Archive for the 'Tagging' Category

Identity, Photography and Flickr

September 27, 2006

German artist Sascha Pohflepp‘s continued investigation of how photo-sharing technologies like Flickr mediate self-perception recently rose to poetic heights with “Buttons,” a “blind camera” that captures not images but moments:

Buttons takes on this notion of the camera as a networked object. It is a camera that will capture a moment at the press of a button. However, unlike a conventional analog or digital camera, this one doesn’t have any optical parts. It allows you to capture your moment but in doing so, it effectively seperates it from the subject. Instead, as you will memorize the moment, the camera memorizes only the time and starts to continuously search on the net for other photos that have been taken in the very same moment. (blinksandbuttons)


Foo Fu

September 24, 2006

According to Wikipedia, “Foo” is the “canonical metasyntactic variable.” In plain english, a metasyntactic variable usually means a nonsense word or other string of characters used as a placeholder in computer code (a really simple example of this would be: if Foo=10, then 5*Foo=50). Peek into programs written in anything from Javascript to C++ and you’re likely to find “foo” — along with other commonly used variables like bar and baz.

So I started to wonder where it all came from, especially in light of the fact that the premier IT insider get-together/unconference is called “Foo Camp.” Well, it turns out that Foo Camp derives its name from a completely different source — Foo in this case standing for “Friends of O’Reilly,” the tech guru who runs the exclusive invite-only yearly event. Foo the metasyntactic variable supposedly comes from very different sources. A complete etymology of foo can be found here. Apparently, it’s unclear whether it’s a leftover from WWII slang or a reference to an old Warner Bros. cartoon.

Importantly (if anything can be important with regard to subjects like this), Foo is only one of a long list of placeholder names used in computer code and language in general. The Wikipedia entry on placeholder names contains a great list of these kinds of words. Each of these words gave me a chuckle, so here they are for you in hopes that they may brighten your day:

* buddy[1] (Newfoundland English)
* chummy[2] (Newfoundland English)
* crap
* crud
* da’ kine (Common in Hawaii)
* dealie or dealy
* dealyjobber
* dingus
* doobri or dooberry
* doodad
* doo-hickey
* doofer
* doover or dooverlacky
* efamijig
* frammis
* frammisite
* frobnitz
* gadget
* geemie
* gewgaw or geegaw
* gizmo
* gubbins
* hickey (Common in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
* hodad
* hingmy (Scottish, derived from thingummy)
* jawn (Common in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
* jobby (Scottish, popularised by Billy Connolly)
* junk
* machine[3] (Newfoundland English)
* kerjigger
* McGuffin
* mumble
* oojamaflip
* oojamafurkle
* oojamawotsit
* phlebotinum
* shit
* stuff
* thing
* thingamabob
* thingamaflap
* thingamajig
* thingamajigger
* thingamajobber
* thingum
* thingummy
* thingy
* widget
* whatchamacallit
* whatnot
* whatsit (often spelled wotsit)
* whatsitsname
* whoosiwagger
* whozis
* whozeewhatsit
* yoke (Commonly used in Ireland)


Google Trends and the meaning of life

September 18, 2006

George Dyson reports: “My visit to Google? … The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. ‘We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,’ explained one of my hosts after my talk. ‘We are scanning them to be read by an AI.’” (

Google Labs offers a tiny window onto some of the content analysis systems that will eventually combine into a practical artificial intelligence. Projects such as Google Sets demonstrate the latent potential for massive index archives like Google to learn through semantic association.

Other projects, like Google Trends, illustrate a broader vision, going beyond individual texts and their relationships to one another and looking instead at things like regional search behaviour patterns (for example, you can find out which city produces the most searches for the keyword “cold”), incidence of related news articles (to observe such things as the spikes in news references to “peace” that always follow the spikes in references to “terror”) and other data relating to the habits of search-engine users around the world. And while this information may ultimately be of most use to the AI coders at Google, it’s a goldmine for the present-day Mass-Observationist. Here’s a list of fifteen things I noted during a recent session with Google Trends:

  1. South Korea is consistently more popular than North Korea. “South Korea”, “North Korea”
  2. The beard is a much more frequent subject of search queries than is the moustache: “Moustache”, “Beard”
  3. French philosopher Michel Foucault is more often searched for than his contemporary Jacques Derrida: “Foucault”, “Derrida”
  4. Hockey is of more concern to web users than NASCAR: “NASCAR”, “Hockey”
  5. “Potato” and “tomato” searches yield very different seasonal results: “Potato”, “Tomato”
  6. The graph tracking the incidence of the keywords “abortion” and “terror” shows a predictable pattern, with both words spiking in tandem just before the ’04 US election: “Abortion”, “Terror”
  7. War and peace maintain their usual relationship: “War”, “Peace”
  8. Something big seems to be happening RIGHT NOW on the “tube” front, and it probably has something to do with you: “Tube”
  9. Web searchers want to know more about how to make things than they do about how to break them apart: “Create”, “Destroy”
  10. Laughter is the best medicine: “Tragic”, “Comic”, “Epic”, “Heroic”
  11. Hats, unlike boots, have a consistent and timeless appeal: “Hats”, “Boots”
  12. Dancing became an urgent subject of inquiry in early 2006: “Dancing”
  13. “Rich” is a more popular search than “poor”, perhaps because “poor” appears more often in the news: “Rich”, “Poor”
  14. Pepsi has a slight edge over Coke, and both companies seemingly follow a similar press-release schedule: “Coke”, “Pepsi”
  15. People want to think happy thoughts, perhaps because of the differential between joy and pain: “Joy”, “Pain”

And you thought Sim City was fun…

September 14, 2006

Over the past few years, urban planners, architects and engineers have been exploring the use of game engines to visualize everything from individual structures to the evolution of entire cities. But with the current explosion in ubiquitous computing, such visualizations are moving away from pure simulation to embrace real-time tracking of urban components such as public transit, taxis, utlities and even individual citizens. At this year’s Venice Bienale, MIT’s SENSEable City Lab presented Real Time Rome, an incredible synthesis of these technologies that points to an urban future that will be defined by the aggregation and dynamic analysis of an ever-increasing supply of surveillance feeds:

In today’s world, wireless mobile communications devices are creating new dimensions of interconnectedness between people, places, and urban infrastructure. This ubiquitous connectivity within the urban population can be observed and interpreted in real-time, through aggregate records collected from communication networks. Real-time visualizations expose the dynamics of the contemporary city as urban systems coalesce: traces of information and communication networks, movement patterns of people and transportation systems, spatial and social usage of streets and neighborhoods. Observing the real-time city becomes a means to understanding the present and anticipating the future of urban environments. In the visualizations of Real Time Rome we synthesize data from various real-time networks to understand patterns of daily life in Rome. We interpolate the aggregate mobility of people according to their mobile phone usage and visualize it synchronously with the flux of public transit, pedestrians, and vehicular traffic. By overlaying mobility information on geographic and socio-economic references of Rome we unveil the relationships between fixed and fluid urban elements. These real-time maps help us understand how neighborhoods are used in the course of a day, how the distribution of buses and taxis correlates with densities of people, how goods and services are distributed in the city, or how different social groups, such as tourists and residents, inhabit the city. With the resulting visualizations users can interpret and react to the shifting urban environment. Real Time Rome respects individual privacy and only uses aggregate data already collected by communication service providers; also, it is hoped that the exhibit will stimulate dialogue on access and responsible use of such data. (Real Time Rome)

Mass Observation

September 12, 2006

Caleb Crain’s New Yorker article on the Mass Observation Movement, a fascinating mid-20th century hybrid of sociology, anthropology and flanerie, is well worth reading. Mass Observation sought to reveal poetic truths about life and culture by connecting the threads of individual and social history with the fabric of the everyday. The movement itself eventually became “history,” but I wonder if it really went away or just lay dormant until the web got up and running. After all, learning about our culture from “mass observations” like website traffic trackers or product recommendation systems is becoming just as much a part of the everyday as driving a car or telling a joke.

On January 30, 1937, a letter to the New Statesman and Nation announced that Darwin, Marx, and Freud had a successor—or, more accurately, successors. “Mass-Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man,” the letter read, “but it plans to work with a mass of observers.” The movement already had fifty volunteers, and it aspired to have five thousand, ready to study such aspects of contemporary life as:

Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

The data collected would enable the organizers to plot “weather-maps of public feeling.” As a matter of principle, Mass-Observers did not distinguish themselves from the people they studied. They intended merely to expose facts “in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed.” (New Yorker)

Via the incomparable didactique.

ShiftSpace – Here comes the metaweb

September 2, 2006

Regine at WMMNA just posted a great summary of Dan Phiffer and Mushon Zer-Aviv’s ShiftSpace presentation at Ars Electronica:

What is Shiftspace?

If you google “falun gong” on you’ll get a different result than on because Falun Dafa is censored in China. ShiftSpace adds a note on the Chinese google results that says “Please note that these results have been censored. The un-censored top results should be”

The artists then showed how they annotated the ars electronica website, hacking its motif. Another example showed a banner on myspace that said that it was Ruppert Murdoch’s space (he bought Myspace), so is it still “your” space?

How does ShiftSpace work?

You browse the net as usual and when a thingy note pops up, you’re informed that the website has ShiftSpace annotations on it. You can filter the notes. For example, decide to see only the notes written by your friends; you can notify ShiftSpace when a note is in fact Spam. The developers also got inspired by the digg system and ShiftSpace allows tho shift up or down a note, according to its interest. (WMMNA)

ShiftSpace’s own website has an equally evocative description of the technology, which promises to add a tangible third dimension to the experience of web browsing:

ShiftSpace is an open source platform that seeks to expand the creative possibilities currently provided through the web. ShiftSpace provides new tools for artists, designers, architects, activists, developers, students, researchers, and hobbyists to create new online contexts built on top of the web.

The web is often described using spatial metaphors; from “home page” to “information architecture”, it seems natural to explain the virtual with physical terminology. One illuminating metaphor is to regard the web we know today as an extensive hypertext subway system. New stations (webpages), and the local subway lines that interconnect them (hyperlinks), are being built continuously, causing the system to grow exponentially. While the underground landscape grows increasingly crowded, each station is constrained by rigid boundaries and offers a limited number of choices for traveling to new locations.

I believe the web should be extended to encourage information mobility. I believe there is room for new information neighborhoods to be built above the web’s subway system. I believe we should start building these neighborhoods above-ground. (ShiftSpace)

…and hey, they must be cool because they use the same WordPress template as I do! (UPDATE: This is no longer true.)