator), we see outlines, word processing, copy-and-paste, domain specific languages and hyperlinks. The demo has been so prescient over the decades because the research team used and adapted the NLS as they went along, inventing idioms as they went. We still have a lot to learn from what they made, but in particular it's worth looking at how what forms of navigational links they built in. They thought about this in terms of knowledge retrieval, and the problem is this: From whatever screen (line or leaf of an outside, and view) you're on, how to address some other arbitrary place, and write down that address? They detail two types of addressing, and I've linked to screencaps of those slides.

'Hot' retrieval -- known destination:

'Cold' retrieval -- unknown destination:

Cold seems to be search methods, either free-text or by using metadata to reorder whatever data is on-screen--or is it referring to structure? I'm not sure. Hot retrieval uses either anchors embedded in the destination (direct), or the explicit or implicit structure of the data.

There are a couple of interesting methods there. "Jump link" means using the destination of another link as the destination of this one. It's like me providing a link, on this page, to "the destination of the top link at". A level of indirection--that's pretty neat. Jump ahead/return is just the browser history. Structural links are something we've implemented pretty badly on the www, as is. Engelbart was talking about linking to other documents, then down through the outline to specific lines. All we have is relative links and anchors have to be predefined. Lots to think about.


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Skype allows two home computers to swap large amounts of data, without passing through a server, from behind firewalls and NAT. That's pretty important in itself--giving a friend a big file is still a shamefully difficult thing to do. But what Skype also has is three things: a payment system, developer APIs for automated voice applications (using Voice XML and voice recognition) and a p2p heritage. Why is this important? It means people could, in theory, build and run shops - from home - to sell music, video, and future large media files. And the p2p past of Skype means that a file isn't just sent from the seller to the buyer--it can go to multiple people at once. If you try and sell a video on the web, using traditional servers, you'll hit the bandwidth wall if it gets popular. The way Skype could do it, it wouldn't matter how much you sell.

Imagine this scenario: Skype is built into mobile phones. Some time around 2009, ring tones get popular again. I visit the downloads area, and grab a "Ringtone Shop" application that I run on my broadband-connected home pc. I drop a bunch of my home-made music into it, record a voice greeting, customise the menus, give the files a price, add a Skype-In phone number, and start advertising. A little later, you call my Skype number from your mobile. You talk your way through my ringtone shop, hear a few previews, say "yes" to purchase and tap a few keys to make the transaction. I get the money, the ringtone is downloaded to your phone. Hey, but the ringtone gets popular--1000s of people are downloading it. No problem, it's cached on the Skype network and my home pc doesn't have any problem at all. We've touched no central servers, it's all done at the edge of the internet, and - to be honest - it could almost be built today.

I had the pleasure of working with Mark Hall late last year. He spent several years at RealNetworks, and made me notice how much a video marketplace has been taking off even without a good platform for it (people are buying and selling video tutorials on all sorts of things). I can't imagine Skype would have had any trouble finding companies to meet this demand using their infrastructure. We're talking about software to get through the bandwidth barrier and open huge marketplaces--like eBay but for virtual goods, not physical ones, and the software would include the virtual postal service. When eBay bought Skype, they weren't just buying the company. They were shutting down a half dozen potential competitors in 2012; making sure alternative business models wouldn't even emerge.

08:46, Friday 28 Apr.

Aristotle, in On Sense and the Sensible (350BC), gives 5 senses: touch and taste, and those which act through external media, seeing (colour), hearing (sound) and smelling (odour). We've kept with these, in the West. I'd like to know what, in other civilisations, are (or have been) the canonical senses. Does Japanese culture have an equivalent list, or is there an Ethiopian or Mayan one? Please do let me know if you know.

15:26, Tuesday 25 Apr.

The Ancient Fourteen Species of Big Herbivorous Domestic Mammals:

The Major Five:

The Minor Nine:

(Taken from Table 9.1 of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.)

Other, smaller, domesticated mammals and birds mentioned are: the chicken, various species of duck and goose, turkeys, guinea fowl, Muscovy duck, wolves, rabbit, guinea pig, giant rat, possibly the hutia, ferrets, cats, foxes, mink, chincillas, hamsters. Two domestic insect species are given: the honeybee and silkworm moth.

11:37, Friday 21 Apr.

In the post on Mind Hacks on the link between ADHD and electronic media, Vaughan points out that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is disputed as a single syndrome. In the comments, Tom points out that the word 'attention' covers a variety of faculties. It has a technical meaning (and there as aspects you can measure), but also a colloquial one, and then there's "concentration" as an idea too.

In short we don't know what "attention" is, and ADHD - as a thing which exists - is being created in-front of our eyes. Perhaps it'll turn out to be like Hysteria or Phlogiston. What I mean to say is, diseases are created. It's like (taking a central example from Latour's Pandora's Hope) Pasteur identifying yeast as a fermenting agent by constructing models, experiments, papers, arguments, methods and so on. To create "yeast" was work done by Pasteur and (of course) the nonhuman agents of the fermenting stuff, but what's key is that it was effortful and collaborative (human and nonhuman). When I say that a disease is created, I mean that it is carved out from things that happen, made a single thing, identified and revealed as a risk, potentially cured or mitigated, invested in as an entity, and given life by social and market forces that want it to continue.

This idea of a thing that isn't stable - like a rock - but is instead dynamic, existing only in as much as it is balanced between endpoints colossal glaciers of processes holding it aloft, reminds of the Grants' story in The Beak of the Finch (told by Weiner). They track the natural selection of Darwin's finches on the Galapagos, seeing how species, at the very earliest point, branch and merge. The species exist only in-as-much as they are held in place by the weather, available food and (importantly) other finches--they have not yet been created as things.

ADHD is similarly speciating. It is appearing in a niche that has emerged like a volcanic island, risen out of the ocean: that of modern psychology and mental hygiene. Mental hygiene is similarly created, and is an idea I find ugly--it appears to be based on efficiency and a top-down declaration of how to have a valid internal life. It's military, and it smacks, to me, of eugenics of modes of consciousness. Later in its life, it had a relationship with cybernetics, the bad sides of which can be read about in From Cybernetics to Littleton--Techniques in Mind Control.

What I want to know is: Is anybody studying this? The combination of individual work, industrial and social motivations, history and nonhuman agents would make for an incredible story.


Talks: This summer, it looks like I'll be revisiting some themes from recent and not-so-recent presentations. The slides for these are online:

There are two talks lined up right now. The first is a session at reboot8 in June, called Making Senses. Here's the intro:

The grand project of cataloguing the world (whether with barcodes or URLs) is - though only just begun - well under way. The next challenge is the one we faced when we first encountered a confusing, massive world, millions of years ago.

We no longer navigate but experience. Coming to the fore are Martin Rantzer's "supersenses", new senses letting us see through this new ocean. Instead of taking a resource-centred approach, attaching data to objects, let's mine our history of biological senses for clues on how to take a human, experiential approach. We'll take as our springboard not the five Aristotelian senses, but the entire gamut: active and passive; surface, proprioceptive and far-reaching; peripheral and focal; personal, environment and social. And we'll look at the sensory surface we'll need when items in our home represent messages from loved ones and have environmental histories attached, or when we're choosing whether to take life-changing advice from someone we've never met in some online community. How do we design for this; what technology should we build?

The second talk is for Blink's "We Love Technology" in July, for artists and folks in that sector. The theme of the day is our emotional engagement with emerging technology and its development (that engagement goes both ways--we both influence and are influenced). It's a provocative topic, and while I have a number of ideas I want to bring up, I haven't pinned myself down to a title yet. Very much looking forward to it though.

12:13, Saturday 8 Apr.

Women's fashion update: After this winter's obsession with the signification of boots, I've been looking out for what's next, now the sun's out. What I'm seeing around today is flat, simple shoes (are they called pumps? They look a bit like plimsoles. No heels, plain design, and muted colours--no silver here). These are worn with ankle socks and a straight skirt, to the knee, with some kind of fairly dense pattern. Bare legs.

I'd predicted things like patchwork or lace, so in terms of that I'm not doing very well. But my overall sense of the direction - that the action was happening on the legs - is still good: with shoe, sock, skin and skirt there are four different surfaces below the waist. Rather than the frontier feel I was getting from last year, I'd say this is inspired by mid 20th century (the 1930s? I'm not very good on pinning fashion to decades) established, everyday fashion.

Early in 2005, I saw a young woman on the tube looking very inter-war: Flannel skirt, white cotton socks, plain black shoes. If we're going towards this, I'd expect to see more flannel, felt and tweed (I saw some of this last year too), but as accessories or ornament as this appears to be a summer trend. I'm also not expecting any particular item to catch on, as boots did last year--it's just too soon. Instead I think it'll be about visual texture.

I would also say that it's still too early to tell. I'm still seeing a lot of leggings, skirts over trousers, and so on, and I did hear last year that it was all going to be about the waist (so look out for big belts, was the implication). We'll see.

17:11, Thursday 6 Apr.

Sci-fi: Matt Ward runs the MA in Design - Critical Theory and Practice at Goldsmiths College, London. As part of their Fictional Futures project (about the design of “imagined, science fiction inspired, future artefacts; PDF), Matt asked Jack and I, as Schulze & Webb, to run a teaching day. We led the students through a number of drawing exercises, talks and discussions on stories, belief and the aesthetics of artefacts in science fiction, and finally a look at their work.

As part of all of this, I took some time to discuss my own favourite concepts from science fiction, and other related ideas. I've put the presentation online, with my rather rough, very stream-of-consciousness notes: Sci-fi I like, Fictional Futures, Goldsmiths.


reboot8 has its invitation to participate up. Unusually, no speakers are selected yet--the conference is being entirely decided by the attendees, with the organisers acting as facilitators to get people along, provide a minimum of structure, and keep the conversations and ideas flowing. reboot7 was my favourite conference last year. I did my scheduled Mind Hacks talk (on computer interfaces), then grabbed a room and held an ad hoc presentation/conversation on The 3 Steps: The History of Physics and the Future of Computing. There was something about the people and the energy of the conference that helped those concepts come together for me, and that last presentation has to be one of the most enjoyable ones I've done--the energy in the room was great, and I learned a lot from everyone who joined in.

Anyway, I'm not sure whether I'll be able to make it this year (be sure I'm going to try), but I highly recommend going along. Shape the conference on the wiki now, enjoy it later: reboot.

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