A lighter shade of Amazon

Here’s a good example of what SOAP-based web services and an open-minded vendor site can bring about. Amazon encourages people to use web services to build customized interfaces to its book offerings. Here is the work of someone at Kokogiak Media who decided to put all of Amazon into a single page:
Amazon Light. The result is reasonably successful, and it bodes well for the world of interface design. Consider: if you think you can build a better user interface than the folks at Amazon, you can just go try it. And not with fake, cheesy data, but with the real thing. There’s a not unreasonable chance that some clever college student will do a better job than the entire UI design staff at Amazon. That’s good for everybody.

Footnote: It’s a little tricky to figure about who’s behind Kokogiak Media, but it turns out “they” are Alan Taylor, who in addition to being an industrious web tinkerer, is in fact an Amazon employee. Makes sense, I guess. Check out the cool space photos on his nowords.com site.

Genomic Lorem Ipsum

I was thinking about this Lorem Ipsum text the other day (see my post here, or a few entries down the page) and it occurred to me that there was something oddly genetic about the whole thing. Here is a message that has lost its intrinsic meaning, but nevertheless continues to get handed down from typesetter to typesetter like junk DNA. Geneticists have tools to measure these things, and they can often deduce how long two species have been separated by the genomic “distance” between them.

Why not, I thought, use the tools of a geneticist on this homely passage? If you want to compare two passages, be they poetry or protein, the tool of the trade is the Needleman-Wunsch algorithm. It finds the best sequence alignment between the two and returns a score. Starting with the two texts (CICERO for the original and IPSUM for the latter day corruption) we perform a little algorithmic MATLAB mojo and arrive at the following alignment.

CICERO: Neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum q
IPSUM:  --------------------------------Lorem ipsum--

CICERO: uia dolor sit amet, consectetu-r, adipisci-- 
           ::::::::::::::::::::::::::: : :::::::::  :
IPSUM:  --- dolor sit amet, consectetuer- adipiscing 

CICERO: velit, sed quia- non numquam- ei----u-s modi 
         ::::::::::  :: :::  :::   : : :    : : ::: :
IPSUM:  -elit, sed -diam no--num---my nibh euis-mod- 

CICERO: tempora incidunt ut labore et dolore magnam a
        :       :::::::::::::: ::: ::::::::::::::: ::
IPSUM:  t-------incidunt ut la-ore-et dolore magna- a

CICERO: liquam quaerat volupt-atem
        :::::::   ::::::::: : ::  
IPSUM:  liquam ---erat volu-tpat--

That gives us a total of 44 letter mutations (gaps and changes) out of a 173 letter message. If we assume a relatively speedy mutation drift rate of 10-8 per letter per generation, and we further assume that a typesetter generation is 20 years, we can work out that Cicero’s original oration occurred 508 million years ago, which places it neatly at the end of the extraordinarily fertile Cambrian period. I understand that Cicero was huge with the trilobite crowd.

Taking the cyber out of cyberspace

The “semantic web” is supposed to be the next big thing for Tim Berners-Lee’s little invention, but I think geospatial links will be a hit much sooner. “Geospatial link” is a fancy name for hanging URLs in mid-air. If your web browser knows where it is (in the purely spatial sense of latitude and longitude), it will be able to ask if any web documents have been posted at those coordinates. As the author of a web page, rather than putting it somewhere in cyberspace, say http://www.starchamber.com, you can elect to put it somewhere in real space. Similarly, you can look for documents in space near your real (or imagined) physical location. Imagine spying a virtual sign outside a restaurant emblazoned with the warning: “Lice-ridden wait staff. Chef has dripping carbuncle on nose.”

Steven Johnson has written an interesting piece on this topic for Discover called Pssst! This Note’s for You. The blog world is going nutty over physical coordinates, too. Go to geourl.org to find the coordinates of thousands of blogs. Who cares? It doesn’t seem to have any practical value yet, but then again it does seem to address an important psychological need. Where are you? It’s nice to know.

Golan Levin’s interactive artwork

Golan Levin, like Martin Wattenberg, is an artist who can write code. This convergence is rare enough to make it a delightful treat to browse through his work. In contrast to various other “new” art forms enabled by computers, such as hypertext fiction or virtual 3-d worlds, this interactive graphical work seems to have real staying power, drawing me back to it again and again. Here is Levin’s old site at the MIT Media Lab. Flong is his current address, apparently. (Can anybody tell me what Flong means?)

Some of these pieces are absolutely mesmerizing. I particularly like Yellowtail, Newyear, and The Secret Lives of Numbers. Yellowtail is a nifty little kinetic sketch piece, similar to (though cleaner than) Scott Snibbe’s venerable Motion Sketch. Newyear lets you draw your own snowflakes, and The Secret Lives of Numbers is a monumental opus that reflects the popularity (as measured by web hits) of every number between 1 and 100,000. The dynamic scaling and zooming of the interface is beautiful to behold. We read in the introduction to “Numbers”

…certain numbers, such as 212, 486, 911, 1040, 1492, 1776, 68040, or 90210, occur more frequently than their neighbors because they are used to denominate the phone numbers, tax forms, computer chips, famous dates, or television programs that figure prominently in our culture. Regular periodicities in the data, located at multiples and powers of ten, mirror our cognitive preference for round numbers in our biologically-driven base-10 numbering system. Certain numbers, such as 12345 or 8888, appear to be more popular simply because they are easier to remember.

Related notes: 2 Jul 2002, 9 Dec 2000, 30 Jun 2000.

Nobody loves pain

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit, sed diam nonummy nibh euismod tincidunt ut laoreet dolore magna aliquam erat volutpat. Have you ever wondered where this lorem ipsum nonsense came from? Ut wisi enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exerci tation ullamcorper suscipit lobortis nisl ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. It looks like Latin, but not quite. For instance, where does the word adipiscing come from? Adipiscing isn’t even good pig Latin. Google quickly points you to two good Lorem Ipsum sites: lipsum.com and loremipsum.de (both of which sport automatic text-spewing ipsumators). Supposedly “Lorem ipsum” has been used as dummy text since the 1500s, but I have my doubts. The reason for its modern success is undeniable: PageMaker included ipsum as its automatic fill text. But I won’t be happy until I hear the story about how the original Latin (shown below) was corrupted into something weird resembling Latin. I bet the final story has a lot more to do with a software engineer in the 1980s than a typesetter in the 1500s. Do you know the real story? Let me know.

For the record, as seen at the loremipsum.de site, we have the Latin original from Cicero‘s De Finibus:

Neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, sed quia non numquam eius modi tempora incidunt ut labore et dolore magnam aliquam quaerat voluptatem.

which gives the English

Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure.

The English is courtesy of Rackham’s 1914 translation of Cicero’s De Finibus Bonorum Et Malorum (translated as On Ends). Follow the link and spot the Y2K bug. According to Amazon, Harvard University published this book in 2014. I think Marcus Tullius Cicero would be delighted to know so many people are being exposed to his work, even into the future of the future.

There’s always weather


It’s a good thing that we have weather, that hearty support of flagging conversations across all climates and cultures. A world without weather would be a sad place indeed, devoid of all but the most meaningful conversations. Consequently, high tech gadgets don’t make weather go away. They just make it that much easier to talk about the weather.

For instance, I know at this very instant that it is 24 degrees Fahrenheit outside right now (or at least it is outside the WBZ newsroom just down the street from me) because I installed a little app called Weatherbug on my desktop after reading an article over at SFGate.com: Weatherbug may rain on Weather.com’s parade. I think the Weatherbug folks have got the mix right with the interface: you get a realtime updated temperature display on the bottom corner of your desktop, and the forecast is exactly one click away. When it comes to weather, you always want to see pretty much the same thing. I feel like I’m wading around more than I need to with sites like AccuWeather or Weather.com. This way I’m in, I’m out, and I’m off (wearing the right coat). Weatherbug has a nifty business model, too. You can buy one of their weather stations at a good price (okay, it’s still $12,000) and then you become part of their network of information providers. The network gets smarter, which brings in the crowds, which brings in the advertisers, and everybody is happy. Using your customers as both providers and consumers (think Ebay) is the ultimate leveraged web play.

Lazy webs and busy meters

More on the LazyWeb: Clay Shirky, one of the forces behind the LazyWeb project, writes about it at OpenP2P: LazyWeb and RSS: Given Enough Eyeballs, Are Features Shallow Too? There’s some good stuff in there, including this tasty little pretzel from Stefano Mazzocchi: “Good ideas and bad code build communities. The other three combinations do not. This is extremely hard to understand; it’s probably the most counter-intuitive thing about open source dynamics.” It’s an intriguing thought.

While we’re on the topic of speeding up community cross-pollination and feedback, take a look at netmood.net [via kottke.org]. The idea is to provide stock ticker style feedback to people who visit your site. How much do you like my site? How much do you like it now? How about now? This exercise may seem a little silly, but there’s no mistaking the fact that that which gets measured improves. Maybe netmood widgets will fuel dramatic improvements in web sites over the next year. It reminds me of a recent Bill McKibben article about the new Honda hybrid gas-electric car: Small Change (Orion Magazine). McKibben points out that once they put a gauge on the dash that says what your gas mileage is, you naturally want to start keeping score (“What’s my average today? Is that better than my brother-in-law?”). I happen to know that my friend Nabeel does the same thing with his his sleek Audi A4. Here’s McKibben.

What if your thermostat gave you an updated oil consumption readout every time you went to turn it up? What if your faucet showed you how much water you’d used in the last day, and how it differed from your annual average? Would you change your behavior? I think you likely would — that you’d reach for a sweater if it was just a tad chilly around the house, that the average shower would get a little shorter. Not because you cared about the environment, or even the money you were burning in your furnace, but because — well, because it’s a number, and our instinct is to improve it, to notch it up. You’d meet the neighbors on the street and just happen to mention that you’d gotten through the winter on 44 gallons of crude, thanks to the nifty new cellulose insulation in the attic.

Samuel Pepys, blogger

Now this is a good idea. Samuel Pepys (remember for the sake of your next cocktail party conversation that his last name is pronounced “peeps”, as in the phrase “Closer than my peeps you are to me“) was an Englishman who kept a detailed diary of his life in London from 1659 to 1669. In that span he had a front row seat for plague, fire, restoration, and enlightenment. More to the point, his records provide a wonderful window onto daily life in seventeenth century London. Since it is already presliced into day-sized morsels (and is safely past the snares of international copyright law), Pepys’ Diary has been set up as a blog by a clever fellow named Phil Gyford. The site is well-designed and well-executed. I particularly like annotations that people add to it. For instance, if Pepys mentions that he nearly ate a sack-posset, someone may well sign on and tell you what it is and how to cook it. Tasty! One question remains: would Pepys have blogged had he been alive today? It’s hard to say, since his diaries were kept in cryptic shorthand. Perhaps he would have preferred privacy.