Mainframe computers were such a rare commodity back in the day, people had to schedule shared time on each machine. When PCs arrived one computer was shared among a single household. Then came phones and each person had a computer of their own. Now lots of people have a pocket computer along with a couple of bigger ones at home, and some are even starting to wear computers on their wrists and heads. From the very beginning the ratio of computers to people steadily grew, and didn’t stop at 1:1. The computers, they’re multiplying!
Maybe they will diversify into single purpose computers. There are lots of potential uses for a simple computer that costs about as much as a toothbrush. At that price everyone would probably have quite a few of them at play in different parts of their life. With many computers for each person, they could be designed to act as tools that perform increasingly specific tasks. Is this overdoing it? It’s not essential to have one knife in your kitchen for cutting bread and another for buttering it, but it’s a convenience that most people accede to. These are computers melted into banal crannies, maybe feeling more like appliances.
Or like toys. My favourites as a young buck were LucasArts adventure games: Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, etc. So for fun I made a single purpose computer that does nothing but run the single greatest piece of software of all time: Monkey Island 2. It’s made from a do-it-yourself piggy bank kit that I found randomly in a toy shop (toy shops: always worth a look), a Raspberry Pi, one of those screens that you can put in a car to see where you’re reversing, a tiny speaker, and a wireless mouse. They pretty much just snap together. All this stuff is cheap: the ingredients cost about sixty bucks on Amazon, or roughly the price of a copy of Grand Theft Auto 5.
I hadn’t fiddled with the hardware innards of a computer for ages. They’ve become entombed by the seemingly unstoppable trend towards compressing everything into the form of a pure, inert black diamond.
Yes, this is silly weekend noodling, but as someone who mostly works in software I get a simple kick from messing about with the raw materials of computing. To break out of the screen and think about physical objects. There’s a world of interesting new UI opportunities to explore too. What should moving the lid do? Could I add a lock to the chest that makes something happen in the game? What software would I expect to find inside a wooden toy treasure chest anyway?
Moving from multi- to single-purpose UIs allows them to provide more specifically tailored affordances that suggest what I can do with them. There’s a big difference between grabbing a door handle and having to select Modify → Door → Open with a mouse pointer.
Anyway, single purpose computers: coming soon to a toy/hardware/clothes/food/etc. store near you? There continues to be plenty of room at the bottom.
You can’t wear sandals, you need them to play. And a stick, you need a stick. Two people are throwers. Everyone else stands in between the two throwers. To start the game, the throwers throw the confiscated sandals at the people in the middle, and the first one to get hit is designated the holder. Being holder is a bum job because the holder has to squat there holding a stick upright while flying sandals whistle past your head. Everyone else has to keep dodging sandals, grab the discarded ones, and hang them on the stick that their unfortunate teammate is holding up. If you’re hit by a sandal you’re out. You win if you hang all the sandals on the stick. The throwers win if they get everyone out before all the sandals are on the stick.
It’s called Kaeng Karp. Played in villages in southern Laos, here in a happy place called Tad Lo.
There’s a micro-genre of parody tweet that takes the form of vacuous tech blog headlines: “BREAKING: The Novelty Of Touchscreen Telephones Is Wearing Off,” for example. They’re pretty funny, I suppose, but if you read enough tech blogs to actually understand why then the joke’s probably on you.
Silicon Valley is notoriously inward-looking, and that might be necessary: perhaps you need to lock yourself in a room and not come out for a while if you really want to get busy making something. But having ditched manufacturing and now largely betting on the “creative economy”, the US beyond the Bay Area is understandably curious about what’s going on out there. While the tech blogs keep the citizens of the peninsula entertained, the rest of the world has begun looking in. Interesting opportunity for some outside perspective, no?
It’s soap opera stuff. You start with the drama and intrigue of the VC scene, the industry equivalent of American Idol, complete with unsuspecting young innocents hoping to be thrust from obscurity into fame and fortune by a panel of judges. Move on through the rags to riches (riches to riches?) tales of those few who actually make it into the power set. At this point a society that prides itself on being squeaky liberal takes an alarming right turn into individualist techno-libertarianism, tidily keeping their world shaping unfettered and their IPO windfalls unmolested. Set this against the backdrop of the an increasingly-marginalized middle class and some nascent political maneuverings among the technorati and you’ve already got the makings of a pretty good American novel.
That last link is to George Packer’s sadly paywalled New Yorker article (zero comments on Hacker News) that includes this conversation with a twenty-two year old startup founder about his peers:
They’re ignorant, because many of them don’t feel the need to educate themselves outside their little world, and they’re not rewarded for doing so. If you’re an engineer in Silicon Valley, you have no incentive to read The Economist. It’s not brought up at parties, your friends aren’t going to talk about it, your employers don’t care…
People with whom I used to talk about politics or policy or the arts, they’re just not as into it anymore. They don’t read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. They read TechCrunch and VentureBeat, and maybe they happen to see something from the Times on somebody’s Facebook news feed. The divide among people in my generation is not as much between traditional liberals and libertarians. It’s a divide between people who are inward-facing and outward-facing.
I should mention that I say this as an unrepentant, wide-eyed technological optimist. I came here at least in part to dive right in. The work of one person can potentially reach millions, and that’s amazing. But what direction do you face once you’re here?
The obvious answer is forward. There’s a natural tendency for product designers to fetishize the future. Some might even wish for the magic ability to leap forward in time, if only for a few minutes, and have a poke around, see how it all plays out. It would be fun, right? They could then take that knowledge back home with them like Biff’s Sports Almanac, secret clues from the future to be used to get to the finish line ahead of the competition.
This short-term competitiveness is the root, I believe, of the Next Big Thing-ism that dominates much of the insular conversation here. I wish there was more of a tendency to think of design as an opportunity to gently steer a future that’s still unwritten, to have some small influence over the direction of technology or even kick some stones in it’s path. There’s no inevitable endpoint, no predefined linear story of what must come next. There’s only your own idea of what could come next. This is the main difference between the frothy, business-obsessed Silly Valley stuff and the heroic world-shaping that created it. All these products, they’re just ideas, not predictors.
Eno (of course):
I am not sure about the word vision, actually. The idea of the word vision suggests that you are designing a future in a way, but what I think I want to do is make pieces of work that belong to the future I would like to live in. I would love to live in a future where that room was something that was commonplace in cities. You would walk in to places like that – and they would be made by all different artists, they wouldn’t look like that, that’s my version of it – but that kind of space. I would love it if they existed. They don’t really exist.
The point of living here, packed into nerd buses or SOMA lofts, may be to get an early glimpse of the future. But which direction to look? Inward, there are business opportunities, outward perhaps an enlarged future for all.
So, my website went dead for a while there, as rarely-updated, held-together-with-sellotape websites are wont to do. I let it lie fallow for a while, but then seized the opportunity to finally ditch the overblown ogre that is Wordpress, along with my flaky old hosting provider and the unnecessary subdomain (old links will still work though).
Now the entire site is static, generated on my laptop in Jekyll and flung up to the server as plain old HTML. (How was serving a blog directly from a database ever considered a good idea? We were such dorks back then.) Porting everything over to Tumblr or starting onto Medium would have easier, but, you know, tending to your own garden is nice.
Other bits of housekeeping. I added a list of recent links from my Pinboard account at the bottom. Linkblogs seem to have gone out of fashion, but I always liked skipping over someone’s internet breadcrumb trail. Fresh lick of paint. Comments are gone. The feed should still work.
By way of reintroduction, since last posting I traveled around Asia for four months, got married to Paula, and moved from Zurich to San Francisco to work on a new thing. All of which maybe explains the fallow period.
Photo: Walking in the foothills of the Toubkal Valley, Morocco a couple of months ago. More recently swapped for steep SF hills and silicon valleys.
I’m loving the Olympics so far, but I can’t figure out why world records continue to be broken so often. As beating previous records increasingly becomes a game of milliseconds, surely it should get ever more difficult and rare to see records broken. Yet it seems like every few swimming events new record is set, and the athletics stuff has not even started yet. Where will it end?
Then there’s one Olympic event that dominates all others, the most basic physical competition imaginable: the race to see who can run faster than anyone else in the world.
I’ve especially wondered about the progress of the 100m sprint world record: how has the development of drugs, nutrition, equipment, and advanced training techniques accelerated human speed? With the increasing difficulty that comes with lower times, probably making it orders of magnitude more difficult to hit 9.8 seconds than it is to reach 9.7, how much can athletes keep pushing at that barrier? What’s the fastest a human will ever run 100m? Here’s how they’ve done so far:
(Data Source: Wikipedia)
I made this chart to understand the progression of the record over time. You can see it took about fifty years for humans to get half a second faster at running a hundred metres. Even that’s underselling it: it took fifty years for just one human to run that much faster just once.
But most amazing of all is the magnitude of what Usain Bolt has achieved. 2008, boom. The timings simply drop off a cliff when they reach him, blowing almost two tenths of a second off the difficult end of the record, and single-handedly making over a third of all progress since electronic timing was introduced.
There are some other interesting details to be spotted: Charles Greene held the record for a single day before Jim Hines took it from in Mexico ‘68. Hines’ time that day went unbeaten for over fourteen years. Ben Johnson’s infamous win sticks out a mile; nobody would beat his chemically-enhanced run for more than a decade.
Will Bolt keep hacking away at the record? We’ll find out before the men’s 100m final tomorrow afternoon.
Chris Butler’s mixbooks are an reversal of the popular trend towards e-books: they scrape and un-digitize and materialise bits from the internet, regressing them into paperback format. Also, making your own book of your favourite articles is just a fun thing to do.
The 2011 edition of A Year of Ideas is near the top of my reading pile, and the timing is perfect: I’m about to go traveling, three months backpacking in Asia – oh yes. I’ll be offline most of the time, so I’ll bet this collection of web articles can provide the internet dopamine hit that my RSS-addled brain will no doubt crave.
But I’m trying to pack light. Books are heavy. Bringing a Kindle is a no-brainer. So I decided to go online and save all the web articles featured in the mixbook, and now I can read them on Instapaper while I’m away. Onward the mixbook goes, cycling back and forth from analog to digital. It’s like “Read later” Inception.