Humans teaching computers how to categorize

July 24, 2007

It’s not a million miles from the taxonomies that arise from Del.icio.os and the like, but BoingBoing points us to a nifty article in Wired about humans teaching computers about things for their own selfish reasons – largely in this case, entertainment.

“People are good at figuring out what’s attractive, and computers are good at quickly searching and finding,” von Ahn says. “You put them together, and bang!”

This is “human computation,” the art of using massive groups of networked human minds to solve problems that computers cannot. Ask a machine to point to a picture of a bird or pick out a particular voice in a crowd, and it usually fails. But even the most dim-witted human can do this easily. Von Ahn has realized that our normal view of the human-computer relationship can be inverted. Most of us assume computers make people smarter. He sees people as a way to make computers smarter.

…Nifty, eh?


Meatspace / cyberspace symbiosis

July 5, 2007

some moo cards

There’s an excellent article by Glyn Moody in the Guardian today about online companies set up to deal with the physical, analogue requirements of people in the physical, analogue world – print-on-demand companies like Moo, Blurb, MyPublisher or Lulu.

There’s something ironic about the rise of the analogue as the acme of digital cool. As Richard Moross, the twentysomething who came up with’s re-invention of the calling card, points out: “It’s 300 years old; and despite wireless and Bluetooth and mobile phones, it’s still here, because it’s the single most successful networking tool of all time.”

At first glance it might indeed seem ironic that web 2.0 companies can be based on something so analogue and physical, but actually it doesn’t surprise me at all. I don’t think cyberspace has ever intended to replace physical space, rather to enhance it. Moo cards are a lovely little product – I’ve ordered several myself – but without the rise of what we might call web2.0 they simply couldn’t exist – the effort involved would be too great. Happily, though, Moo lets Flickr do most of the work and Flickr are happy to do it. The same is true of Blurb – a company making individual tailer-made products based on content stored in a fairly universal archive. It’s a bonus for Flickr to be seen as such a useful service, and the other businesses could hardly exist without it – what a happy little economy we’re all creating!

Of course, such businesses are not just tied to Flickr. Back in the mid nineties Bernard Cache created a series of what he called ‘Objectiles‘. These were beautifully carved wooden creations, fashioned with milling machines and some rather natty software which not only allowed them to be ordered and manufactured from any workshop in the world, but could guarantee that each creation would be unique.


They didn’t catch on, unfortunately, but the idea shows that more distributed online organisational systems can not only be of huge benefit to the creation of physical-world businesses and artifacts, but also increase the individuality and variety of them. It’s not an ironic relationship at all- it’s a highly likely and highly useful one. As Moody concludes, “The interface between the web and the real world is alive and well and making money.”

Bottom-up city-wide Wi-Fi: We-Fi

June 20, 2007

I shall keep my eye closely on the future of WeFi. In their own words, here’s what they do:

“WeFi makes WiFi easy. Our software makes it easy for you to find and connect to WiFi networks. With WeFi, each user contributes to the rest of the community by using the client and discovering more networks around. All this is reported to a centralized server and shared seamlessly among all users, resulting in easy connection. With our software you can also map your favorite hotspots, find your friends, share your WiFi with other WeFi members and do many other cool things.”

Cunning stuff, and I wish them every success.

I predict lawsuits on the horizon, though, when companies offering hugely expensive WiFi in hotels, airports, and cafes start complaining that they can’t compete with free and better services…

…A cynic? Moi?

Well, they started doing just that when the city of Philadelphia considered free city-wide WiFi for its residents a few years back (Here‘s what Lessig said about it at the time.) Mind you, I think they might have a harder time complaining about a population than a city council. Here’s hoping, anyway…

Online / offline portraits

June 20, 2007

They’ve been floating around for a while now, but it’s only just occurred to me to actually mention them in this blog…

The photographer Robbie Cooper has collected a series of portraits of meat-space computer users and juxtaposed them with images of their online avatars, publishing them in a book you can get yer mits on here. I first heard talk of these on BoingBoing which then, more recently, led me to a slideshow at New Scientist, accompanied by a brief audio explanation of a series of these lovely two-sided photographs.  You can view the slideshow here.

What first grabbed me was the wonderful quality of Cooper’s portrait photography, but it soon becomes apparent that the range of different people and avatars is the most intreaguing story on show here. Some use online worlds for escapism, some for real-world money-making. Some avatars are almost exact replicas of their meat-space counterparts, others give no hint as to the qualities or identities of their controllers. One particularly fascinating image shows a young boy with severe muscular dystrophy, only able to move his thumb in the physical world, and his rather classy robotic avatar in the online world – able to interact with people in a way never available to him in meatspace.

I haven’t ventured far into mmorpgs or the likes of Second Life, myself, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that I should have another look…

Lebbeus Woods has clearly seen my project…

June 9, 2007

Actually that’s ridiculous. Of course it’s the other way around – I’ve been a huge fan of Woods since I first saw his work in 1999 – my second year at architecture school. Nevertheless, a few snippets lifted from his recent fascinating interview with the excellent Subtopia blog don’t half resonate with my project:

“Fortunately one of the reasons I am out here today are these blogs – your blogs in particular – but, generally, the internet is a place for some other view of architecture to emerge, and therefore it becomes incredibly important. ”

“I think the role of architecture – not all of it, because we’re still going to have the monuments, the big expensive buildings, that’s just the way it’s going to be – but, if there’s going to be another movement, another direction in architecture, it has to engage people differently. Other than saying, here, look at this, isn’t this amazing? It has to interactively involve them other than as spectators, or, as a ‘society of the spectacle.’ It has to engage them as creators.”

“…I believe people have to choose to do it. I don’t think this is something that should be imposed from the top down. They have to want to do it this way. They have to want to participate. “

…And finally, if we were just to change his choice of words from slum to suburb

“…if we can do something from the outside, for them who are inside the slum, it’s going to be to empower them somehow; to transform the slum from the inside. You’ve got to figure some methods to empower people in the slum to change their own environment. It can’t be us airlifting in ready-made solutions.”

Seriously, if only these quotes were around a little earlier in my project!

Drink beer – heat water

June 6, 2007

This fella linked together sixty six empty beer bottles on his roof, and now using nothing more but sunshine they heat enough water for all the people in his house to have a hot shower every day!

Better than recycling, of course, is re-use, and while this kind of thing has never been impossible, the fact that it’s so easy to share your ideas means it will only get more and more common. Brilliant stuff.

localised systems – currency

June 5, 2007

I first heard of people just starting up their own currencies when I read about the Ithaca Hour in a newspaper a few years back. (official page link, Wikipedia link) Now it seems that Totnes in Devon is following similar lines, according to this article on BBC News.

A south Devon town has taken a step towards having its own currency after a month-long experiment.

Three hundred Totnes pounds were printed in March for circulation only in local outlets.

Eighteen shops joined Transition Town Totnes (TTT), a new group campaigning for a more self-sufficient community.

Marjana Kos, of TTT, said: “It’s keeping wealth here. It’s keeping local trade alive and supporting local businesses.”

Louise King, manager of the Riverford farm shop in Totnes, said: “We like our own products, so it just seems right to have our own currency.”

What I consistently find myself being surprised by is that people don’t just create bottom up systems of production and distribution for their own little crafty creations – food, art and so on – they are quite happy to take on such massively important systems as currencies and education.

20th century thinking would suggest that a tiny currency only accepted in a few stores in a single town is a bad, or at least fairly useless, idea. Evidently this is not the case, though, as many towns around the world are creating their own versions of these systems. Once again, the ease with which information about such systems can be shared between people keen on implementing them is paramount – step forward the internet. Take a bow, sir – good work.

What’s also interesting to me is that so many of these activities are not done in direct competition with the existing status quo. The Pound Sterling is still legal in Totnes, and they are doing nothing illegal in creating their own currency. The two systems work perfectly happily side by side, and any complications in configuring exchange rates are sorted out not by top-down decree from Westminster, but at the point of sale by those involved in the upkeep of the system – The administrators, directors, and end users are all the same person. And people don’t chose to use the Ithaca Hour because the US Dollar has failed; they chose to do so because the Hour has its own value quite independent of the Dollar – the warm, fuzzy, and personal value of supporting your local economy and of membership in a community. These things aren’t worth much in 20th century terms of monetary value, but it’s been shown time and time again that money really can’t buy you happiness.

It’s barely a step from bartering and exchanges of services, really, and these transactions are also very popular in the online world. I myself have designed and printed Tshirts for people in exchange for them writing me a css file or renting me an online domain. We could have worked out specific monetary values of these goods, but because the element of personal friendship already existed, it was easier to make the transition without resorting to currency – a middle man defined by a top-down institution from without.

And you know what? That kind of transaction, one which relies so much on human aspects of inter-personal relation, not only feels good, but it can actually be more efficient. And a look the music distribution industry will tell you what happens when a more efficient system comes along…

All this bartering and local systems with no hope of understaning or control from without: It’s frankly medieval, but it might well be positively medieval.