My learned neighbour Mike Kuniavsky, on the ever-receding horizon implied by the phrase Ubiquitous Computing:
I see [ubiquitous computing] as analogous to "Physics" or "Psychology," terms that describe a focus for investigation, rather than an agenda.
Why don't others see it the same? I think it's because the term is fundamentally different because it has an implied infinity in it. Specifically, the word "ubiquitous" implies an end state, something to strive for, something that's the implicit goal of the whole project. That's of course not how most people in the industry look at it, but that's how outsiders see it. As a side effect, the infinity in the term means that it simultaneously describes a state that practitioners cannot possibly attain ("ubiquitous" is like "omniscient"--it's an absolute that is impossible to achieve) and an utopia that others can easily dismiss. It's the worst of both worlds
Mike also identifies Artificial Intelligence and Ambient Intelligence as having this problem too. In they eyes of your detractors you'll never get there, you're crazy for thinking it's worth trying, and the steps along the way don't measure up to the vision. I'd add that Virtual Reality also has this issue, since the reality part is unattainable (and if the uncanny valley is to be believed, steps towards it can actually make things worse).
I like the solution Mike offers to this. Rather than inventing new terms, he's simply asserting that ubicomp has already happened, and has been with us since around 2005. There's more on this in his talk from UX Week last August which was great, and no doubt also in his upcoming book.
I like the idea of framing these unattainable words as being about now, not some distant future, and working with that to see where we go next. It's fun to imagine a light misting of comp, that will steadily increase in saturation until it's ubi... a luminous bath, some might say. A version of Gibson's "the future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed", perhaps.
I'm also wondering if there's something to these limitless phrases that attracts academics. I have degrees in artificial intelligence and in virtual reality so you might think I'd know, but I always felt late to the party in those circles, like I'd missed the initial buzz and arrived in time for the hard defensive slog. And hey, Web 2.0 feels like that sometimes too - arguably, whatever's next is already here and we should take a leaf out of Mike's book and start declaring it so. When Web 2.0 was first coined, it wasn't about the future!
I'm reading Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions at the moment. Our protagonist, Kilgore Trout, is hitch-hiking in a truck which has PYRAMID written on it in massive letters. He wonders about the implications:
"Trout wondered what a child who was just learning to read would make of a message like that. The child would suppose that the message was terrifically important, since somebody had gone to the trouble of writing it in letters so big."
I often wonder the same thing about blogging, twittering, linking on del.icio.us, open source programming, and so on. The things we do in public, on the web, aren't always that significant. And yet to a passing reader they must appear to be very important to us. It seems that often we don't get around to writing the important stuff down, precisely because it matters so much.
My new year's resolution is to take time to write the important stuff down, in MASSIVE LETTERS.
We finally kicked Twitter Blocks out of the door yesterday. It's been in development for about a month, mainly by Ryan Alexander and myself (but all Ryan whilst I was working on Oakland Crimespotting, he's a star). It's the first time we've done 3D things using Flash and it's amazing what's being done with Papervision3D at the moment. On the other hand, having 3D shoe-horned into the 2D Flash engine means the learning curve is a lot steeper than the native-3D Processing/OpenGL worlds Ryan and I are used to.
Whenever Stamen launches a new thing, my immediate reaction is a sigh of relief followed by a slightly obsessive-compulsive trawl of what people are saying about it online. (I use a combination of alerts from Technorati, Google Blog Seach and Bloglines to keep track).
The interesting thing about working with companies like Digg and Twitter is that your work inherits all the criticisms and detractors of those sites as well. Digg's users are clamouring for a picture section, so when we launched Digg Arc many of the responses ignored the piece entirely and chastised Digg for paying attention to visualisation and not to the main site. The same argument is already being used against Twitter Blocks, even though the amount of time Twitter's developers put into it was tiny compared to the amount of time they're putting into stability and new features.
Don't get me wrong: some of the early feedback we're getting is very positive, the team at Twitter have been very receptive and we're proud of our work. This much is good. Some of the feedback we're getting points out that the work isn't immediately understandable (I agree, and maybe we could do some more explaining, but I think we're OK for now).
However, there is also a strong and steady flow of negative comments that I've gathered here so I can think about them all in one place.
“Pretty visualization but I doubt its practicality.” PoppuPot
“Twitter Blocks is the kind of thing that demos well at conferences. Not too useful in real life.” Dave Winer
“exploring myneighbourhood : fun 3D view but so what? not sure i will do that everyday.” jean-michel gobet
“Well its interesting that its a new Twitter toy, but I just don't get it. Functional?” programwitch
“Puzzled but Entertained” … “Not really got the slightest idea why this is anything other than an interesting folly.” Tom Coates
“What is the point? Beats me.” Russel Heimlich
“I have to say I was absolutely gobsmacked by how utterly pointless it is.” EirePreneur
(The last one is, short of a personal insult, pretty much the harshest thing anyone has ever said about work I've been involved in.)
To address Tom Coates' point, if you're entertained we've done our job. If you're puzzled then maybe we can help explain things better next time. But I don't mind if some of our work is seen as a folly (“an extravagant, frivolous or fanciful building, designed more for artistic expression than for practicality”). Not everything that everyone does has to be useful or profound. (Nevermind that we've personally found Twitter Blocks a useful way to explore the Twitter network in the last few weeks, with frequent remarks of “I didn't know X was on Twitter”).
Jim Bumgardner (aka KrazyDad, author of O'Reilly's Flickr Hacks) addressed the “so what?” response to frivolous work in a blog post called Utility is Overrated a couple of months back. In the comments there's a comparison with Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. In it, she states that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”. I don't want to point at Twitter Blocks and say “art” (the Motorola sponsorship in particular makes that tricky) but I think that people are thinking too hard about things if they're looking for the “point” of it.
I'm not asking that people stop casting a critical eye over what's presented to them, especially when it's being hyped to death and it's commercially branded. It's fine to ask “what's it for?”, especially of new tools or things that aim to improve the efficiency or effectiveness of this or that. But why not also accept that some things might just be for entertainment and ask “am I having fun” once in a while instead of looking for a problem to be solved or an important statement to be read? Some things just are.
I've been following and supporting (and occasionally sheltering) my brother's band DARTZ! on and off now for nearly two years. It's been a while since I read the NME, and I was never one to hang on every word inside, but it's moments like these that make you proud:
"It's been said that the Ramones only had two kinds of songs. Songs for punk rockers to go nuts to (the fast, agitated ones), and songs for punk rockers to smooch to (the slow, romantic ones.) It's fair to say that Stockton-born wobble punks Dartz!, on the other hand, only have one kind of song - ones for punk rockers to get the fuck down to (the fast, giddy, heart-bursting, dancable-as-shit ones).
The beyond-brilliant 'Once, twice, again!' twitches like the fleshy stump of a recently decapitated cadaver, while recent single 'St Petersburg' manages to sound like scene godfathers the Minutemen playing Chic songs. Nerdy, snappy and smart; this is jerk-punk played by real live jerks.
They've only got one kind of song, but hey, that doesn't matter one bit because it's a fucking brilliant one. 8/10" -- NME
There are many more reviews, and links to buy the album and singles, on their myspace page. An album launch party of sorts is happening at Borderline in London on Monday.
Congrats to Henry, Phil and Will for keeping their heads down and doing what they do best - writing excellent, intelligent rock music and taking it to the people. I miss them loads and I wish I could be there for the album launch. Fingers crossed they come to San Francisco soon.
Jarvis Cocker, Neil Hannon and Air should write for sultry breathy French women more often. Air should be everybody's backing band.
"Within a few years, electronically controlled insects carrying mini-cameras or other sensory devices could be used for a variety of sensitive missions - like crawling through earthquake rubble to search for victims, or slipping under doors on espionage surveillance."
"Moody reached into the jar, caught one of the spiders and held it in the palm of his hand so they could all see it. Then he pointed his wand at it, and muttered, 'Imperio!' The spider leapt from Moody’s hand on a fine thread of silk, and began to swing backwards and forwards as though on a trapeze. It stretched out its legs rigidly, then did a back flip, breaking the thread and landing on the desk, where it began to cartwheel in circles. Moody jerked his wand, and the spider rose onto two of its hind legs and went into what was unmistakably a tap dance."
-- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling.
As my Christmas break comes to an end, I'm catching up on some recommended reading. I've picked up a copy of Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, and I'm glad I did.
In the small amount of teaching I've been doing over at The Bartlett's MSc Adaptive Architecture and Computation, I've emphasised the need for programmers to be fearless symbol manipulators, fearless text editors - much as students well-schooled in calculus become fearless with algebra and equations, and students well-schooled in drawing become fearless sketchers and draftsmen. Once you're literate in coding constructs (variables, loops, conditionals, data structures, etc.) they become a framework on which you can hang your ideas - the real work if you will.
Neal Stephenson's Isaac Newton is a parametric modeller, a master of bottom up systems. He doesn't care for constructing geometries where he can generate them. Furthermore, his discoveries are powered by his effortless, fearless manipulation of algebra:
"In explaining why those curves were as they were, the Fellows of Cambridge would instictively use Euclid's geometry: the earth is a sphere. Its orbit around the sun is an ellipse - you get an ellipse by constructing a vast imaginary cone in space and then cutting through it with an imaginary plane; the intersection of the cone and the plane is an ellipse. Beginning with these primitive objects (viz. the tiny sphere revolving around the place where the gigantic cone was cut by the imaginary plane), these geometers would add on more spheres, cones, planes, lines, and other elements - so many that if you could look up and see 'em, the heavens would turn nearly black with them - until at last they had found a way to account for the curves that Newton had drawn on the wall. Along the way, every step would be verified by applying one or the other of the rules that Euclid had proved to be true, two thousand years ago, in Alexandria, where everyone had been a genius.Isaac hadn't studied Euclid that much, and hadn't cared enough to study him well. If he wanted to work with a curve he would instinctively write it down, not as an intersection of planes and cones, but as a series of numbers and letters: an algebraic expression. That only worked if there was a language, or at least an alphabet, that had the power of expressing shapes without literally depicting them, a problem that Monsieur Descartes had lately solved by (first) conceiving of curves, lines, et cetera, as being collections of individual points and (then) devising a way to express a point by giving its coordinates - two numbers, or letters representing numbers, or (best of all) algebraic expressions that could in principle be evaluated to generate numbers. This translated all geometry to a new language with its own set of rules: algebra. The construction of equations was an exercise in translation. By following those rules, one could create new statements that were true, without even having to think about what the symbols referred to in any physical universe. It was this seemingly occult power that scared the hell out of some Puritans at the time, and it even seemed to scare Isaac a bit."
-- Neal Stephenson, Daniel Aboard Minerva, Quicksilver Book One pages 97-98.
Great stuff. Back to the book...
If you want to learn how to build a house, build a house. Don't ask anybody, just build a house. -- Christopher Walken
I mean, you would, wouldn't you?
Password2005: Password with a capital 'P', 2005.
On the 153 bus, London. Number 1 in an ongoing series.
Matt Webb on pockets and mobile form factors:
"The modern form factor is that of the mobile phone: a fat oblong. You can have two of these per pocket and a handful of change. It fits in the palm, and comfortably in any pocket you're likely to have. There are pockets made in suits for exactly this size. New cameras are this size. You could probably sell a change of underwear and some breathmints in a disposable package this size. When we have glue devices - to plug into tvs to play games and see photos, to provide connectivity to a group, to play adhoc karaoke - they aspire to this size. What else?"
I see these mobile-form pockets in all sorts of places, normally empty, or (like two people I saw on the tube today) packed with tissues or sweets. I don't use the one on my bag, because it is uselessly placed between the strap and me. Outdoors, I need my phone against me so I feel it vibrate, and because I don't want the ringer on loud (it's rude). The custom pockets often have zippers and velcro, making them too inaccessible. So trouser pocket it is.
My new Rio Carbon is wedge-shaped, so it can be the last thing to go in my pocket. The scroll wheel can remain unlocked, so if I get the pocket arrangement right, I can change volume without looking. This wouldn't be the case with a custom fancy zippered pocket.
My pockets have holes in too, especially since I now have to carry four front door keys. Any solutions out there for a pocket-friendly key ring?