On the Importance of Lube

As a response to meaningless discussions about microformats, standards, widgets and other unimportant web gunk I wrote an article Deadprogrammer’s Hierarchy of Web Needs. The gist of that post is that what matters the most is text and images, and that the importance of everything else above it falls in geometric progression. Things high on the pyramid get too much consideration.

There is one modifier that does not fit on the pyramid: lubrication. You see, there’s a lot of friction associated with putting content online. It’s a major limiting factor to the growth of the internet. Those who focus on the base of the pyramid and apply enough lube succeed.

Twitter succeeded because it is the ultimate lube, the equivalent of a major dose of oil-based laxative. It lets you put little pooplets of thought at the speed of diarrhea. Text alone is enough – it’s the very base of the pyramid. Because of that people forgive Twitter the url shortening pandemic – the very thing that is poisoning the exchange of links, the terrible handling of images, and the procrustean shortening of the information that you can share.

My ideal twitter feed is kind of like now defunct memepool.com, but with inline images. I want good copy, I want good images and I want good links (and not the terrible shortened crap – this is not what hypertext is about).

Besides lube, there is stuff that seems like a good idea, but is actually adding friction. The days of black backgrounds and blinking text are behind us, but the new enemies of eyeballs are more subtle. Hashmarks in Twitter are terrible. I can’t read shit like “ugh, bad #weather in #hoboken #today #firstworldproblems”. Another thing that acts as sand in my eyes is “winerlinks“. They are little hashmarks that let you link to every paragraph in the story (which is a great idea), but at the same time they look like a bunch of bedbugs and scrape your eye with every saccade.

The year is 2011 and we are walking with supercomputers attached to digital cameras more powerful than the ones that went into space probes. Yet sharing an image is still a huge pain in the ass. It just takes too many steps. Iphone apps do it relatively well, even if too many people mangle their perfectly good pictures with a totally un-fun “a fun & quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures” (whatever that means).

Here’s Vannevar Bush talking about “memex trails” in “As We May Think“:

“The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.”

Stinging together these trails is still too cumbersome. Have you ever tried to post a picture of two items (what JWZ calls “ exhibit A, exibit B” (this particular link leads to a collection that is totally worth your time)? What if there are no pictures of these items on the internet and you have to scan or photograph it, upload it, crop it, post it? And what if like Vannevar Bush’s bow and arrow researcher you’d like to add a comment in longhand, your own handwriting. Or how about a little hand-drawn diagram? This simple task will likely take at least half an hour.

But enough bellyaching. It’s 2011, and the flying cars are almost here. There’s Skitch and Evernote (Phil Libin seems to be making the dream of Memex a reality in a less lame way than anyone else). And as an alternative to Twitter there is Google+ – I can drag an image from Skitch into a text area and it automatically uploads! When they’ll open up the API doing A/B posts will become finally possible there. Please, please leave the suffocating, hashtag strewn stinkhole that Twitter became. Join Google+. I’ll be hanging out there.

Office Design (Design Books)

At the beginning of the 19th century, Charles Fourrier observed that citizens’ lives were marked not by the home but by the office; 200 years later, this somewhat eccentric statement expresses the reality of post-industrial society: In Western countries, one of the consequences of the globalization of the economy has been the concentration of workers in the tertiary sector; more than half of the population works in offices. Offices have become domestic, the relationship between workmates has become closer and their workplace seems increasingly like a club or house in which they spend the greater part of the day. All presented projects feature inspiring ideas of designing more efficient, modern and more pleasant working environments.

Memex is Here

I think I finally found a piece of software I was searching for all of these years, the Memex that Dr. Vannevar Bush predicted. Too bad that the  good ol’ leader of the Majestic 12 is not around to see it.

Evernote is almost everything that I ever wanted in a Memex. It now even has a web component which will let me use it on Linux. The text recognition actually works and is useful, unlike what the retards at Riya were trying to do.

Evernote seems to be rapidly improving, in leaps and bounds. It was around for a while, but without web storage and access I wasn’t interested enough.

This is best symbolized by what I presume is an old logo, which is pretty lame:

The new logo, with an elephant (they never forget), a dog ear ear – now that’s recursive, and an overall look that would not be out of place on an early 20th century pencil box just simply rocks. There’s more hidden imagery in the elephant’s head. In any case, looks like a real pro made this logo.

For the Beaver to Poop On!

An exhaustive article about the “Brass Rat” – MIT class ring featuring the school’s mascot, a rat-looking beaver:

“The Brass Rat is traditionally worn with the Beaver “sitting” or “shitting” on the wearer until graduation. This represents the hardships imposed on students at MIT. In addition, the skyline of Boston is facing the student, representing the outside world awaiting. After graduation, the ring is turned around, and the Cambridge skyline is visible to the graduate, as a reminder of times spent at MIT.”

Fans of Harry Harrison can choose to order the Brass Rat in stainless steel instead.

This must be the ugliest class and overstated ring in existence. The Canadian engineer’s iron ring, by comparison is a marvel of good taste (even though  technically it’s a pinky ring).

My favorite part of this trivia was the hack of welding the Brass Rat to the finger of the Statue of the Three Lies (as the model for the statue supposedly went to MIT).

Where’s My Flying Car Part I : KABOOM!

“Celebrating Gertsen, we clearly see three generations,
three classes acting in the Russian Revolution. First –
noblemen and landowners, Decembrists and Herzen.
Horribly distant from the people. But their work was not in wain.
Decembrists woke Herzen. Herzen began revolutionary agitation.”
V.I. Lenin

Computers have existed like for 200,000 years in Internet time, yet the innovation in computer technology seems to be a little slow. Brick and mortar slow. Let me present to you an approximate timeline:

In 1945 Dr. Vannevar Bush wrote an article As We May Think about a device called the Memex.

In 1960 Theodor Holm Nelson, inspired by Bush, coined the term “hypertext” and started on Project Xanadu, a vaporware Superinternet.

In 1968 Dr. Douglas Engelbart delivered the MOAD, demonstrating videoconferencing, email, hypertext, copy and paste, as well as some novel input devices including a mouse.

Bush, Nelson and Engelbart show a progression from a dream into reality. Bush was a pure dreamer – he never intended to actually try and build the Memex. Nelson at least tried to build Xanadu, although he failed miserably. He could not even get to the demo stage. Engelbart actually built enough stuff to make very impressive demos, although never to build actual successful products except the mouse. These guys suffered from the RAND Corporation syndrome–the common joke went that RAND stood for Reasearch And No Development.

The problem with these three was that they could not focus on individual problems. Luckily for us, next came Xerox PARC. Xerox corporation had money coming out of its wazoo, decided to invest in a world class R&D center. They used the same approach that Google is using today: spend the extra money on hiring the brightest technologists around and let them run free and wild.

Bush, Nelson and Engelbart were a lot like a character named Manilov in Gogol’s Dead Souls. Manilov was an owner of a large rundown estate. He spent his days dreaming about improving it. Wouldn’t it be nice to build a bridge over the river and on it build little merchant booths so that the peasants could buy stuff there. Of course, none of his projects ever went anywhere, and if they did, they were quickly abandoned.

PARC engineers were men of action. Each concentrated on a particular aspect, and they’ve built working models of many things that we enjoy today: personal computer with GUI interfaces, Ethernet, WYSIWYG text editor, laser printer, and even a computer animation system amongst other things. Sadly, Xerox was able to capitalize mostly on the laser printer, which actually probably paid for all of PARC’s expenses. PARC indirectly influenced Apple and Microsoft in the development of GUI OS. Also Charles Simonyi left PARC to develop Word and Excel for Microsoft, thus creating an enormous amount of wealth. Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs also left PARC, took Ethernet and turned it into 3COM. John Warnock and Charles Geschke left PARC, took PostScript and created a little company called Adobe Systems. Well, you get the picture.

To give you another analogy, the technological revolution of the 60s, 70s and 80s was like a hydrogen bomb. A hydrogen bomb is made of three bombs: a conventional explosive that ignites a fission explosive that in turn ignites a fusion explosion. Semiconductor industry created by William Shockley and the Traitorous Eight was the fuel, Bush and Company–the conventional explosion, PARC–fission, what came after–fusion. KABOOM!

Bionic Social Networking

The words bionic and cybernetic kind of lost their original meanings in the English language. I squarely blame The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and The Bionic Boy and the rest of TV and movie cyborgs as well as William Gibson.

Cybernetics is the science of control and communication. That does not only include electronic communications and numeric control. All kinds of control and communication. Thus we are all technically cyborgs or cybernetic organisms. Cyber- was a hot bizz-prefix in the 50s and 60s, but today steadily deteriorated into something anachronistic. People say “cyberspace” to sound old-timey, like when Mr. Burns from The Simpsons says “alienist” instead of “shrink.” Meanwhile, the study of usability, which in demand because of its apparent usefulness, is basically a subset of cybernetics. Yet when something is described as cyber-something, everybody promptly imagines gleaming steal and humanoid robots or cyborgs.

The word “bionic” fares even worse because of The Six Million Dollar Man. Something bionic is not necessarily “better, stronger, faster”. It means that it’s modeled on something found in nature. Like the Coca-cola “contour bottle” that is based on the cacao pod.

Anyway, what I wanted to write about has something to do with both cybernetics and bionics. As a web professional, I have witnessed and participated in the rise of online social networking. Social networking squarely falls into the cybernetics category as communication through technological means. The though that occurred to me is that it’s also bionic.

The only difference between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0 or Web Beta is ease of use. Things have become slightly easier, but personal web pages, blogs and social networks like myspace are basically the same thing that has a rather interesting counterpart in nature. The best example from nature is the behavior of bowerbirds. These birds build garish and elaborate nests “called bowers” to attract mates, which is a rather counter-intuitive behavior, as blinged-out nests are a prime target for predators.

“Depending on the species, the bower ranges from a circle of cleared earth with a small pile of twigs in the center to a complex and highly decorated structure of sticks and leaves – usually shaped like a walkway, a small hut or a maytree -, into and around which the male places a variety of objects he has collected. These objects – always strikingly colored – may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded plastic items, pieces of glass or similar things. The bird will spend hours carefully sorting and arranging his collection, with each thing in a specific place. If an object is moved while the bowerbird is away he will put it back in its place. No two bowers are the same, and the collection of objects reflects the personal taste of each bird and its capability to procure unusual and rare items (going as far as stealing them from neighboring bowers).”

Isn’t a bower strikingly similar to a myspace profile? If these birds could figure out how to set background music and master JavaScript copy and pasting they definitely would. Myspace is not better, faster or stronger than other social networks or blogs, but it’s sure bionic.

I, personally already attracted a mate years ago. I’ve accomplished that with an old-fashioned web page (true story) that any modern myspace bowerbird would be jealous of. As I don’t need any more mates, the only reason for me to use social networks is to find friends. Also, as a web programmer I am interested in seeing the interfaces, technical tricks and various doodads that earn other developers kajillions of dollars.

Also, recently I was talking with a friend of mine (whom I’ve known for many years online and never met offline, by the way), and got into an argument about privacy feature trends in social networking sites. He countered my argument about something that Myspace does by saying that I don’t even have a Myspace account and thus don’t know what I am talking about.

Well, I went ahead and created one. I also got an account at LinkedIn, Facebook, and del.icio.us . I even created an account in William Gibson’s wet dream, Second Life, although thanks to my geek-atypical aversion to role-playing games I could not suffer though more than 15 minutes there.

In any case, I welcome all of you to go and check out my digi-bowers and add me as your friend.

Street Use Luggage

Moe: Why don’t you try…Moe’s hobo chicken chili. I start with the best part — the neck — and then I add secret hobo spices.
Marge: Ooh. Tres bien.

The Simpsons, episode [3F02] Bart Sells His Soul

Sometimes I want to post a simple, quick post, but the mad association engine that resides in my brain makes it much, much longer than it should be.

Recently Kevin Kelly launched an awesome new blog, Street Use. It’s about various street hacks, from improvised fishing carts (I own a somewhat more refined one) to Soviet Era bootleg records made out X-ray film (I actually remember those).

Here’s are some examples of “street use” that I encountered. It’s an amazing matching set of postal tape and cardboard luggage.

Notice the variety of sizes, ergonomic features and uniformity of design.

Hobo luggage

This luggage set reminded me of Dimitri Mendeleev, the famous inventor of the periodic table of elements. A lesser known fact is that he’s also responsible for vodka’s standard 40% ethanol by volume content. An even less known fact about him is that he was a master luggage maker. I’ve encountered a story about Mendeleev purchasing leather in a crafts supply store: another customer asked the storekeeper – “that man looks familiar, do you know who he is?”, and the salesman saying – “Oh, he’s a very famous man. He’s the best luggage craftsman in all of Russia.”

Hobo luggage

Here’s another example of beautiful hobo design: this street dwelling is probably the most elegant one that I’ve ever seen. Clean lines, functional design. It could win a design award.

Hobo cardboard bed

No, this is Not Hotel W

Dwarfed by the Verizon Building on the left and the Conde Nast Building on the right, and soon to be hidden from view by 1 Bryant Park(an skyscraper under construction, that looks almost exactly like one of the Freedom Tower design rejects), there’s a strange 50 foot wide razor of a skyscraper. It’s called the Bush Building, after Irving T. Bush, a son of a rich refinery operator who instead of living a life of leisure chose to put on a bat’s mask and a cape… wait, actually no, he chose to become a seaport magnate. Also good. I am not sure if

Besides the narrowness, the neo-gothic tower has another peculiar feature: side walls sporting what appears to be a raised brick design

but that turns out to be an illusion created by colored bricks.

There are plans are under way to create a hideous modern add-on building on the side to alleviate the crampdness that the current owners, the Dalloul family of Lebanon. I am not sure what they do for a living, but every article I see mention that the owners are from Lebanon and run a family business. It might be that they are the owners of a cellular company LibanCell, but they don’t seem to have much of a web presence. Anyway, the new addition is a big modern glass bag on a side connected to the Bush Building by floating floors (this is what I call Hugo Simpson’s pigeonrat school of design).

Why build a tower that is only 50 feet wide when there’s space nearby? Why make colored brick designs when you can put windows there? I have no idea. But this is one of the most unique buildings in Manhattan.

Is Irving T. Bush related to the rest of the Bushes that shaped so much of American history? I don’t know, but it seems pretty likely to me. Remember, that besides the two presidents and numerous other various Eulogian Club members holding important posts, the Bush family tree includes Wampanoag tribe members and Memex-inventing Majestic 12 member Vannevar Bush as well as other unusual people. I think Irving T. Bush fits in with them rather well.

P.S. By the way, speaking of the unluckily-numbered antenna-endowed Conde Nast Building. According to Jessica Cutler’s The Washingtonienne : A Novel, girls who work for Conde Nast magazines are known as Conde Nasties. He heh.

How Are We Gonna Live a Few Years Without a Total Lunar Eclipse?

“Young people, why aren’t you looking at the Moon?” – a Russian man standing in front of our building along with a few other moon gazers asked me an my wife. I failed to come up with a snappy answer and just left him unridiculed to enjoy the last for the next couple of years 3 hour long lunar eclipse.

A question that I had a bit prior to that encounter was : “What would a wide angle lens handheld photo of a lunar eclipse look like?”

Now I know.