Archive for August, 2006

A New Journey

August 31, 2006

…keep track of it here.

Older journeys can be found at


Flat-pack housing

August 30, 2006

Much has been made lately about the latent housing potential of shipping containers. But according to Chris Johnson, an Australian architect and curator of the Houses of the Future exhibit at Sydney Olympic Park, container-based homes are only one step in a larger global trend toward alternative modular housing systems. “Companies such as Ikea and Toyota are moving into housing and the question is whether people putting brick on brick is, in the early 21st century, the most efficient way to build housing,” says Johnson in a 2005 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. Take, for example, the Ikea BoKlok, an entire house that comes in the same kind of “flat-pack” packaging as that desk you bought back in college:

From this spring, if an Anglo-Swedish project takes off, it will be possible to buy an entire home from the furnishing superstore Ikea with the option – though this would be the hard part – of following the flatpack instructions and assembling it yourself.Shoppers familiar with the unique Ikea system may blanch at the prospect, but the store is preparing the package to sell to customers with incomes as modest as £15,000. Provided they are handy with Allen keys, Phillips screwdrivers and pliers, they will have a simple open-plan, one-bedroom apartment plus a voucher, probably for £250, to buy a “start package” of Ikea furniture…

The homes were invented in 1997 in response to similar housing problems in Sweden, where Ikea shaved the basic cost of a home in the way it has done for humbler objects like the Jerker cupboard and Gassbo stool. Costly but “unnecessary” house details were cut out after an exhaustive survey of what young house-hunters considered essential, as opposed to ideal.

The BoKloks will available over the counter at Ikea’s 13 British stores if all goes well, with between three and seven blocks of six per site, plus communal gardens and car parking. The package may also include advice and support in setting up a new home, a personal shopper, mortgage and insurance discounts and a year’s interest-free loans on large purchases of items like the Plutt and Gorm. (The Guardian)

With these and similar projects taking hold in countries throughout Europe and North America, the mid-90s projects of maverick design group Atelier van Lieshout seem more prescient than ever. Now if only Ikea could find a way to put property into a cardboard box, we’d be set…

Self-replicating toy robot

August 25, 2006

Undaunted by the distant prospect of the grey goo problem, researchers at Cornell University have constructed a modular, self-replicating toy robot:

So far, the robots, if they can be called that, consist of just three or four mobile cubes.

Each unit comes with a small computer code carrying a blueprint for the layout of the robot, electrical contacts to let it communicate with its neighbours, and magnets to let them stick together.

By turning and moving, the cubes can pick up new units, decide where they belong, and stack them alongside each other to make new devices.

In a little more than a minute, a simple three-cube robot can make a copy of itself. (BBC)

Minneapolis surveillance mapping

August 21, 2006

Pedestrian surveilance cameras are now ubiquitous in urban centres around the world. A citizen’s group in Minneapolis has created an online, user-updated map to keep track of new cameras as they appear:

To what extent are pedestrians in downtown Minneapolis monitored on surveillance cameras? Are most of the downtown cameras owned by the city or private businesses? Is the footage from these cameras recorded or just viewed? How long are the recordings kept? Who has access to the public camera footage?

The Minneapolis Surveillance Camera Project exists to answer these questions. Working with a shoestring budget, and a lot of very dedicated volunteers were working to inventory all the security cameras that record public spaces within the downtown area. Anyone is free to help out, just report any cameras you see that aren’t on our list. (

Second Life – First Impressions

August 17, 2006

Sometimes I like to pretend that I don’t have a million unfinished projects that need my attention. It’s during times like this that I think up new ideas, thus perpetuating the cycle of incompletion. I’ve been interested in machinima for a long time now, and I’d heard that the MMORPG Second Life was a promising platform for this new type of filmmaking/animation. So during one of those moments where I was pretending I had nothing more pressing to attend to, I downloaded the Second Life (or SL for short) client, signed up for a free starter account, and started exploring.

I didn’t know what to expect. The idea of a persistent online “mirror-world”, complete with its own internal economy, political system and geography, has been around for a while, but each implementation I’ve seen has been somewhat underwhelming. Popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft have always struck me as being, well, a little boring — run across the mountains, collect an item, bring it back to a specific place to collect a reward, etc. Such classical adventure-based MMORPGs are only as interesting as their individual adventures, and the social and creative aspect seems to always take a back seat to the sword and sorcery stuff. Second Life is very much the opposite. There are almost no built-in “adventures” or game narratives; everything that happens in the virtual world is created by its participants. As one might expect, much of what happens consequently has to do with sex.

My first experience took place while I was reinstalling the operating system on my Mac. To while away the minutes, I put the SL client on my laptop and started flying around. A few minutes later, Stephanie joined me, and once Tiger was on the Mac, we put SL on there, too, and flew around together (everyone can fly in the SL world). Here’s some of what we saw:

  • A woman building a small chapel for her upcoming wedding. I asked her how long she’d been engaged, and she said only a month (and that even included a recent breakup). She told us she and her virtual lover hadn’t yet met in “RL” (real life). “Hopefully someday,” she said through the text-messaging client. “A lot of marriages in SL work out in RL, too,” she added. We wanted to ask more questions, but her sister appeared and they needed to talk details about the design for the wedding dress.
  • An amorous couple engaged in various sex acts. These two had customized their avatars to look like porn stars, complete with huge boobs on the woman and a giant erection on the man. They had sex right in front of us, and seemed to like the company. “Looks like we have an audience,” the man said as he entered his partner from behind.
  • Several more amorous couples, some of whom did not appreciate our voyeurism.
  • A group of furries, all dressed as horses, gathered in a barn on the outskirts of a more populated area. They were all standing still, staring up at the barn wall. I looked at what they were staring at. It was a slide show of line-art anthropomorphic horse porn. I watched for a few minutes as the group’s leader clicked through the slides. “Wow, that’s hot,” said one. “I’ve already got that one,” said another. It was disturbing but intriguing.
  • A friendly avatar took us to a park for a ride down a river on inner-tubes. We chatted with him as we floated down the river. He said he was from Tucson and introduced us to his friend (perhaps his girlfriend, we weren’t sure), who said she was from Pittsburgh. She later took us back to her private garden where we danced for a while to some 80s pop music. It was a relaxing end to the day.

Perhaps the most exciting thing I discovered while in Second Life was what it offers to filmmakers who want to experiment with machinima. The number of potential sets is basically endless, and there seems to be no shortage of people who could be employed as virtual actors and technicians. And the best part is, you could pay them all scale with virtual cash — “Linden dollars” — which currently exchange at a rate of about 250 game dollars to 1 US dollar.

Snake Robots

August 16, 2006

“The question naturally arises, why snake robots? Biological snakes occupy a wide variety of ecological niches, ranging from arid desert to tropical jungle as well as swimming in rivers and oceans. Abandoning limbs and developing elongated spines has proved an effective survival strategy, allowing snakes to hunt underground in confined tunnels, above ground in grassy fields and up in the tree-tops, even falling in a controlled glide from one tree to the next. By attempting to build robots that emulate and perhaps match the capabilities of their biological counterparts, it is possible that we will create useful tools capable of carrying sensors, taking samples, and making physical changes in a wide variety of environments.” (

Spiritual robots

August 12, 2006

Reflecting on Douglas Hofstadter‘s question, “Will spiritual robots replace humanity by 2100?”, Kevin Kelly writes:

When thinking in the long term, especially about technology, I find it very helpful to think in terms of human generations. As a rough estimate I reckon 25 years per generation. Civilization began about 10,000 years ago (the oldest city, Jericho, was born in 8000 BC) which makes the civilization now present in Jericho and the rest of the world about 400 generations old. Tha’s 400 reproductive cycles of mother to daughter. Four hundred generations of civilized humans is not very long. We could almost memorize the names of all 400 cycles if we had nothing much else to do. After 400 generations we are different people than when we began. We had the idea of automatons and robots only maybe 8 generations ago, and made the first electronic computers 2 generations ago. The entire World Wide Web less than 2,000 days old! The year 2100 is only four generations away, keeping the same human lifespan. If we morph into robots in 2100, civilized humans will have lasted only 400 generations. That would be the shortest lifespan of a species in the history of life.

[The] central question, the central issue, of this coming century is not “what is an AI,?” but “what is a human?” What are humans good for? I forecast that variants of the question “What is a human” will be a recurring headline in USA Today-like newspapers in this coming century. Movies, novels, conferences and websites will all grapple with this central question of “Who are we? What is humanity?” Fed by a prosperous long boom, where anything is possible, but nothing is certain, we’ll have more questions about our identity than answers. Who are we? What does it mean to be a male, or female, or a father, an American, or a human being? The next century can be described as a massive, global scale, 100-year identity crisis. By 2100, people will be amazed that we humans back here now, thought we knew what humans were.

I agree with Kevin’s thesis here, but an equally important question [if only as a corollary] is, “What is a machine?” Barring some catastrophe, the boundaries between organism and machine, self and other, will gradually blur to the point where it will sometimes be difficult to tell the difference. Ubiquitous computing technologies — the next-next-gen of so-called Web 2.0 applications — will enable humans to colocate segments of their memories and even identities, moving beyond remote storage systems to “remote agency” systems. Where then will the boundary line be drawn? Is a software agent that intelligently acts on my behalf — based on an acquired understanding of my needs and desires — a mere robotic employee, or is it an extension of my self, a partner in the forging of my identity, a semantic feedback matrix that is uniquely my own? Like a book or other utterance, such an agent would be a partial representation of my inner being, but unlike traditional texts, it would be an active representation, capable of performing tasks or making additional utterances in a mode consonant with my projected identity. Furthermore, and most importantly, its active nature would enable a kind of collaboration between “it” and “me” in the evolution of my identity. Authors typically claim books as extensions of themselves; would the same hold true for a software or robotic agent that putatively contained and contributed to some essential aspect of selfhood?

(My response is also posted in the comments on Kevin’s blog.)

Orit Zuckerman’s memory machines

August 9, 2006

Orit Zuckerman‘s “Moving Portraits” — animated photographs that interact through gesture with the viewer — are bold statements about memory and technology. Zuckerman’s site describes how one of these portraits — essentially a slim LCD screeen connected (wirelessly, it appears) to a computer — at first looksto be a picture of a little girl covering her eyes. But if the viewer looks long enough, the little girl starts peeking out, eventually smiling. If the viewer leaves, the little girl in the portait again covers her eyes.

Equally exciting are Zuckerman’s multi-portrait arrays that interact with each other. Like David Rokeby’s seminal (n)chant, what we have here is essentially a network of autonomous software agents interacting with one another. But where (n)chant used words and sounds (and the influence of the viewer) as the medium for the software agents to interact with one another, Zuckerman uses her moving portrait technology to create “…an interactive artwork visualizing how collective behavior emerges from decentralized interaction in a small social network.”

Recently, Zuckerman has been experimenting with haptic systems such as TapTap (with Leonardo Bonanni, Jeff Lieberman, and Cati Vaucelle), a scarf that “allows nurturing human touch to be recorded, broadcast and played back.”

Banksy’s manifesto

August 8, 2006

Banksy is a U.K. grafitti artist who’s received some recent attention on the web for his striking stencil work in London, Palestine and elsewhere. His website contains pictures of his various works, plus some insights on making your own grafitti (and life in general):

• Think from outside the box.

• Collapse the box and take a fucking sharp knife to it.

• Leave the house before you find something worth staying in for.

• It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.

• Spray the paint sparingly onto the stencil from a distance of 8 inches.

• Be aware that going on a major mission totally drunk out of your head will result in some truly spectacular artwork and at least one night in the cells.

• When explaining yourself to the Police its worth being as reasonable as possible. Graffiti writers are not real villains. I am always reminded of this by real villains who consider the idea of breaking in someplace, not stealing anything and then leaving behind a painting of your name in four foot high letters the most retarded thing they ever heard of.

• Remember crime against property is not real crime. People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access.

• The time of getting fame for your name on its own is over. Artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Any fame is a by-product of making something that means something. You don’t go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.

Mini flying drones coming to a city near you

August 5, 2006

University research into things like ultra-miniturized spy planes has become a lucrative pursuit as US defense skunkworks like DARPA turn their attention toward street-level aerial surveillance.

The airflow characteristics at the low speed small planes fly at are very different to those at high speed and not very well understood, he adds. That is one reason his team is investigating novel designs.

It is difficult to quantify how manoeuvrable the new drones are. But during flight tests they have been capable of performing three continuous 360° rolls in 1 second. F-16 fighter jets can carry out one roll per second but have safeguards to prevent more than this in case the pilot passes out through g-force effects. But even without these safeguards Lind, a former NASA engineer, doubts F-16 could match his drones’ performance.

The drones are being developed for use in an urban landscape. (New Scientist)