Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Stories in Urban Spaces

"Walking around I sometimes become aware of men in straw boaters and women in crinoline with parasols walking down the same street as the girl with a pierced navel. A man in knee breeches yells out to man in a fedora carrying a trumpet case."

A lovely little fragment of writing from Paul Ford at Ftrain.com. His is a blog that rarely pops into my RSS reader, but when it does his work is choice and delicate.

The concept of the temporal permeability of space in a city is something I've been thinking about recently. Strangely enough, this comes from hanging about on the backstage.bbc.co.uk mailing list.

Now, as this is a mailing list mostly concerned with APIs and feed hacking, that's quite an unlikely source of inspiration.

The conversations that go on there, though, are primarily about 'Look - here's a cool thing I've done! I've made a prototype that does this cool thing' - at which we all look at the prototype, and agree that it is indeed cool, and full of geek-fu, and give constructive suggestions.

However, the prototypes - because, after all, they are just proofs of concept - tend to be... well, not pointless. But they're things made for the sake of making them - to expose a bit of data, to scratch that tiny geek itch. They're useful for news, and factual services, but few of them have the user-focused thinking that would make them useful to the average joe in the street. A couple even have slightly sinister implications.

One in particular is an absolutely brilliant idea, but doesn't bear thinking about in an editorial way; it's a filter that automatically classifies news as 'Good', 'Bad' or 'Neutral'. cool, smart, neatly done. But... a user option that lets you turn off all 'Bad' news? That's deeply sinister.

The problem being, that - as with all interactive ideas - it's much easier to make interactive products based around objective facts. Making entertainment products seems to be harder; the element of play or fiction is much more elusive, and the entertainment urge is much more difficult to satisfy than the need to seek out (or browse for) information.

The point, I think, where there may be some cross-over lies in real space.

One of the most distinctive advances in special effects over the last few years has been 'Bullet Time' - the frozen moments used in the Matrix. This wasn't originally invented by the Wachowskis, believe it or not; it originated with an english artist, Tim Macmillan, who developed it in the early eighties.

Now, his breakthrough was to realise that film is basically a series of still photographs, arranged sequentially through time, giving the illusion of movement in space. All he did was change that to keep the time aspect constant: take a sequence of photographs at the same time, but with space as a variable. When composited back together, lo and behold you have a 'moving' image of a single moment in time.

So... I have been thinking about entertainment, and specifically interactive narrative. Conventional narrative is (roughly speaking) a series of fictional events occuring in a temporal sequence. In traditional stories you start at time point A, and the plot moves you to time point B in a linear fashion. Some clever types realised that the reader doesn't need to move from point A to point B in the same sequence that the events happen to characters - film picked up on this one too.

Then games came along. Suddenly, the 'reader' was uncovering the plot both by moving from point A to point B in game-time, but also by 'triggering' events in game space. So narrative exposition C would only occur once player had moved to point D, no matter if they'd already uncovered narrative expositions E and F by moving spatially through their trigger locations first. Some really good games - Knights of the Old Republic springs to mind - manage this brilliantly, with alternate storythreads uncovered depending on your virtual movement, and 'narrative zones' (planets) allowing a little more control over the consumption order of the narrative.

What happens, then, if you take the subtle paradigm shift of Time Slicing, and apply it to storytelling in the real world? How can you expose the stories of a city, and tell them throughout the fabric of that city? What happens when you hold up your PDA/Mobile/Tiny exciting video widget on a streetcorner, and it becomes a window into a Victorian melodrama? Or Chaucer's pilgrims suddenly walk across your screen? Or you get a phonecall from a paniced WWII spy? Or a text message from a dystopian future?

How can you follow those threads around the space of a city?

How can you string together temporal cuts of space to tell a story?

What happens when you overlay the works of Dickens on to London?

What might happen if you overlaid the fictional London of Neverwhere on to a tube map?

How are you alerted to the presence of a story in your physical location?

A few tiny glimmers of these located stories are begginning to appear on the web; today's Los Angeles from an Auto historical pictures/map mashup offers a start, as does the Grafeidia project, or the Hand Held History blue plaques project

Anyway. This is the stuff I'm thinking about. And hopefully, my new job will give me the space to be able to develop these in to some kind of practical ideas... Or perhaps I can just rely on Gavin Bell to get there first with the project he's thinking about, and wave that in front of management here...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | TV and Radio | Star Trek's Scotty dies aged 85

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | TV and Radio | Star Trek's Scotty dies aged 85

Aw, noo.

Scotty's beamed up.


Consumer Egg Thesaurus - Thesaurus Instructions

Consumer Egg Thesaurus - Thesaurus Instructions: "This is Module 1A of the Consumer Egg Thesaurus, a prototype of the full thesaurus to be completed in the future. Its eventual goal is to provide a set of terms to index and organize information for a commercial chicken egg consumer library with a significant part of its collection open to the public. In the meanwhile, employees of the Nov Ovolando Egg Marketing Board will use the thesaurus for their information organization and retrieval (particularly for constructing search phrases). As well, the thesaurus will provide a conceptual framework to understanding the consumer perspective of commercial chicken eggs."


BBC - Comedy - The Mighty Boosh

BBC - Comedy - The Mighty Boosh

I'm weirdly proud of Vicky, a co-worker and friend. She took over the BBc comedy site when I moved on to my current project, and has done absolutely amazing things with it.

And the most recent amazing thing: the ability to watch 'The Mighty Boosh' on broadband. A WEEK BEFORE IT GOES OUT ON THE TELLY.

This is amazing. Really. The rights situation alone must have been a killer to sort out.

So, yay Vicky. You are better than I could ever have hoped to be.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Burning the black ICE

You'll all have heard about the ICE scheme. If you're someone on a lot of people's email lists, you'll have heard about it twenty or thirty times now.

Predictably, the first bulk email hoaxes are now doing the rounds - about mobile viruses that allegedly exploit your ICE contacts to promulgate themselves. These are Lies.

What gets me is that otherwise intelligent people forward these warnings on, without bothering to check or verify the contents first. I'm finding this particularly galling because:

1. I work in a department full of on-line journalists, who should really know better. Checking your sources, anyone? Hmn?

2. I'm working from home, and retriving six emails about whether it's a hoax or not wastes my time.

Is it just my longtime net-user status that means I'm familiar and jaded enough with these scams to spot them? Or bother to take a minute to slap a couple of keywords into google?

But anyway - I long ago gave up sending on firm remonstrations about forwarding hoax warnings. The things are designed just to propagate through the email of idiots, so even my firm and reasoned (and admittedly slightly grumpy) rebuttals are adding to the problem.

Which is why the idea behind this site is... maybe a little misguided. Spam harvesting, anyone?

The Hoaxkill service: Let's get rid of hoaxes now!

Friday, July 15, 2005

...and Gents

...oh, alright then.

It'll be a dreadful disappointment to you all, I know.

But it's just been pointed out to me that my profile blurb should be ammended to include the fact that I've fallen from the sacred path of Sappho, and happen to be getting my freak on with a big, hairy boy. Among others.

Anyway. A change is as good as a rest.

And, just to head this off at the pass, here are a few choice phrases for you to sprinkle in to your liberal teasing.

Bi For Now
Moved from Automatic to Stickshift
From Bean to Baloney
Using The Other Menu

... you get the idea.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Shirts for Alice

Combo Clothing

A lovely console tee, that's right up Alice's alley. She's the one that suggested I get the Webmistress shirt, so I feel I should find some kind of excellent sarky comment to make in return.

Pffff. I can't be bothered. Too tired today.

Friday, July 08, 2005

In praise of the stiff upper lip.

A certain man has called us, "of all peoples the wisest in action," but he added, "the stupidest in speech." - Carlyle

So... we knew it was going to happen. It was no surprise.

I have an odd sort of affection for my fellow countrymen in situations like yesterday's bomb attacks. There's a charming national character trait that seems to turn us all into a mix of slightly panicy fishwives 'Oooh, I know, ooh, another one's just gone off... ooh, it'll be *hell* getting home, and what about that Mr Blair? ooh, no, I haven't heard from my friend, and they work right in it...' and the most wonderful, tremendously stoic Matter-of-Life-and-Death heroes.

The thing that I'm left thinking after yesterday, though, was actually, that the attacks were no big deal - a tiny blip on history. This is not to belittle the real suffering that those caught up in events are going through, and my best wishes go to them, and their loved ones.

But... we're used to bombs in this city. Not quite on the scale of Jerusalem, or Bagdhad, but nonetheless there has been a slow and deadly thudding heartbeat to London for as long as I can remember. The Soho Bomb, the Brixton Bomb, the Canary Wharf bomb, an IRA bomb at Victoria in a litterbin I missed by 10 minutes, a bomb in a baracks, police horses dismembered by a nailbomb... and the still-within-living-memory events of the Blitz and V2 bombardment - 168 killed by one bomb on New Cross Woolworths.

We're used to these extraordinary events. We have a shaky moment, check on our loved ones, shrug, and move on. If we're particularly shaken, we have a cuppa, or go for a pint.

If someone we know is directly affected, we rally round, offer more selfless and tender and non-intrusive support than you could imagine - simple kindnesses like tea, blankets, lifts. The 'English reserve' is dropped instantly, making those moments of kindness so much more significant. We try not to make the situation worse, we behave sensibly, and we let the professionals get on with their jobs, pitching in if extra pairs of hands are needed. This is a marvellous, marvellous way to deal with a crisis, however big or small.

I spent yesteday pretty much watching the news - there was no way I could get to work; I was on a bus to Vauxhall when they pulled all busses over and 'checked for suspect packages' - something that involved our driver listlessly walking round the outside of the bus, having a quick peer underneath, shrugging and driving on. I got to Vauxhall; no-one really knew what was going on, no transport was running, so I turned home. You see, that's a dull and unremarkable story; like the six or seven million other Londoners who were only aware of the problems through the media, whose days were just as dull and unremarkable as usual.

But, something about witnessing the events through those news reports is beginning to change the way we behave. It started with Diana's death - only the second time I have seen my father cry, incidentally. Then, having been glued to the 9/11 reports, we all know the media routine of people in deep, deep shock being interviewed by camera crews (for SHAME, camera crews. Can you not see that those people need care and help, not grilling?). We see the same snippets of video repeated again and again - the man being led from an ambulance at St Marys, the phonecam footage of the tunnel, the incident tent being erected at Aldgate, the bus, the bus, the bus, the bloodstained wall at tavistock square. And we absorb these images, and they send us further from our wonderful, calm, brickishness and into a fluttery hen-like panic. We wallow in it, indulging our emotions publicly. We reinforce the stress of events in a shared, bonding experience, because we're starting to enjoy the newly-sanctioned pleasures of public displays of sentimentality.

Once we've absorbed those images, we start to create ourselves as victims; as put upon innocents. We forget that we've been waiting for terrorist attacks forever - since we divided ireland, since we joined an illegal war, since we rolled over to a foreign power. Since we stopped questioning our government too closely, and became content with their construction of the world as a dangerous place, full of imaginary threats from 'others', from which they are protecting us. We fall into jingoism.

The biggest contrast was flicking from BBC reports to ITV reports. The reporting style was so different - the new BBC guidelines emphasise accuracy over speed, and it shows. The news was stately, calm, and focused. The ITV news was breathless, over excited, wildly speculative; sensationalist tabloid disaster porn, feeding the rubbernecking carcrash fetishist in all of us. Channel Four had a Richard and Judy Terrorism special, for christs sake.

Indeed, the stupidest in speech.

Anyway. A very long post on something I was meaning to ignore. And, just in case you were wondering why I feel this is an insignificant event, have a look at these other Deathtolls, and remember that sixty years ago the glorious RAF was responsible for a hundred thousand dead in 14 hours in Dresden.

Yesterday was not a big deal.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Tiny Little Men - Climbing the Teton?


Erm, not really worksafe. But made me giggle.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

del.icio.us direc.tor

del.icio.us direc.tor: Delivering A High-Performance AJAX Web Service Broker :: Johnvey

I'm in awe of the kind of techies who actually build stuff for the web. Stuff that works, and is useful, elegant and clever.

I've never really got past HTML and a smattering of CSS, which is something that makes me sad.

Anyway - this is a very beautiful piece of AJAX work, that scrapes del.icio.us and turns its dry interface into a beautiful card-sorting type system. It lets you drill down through your tags to return bookmarks at tag confluences.

Damn, it's lovely.

Someone should make one that combines del.icio.us, technorati and flickr. And any other tag soup sites out there.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Pip Pip, what?

The Greenwich Time Signal

A lovely little history of the Pips.

It makes me sad that they aren't synchronised in these DAB days. And I'm sure I once read that in some cases - such as local radio - they get played out from minidisk.


Saturday, July 02, 2005


Kissui.net: Harajuku Girls by Gwen Stefani and Tokyo Girls by Hellen van Meene - originally from Salon.com, but reproduced without bug-me-ware on that site.

An interesting article about the exploitation of Japanese youth culture, and the way that 'Japanese' is becoming a signifier for 'hip', whilst still being overlaid with pre-existing cultural assumptions and stereotypes.

I'm sort of guilty of the offhanded reduction-to-stereotypes the article describes. Yes, I'm fascinated by Japanese design, and have an over-romanticised idea about how cool the place must be, gleaned from a weird mishmash of bizarro adverts, Lost in Translation, and gaming magazines. So it's good to read a reminder that actually, you're romanticisng an entire culture; one that is not your own, and that you therefore have no pregiven access to the (um, there is a word for this, but I've forgotten it) 'framework-of-assumptions' that actually governs the workings of the culture. You're always an outsider.

Humn, anyway, this isn't particularly focused, but it's sort of a reminder to myself to actually do some background reading about traditional crafts culture in Japan, so at least I have some background knowledge to my Japanophilia. And also, to watch Topsy Turvy again, as it's gentle mockery of the splendidly patronising colonialist obsession with the mysterious orient that so excited the edwardians is a good grounder...

Friday, July 01, 2005

Just in from department of no surprises...

Anesthesia can give rise to sex illusion | www.azstarnet.com ®

I've never experienced them...

But I know folk who buy chloroform from the internet, for shits and giggles of an... adult play variety.

Still, looks like more excuses to sue the medical profession. There were some shameful figures doing the rounds this week about the cost of litigation to the NHS; it's risen from c. £1million in 1995, to c£280million in the last year.


Bad Alice

Alice - from that Wonderland place - found a T-Shirt she thinks would be just perfect for me.

Oh, dearie me.

She's going to be in so much trouble. I might even have to start keeping a list.