Sunday, December 5, 2010

Living in SF now

My posts here have fallen off in the last three months, I'm just going to blame that on working full time and commuting three-plus hours a day, but fortunately the commute has been drastically slashed now.  Now I'm living in Potrero Hill, and as soon as I get all of my crap out of various boxes, I'm going to have a comparative bounty of free time, and a new city to explore.  I've been meaning to live in SF for awhile now, looking forward to getting to know the city.  Glad to shake things up.

Going to miss my old place at El Dorado, but that house will continue on without me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thoughts Regarding The Mote In God's Eye

I was reading The Mote In God's Eye recently, which is one of my favorite works of fiction, as is its sequel, The Gripping Hand, written by Larry Liven and Jerry Pournelle.  Given that science fiction tends not to age very well, and that the first of these was written in 1974, that's quite an accomplishment.  Now, I've had several thoughts related to these books, but perhaps a bit of background so I'm not just talking to myself.  Ah, spoiler alert, if you're thinking about reading these books.

The Mote In God's Eye is a first-contact novel, where humanity has interstellar travel capability, and discovers a sentient species which because of authorial fiat and convenient wormhole location, is nicely bottled into its home solar system.  This species, the Moties, has been sentient for somewhere on the order of a million years, and is driven by biological necessity to be in a state of constant population explosion.  The Moties sequentially switch sex, and when they are female they must become pregnant or die of a hormone imbalance.  After giving birth they become male, which lasts for a few months before becoming female again.  Because of this, and the fact that they have been bottled into one system for close to a million years, they have had a constant population explosions and crashes and have evolved a genetic predisposition for technology, in addition to a very high tolerance for pollution and wiping extinct most other animal life in the system not descended from them.  They've diverged into a variety of castes specialized in various things, the Engineers, the Warriors, etc.

Now, this has given me a number of thoughts ranging from wariness of environmental damage, to wanting to see an RTS game based on this world, something in the vein of Homeworld perhaps, except that you'd be fighting your own population pressure as much as the other players.  Actually, I'm mainly just thinking Homeworld because of the 3D system in that game.  Of course, to deal with the population pressures it would have to be multi-generational, and then you'd have to figure out how the player is supposed to interact with there being successors, and where the user's path of control goes, which is a problem I have with Civilization and the like...  Ah, but I'll go back to that later.

The reason I started writing this post, before it turned into a commentary on The Mote in God's Eye, was thinking about one specific aspect of this book and how we might be seeing some of it not too far into the future.  In the book, the Engineer caste personalized everything for its users.  Handles on toothbrushes, shoes,  beds, chairs; all were custom made and fitted for their owner.  That got me thinking about how with various 3D printing and more customized web services, such things might be possible for us in the future.  Now, I can't say I've ever had a tailor-made suit, but imagine a world where every piece of clothing is tailor-made.  That opens up a number of interesting possibilities.  I imagine that carpal tunnel would go down as our laptops and mice are made specifically for us.  Things are just going to get more attractive and comfortable.  Things will still be mass-produced, but will at the same be more individualized.

I believe a good bit of demand is waiting to be unleashed for such products as soon as the price drops dramatically.  I'm not sure how easy it will be to create such things, we need that 3D printing to get a good bit more advanced, but at some point I think there will be quite the market for systems to automatically measure people and convert that into instructions for the creation of equipment.  And a brief search around the net reveals that it's already being worked on.

Of course there are a lot of other benefits to widespread 3D printing, such as the decentralization of industrial development and the whole maker culture.  I could also go into how more precise and cheaper measurements and finely crafted delivery/construction will improve a tremendous number of things beyond clothing and gadgets, such as fertilizer usage and personalized medicine.  Ah, but it's 6am and I'm starting to ramble.  Let me see if I can get to sleep.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus

I've been a fan of Clay Shirky since I first started reading his works, back in 2003 or 2004. After having just finished his latest book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, my admiration is a high as ever. If your interests are at all similar to mine, I have to recommend the book. I would love to one day be able to do something at least similar to what Mr. Shirky does for a living. The book is essentially an analysis of the social effects of the Internet and related technology, touching on subjects including behavioral economics, social network theory, political theory and the history of technology.

Attempting to summarize the main thesis of the book could perhaps be done better by Shirky himself in this video, which is essentially the opening chapter of Cognitive Surplus. For those of you who want something quicker than sitting through a 15 minute video though, allow me to make to the effort.

Cognitive Surplus has a relatively optimistic message, pointing out that the society of the developed world, has had a surplus of free time for the last 70 years, due in large part to the development of the 40 hour workweek, but that people have not had much of an outlet for this free time other than simply watching TV or consuming other mass media. Indeed, as pointed out by Robert Putnam in his 1995 book, Bowling Alone, many of the other, less passive, pastimes of people have actively withered away. People no longer spend as much time in bowling leagues, or other civic groups, as they did in the past. In part this has been because of the mass move to the cities and suburbs, because of the fragmented, unwalkable nature of suburbia, the ease of watching television or listening to the radio, and so on.

However, given a few more years to look back on, Shirky takes a much more optimistic view than Robert Putnam did, noting that this trend is beginning to reverse itself, as people begin to use the Internet for social collaboration. This surplus of free-time has finally found a large scale outlet and is just beginning to be used. We are just beginning to see the benefits to be gained from this, ranging from Wikipedia, to open source software projects, to the mass conversations occurring across blogs, Twitter, Reddit, and the like. Shirky makes the point that all of the man hours required to make all of Wikipedia is spent each weekend by American citizens watching television advertisements. And as that surplus continues to get directed away from the passive watching of TV, tremendous things will become possible. A redirection of how we spend our time as significant as what occurred during the Industrial Revolution is beginning to happen.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What Do I Want For Better Information Display?

Thinking about how much I like maps and graphically displaying information and that I am trained in part as a UI designer, I wanted to sit down and think about information visualizations that should be invented. We have a tremendous amount of data out there that is being collected by websites, social networks, cell phones, etc, and it is still largely opaque when thought of as a collection. This is a huge untapped resource that needs to get used.

We've definitely got some people beginning to use things in this vein, such as the Twitter moods visualization. A brief search show's other similar projects, such as mapping music relationships on, the affects of cell-phone based social networks on marketing, this project mapping tourist vs local hotspots using Flickr photos, and other such things.

Hrm... But I still feel that none of these things have quite gotten to where they need to go. I've seen plenty of social networking maps, but those generally end up appearing messy and must be lacking something that I'm looking for. They all tend to be quite specific to a given area of research. So, what am I looking for? What is it that I'm trying to imagine? I want some more universal framework in which to support all of my questions.

I suppose I'm still looking for a way to see objective measures of influence in social networks. Either absolutely or with regard to specific topics. I suppose I'd also like to see more economic data overlaid on these social networks, to see where money is flowing and to what effect. I want to see how people's opinions effect each other, see a map of how ideas are flowing, and see what effect this has on people's activities. Or just more overlays of social networks on physical locations. We're hitting the point where we'll have enough computational power that we could run the world in a Sim City like simulation.

A wonderful technology that I'm extremely excited about is Microsoft's Photosynth. This software can take a bunch of 2D photos of an area and then automatically build a 3D model of that area. It's a beautiful technology. And I'm just grasping for something similar with all this social networking data, something that can combine the data that's available on Facebook and and Reddit and Twitter and credit card records and political contributions and the like and combine it into a usable, searchable, visualizable format.

There are a lot of questions I have that should be easier to answer. But then, I'm still trying to actually refine these questions.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oh, Damn, the Blog

I've completely let this blog fall by the wayside over the last four and half, months. I suppose it's been a combination of work, dealing with all the setup for Burning Man, oh and yeah, adjusting to being single again. That gave me a bit of a distraction. So, I find myself at the moment with not much to rant about as I would normally like. I will work on that, now that my memory of this site is refreshed, and I'll be back here with ideas somewhat soon.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Continuing Thoughts on the Tea Party

I started writing this post back in February, after reading this New York Times article on the Tea Party. What with two months going by and the Health Care Reform Bill being passed, a lot has changed, but I'll blame my tardiness on getting an actual job. Happy to say I'm now working as a software engineer for BetterOffLine, which has taken a good deal of my free time.

However, now to finish this post and be able to clear this copy of the NY Times that has been sitting on my desk for two months.

I thought several things when reading this article; generally along the lines of agreeing with the noble seeming premises that these people start with and wondering how it is that they turn to the voices in America I hate the most. Yes, I'm concerned with the increasing power in the hands of the wealthy, and the retreat of Constitutional protections in the War on Terror, but the direction these groups are taking baffles me. I am a very strong leftist, and generally opposed to the Republican party, but I can at times see where Republicans are coming from. But anyone who holds Glenn Beck up as an idol is nothing but a raving nut-job.

To some extent this is nothing but another spasm of right-wing extremism, where general anger at the recession and, *gasp*, having a black president, are masquerading as a desire to protect the constitution, but I am left to ask, where are the irrational, angry movements on the left?

This is like some messed up 60's where there is only the John Birch society and no SDS nor Yippies. Shortly after reading said article, I happily came across this Coffee Party movement, which gave me slight hope for more balance with the political radicals, but the Coffee Party seems, as of yet, to be far too reasonable and low-impact.

I suppose I'm just disappointed, as a kid who grew up reading Illuminatus and having what I assume to be a romanticized view of the 60s. If there was such a mirror image Tea Party movement, I wouldn't support it, but I still wish it were there. There is a lack of balance in political insanity these days.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What the Hell Massachusetts?

A year ago, I was dreaming that the Republican party would fracture and die during the Obama administration. As is often the case with me, I was overly optimistic. The Democrats, though generally more well intentioned than the Republicans, continue to be a disorganized mess, while the Republicans have been fairly well disciplined. Sadly, the Democrats stumbling have opened up messes such as the one in Massachusetts, and the Tea Party crowd hasn't done a good job of tearing the Republicans apart. Bloody voting systems favoring two-party systems.

In general I remain a strong supporter of the Obama administration. Despite the complaints of people such as myself, and the running media story to the contrary, he has managed to accomplish a fair amount. Yet hopes were so high, it is hard to not be disappointed, simply look at how long the health care debate has dragged on and the danger it is now in.

As a depressed, hypothyroidic, diabetic without a group health plan, I have more than a passing interest in health care reform. I am not happy with the current Senate version, it is, like the Democrats, an ill disciplined mess, but it is far better than nothing. I hope that it survives enough to get passed in some form shortly.

Politics in America is not doing what I want it to. It's possible that my political views are so off from the majority of Americans that I'll never be happy with them. People over at Open Left and I imagine elsewhere on the net are wailing that the centrism of the Democrats, combined with Coakley losing, will lead to the collapse of America. I remain more optimistic than that, but that's perhaps my problem again. I do admit that what this means for the elections later this year is also frightening. No one likes the incumbent party when there's a recession, but losing in Massachusetts...

What would make me happy with American politics? I'd like a party that is some combination of progressive Democrats/the Green Party with a spine, and the editorial board of the Economist. And since I might be quite a while in waiting for that, well, I can continue to hope for even more unlikely radical change. Break up California and Texas, triple the size of the House of Representatives, instant runoff voting, the Singularity! Something...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Where is Civilization 5?

It has been five years since Civ IV came out and it is a terrible shame that Civ V does not appear to be on the horizon. I've written about wanting the next SimCity and more in depth simulation games before, but maybe PC games are simply dying. Sigh. I can dream though.

If I were to be a creative director for a Civ game there are a number of changes I would like to make. In line with my general wanting to make simulations more accurate, there is a lot I would change with the basic map. The Civ games could have a much more detailed terrain. Hopefully, this could be done in a way that wouldn't require an increase in micromanagement. Perhaps something along the line of the worlds in Black & White, I quite liked that aesthetic. I feel this increased realism could add a great deal to the game. We've got the processing power that much of this could be done in the background, giving accurate climatic simulations and such.

This could lead to a number of improvements, one of which is a better model for spread of domestic crops, which, as per the thesis of Guns, Germs and Steel, were incredibly influential in the course of human civilization. That book does a good job of explaining why the old world ended up with higher population densities, technology and diseases, and I would love to see that modeled in a Civ game.

Furthermore, there are several other points I'd like to see modeled more realistically. I was always annoyed that the Civ games seem to be incapable of measuring population properly. One could rule half the world at 21st Century levels of technology and industry and still have a population of 1 million. I would also like to see economics modeled more closely to real life. Instead of units of shields, express things in real world terms of dollars or tons of steel, etc. I'd like to be able to use Civ to actually run simulation of alternate history instead of simply reading stories on

Also, when working in a game universe, I just love knowing that there is an accurate simulation underpinning everything. If I could play a game of Civ and know that I could stop and look underneath at modeled ocean currants, trade patterns and disease vectors, it would be a thing of beauty. Those items always get ignored in favor of flashier wars.

Sadly, I'll be waiting for this for a long time. Although, I suppose I could go work on Freeciv and try to make this all work. I do have free time these days. Of course, there actually was an attempt to make a Guns, Germs and Steel influenced Civ game, but that seems to have died years ago. Shame.

What Are We Going to Need to Get a Whuffie System to Work?

After messing around with the idea of whuffie and various extensions of it for quite a while, long before this previous post, I have ended up with lots of vague ideas, many of them fairly far detached from immediate reality. In an attempt to bring things back to a more practical realm, I'd like to do a bit of organizing.

Looking at what is out there now, there are a number of recommendation systems that already function fairly well, Amazon,, Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, etc. Unfortunately, all are quite limited to their specific domains with their own specific ways of functioning. With that as a starting point, I should also ask where it is that I want to be going. How would a person actually interact with this system I am trying to imagine?

At the simplest level, one could use it as we use existing recommendation/reputation systems: suggestions as to what product to buy, what song to listen to, what comment or news story to read. The recommendations would simply be better. More specifically, how do I want to be able to use such a system that I can't already?

I want to be able ask a system questions such as, "What books should I read?", "What's the best product x in price range y for people with my tastes?", "What is the best discussion on this issue?", "Can I see these candidates ranked using this mix of metrics?", "Based on my tastes what are the best TV shows for me?", "Who is the best person in my social circle in terms of x?", "Who is the most respected writer out there on issue y?"

A lot of that is already done to some extent via search engines, or would require more advanced natural language processing. But I can't help but feel that the various subjective ranking stuff out there should be used better. I suppose that's really the issue. We have ranking systems, but they're all completely disconnected. Rankings should be fungible and aren't.

Reputation is decided not simply by people's explicit declarations, but by things such as what people buy, what people link to, where people go, etc., and it would be very complicated to reduce all that into one universal system. Back to the original idea of keeping things simpler without going into all those complications... aside from the fact that I should learn more about machine learning algorithms, I suppose my initial impulse for wanting to find a foundation for all this comes from how completely useless most of the explicit rating systems I've seen are.

We see systems where people can rank things 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 on eBay, Yelp, Google Maps,, etc. But, I've never been able to get anything close to an accurate result from these systems. There is no correlation weighted between my opinions and the opinions of the reviews as I would like, obviously a review should be given higher weight for me if the reviewer has similar tastes to mine. Some people rate everything a five out of five or rank it zero, with nothing in between. Different systems have different metrics. Because of problems such as this, these systems seem to only be vaguely used, or have their use specific to one particular site. The recommendation systems recommends items to you based upon what other people have bought, not on what they've ranked, that ranking system seems largely superfluous and tacked on. On Digg and Reddit, systems which do use explicit declarations, there is no range of ranking, only up or down votes.

I would like to see a system that that can see people's reviews across multiple platforms, weight them based on how relevant they are to the user, and provide some regularity to their usage.

Then, once we get that system together, then I suppose we could move forward. I'd love to see things such as plugging together's and's recommendation systems together with those ranking systems. Then you can start using things such as tags, location data, social contacts, etc, to get some really accurate recommendation systems. And then maybe we can begin to think about a Whuffie system.