2001 remembered

Stephen Wolfram, on the legacy of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey when he was eight years old:

It’s hard for me to believe it’s been 50 years since I first saw 2001. Not all of 2001 has come true (yet). But for me what was important was that it presented a vision of what might be possible-and an idea of how different the future might be. It helped me set the course of my life to try to define in whatever ways I can what the future will be. And not just waiting for aliens to deliver monoliths, but trying to build some “alien artifacts” myself.

[Via Sentiers No. 37]

Surfacing

Microsoft are clearly very proud of the Surface Hub 2, which looks all shiny and ready to suck up every byte of bandwidth that your network connection can offer to power all those pixels it wants to deliver.

No question about it, it’s a handsome beast of a device. I work in an office where we’ve just switched to Windows 10 earlier this year and we’re in the process of encouraging everyone to make as much use as possible of all the collaborative technologies that we now have access to1 and I can just imagine our managers drooling over one day deploying this sort of technology. I can’t help but note that Microsoft are refusing to quote a price just yet, but it’s amazing what you can justify spending money on when you’re kitting out new offices so give it time and I’m sure a Surface Hub will pop up somewhere near you.2

[Via Future Drama]

Kindles and touchscreens

I had no idea that my post earlier today was going to be eclipsed by a much better, deeper take on the whole topic of how touchscreens make for a user-hostile interface, this one from Craig Mod:

I’ve been using Kindles on and off ever since they launched. Our relationship has been contentious but I’ve always been seduced or re-seduced by their potential. At their best, they are beautiful devices. At their worst, infuriating. They are always so close to being better than they are.

Initially they didn’t have touch screens, but Kindle.app on iOS did. The iOS app worked in its own funny way: adopting its own interaction model. An analog to that model found its way to hardware Kindles. I think this was a mistake. […]

A different corner of the same topic, to be sure, but the basic “invisible user interface elements are bad” problem at the heart of the issue.

Via Tim Carmody, guest-posting at kottke.org

Reasons why touch interfaces are terrible as tools for discovering new features, part 89

From Federico Viticci’s post 11 Tips for Working on the iPad:

[Here’s…] a list of my favorite long-press shortcuts in Safari.

9: Tap and Hold in Safari

Safari Reader (text icon on the left side of the address bar). Display settings to always use Safari Reader on the selected website or for all websites.

Considering how much I’ve missed per-site Reader activation since last I used Safari on MacOS X (where I used CustomReader to achieve precisely this effect, I have to wonder Why Was I Not Told About This?

The thing is, I have no doubt that that feature got the odd mention in any number of reviews that appeared when it first appeared. If Apple are going to hide it away behind a long-press shortcut, I have to assume that Apple are OK with users not being aware of all the features they roll out in iOS once a year or so. This is where an operating system with a menu bar wins every time…

Fribo

The idea behind Fribo seems to me to be much more palatable than the prospect of every household getting an internet-connected microphone that broadcasts details of everything within earshot to a central server:

When a Fribo in your home hears a noise that it recognizes, it sends a message to another Fribo in your friend’s home, or even to an entire network of Fribos belonging to people you know:

As an example, let us assume one friend opened a refrigerator. When [Fribo] receives this event from the server, the robot starts to communicate this to the user by saying, “Oh, someone just opened the refrigerator door. I wonder which food your friend is going to have.”

Fribo, in other words, is not exactly a social robot: It’s more like a social networking robot. But unlike most social networks, Fribo was carefully thought out to respect your privacy as much as possible. Note that the message sent to your friends is anonymous—it tells them that someone is doing a thing, but not who. If they’re interested, they can let Fribo know by knocking on something nearby, and your Fribo will tell you exactly who responds. If you like, you can then ping them back directly.

I could do without the frequent prompts to remind your friend to bundle up in bad weather, but the general concept seems interesting.1 Initial testing took place in South Korea, so it’d be interesting to see how that sort of implementation detail changed if they tested this in a different culture.

[Via Sentiers 28]

‘Smart’ Homes, Dumb Users?

I meant to post a link to The House That Spied on Me, a Gizmodo story that looked a little deeper into just how much data a ‘connected’ household is leaking, when I restarted this site a few weeks ago:

Our 1970s apartment building did not offer enough electrical outlets for this 2018 smart home, so we had power strips and outlet expanders everywhere, to the point where I was worried I was going to spark a fire and burn our smart home down. (This actually might have been cathartic.)

I had to download 14 different apps to my phone to control everything, which meant creating an account for each one of those apps. (Yes, my coffeemaker has a log-in and a very long terms of service agreement.) After setting them up, I thought I’d be able to control all the devices by issuing voice commands to Alexa via the Echo—the smart speaker that we’ve been using for the last year as a glorified timer and music player — but this did not go as well as I had hoped.

I can’t help but wonder, given the sheer quantity of End User Licensing Agreements they must have been required to click through to install all that software, whether in the end what’s going to kill the concept of smart homes isome gigantic legal tangle where it turns out that we’ve all clicked-through-but-claimed-to-have-read-and-understood conflicting agreements that we’ll let every app/device phone home and upload whatever date they deem necessary.

It’ll be reported that User A failed to live up to their solemn contractual obligation 1 to allow Amazon (or Apple, or Google, or Facebook, or whoever) to slurp up X megabytes of data per day, and therefore User A was in breach of their obligations to the company. They would henceforth be liable to pay a fine of US$X per day until they stopped running the other 15 apps/devices that wanted to upload their respective megabytes of data per day.

If we’re lucky, ordinary end users will conclude that it’s safest to avoid the whole mess by not letting their home network become a home to a dozen or more smart devices. If we’re unlucky, this will be seen by whichever company is seen as market leader as the perfect moment to announce that if we convert to their devices and software they’ll guarantee to have them cooperate with one another so that they can all leak data about us in a much smoother, more coordinated manner that we’ll barely notice.

(Alternatively, this whole thing will look like a fabulous income stream to the other 15 companies if they can get their lawsuit in first before the poor end user goes bankrupt trying to keep up, and we’ll really be in trouble…)

Driving tools

Who would have imagined that increased use of automated navigational information could have a down side, with more widespread use of automated mapping serving to push individual drivers into a nominally less busy route that turns out to be anything but if everyone else is getting similar advice about how to avoid a traffic snarl-up ahead?

To be fair, the research on this is at an early stage, but it seems plausible that unless the different mapping and navigation systems start to work together drivers are going to lose the advantage they’ve had in the early days when most drivers relied upon their local knowledge to find shortcuts and only a few journeys were made with the benefit of real-time mapping and navigational systems.

PDF forever?

The Portable Document Format, or PDF, is everywhere. But it’s still a format that causes headaches for the average person. […] It’s not often, of course, that the PDF gets this level of notice. The PDFs origin story is a bit more boring than that of the MP3, which was built around the contours of Suzanne Vega’s unaccompanied voice on “Tom’s Diner,” and the ZIP file, which came to life in a brutal legal battle that was egged on by the whims of BBS users. But the PDF still has a story, and that story is that of a format that promises to be even more valuable in the decades to come. […]

Sadly, if the proposition that the PDF is secretly the world’s most important file format is false, that’s probably only because of the number of draft copies of those many, many memos and reports sitting on our hard disks (or in some variety of cloud storage, or on someone’s USB drive) in some variant of Word format. Which means that we’ll all be fine as long as we all keep on using some variant of Microsoft Word.

Somehow the headline Microsoft want to hold your organisation’s documents hostage would be closer to the truth.

[Via kottke.org]

Speaker-to-Animals speaks

Paul Ford is at it again in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, explaining Bitcoin (and why the notions that lie behind it are simultaneously batty and beguiling to those who may be susceptible to Engineer’s Disease) to civilians. 1

[After a basic explanation of what Bitcoin does…]

That all of this adds up to money is ridiculous, and we should probably mock it more than we do. Consider Bitcoin a grand middle finger. It’s a prank, almost a parody of the global financial system, that turned into a bubble. “You plutocrats of Davos may think you control the global money supply,” the pranksters seem to say. “But humans will make an economy out of anything. Even this!” To be frank, central banking never really ground my gears; it’s just another one of those vast enterprises that we cower beneath, like network TV or religion. But I can see how it would piss people off. Bits gonna coin.

As usual with Ford’s work aimed at a general audience, he does a good job of relating why this stuff is so important to those who care about it in terms that the rest of us can understand without getting bogged down in technical niceties.

If the geek nation had any sense, it’d just grant him the title of Speaker-To-Animals right now and get it over with. They could do worse.