Archive for January, 2007

Enso, Humanized, Aza: congrats; Jef Raskin remembered

January 25, 2007

Imagine a keyboard-shortcut-macro-enhanced-command-line-learn-by-example widget on steroids, that “does the right thing” when appropriate. It is fast, simple, keyboard-centric, and appears to address the challenge I laid down in my Outloook Calendar Widget Challenge (hey Humanized: check it out and tell me if you’ve got a solution to that).

This is absolutely what the doctor ordered. KMi’s Laurian Gridinoc tipped me off today about’s launch of Enso, and it looks to me like Enso rocks!

In fact, it sort of reminds me of something from my past. Only by chance did I discover that the relationship is not accidental. I was already hooked on Enso, and starting to write this commentary, when I discovered by chance browsing that one of the key people behind it is Aza Raskin, son of Jef who was such a big influence on me when I lived in his house in Southern California, and whom I wrote about previously to celebrate his inventiveness and jocularity here and here.

I see from the Humanized site that Enso is dedicated to Jef’s memory: this is a fantastic tribute, and I wish Humanized all the best of luck with this exciting product! Congratulations, guys!

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Geni Family Tree Pros and Cons

January 25, 2007

Following a tipoff from Tony Hirst about a posting from TechCrunch about the (apparently) super-coolio-new-web2-goodness-enriched-genealogical-explorer called Geni, I could not resist trying it out with some serious family data, garnered from my own intensive genealogical work over the past few years.


You can see a small portion of my hastily-generated tree here – I got up to about 50 nodes very quickly and then took a break (by a serious tree I mean thousands of nodes). But back to Geni, and reality: Geni’s great strength is summed up as: point, click, type, and Bob’s Your Uncle (geddit? hey, that’s the name for the rival software product: Bob’s Your Uncle … may only work in the UK… ).

That TechCrunch article has an extensive thread of pro-and-con commentary that is definitely worth reading, but here’s my personal take from the perpective of a social software guy AND personal genealogy researcher.

Pros: extremely simple, great looking, extremely seductive, viral invite mechanism, fairly thorough (embedded photos, understands ‘popular’ relation types, etc), recursive ‘hand-off’ to fellow family researchers, easy embedding of ‘deeper branches. It’s very very cute, no doubt about it: you’re off and flying within seconds, after being greeted by one of the most compelling entrance pages since the original Google (this is no mean feat: genealogy is extremely challenging); you’ve built a fun 20-node tree in minutes, you’ve invited relatives in minutes with a one-click each, and they are off and flying within seconds of being invited, embellishing their branches which are easily accessible from yours, so within a few hours you’ve got an amazing tree and your long-lost cousins and in-laws are buzzing and contributing.

Cons: no import/export for serious genealogists, no ‘flexible relations’ for serious genealogists, no place for supporting evidence, no ‘path-finding’ (how does X relate to Y), too easy to lose ownership to node ‘squatters’ (e.g. if someone else has ‘bagged’ a certain email address, even if it is a genuine relative working on their own tree, you are not allowed to add them), security worries if you’re concerned about yielding mother’s maiden name info beyond your bank! Yes, everything is ‘private’, but I guess you can only trust your 2nd-cousin-twice-removed as far as you can throw them, so to speak. Which is probably less than you trust – and I was in fact happy to trust them during my little experiment. But once your relatives get in on the act, those little private nodes start getting enhanced mighty fast.

Cons rebuttal: team is friendly, and that stuff is ‘on the to-do list’. I emailed them with a few comments, and they got back to me quickly with an ‘on the to-do list’ reply. There’s no reason to doubt this.

There are numerous rival tools out there – I won’t sample them in this commentary (the replies to that TechCrunch article go through quite a few)… I’m on old-school user of Family Tree Maker Pro, which is great for archival purposes, but doesn’t attempt to tackle the ‘hand-off to relatives’ that Geni is so good at. On the other hand, tools like Ancestry do deal with the hand-off situation. By ‘hand-off’ I mean this: it always used to bug me that in this web-centric era I could link seamlessly between resources on the web, like I do in this blog, but genealogy files had to be exported and emailed around. That’s crazy! Why can’t I just link directly to a relative’s node? Answer: well, there are major replication and validation problems for one, and old user interfaces just weren’t up to the job. The replication and validation problems remain – that’s half the fun of genealogical research, but at least Geni has upped the stakes in creating a nice easy-hand-off user interface. Definitely worth experimenting with, and worth waiting for the day when the catch up on their ‘to-do list’ features!

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SL Bots II: Willmott’s Thought Experiment

January 25, 2007

In an earlier posting I wrote

How about planting a 100% autonomous agent ‘out there’ in Second Life… let it roam the world, and blog back what’s happening?

Vlad has kindly pointed me to someone proposing something similar.

In a paper entitled “Creating Wholly Autonomous Agents in On-line Worlds” (from Proceedings of the 2005 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Intelligent Agent Technology (IAT’05)), Steven Willmott writes:

The aim of this paper is consider how it might already be possible (although potentially illegal) to exploit these on-line environments in order to construct wholly autonomous electronic entities able to act for themselves: sustaining themselves financially, choosing their own actions, interacting with humans – and surviving for extended periods without external assistance. The paper is structured as a “thought experiment” on how mechanisms necessary for self sustainability might be put in place and the potential implications of creating such automated entities.

It’s not obvious to me that this is illegal – I guess “it depends”! And Willmott is only at the thought experiment stage, so we haven’t been scooped yet! However, his paper is an important exploration of the territory, identifying some of the key issues of identity, autonomy, situatedness, mobility, legality, and setting out potential criteria for success.

My conjecture is that this arena (autonomous bots in Second Life and any of numerous other environments) will turn out to be as influential as the Turing Test as a great way to judge the performance and behaviour of software tools in an otherwise human or proxy-human context.

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Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT salvage free goods

January 22, 2007

Damn, I love the Devon coastline… hope they can siphon off the vast bulk of oil and other nasties before it’s too late. Not sure exactly what was the ‘backup plan’ when abandoning ship.

And the cargo?

Paraphrasing loosely from the BBC and elsewhere,

“Please do not even think about coming down to Devon to salvage the hundreds of thousands of valuable items, from casks of wine to perfume to BMW motorcycles to almost anything and everything else consumed in the developed world. In fact, our experts tell us that ‘salvaging’ is not the same as ‘looting’, and is perfectly legal if you are sure to fill in a declaration form, just in case the goods need to be returned to their rightful owners one day. But we repeat, under no circumstances should you come down to Devon, where more than 2,000 additional shipping containers are poised to fall off the badly listing ship.”

I could not believe my ears. Doesn’t matter what they actually said – I can tell you what I thought I heard, and I can guarantee that many other people who had not even thought about the catastrophe in terms other than “poor ship”, “poor crew”, “poor coastline”, “poor birds” are suddenly thinking “Wait a minute… did they just say what I thought they said…”

So I suspect the “scores of scavengers” from today’s stories will be “thousands” within the next day or two.

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P2P-TV: Venice Project morphs into Joost

January 18, 2007

Kazaa/Skype Dynamic Duo Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström are, as Spencer Reiss’s Jan 17th Wired article nicely states:

the most feared digital tag team since Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page marched across the Net

In a nutshell, they’ve got the tech skills, the charisma, the attitude, and the cash, to do what ‘Internet TV’, ipTV, Video On Demand, and numerous other experiments, have failed to deliver: a great seamless experience of full-lenght big-screen video with an infinite number of channels, cool user interface, and social software sophistication. OK, OK, I’m signing up already… Joost

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More Second Life Long Learning…

January 18, 2007

SUMMARY: some pointers to Edinburgh and OU Second Life activity, some reflections on ‘so what?’, and a challenge about sending scriptable bots ‘out there’ to blog back what they find.

Following my earlier posting on the subject, and commentary on Edinburgh’s AIAI2, Austin beamed back just after New Year with an additional further comment, saying

we have been using the objects at our “AIAI2″ area to link up with programs running outside of the Second Life environment through XML-RPC and HTTP technologies. Check oiut our progress and see some images of our offices at

Lookin good! Austin always fires me up to say “hey – what are WE doing in this space?”… in fact there are a few Open University experiments on already, with some land-grabbing and virtual meeting venues already underway. Check out Schome (not school, not home) and in particular the Schome communty wiki, which comments

Schome will NOT be another ‘virtual learning space’, it will involve physical spaces for learners, in recognition of the need to provide: social activities; access to specialist resources; and custodial care for (some) young people. However, new technologies will be an essential enabler of more personalized learning and more efficient utilization of learning resources. Information and communication technologies also have implications for the knowledge, understandings and skills that society needs as well as the pedagogical approaches that are possible.

The Schome folks have set up their stall on Second Life in Schomebase, and describe their rationale here on the Schome Second Life Wiki Page.

KMi’s Vlad Tanasescu is working with the Schome team mentioned above, and has built a website which he commicates with through Second Life objects: you communicate with the object, and it blogs your entries… you can see some examples here.

Where’s this stuff going? No one knows. I’ve commented to other KMi-ers that my personal interest stems not from virtual environments per se, but rather from an earlier interest of mine in programmable bots. This reflects some (negative) experiences we had in the very first incarnations of KMi Stadium back in 1995, about which I optimistically wrote at the time

We are enhancing existing media and developing new media intended to give participants a sense of ‘being there’ at events of all kinds, including master classes, performances, tutorials, conferences, workshops, ceremonies, parties, jam sessions, recitals, industrial training sessions, university lectures, training on demand, town hall meetings, debates, and so on. For us, ‘being there’ is not primarily about Virtual Reality per se, although VR can certainly help. Rather, it is a question of capturing the right participative aspects of audience presence (such as applauding, laughing, shouting, asking questions, whispering to neighbours) and harnessing those aspects to convey as much of the mood of an event as possible. We are interested in telepresence at both live events and on-demand replays, because we believe that both types of event are enhanced by a sense of the presence of others. (see related Tech Report, p.3)

As it turns out, our early users found the applauding, laughing, and avatar representations to be cute, but distracting — they just wanted the content, thank you very much, without the cute bits, and without having to ‘navigate’ to their seats!!! Maybe we got it wrong, and maybe modern virtual environments can capture the stuff we missed, but I’d say the jury is out on whether I want ever-better MUD/MOO-like worlds for me and my students to inhabit. Sure, it depends on what’s in those worlds: Randy Hinrichs of Microsoft argued persuasively many years ago that building (say) a Biology World in which you could explore hitherto un-explorable (or expensive to explore) phenomena would be an inherently rewarding experience, and it’s clear that someone needs to do this! But it needs to be done sensitively: Roger Schank argued persuasively many years ago that (to paraphrase loosely), “real classrooms are awful enough, why do you want to inflict that awful stuff on people virtually too?” Nevertheless, there are many other great things to be learned in Second Life, so it’s great to see the pioneers out there in force. And no, as the Schome people point out, they are not simply replicating classrooms.

But I’m intrigued by something else at the moment. How about planting a 100% autonomous agent ‘out there’ in Second Life… let it roam the world, and blog back what’s happening? The Roving Friends stuff I posted a while back is about “Artificial Life meets rare collectible cards in the form of autonomous, net-roving, data-collecting bots scriptable by schoolchildren”:

Roving Friends is intended to be both a new gaming genre and an experimental testbed: with it, children will be able to create their own autonomous net-roving bots, designing both physical appearance and behaviour. The bots will be sent out into the world to … meet other bots, interact with them, and report back to their owners (via ordinary email) with status updates, news stories, travel logs, and ‘holiday snapshot postcard attachments’ that will include evidence of having encountered other bots

This was inspired very much by Seymour Papert’s great work: learning comes from what kids program the bots to do. In Second Life, this may be too difficult, but let’s see how far we can push this!

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Four-Eyed Monsters Net Neutrality Video

January 15, 2007

Hadn’t seen this one before, but it’s a nice bit of (in their words) “link / react / embed / download / re-edit / re-distribute / resources / license / subscribe / publicize” grass roots argumentation. Check it out:

Save the Internet | Rock the Vote

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The iPhone Thumb Conjecture: iPhone and iPod will coexist fine!

January 13, 2007

In my posting last year about the Nokia N70 I mentioned one important usage criterion which was

Thumb-centric vs pen-centric operation: if you’re making the jump to a smartphone (i.e. phone with PDA functionality), one key attribute you should consider is whether you prefer to enter short items with your thumb or with a pen (touch-screens can do both, but a thumb is too inaccurate so let’s just say thumb vs pen). Another way to think about this is one-handed (hold gadget + use thumb) vs two-handed (hold gadget + use pen) operation. For many applications, pen-centric is great, and for others, it gets in the way. I decided to move to thumb-centric because it fit better with my daily usage patterns.

In different contexts, one has different needs. I like a pen-centric style for PDA usage, but a thumb-centric style for phone usage: I use both a lot, and do NOT like combining them. The iPod, aside from shaping the music industry, set a new high standard in user interfaces for thumb-centric applications. I believe Apple’s iPhone, launched this week to great (and well-deserved) acclaim ,will reshape a large segment of the mobile personal media industry, and will certainly set a new high standard in user interfaces for pen-centric (er, make that touch-centric or even gesture-centric) applications. I’m also certain that both niches will survive in parallel, and re-fertilize each other from time to time. In other words, a thumb-centric iPod and a tap/gesture-centric iPod/iPhone each make unbelievably strong contributions: there is no ‘right’ interface, because it is a question of personal taste and appropriate context. That is why the iPod and the iPhone can each gain huge market share without distracting from one another.

[Matthew Miller on ZDNet commented more harshly on the disadvantages of the gesture-centric approach, but I think both approaches are highly desirable.]

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