Thought for oh-four

From Jeff Noon’s new book “Falling out of cars”:

“Noon has taken the idea of signal-to-noise (the ratio of useful information to background static), turned it around and made a viral disease of it, creating a world in which information is still contained in road signs, books, television shows and on radio, but the static in the human brain has become so strong that few people can now process the signal which offers that information.

In this world, mirrors suck out your soul and words disappear from the page as soon as you’ve read them; events repeat endlessly and shops feature simple signs like “Food” for those whose minds are still virus-free enough to read. Only government-supplied drugs can keep you sane, and every sight, every coincidence has such significance that, paradoxically, all the meaning has been bled from life.”

More thoughts for 2004 over at DiePunyHumans.

Lightcone as cultural interface and memory

Wow. What a pretentious title for a post! Let me explain myself a little. I’ve been playing around with Webb’s excellent little Lightcone thing, in the hopes of incorporating it somewhere. I’d been thinking about our “cultural lightcone” a couple of years back when I joined the BBC again.

Cultural lightcone?

If you remember the Carl Sagan book / film “Contact”, it plays with the idea of a cultural lightcone: that the alien intelligences have encountered our radio waves as they travel out at the speed of light towards them, and let us know by playing us back video of Hitler.

This from the nicely old-fashioned the offical movie site:

“Humans have actually been sending messages to the stars since the discovery of radio almost 100 years ago and the first television broadcasts earlier this century.

This means that among the first interstellar notices of our existence were the original episodes of I Love Lucy, first broadcast around 40 years ago. By now Lucy and Desi have travelled 40 light years into our surrounding neighborhood, an area inhabited by roughly 100 stars.”

I quickly sketched a little screen of a cultural lightcone, based on the BBC’s archive:

Here we see a 1975 episode of Dr. Who gliding by Vega.

The idea I had in my head was that this starscape would be simulated on a interactive (maybe flash-based?) client screensaver, which was grabbing and displaying the stars, media objects as they got located in the lightcone, and comments of others who had downloaded the connected-screensaver: memories of the programmes or other stuff that had happened that year. A kind of grid-blogging effort with the media as a mnemonic device to unlock people’s recollections of those years: a bit like a giant distributed version of the BBC’s I Love… series; and the starfield as a nice, vaguely poetic and attractive organising glue to the whole thing.

Other cool effects would be that as you got closer to our home, Sol; then stuff start to get really hectic, as the media output I guess has grown an awful lot over the 75 odd (light)years of BBC broadcasting; and the grid-blogging would start to resemble real time commentary on media…

Also, if it was truly decentralised, ie. the BBC just released the client and the initial media nodes and clips it would be fantastic – people would weave their recollection of Auntie between them and upload their own encodings of lost episodes or shortform clips that meant something special – and it would exist as long as someone had one of the client running… copying an un-burnable library ad infinitum…

Kashmir / LazyGadget

This should probably be in /play, but whatever. They just played all 8mins of Kashmir on 6music. If you’re familiar with the overblown Zep epic, then there’s a really, really good breakdown in the middle with Bonzo’s drums, some strings and Plant mumbling and wailing a bit. They work it for a while, but just as it’s getting funky, they swerve back into the chugging riff that is the song’s trademark.

Which is a longwinded intro to making a LazyGadget request.

I’d like a small amount of sampling/looping/effect generation capability on my iPod/personal music device which I could access and manipulate with one hand. Just to muck around and extend bits like the breakdown in Kashmir long enough to ruin them for myself…

Coddling your Roomba.

Tom from OK/Cancel on the anthropomorphic tendency I’ve definitely felt towards my Roomba.

“None of this makes sense, yet it makes perfect sense. It feels perfectly natural for me to relate to my little autonomous vacuum cleaner in this way. After all, how else could I talk about it? Our entire language is built around words for emotions, words for folly, words for thoughts and ideas. That’s the raw material we have to work with, but these words refer to properties that machines do not have.”

» OK/Cancel: I, Robot, You Jane.

Computers considered “eager but clueless”

A lovely post by Tom Coates following on from Kottke’s “metadazzle overfizzle” [which IMHO is much nicer shorthand for all this “what are the human experiences of the semantic web” gubbins than “metacrap”]:

“Because in fact it’s not that there’s too much metadata in the world, it’s that we have incredibly primitive and vestigial mechanisms to help us transcribe it from world to idiot-savant computer companion. We’re stuck in a middle-period between the emergence of useful computer processing power and the computer’s upcoming ability to self-annotate, transcribe and create metadata simply, elegantly (and in vast amount) in the background all the time. In the meantime our transcription processes are tedious and long, our computers eager but clueless – and the amounts of metadata available for any given thing trivial compared to the richness of information and association you could get from a genuinely interested and knowledgeable person. This will all change in time of course, but in the meantime (and in fact regardless, given the information we generate without even noticing it on a routine basis) we’re stuck writing love letters in Excel whether we want to or not.”

Very nice.

Coming back to Jason Kottke’s illustration – it’s so refreshing that it is an illustration. Makes the user-experience challenges so clear and marked. Marc Canter talked the about talkers and do-oers in the semantic-web in terms of negative and positive contribution.

Perhaps Marc forgets what Jason has done so well here: that there’s room for scribblers too… An honest and knowledgable interaction designer making some of the user-experiences concrete, if only in pixel form; can make a lot of difference to the debate.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I.

» a frament of a world full of metadata

BitTorrent + RSS = Decentralised Tivo?

Alias-fans assemble! Cracking idea from Scott Raymond. Quoting big chunks, but it’s worth it:

“With the addition of RSS, BitTorrent could really be taken to the next level, and I’d be able to forget about the plumbing of TV altogether. I want RSS feeds of BitTorrent files. A script would periodically check the feed for new items, and use them to start the download. Then, I could find a trusted publisher of an Alias RSS feed, and “subscribe” to all new episodes of the show, which would then start downloading automatically — like the “season pass” feature of the TiVo.”

He goes on to pitch it to the media owners:

“Illegitimate uses of this system would obviously abound. But the potential legitimate uses are huge as well. For one, traditional content providers (like the TV networks) could take advantage of the demand for their programming by scooping the copyright infringers. If ABC released Alias on BitTorrent with advertising built in, the file could be delivered to their audience very fast, and would cost them next to nothing in distribution costs. The economics of producing video programming would be upended — each viewer of the program would, in effect, foot the bill for a tiny slice of the distribution overhead, causing a massive component of traditional media company infrastructure to become obsolete.

It would be an audacious move for an advertising-supported channel. The arguments about skipping ads in Tivo is not necessarily avoided. You can imagine if they did do this, then they’d want you to download a handicapped, proprietary player, that was a player only- with no other button that “PLAY”, keyed to a proprietary file format that they’d use for the media itself.

Would I mind? I dunno… if I got to watch what I wanted. When I had my Tivo, I didn’t really care how the shows were encoded, but that was becuase the entire user-experience was so good. If I got stuck with a locked-up file format, and a bad player; then I’d be annoyed that there was no path for innovation or improvement around the experience.

Also, the argument might be made by the media owners, that if they didn’t lock the goods up, then some enterprising soul would edit the episode for ads and re-release it as a torrent.

Scott ends with a rousing paragraph:

“The result: the TV distribution networks are completely end-run by an ad-hoc, decentralized, loosely-coupled network. And in the process, significant opportunities are afforded to independent content producers of audio and video to reach a mass audience with insignificant distribution costs.”

Sounds very sensible to me… especially perhaps for a large public service broadcaster who doesn’t need to worry about those troublesome ad-revenues… The BBC will probably investigate all sorts of content-management and DRM gubbins in the course of it’s investigation of p2p-distribution (as mentioned by BBCi’s chef-du-digital Ashley Highfield previously) – whereas it has the information resources and the talent right now to quickly and (relatively) cheaply do what Scott has outlined.

Dear (Risk-Averse) Auntie: Here is the data. Turn it into RSS, make the links to torrents, let the community of early adopters who are screaming out to help you, help you.

Use these open standards to quickly and cheaply create the loam, and others [cf. Steam] will make great bleeding-edge clients and functionality to navigate your media-commons.

» scottraymondnet: 16 December, 2003 | Broadcatching with BitTorrent

My dumb brain

For various reasons, after an interval of several years, I decided to install and try using TheBrain.

I found it broadly-inuitive in use and it required a minimum effort on my part to start to create quite dense, useful mesh of topics that have been floating around in my head. It also felt like I was creating.

It made me think, in a way that I was thinking about the ideas, their content and context; without having to think about the tool itself.

I still find myself thinking too much about formatting and markup when I am using a wiki, which I guess is my nearest comparable experience.

So far so good.

However, After my first wonderful five minutes, I wanted to share the notes with a colleague.

I have been trying to do this on-and-off for an hour and still have no idea how to do this.

Both the application and online help don’t seem to have anything more useful than telling you how to save ‘individual thoughts’ in the jargon of TheBrain (and the help is full of servicemarked terms and jargon, pretty unhelpful to dive straight into without buying all of their marketing talk from the top) – not how you could share or save the aggregate of those thoughts, which is surely the real value that the program has helped create. Nope. It’s all frustratingly locked-up it seems.

To be clear, I want to save a specific ‘node’ and it’s related child nodes in a format that will represent this well (Outliner-type format I guess) and share it with someone else who does not own a copy of TheBrain.

If anybody knows how to do this I’d be very grateful if they’d let me know

An aside – this experience reminds me how using ‘office’ IT, computers and applications used to feel pre-web/Win3.1.

The work I did in each was silo’d and separated, for you to save or more likely print in order to share or compare with work done in another application; especially between things like AutoCAD, WordPerfect and Excel – which were perhaps at the time seen as programs for very different users.