Saturday, January 31, 2004

I guess the guy's synaesthetic ...

Vaclav Halek - composer inspired by the plaintive cry...of the mushroom

via Experimental Music Tribe

And what, prey, business is it of ThoughtStorms, an entirely move-forward medium without pictures, to presume to understand and comment on 2D spatial design?

ThoughtStorms: SpaceVsInformationFlows
One of the advantages of having a lousy connection is that it reminds you that 200K of gratuitous graphics is the difference between a page that downloads and is actually useful, and a frustrating wait that ends in the browser timing out.

So I've now turned graphics off in my browser. It also prompts me to start reading Jakob Nielsen again ... ok, here we go.

Within narrowly defined niches, usability enhancements percolate quickly. Interesting as always.

But suddenly I encounter this reason for doing usability studies ...

You can patent usability innovations to keep the competition from stealing them. Most Web projects are managed by marketing departments that have no experience with the patent system. Websites, however, are inventions and should be protected when you invest in developing something new. Talk to people in your legal department. They might know of a patent attorney who doesn't bite.


Competitive Testing of Website Usability

Friday, January 30, 2004

ThoughtStorms: ACityIsNotATree
Darius Sokolov is on a roll making criticisms of OPTIMAES. As Darius is a real, LSE trained economist, this is a good perspective to have. I need some time to read and absorb his comments, but I think they'll lead somewhere useful.

Optimaes: EconomicCriticism
Lousy internet connection at the moment. Dial-up over an inexplicably noisy phone line.

Connection takes several tries to establish and drops after 5 - 10 minutes, so if you don't hear from me, that's probably the reason.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Just discovered a fantastic paper (via Richard Macmanus via Seb)

"The Information Architecture of Cities", by L. Andrew Coward and Nikos A. Salingaros, which discusses InformationArchitecture of cities ie. it thinks about cities as information processing systems. Can't recommend this highly enough.

My summary is on ThoughtStorms: TheCityAsInformationSystem or a slightly delinked version below :

City as Information Processing Architecture

It treats cities as information processing architecture.

Movements of people and goods are interpretted as information flows. But an information system is considered to be one which doesn't just move information around. It also processes it. Alternatives are evaluated and decisions are made. For example, humans make decisions about what work to do, what business to invest time and money in according to the information they are fed by the city.

Fractal Loading

Journeys accomplish a primary information exchange. But ideally (for C+S) journeys have secondary, serendipitous information exchange. For examples, a pedestrian on the way to work visits shops, sees adverts, buys a newspaper, encounters a friend and has a quick word, and may have a coffee observing the behaviour and dress of those around her. This multiplicity of dimensions of information they call FractalLoading.

The virtue of cities is this dense, fractal, multilayered information exchange. It makes cities generate economic wealth and culture. Urban city planners should try to optimize the fractal loading of information.

In contrast, traditionally city planners have tried to

  • visually simplify the structure of the city
  • design "plug and play" modules, abstracted from their context

in the name of simplifying and optimizing the obvious, primary information flows.

For example, cities are zoned into commercial, living and shopping districts. Joined by high-speed, but informationally 1-dimensional, long distance connections. Large roads are driven through previously complex and rich urban centres, destroying their informational ecology.

These practices are all traditionally criticised by Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, Stewart Brand etc. But this paper offers another explanation of the problem. They reduce FractalLoading and therefore information exchange efficiency.

Systems Theory

Drawing on the Systems Theories of Herb Simon the paper points out that all successful complex systems are organized into hierarchies of modules at different scales. (A fractal organization) But cities which are zoned break this pattern.

Hardware and Software Complexity

The authors make a distinction between software and hardware types of complexity :

  • Software complexity arises where you have a few types of homogenous modules, and a large number of potential links or flows. The complexity is in the configuration of the links.

  • "Hardware" complexity arises from a wider variety of heterogenous modules with fewer links.

Von Neuman and Recommendation Architectures

The authors make a second distinction between two kinds of succesful complex, information system.

  • The "von Neuman" architecture of separated functional modules (eg. memory and processing) with fixed purposes and relationships

  • A "Recommendation Architecture" where similar modules explore and compete. (Similar to competitive layers in a Neural Network, especially something like Adaptive Resonance Theory)

The first of these is closer to hardware complexity, the second, software complexity.

Chaotic and Homeostatic

A third distinction is made between two dynamic trends in systems :

  • chaotic ie. the usual sensitive dependency on initial conditions


  • and that trend where complex dynamics fall into a point or basin of attraction, converging from widely different starting points

Why Hierarchies

From Herb Simon, they argue that complex systems seek hierarchies for two reasons :

  • to simplify the information required to describe and build the system

  • to centralize knowledge of problems and the resources to deal with them. Knowledge of problems needs to be at a high level, but execution needs to be applied at the low, local level. Thus the two levels are forced into a relationship, whier the higher controls or guides the lower.

Thus the systems need to be hierarchies of modules.

Module boundaries

Modules are defined not as spatial regions as typically thought of as modules by urban planners. (What C+S call non-modules) But by information flows. A module is a network of information, who's boundary is best defined as the place where external communication is simplified, formalized or standardized ie. is an interface. Elements within the module are highly connected / dependent but modules themselves are weakly connected.

Plug and Play

Attempts to build "plug and play" modules abstracted from their context (eg. a business park) are flawed. They typically misunderstand the nature of modules as defined above. Often urban modules are defined as a spatial region, combining many identical elements eg. office block, business parks, residential districts. These are not real modules at all. Most people interact with elements of different types ie. people live in residential apartments, work in offices and socialize in bars.
Few people travel from house to house. And few companies buy from the company next door in the business park.

On the other hand, these modules are connected to the rest of the city through simplified interfaces eg. one road for the business park. The simplicity is based on the assumption that this spatial area is a module. But it needs to be used for the high bandwidth connections between the elements and the rest of their true modules elsewhere. The result, conjestion.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

GYWO : I have mixed feelings about invading Iraq. I'm a little glad we did it, but I'm also relieved to know I wasn't an idiot FOR FEELING TOTALLY SAFE FROM SADDAM HUSSAIN for the past twenty years.

GYWO : page thirty-one
The Hutton report : Key points
Clay Shirky is blogging sceptically on YASNSs

Partly a reaction to the hype I suppose.

I still think I get good value from Tribe. The tribes (discussion groups) are good. Most of the people I encounter are interesting. But the killer app is that Tribe messaging is becoming like spam-free mail. I'm trying to migrate all my email connections to Tribe, simply because my mailbox is filled with messages from people I want to hear from, unlike my real email box.

Update : Geekbox likes the group forming.

via Seb Paquet

Ghost Universe by Phil Jones (2004)

Yes, thanks to the wonder of The Gimp you too can put
together a mini-art exhibition in 3 minutes of faffing time.

Lost Universe

(All images donated to Creative Commons so you can use 'em for your next CD cover etc.)
A Concise History of Union Busting at Borders

via Mark Dilley

Jill Walker Links and Power: The Political Economy of Linking on the Web

via Blog-errant
Ulises Ali Mejas :

- We need to acknowlege that tools that allow people to organize themselves are not as important as the agendas that people are supposed to pursue once they organize themselves. We need not just programmers, designers and enterpreneurs, but citizens who are politically conscious and active.

- We need to acknowlege that getting information about the world is not as important as acting upon the world. We have to move away from the idea of defining individuals as intersections of information circuits and back to the idea of individuals as ensembles of social relations, to paraphrase Lorenzo Simpson. We have to ask ourselves honestly to what extent 'social software' is not in fact an oxymoron.

- We have to admit that there will be no Napster-like application that will magically fix or improve democracy. This means abondoning the worldview that technological and scientific progress can fix any problem, given enough time, and that we must therefore uncritically support and trust it.

i d e a n t: The limits of e-Democracy: Between Public and Mass

via Many2Many
Two (slightly late) new year resolutions for Blahsploitation ...

1) I WILL write coherent English.

Re-reading some recent posts is making me cringe. I can't blame it all on altitude sickness.

2) I WILL credit my sources.

More links to the people who passed me the links ... I promise.

Designing for Civil Society has Top 10 Open Source Tools for eActivism

via blog-errant

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Clay Shirky on the dangers of social software for political organization.

Executive summary : too much talking to like minded people lulls you into a false sense of security and doesn't actually equal action, though you might have the illusion it does.

Many-to-Many: Is Social Software Bad for the Dean Campaign?

Worth thinking about at the moment. I talked with Jean-Francois on Sunday, a great, positive guy, and someone with connections to more people. But it's worth remembering the dangers of only talking with other believers . (That's one of the reasons I like the Misesians on the tribe. To get a sense of perspective of how different other people's beliefs are.)

Friday, January 23, 2004

US turns the "terrorism" witch-hunt on Chavez. It's pretty clear that there is no country in the world, which if not sympathetic to the US, that the US government won't try to tar as a "failed state" willing to support terrorism. The war is coming to South America.

Terror Close to Home In Venezuela, a volatile leader befriends Mideast, Colombia and Cuba

Discussing on Alternative Money tribe.

Sure, everyone can get behind the idea that money evolved through various stages of abstraction out of some kind of commodity.

But the money we have now *isn't* commodity backed. And yet it still works as money. It's still perceived as money. So today's fiat money doesn't have it's value simply because of the past value of commodities backing it.

That leaves open the question, what is sustaining the value of money *now* as opposed to the idealized money as Misesians think it ought to be?

I'd suggest we can say that the value of money has 3 inter-related bases :

1) history : it's based on what people remember money being worth before, ultimately back to the commodity.

2) culture : people value money because they believe they can spend it tomorrow.

3) faith in the future stability of society and the economy : people believe that next year, the system will hold up.

This last is very obvious. When people stop believing this, the currency collapses, so this faith must be doing some work in sustaining the value of money.

Now I believe that government has some role in maintaining 3). People believe that there'll be a civil society next year because they trust the government to maintain certain pre-requisites of civil society such as the rule of law, security from foreign attack, services to cope with emergencies, welfare to help the unfortunate cope with economic disaster etc.

I don't believe it *has* to be government that maintains these things, could be companies or NGOs or local communities or internet mediated social networks. But there has to be *some* political and civil infrastructure which is itself not the market, and this is *causal* in maintaining people's faith in, and therefore the value of, money.

A good book to read on this is Keit Hart's "Money in an Unequal World".

Hart was an anthropologist studying the evolution of the market in traditional African society. It's a good book, which challenges almost every standard political position on money, and changed many of my earlier preconceptions.

Alternative Money and Economics : How does money acquire it's value?
Back in Brasilia ... now I have some online catching up to do. And scan the travel pix. They'll be up soon. And you can see my new haircut too ;-)

Is Phil going over to the Dark Side?

ThoughtStorms: InDefenceOfIntellectualProperty

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

On the other hand, don't take the 3.5 hour guided tour of Palermo and the other old, rich districts of Buenos Airies.

This is the most *boring* city tour I've ever been on in my life. It's pretty much the equivalent of a guided walk from Knightsbridge to Marble Arch via Hyde Park and scenic strolls along Park Lane. Nothing but expensive apartments, civic parks and ugly 19th century statues.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Great! Jean-François Noubel looks like a fellow traveller in the tiny world of alternative money researchers.

Interesting he's also down with Piere Levy's Collective Intelligence crowd, which should interest Eufrasio.

I'm in Buenos Aires. A great, cultural city with cafes, galleries and bookshops. Plus tango dancers on the streets. More interesting than I was expecting. And very pleasant.

Josara's comment : "I'm humiliated. Argentinians always go round thinking they're superior to Brazilians, and it's true. We have nothing like this, even in Sao Paulo."

NB : And even tiny Salta has better cafes and bookshops than Brasilia. :-(

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Around latin America we´ve seen many Inca and pre-inca temples that have been knocked down and the stones used to build Catholic Churches.

I guess this is the ultimate learning experience for buildings ;-)

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Language Log
Phil Greenspun worries about the dollar.


Aaarghhhgh! No more deserts! Ever!

Deserts in Chile, hot, dry, and high up. And many covered in salt. You see what looks at first sight like a beautiful, cool, lake. Then it turns out to be another salt plain.

Amazingly salt plains and shallow lakes support life : flocks of pink flamingos (which are pink due to the minerals that affect the plancton they eat), some delicate deerlike relatives of llamas (vichoinha?), ducks and foxes. But they´re adapted to drinking salt water.

Beautiful, but desolate. And cold at high altitudes > 4000 metres. Ultimately depressing. (Or maybe that´s just because I was feeling dehydrated and ill.)

Now in Salta, Argentina, which is greener and fresher. And seems very nice. (Also a lot cheaper than Chile.) It was 12 hours in a car to get here over the Andes though.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Joan Aiken dies. Sad. A great children's author.
Whooo hooo!!!!!!!!

Made it to Machu Pichu ... mainly thanks to Gisel's organizing, encouragement and Spanish.

It is, of course, fantastic, especially as we saw it, with low clouds, drifting through the city, giving everything a slightly spectral appearance.

More later ...

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Floating Islands

One of the most interesting places I've been are the floating islands of the Ouros. These are built by taking upturned reed boats, and laying more dried reeds over the top.

Each island (of which there are around 15) houses about 15 to 17 families in reed huts. And each is held in place by wooden poles driven into the bed of the lake bellow (another 2-3 metres)

They eat fish and the inside of the reeds. The main economy is fishing, construction using the reeds, and tourism. Our guide had been to Ecuador to build a reed village.

It's a damp life and many of those over 40 have rheumatism due to living over the water. Few people join the community, though some go to stay to learn the crafts.

Photos soon when I get them scanned ....
Another travel inspired thought ThoughtStorms:SlaveryIsAParty

Ron Chrisley has a new blog.

Ok, where am I? Still in Cusco, which is great fun, but very touristy. Lots of cafes and craftshops and pubs and clubs which might as well be in Brighton. Temperature's about the same too.

Lot's of thoughts coming, until I have to rush off to Machu Pichu
Graham talking about offshoring

I think there's a confusion between "offshoring" and "outsourcing". Sure outsourcing sends your innovation out of company. But there's no reason you can't can't own an offshore innovation centre.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

On Food

A few food thoughts. I'm a practicing carnivore, but sometimes I get a guilty feeling about going round the world eating the local wildlife. But ... Llama, didn't like much the first time, in kind of chunks like braising steak. The day after I asked for omellette in the cafe at Tiahuanaco and they gave me a fried llama steak anyway. And this was much better.

I don't have a good vocabulary to describe tastes but this was much stronger. Most people say like "game" although how descriptive this is I don't know. It isn't much like the venison I've had.

The alpacca I tried last night was even stronger, and slightly vinegary. (Though this could have been the sauce.) In general I'd eat both again, unlike rabbit.

Needless to say, I liked La Paz more as I got used to it. Especially in the sun. Though it's always cold. (And this is mid-summer) The streets are filled with women wrapped in heavy woollen skirts and shawls, selling stuff. Often from neatly piled pyramids of everything from vegetables to shoes.

When I was a child, my father used to take me to Croydon's Surrey Street market. But I didn't like it much. Full of alien smells, and people shouting, and shops with too realistic slabs of meat and dead fish. And the street was always dirty with a mix of mud and squashed vegetables. I much prefered clean, sanitized supermarkets.

As an adult, I haven't quite got over the trauma.

My friend Hilan, on the other hand, dived into the La Paz streets (all of which are de facto markets) with alacrity, coming back with unusual fruits, dried bananas, fried beans (like better crisps), nuts and sweet fried peanuts. All of which, of course, extremely good.

"All Westerners see here is poverty" he announced. "They don't see how rich these people are in some ways." There's a far wider variety and better quality of food here than in the west.

Is this true? I make a feeble attempt at defending my beloved super-market. Surely there are 60 or 70 types of fruit and vegetable in my local Sainsbury's (UK) or Extra (Brazil). 60 or 70? Bolivia (as the guides are proud to announce) has 450 varieties of potato, most of which are probably available on the streets of La Paz. Along with thousands of other types of fruit and vegetable.

Bolivia and Peru between them have high mountains, coastal deserts, pantanal wetlands, Amazonian jungle and lake Titikaka. This is very wide range of environments and varieties of plants.

I think of the poor-looking farms we flew over as we entered La Paz. They look better driving across the high plains in the sunlight - a bit like the Austrian Tyrole - but still poor. However the point is, they can all be doing something different. Where as the supermarkets are enforcing conformity on their suppliers. And large-scale monoculture is needed to support it.

Here each farm grows what suits it's location, and what each family knows. And they manage to sell it in the street markets of La Paz. It's a highly decentralized, distributed, agoric system, which produces an extra-ordinary diversity. And it works to it's scale. Bolivians don't starve. La Paz has a million people. El Alto (the poorer district above La Paz) has another two million.

But it looks back-breaking hard work. I see women (and it seems to be mainly women visibly working the fields as well as selling in the streets) hoeing the earth with heavy hand tools. Occasionally men ploughing with oxen. Tractors only in Peru. I wouldn't swap my life with any of them. And I wouldn't advocate trying to preserve this life from the encroachment of middle-class, modernity. But there is something we need to understand and keep.