MonthAugust 2010

The Art of Alex Andreev

Dinner by Alex Andreev

Hats by Alex Andreev

Alex Andreev

(via Chris Arkenberg)

The Web May Be Dead, But Apps Will Be the Next to Go

Minority Report interfaces

OK, not really. Aside from the fact that I don’t really think the web is “dead,” I don’t think that “apps” are going anywhere anytime soon either. As Adam Greenfield once wrote: “this rarely kills That outright.” But Adam also recently declared “the app economy is a dead-end,” and I think he’s on to something there. As one garden is walled off, new vegetation grows outside it. What will that be?

Adam was an early adopter of the post-web app-ecosystem that Wired Magazine thinks is the future. He also wrote a bit about it in his write-up after the first Design Engaged in 2004 and was clearly already beginning to think about what was next: “The Web per se, with all its paraphernalia of sites and domains and banner ads and whatnot, was in many ways a crutch, an artifical simplification and a ten-year detour. The sense I came home from Amsterdam with was that we’ll all be getting used to a more kustom kar interface to the information we find most meaningful: flagrant, weird, complicated, idiosyncratic and personal.”

And what is next? It’s always anyone’s guess, but here’s what Adam describes it as a world in which every user is a developer:

I’ve been arguing (admittedly to no discernible impact) that as a first step toward this we need to tear down the services we offer and recompose them from a kit of common parts, an ecology of free-floating, modular functional components, operators and lightweight user-interface frameworks to bind them together. The next step would then be to offer the entire world access to this kit of parts, so anyone at all might grab a component and reuse it in a context of their own choosing, to develop just the functionality they or their social universe require, recognize and relate to. If done right, then you don’t even need an App Inventor, because the interaction environment itself is the “inventor”: you grab the objects you need, and build what you want from them.

I’ll try to rephrase that: an Internet built not out of static apps but out of many different discrete parts (we can call them widgets for the sake of argument here) that can be infinitely re-purposed and recombined, lego-style, by users to suit any purpose they need.

Adam went on to propose the “Momcomp” as an example of what could be done with such a platform.


This is an example of “visual programming,” a paradigm with many years of history that’s never quite taken off anywhere but in multimedia. MAX/MSP, for example, has been wildly successful in music and spawned many clones and imitators.

Theoretically, if I understand Adam’s idea correctly, Momcomp could be shared and users could easily modify it to process information about their own local public transit, or maybe use it as a template for app for buying movie tickets.

I like to imagine an operating system like Chromium OS in which I could do the equivalent of “viewing source” in a regular browser on every app part of an app or feature and play with the guts of it, zooming in fractally until I got down to actual code.

How close is this to reality? Well, Google App Inventor just brought us a bit closer to the day that non-programmers are able to easily build mobile apps. As of now, Android is the most popular smart phone OS in the US, having beat out both BlackBerry and Apple’s iOS. Android’s been criticized for not being 100% open-source, but it’s far from the “walled garden” that Anderson writes about in that Wired piece. Although we’re already seeing a world in which the web site, if not dead, is no longer the end-all-be-all of Net-presence, but it’s still fairly open Internet.

As for Adam’s vision, I think it’s already starting to be realized in the business world. JackBe looks an awful lot like Momcomp for suits: a platform for building shareable and modifiable apps that run in the browser, on the desktop or on mobile phones.

JackBe Wires

I’ve written before that the business world is driving point and click app creation. Although for the past few years consumer technology (the iPhone, social networking, microblogging, tagging, etc.) has driven technological innovation in business, today business technology is driving innovation in the visual programming and mashup world.

Meanwhile, Mashery is helping organizations put their data into structured, usable forms and Kapaw is scraping the web’s data and turning it into something, er, “mashable.” Maybe these things will never catch-on outside the workplace, where they’re used to build business intelligence apps and things of that nature. But the potential of personal cloud agents is a compelling one.

I don’t expect we’ll see the end of “the Web” or of “black box” apps, but with a little imagination it’s not hard to see what could be coming next, and it’s a lot more interesting than a bunch of walled gardens.

All of this is discussed in much more detail in The Web Is Dead? A Debate, an interesting conversation between Tim O’Reilly, Chris Anderson, and John Battelle – particularly O’Reilly’s contribution to the conversation.

See Also

Boing Boing: Is the web really dead? – Quickly debunks the graph showing web use in decline

Gigaom: The Web Isn’t Dead; It’s Just Continuing to Evolve – Some other important points about the supposed decline of the web – notably that many “apps” are basically just over-glorified shortcuts to web sites.

The Atlantic: What’s Wrong with X is Dead

The Tragic Death of Practically Everything – “Through it all, vinyl lives.”

How Can You Control Your Dreams?

how to control your dreams

Scientific American has an interesting interview with Deirdre Barrett, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving-and How You Can Too

So how can you problem-solve in a dream?

Although any kind of problem can make a breakthrough in a dream, the two categories that really crop up a lot are things where the solution benefits from being represented visually, because the dreams are so vivid in their visual-spatial imagery, and when you’re stuck because the conventional wisdom is just plain wrong.

You may have heard the example of August Kekulé and the benzene ring, which represents both these themes. He was thinking that in all nonchemical molecules, the atoms were lined up in some kind of straight line with 90-degree side chains coming off it. Once he knew the atoms in benzene, he was trying to come up with arrangements of them that were straight lines with side chains and it just wasn’t working. Then he dreamt of the atoms forming as a snake, eventually reaching around with the snake’s tail in its mouth. It seems exactly related to the fact that the prefrontal lobes that control censorship are, on average, much less active during dreams.

If you want to problem-solve in a dream, you should first of all think of the problem before bed, and if it lends itself to an image, hold it in your mind and let it be the last thing in your mind before falling asleep. For extra credit assemble something on your bedside table that makes an image of the problem. If it’s a personal problem, it might be the person you have the conflict with. If you’re an artist, it might be a blank canvas. If you’re a scientist, the device you’re working on that’s half assembled or a mathematical proof you’ve been writing through versions of.

Equally important, don’t jump out of bed when you wake up—almost half of dream content is lost if you get distracted. Lie there, don’t do anything else. If you don’t recall a dream immediately, see if you feel a particular emotion—the whole dream would come flooding back. [In a weeklong study I did with students that followed this protocol] 50 percent dreamed of the problem and a fourth solved them—so that’s a pretty good guideline, that half of people would have some effect from doing this for a week.

Scientific American: How Can You Control Your Dreams?

(via Kyle)

Trippy 3D Fractal Video

Mandelbox Zoom from hömpörg? on Vimeo.

(via Dose Nation)

The video was made with Mandelbulb 3D. For more 3D fractal images created with Mandelbulb 3D, see here.

Infrastructure Still Crumbling – So What Do We Do About It?

crumbling bridge

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has released its 2009 Report Card for American Infrastructure, and the results are grim. The association gave the most powerful nation in the world an overall grade of D, and stated that it would take a five-year investment of $2.2 trillion to bring the U.S. up to par with the rest of its class—the world’s major postindustrial nations.

The Architect’s Newspaper: State of Disrepair

(via Brainsturbator)

What exactly can be done about it, other than spending massive amounts of public funds and ratcheting up an already astronomical deficit?

The obvious libertarian answer I can think of is: sell off all private infrastructure and issue tax refunds for it. Let the private companies who purchase it deal with it. At this point it doesn’t seem like that’s any worse an option than letting it all rot. Certainly there’d be a lot of questions regarding access to essential infrastructure. And if, say, the entire interstate highway system were privatized I’m sure that would open things up to all sorts of highly entertaining anti-competitive actions on the part of its owners.

But I have to admit I sort of relish the idea of seeing how tea partiers feel about paying road tolls (and seeing how self-righteous non-motorists, the type who think it’s unfair that they’re taxed for roads they supposedly don’t use, react to increased food costs). And hell, it might actually cause megacorporations that currently avoid paying much in taxes actually have to shell out something for the roads they use.

But even if there was the political will, could that even happen? Are there companies out there that would be willing to buy up all our roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure? Would it be profitable to maintain?

And what about existing private infrastructure? According to The Architect’s Newspaper, over 85% of levees are privately owned and they still got a D from the ASCE. How much of the infrastructure ASCE evaluated is privately owned to start with?

What other other options are on the table? A government-backed scrip for infrastructure work? Even if we’re at 20-25% real unemployment, I’m not sure that’s bad enough to get modern Americans to work on infrastructure projects for scrip and for small businesses to honor it. But I could be wrong.

What about revolution? It’s always a possibility, but it also seems far from happening. I have been thinking though that if there were to be a revolution in the the States, it would have to start with seizing infrastructure, which is our real “means of production.”

What else can be done?

Flickr search for “crumbling infrastructure”

Photo by Michelle Soulier / CC

Science without Purpose: Suppressing the Teleological Instinct

total solar eclipse

The teleological drive – the desire to not merely make, but rather to perceive inherent purpose in the world – influences a myriad of adult human behavior. Such behavior may range from conspiracy theories to abstract philosophical works, but even “scientists” may falter. […]

Both Darwin and Freud introduced highly disconcerting models of thought for a world hitherto predicated on the teleological. The theory of evolution and the unconscious seemed to queer many of the most ingrained human conceptions of purpose and control. However, the drive toward Why Must!? is not easily banished, and rather than die out, it burrowed into the very concepts that threatened it. Little wonder then that many of us today conceive of evolution as Nature’s architect and regard the unconscious (our Id) as an insidious competitor-agent. In such a teleological worldview, emotions such as sadness are no longer random behavioral traits. Rather, they become adaptive instinct, forged by Nature to guide humanity and distinguish intuitively between right and wrong.

All good so far, but what’s this about?

Although the following statement risks being unscientific, what all the aforementioned seems to imply is that human beings have a strong teleological instinct, a propensity for asking Why? and Why Must!? Our obsession with perceiving (and thus ascribing) purpose most likely arose as an adaptive trait in an inter-human, social context. With such complex brains, humans are capable of countless emotional affections and a perhaps infinite array of varied behavior. To perceive someone teleologically is to see and comprehend his intent, his consciousness in relation to one’s own. The comprehension of intent offers security from the innumerable and seemingly purposeless actions humans may exhibit. On an anthropological level, teleology would seem to benefit the formation of complex, social structures, wherein the determination of purpose serves to regulate and maintain varied levels of production and class. The agency-attribution error supports the notion that teleology is an instinct “made” for humans, the only beings with an agenda, that is, capable of being purposeful agents. Both scientists and laymen would do well to remember the influence this artificial instinct has on thought and language. After all, if language-cognition arose under a teleological context (that is, a human-social context), all semantics must contain, invoke, and conceal a Why Must!?

Serendip: Science without Purpose: Suppressing the Teleological Instinct

Sure, it’s possible that there’s an evolutionary function of the teleological impulse (I’ll call it an impulse since we don’t know that it’s actually an instinct) – but we should remember that evolution only selects for “good enough,” not necessarily “optimal.” The teleological impulse may be a side effect of our ability to determine cause and effect (which does seem to serve an evolutionary function) and serve no actual function. We’ve made it this far with it, so it hasn’t been selected out – just like many other harmful human behaviors.

Photo by By Luc Viatour / CC

Libertarians Celebrate Freedom With ‘Burning Man on the Water’


Libertarians who couldn’t afford to insure their “Burning Man on the water” type event… just do it anyway, sans insurance:

A small group of libertarians created their own, floating vision of the future in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta recently. It was, as organizers billed it, a little like Burning Man on the water — minus the giant, flaming effigy and with a fraction of the number of event-goers.

The festival was almost canceled due to insurance problems, but in true libertarian fashion, the would-be attendees created a do-it-yourself substitute in its stead.

The would-be event, called Ephemerisle, was sponsored by The Seasteading Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to creating independent micro-nations in international waters.

“I heard about the cancellation and said, ‘In the spirit of self-organized nation-building, let’s get together anyways,'” said Matt Bell, who spearheaded the effort without any central leadership or organizational backing.

Wired: Libertarians Celebrate Freedom With ‘Burning Man on the Water’

It looks a little dull, but maybe the photographer didn’t get all the good stuff. They did have Burning Man mainstay Jason Webly perform.

William Gibson Narrates Trailer for His Next Novel, Zero History

(via Matt Staggs)

You can buy the book here.

Lab Rats Always Pick Saccharin Over Cocaine

Sodium Saccharin

Sci at Neurotic Physiology writes about a study with some surprising findings: lab rights ALWAYS pick saccharin over cocaine. Sci notes a few minor issues with the study, but highlights the broader implication:

Well, this could be a bug, or a feature, of self-administration in rodents. If it DOES turn out that saccharin is more rewarding than cocaine in rats, and this is not the case in humans (you could probably test parts of thing in some humans, which would be interesting), well, this could be a difference between humans and rats. It could ALSO be an issue with the self-administration model itself. Some people have criticized drug self-administration in rats, because it doesn’t lead to the rat banging on the lever constantly in desperation or other things we would assume are associated with addiction. This could be just that rats aren’t in for that sort of thing. It could ALSO be that there are problems with the doses we give the rats, the schedules they can administer drug under, or even the environments the drug is administered in.

Neurotic Physiology: What Is Sweeter than Cocaine?

(via Social Physicist)

LOST Epilogue Leaked Online

LOST Epilogue

Jezebel has a 3 minute preview

And you can find the whole 12 minutes on The Pirate Bay.

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