All posts made in Feb. 2011: (strap: "Virtual Fitting Room for Online Clothes Retailers") has a shape-changing robot mannequin hooked up to a webcam. Deets: Customers shopping at a participating site enter their body measurements online (height, chest, arm length, torso, type, and so on), then see photos of a mannequin shaped just like them 'trying on' the item they're eyeing in different sizes and styles.

Great photos here. And also, this quote from the CEO: Now, we have a robot that can be any shape at the push of a button. I wish I had a button like that. WHOA.

Superpowers suddenly seem more of-our-world if they have buttons. What if Mr. Fantastic had to press a button before he stretched? What if Superman had one button to fly, one button to use his heat rays, and another button to fly or use his super speed? Villains would try to press them! He would fumble for them in a rush! What if the Iron Man suit ran on Windows 3.1, and the mouse ball kept sticking? What if Superman lost his user-defined preferences file and his only back-up was at the back of a drawer in the Fortress of Solitude? has Friends from around the world available for hire. Rent a Friend to attend a social event, wedding, or party with you. Hire someone to introduce you to new people, or someone to go to a movie or a restaurant with. Hire a Friend to show you around an unfamiliar town, teach you a new skill or hobby, or just someone for companionship. You can view all of the profiles & photos on right now for free!

I have a hunch that television is really bad for us. When we can speak about social psychology with the same degree of accuracy as we can liver function, we'll find that TV has been poisoning the social body. Future generations will look back and say, What?? You used to train your children into believing the environment and other people were non-responsive to their moods and expressions? Are you insane?

Facebook is better. At least it's not passive. Although I'd like to test this. Let's find two remote Canadian towns, cut off physically from the rest of the world by winter. One we'll accidentally-on-purpose break television. The other we'll accidentally-on-purpose break the web. Then: observe.

There's something dangerous, still, I'm sure, with Facebook. I don't know what it does to a person to have social interaction without proximity of bodies. It's weird to do talking without smelling. I can feel my Jacobson's organ shrivelling up like a walnut.

Facebook is a technology of disembedding: social relations are no longer confined to the 'local context.' Rather, the location of individuals and the time frame in which they interact has become indefinite. It is hard to say when this began, but the development of a postal service is a good example. With mail, social relations could be conducted across broad geographic areas (no longer limited to the local context) and within indefinite time spans (due to the time lag in mail delivery).

Money is also a technology of disembedding. In barter, the goods to be exchanged need to come together in time and space. With money - the crystalline form of trust - there's no need.

Disembedding isn't bad. A community of one hundred people couldn't support - and wouldn't need to support - a cartographer, but a community of a hundred thousand has just the niche for such an abstract role. And I'm glad, because I like maps. Big communities are supported by disembedding.

But now we have a trade-off. Currency to disembed exchange of goods from markets in town squares is, well, handy. Social currency to disembed exchange of friend interactions from the fuggy physical world of smells and touches is... well, handy - in that I get cartographers - but a teeny bit inhuman. Possibly. Facebook (and the like) also means eventually smelling and touching people you'd otherwise have never met. And television gives you things in common with a billion people you'll probably never meet, although you might.

I don't have a conclusion. And I'm not planning on renting any friends.

This morning I've been watching the cricket world cup, playing the lovely, simple iPhone game Tiny Wings, doing some basic scenario planning for work, and a little tidying, during which I ran across some UK coins designed by Matthew Dent, which I must have collected when they were released.

Work is brilliantly odd and fun (and busy with a trajectory to becoming crazy busy) at the moment. Lots of pots on the bubble. Just today, on the BERG blog, there's a sneak peek at the art of SVK, the comic we're working on with Warren Ellis and Matt Brooker. I should make a list of everything that contributes to my general feeling of living in the Absurd.

But not right now, as I'm off to an exhibition about Isotype.

Last thing: blue eyes are blue not because of pigment, but because of the Tyndall effect: light scattering by particles in a colloid or particles in a fine suspension. ... It is similar to Rayleigh scattering, in that the intensity of the scattered light depends on the fourth power of the frequency, so blue light is scattered much more strongly than red light. An example in everyday life is the blue colour sometimes seen in the smoke emitted by motorcycles. Rayleigh scattering has slightly different physics, but is the reason the sky is blue. Neat.

Here is a brilliant isometric map of Hong Kong.

A topographic map of Venus.

A gallery of the new London 2012 Olympic velodrome. It's vast and modernist, but warm: cathedral caverns and concrete angles, both dull and glossy, with highly textured detail from wood and punched brushed metal. Unafraid of repetition. Oranges, browns, greys and dull blues. Matt Brown at work calls it a New British Modern, and I see that. It's definitely not New York art vinyl or Japanese pop. There are elements of Scandinavian design, but just as much of British municipality and of functional authenticity. Barbican but 21st century. Anyway, good pics. There's mileage in this NBM I think.

Five emotions invented by the internet, including: The state of being 'installed' at a computer or laptop for an extended period of time without purpose, characterized by a blurry, formless anxiety undercut with something hard like desperation, and The sense of fatigue and disconnect one experiences after emitting a massive stream of content only to hit some kind of ‘wall’ and forget and/or abandon the entire thing. Yeah. It's funny because it's true.

I wonder: I can fatigue very particular muscles. Climbing stairs, those muscles get tired. Weights, etc. It's possible to have very tired biceps but find it easy to run. Tiredness is a bodily located phenomenon. And so: is it possible to fatigue bits of my mind? Does my super-ego get worn out from filtering my behaviour? Can I run out of the neurotransmitter responsible for saying three syllable words? Or whatever. Does my hypothalamus get out of puff? Does my visual cortex get worn out identifying horizontal edges?

Today my linearity gland is pooped.

First watch Such Great Heights, the Postal Service. Pretty electronica. And now Ben Fold's live percussion version. Is lovely.

Today is the anniversary of the final day of the life of Laura Palmer. When I was young, I was crazy for Twin Peaks. Laura Palmer was found dead, wrapped in plastic, on 24 February, 1989. Also: you can read her secret diary.

The current wave of Arab revolutions reminds me that the series of Colour Revolutions in the Balkans and ex-Soviet states (in the early 2000s) was not an unassisted wave. Rather, it might have been the work of revolution consultants from Belgrade known as the Centre for Non-Violent Resistance (see also the full article).

Majesty 2, the Fantasy Kingdom Sim: In the world of Majesty, you are the ruler of the kingdom Ardania. At your service are your loyal and somewhat obnoxious subordinates, who have their own minds about how things should be done. In fact, Majesty is the only game where your heroes decide on their own what should be done and when, leaving you to try to control them through monetary incentives.

See also Godville, available for iPhone, in which your hero collects items, has fights, embarks on quests, advances through levels, and keeps a diary... and you do nothing but watch (and occasionally give encouragement.)

A reminder: I'm giving a public talk about domestic artificial intelligence, at 7pm tomorrow (Wednesday 16th), at the Royal Institution in London.

Botworld: Designing for the new world of domestic A.I.

Back in the 1960s, we thought the 21st century was going to be about talking robots, and artificial intelligences we could chat with and play chess with like people. It didn't happen, and we thought the artificial intelligence dream was dead.

But somehow, a different kind of future snuck up on us. One of robot vacuum cleaners, virtual pets that chat amongst themselves, and web search engines so clever that we might-as-well call them intelligent. So we got our robots, and the world is full of them. Not with human intelligence, but with something simpler and different. And not as colleagues, but as pets and toys.

Matt looks at life in this Botworld. We'll encounter a zoo of beasts: telepresence robots, big maths, mirror worlds, and fractional A.I. We'll look at signals from the future, and try to figure out where it's going.

We'll look at questions like: what does it mean to relate emotionally to a silicon thing that pretends to be alive? How do we deal with this shift from 'Meccano' to 'The Sims'? And what are the consequences, when it's not just our toys and gadgets that have fractional intelligence... but every product and website?

Matt digs into history and sci-fi to find lessons on how to think about and recognise Botworld, how to design for it, and how to live in it.

Book your ticket now! (More regular blogging will resume on Thursday.)

My Life Portable Console Virtual Life Simulator: it's pink, it looks like a rubbish Gameboy, it's an isometric first-person simulation of the life of a teenage girl. You can chat with boys and argue with your dad.

According to the massive stats crunching of the dating site OKCupid, the best question to ask to figure out whether a girl will sleep with you on the first date is "Do you like the taste of beer?" (By best, I mean "most predictive.")

And: No matter their gender or orientation, beer-lovers are 60% more likely to be okay with sleeping with someone they've just met. Sadly, this is the only question with a meaningful correlation for women. For men there are a few others: Q: In a certain light, wouldn't nuclear war be exciting?

Finally: videos of waiters who are monkeys wearing doll masks.

Edward Mordrake was reportedly the 19th century heir to an English peerage. He supposedly had an extra face on the back of his head, which could neither eat nor speak, although it could laugh or cry. Edward begged doctors to have his "demon head" removed, because, supposedly, it whispered horrible things to him at night, but no doctor would attempt it. He committed suicide at the age of 23. (Via read more wikipedia.)

My favourite alternate Twitter interface is Put in your Twitter name, and your friends come marching across the screen as stick figures with square heads, speaking their statuses, like this, all parading after a bigger figure which is me. Also, there's music. Super weird, super awesome. (Thanks Matt!)

(By the way, if you're on Twitter: follow @genmon for my personal updates, and follow @intrcnnctd to get notified when there's an update to this blog.)

There's a neat video demo of a 3D road generator. The user clicks on a landscape where they want the road to run, and the system generates architecturally sound roads, road cuts, tunnels, bridges, and suspension bridges. I assume there's some kind of civil engineering rules built-in. While you watch, the user shows how hills and valleys can be introduced and automatically compensated for.

A road runs from A to B. You choose the A and the B. The system follows engineering rules to make it work.

Then there are city generators. I don't know what rules this is following. Not engineering constraints, but the observed laws of cities: that high residential land value tends to happen where there are good views; that high commercial land value tends to have tall buildings; that cities are organised into hubs with major roads for spokes; and so on. (I'm guessing on the rules.)

Another city generator: Suicidator City Generator screenshots.

Also, in a funny kind of way, this retro city which is also a mobile phone interface: the panel is a living, breathing portal to help the user fully interact with their mobile phone handset. As a user pans through the cityscape, all the different elements link to the functionality of the user’s phone. Text messages appear playfully on billboards, calendar events arrive by train, a passing airplane shows your call history and much more.

I don't know what appeals to me. Some combination of these three things: autonomous simulation; toy to fiddle with; randomness but realness.

Virtual pets and virtual people

I get a similar feeling with virtual pets - that is, toys like Tamagotchi - and computer games like Animal Crossing (a virtual life in a little town with artificially intelligence animal friends) and Little Computer People (a virtual fellow who lives in a house inside your computer, from 1985).

It's that feeling again -- the feeling that there's another world just beyond the looking glass, something alive, but simple enough that it doesn't feel entirely independent from me. What is this, some kind of mix of separateness but ownership, a god complex?

A couple of appearances in fiction: Superman's miniature city-in-a-bottle, Kandor; Philip K. Dick's hobby build-an-earth-in-a-bubble Worldcraft.

The space trading computing game Elite would simulate entire galaxies... and on computers from 1982, what's more. Get this: Their first idea had been to furnish the machine with the details of (say) 10 solar systems they'd lovingly handcrafted in advance: elegant stars, advantageously distributed, orbited by nice planets in salubrious locations, inhabited by contrasting aliens with varied governments and interesting commodities to trade. But it quickly became clear that the wodge of data involved was going to make an impossible demand on memory. ... What if, they asked themselves, they got the machine to invent the map as well? To avoid the storage problem, it would need to build solar systems on the fly; that is, it would have to come up with names and distances and dimensions right when they were called for, that instant, rather than pulling them out of memory. Yet these unstored, instantaneous inventions also needed to be solid and dependable. Stars and planets needed to stay where they were put. And so that's what they did.

Sim social network

Which brings me to something I once wanted: an artificial, generated social network, where I am the only real person. I wrote about it in 2006, in a story called They follow each other on the wind. A device called MyPeopleGalaxy. Here's a bit of it:

It is a shiny blue pocket-sized $20 blogging device with artificial intelligence and a whopping big hard drive. All I did was start blogging into it. It took my words, and the clever stuff the fella did wove those words, and manipulated them and whatever else, and over time it learned English. And after a while more, it started simulating more bloggers who moved in one by one by one. Fake ones. 2 million bloggers in my pocket.

A little bit more: In MyPeopleGalaxy, your blog posts are shaken into words and recombine into comments to your posts, and other blogs are inspired by yours. You can see echoes of your vocabulary and ideas in the blogs that surround you. This is the best of artificial prose pioneered by the spam email people, taken and used to generate fake journal posts for 14 year-olds. Good grief. I couldn’t put it down.

And you know what? I still want it. Simulations of people, all with individual names, personalities and interests, tens of thousands of them, all generated. It shouldn't be too hard: there's already a record of each of us in some marketing database somewhere. Just roll the dice on that and invent people who don't exist.

And all of them with their own Facebook pages, and their own status updates, and their own friends lists, and their own blogs. All in their own big social network. That shouldn't be too hard either -- I can barely tell the difference between generated spam and real websites and email nowadays, so the technology must exist.

And I want them all making friends, falling out, going through the whole lifecycle of relationships, copying jokes and links off each other, getting obsessed with virals, watching YouTube, reading the news, all the rest, all of it, every single bit of it. All generated, all artificial, a colossal baroque folly. I reckon it'd be pretty easy to do.

An ant farm that I can watch. A soap opera with 10,000 computer-controlled software actors.

And I want to have a profile right there too, on Fakebook, the only real person of the lot of them. Single player socialising. It's horrible, I get that, a kind of pornography but of friendship and attachment. But I reckon it'd be fun to play, crazy addictive, and I have a hunch there would be some interesting spin-off applications. Toy mirror worlds.

I've been exploring themes around artificial intelligence, telepresence robots, and Furbys recently. In a sort of fun, figuring-it-out, what do we need to know, how to design for it and live in it kind of way. I'm enjoying myself.

And... I'm giving an evening lecture about it all on Wednesday 16th February, at 7pm. The title:

Botworld: Designing for the new world of domestic A.I.

It's at the Royal Institution in London.

You should come! But you'll need to book. Read more about it.

Theo Janson makes massive mechanical animal skeletons that walk, with dozens of legs, along the beach, powered by the wind: Strandbeest (there are videos).

On a smaller scale, here is a video of a hamster/mechanical walker hybrid. A tabletop walking skeleton, with a hectic hamster racing in a ball as a mechanical battery.

(Related: a dog in a man suit.)

I like the idea of exoskeletons or hybrids. The parasite Dicrocoelium dendriticum has the ability to control the habits of ants to make them climb blades of grass (to be eaten by sheep).

There's a virtual reality system called CAVE. It's a room you go into, and video is projected on the walls, the ceiling, and floor. Computers monitor how you move, and so the video can respond to your movements. You could feel like you were standing in a ballroom, or a forest, or a computer-generated architecture. I heard about this application of it: the CAVE would monitor your head rotation, but move the video twice as much. So if you turned your head 10 degrees to the right, it would whizz the video round 20 degrees. If you looked directly right, over your shoulder, it would turn the video so it was as if you were looking directly behind you. Apparently you get used to it really fast.

So I wonder: could you make a helmet like this? It would have cameras on top, and you would look at a screen inside, but it would use gyroscopes to move the cameras twice as fast as you moved your head, so it would feel like you could turn your head all the way round. Owl helmet!

Superpowers for animals

Horseshoes give the superpower of walking on hard surfaces to horses. But what if you gave neutral buoyancy in air to sheep, or the magical sensation of magnetic north to cattle, or gecko shoes to dogs? What if dogs could stick to walls and ceilings?

(Naturally related: Chris Woebken's series of prosthetics to give animal abilities to humans. Lovely photos. Lovely objects.)

When we make the breakthrough that means humans can speak with dolphins, what should our first 20 questions be? Here's a list. It's an interesting thought experiment!

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is the forum for developing principles on the use of space. I wonder if they have a list of first questions in the event that an alien species turn up.

(Related: a huge list of questions to ask the girl you're dating to promote a deeper level of disclosure.)

I'd like to be able to speak to pets and farm animals. Dolphin and squid might be our aquatic doppels, but it's a fascinating and terrifying idea that we might have to develop a sociology of cattle or sheep, and negotiate with them (and ourselves) their lives, comfort, and death. To be fair, we probably already communicate with them enough for that particular conversation.

There's a lovely collection of numbers from Jeff Dean at Google, about how long common computer processor and network operations take. Data on the same chip takes, at its quickest, only 0.5ns to look up (half a billionth of one second). Data in computer memory takes 100ns (200 times as long) to pull onto the chip. Data in the same building takes a million times as long; data across the Atlantic will take 300 millions times as long. Here are the numbers.

What makes this more human is this comparison, which reveals a little bit about computer time: your equivalent to a computer looking up data from a chip is remembering a fact from your own brain. Your equivalent to a computer looking up data from a disk is fetching that fact from Pluto. Computers live in a world of commonplace interactions not the size of a house, like us, but the Solar System. On their own terms, they are long, long lived, and vast.

Neal Stephenson writes about why space rockets won't go away in Space Stasis: What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation.

His point: using rockets to get into space works decently enough. But it's expensive, limited, and it's never going to get better. Rockets are an example of lock-in. There is no shortage of alternative, innovative ideas for how to get into space - ones that might have much more promising futures - but we'll never see them because there are too many factors that prevent change.

One fascinating contributor to lock-in is insurance. Start from the fact that satellites are super expensive to build, and generate lots of money once in orbit. A satellite is a big investment with a big pay-off! Which means you want insurance... Rockets of the old school aren't perfect—they have their share of failures—but they have enough of a track record that it's possible to buy launch insurance. The importance of this fact cannot be overestimated. Every space entrepreneur who dreams of constructing a better mousetrap sooner or later crunches into the sickening realization that, even if the new invention achieved perfect technical success, it would fail as a business proposition simply because the customers wouldn't be able to purchase launch insurance.

Another factor is regulation. It's hard to get the permits to fly a rocket over other countries' cities. You could operate in a country with looser regulation... but then you wouldn't get access to the expertise and the technology to build the rocket in the first place.

It's weird, says Stephensen, that we even have rockets in the first place. They grew out of a bizarre battle that arose in rare circumstances. But what investment that war caused: Richard Rhodes estimates the cost of the nuclear weapons and missile programs at $4 trillion in the United States and the USSR each.

Great article.

Here are some Japanese fighting robots on television (remote controlled; two arms and two legs each). My favourite is the one with the balloon for the head and his special move.

(I found that via this essay On the Potential for Branded Robots, which is a big question! I wonder about the ethics. Robots don't have sentient feelings (yet), so it's fine to treat them as slaves. But they appear to be sentient, and humans interact with them as if they are sentient. So what does it do to us as people, if we accustom ourselves to not having to care about other sentient beings? Is that okay? Might we start treating the non-robot sentiences around us callously too -- the human working in the train station, the human making us coffee, the human in the call-centre, the cat we meet on the street? Should we, for our own sakes, make robots tender and fragile so that we don't accidentally train ourselves into being heartless?)

Okay, this is wrestling, and then two of the dudes (who are dressed as Egyptian gods?) hypnotise the other two dudes, by doing a weird snake move, and make them breakdance themselves into being knocked out. That is the most illegal thing I've seen in the history of wrestling! (Thank you Schulze, that is utterly remarkable.)

Books read January 2011, by date finished:

The first third of Journey into Space is wonderful and poetic.

Kuniavsky's Smart Things is a comprehensive, bullet-proof, accessible guide and compendium of approaches to the entire ubiquitous computing sector. If you're designing smart things, it's a must-read. If you're theorising in the area, it's a must-cite.

Tsukumogami ('artifact spirit') are a type of Japanese spirit. ... tsukumogami originate from items or artifacts that have reached their 100th birthday and thus become alive and aware. Any object of this age, from swords to toys, can become a tsukumogami. Tsukumogami are considered spirits and supernatural beings, as opposed to enchanted items. (Thanks Tom!)

Also #1: Tsukumogami vary radically in appearance, depending on the type of item they originated from as well as the condition that item was in. Some, such as tsukumogami originating from paper lanterns or broken sandals, can have tears which become eyes and sharp teeth, thus giving a horrifying visage. Others, such as worn prayer beads or teacups, may merely manifest faces and appendages, giving a warm and friendly appearance. Related to this, see the dream parade from the movie Paprika (more). The mailbox and the refrigerator will lead the way! The happy and mundane world will vent their anger.

Also #2: Though by and large tsukumogami are harmless and at most tend to play occasional pranks on unsuspecting victims, as shown in the Otogizōshi they do have the capacity for anger and will band together to take revenge on those who are wasteful or throw them away thoughtlessly. Related to this, the Japanese water sprite Kappa is a humanoid turtle that lives in ponds and rivers, and leaps out to harass passers-by. If you are accosted by one, remember that kappas are extremely polite, and insist that you bow before you fight. On bowing, the kappa's brain (which is kept in an indentation on the top of the head, and is made of water) will slosh out, and they will be defeated.

I mention this because the kappa is also a prankster: Their pranks range from the relatively innocent, such as loudly passing gas or looking up women's kimonos, to the more troublesome, such as drowning people and animals, kidnapping children, and raping women. "Troublesome" is certainly the word for it.

(Why does the kappa abduct people? For this: the purpose of eating their livers or their shirikodama, a mythical ball inside the anus.

Remember that. Shirikodama. It will be useful one day.)

Also #3: It is said that modern items cannot become tsukumogami; the reason for this is that tsukumogami are said to be repelled by electricity. Additionally, few modern items are used for the 100-year-span that it takes for an artifact to gain a soul.

Related to this, see the New Delhi Monkey Man. In 2001, a monkey man terrorised India. It was stronger than a man; it had metal claws; it was covered in thick hair with buttons on its chest. But the monkey man was scared by water, light and electricity. Appearance of the monkey caused mob terror... but turned the (at the time, rationed) electricity back on would calm the neighbourhood. Monkey man was a modern, physical manifestation of the desires of the group mentality.

I wonder what the lack of souls for modern objects signifies, to the group mentality.

I finish on Sokushinbutsu, the rare Japanese practice of self-mummification by Buddhist monks: For 1,000 days (a little less than three years) the priests would eat a special diet consisting only of nuts and seeds, while taking part in a regimen of rigorous physical activity that stripped them of their body fat. They then ate only bark and roots for another thousand days and began drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, normally used to lacquer bowls.

And then: This caused vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids, and most importantly, it made the body too poisonous to be eaten by maggots. Finally, a self-mummifying monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would not move from the lotus position. His only connection to the outside world was an air tube and a bell. Each day he rang a bell to let those outside know that he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed. After the tomb was sealed, the other monks in the temple would wait another 1,000 days, and open the tomb to see if the mummification was successful.

Sometimes this would work. Usually, not.


On my way into work this morning (a seven minute walk), I saw two contractors painting the yellow lines on the side of the road. I hadn't realised they did it like this: they have a big roll of what looks like yellow ribbon. They cut long strips of ribbon and place it on the road. The ribbon looks like rubberised paint. Then they melt it with a flame torch, and it becomes road marking! Simple straight lines and no spilled paint. Easier all round I guess.

Also on my way into work, I let someone know their bag was dripping. Sucky for them, but for me it means my good deed for the day is done by 8.30 am, so I can really stick the boot in for the rest of Tuesday. Reading around about good deeds, it turns out that, yes, people who did one good deed were less likely to do another good deed in the near future. They had, quite literally, done their good deed for the day. -- from this article about good deeds and psychology.

There are a few nice tit-bits in the piece, including the anecdote that people having lunch after church tend to abuse the waitstaff and tip poorly, and this observation on the finding that one good deed means you needn't bother about another:

This meshes nicely with a self-signalling conception of morality. If part of the point of behaving morally is to convince yourself that you're a good person, then once you're convinced, behaving morally loses a lot of its value.

Self-signalling! I wonder how much behaviour is driven by the satisfaction you get when your observations of self match up with your desired positive traits. Yes, I suppose I am the kind of person that gives to charity. Yes, I suppose I am the kind of person that keeps a tidy house. Etc. And how dangerous that feedback loop is when you're reinforcing negative behaviour. Sigh, I suppose I am the kind of person who has no willpower.

Which, in a really prosaic way, makes me think about keeping a to-do list. Saying you'll do something, and then doing it! That's a good feeling alright.