All posts made in Feb. 2008:

Books read February 2008, with date finished:

There's been a smell, biochemistry and science theme: scent last month, then Aphrodite, Latour, Calvino and Essential Cell Biology. It's all felt a bit Powers of 10... not just from seeing the proteins behind the experience of taste and food, but reading straight-forward textbooks and simultaneously being aware the colossal energy and practice of science that went into producing facts.

Science in Action is the stand-out book this month. I studied physics at college, and have had heated debates both with those who regard science as entirely a social construction and those who believe in big-s Science (as a process and as outcomes. Mainly people without a science background curiously). Latour is the first I've read to describe science as I've seen it, and to show in a single breath the complex interplay of humans and nonhumans. Superb.

Quiet. Preparations for my upcoming trip have meant a race to the finish on several tasks, with the consequence that everything nonessential is being dropped to the wayside. This has led me to notice a third way I get things done:

  1. The marathon: start doing a thing and continue doggedly doing it until it's done. I do this with books.
  2. The leap: take a small step which forms an unbreakable commitment to doing the rest. This is how I started doing talks: once the abstract's published there's no way to not make a decent presentation without letting down a lot of people.
  3. Pace: if an activity gets boring, switch immediately to something else. It doesn't matter what the activity is, so long as expressing it produces useful output. This is what I'm doing now.

One of my activities is reading Essential Cell Biology. (Yes, I regard reading which is not related to work as essential. And if I don't finish it before I go, I'll lose the tenuous understanding I need to complete it.) Reading about cell biology is reading the best whodunnit: we start with the cell working downwards - to proteins, metabolism, meiosis, ATP - and working up, to people. I'm beginning to hit the magical moments of the loop closing, where the top and bottom link up: oh, so that's why I eat!; oh, so that's what breathing's all about! The Krebs citric acid cycle, with the lead pipe, in the ballroom! And the denouement is life itself, there in-front and inside of me, while I'm reading on the Tube.

Getting older. From this to that and now here, I'm 30. In addition, my lightcone is two weeks away from Gamma Pavonis and some weeks ago enveloped its 45th star, Kappa-1 Ceti. Down to the forest where I grew up to celebrate, knotting off loop after loop.

You don't talk about the ingredients getting old when you make soup, you wait for the complexity to emerge. Two ingredient combine, and then there are three flavours. And they themselves recombine in all permutations and you have six plus three is nine flavours. And then they combine, and so on. Not getting older but simmering. Thirty years cooked.

What have I learned? That I get a long way by assuming the other person is right and knows more than I do, and that I should always try to understand--I too often don't listen well enough. That everyone has something fascinating about them, and I'll never be bored so long as I'm trying to find the stories. But that some people are idiots; that took a lot of time to figure out. Always create. How I learn--that was a big one, and it's opened many doors. That hard work with my body is fun just like hard work with my head, and that both are better in combination. I wish I'd worked that out sooner. How to not be precious about what I write and how to collaborate.

And then there are general, often contradictory life principles I've run on for years, and they're doing me very well thank you: be less tolerant; care more; care less; speak and do without thinking first, but consider afterwards; do what I want and if it's toxic, move on; don't avoid being wrong or foolish, and it's possible to be wilfully obscure, absurd and fib while simultaneously meaning every single word; everything is interesting.

The first chapter of Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus is Rhizome [pdf], and it includes this advice:

Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What are you heading for? These are totally useless questions. Making a clean slate, starting or beginning again from ground zero, seeking a beginning or a foundation-all imply a false conception of voyage and movement (a conception that is methodical, pedagogical, initiatory, symbolic...). ... move between things, establish a logic of the AND, overthrow ontology, do away with foundations, nullify endings and beginnings. ... The middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed. Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle.

Write to the nth power, the n - 1 power, write with slogans: Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don't sow, grow offshoots! Don't be one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point! Speed turns the point into a line! Be quick, even when standing still! Line of chance, line of hips, line of flight. Don't bring out the General in you! Don't have just ideas, just have an idea (Godard). Have short-term ideas. Make maps, not photos or drawings. Be the Pink Panther and your loves will be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon. As they say about old man river:

He don't plant 'tatos/ Don't plant cotton/ Them that plants them is soon forgotten/ But old man river he just keeps rollin' along

Some pictures:

TorrentFreedom have built their service to never store any data which could be used for identification. In a pleasant turn of phrase, they call it structural anonymity: We built the system from day one so that there's no correlation between an IP+timestamp and a username - this means we can't hand over logs of 'who was on what IP at what time' ... Our payment system is fully abstracted from the operational environment - billing events are passed to the VPN engine via temporary 'tokens' that are one-way-factors ... we don't have 'server logs' like everyone else does ... all of our operational VMs run in fully-encrypted partitions.

Space smells metallic.

The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system. See also, from cybernetics, the Law of Requisite Variety.

Jason Kottke has collected videos showing multiple time periods at once. He pulls a quote: But, we can kind of think of the multi-playthrough Kaizo Mario World video as a silly, sci-fi style demonstration of the Quantum Suicide experiment. At each moment of the playthrough there's a lot of different things Mario could have done, and almost all of them lead to horrible death. The anthropic principle, in the form of the emulator's save/restore feature, postselects for the possibilities where Mario actually survives and ensures that although a lot of possible paths have to get discarded, the camera remains fixed on the one path where after one minute and fifty-six seconds some observer still exists.

I think of it somewhat like ray-tracing an interactive space. Each player is a ray of light fired into the black box of the game world, bouncing off interaction possibilities differently each time. The integral of all the consequences gives the shape of the interaction surface. Then perhaps a diagram can be produced. (It's only be looking at parallel universes side-by-side that the contingency of a particular event or counterfactual can be ascertained. That is, you can't know from a single game whether a move was 'hard' or 'lucky'.)

As video games get trickier to learn - because learning is fun - they'll hit a point where it's as fast to get good at real-life skateboarding than it is to get good in-game. What an odd singularity. The choice for the player then becomes, where can I find the best teacher?

What would Richard Feynman do?

Next up: I've been to O'Reilly ETech since ETech 2002, and was planning to have 2008 off. But then I saw the sessions: tangible internet objects, the brain and society, activity-based interaction, crowds, social networks and warfare, PMOG, botnets, sex, Asian media, body hacking, Cuba, and more sex.

So I'm going, it looks to awesome to skip. See you in San Diego! Drop me a line if you fancy a beer.

I'm canyoning first for a few days in Arizona.

Also coming up: I'm keynoting at GUADEC, the GNOME Users' And Developers' European Conference, in Istanbul in July. Not my usual turf I have to admit, but the brief grabbed me--I've been asked to speak about what you see the future of software being - desktop vs web app vs hybrid - and of course the kinds of things that you have on your mind which led to Mind Hacks. And how could I turn that down? I'm a sucker for a good topic.

The visual cortex of developing ferrets has more territory containing neurons selective for vertical or horizontal orientations than oblique angles. We preferentially see up-downs and left-rights.

You drop a population of finches on an island: they speciate, populations diverging from one another as they find niches. But each incipient species has as part of its environment every other incipient species. It's complex. The eventual set of species are not only determined by the size of nuts, the type of trees and the local predators, but through an iterative solution to the force-directed graph of the species, overlaid on the peaks and contours of the fitness landscape.

Maybe with a slightly different composition of the initial population, and we'd have six eventual species, not eight.

Could we regard the fundamental forces of physics as species? Could they have speciated differently, at the end of the GUT Era?

There is general agreement that human personalities may more-or-less be plotted in a five-dimensional space, where the five trait-dimensions are: openness; conscientiousness; extraversion; agreeableness; neuroticism.

Within that space, are there attractors of personality, semi-stable or wandering fitness peaks? Just as our visual cortex is tuned to particular orientations of line, is our internal 'model of the other' tuned to particular personalities? Are there maybe only a few dozen personality archetypes which can mutually co-exist in a connected population? These archetypes emerge sometimes, perhaps.

And perhaps there are particular stories, too, that are easier to understand and easier to remember because they align with the grain of thought; narrative archetypes like cause-and-effect, the Fall, the Hero's Journey.

Maybe the root of narrative compulsion is that we see something occur, and the story that pops into our head is the 'cause-and-effect' one, we mistake the ease and fluidity of that story in our head for truth. We're fooled because "it slips into place because the explanation fits reality" is indistinguishable from "it slips into place because the explanation is easy to understand with my brain."

Cognitive therapy works because it helps patients re-narrate their lives (quote source). Cybernetics was a cognitive therapy for science. We need help re-narrating the whole time, because the problem is this: obvious looks like true.

Just as tricking a woman into unknowingly blushing fools her into thinking she's attracted to you.

Just as you misread movie close-ups for your paying attention, and tension from loud noises as suspense.

Here's one that happens a lot: the misidentification of understanding for original thinking.

And another: the relief, the release of tension at the end of a story, the knowledge that phew it was actually going somewhere, and when it all wraps up and there's an indicator - a nod, a rhythm change, - that we're done... that release of narrative tension being misidentified as funny.

Here's what my new hero, Steve Martin, has to say about being funny: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation.

Impro (Keith Johnstone) has four chapters: Status; Spontaneity; Narrative Skills; Masks and Trance. The following are excerpts from the final chapter, Masks and Trance.

On what a Mask is:

It's true that an actor can wear a Mask casually, and just pretend to be another person, but Gaskill and myself were absolutely clear that we were trying to induce trance states. The reason why one automatically talks and writes of Masks with a capital 'M' is that one really feels that the genuine Mask actor is inhabited by a spirit. Nonsense perhaps, but that's what the experience is like, and has always been like.

A Mask is a device for driving the personality out of the body and allowing the spirit to take possession of it.

The feeling of wearing a Mask:

Many actors report 'split' states of consciousness, or amnesias; they speak of their body acting automatically, or as being inhabited by the character they are playing.

Once students begin to observe for themselves the way that Masks compel certain sorts of behaviour, then they really begin to feel the presence of spirits.

At the moments when a Mask 'works' the student feels a decisionlessness, and an inevitability. The teacher sees a sudden 'naturalness', and that the student is no longer 'acting'. At first the Mask may flash on for just a couple of seconds. I have to see and explain exactly when the change occurs. The two states are actually very different, but most students are insensitive to changes in consciousness.

On how to put on a Mask:

Once the student has found a comfortable Mask, one that doesn't dig into his eyes, I arrange his hair so that it covers the elastic and the top of the forehead of the Mask. I then say: 'Relax. Don't think of anything. When I show you the mirror, make your mouth fit the Mask and hold it so that the mouth and the Mask make one face. You'll know all about the creature in the mirror, so you don't have to think about that. Become the thing that you see, turn away from the mirror, and go to the table. There'll be something that it wants. Let it find it. Disobey anything I'm saying if it wants to, but if I say "Take the Mask off", then you must take it off.'

What a Mask can do:

A new Mask is like a baby that knows nothing about the world. Everything looks astounding to it, and it has little access to its wearer's skills. ... They don't know how to take the lids off jars; they don't understand the idea of wrapping things ... When objects fall to the floor it's as if they've ceased to exist.

the inability to speak is almost a sign of good Mask work. Actors are amazed to find that it's necessary to give the Masks 'speech lessons'. ... Speech lessons sound silly, but remember Chaplin, who never really found the right voice for his Tramp. He made many experiments and finally made him sing in gibberish (Modern Times).

The personality of Masks:

My suspicion is that the number of 'personality types' that emerge in Mask work is pretty limited. ... just as myths from all over the world show similar structures, so I believe that wherever there is a 'Pantalone-type' Mask there will be Pantalones.

'It's like you get the freedom to explore all the personalities that any human being may develop into--all the shapes and feelings that could have been Ingrid but aren't. Some Masks don't trigger any response ... maybe these are spirits outside Ingrid's repertoire, that is any one person may have a limited number of possibilities when he develops his personality.'

Being analytical (the Waif is a particular Mask Johnstone uses regularly, which has its own childlike personality):

We have instinctive responses to faces. Parental feelings seem to be triggered by flat faces and big foreheads. We try and be rational and asset that 'people can't help their appearance', yet we feel we know all about Snow White and the Witch, or Laurel and Hardy, just by the look of them. The truth is that we learn to hold characteristic expressions as a way of maintaining our personalities, and we're far more influenced by faces than we realise. ... Sometimes in acting class a student will break out of his habitual facial expression and you won't know who he is until you look at his clothes.

If we wanted to be analytical we could say that the flatness of the Mask, and its high forehead, are likely to trigger parental feelings. The eyes are very wide apart as if looking into the distance, and helping to give it its wondering look. Where the bottom of the Mask covers the wearer's top lip, a faint orange lip is painted on to the Mask. Everyone who has created a 'Waif' character with the Mask has lined their lip up with the Mask's, and then held it frozen. ... It was only when she froze her top lip in this way that she suddenly found the character. The eyes of the Mask aren't level, which gives a lopsided feeling, and is probably the cause of the characteristic twisting movements that the Waif always has.

I've never worn a Mask, but I have held an African tribal mask over my face and it feels like freedom.

We use our face as storage for emotions, so why not use appearance, poise, habitual personal space, and the expectations of others as storage for personalities? Change any of those, and those are your personality parameters you're playing with.

The idea there are a limited number - or at least stable set, or basic vectors - of personalities I find intriguing. It doesn't seem unlikely that there are certain personalities which are with the grain of however the 'model of the other' is represented in neurons. And people will end up snapping to grid and becoming those personalities because everyone else imposes it on them.

Trance state and spontaneity: when I write a talk, I write long hand first, and I write as if I'm speaking. When delivering, I half read and half speak--the words always need adjusting according to the feel of the room. But when everything is perfect, I feel I'm aloft. I start reading from my notes, then improvise... only to, paragraphs later, look down and found I've improvised what I wrote before, word for word.

The experience of predestined free will is magical.

New presentation online. I've put up the slides and notes for Movement (from my WDN08 trip). Read Movement here.

A key introduction in the talk is Snap, a pattern for syndicating interactions. I've been working on this with Tom Armitage, and he's built the proof of concept. For more on that, and a longer essay about Snap outside the presentation itself, read about Snap on the company weblog.

Best conference ever! I have been to some excellent conferences: ETech 2002, Design Engaged 2004, eurofoo 2004, reboot 2005, 2006 and 2007... maybe one or two more. Here's another for the list: I've just returned from Vancouver, where I was giving the closing keynote at Web Directions North 2008.

All of those conferences were good in different ways. ETech blew my mind; I met so many new friends at Design Engaged; reboot specialises in variety and friendliness; eurofoo, well, many reasons, but the eurodance foam party is a factor. And of course it's personal preference. Sometimes your brain is ready to be melted, or by coincidence you're stepping into a new community.

What WDN08 did, for me, was hit the sweet-spot:

  • Talks: I went to every talk I could (I had to skip one to do my run-through) and they were all top notch. I'm more excited about the Web now than I have been for a long time: it's going through a period of transformation, both in terms of platform and the kinds of people using it. And it's clear now that the Web is on the trail of certain issues - adaptive, service and experience design - and is probably better placed to offer approaches than most other media and design. It's great to see the Web come into its own.
  • Organisation: the conference organisation was tight. Seriously, it makes such a difference--well done to the team and helpers. Aside from general organisation, I personally felt welcomed and generously looked after. I think I can only call it care and consideration, and it's much appreciated--it made the trip a pleasure.
  • Sponsors: it feels odd to mention the sponsors, but having them participate instead of just slapping logos on things was a good difference. No vendor pitches, but general attention and being there. Microsoft deserve a special mention for their hosting of the two day party at Whistler. What made their sponsorship work was that Microsoft people were present and chatting. I'd like to see the culture of the Web assimilate MS instead of letting the historic divide calcify into two types on online experience: this kind of activity helps.
  • Whistler: ah, the Whistler trip. Unique. It's great that the mental workout of the first couple of days is balanced with a physical one in the next two. I'd not skied before. Man, what an opportunity. If this trip has hooked me - it might well have done - this might turn out to be the most expensive conference I've been to. And group bonding is certainly facilitated by the alcohol and exhilaration. Lots of socialising in the bar and on the buses.

I want to thank the organising team: Maxine Sherrin, Dave Shea, Derek Featherstone and John Allsopp. Thanks for being so welcoming, and it was so good to meet and hang out with all of you.

But mainly it's been the people--it's the crowd at a conference that makes the difference between good and great. (This particular crowd is mostly new to me too.) I can't count the number of people who showed me intriguing connections on topics I brought up in my talk, or the number of incredibly illuminating and hilarious conversations I had. What a joy. And then the easy conversations with folks I knew and folks I'd just met... I hope I've left Vancouver having made a few new friends. Thank you all of you who read this (I lost track of the group on the last night and didn't get to say goodbye to bunch of people), and please let's stay in touch.

An all round brilliant week.

Slides and transcript of Movement will be up in the next couple of days.