Mappr, Flickr, and web services

Great holy creeping cows! This is an example of the unexpected harvest reaped by those who invest in web services. Flickr, the oft-commented-upon photo web site, has a nice web services API (application programming interface) to talk to their site. On the strength of this, a San Francisco company called Stamen Design built something called Mappr that places Flickr photos on a map of the U.S. The result is a marvel of UI design.

Highlights: I like the slider for which the little slider “thumb” is the number you’ve selected. Also, be sure and look at the postcard project for Eric Snowdeal’s little (prematurely delivered) boy.

Mappr is a parable for our new age. When you open up your interface, riches come your way. From which direction you can never tell.

Wiki… species

Those Wikipedia people never stop to catch their breath. Every time I look up they’ve launched yet another flypaper knowledge collaboration. Sometimes I want to tell them, “there’s a whole lot of knowledge out there… you don’t have to do it all at once.” They’ve got wikipedias in Saxon and wiktionaries in Sanskrit. Now they’ve got a project to organize information about all the life forms on the planet: Wikispecies. We’ve got URLs for your address in cyberspace, GeoURLs for your location on the planet, and now, here is your Wikispecies taxonomic URL (taxoURL?) that locates you on the tree of life:

Homo sapiens

It’s a nice idea, and it seems easier to navigate than the other similar tool I’ve used, the NIH’s NCBI Taxonomy browser. Like a lot of the Wikipedia foundation’s projects, it’s currently very thin on content. But I suppose it will grow like a weed, as all things wiki tend to.

There is a complete list of the various wiki projects on (what else?) Metawiki.

The great bloggy brain

Ever since I plugged into the blog network, I’ve liked the metaphor of blogs as neurons. Jon Udell here writes the essay I wish I had written: InfoWorld: The network is the blog. There’s a shorter summary of the same thing on Jon’s Radio.

Blogs are natural filters and amplifiers. Owing to the quirks of their authors, they participate in many (seemingly) unrelated themed subnetworks which they are constantly forming, dissolving, and reforming. This is a good approximation of actual neural circuitry. But suppose something more literal is going on. Suppose that what started as a metaphor turned out to be a fairly direct observation of the fact. The question that everyone is asking is when does this information network, blogs and all, turn into some sort of cohesive entity that is more than simply a big noisy network? To put that in “cosmic” terms, as Udell might say, when does the network wake up? When does it become the sort of intelligent noosphere that de Chardin dreamed about? And if it does wake up, is there any reason to suppose we could detect it? It may be marveling at us right now even as we marvel at it.

Everybody look up and say “hi!”

Make your own car alarm

I have been waiting for someone to do this: use a cheap motion detector and an old cell phone to act as a low tech LoJack car theft detector. It’s a really simple concept: when the car starts rolling, it calls (or sends a short text message to) you, the police, or whoever you tell it to. There are lots of ways to make a system like this expensive, but this is impressively low rent: BLADOX Turbo Motion mobile phone accessory

The next step would be to attach the phone to a GPS receiver. That way the phone could tell you exactly where it is as the perp speeds away. Put that together with some realtime mapping software, and you’ve got a scene almost straight out of Goldfinger.

Comparison book shopping

All independent bookstores will soon vanish. I know this because Wordsworth Books recently closed. This was a well-respected independent book seller in a terrific location in the middle of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. That’s got to be one of the most bookety-book-book places on the planet. And still! Ka-boom! There’s just no fighting it. I recently read that the entire American pastime of reading is going to be outsourced to India over the next five years.

One of the reasons bookstores are dying is that it’s so easy to comparison shop. These days you can literally pick up any book in a bookstore, scan the barcode into your cellphone, find a much cheaper copy, and ship it to your house within about thirty seconds. For a small additional fee, you can have it shipped to India to be read for you.

The comparison site appears to be a good agnostic site that compares most of the major places you might consider buying a book. Here, for example, is a search for a book about the Apollo space program that’s been out of print for some time. The URLs for are pleasingly short: If does a broad comparison shopping job, Pricenoia is impressively narrow in scope. It compares the prices for the same book at every Amazon location around the world and archives the resulting trends. Here’s a link to a book about Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson. Notice how the trend lines jump around. The volatility is surprising.

My iPod lets me down

I am incredibly irritated with my iPod right now.

I just threw a big party (my 40th birthday party, in fact) and I wanted to have good music for dancing. My wife and I briefly considered hiring a DJ, but that was just too expensive for the size of the party. Anyway, these days iPods make it so easy to set up your own playlist, that I decided just to show up with a Bose and an iPod and press play. So I stayed up late a few nights setting up a dance playlist for my iPod. Apple’s iTunes store was so easy to use that I bought most of my music there. That’s right, I actually legitimately paid for all my music, mostly because Apple made it convenient for me to find and buy the tunes I wanted. So far so good.

The bad part came when I was at the party and realized that I didn’t have half the music I expected to see on my playlist. In fact, none of the songs I JUST PAID FOR got transferred to my iPod. There had been no hint of trouble; they played perfectly on my computer. My playlist was in good shape, and in the past the music on my computer always successfully transferred to my iPod. But this time it SILENTLY FAILED to transfer my newly and duly purchased goods. Not a peep of warning or error. I didn’t test the iPod ahead of time (I will now!), and I would have been truly screwed had I not thought to ask some friends to bring their iPods as backup in case mine broke for some reason. In fact, it did break, but not because I dropped it. It broke because Apple chose to break it. The reason Apple broke it is that they keep playing around with their digital rights management, and the best way to keep you upgrading to the latest lawyer-tweaked software is to stop you from playing newly-purchased music on older versions of the software.

The disturbing thought here is that you will never own information again. You will only lease it, and since you are forever on the upgrade treadmill, the lease can be revoked against your will at any time. Songs, cartoons, newspaper articles, jokes forwarded by email, horoscopes, fortune cookies, all these things will have digital leashes leading back to their masters. Imagine someone at Apple blocking your ability to listen to your own music because they believe you did something naughty. That’s not a farfetched possibility.

Here are two scatalogically entitled entries from BoingBoing by righteously potty-mouthed EFF maven Cory Doctorow on this topic, one recent and one from a year ago.

Falling into the Keyhole

For the last two nights, about the time I would generally use for blogging, I have been transfixed for an hour or more by Keyhole, a program billed as the “Ultimate Interface to the Planet.” They may even deserve that hyperbolic tagline. It’s an incredibly entertaining product.

I am amazed at the riches offered by the new breed of cheap satellite imagery. In the context of the war in Iraq, I blogged last year about two satellite imagery companies, DigitalGlobe and Space Imaging. Both of these are nifty (Space Imaging is currently sporting a nice zoomy swoopy view of Fallujah, that happy hamlet on Euphrates), but Keyhole dances far far ahead of these the same way Google danced away from Alta Vista in the early days of search (it’s only fitting, then, that Google recently bought Keyhole).

Seeing minutely detailed images of Saddam’s old palaces is one thing, but Keyhole has some tricks that will make your jaw drop. For one thing, you can fly smoothly and effortlessly to any point on the globe. I’ve flown to Martha’s Vineyard to see a friend’s house. I’ve located my dorms in college and grad school. After you get a little practice, it really feels like you have godlike power. You can fly to your parent’s place or measure the distance between any two points. My parent’s house is 650 miles away. It’s 9.22 miles from my front door to where I park my car at work. And I can tell you that it’s exactly 23.9 miles as the crow flies along the Boston marathon route from Hopkinton Town Center to the Boyleston Street finish line (Lat 42.229352 Long -71.518983, give or take a few inches). Does this matter? I don’t know, but it sure is fun.