Archive for October, 2007

Fractal Attention Conjecture

October 25, 2007

With all the talk about Continuous Partial Attention, Attention Deficit Disorder, and the hectic pace of modern life, I wanted to put forward a related but slightly different personal observation.

Resource-limited models of attention have been around for decades. I’ve completely lost touch with the literature, and do not mean to gloss over all the profound work, but here’s a handy quote from Don Norman, who summarises things nicely in a 2005 interview about car automation:

The old model of attentional resources was CPU cycles – if I am idling, I am only using a small percentage of cycles and the rest is available any time I need it. It’s a model I helped develop in the 1970s. There is some evidence though that this is not appropriate. Maybe a better model would not be a fixed CPU but a mesh computer, where multiple CPUs are scattered around in a community. If I think [the current task] could be an easy job I get just enough CPUs to do the job. Now if I suddenly need more, I’m screwed. In the first model, I was not using the remaining capacity but it was available for me. But in the second model my attentive resources diminish and when I suddenly need them, they are not there. Some researchers in England are applying this model of “underload” to driving, which I find very intriguing.

Subjectively, the experience of attention is not only about the ebb and flow of resources, however: for me, it is about the granularity of activities of interest. Another way of stating this is that it concerns the relative size of the visible horizon. As an example, it has long been clear to me that when someone I know has been recovering from some illness (say, a stroke), the painstakingly slow recovery is accompanied by a shift in the granularity of activities of interest: so instead of “running a marathon” or “cycling to work” (old activities of interest), the activity of merit is now “getting across the room”. And the relatives who observe this activity are, in my experience, genuinely engaged with it — i.e. this is not some patronising stance, but rather a true shift in the granularity of focus, so that the new goal really does “fill the horizon”, and becomes a very large and prized ambition, within whose scope many smaller sub-goals are attended to with clarity and conviction. When I broke my jaw some years ago, the goal became “eating”, and that took many weeks.

Another great example of this comes from a Philip Marlowe line in the film “Murder, My Sweet” (from Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely). Marlowe, in a helpless drug-induced mental haze, can barely move:

Okay, Marlowe, I said to myself, you’re a tough guy.

You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun…

shot in the arm until you’re as crazy as a couple of waltzing mice.

Now let’s see you do something really tough…

like putting your pants on.

This new, tough, goal is genuine.. precisely because it is now so hard: it is the protagonist’s personal Mt. Everest at that moment in time. Not much else matters, and achieving the goal will be a matter of immense satisfaction.

In a less dramatic context, one finds when leapfrogging around the blogosphere that there are items that suddenly grab one’s attention. From that moment onwards, it is possible to ‘drill down’ into the minutiae of [pick any topic], and get drawn into a whole new world. If it gets that absorbing, one’s entire focus shifts… a life-long interest in, say, cognitive models of human perception becomes superseded by, say, the reliability of assumptions of variable-independence in certain statistical tests. New authorities are discovered, new literature, new subtleties, new paradigms, new disciplines, and one can drill down deeply into what had previously been just a side problem (like Marlowe getting dressed) yet is now the Top Goal.

Shifting interests (by individuals and ‘the media’) in top news stories have the same characteristic. Trapped miners can occupy headlines for many consecutive days, not only because of the ‘human interest angle’, but also because a new horizon (safe rescue) has been established. ‘Passion fatigue’ is, unfortunately, another example of what can happen when our minds crave different horizons. Horizons shift, as do interests.

You could argue that the ability to maintain steady focus is what separates deep thinkers from mere dilettantes. The counter-argument is that serendipitous pathways and disruptive states are only discovered by those who relax such a fixed ‘tunnel vision’ of focus. There’s no need for an ‘either-or’ distinction: one can actually have it both ways.

There is a fractal-like quality to this aspect of attention: the effects of scarce or competing attentional resources and ‘horizon effects’ (i.e. hard to see just beyond the horizon or current ‘big goal’) remain the same, no matter how deep or fine-grained the target of inspection. Getting dressed for Marlowe, climbing Mt. Everest for others: just as hard, just as focussed, just as dangerous.

In the blogosphere, for readers and writers alike, it is fantastic that we can find ‘islands of expertise or interest’ to latch onto, and they in turn will be magnets for stories of interest from a particular attentional perspective. When the perspective changes, new islands can be found. Many others have said things like this before, so I won’t even attempt to link or quote — I just felt like putting the above reflection in my own words. Thanks for listening.

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Testing TokBox beta

October 17, 2007

The New York Times had a Tech article on 14th October entitled “Video Chat Service Aims to Follow YouTube’s Path” in which they wrote

A Web start-up company with some of the same backers who helped catapult YouTube to glory wants to do for live video chats what YouTube did for video watching. The company, TokBox, allows people with Webcams and broadband Internet connections to conduct face-to-face chats inside a Web browser. Users can visit its site,, or add a TokBox module to their pages on social Web sites like MySpace.

Sure enough, TokBox’s 1-to-1 Flash video chat is easily embeddable anywhere… here’s mine below (if I’m there, you can click to chat to me). I had it in my sidebar originally, but moved it to just this posting so it’ll disappear with time):

Get your own TokBox at

It’s great that they’re getting all this publicity, and that they’ve raised $4 Million from Sequoia Capital, even though, as it says in the article (“…then it will be up to the company to figure out a way to make money”)

I have mixed feelings about this (or maybe it’s just envy?). Ease of use and embeddability are crucial, so they’re doing the right thing. But $4M while figuring out how to make money: wow, I’d better go meet some of these guys, then. KMi’s FlashVlog is embeddable in the same way… my little ‘greeting’ in the upper right is exactly this, and our FlashMeeting does multiparty video chat much better. But quick 1-to-1, easily embedded anywhere, is a strong idea, and undoubtedly this is what Sequoia and others are banking on: they have a great window of opportunity for viral growth that other players in this space may have missed. They use Gigya to simplify embedding anywhere, and I would assume that the lion’s share of that investment capital must be going on scale, scale, scale, which is of vital importance. On the other hand, entry barriers are pretty low IMHO. If you can bankroll the scalability, then Flash already solves most of your problems for you. The Tokbox ‘user experience’ is pretty good, I must say. You need a headset to avoid audio feedback, but this is pretty normal these days– the alternative for a tool provider is to opt for push-to-talk audio like FlashMeeting has.

NOTE: if you run other tools that use Flash video, e.g. if you have a permanent presence is some other environment, like our own Hexagon, then you’re out of luck unless you spawn a fresh tabbed browser in advance: if you launch in a separate window, Flash does not like to handle two video environoments at once.

SUGGESTION FOR TOKBOX: The embeddable variant ought to be ‘less wide’, e.g. a single square that does ‘window-in-window’ video like Skype, or perhaps ‘expands or pops out when a call starts’: this will make it much more appealing for blog sidebar embedding and other similar locations where users are fussy about their screen real estate.

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Don’t Digg this pirate Diggnation London MP4 video

October 4, 2007

Heh, ok, so it’s just a 1-minute clip linked immediately below from my mobile phone, with me sitting waaaay back in the audience, but I’m just having some fun with the story headline, to reflect the fun I had at the event and the irreverent spirit of Alex Albrecht and Kevin Rose of Digg/Diggnation, heroes of the evening. [The main image at right is from MichaelHenley’s Flickr Photostream (thank you!).


duh, I may recode it to other formats later, but can’t be bothered right now]

Here is the background: I’m attending Ryan Carson’s Future of Web Apps in London, and after an intense and excellent first day (yesterday, 3rd October 2007) of back-to-back presentations, brainstorming, shmoozing, and some free beer, the main auditorium is set up for a 7:30PM live recording of the next Diggnation podcast. Digg’s Kevin Rose has already given a nice keynote speech about lessons learned from the crazy startup days of Digg (“hey, if the growth meant I could pay the bills and bring in a few hundred extra dollars, I was a happy guy”).

Now it’s 7:30. The crowd filters in, and the atmosphere is electric. Alex and Kevin come in like two rock stars, background music pumping; the crowd goes wild, everyone on their feet screaming, cheering. The ‘format’ is a cross between Wayne’s World, (David) Baddiel and (Frank) Skinner’s unscripted chat show, and GeekBrief.TV, i.e. two guys sit on a couch, allegedly review the top stories on Digg, but with the wisecracking, beer drinking, sniping, and side remarks, there’s not time for too many Digg stories. But who cares?

The guys are obviously enjoying their fame. Kevin is clearly still pinching himself – this is their biggest live gig ever, as far as anyone can tell, and Kevin is blown away by the enormous (>1000) and pumped-up audience of wild fans. He grins and blushes from time to time throughout the event. Alex, on the other hand is a natural – he was born to be on stage. The wordplay and body language between the two is wonderful. Alex has impeccable TIMING, which is everything. The brat!

A young woman in the audience holds up a ‘Marry Me, Alex’ sign, comes up on stage and gives him a big kiss. You’ll have to watch the podcast, but it’ll never capture the impact of the live event. It was insane, inane, irreverent, sophomoric, and full of Politically Incorrect commentary. And I’m probably old enough to be their grandfather, so I’m not going to pretend I was ‘in there’ on their wavelength: but that’s not the point – anyone who’s seen my postings about live rock gigs knows that I’m a sucker for performers who have the charisma and style to work creatively with a live audience, and these guys, especially Alex, have it in spades. He was just riffing on the atomosphere, saying what the crowd wanted to hear and more, and improvising with some idiotic and (in context) wildly funny stuff.

The 1-minute clip captures an off-the-cuff routine they did about a 1-week life-cycle of ‘iPhone coolness’ in San Francisco (using the accidentally-dropped gizmo to impress an imaginary hot waitress one week, only to find that it was already commonplace in the Bay Area the following week; so they escalated their pickup lines to the next level by revealing some super-cool (and of course totally pathetic) 3rd party (now banned) iPhone app. Kevin chimes in with a late rejoinder, and Alex takes it to the next level with another even more outrageous line. This is great stuff – and I’m no Digg fanboy: I only dropped in on a whim, at the last moment, fully expecting NOT to enjoy the rants of this high-adrenaline crowd.

Well, it probably won’t make any sense, either in my description above, or in the clip, but it was brilliant to watch live: it simultaneously praised and hammered Apple (for their cool gadget and their uncool 3rd-party hacks attitude), did the same for sad-geeks-trying-to-get-girls, people who were LESS cool, people who were MORE cool, even each other, all at the same time. Hey, Kevin even (pre-emptively, I expect) knocks sadd-os who write posts like THIS one… ha!

Well, now that I think of it, I have seen the Big Names of comedy, like Frank Skinner, in live/closeup cabaret settings in the UK, and I would say Alex has definitely ‘got it’. But he is, by his own admission on stage, a complete and utter a**h*le, so I wouldn’t want him to see THIS posting or have any of the above commentary to go to his head…

Oh yeah, I was gonna write about all the great stuff I saw at FOWA. Will have to do that later.

Check Diggnation for the actual high-quality podcast, to be uploaded soon.

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Ebay Skype $2.6Bn booboo voodoo

October 2, 2007

It’s been all over the tech press and blogosphere for the past 2 days (catch up with everything via this great Techmeme listing for example), but nobody I’ve read so far is saying the following:

1. BAD: this may put the brakes on some great visionary European entrepreneurial activity (see for example Saul Klein’s great posting “Y Europe can seed growth of its new stars”.

2. GOOD: OK, so consider it a sanity check, and a healthy way to avoid crazy valuation bubbles for now.

3. CURIOUS: Ever since I was a kid, I have thought “Gee, I wish I could lose billions of dollars in some deal, and walk away with a phat handshake (or should I say drive away in my Rolls-Royce)”. Pretty interesting: ok, some shareholders are down a few bucks each (oh wait, they’re actually UP as of yesterday… add another notch to the ‘curiosity’ levels), and the key people in the chain are laughing all the way to the bank. “Re-structuring”, “earn-outs”, “taking a charge for this quarter”. Bah. Hey, I’m not knocking capitalism – but this ain’t capitalism, it’s voodoo. To me, anyway: obviously if I understood it better, I’d be laughing too.

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Emperor’s New Clothes 2: phone audio

October 1, 2007

I was looking up something concerning BitTorrent and Bram Cohen, and stumbled across this neat comment by Bram.

Would some carrier, any carrier, please offer the feature that when calls are made within the carrier you get better audio quality than is available over the plain old telephone system? Is it too much to ask that background music sound like background music, rather than bizarre noise?

The comment happens to be embedded in an iPhone review, but that is not its most salient feature: the key thing is that someone with great technical understanding is stating something that has bugged many of us for years. In the ensuing comment interchange he also argues that synchronous voice, when there are 100ms lags involved, should be abandoned, presumably in favour of push-to-talk, something we’ve long advocated.

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