Random Etc. Notes to self. Work, play, and the rest.

Archive for September 2006

Historical Blips

Gorgeous writing from Maciej about a flight from New York to Beijing over the North Pole.

"The unreality of jet travel continues to unsettle me. One moment you are in one place, and hours later you have crossed the most insuperable physical barriers by flying high in the atmosphere at nearly the speed of sound, and no one finds this unusual. The sun is over the wrong horizon, everything is different, but life goes on around you like nothing has happened."

I still find it unusual.

The view from an aeroplane window is number one on a very short list of things that I believe will never be tiresome. That air travel is so reliable and so routine strikes me as magic. We're in the middle of a blip in history where for just a few short decades the average altitude of a human being has been infinitesimally raised. The age of affordable consumer flight probably won't, and possibly shouldn't, continue throughout my lifetime. It's hard to see how we can justify it forever, such a significant environmental impact as it has.

We continue to build airports expecting two-to-tenfold increases in passenger numbers, depending on the expected trajectory of your economy. And yet, as the fuel becomes ever more precious and consumer flight declines, flying will once again become the exclusive domain of the rich and famous. The proverbial high-flyers will be the only true jetset left.

Processing 0116 is out

The beginning of the acadmic year must be upon us, because Ben Fry and Casey Reas just released the latest round of bug-fixes and updates to the Processing libraries and development environment. The changes are meticulously documented here (update: corrected link!) . There are also changes to the structure of the learning resources and discourse forum and Casey is collecting links to third-party tutorials here.

Nothing is taboo here on the edge of science…


Jarvis Cocker, Neil Hannon and Air should write for sultry breathy French women more often. Air should be everybody's backing band.

DARTZ! - St. Petersburg

My younger brother plays guitar in a band called DARTZ! (myspace.com/darts). They recorded an album in London this summer and the first single is out this time next month.  There's now a rather swish video for it on youtube*, and local radio recently played it twice.

In other news, a fan of theirs put some of their lyrics on Newcastle's Secret Flickr Wall.  If you obsess over Flickr for long enough, eventually Flickr will obsess over you.

* Not embedded because Wordpress is too damn opinionated to let me post invalid HTML dammit.

Software that speaks for itself, or: are you sure you need Powerpoint?

Euro Foo began with introductions to the group: name, affiliation and three words (tags) that describe you. So tough! I picked simulation, architecture and design (I think), but that was way too narrow. Conference introductions are tricky beasts... Aaron Swartz asks "what have you been thinking about?" and Simon Willison asks "what are you excited about?". That's better!

I've been thinking about software that - for the content it generates - is a better presentation tool than Keynote or PowerPoint. Stop, wait, come back! This isn't a Powerpoint bashing post. Of course it will depend what you are presenting and who is doing the presenting. Powerpoint and Keynote are great tools in the right hands, but I'm coming to believe that they often involve doing work for presentation's sake, when you already have good presentation tools in your workflow or - more importantly - when your work could speak for itself.

A colleague once talked me through a detailed 3D model that was built in Sketchup, using Sketchup's views and geometry tools to show things from different angles and manipulate the data as she spoke. Stills in Powerpoint would never have done this justice. Animations would have to be scripted to perfection. She had constructed a solid narrative inside the software, and the ability to manipulate things and show/hide different components came for free inside Sketchup itself. The same narrative could have been retold in a slideshow format, but why create extra work for a less effective result?

In the case of Sketchup, it's easy to see why the CAD software says more about the design than presentation software does - in many cases the Sketchup model is the design. The same thing happens with software like Photoshop, where stepping through the layers and changing filters or moving things around can often tell a better story than a selection of stills.

Google Earth is a great example of software that speaks for itself. With a bit of practice and a little planning you can make a presentation within the software that is far richer and more persuasive than out of context screen shots. Likewise with Excel, almost the entire point of the software is that everything is out there for everyone to see. And a live spreadsheet has currency too - you can pass it around - just like KML in Google Earth. Sure you can pass around a presentation or report with charts and tables to explain your analysis, but the live spreadsheet data is the analysis, and there are a few simple tools (like Juice Analytics' slider for Charts) that make the analysis even more accessible.

My own work in architectural simulation arose out of a dislike of "black box" models, where assumptions and specifications would be prepared and then a simulation would be run by an external agency who would deliver their findings in a report. Our reaction to this was a granular, individual-based model presented in a dynamic interactive way - not sure about a particular result? Interrogate the model to find out what went wrong. The result of the model was an experiential way to understand a particular scenario, a story telling tool. Just like most of the software you have on your desktop.

Perhaps people do want just the answer, and not the journey, but it's still worth asking: are you sure you need Powerpoint?

Euro Foo

Last week, I spent a long weekend in Brussels for O'Reilly's pre-OSCON Euro Foo (The "Foo" is for Friends of O'Reilly). Like others coming from the UK, I travelled by train and was relieved at the lack of fuss compared to recent airport experiences.

Just like its U.S. counterpart, Euro Foo is a self-organising event so everyone is expected to contribute. After a short intro from the O'Reilly team, everyone descends on big planning boards and the schedule is drawn up. The main thing to note is that with 4x7 sessions on the Sunday and 6x6 sessions on the Monday you can only possibly see 10/64 talks - unless you're super-human or miss introductions and conclusions. Given that one of those talks should be yours, you're really only going to catch about 14% of the presentations! So you'd better make the most of the lunch breaks and the bar if you want to see everyone.

Photos by Gavin Bell.


The path I picked through Sunday's line-up found me trying to help Matt Jones build a Big Here Tricorder, being impressed by Gavin Starks' introduction to pledgebank-meets-Inconvenient-Truth site Global Cool, sneak-previewing Matt Webb's vision of the future of the web, and being wowed by Ben Gimpert's collection of projects loosely entitled The Shift Key.

Matt Jones' Build a Big Here Tricorder group split into three - Matt Webb and Simon Willison did an admirable job of not looking too miffed for being roped in at the last minute, but with Matt Jones out of the room the session was a little too scattered to deliver concrete results. That said, his group did go out to challenge Brussels passersby with samples from the Big Here question list, and probably had the most fun in the process! Suw has good notes on the specification session, and even though 45 minutes wasn't enough time I'd still be interested in seeing the list of resources that the implementation group pulled together.

Gavin Starks' talk basically covered the issues raised in Al Gore's presentation-cum-movie An Inconvenient Truth, but then outlined what we can do as individuals, through the Global Cool project, to help fix it. His example pledge, "I will reduce my carbon emissions by 1 tonne per year if 1 billion other people will too", indicates the audacious scope and ambition of the project.  Take note.

Matt Webb's App After App talk stood out a bit because he actually spoke about the web. It's the glue that binds so many attendees, and many people's bread and butter, but it did feel neglected a little. It's refreshing to hear someone who's worked with the web for a while still be passionate about how it might change and where it's going next. Especially when so many other people are jaded, sick to death of web 2.0, and convinced it's "bubble all over again" and that they've seen it all before. (That said, as Jim points out on the Linden blog, there was a slightly bigger sense of purpose with the political and climate related talks, and it's nice to just think of the web as our tool for good, rather than our raison d'être.)

Ben Gimpert's presentation was an opportunity to see a friend run a single thread through a few great projects I was already familiar with. At one point only three people were there to see it, but I thought he deserved a bigger crowd so with an inappropriately loud cheer and a round of applause we pulled in an extra dozen people from the hallway. The cheekiness paid off I think. As Ben says on the Euro Foo wiki "At 5pm on Sunday in the Henriette room, I gave a talk called The Shift Key. Matt Webb and Tom Carden screamed, Tim O'Reilly read poetry".


I ran a very short-notice Ask Later session first thing on Monday, and then attended Rob McKinnon's Government on Rails session, an O'Reilly talk on Content 2.0, a group discussion hosted by Claus Dahl about prototying real world devices in Second Life, and a group discussion hosted by Schuyler Erle around OpenStreetMap-alike open geodata.

My Ask Later session was again based around the Pecha Kucha 20x20 format. In future I'd like us to experiment with different constraints (perhaps Takahashi or Kawasaki?)., but I still think this one is the most fun.  Early morning attendees who braved their Leffe-fuelled hangovers were subjected to short-form presentations from:

It didn't quite stretch to the ambitious session-and-a-half that I'd reserved, but we had a solid hour. Thankfully the late arrival of Ben Cerveny and Tom Steinberg to Euro Foo meant that session attendees got two more talks as a bonus before we stepped neatly into Andrew Turner's rundown of his home automation projects. Tom's "hoodie of truth" spin on his mysociety presentation was a lot of fun - a possibly interesting constraint for a future Ask Later, if we decide to deviate from 20x20 presentations.

Rob McKinnon's Government on Rails introduced his kiwi version of TheyWorkForYou - TheyWorkForYou.co.nz - hopefully launching real soon now. Rob also covered his greasemonkey and del.icio.us prototypes showing that you can make useful government watching tools without expensive hosting.  Government Hacks, anyone?

The Content 2.0 talk was interesting for an insight into where O'Reilly might be headed with tech publishing.  I'm glad to hear that (publicly at least) they don't know yet how they might monetise things like wiki books, but they're still trying them anyway.  I was a little skeptical about the analogies between the itunes 99c per song pricing model and the idea of selling book chapters in a similar way (mainly because an ipod holds 10,000 songs, but I'm sure as hell not dropping 10 grand to fill it up - the business model needs to change).  I think as soon as your book chapters stand entirely alone, you don't need to be selling a book anymore.  This brought to mind Steven Johnson's description of Everything Bad, where he said he needed 200 pages of sustained, linear argument to help make a coherent point.  I think a book also stands for sustained development and that's why draft books don't interest me too much - they're half-baked. The book isn't the paper, it's the work it stands for and the body of coherent knowledge within the paper.

The talk around Second Life at Euro Foo was very interesting. It's only a niche interest of mine, but I've followed virtual communities as a curious outsider (and one-time academic) for some time now (see del.icio.us/TomC/virtual_communities).  It seemed that between the Imity folks prototyping in Second Life, Alice Turner's BBC projects and the official Second Life people there was a very healthy interest around these topics.

Lastly, Schuyler's geoscopes session was really interesting.  We focused mainly on a ubiquitious and consumer-friendly end-to-end GIS tool chain.  I got to wear my OpenStreetMap hat a while, and the input from people like Tom Steinberg on running big volunteer projects was invaluable.  Andrew Turner spoke more about the links between GeoPress and Mapufacture, and we segued for a while into brainstorming a P2P cache for satellite imagery in applications such as NASA WorldWind (for all I know Google Earth already does this).  There's a real sense of "we know how to build this" around the mapping and geo hacking arena at the moment.  We just need to get stuff done!

Winding Down

On Monday night we finally stepped out of the hotel and went to a restaurant called Strofilia.  It was possibly both the best Greek food I've had and some of the nicest veggie food I've experienced on the continent.  Criminally for someone based in central London, this trip was my first time on Eurostar and my first time in Brussels (for more than an hour).  I didn't stay for EurOSCON but it sounds like folks had a blast, so here's to more Eu'Reilly events in Europe, and let's get some more folks on the Eu'Radar.


Processing Blogs status

Apologies to the readers and writers of Processing Blogs for the recent downtime.

Our host machine was experiencing unusual load, and both Steve and I were away on holiday last week and didn't want to risk it going down and affecting all our other sites. I'm experimenting with Wordpress cache plugins and will probably offload the Processing Blogs feed to Feedburner, but normal service should be resumed for the time being.