Friday, July 30, 2004

Thoughts in Few Words #10


progression of knowledge is the removal of explanations based on essences

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Strictions and Straints


Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Thoughts in Few Words #9


As a species, we have an arrogance that makes us believe our intuitive, everyday conceptions of things must be right, that they are not to be questioned, and that they are only to be reliquished when we are forced to do so*.

* two main caveates: i'm generalising, of course; though I've tried to cover some of that generalisation with the 'as a species' qualification; secondly, this of course doesn't mean that being an intitive, everyday conception makes it wrong.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Evidence For Giant Waves Once Dismissed As Myths

The Scotsman reports:

Monster waves that can sink a supertanker and were once dismissed as a myth abound in the Earth’s oceans, scientists have learned.

Satellite images identified more than 10 individual freak waves more than 82 feet high in just three weeks.


Until such evidence became available, most scientists were sceptical about freak waves. Statistics showed that such extraordinary sea conditions should only occur once every 10,000 years.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Your Steak, Sir, As Shown on the Diagram Here

I'm sitting there eating this piece of meat, doing what we all do at this time, and wondering exactly what cow (or pig, or chicken, etc) did this come from? What did it look like, where did it live, and what did it think about George W Bush? I know that this piece of meat once came from a living animal, but somehow my brain just can't concretely grasp that. That brown shape there is just too abstracted from the notion of a particular living creature. If it'd been the olden days and I'd killed the animal and chopped it up myself, or seen this done, it might be more real. But by and large, pieces of meat are, to my brain, reddy or pinky coloured blobs that come in little styrofoam trays from the supermarket.

Not just what animal did it come from, but exactly where in said animal was this piece of meat located? I mean, I know that rump steak, for example, means meat from cows arse (and I'd like to see more people facing this reality when ordering meals and telling the waiter they'd like "the cows bottom in a delicate wine sauce infused with aromatic herbs"), but where exactly in the 3D object that was cow was this piece of meat located, and relative to the rest of the cow, which way was it oriented? I can imagine this cow grazing around in a paddock, going about its business, and the image is normal except that the cow is slightly translucent and I can see this red blob there inside it, that blob being the thing which in the cow's future is destined for my stomach.

Actually, I can't imagine that. I can imagine being able to imagine it, but I can't actually bring such a picture into my mind. So, I'm thinking, what if we could? It strikes me that you could use this idea as the basis for some simple little pictures or animations. Like a cartoony picture that juxtaposes a scene of a family at home eating their steaks, next to a scene of cows in a paddock, where you can see positions of all those steaks within each of their owner-cows. Oh -- and here's a real visual possibility -- you know what they say about meat pies? Oh, it's crude, but they say it's true: all lips and assholes. What about a picture of a meat pie next to pictures of the 30 or so (just how many cows is the average meat pie sourced from? I'd like to know) cows that contributed to it, highighting those parts doing the contributing?

Friday, July 23, 2004

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Digital Fiction and Renovating the DEN

Intimacies is, in the words of its developers, a -- for a good mouthy workout -- digital epistolary novel, or DEN, for an equally ugly but briefer name. Though you might not be familiar with the term, you're probably aware of the epistolary novel form: they're novels consisting of, most commonly, a correspondence of letters between characters, though which we see the story's narrative unfold. They can also consist of such things as diary entries and newpaper clippings -- see Wikipedia if you want more details.

Intimacies presents a story though a series of e-mails, web pages, and instant messages that the reader can view though a program that is meant to simulate the interfaces of our e-mail, web and instant messaging clients.

That story involves an mis-sent e-mail that leads to growing on-line relationship, and eventually to an in-person meeting with some serious consequences. The story takes place over five weeks and you get to see the e-mails between the two protagonists, as well as some e-mails between them and their co-workers, family, friends and a few other characters the story introduces (plus some related web-pages, and one or two instant messaging conversations). While its nothing exceptional, I found it a quite enjoyable read. And since there's less text than you'd find in a typical novel, its also a fairly quick read. You can download a copy for free at the website.

What interests me more than the story is the potential of the medium. I did feel that it worked better as a program than it would have been as a bunch of e-mails printed on paper. The semi-realistic interface did seem to add something. Having an inbox there in front of you and clicking on e-mails to read them seemed to help it feel more real.

What I want to consider is how we can take this further, to make it more immersive. That consideration can start with the way Intimacies was implemented. Aside from some problems in execution that will no doubt be fixed up in future versions of the software, there were some problems that detracted from the immersion.

Though the software presents a simulation of an e-mail client, in some ways it's actually quite unlike a real e-mail client. There isn't an e-mail client for each character, showing the e-mails they've received, but only a single e-mail client, whose inbox contains all of the e-mails, regardless of who they've been sent to. So while the inbox interface does give you a sense of using an e-mail program, and while it gives you a sense of the chronology of the e-mails, since you're seeing e-mails that in reality would be distributed across different e-mail clients on differnet people's computers at different physical locations, since you're seeing them all in the one place, it feels a little weird.

Thus, an obvious change would be to better represent the different characters and the e-mails they receive, by having a separate client for each character. This would introduce some other issues, such as how the proper chronology of e-mails could be presented to the reader, but I'll address that in a moment. Because all the e-mails were lumped together in the original program, it was often difficult distinguish between some of the minor characters. For example, two of the characters are the guy's workmates, and I just couldn't remember which was which. If each character had their own e-mail client, and especially if they each looked different -- different fonts, differnet arrangement, etc -- then this wouldn't be such an issue.

The story takes place over the course of five weeks. The current interface includes five buttons across the top of the window, one for each of the weeks, and below this is a second row of seven buttons, one for each day of the week. So if the reader clicks the Week One button and then clicks the Monday button, the inbox will display all of the e-mails for that day. As soon as you click that button all of those e-mails are there. Giving the user control to move between weeks and days does, I think, help enhance the level of reader-immersion. I think, however, that this temporal immersion could be increased.

The user could be given finer control over the time, along with a greater sense of its progression and the points at which occurrences such as the sending of e-mails happen. I would suggest a little console separate from the e-mail clients, showing the date on something like a desk calendar and the time on an analogue clockface. The console would also contain a button to move time forward to the next occurrence. When the user clicks on this button, the hands would move around to when the next e-mail is sent. If the next e-mail is on the next day, the desk calendar page would flip over. The reader would get a sense of how much time is passing between e-mails. The idea would be that over the course of a day, you might see something like the following: a flurry of e-mail exchanges in the morning, then a long wait for a certain reply for a few hours, which then finally comes late in the afternoon.

Once the time has been moved forwards to the next occurrence, the person's e-mail client that's received the e-mail would be displayed and the console could display that person's name. This Next Occurrence button would make sure the reader sees the e-mails in the correct chronological order.

If occurrences that the user could navigate between included both the sending of e-mails and the receiving of e-mails, then you could exploit this to do things such as the following. You could have a situation where one character has been waiting for a while for a reply to their e-mail and thinks the second character has just ignored their e-mail. Whereas, the second character sent a reply a while back but the network has been slow and it hasn't gone through. So after waiting for a while, the first character sends an angry e-mail to the second character. It'd be like in the digital equivalent of those wacky scenes in movies where each character misunderstands what's going on with the other (I'm not explaining myself very well, but I can't think of a concrete example) -- oh, wait, maybe that's not such a good idea, I find those plot elements really friggin annoying :-). But, as they say, execution is everything, and I'm sure they can be done well, whatever the medium.

The two main feature additions -- having separate e-mail clients for each character and a way to move forwards to the next occurrence -- could be executed in a number of ways, and the details I've given above are meant just to give an idea of how it could be done. There could be different tabs to access each character's e-mail client, for example.

There's also a number of small details to consider, such what to do if the user could jump to a particular person's e-mail client when they are not receiving an e-mail. Perhaps the client could be slighly greyed out, to indicate that perhaps they're receiving e-mails from other people or they're writing e-mails, but that these details, since they aren't of relevance to the story, aren't shown. Also, to make the e-mail clients seem more realistic, you could populate their inboxes with other e-mail unrelated to the story but slighly grey them out and don't let the reader open them from the inbox (because of course there's no real e-mails behind them). I haven't systematically considered all such possibilities, but there doesn't seem like there would be an problematic ones that couldn't be dealt with.

It occurred to me that another way to immerse the reader would be to let them see character's drafting e-mails. That is, to see the e-mail client and the words appear as the character types them, seeing the mouse cursor move, etc. There are of course various ways this could be done. Perhaps it would be too tedious to see this for all the e-mails, but at least sometimes it could give you interesting insights into the characters to see which parts of their replies they draft in a breeze, which things they're saying they have trouble finding the words for, and what they write but then decide to change in their drafting. It's something that seems difficult to convey with static media, and I think you could do some interesting stuff with this. Personally, I would find it interesting to be able to see how people go about writing things. That's a perspective you just don't get much of a chance to have, and from it perhaps you could learn something interesting about people.

Other Ideas for Bright Icon

Posted by Hello

Monday, July 19, 2004

Idea for Bright Icon

The Brights are looking for an icon, and here's my suggestion. Unfortunately I didn't find out about the call for submissions until recently, and they've already shortlisted six candidate designs. I know a lot of effort must have gone into those candidates, but I'm afraid that to me they all feel very unsatisfactory, which is why I had a go at one of my own. The following is the rationale behind the icon:

To me, bright means freedom. It means existence and thought unrestricted and unconstrained by conformance to the supernatural, existence and thought free to develop and grow. Thus, the arrows represent freedom to grow in all directions. The arrows also represent the three spatial dimensions of the universe we live in, conveying a sense of the naturalistic nature of our reality.

Some notes on the graphic design. That image is just meant to convey the basic idea of the design. Here are some ideas for variations. The common line thicknesses and lengths could be varied. Perhaps shading could be used to made to look more three-dimensional, though perhaps that would ruin the simplicity. While the design essentially reflects a three-dimensional coordinate system, I wanted to make it somehow unique and recognisable as a symbol in its own right, and that was the reason why I angled the lines as they are. Perhaps there are other more effective ways of achieving this end.

I actually don't want to give it a name, but it looks like all the submissions have names, so if I must, perhaps "All Directions" might be suitable. (and I just hope this design isn't already used for a company logo or some such) Posted by Hello

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Holographic Video Projector That Fits in Your Pocket

A prototype has been developed, and the researchers "aim to produce practical pocket-sized video projectors in two to five years". See TRN for the details. (via Nova Spivack).

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Thoughts in Few Words #8


what seems different but is the same

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Red and White Apartments, Singapore. Taken on my visit there in Feburary 2003. Posted by Hello

Saturday, July 10, 2004

The 5.5 kg, folding A-Bike (via Gizmodo). Can be folded and unfolded in around
20 seconds and rides on tiny, air-filled tires. Available in 2005 and expected to
cost around US$300.

Sleek aquariums: MoCoLoco via Gizmodo. The MoCoLoco page has more pics.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

A Minor Comment Related to Metaphor

Just a minor comment I made on a post on the Many2Many weblog.

Learning Language in Virtual Immersive Environments

Learning a language is, at least for an adult, hard. The best thing, they say, is to immerse yourself in the langauge, ideally by hearing it and speaking it everyday amongst native speakers. But if this option isn't available, the closer you can get to it, the better. The New York Times reports (reg req'd) that the University of Southern California is developing a virtual approximation of such immersive environments.

The software has been designed to teach arabic to soldiers, and its basic details are as follows. The game takes place in a realistic environment, modeled on an actual Lebanese village. The player can move their character around the village, and interact with computer controlled villagers by speaking through a microphone. The computing system uses AI to interpret the player's vocal input and determine the villager's reaction. The player also has to control their character's body langauge, such as using an appropriate gesture when ending a conversation. The player is put in situations such as "establishing a rapport with the people you meet and finding out where the headman lives".

The article doesn't go into exactly how these details are executed, nor does it give any clear screenshots, but the concept is promising. Apparently versions of the system for other languages are planned (the next likely candidates are Dari, a major language in Afghanistan, and some Indonesian language), and the researchers behind it also see the potential for using similar immersive environments to teach other types of tasks - it should be interesting to see what comes from this.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

More Than Words For Snow #6: Analog is a Perceptual Property

I unfortunately don't have time to write this up more than briefly, so I'll get straight to the point: when we call some property, such as the level of mercury on a thermometer, analog, what we are really expressing is that it's level can change in increments smaller than we can perceive. As far as I know, the level of mercury in a thermometer must ultimately only be able to express the current temperature descretely, since below a certain gradation-size accuracy would be lost out to the random nature of the jostling which is causing the mercury to rise in the first place. That is, below a certain gradiation-size the fluctuations in the level of the mercury would be due to the random directions of the movements in the jostling of the atoms rather than changes in the degree of excitement in the jostling. The thermometer seems to be analog because it seems to change in a smooth fashion, with no visible gradiation. Similarly, many things that seem analog are in fact fundamentally descrete -- record groves, film etc.