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Hyperlapse: Creating Assets
Have you seen Google Street View Hyperlapse? It’s the latest project from the minds at Teehan+Lax. To be more precise, it’s from the Teehan+Lax Labs, an offshoot within this top-tier creative/design agency where people explore new ways to use technology to communicate. https://player.vimeo.com/video/63653873 If you want to see how Hyperlapse works, the source code is available on GitHub. Teehan+Lax is a company that really likes to share. They share source code, tools, ideas, design strategies, business philosophy. They follow this principle: ‘create more value than you capture.’ That’s a powerful idea championed by open source crusader and tech book publisher Tim O’Reilly. It’s an idea that you’ll find embodied on many of the best sites on the web.
When I was playing with Hyperspace yesterday, I was reminded of a 2010 post (that I happened to read only a few weeks ago) by Robert Niles, former editor of USC Annenberg’s Online Journalism Review. It’s an article about the need for journalists to think in terms of creating assets instead of stories. Here’s the crux of it:
To me, that’s the word ["assets"] that should replace “stories” in your vocabulary as a journalist. Too many of the journalists I’ve seen try to make the transition to running their own blogs and websites remain mired in the “story” mindset, endlessly creating newspaper-style “stories” or even brief-length snippets for their blogs. But they fail to create assets of enduring value that ultimately provide the income that they need to remain viable businesses online.This is as true for online publishing as it is for any other online content. Assets that have enduring value keep people coming back. But I'd add that creating a good story, or narrative, to support your assets is just as important. Teehan+Lax is a great example of how this is done. Read their 'behind-the-scene' story about how they designed Medium to see what I mean.
Odds and Ends
Here's a (very) random list of a few posts and pages from around the web that have recently piqued my interest.
- Reeder is now free (for the Mac and iPad). For now. A good idea from the developer to build up a larger user base in preparation for the post-Google Reader era. Although I've recently switched to Feedly, I'm a long-time user of Reeder on iPad and iPhone. Just downloaded it for the desktop and it is, as expected, excellent. My vote is still out on which news reader I'll end up using in the long run, but I'm digging Feedly for now.
- Demystifying the Lumber Yard. Shopping a lumber yard can be a daunting experience. Here's an excellent video from the Renaissance Woodworker to get you started, which also includes a list of further resources. By the way, did you know it's National Woodworking Month? Not to be confused with 'Get Woodworking Week,' which was Feb. 3-9.
- Have you ever seen an atom? Worth watching this short video.
- Quantum Entanglement Experiment. How fast is 'spooky action at a distance?' At least four orders of magnitude faster than light, according to new research. Fun read, if you like this kind of stuff.
- Coffitivity. Recorded sounds of a noisy coffee house ('coffitivity'), which you can mix in with your preferred music in the name of boosting productivity. Really? That's the last thing I want to hear when I'm working in my home office. I'm odd, I guess, in that I prefer complete silence.
- Tenkara. I've only recently learned about the traditional Japanese method of fly fishing, called Tenkara. Very minimalist, as one might expect. It really does look like a great way to fish a small stream.
LibraryThing Responds to Amazon’s GoodReads Purchase
LibraryThing is poised to gain many new users in the wake of Amazon's purchase of GoodReads. In the interest of enticing new members, they're offering free one-year LibraryThing accounts through Sunday. To be clear, LibraryThing has always been free to join. However, there is a 'pay-what-you-want' annual fee if you want to add more than 200 books (suggested amounts: $10 a year or $25 for lifetime membership). This weekend's special offer means that, for a year, you may add as many books as you want. If you don't pay anything after the year is up, your books won't be deleted, but you won't be able to add more. What's the money for? From the LibraryThing blog:
The money helps pay for the site, and keeps us advertisement-free for members. Also, we believe customers should be customers, with the loyalty and rights of customers, not the thing we sell to our real customers.
You can join the discussion on what the Amazon purchase of GoodReads means for LibraryThing (and ponder broader questions about Amazon's increasing dominance in the publishing/bookselling world) here.
I'm inclined to yawn at the prospect of yet another weather service/app, but Forecast is making me giddy. It's a new offering from The Dark Sky Company, makers of the eponymous app that I rely upon to get 'hyperlocal' weather (i.e. to-the-minute notifications that it's about to rain over my house).
Like the Dark Sky app, Forecast is smooth, attractive, and a pleasure to use. It differs in that it builds and expands upon Dark Sky in profound ways: it promises seven-day global forecasts; offers historical weather conditions; delivers even slicker fluid animations; and adds multiple layers of weather information. There's also an API for developers. You have to check it out for yourself.
Forecast demonstrates just how polished and pleasant a web app can be. Add it to your home screen on your iOS device, and you'll swear it's a native app that you downloaded from the App Store.
I currently use Dark Sky and Garmin's My-Cast to get my weather on my iOS devices. On the Mac, I often geek out with WeatherSpark (which offers an amazing depth of information, but is lamentably Flash-based). Forecast may displace all of these services.
Building a Dry Stone Wall
Last December, my wife came across an ad on Craigslist for free fieldstone. On a whim, I decided to haul it home to build a wall. As is so often the case with DIY, it was easier to concieve than to execute. I finished my small wall only a few days ago. It took me nearly four months.
The steps for building a dry wall are fairly straightforward. The essence of it: stake out the wall line; dig a trench about eight inches deep and a bit wider than the planned wall; fill the trench with crushed gravel to form a base that will minimize shifting from frost heaves and settling; then stack rocks. The basic rule of rock stacking is to place one stone over sections where two stones come together, and two stones over sections where there is one stone. Cap the top with heavy, nice-looking stone. The overall pattern should be stable, level, and visually appealing.
That last part is the kicker. In my case, I had to contend with a three foot downhill slope in the front of the house and a one foot incline on the part that curves around the odd looking conifer at the corner, which is called a Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar. A flat wall would have been challenging enough, but the sloping ground added much complexity.
My goal was to place the stones in a cascading fashion so that they conformed to the slope of the land. That entailed placing some rocks, stepping back for a wider view from various angles, deciding it wasn't quite right, tearing down parts that looked unnatural, choosing different rocks, then rebuilding the offending section. Then I'd build another small section and repeat the process. Over and over and over.
I think the resulting wall looks nice, although I'm sure it would look nicer if a professional installed it. It might also be more structurally sound. Time will tell how well my amateur job holds up. I suspect I'll know in about a year. That length of time will test the wall against the stress of changing temperatures, weather, and frost. The great part about a dry stone wall, though, is that there is no mortar. I can always adjust it. I like to think of it as a rock garden in the shape of a wall.
The Greatest Challenge Humans Have Ever Faced
Sound like hyperbole? Read Bill McKibben's article on global warming in Rolling Stone, slowly. Follow up with a Q&A from BillMoyers.com. Decide for yourself.
Memory Locations are Just Wires Turned Sideways in Time
Wow. I haven't posted in quite a while. Been busy with other projects. Here's a little item that I drafted a long while back but never posted:
...the same way life found a way to use the self-replicating qualities of these polynucleotide molecules to the great benefit of life as a whole, there's no reason life won't use the self-replicating abilities of digital code, and that's what's happening.
Dyson's discussion about what's now driving the growth and evolution of the digital universe was, for me, unexpected. He said that the first great leap in our digital universe originated with Alan Turing (who would have been 100 this year), who is often cited as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. The next leap came from John Von Neumann, an unbelievably prolific mathematician who fathered, among other things, game theory. He also mathematically described the structure of self-replication before the structure of DNA was even discovered. So who will take the next big leap forward? Dyson says to expect someone working in advertising. Yes, advertising.
What's the driver today? You want one word? It's advertising. And, you may think advertising is very trivial, and of no real importance, but I think it's the driver. If you look at what most of these codes are doing, they're trying to get the audience, trying to deliver the audience. The money is flowing as advertising. And it is interesting that Samuel Butler imagined all this in 1863, and then in his book Erewhon. And then 1901, before he died, he wrote a draft for "Erewhon Revisited." In there, he called out advertising, saying that advertising would be the driving force of these machines evolving and taking over the world. Even then at the close of 19th century England, he saw advertising as the way we would grant power to the machines.
Very few people are looking at this digital universe in an objective way. Danny Hillis is one of the few people who is. His comment, made exactly 30 years ago in 1982, was that "memory locations are just wires turned sideways in time". That's just so profound. That should be engraved on the wall. Because we don't realize that there is this very different universe that does not have the same physics as our universe. It's completely different physics. Yet, from the perspective of that universe, there is physics, and we have almost no physicists looking at it, as to what it's like. And if we want to understand the sort of organisms that would evolve in that totally different universe, you have to understand the physics of the world in which they are in. It's like looking for life on another planet. Danny has that perspective. Most people say just, "well, a wire is a wire. It's not a memory location turned sideways in time." You have to have that sort of relativistic view of things.
At some point while pondering this paragraph, a Proust quote popped into my head: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes." This comes from 'In Search of Lost Time,' which helped to popularize the the idea of involuntary memory, often revealed in this Proustian tome through dreams. And that made me think, as a science fiction fan, of Phillip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,' which somehow seemed apropros here. At any rate, here's a link to a good companion piece to this article, a TED presentation by Kevin Slavin: 'How algorithms shape our world.'
Viewing Big History with ChronoZoom
Cell Size and Scale visualization from the University of Utah, the Scale of the Universe visualization from Cary and Michael Huang, and the Universcale from Nikon.
A new entrant in the field called ChronoZoom ups the ante. You have to see it for yourself. It's a really impressive visualization (HTML5) tool that explores Big History. The people behind the project have lofty ambitions for the future and they're looking for users:
ChronoZoom Beta is ready for mass consumption and feedback, structured to scale up to petabytes of content, and architected for the future of personal computing.
Reminder: Delete Your Google History by March 1
Here are the instructions from the Electronic Frontier Foundation on how to clear you browsing history. If you use multiple Google accounts, you'll want to delete browsing history for all of them. If you don't take these steps, all of your browsing history will be combined with and shared across all the other Google services you use. If you're not sure why this might be a concern, see this EFF post and this Slate article ... or search on it!
You might also consider trying out an alternative default search engine. Many people (me included) are now using DuckDuckGo. This search engine does not collect user data and emphasizes privacy. It's quite capable, although I do notice differences in terms of rankings and results compared to Google. That's not a bad thing, it's just different.
If you're using Chrome, it's easy to change your default engine. Look under 'Preferences' > 'Manage Search Engines.' It's relatively easy with Firefox, too. You'll find the option to manage search engines by choosing the dropdown arrow located in the browser's built-in search box. With Safari, it's a bit more complicated because the browser only offers Google, Bing, and Yahoo as default search engines. You can make DuckDuckGo your default, though, if you install the free Glims add-on.
A Better iPad Stylus
Handspring Visor Edge? I had the metallic silver model (and still do). It sports a blazing fast 33 MHz CPU and 8MB of RAM. I've kept it over the years because it still works ... and because I think it's a great design. I especially loved the weight, shape, and feel of the little stylus. That stylus happens to be metallic.
You see where I'm going here. Since the stylus is metal, all that I needed was some sort of conductive tip.
Here's what I came up with. It works great as long as any part of my hand is touching the metal pen (which is hard not to do). It looks nice (I wouldn't say it's beautiful, but I think it looks better than most homemade styli). It's compact and easy to tote around. And here's the best part: the tip offers far more accuracy and draws a thinner line than commercial or homemade conductive styli that I've tried or seen demonstrated.
Here's how I made it:
About the rubber foot. This may be the hardest bit to find, but it's something you should be able to pick up at a hardware store (or, at least, you can find something similar). I cut off part of the foot as seen in the photo above, then drilled a hole into the rubber that would tightly fit the metal stylus. Other materials will also work. I made an earlier model with a cheap wood plug using the same method. It worked well, but isn't as flexible (meaning that you may have trouble with the wood cracking when you drill into it). Rubber works best.
So that's all there is to it. It's a bit more involved than most of the DIY capacitive stylus tutorials you'll find on the web, but I think it's worth the effort. It works great. It looks nice. It's a great way to recycle a peice of old tech. I've been using it for a while and the aluminum is showing no signs of splitting. If it does split, it's a relatively simple matter to rip off the tip and make a new one. If you don't have an old Handspring Visor Edge in your closet and want to try this, would you believe that you can still buy a metal stylus?
TidBITS: ‘Zen & the Art of Gmail’
Adam Engst, publisher of the venerable TidBITS newsletter and website, offered up a four-part series today on using Gmail. He covers a lot of ground. Even long-time Gmail users are sure to learn something new from this thorough treatment.
Good Deal on a Solid Fly Fishing App
Orvis for $15 (for iPhone, iPad, Android). It includes videos on casting; a great fly database (with useful info such as where and when to use a fly, how to fish it, descriptions, and images), knot-tying instructions (with animations, videos, and written instructions; with knots filed by name or categorized by knots for particular tasks), fishing reports for popular areas by state, podcasts, and a glossary. And you can also shop the Orvis online store, if you're so inclined. I was a bit hesitant to put my faith in a relatively expensive app from a retailer, but it's solid.
Before you write this app off as too costly, consider this: Orvis is now offering a $10 coupon for those who buy the app to use in their online and retail stores. And right now, they're offering a special promotion for 20 of their most popular flies for $9.95 with free shipping (limit one per household). After applying the coupon code (accounting for taxes), you can get this solid set of flies, nymphs, and streamers for .60 cents. It's a steal, even if you already have a lot of flies. And they accept PayPal.
I'm sensitive to the fact that this may sound like I'm a pitch man for Orvis, but this really is a good deal. And the app is a handy reference and teaching aid.
Caveat: I shouldn't get too excited about this offer yet. I'm still awaiting my $10 coupon code. According to Orvis, I should receive it by e-mail within 48 hours. In the off-chance that the fly bundle deal expires before then, I'm not too concerned. I need some tippet and a few other odds and ends.
You could make the argument that Orvis should give the app away in hopes of selling their wares through mobile devices. For my part, I really don't think I'll be buying anything from Orvis via my iPhone. As I've said, I'm planning to use this app as a mobile reference and instructional tool. I hesitated before I hit the 'purchase' button in iTunes, but then I considered the fact that I've plunked down far more than $15 for various fly fishing books. I've never been inclined to bring books with me when I go fishing, but I always have my iPhone. And unlike a book, this app includes videos, animations, and podcasts. And Orvis says the app will continue to be updated.*
As for price of admission, I think it's also worth noting that the audience for such a specialized app is sure to be small, so I don't think it's unreasonable to charge $15 to get access to all of this content at one's fingertips. I'll update this post once (if) I successfully land the fly bundle.
* Orvis also says that they're going to deliver in-app purchase modules in the future. It'll be interesting to see how may free updates are delivered, compared to paid upgrades. Would I pay for new training modules? Maybe. It would certainly be a lot cheaper than attending a fly fishing class or school.
This is Jeopardy!
IBM's Watson and the top two all-time Jeopardy! contestants. Tomorrow, the final episode will air. Since I don't have a television, I'm forced to see the results after-the-fact by browsing through news stories on the Internet.
Apparently, Watson won the round today. However, the machine missed the final question in what was seemingly an obvious answer. Therein lies the rub. What is obvious to the human brain is oblique to a machine dumbly crunching data, searching for patterns.
I wasn't very interested in this project until I watched the PBS NOVA episode, 'The Smartest Machine on Earth.' Watch it. What you'll see is how far the programmers behind this effort have come—by painstakingly tweaking and refining algorithms—in teaching a machine to rapidly interpret complex clues. The machine learns from its mistakes.
I could go on and on, speculating about what this portends for the future of Artificial Intelligence. But I won't. You can find that elsewhere. Suffice it to say that this is an impressive demonstration of where we are heading. I think Watson will win the contest.
I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that this effort (and like-minded endeavors) will soon transform our lives. We're heading towards a revolution in computer-based analysis and diagnosis. Soon, computers will capably answer complex, layered questions with unmatched speed and accuracy. Machines will be able to sift through vast pools of data to match, say, our singular health symptoms with a short list of likely causes and potential treatments—taking into account all of the most-recently published literature on the planet. Can your doctor do that?
Once machines master answering complex questions, what's the next step? I suppose we'll have to start teaching machines how to ask questions.
2012 U.S. Proposed Budget, Visualized
New York Times. It's much more practical to visually peruse the proposed national budget, although it's hard to find some of the smaller monetary allotments by sight. You'll need to search for them. It took me a few minutes to find my employer, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Relatively, it's miniscule.
Back at the end of December, I was happily surfing through a few of the 'Best of 2010' and '2011 predictions' articles put forth by pundits, bloggers, etc., when a post on data prediction by Josh Jones-Dilworth caught my attention. The author outlines five data-driven trends to look for this year. His last point struck me as particularly prescient: "You'll be sick of hearing about data (if you're not already)."
Right on. It's only February, and I'm already feeling it. I can't seem to escape the deluge of articles about data. How we acquire it. How we store it. How we separate the wheat from the chaff. This week in particular sticks out.
Science special: Dealing With Data
The Feb. 11 issue of the journal Science includes a special issue devoted to the challenges and opportunities of data collection, curation, and access. The entire collection of perspective articles are available online for free (registration required). From the introduction:
"We have recently passed the point where more data is being collected than we can physically store. This storage gap will widen rapidly in data-intensive fields. Thus, decisions will be needed on which data to archive and which to discard. A separate problem is how to access and use these data. Many data sets are becoming too large to download. Even fields with well-established data archives, such as genomics, are facing new and growing challenges in data volume and management. And even where accessible, much data in many fields is too poorly organized to enable it to be efficiently used."
here and here. You can also search for it. It's receiving a lot of attention in the news and in the blogosphere.
Here are a few of the gee-whiz points culled from this paper, written up by Suzanne Wu on Physorg.com:
- Looking at both digital memory and analog devices, the researchers calculate that humankind is able to store at least 295 exabytes of information. Put another way, if a single star is a bit of information, that's a galaxy of information for every person in the world. That's 315 times the number of grains of sand in the world. But it's still less than one percent of the information that is stored in all the DNA molecules of a human being.
- In 2007, humankind successfully sent 1.9 zettabytes of information through broadcast technology such as televisions and GPS. That's equivalent to every person in the world reading 174 newspapers every day.
- On two-way communications technology, such as cell phones, humankind shared 65 exabytes of information through telecommunications in 2007, the equivalent of every person in the world communicating the contents of six newspapers every day.
Simulating Twitter, The Locker Project
But this wasn't the only fascinating data-centric news this week. MIT's Technology Review reports that researchers in Spain have constructed a simulated network called SONG (Social Network Write Generator) that can forecast Tweet behavior. Why would one want to do this?
Many groups are likely to be interested in using a virtual Twitterverse. Erramilli and co say it can be used to analyse the capacity of parts of a network and to benchmark its performance. But it's the ability to forecast tweeting activity and the effect of things like flash mobbing that is likely to generate the most interest.
Meanwhile, the O'Reilly Radar blog reports this week of a new company called Singly that aims to popularize the open source Locker Project, which will employ a new protocol called TeleHash. It took me a while to wrap my head around this. Essentially, it's about harnessing and sharing data in new, more personalized ways. Here's an excerpt from a recent post on ReadWriteWeb that helped:
The open source service will capture what's called exhaust data from users' activities around the web and offline via sensors, put it firmly in their own possession and then allow them to run local apps that are built to leverage their data.
Many prognosticators suggest that this will be the Next Big Thing for apps and online services. Web 3.0, in other words, will be all about me. It's about delivering a highly-personalized data set that will draw together my online and (increasingly) offline activity. It'll be sort of like a data journal (or a locker). And by combining my data with other data sets, I'll presumably be able to find hidden patterns, correlations, and context that relate to my life in a very personal way.
As I understand it, the TeleHash protocol will permit the decentralized P2P sharing and searching for data across the network. It's about me connecting with you—just as we do in today's social enivironment— but in a much more targeted and sophisticated way. While I'm sure I haven't grasped all of the nuances of this project, it sounds promising.
IBM's Watson on Jeopardy!
Smartest Machine on Earth. Apt to my theme, it's about the big three-day contest next week on Jeopardy that pits two of the show's best-ever human contestants against IBM's Watson. If you're unable to watch Jeopardy next week, Ph.D. students who worked on the Watson project are going to live-blog the contest as it airs.
Will the machine win? It's going to be fun to watch. Even if Watson doesn't win, it's amazing that a machine exists that can (quickly) answer obtuse Jeopardyesque questions. Talk about harnessing data. By the way, be sure to check out IBM's Watson website. They've done a good job with it.
Sending Data Offworld
So ... there are many interesting efforts going on to better process, use and understand the data we're collectively generating on planet Earth. But what about transmitting data off the planet? Yes, I'm talking about the search for extraterrestrial life. There's a preprint of a new study out this week about this pursuit, too.
It's a fascinating—and refreshingly readable—paper about METI. That's Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The paper sums of the debate encircling how, and if, we should try to send transmissions into the void. It suggests that current attempts at transmissions are probably too feeble to matter, and suggests future laser and microwave systems may be more viable. The authors also advocate a moratorium on future METI transmissions until an international body addresses the risks associated with attempts to contact ET life.
Here's one excerpt that struck me:
In 2000, the International Academy of Astronautics sent a proposal to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space entitled "Declaration of Principles for Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, also known as the First Protocol (Billingham and Heyns 1999). The proposal was received without objection. Principle 8 reads, in part "No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place". No one seems opposed to having international consultations about transmitting after we detect them by standard SETI. Assuming this to be the case, it is surely even more important to have the consultations about transmitting before we detect them when we don't even have their signal in hand.
Google Books Ngram Viewer
Books Ngram Viewer is addictive. I can't stop looking up words and phrases.
This new tool allows users to trace the usage of a word or phrase for printed works over the past five centuries. It searches (frighteningly fast) through five million books, or around four percent of all books ever published. That apparently equates to some 500 billion or so unique words.
I looked up 'cyberspace' on a whim. As expected, usage climbed following the release of William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' in 1984 (although Wikipedia notes that the first reference came from a Gibson short story in 1982). Curiously, however, the graph showed a little bump around 1900. A short bit of Googling later, and I found a reference to the word in the 'Memoirs and proceedings of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society' from 1888. Hmm.
I'm sure we'll be seeing many such interesting finds in the coming weeks and months, but I suspect most will be due to OCR errors or misinterprations (akin to 'discoveries' of the lost city of Atlantis in Google Earth).
For more on the Ngram Viewer, check out this new study from Science (free access!) or this New York Times article.
Gawker Media Hacked, Passwords Stolen
If you've ever left a comment on Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Gawker, Jezebel, io9, Jalopnik, Kotaku, Deadspin, or Fleshbot ... it's time to change your passwords.
Scrivener 2.0 Screencast
Scrivener, the popular Mac writing tool, is now at 2.0. It seems that all who use this program sing its praises, and you can count me in on that. It’s a well-designed tool. It looks like there’s a lot of refinery and plenty of new features to be had in the new point upgrade.
If you're curious about Scrivener or want to see what's new in version 2.0, Don McCallister of ScreenCastsOnline is now serving up a free 35-minute episode just for you.
P.S. If you're on a PC, take heart. Scrivener for Windows is now in Beta.