Sufficiently-Advanced Technology

Over at Interactive Architecture Dot Org, a report of Stephen Gage and Will Thorne’s “Edge Monkeys”:

The UCL EdgeMonkey robot, picture from

Their function would be to patrol building facades, regulating energy usage and indoor conditions. Basic duties include closing unattended windows, checking thermostats, and adjusting blinds. But the machines would also “gesture meaningfully to internal occupants” when building users “are clearly wasting energy.” They are described as “intrinsically delightful and funny.”

I applaud the idea, and (for now) look forward to a world chock full of daemons and familiars helping us do the ecological-right-thing… but I think trying to make them “delightful and funny” would be a mistake.

Far better to make them slightly grumpy and world-weary – rather than have a insufferably jolly robot ask if you really want to leave that light on.

Who needs a planet of Clippy?

Mike Sugarbaker makes comparisons between and Pandora, finding pros and cons in each, and ends up asking why we can’t gene-splice the two together:

“We shouldn’t have to choose between bottom-up and top-down, between cathedral and bazaar – that’s the other thing, that Pandora’s categories were made by experts and presumably applied by professionals, whereas basically is just the product of what people do anyway, via the site and its associated Audioscrobbler tool.

People say that the top-down, made-by-those-who-know-what’s-good-for-you approach is now outmoded, but in this case it seems to have what folksonomy will never get us: the element of surprise.”

Well, the gene-splice has happened it seems: with PandoraFM (

I missed this when it made LifeHacker late last month, but this seems like an excellent idea (although there’s still no link through to Bleep. Hummph) – injecting the element of robotic, clinical input into the organic social network. Going to try it for a little while…

What other social networks could benefit by the addition of non-humans?

Brain switched on fully this morning.

Woken by, like a bell ringing backward from tomorrow, this headline – heralding the terrible, wonderful material future:

Fullerene Super-Armour

Let’s have that again.

Fullerene Super-Armour

Along with the rollicking arphid-blistered-rollercoaster of a ride that’s been “Shaping Things”, I’m getting just-enough medicinal futureshock to crank the year into the gear.

Saturday morning – Foe remarked on my Pavlovian response to the opening bars of “Sailing By”, the music that introduces the late-night shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4.

Usually I am asleep by the end of it, or well on my way. Sometimes I can last until around South Utsire before I’m snoring like a taser’d walrus.

We have a DAB digital radio by the side of the bed, and Foe’s idea was to have the latest shipping forecast spooled on there for on-demand consumption, whenever you needed a nap.

I went one further, suggesting it gets spooled to your mobile, in order to take it where you want – a nap in the park, or if you’re been travelling to other timezones – a digital, portable melatonin replacement to get you to sleep wherever, whenever. The audio could be transmitted by bone-conduction under your pillow, as not to disturb others.

Foe then trumped this suggestion by taking the bone-conduction theme to its natural conclusion – the shipping forecast implanted, resonant in one’s bones; the offshore outlook of your sceptred isle sending you a-slumber whenever your head rested on your shoulder…


Via Dav/AkuAku, this from the Bunchball website:

“You have an idea for a multi-user networked application. Maybe it’s a game, maybe it’s a new way to share music or photos, maybe it’s something nobody’s ever thought of. A beautiful little jewel of an application, you know that you can make something fantastic. But then you realize that in order to build your application, you need to figure out user signup, and group creation, and invitations, and permissions, and chat, and presence, and how to save changes in the application, and how to figure out who to send those changes to, and the list goes on. And oh yeah, don’t forget that you need to setup a server, write server-side code, deal with a database somewhere, worry about uptime and bandwidth and online file storage, and that list goes on as well. All of a sudden you realize that your beautiful little jewel is just the tip of a very large iceberg. You’re going to spend 90% of your time implementing what’s below the water, out of the user’s sight, and 10% of your time building a great application.

Bunchball gives you the iceberg. You just provide the tip. So now you can spend your time doing what you wanted to do in the first place, which is to create a great application.”

Along with, Dav has termed these services (or ‘playgrounds’ as Ning would have it) as ‘Blank White Servers’, which are potentially game-changing things, beyond the bubble of hype around Web X.X.

The point the Bunchball site makes – that providing the common building blocks and infrastructure allows developers to concentrate on delivering extra value to the end-user -makes me wonder whether this will be the case.

Will developers, freed from the burden of recreating back-end systems, invest their energy into creating a great user-experience?


Certainly, Web X.X’s real successes so far have been built on great UI design (Flickr, Gmail) and paying attention to the details in the user-experience – hopefully this will serve as inspiration to those who follow.

In my experience at least, it takes a great deal of effort and will on the behalf of the developers to go the extra (several) miles to create a great user-experience on top of getting something to “just work” – especially if there is a pre-established framework or library of things that they are using to create a service or application.

Also, there is the problem of trying to reconcile the design choices you think necessary for the specific service, aplication, user or activity at hand with the design choices predetermined in the platform by those that came up with it.

This building block approach of Bunchball, et al, of course begs the same question of what design choices are encoded in the building blocks themselves?

The following ramble I will have to revisit once I’ve explored and understood Ning and Bunchball more fully from actually playing with them both, but…

Architecture is destiny*: someone elses playground, architecture, landscape, physics will inevitably shape the end design noticeably. What are the combinations it forces? What are the affordances that are built in, and what patterns are most favourable as a result?

As they are aimed at providing infra and building blocks for social applications, would perhaps some of the forced combinations, or affordances of the infrastructure be default-biased towards safety and privacy?

Productivity or (/and?) play?

As playful platforms made by smart people I’m sure that the possibility spaces they afford will sustain 99% of the self-centred or small-group-centred software that people will want to construct right now – which is just fantastic.


Just what politics are encoded at the molecular level of these playgrounds?

As soon as I get my accounts I’m going to start playing and see.

See also: The Otwell on Ning
* Who said this originally? I can’t seem to find the source.

A long and interesting critique at Abstract Dynamics of the changing nature of privilege, control and access to the web that “web 2.0″ seems to be creating.

What really separates the “Web 2.0″ from the “web” is the professionalism, the striation between the insiders and the users. When the web first started any motivated individual with an internet connection could join in the building. HTML took an hour or two to learn, and anyone could build. In the Web 2.0 they don’t talk about anyone building sites, they talk about anyone publishing content. What’s left unsaid is that when doing so they’ll probably be using someone else’s software. Blogger, TypePad, or if they are bit more technical maybe WordPress or Movable Type. It might be getting easier to publish, but its getting harder and harder to build the publishing tools. What’s emerging is a power relationship, the insiders who build the technology and the outsiders who just use it.

He’s also tired of the Web2.0 monicker:

Are the internet hypelords getting a bit tired? There’s this funny whiff of déjà vu that comes along with the latest and greatest buzzword: Web 2.0. Web 2.0? Wasn’t that like 1995? Don’t they remember that Business 2.0 magazine? Or remember how all the big companies have stopped using version numbers for software and instead hired professional marketers to make even blander and more confusing names? I hear “Web 2.0″ and immediately smell yet another hit off the dotcom crackpipe…

Personally, I’m now just going to be refering to Web5.5

It has a whiff of the crufty, featuritis midlife of mainstream applications (Quark, Wordperfect, etc) which renders it pleasingly mundane and irrevocably intertwined with the work-a-day world.

Web 5.5 comes with a couple of giant manuals in binders and a little plastic overlay to put abouve your function keys.

It’s been 10 years between Web1.0 and Web2.0 – so expect Web5.5 sometime around 2035.

Along with space elevators.

Update: a response to the AD essay by Michal Migurski

In a page that reads like a shooting-script from a BBC4 Quatermass revival crossed with Warren Ellis’s Planetary Gun Club, we learn of the developing fate of the world’s first solar-sail spacecraft, launched from Russian Nuke Sub, by a club of private investors:

21:50 UTC
Cosmos 1the first solar sail was launched as scheduled at 19:46 UTC today from the nuclear submarine Borisoglebsk. The three stage separations occurred normally, and 15 minutes after launch a doppler signal was received at the temporary ground station at Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. The signal lasted for around three minutes, and was then cut off for unknown reasons.

No signal has been received from the spacecraft since that time. The portable telemetry station at Majuro in the Marshall Islands did not receive a signal during the time it could have been in contact with the spacecraft. The next possible contact will be with the ground station at Panska Ves in the Czech Republic.

The fact that the spacecraft has remained silent does not necessarilly mean anything is wrong, according to Project Director Louis Friedman. Contact with the two portable stations at Petropavlovsk and Majuro was always considered marginal. We are now waiting for the contact periods with the permanent stations in Paska Ves, Tarusa, and Bear Lakes.


Like Tony, I complained a while back, and I take it all back.

I think after yesterday’s outbreaks of the future in Danny Hillis‘ talk, the awesome debut of, and both Neil Gershenfeld’s keynote and the panel discussion that followed – Mr. Stark would be quite happy and perhaps getting his cheque-book out.

And, y’know – if Tony’s happy, I’m happy.

Alan Moore, interviewed:

"There’s an awful lot of synasthesia, I mean one of the greatest writers, a lot of the greatest writers, one of my favourites, Vladimir Nabakoff, he was a synasthetic…to him, the letter ‘O’ was white, the word ‘Moscow’ was green flecked with gold…olive green, flecked with gold. I can see that. And it’s a good thing to try and develop. Synasthesia is a great literary tool. You’ll be able to come up with perfect metaphors that are really striking and strange, because they maybe jump from one sense to another – try describing a smell in musical terms.

Actually, it can be quite easy. Also, it’s how we tend to do things anyway. They’ve just proven that – you know when Jilly Gordon gets on a roll on The Food Program and she’s talking about: “’s a kind of buttery, composty, tractory – I’m getting peat, I’m getting burning tyres…”. Now they’ve done tests – those people who describe the flavour and bouquet of wine, they’re not describing the flavour or the bouquet at all – they are synasthetically describing the colour. They’re taking visual cues. They did things where they’d put an odourless and tasteless colour agent into white wine to make it look like red wine, and then they’d note the kind of language the wine-tasters were using. When it was white wine they were using: “…buttery, new-mown hay”…you know, yellow, basically, was what they were saying, whereas when it was red wine they were saying: “…its wonderfully fruity, blackcurranty”…talking about red things. It’s synasthesia. It’s how a lot of our senses…I think synasthesia is probably a lot more common than the sensory aberration that it’s made out to be, and there’s probably a key there, somewhere, to how we sense everything. Synasthesia. There’s something there."

I hope so.

It would be wonderful to harness synasthesia in the UI of mobile devices. Going beyond multimedia output and multimodal interfaces – delivering meaning in Gladwellesque thin-slices of preattentive recognised patterns.

I’ve got about a month of my time in April to look into this at work. I’m thinking of looking at the Mindhackers, Damasio, Hiroshii Ishii, Ben(s) Fry and Schneiderman, and Ambient Devices as a start.

I’m very aware this is far from an exhaustive list; and moreover, it’s only the cognitive science / interface research worlds I’m thinking of so far.

I have a feeling, inspired by Alan Moore’s thoughts,  that looking into other fields of sensory endeavour might also be revealing: sculpture, painting, drama – or ritual, religious or otherwise – ways of constructing feelings and understanding through all our senses.

Ns_sensesIt it looks like we have at least 21 of them to play with…

With recent announcements of the increasing capabilites for new visual possibilites (Flash, SVG in Nokia mobiles) and coincident pronouncements on the constraining nature of the WIMP interface hangover into  the mobile context, I think it’s a good time to look into this.

Anyway – if you have any thoughts or contributions, or want to get in touch about the subject, leave me a comment, trackback or drop me a line to the usual address…

See also, Abe Burmeister’s reflections on the seminal "Interface Culture" some 8 years on from the publication of Johnson’s book.


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