Friday, May 05, 2006

info viz 2

From NASA -- A .mov of the Cassini-Huygens Orbiter's Titan Descent Probe drifting down to land on the surface, with an accompanying wondermous little MIDI song...

Click on pic to view:

Now that's info viz done right.

they're made out of meat

If you've got 7 minutes or so, here's a weird, funny, short film adaptation of Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Terry Bisson's short story "They're Made out of Meat":

Thursday, May 04, 2006

libraries save worlds

I'm not a banker or a farmer; I'm a librarian. I don't know how to distribute micro-loans in Chad, or tinker with a heartier species of millet. I know books. Can libraries really save worlds? I want to believe it.

What can libraries do?

. Get the information to the people -- broadly and universally.

. Fend off censors -- be they religious or political.

. Support literacy -- for all ages, across any medium.

. Preserve cultural history -- we're the information bank, and we are long-term memory.

. Spur trust -- mix readers with programs and events.

If we can do that in every country, we can make headway in defeating evil in this world. Evil? I'm a pragmatist. Whatever the root causes may be, evil occurs. Libraries represent a universal ethos of liberalism, pluralism, discovery, and the conservation of knowledge. Libraries work for good, or they should.

The long term plan? Sustainability? 10,000 years ahead? We're part of that. You do it every day.

I keep coming back to the question, despite or because of the hunger and the war and the rape: how do we put a library in every village in Africa?

And I must be embarrassingly naive. I've e-mailed librarians in Sudan and Egypt and elsewhere, asking questions, seeking contact. They don't write back. They're busy with bigger problems. Libraries in every village? How about clearing the flies out of our children's eyes first.


This is going to take legwork.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

info viz 1

Check Information Aesthetics for many nifty tools that let you see data turned into pictures. It led me to my new favorite toy: Globe-i from Infomagnet. Globe-i lets you turn economic data into 3-d charts on a spinning model of the Earth, like this (a viz of the % of imports from Indonesia by country):

Info Aesthetics is constantly linking to very interesting (and sometimes quite useful) vizualization tools -- like this "Sector Snapshot" Utility from the New York Times business section.


Playing: LEGO-StarWars, fool!

an inconvenient truth

I'm from Mississippi. I love Mississippi. Mississippi is a slightly coastal state (kind of north-west of Cuba). I've got family still living in FEMA trailers (and this is 3 May 2006).

Which is a preferatory note to say that I'm perpetually interested in what the big-hairdos in our halls of power have to say about "global warming". So I'm going to see Mr. Gore's take on the subject by way of his movie An Inconvienient Truth (FYI, here's a link), in hopes it indicates a shift of priorities in re: global warming amongst the hairdo crowd, and out of curiousity.


A few "global warming" resources I've found to be of use:

For Kids:

Climate change items from NOAA:

Kyoto Protocol:

Documenting change:

Union of Concerned Scientists:


I like my books dry.


I've started a sister blog to this one. It's called libSOS (for "library SOS"), and it's all about "Hacks for Librarians. Shortcuts, freebies, sharables, good ideas, quick tips, tricks, suggestions, and hopeful notions for underfunded d.i.y. librarians who live somewhere on Earth and need to get the information to the people."

The idea is to make info available for tinkering, modding, tricking-out, re-vamping, and skin-of-teething for librarians who lack the funds or support they need to get the information to the people. The aim is to share ideas that let us get the information to the people despite the challenges we face.

I hope that posts will range from the very specialized (skirting Sharia law to distribute books in Khartoum) to the universal (repairing a torn page with home-made paste).

I haven't seen anything like this elsewhere, but if I've missed it give me a shout -- and feel free to, too, if you have suggestions or want to share a tip.

The blog is


Shushing: book burners

me in 2nd Life

Yes, I signed up... Baffled by it all and rather late (but present, finally) I'm in Second Life now. Here's a postcard of me enjoying a little quality time with a dragon, just outside the new library (secondlife://Minoa/200/85/112):

Mostly I'm just flying around, chatting with librarians, and trying to figure out what this really is all about. I'm also thinking about other usese for it... I'm a real newbie. Can I learn Mandarin in there? Could the laptops of OLpC support Second Life or something like it?

Can I learn skills like carpentry or soapmaking or sewing or lens calibration in-world? Are we free to share what we know, and share outside resources, Creative Commons style? What, exactly, belongs to Linden Labs (especially in terms of content)?

I've got lots to learn, if this fascination holds out.

Check in with the librarians if you are in-world. They, as you might expect, are a mighty helpful and generally awesome and excitable bunch.


Reading: Accelerando by Charles Stross
Listening: Billy Bragg -- Back to Basics

Monday, May 01, 2006

interview: Sven Johnson: Designing Information

Following is an interview with Sven Johnson, a visionary designer and old-fashioned problem-solver of the first order. Sven writes at reBang weblog, and some of his work can be seen at the online gallery


W> Hi Sven, and welcome. What sort of projects are you working on at the moment?

S> Howdy. Thanks.

Like many industrial designers I have plenty of projects at various stages of development, so this is a harder question to answer than it normally should be. That said, much of my time for the past few weeks or so has been spent working with another individual on something I can't discuss. Sorry. There's no time line, but I'm hoping we can announce it (assuming we don't crash and burn) within the year.

Unrelated to that effort, as of last week I finished contract negotiations with a recently-formed company and expect to start a project I also can't discuss (it was support to start today, actually). However, I can say that the project came to me not because of my industrial design background, but because of my blogging about related issues. It's a good fit in that there are no conflicts of interest with the previous project and no conflict with my regular design consulting - which is ongoing. It has, however, necessitated that I devote some time gearing up for it.

The third thing that's been on my "To Do" list (and which I recently discussed at length on my blog) is my "protoSat" project. This is a 3D construct inside the Second Life virtual space primarily intended to be a kind of nexus between the real and the virtual where mostly real world-related activity takes place. By that I mean it would function as a place for lectures and discussions, design critiques of real world projects, and so on. A big part of the challenge is figuring out how to make it a profitable or break-even venture, but do so in an open source environment where people don't have to pay for access to the knowledge and by using ad revenue from small, independent companies instead of large corporations. I'm big on helping to democratize online spaces so that's something I'm trying to piece together.

Another project that I've recently started getting back to again is an ecoToroid animation. I'd exchanged emails with Chris Anderson (Senior Editor of Wired online) a few months back after I'd commented on his blog that some of his time-dependent curves seemed to be supporting my ecoToroid concept (The Long Tail curve in 3D about which I'd been previously interviewed). He wasn't understanding the static images I'd rendered and when I suggested an animation might help, he expressed an interest in seeing one. I'd like to get back to that and put it to rest.

In addition I have a couple of kirkyan ideas I'd like to develop. You read the oil spill containment device example on the Wikipedia entry, so there's that idea. I doubt I'll get to the second, a robotic termite building system, but the oil containment concept is something that I could do in short order; similar to how the RadTag was completed.

I've also recently contacted a few people for other projects. One is an indy filmmaker that hangs out on the b-independent website film forum and who is trying to distribute her work. The other is what I call the "PreFab Crab" project by Elizabeth Demaray and which I read about recently on the Inhabitat blog. I've conversed with the filmmaker who is interested, but I've not heard back from Ms. Demaray, which is a shame since I'd like to set up a design competition (similar to what I put together over on the Core77 website) and let a bunch of IDers come up with some ideas. If that doesn't happen, I'll design a few for fun.

There are more things (like some old PDA-watch concept sketches I'd like to CAD up and render, and getting back to reverse-engineering a high resolution model using the OGLE 3D capture tool, the low rez capture and the normalmap), but these are the one's that occupy my mind right now.


W> We've been talking about "kirkyans", lots lately. What inspired you to coin this word and develop the concept?

S> The concept itself is just the stuff I think about on a daily basis. For a very long time I've not distinguished between "real" and "virtual". That's why I've done some of the things I've done (e.g. ripping 3D data from a videostream and converting it to manufacturable data). As for coining the term, to be honest, I was inspired to give the concept a name because I and others have had other ideas which were given names well after the fact. It bothers me that coining a term bestows automatic authority and qualification when there may, in fact, be none. As I've stated elsewhere, it reminds me of what's worst about our patent system where obvious ideas can be claimed. I don't pretend to be at the level of many intelligent people who discuss and debate these things, and so I claim no authority or qualification or ownership to the idea. Instead I assume someone else has had the idea and am merely helping to put it into the public domain for further discussion and, hopefully, development.


W> How much weight does the word "spime" have in the design world in 2006?

S> Basically none. Both Adam Greenfield (author of the new book "Everyware") and I are mystified by the general lack of interest among industrial designers.


W> As you know, I think the concept of the kirkyan may be very useful for libraries. But what I've tried to write about it has so far been abstract -- just pie in the sky. Can you suggest any specific, real-world kirkyan applications for libraries?

S> Well, off the top of my head I think e-books that allow every individual to add comments and notes which can then be tagged, searched, and interactively overlaid might be interesting. Imagine if that book had a physical Master and multiple virtual instantiations available to people everywhere through an immersive 3D space (like how Second Life now has virtual books) or through other platforms that allowed them to add their own notes, have them both automatically aggregate and self-distribute and then perpetuate and perhaps even evolve with the original language. It's almost like peer-to-peer knowledge sharing or something. I don't know what you call that. But it's the opposite of one lone researcher sitting in a library and scribbling notes in the borders of a book that will be seen by few, if any, people. And if those scribbles are brilliant insights then the hope, of course, is that the world has access to that thinking. Not when someone discovers it, but in realtime.


W> Why does design matter, and how do you personally define it?

S> Tough questions. I don't regard myself as a hardcore designer, to be honest. I would feel uncomfortable among the "name" designers. I will confess that I don't believe I give it as much thought as many other designers and actually, to be honest, I don't think about what others think about design too often. I've not even really seriously considered these questions before; entries on the Core77 forum are about as much as I've done.

If pressed I'd define design in it's broadest terms. It's not form. It's not just function. It's putting order to disorder maybe. In that way, everyone is a designer. We arrange our home; our CD collections. We determine which clothes fit our idea of who we are and how we want to communicate that sense of self to the world around us. We decide whether or not to separate our vegetables. Or not. We control our worlds. So in that sense, design is about us in relation to everything, and in that way it matters to each of us and thus achieves a level of importance on both an individual and social level.

That might sound deep, but it's really just my way of not being pinned down. Maybe that is, in itself, the best answer.


W> Your RadTag seems more like an "invention" to me than a "design" (and, oddly, it's sort of like a little smart e-pamphlet for radiation damage) -- is there a difference between the two these days?

S> I don't honestly know what an invention is anymore. To be honest, I blame that on a broken intellectual property system even though that's arguably a cop-out. I did consider the RadTag as something potentially patentable, but the truth is the system is not conducive to an individual like me getting the kind of protection afforded to corporations. It's expensive. And assuming I were even awarded a patent, I might then face a corporation intent on simply stealing the idea and forcing me to defend my patent in court. Even if I had a case and lawyers who'd represent me for a percentage, I'm not interested in wasting time defending an idea. So whether it's a design or an invention, for all practical purposes it really makes no difference to me in the end.


W> Most librarians are still heavily invested in the concept of book-as-paper-ink-glue. We're a conservative bunch, by nature, and books have been a hearty medium since before Gutenberg and Caxton and them. As a designer with an eye for shifts in information technology, do you think that the traditional book-object will continue to be viable for the next 500 years?

S> Maybe not in the way it is now, but I think it might have a small community that supports the format and the functionality it provides. There are a number of mediums that have had their obituaries prematurely written. There will be paper books imo.


W> Who's your favorite architect? Designer? Why?

S> I don't play favorites. My favorite architect is the person who designed the home in which I live and provides me shelter. My favorite designer is the person who designed the product I decided to purchase and which makes a mundane task I have to do a little easier.

I think we need fewer superstars and more recognition of the people who do the job day-to-day just like we need more recognition for the people who teach our children and those who do the jobs no one else wants to do. I don't have anything against those who garner accolades and some measure of fame. It's just that I see a greater need to celebrate those working in the trenches.


W> What can designers and librarians do together to make the world a better place?

S> Learn and Teach and help others to do the same.


W> Last one: What kind of projects are you working on for the rest of the summer?

S> I have so many projects I'd like to do but have so little time. Like most people I'd like to write a book. I have film equipment and would like to make a short film. I have an idea for a videogame and would like to program it. I was reading Emeka Okafor's website last week and struck by the opportunity to help fledgling companies in Africa to compete in the global economy. I'd like get back in touch with an organization in Bangladesh and offer whatever services I can provide (I lost touch after 9/11 and the plight of women in SE Asia is often on my mind). I'd like to get more involved in charities and fundraisers. I could go on and on. One simple thing I should add is that I'd like to get my homemade, unleavened bread recipe to come out consistently. Right now it's strictly hit or miss.


Thanks, Sven!

infinite games in your library

I was just listening to a lecture by James Carse over at the Long Now Foundation (link to audio here), and was really affected by a comment he made in summary of his notions on finite and infinite games.

He said: "A finite game is a game you play to win, and an infinite game is one you play to continue the play or to keep the play going. An infinite player has the talent of seeing when someone is about to lose and is able, when he or she does see that, either to change the rules or find some other way of getting that person back into play. ... an infinite game... has the freedom to change the sturcture structure of the game to keep everyone in play."

Librarians have to learn how to become infinite players. We have to learn how to keep people and information in the same game. Maybe that game is the game of learning, which begs a question about our basic aims and assumptions (if libraries can save the world, does that mean knowledge and learning alone lead to the betterment of mankind? As 19th Century as it may sound, I think I have to admit that I'm still prejudiced toward the essential goodness of knowing. Wow. Where was I during the World Wars?).

So keeping people in the game, and keeping "books" in the game is what we've got to do to keep the game going. We're very good at keeping books in the game -- some of the most radical librarians I know (radically inclusive) are catalogers.

Along the way, we're getting better and better at keeping people in the game too. All this Library 2.0 business really boils down to increasing access, in my mind, though much of the conversation is naturally tilted toward "Wow! Ain't these techno-toys cool?!". Web 2.0 comes down to making user-centered values more central to fetching and finding information online. For librarians that means making our services into more of a conversation and allowing greater user participation in the workings of the library -- letting users state their own needs more clearly, and allowing them to make their marks on our libraries more visibly.

We can't keep our patrons in the game if we don't work on the good old "high touch" values of listening, asking good questions, speaking clearly, showing and doing (rather than telling), and working hard to get the information to the people. We keep patrons in the game by explaining why we look at the index first. We keep them in by explaining the call number ranges. We keep them by going to their work stations and having them use the mouse and type, rather than having them squat by the reference desk as we breezily stroll through the correct steps to find articles.

This "game" of libraries is an infinite game, I think. There is no ultimate goal except to keep it going, maybe, because no one stops learning. So if our patrons drift away because they feel like they are losing, then it is absolutely imperative to change the rules of the game.

Check out Carse's book Finite and Infinite Games, too -- it's an oldie, but a goodie.


Listening: Neil Young
Shushing: those who shush others too often.