A Map of Time

Several months ago, I read about a project at Media Lab Europe that showed a lot of promise (I was shocked as anyone else) – Amble Time. Amble Time basically factors time into geographical maps, telling you where you could walk in a certain amount of time.

By using a GPS system and your average walking speed, it creates a bubble that indicates everywhere you could walk in an hour. Alternatively, given a final destination, it can show where you could roam along the way and still arrive on time. In the second situation, as your position changes and time ticks by, the bubble slowly shrinks and morphs until eventually it highlights the shortest path to your destination.

This is all very cool, but the question is, how did they create their temporal data? Are they just using the walking distance along streets, or are they taking into account the fact that some streets might be busier than others? And surely it’s a shame that Amble Time doesn’t work for driving?

Anyway, I thought up a possible solution this morning that ties into a similar project called Amsterdam Real Time, where a group of people carried GPS units around Amsterdam for two months and created ‘trails’ around the city which were eventually transformed into pretty maps.

The solution would involve giving lots of people GPS units that track their positions. By matching up their lat/long with actual streets and roads and measuring how long it took them to walk/drive/cycle along them, you could create a fantastically detailed idea of how long it would take to get from any point to any other point at any time of the day. So instead of pretending that all roads are equally traversible and distance is the only thing that matters, you could take into account narrow roads, wide roads, rush hour, congested spots – everything.

I don’t really know how you would go about coding this kind of system – it’d be non-trivial, but then it wouldn’t be impossible either. If you wanted to be really ambitious, each users’ map could ‘learn’ their average walking speed at different times of the day and week, and tweak the raw data accordingly. Even more ambitious would be to track people in real time to create up to the minute maps of how long it would take to get from A to B (or where you could walk or drive in x minutes).

Spheres

I try to make a point of just reading, not posting to, Star Trek messageboards; there’s some fun stuff that gets said there but I just don’t feel like I have the time or patience to get involved.

However, after I watched the latest Enterprise episode (Anomaly) – which was unusually entertaining and well done, I thought it’d be worth seeing what other people felt. As I expected, everyone else seemed to like it although there were a few people who said that the episode was highly derivative.

To be precise, the episode featured a kilometres-wide sphere that contained several fusion reactors; the sphere appeared to be generating a number of bizarre spatial anomalies and wasn’t working properly – and by the end of the episode, it still wasn’t explained (as it should be! Some things are better left unexplained, at least at first).

A few unimaginative folks latched on to two facts – it was a big sphere. Therefore, obviously it was a ripoff of either a Dyson Sphere, or a Death Star, both of which have obviously been in science fiction before. The simplicity of this thinking of just astounding; it’s as if it doesn’t matter what’s inside the sphere, or what it does, or its history – if it’s a big sphere, then it’s a ripoff. And never mind the fact that Dyson Spheres were not, in fact, invented by Star Trek, but Freeman Dyson – or the fact that there have been big spheres in space in SF since the beginning of last century.

Thus enraged, I wrote a long reply enumerating all of this, and more, and was then asked by one wag, ‘Name one SF story that has featured big spheres in space before.’ Just one? I could name half a dozen, beginning with Doc Smith’s Lensman.

There are a lot of things to criticise Enterprise on, but claiming that it’s ripping off other shows and stories because it has a big sphere in it is unbelievably shallow. There’s more to science fiction than Star Wars and Star Trek – if only people would bother looking for it.

Busy busy

Not much has been happening in my life that has been worth posting about lately. I’ve been keeping myself busy doing lots of writing and website design, and I’ve been using my downtime to mull over a couple of future projects. The article is coming along nicely; I have all the material I need to finish it now, and I may have another look at it on Sunday. I’ve been avoiding reading the article for the last week so that I can approach it freshly when I do; it’s often the case that if I work on something for several weeks then I just can’t edit it impartially.

What with all the website work (the fruits of which are unlikely to become public for some time), I’ve had to relearn a lot of CSS. And amazingly enough, it’s making an awful lot of sense now. I’ve reached the stage where I can create an entire website from scratch in a text editor, without checking it in a browser, and have a reasonably good chance of it looking like what I intended it to be. All I say is, roll on ubiquitous SVG support in browsers, then things’ll look really good.

I managed to pass my driving theory test on my second go today. Now, before you cry out, ‘For shame, Adrian!’, that I failed first time, let me remind you that this isn’t the theory test of old. No, it has a new hazard perception test, which essentially is a glorified (or rather, simplified) game where you have to click on ‘developing hazards’ while watching a video of someone driving.

While it is not particularly difficult to pass the hazard perception test, providing you know what you’re supposed to do (which I didn’t, the first time around), I can’t see the point of it. It’s not going to improve my hazard perception while driving – I can already drive perfectly well. The very notion that you could test such an ability using such a crude program is laughable; as an experimental psychologist, I only wish it was that easy. In reality though, it’s far better for the examiner to assess this during the proper driving test.

Anti-webloggers

I’m continually amazed by the way in which some people harbour such a vitroil against weblogs; there aren’t many of them, but they seem to perceive weblogs as a personal affront towards their honour. Take Bill Thompson from the BBC, for example. He’s managed to stir up quite a bit of trouble by claiming that weblogs are full of uninteresting rubbish.

Now, I find the majority of weblogs on the Internet to be dull and uninteresting as well, but that doesn’t bother me – I just don’t read them. Neither do I claim that many people will find my weblog interesting. Yet as long as there’s just one person reading a weblog, that makes it worth writing, even if the weblog is just about your cat’s mystery illness or whatever.

Why is it so difficult for people to accept this? I feel that the problem stems from the perception that anything that appears on your computer screen is an invasion of your personal space. Brad DeLong has an interesting take on this, with respect to email:

“Normally, whenever we enter anyone else’s personal space–their home, their office, or their table at a restaurant–we are somewhat deferential. But our email messages are written in our personal space–where we expect to see deference, and are feeling most comfortable, confident, and dominant.”

In the same way, when some people navigate to a weblog, they might feel outraged that they are supposed to read some uninteresting post about a cat – ‘How dare you serve up this piece of writing for my consumption? It’s not fit for anyone!’ they might think. But, of course, the post wasn’t written for them.

And of course, to these people, it’s even worse that these weblogs are potentially accessible by hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Not only might these innocent people be exposed to the same rubbish, but they might actually prefer it to your own (clearly superior) writing…

Notes from the Front

Wired recently wrote an article on how bloggers are violating gag rules at conferences. In the article, they mention the organiser of the TEDMED3 conference I’m going to tomorrow:

Richard Saul Wurman, organizer of the long-running TED conference (which is now TedMed), said reporting restrictions are meaningless, a smoke screen to make attendees think they will be party to confidential information.

“It gives a certain panache to things,” Wurman said. “It gives people the impression they are hearing things no one has heard before. I don’t think it affects what (the speakers) say. They play their cards too close. These aren’t the kind of people who spill the beans. It’s an artificial restriction.”

Wurman said there are no reporting restrictions at his conferences, but then again, he never invites reporters to attend.

Have no fear, readers – I’ll be exploiting that lack of restrictions to the hilt and I intend to cover every part of the conference on this weblog. Unfortunately, since I don’t have a laptop it’s going to have to be done the old, non-802.11b way – by pencil and paper, and transcribed when I can get to a computer. I also don’t want to spend my time in Philadelphia sitting in an internet cafe, so chances are that the report won’t be online until a little after the conference.

Some presentations I’m looking forward to include David Rose of Ambient Devices on wireless monitoring of chronic disease states, Gavriel Meron on Given Imaging on an ingestible pill-camera, Oliver Sacks, neurologist extraordinaire and Robert Mah of NASA.

There are some speakers who I’m completely baffled by – what the hell is Steve Case (Founder of AOL) speaking at the conference for? Doesn’t he have anything better to do? Then there’s David MacCauley, the illustrator and author of the amazing mammoth-laden book ‘The Way Things Work’. It’s all very strange. But fun, which is what really matters, after all.

EasyMicroPayments

Here’s a question: how does EasyCinema handle micropayments? I had a brief look at their website and I can’t seen any minimum charge for booking online via credit or debit card. I suppose it could be hidden away at the checkout stage, but if it isn’t, then it’s impressive – and baffling – how they managed to implement micropayments succesfully for amounts as small as 20p.

Balance of Bloggers

I was interested to have happened upon the Professors Who Blog list today and browsed around them a bit. One observation that I made was that a startling number of them seemed to be in the field of arts (a somewhat nebulous grouping which, for me, includes economics, political science, linguistics, etc etc.) Now, maybe this is to be expected when the list is hosted on a site about rhetoric, but, dammit, it does say ‘Professors Who Blog’, not ‘Professors Who Blog About Rhetoric.’

Anyway, I thought the list would be a nice way to make a few sweeping statements about arts professors, so I took a sample of ten blogs on the list and tried to figure out what field each professor was in. The results are:

1. Religion
2. PolSci/eco
3. Can’t tell
4. Can’t tell. Probably PolSci
5. Philosophy of Education
6. PolSci
7. Techie/Linguistics
8. Cultural studies
9. Law
10. History

As you can see, there’s an overwhelming majority of arts professors, and not a single science professor to be found. Assuming that my sample is representative of the population of blogging professors*, what does this imply? Either the science professors are blogging undercover, or arts professors simply have way too much free time. I find the latter explanation far more compelling.

*which it probably isn’t

Tough love for PhDs

Tough Love for PhDs – Brad talks about the mismatch between tenure-track positions and PhDs granted as US universities (I don’t know what the situation is in the UK). Good job I have four years to figure out what I want to do.

GamesFilter

A while ago I mentioned that I was thinking about setting up a collaborative weblog akin to MetaFilter, called (appropriately enough), GamesFilter. Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on it on and off during the periods in which my brain refuses to accept any more information about neuroscience.

GamesFilter has been running for the past few days while I’ve been fixing some small bugs. It runs on the MetaPhilter engine which was very quick and easy to set up, and already the site is showing some signs of life. There’s definitely something that a collaborative weblog can offer that traditional forums cannot. MetaFilter has already demonstrated that it can (at times) have informed and topical discussions that are open and friendly to the Internet public. Hopefully the additional focus that GamesFilter offers will help it avoid some of the problems that MetaFilter has endured lately.