Defending the Library of Google

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton, Director of the University Library at Harvard, writes about Google’s efforts to digitise the world’s books and create a new universal library. For the most part, the article is really very well-written and enlightening.

However, when comes around to criticising Google Book Search on eight fundamental points, he seriously missteps on at least two of them:

6. As in the case of microfilm, there is no guarantee that Google’s copies will last. Bits become degraded over time. Documents may get lost in cyberspace, owing to the obsolescence of the medium in which they are encoded. Hardware and software become extinct at a distressing rate. Unless the vexatious problem of digital preservation is solved, all texts “born digital” belong to an endangered species. The obsession with developing new media has inhibited efforts to preserve the old. We have lost 80 percent of all silent films and 50 percent of all films made before World War II. Nothing preserves texts better than ink imbedded in paper, especially paper manufactured before the nineteenth century, except texts written on parchment or engraved in stone. The best preservation system ever invented was the old-fashioned, pre-modern book.

(Adrian: Also read point 4, which is related in that it addresses the built-in obsolence electronic media in general, and companies such as Google in particular)

One of the most insightful comments I have ever read on the Internet (I’m not sure where – perhaps it was Slashdot) was that digital information does not last any longer than analog information. All digital information exists on some form of physical medium, whether it’s on a length of tape, a hard drive or a DVD. Any of those media can be damaged, and certainly we know that CDs and DVDs become degraded over mere decades or years. As Darnton points out, ink truly is one of the best preservation systems, lasting potentially for millennia, and handily beating digital media. Continue reading “Defending the Library of Google”

Hay Festival 21

A couple of days after we’d arrived at Hay-on-Wye for the book festival, something in my brain clicked and the whole event made sense for me. The Hay Festival – 11 days of talks by authors from around the world – is a glimpse of the future, a future run by old people. I don’t say this to be facetious, or as if it were a completely negative thing, but it certainly felt like it.

Judging from their handsome website and the excited coverage it generates in the Guardian (their main sponsor), I had the impression that the festival would have quite a spread of ages; a lot of middle-aged and older people, sure, but also plenty of younger under-30s. And while my friends and I didn’t do a formal survey, we all agreed that the average age at the festival was – at least – in the mid to late 40s. Again, nothing wrong with that. But it meant that we felt very out of place at the festival, all being in our mid 20s.

For me, Hay Festival is what the world will be like when it’s mostly old people – civilized, intelligent, informed, slow, fixed in its ways, and going to bed at 11pm. More on that later, though.

Before I get started, full disclosure: I’d wanted to go to Hay Festival for a while, and this year I went with a group of friends from Friday 23rd to Sunday 25th May. In total, I went to 12 events, of which I paid for nine and got free tickets for the remaining three. Those free tickets came from the Festival organisers because Penguin told them that I was an ‘influential blogger’, and therefore qualified as Press. Indeed, when I picked up the tickets on Friday, I also received a Press badge that said ‘Adrian Hon, Blogger’. Somewhat disappointingly, only one person asked me about this, and he was the guy selling Vietnamese iced coffees. Continue reading “Hay Festival 21”

Bill Murray

I always found it a little odd how Bill Murray seemed to be so dismissive of Ghostbusters, and more recently, Groundhog Day. When I watched them properly a few years ago (i.e. when I was an adult and could understand all the jokes), I wondered what his problem was. As I saw some of his more recent movies such as Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, and The Life Aquatic, I thought that perhaps he preferred being known for slightly more serious or subtle films.

Then I saw these clips from over twenty years ago, and realised the true reason – the man is damn funny all by himself, and it must be tough for him to be known for essentially only two movies.

Bill Murray on the very first David Letterman show in 1982 (it really gets going about two minutes in):

Co-hosting the broadcast of a Cubs baseball game in 1987 (solid gold all the way through).

Steve: Now after doing the lineups and looking at the names of the various clubs here…

Bill: I don’t think there’s any question that the names on the Cubs are a lot easier to pronounce, and they seem to be like baseball players’ names.

Meeting Room Yield Management

Six to Start is based in a large building containing dozens of managed and serviced offices. On the way to the shared kitchen at work, I noticed two empty meeting rooms. It occurred to me that, just like an empty seat on a plane, an empty meeting room is lost cash. Sure, there is a small cost on keeping the room clean and well-maintained, but the standard fees for meeting room use provide an enormous profit margin. Given that most of the cost for the room – building it and buying furniture – has already been paid, surely it would be wise to keep it in use as much as possible, even at a lower per-hour fee, in order to maximise profit?

I suspect that most building managers don’t bother doing this for one main reason – it would take too much work. To prevent losing money either through oversupply (by means of unused meeting rooms that could’ve been offices) or undersupply (by means of lost meeting room fees when all the rooms are full) there is usually a certain ratio of meeting rooms to offices.

Obviously the calcuation isn’t perfect. Most rooms will be empty most of the time, and occasionally all the rooms will be full. In order to still try and make money, managers will set the fees at a rate that will – over time – cover costs, even when the room is empty.

This is incredibly inefficient – as inefficient as an airline setting a single price for tickets within a class, and then letting the plane fly with any seats empty. In 1985, American Airlines began a yield management program in which otherwise empty seats were sold cheaply. Nowadays, we all know that there are certain days where tickets cost much more, and that we can also snap up bargains if we wait until the very last minute.

So, why not perform yield management on meeting rooms? Set up a simple tracking system for usage of all meeting rooms in a building and dynamically set prices based on both historic and live demand. Bump up the prices for rooms at peak times (late morning, early afternoon) and for those reserving in advance for important meetings, and reduce them for slower times (evening, weekends). Allow non-time sensitive customers to check prices so that they can snap up a bargain if the room is empty for an impromptu brainstorm.

The main reason I’m interested in this is not because Six to Start needs to use meeting rooms a lot, or that I see this as a brilliant business opportunity (then again, who knows…); it’s because my thoughts have lately often turned to organising events like Barcamps and miniconferences. These sorts of events are relatively easy to set up, but you do still need to find a reasonably large amount of space, which can be tricky to find. I remember standing on the roof garden during GameCamp (kindly hosted by Sony 3Rooms by Brick Lane) and looking out at the large office buildings nearby, thinking of the dozens if not hundreds of meeting rooms that were going empty right at the moment. Rooms that could be used – and paid for – by any number of interest groups, clubs, conferences and reading groups. If buildings plugged their data into a central website (say, RentAMeetingRoom.com) which aggregated and displayed all meeting room availability and prices in a city, you could really make the system much more efficient. Perhaps in time you would even have people buying meeting room futures, or suchlike.

There must be any number of physical resources like airplane seats in which:

  • There is a fixed amount of resources available for sale.
  • The resources sold are perishable. This means that there is a time limit to selling the resources, after which they cease to be of value.
  • Different customers are willing to pay a different price for using the same amount of resources.

where yield management isn’t being used because the prices don’t justify it yet (after all, flights are more expensive). But as the price of the software comes down and administering the use of the resources becomes more streamlined, I think we’ll be seeing yield management being applied to all sorts of weird things like cars, bicycles, rarely-used powertools, pianos, gardens and so on. What a glorious future we have ahead of us!

Flatmate wanted in Clapham Common

My flatmate is moving out in a couple of months to go to new pastures, so it’s time for me to find another flatmate. I’m going to put an ad in various places shortly, but I figure it wouldn’t hurt to post something here as well – clearly anyone reading this blog will have good taste! (or something…)

When:

Beginning early to mid-July.

How much:

£140 – £150 per week, excluding bills (which are pretty standard)

Where:

Clapham Common. The flat is thirty seconds a very nice Picturehouse cinema, one minute from the tube station and park, and three minutes from Sainsbury’s. I’m not exaggerating here – it really is that close. It’s also handily on a side street which means it isn’t too noisy either.

What:

The flat has two bedrooms. The one that’s available currently fits a double bed, desk, wardrobe and bookcase, although it is a slight squeeze. I’m not entirely sure whether it’ll come furnished – we’d have to ask my flatmate. The living room is reasonably sized (I don’t know how else it put it, really), with TV, consoles, etc. The kitchen is small/medium, but it’s newly furnished with a nice oven and cupboards. The bathroom is OK – nothing great, but it’s got a bath and a shower.

There’s wooden flooring throughout the flat other than in the bedrooms and the bathroom. The neighbours are unassuming and relatively quiet, and the building (which has six flats, I think) is fairly secure and good-natured.

Pros:

Ridiculously nice location, providing that you aren’t one of those deluded individuals who has never been south of the river. Clapham Common has plenty of nice restaurants and bars, and in any case is only 15-20 minutes from the centre of London. It’s a young area, sometimes irritatingly full of Australians and Kiwis, but they generally look pretty good, so that helps. I also treat the cinema across the road as an extension of the living room whenever I’m bored; it’s a novel experience to just pop over five minutes in advance when you want to see a film.

Unsurprisingly there’s already a good TV and various new consoles hooked up to it, should you enjoy that sort of thing. It goes without saying that plenty of wonderful conversation is available, whenever I’m in the mood for it.

Cons:

I’m going to be straight-up; there’s currently a hole in the bathroom where the extractor fan should be. It may well have disappeared in a couple of months, but you never know. The nearby French restaurant can occasionally be noisy on weekends or during good weather. That’s about it, really.

Are you, or a friend, interested?

Email me at adrian@(NOSPAM)mssv.net (remove the NOSPAM bit, of course). Please do not bother asking me whether there is any leeway on the rent, because there isn’t (unless you want to pay more, of course). I am an equal-opportunities flatmate, so don’t worry if you are strange in some kind of way (unless you’re really strange).

Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction

I took the afternoon off today to attend a symposium on Science Fiction as a Literary Genre at Gresham College. However, the main reason I went was because Neal Stephenson (author of Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Quicksilver, etc) was the keynote speaker. Aside from being one of my favourite science fiction authors, Neal is also an excellent speaker. I last saw him give a talk at Trinity College in Cambridge a few years ago, and since he rarely makes public appearances, I was looking forward to today.

Having gone to many conferences in recent years, on subjects varying from neuroscience to space exploration to game design, I’ve seen an awful lot of bad talks, and some very good talks. The good talks tend to fall into two broad categories. The first are given by highly charismatic speakers who have spent a long time perfecting a visually rich and witty presentation, in the sense that the words and the slides merge into one. If you couldn’t see the speaker and their slides, you’d lose a lot. These guys tend to come from the technology world.

The second are those in which the speaker has more or less memorised or pre-written the entire thing, and works without any slides whatsoever. They might consult notes, or even read from them directly, but their words are so engaging that you don’t care. If you could listen to these guys on the radio, you wouldn’t lose anything – in fact, it might actually be better that way. These guys are often from the academic world.

Now, this is obviously an approximation and there are people, myself included, who fall in between these categories. One of the best talks that I ever saw was by Leon Lederman, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, and he was of the second category; a master story-teller if there ever was one, even if he does give the same talk again and again. I became convinced that this was the way to give a good talk – no slides, just words. Unfortunately I was only 18 at the time and I just didn’t have the chops to pull it off.

Over the next few years, I went to a lot of technology and gaming conferences, and saw lots of well-produced presentations. I then concluded that, since I couldn’t just rely on words alone, I had to bolster my talks with images; game design is, after all, quite a visual subject. This worked fairly well and most of the presentations I gave about Perplex City had quite a lot of slides.

Still, I wasn’t entirely happy about this; I had the niggling feeling that I was just telling people stuff rather than making them think. I also remembered how enraptured I could become in just listening to the words of a good speaker, and how that’s much more difficult to do when you’re being distracted by visuals. So I backtracked a little and that’s where I am now.

Neal Stephenson is not only a science fiction author but also an insightful writer on technology and computers; In The Beginning Was The Command Line is a very highly regarded essay on computer operating systems. You might therefore expect him to be of the first, visually-rich type of speaker. However, he is not the sort of person who keeps a blog or writes frequently on technology; perhaps tellingly, both his parents were hard scientists. And so, Neal is a speaker of the first second category – he clearly prepares his talks in detail beforehand and has few to no slides.

The title of Neal’s talk at the symposium was ‘The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture’. The subject was essentially about what makes science fiction different from, well, everything else. ‘Everything else’ used to be called ‘mainstream’, but that term is basically meaningless today. Some science fiction fans call non-fans ‘mundanes’ and so that’s the term Neal used (in an obviously joking manner).

Now, I normally don’t take notes at talks any more. I find it distracting, and generally pointless since I never read the notes again afterwards. I didn’t intend to take any notes here either, but Neal said a few things that I found so original that I had to write them down. As usual, these are imperfect, etc. Continue reading “Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction”

Life on Mars: 2041

I finished watching Life on Mars a few weeks ago, and have become mildly obsessed with it. This tends to happen with any good book, TV show or movie that I see – I end up wanting to use elements in games or other projects, until the next shiny thing comes along.

After a few beers on Saturday, I came up with the idea of a new Life on Mars series. Instead of Sam Tyler being from the present and waking up 33 years ago, in this new series, Sam is from 33 years in the future and he emerges from his accident in the present.

To my mind, this has a few advantages over the traditional BBC sci-fi show. Firstly, it’s cheap – with the exception of a few scenes set in the future, mostly during the first and final episodes, everything is set during the gloriously easy-to-film present day. Secondly, it doesn’t overload people with science or data-dumping. Thirdly, it has the potential to comment on today’s society in ways that might not be possible otherwise (why, of course everyone has multiple marriages in the future!).

The whole idea is ultimately a thought-experiment that’ll only be of interest to geeks, but I came up with enough fun ideas to throw these scenes together:

“My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident in 2041, and I woke up in 2008. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet. Now maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.”

[GENE AND SAM ARE WALKING AND TALKING ON THE WAY TO THE CAR PARK]

GENE: Alright Sammy boy, we’ve got a real bastard here. We’ve been watching Tom Coates for weeks – he’s been selling thousands of pirated DVDs-

SAM: So?

GENE: And we know he’s receiving a shipment of cocaine worth a million tomorrow night.

SAM: What’s the problem?

GENE: [LOOKS AT SAM IN DISBELIEF] The Green Party might have taken over in Hyde, but piracy and drugs are still illegal in my town. And if that doesn’t get you going, maybe the bloke he murdered last night will!

SAM: Believe me, we keep track of murderers in Hyde.

[SAM UNLOCKS THE CAR DOORS AND SITS IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT. GENE GOES TO THE PASSENGER SEAT, AND WAITS AS SAM LOOKS AT THE WHEEL IN CONFUSION]

GENE: Get on with it then, Dorothy, it’s not going to drive itself!

SAM: You know what, maybe you’d better drive for now.

SAM: Chris, can you send over the 3D reconstruction of the crime scene to my computer?

CHRIS: 3D what?

SAM: Right, right. Uh, send over the photos then.

CHRIS: Sorry boss, still haven’t uploaded them yet. Ray left the camera in his car.

SAM: …Upload them? For Christ’s sake, I feel like I’m in the 90s.

I have a few more scenes set in the future, but they feel a bit clunky to me. I might post more if I can write something coherent.