Ambient displays and high heels

More ambient devices in the news. The one that caught my eye today is a “My Traffic” widget that shows, with a simple little clock-like device, how long your commute home is going to take. Unfortunately, I saw that in the print version of Technology Review, so I can’t link to it yet. But the idea is that you program in your route on their server and they talk to the traffic databases to figure out how long it should take. I don’t know how well it works, but it fits in nicely with their philosophy, which is to fold a lot of data into one simple message.

Ambient Devices lists several other product applications that illustrate their philosophy in action, things like weather prediction displays and stock market monitors. According to them, ambient information lives in a sweet spot between push and pull. You don’t go looking for it, and it doesn’t intrude. But you are gently made aware of when you should act.

Think about unobtrusive background information in your workplace that might nevertheless make you get up from your desk and do something. On a sunny afternoon the sky might suddenly go dark and remind you that your car windows are down. Or your stomach might hear “Happy Birthday” down the hall and think of free cake. My favorite example of ambient data comes from when I worked at NASA. My building contained almost exclusively male engineers, and had long echoing corridors with hard floors. Whenever a woman wearing any kind of high heeled shoe came by, the sound was unmistakable, and a dozen mechanical and aerospace engineers would lean out of their offices to take a look. I don’t think they even realized they had been trained by the sound, let alone how rude it looked. It was just a gentle click that correlated with desire, thereby generating heat and motion. Then it was back to the computer.

Music theory for the masses

At work today my friend Jason mentioned a cool music theory site. What is it called?, of course. It’s published by a guy named Ricci Adams, and it’s darn good. The site is spare and cleanly designed, and it covers a huge amount of ground. As I review the site, I’m just astounded at how much work Ricci has done all for me. Or at least it seems that way. It’s free, and it’s got a bunch of stuff I’ve always wanted to have in one place. The list goes on and on: interval, key, and triad reading… interval, scale, and chord ear training. Check out this chord calculator. I’ve seen a lot of these things, and this is the best I’ve come across. There’s even an exercise devoted to teaching you to distinguish by sound those wacky church modes with the Greek names. Do you know your Phrygian from your Mixolydian? I think not. And now you have no excuse for not brushing up. For future reference, the Phrygian mode has that distinctive minor 2nd, and should not be confused with the “Hypophrygian” plagal mode.

Now look, here’s a guy who’s only a junior in college who’s made a major publication that helps people all over the world. That’s just got to cheer you up.

Tombstone graphics

Happy equinox! The nights are lengthening, and the stores are starting to fill with Halloween merchandise. One of the cool things about living in New England is that there are lots of nifty old cemeteries to visit. If you’re ever looking for an authentic creepy autumn vibe, you can take a stroll and look at the headstones. Among the very old headstones there are common motifs that come up again and again, like the winged death’s head and the urn and willow. I always wondered what the dang deal was about these images, and a recent post on Peter Merholz’s set me straight. Not only is there a great paper about this topic available online (Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow by James Deetz), but it also has terrific data visualization graphics. A double bonus! Watch as the mysterious Death’s Head morphs into a Merry Cherub by means of cultural memetic evolution and geographic dispersal.

Here’s the big question: by learning about something mysterious, do you make it more or less mysterious?

Read Gleick’s Newton

The Rambles Bookshop is back in business. It’s been a long time since I touched it, but I’ve reworked some of the publishing magic that makes it work (MATLAB, XML, and stylesheets…) so it should be easier to manage from now on. I’ve just finished James Gleick’s book on Sir Isaac Newton that I recommend to you. Here is what I said about it in the bookshop…

Who was Isaac Newton? In his own age, Newton was a god of reason who created a perfect and perfectly rational universe. To a later and more romantic age, he became a monster, a bizarre unsociable creature who stripped the world of its rich mystery. More recently he has been outed as a closeted mystic who delved deeply into religious prophecy and alchemy. As John Maynard Keynes famously pronounced, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” Which Newton do you see? James Gleick does a fine job in this book of telling the story not only of the man, but of how he was perceived. After all, where exactly are the lines that separate magic, religion, and science? They are foggy enough even now, and in the 17th century they were indiscernible. Newton, in pursuing occult matters, wasn’t engaged in a childish sideshow. He was doing the same thing that led him to his law of universal gravitation. He could not know that his investigations into the biblical prophecies of Daniel would not lead him to results as fundamental as his physics. He was simply doing what he did better than anyone before or since: observing, theorizing, experimenting, and systematizing. In so doing he sharpened the lines between what we now think of as the clear and separate domains of science, magic, and religion, though this was certainly not his intent. It’s just that his science succeeded where his theology did not. But who can blame him for thinking that his vision could penetrate any topic? Gleick’s book is very good, a sympathetic and rounded portrait of a strange and extraordinary man.

Try the ladybug

A friend at work pointed me to Ken Perlin’s homepage, and my goodness, what a lot of cool stuff he has on his site. Professor Perlin is a very busy man. There are a bunch of nifty applets to play with, but one I spent a while messing around with was the highly addictive ladybug game. The path planner applet is also nice, and looks like the it might make the basis for a future MATLAB programming contest.

I never did manage to win that ladybug game.

Martin Wattenberg and History Flow

I should have known the lion by his claw… Martin Wattenberg is at it again. From Matt Jones’s excellent blog blackbeltjones, I found this fascinating report on recent work at IBM on something called history flow. History flow is a way to visualize the history of a living document. And the really nice touch here is that they chose to visualize the history of wiki articles in Wikipedia, particularly those that have sensitive topics like Islam, abortion, evolution, and Iraq. Not surprisingly, this last one grew dramatically as American and British troops prepared to attack.

Only after admiring the tremendous coolness of history flow for a while did I stumble across the fact that Martin was behind it. Matt Jones realized this a few days later, and added these thoughts, which will give you a little more information on Martin. About the same time, Clay Shirky, the ever thoughtful groupware pundit, rang in with a few thoughts of his own.

In a much more limited way, this is similar to work we did analyzing the entries of the MATLAB programming contest by watching who changed the code where, how much, and what difference it made. It would be fun to apply the history flow code to the contest database, particularly since we have a performance metric that the wiki prose lacks.

I was also reminded of Ben Fry’s haplotype plot, because after all, a genome is really just a kind of wiki that’s been subjected to natural selection. It seems only fitting that the history flow concept should apply here too. I know about some other fun haplotype visualization work done at the Whitehead by Gabriel, et al (including my friend John Higgins) last year: The Structure of Haplotype Blocks in the Human Genome. Science 296:2225-2229. I’d give you the link to it, but the Science site is down right now, and they hide the article behind a subscription barrier anyway. But it is certainly intriguing to consider the history flow of your genome extending back to your trilobite cousins. It’s a long story, but a hell of a read.