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Sunday, September 2nd, 2018

Sapiens

I finally got around to reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s one of those books that I kept hearing about from smart people whose opinions I respect. But I have to say, my reaction to the book reminded me of when I read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:

It was an exasperating read.

At first, I found the book to be a rollicking good read. It told the sweep of history in an engaging way, backed up with footnotes and references to prime sources. But then the author transitions from relaying facts to taking flights of fancy without making any distinction between the two (the only “tell” is that the references dry up).

Just as Matt Ridley had personal bugbears that interrupted the flow of The Rational Optimist, Yuval Noah Harari has fixated on some ideas that make a mess of the narrative arc of Sapiens. In particular, he believes that the agricultural revolution was, as he describes it, “history’s biggest fraud.” In the absence of any recorded evidence for this, he instead provides idyllic descriptions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that have as much foundation in reality as the paleo diet.

When the book avoids that particular historical conspiracy theory, it fares better. But even then, the author seems to think he’s providing genuinely new insights into matters of religion, economics, and purpose, when in fact, he’s repeating the kind of “college thoughts” that have been voiced by anyone who’s ever smoked a spliff.

I know I’m making it sound terrible, and it’s not terrible. It’s just …generally not that great. And when it is great, it only makes the other parts all the more frustrating. There’s a really good book in Sapiens, but unfortunately it’s interspersed with some pretty bad editorialising. I have to agree with Galen Strawson’s review:

Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism.

Towards the end of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari casts his eye on our present-day world and starts to speculate on the future. This is the point when I almost gave myself an injury with the amount of eye-rolling I was doing. His ideas on technology, computers, and even science fiction are embarrassingly childish and incomplete. And the bad news is that his subsequent books—Home Deus and 21 Lessons For The 21st Century—are entirely speculations about humanity and technology. I won’t be touching those with all the ten foot barge poles in the world.

In short, although there is much to enjoy in Sapiens, particularly in the first few chapters, I can’t recommend it.

If you’re looking for a really good book on the fascinating history of our species, read A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford . That’s one I can recommend without reservation.

Sunday, May 7th, 2017

A minority report on artificial intelligence

Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.

It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.

At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.

Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.

The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.

But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:

It helps not to think of them as human.

To which the response is:

No, they’re so much more than that.

Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.

Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.

Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.

Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.

Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.

When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.

Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…

Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.

At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.

Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.

There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.

The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:

SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.

Sunday, February 21st, 2016

Connected Copies, Part Two | Hapgood

A really good explanation of how a peer-to-peer model for the web would differ from the current location-centric approach.

What really interests me is the idea of having both models co-exist.

You just have to think about the ways in which our location-centrism is contributing to the problems we are hitting, from the rise of Facebook, to the lack of findability of OER, to the Wikipedia Edit Wars.

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

The West Pier, Brighton England on Vimeo

For almost a century and a half the West Pier has been Britain’s most iconic pier. Renowned for its wonderful architectural style, it has been visited and enjoyed by millions. Even today with its sculptural remains casting an eerie beauty over the seafront, the West Pier is still the most photographed building in Brighton.

Friday, May 9th, 2014

N’existe Pas by Bruce Sterling on The Dissident Blog

A short story set in a science-fictional future that just happens to be our present.

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Veerle Pieters: The Experimental Zone

The next speaker at An Event Apart in Boston is Veerle Pieters. I’m going to try liveblogging some of what she’s got to say.

Veerle’s talk is called The Experimental Zone and it’s all about experimentation in web design. People often ask her how she comes up with, say, certain colour combinations but she doesn’t really have a straightforward answer—a lot of it is down to experimentation. So it’s good to learn how to experiment better. Pablo Picasso said:

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

Spirographs seem complex but they are a perfect example of how experimenting with really simple fundamental rules and shapes can lead to a beautiful result: start with a simple, translucent square and start applying the same transform multiple times e.g. scaling 85% and rotate -10 degrees. Object: transform: transform again.

You can also experiment with colours in spirographs. Start with a translucent triangular shape, copy and rotate it by 18 degrees but before that, change the colour values. Try different blending modes and see what comes out. Combine different layer modes with different scaling values e.g. 115%. Try different rotation angles to see how they turn out. An extreme value like 48 degrees applied to translucent circular shapes of different colours leads to some interesting results.

Transparency. Blending. Scale. Rotation. Colour. Experiment with those combinations.

But why play around with this stuff? Well, Veerle used some of the results in client work for some background images on sites and on physical credit card designs.

Start with some circles in the colours defined by the client’s in-house style guide and start experimenting with combinations. It’s okay to try out a dozen versions. When you really need to have control, you can get in there and change the overlapping colour combinations manually.

Veerle also does small experiments not related to work; a little every day. She’s got a folder full of patterns and experiments that she hasn’t used yet but they might come in handy later on. Another example of experimentation was the Duoh Christmas card. She began with a star and started experimenting with repeating patterns. Those experimentations didn’t lead anywhere so she went back to the star and tried a different approach. That’s often the way things work out: you have a starting point, you experiment from there and if it doesn’t work out, return to the starting point and try a different direction. For the Christmas card, scaling the star to different sizes with different colours and opacity lead to the final result.

Logo design works in a similar way. The typeface is the starting point (in this example, Dessau Pro Regular). Veerle tweaked the letter shapes and started experimenting with shapes within the shapes. In this example, Veerle took the bowl of the letter A and starting duplicating and rotating, getting some really nice results. You’re playing around and then suddenly you go “Oh, that’s it: that’s what I was looking for.”

Veerle sketches her ideas down. For her own blog, she started sketching variations based around the letter V but she didn’t like any of the results so she left the sketchbook and jumped into Illustrator. Sometimes it’s a bit of both that works: experiments in a sketchbook and in Illustrator.

If time permits, Veerle likes to leave a design (like a logo) alone for a while. Then come back to it and see if you still like it. For her blog, the initial logo she created didn’t stand up to this test. So she went back to the starting point, the letter V, and went in a different direction, keeping the elements she liked from the previous attempt—like the colours—but experimenting with shapes.

Mood boards can be useful for getting started. For the book cover of Aaron’s forthcoming book Adaptive Web Design, she began with her scrapbook-like collection of images and started putting some together into a mood board, trying to visualise the concept of progressive enhancement. The first design direction was ruled to be a bit too abstract. So the simple cubes were ditched in favour of something more sophisticated. The end result is the chameleon on the cover—it’s built of abstract shapes and many colours, but the result is something recognisable.

“Let’s experiment,” says Veerle.

As Erik Spiekermann has said, you can be inspired by something but you can’t just copy it wholesale. But Veerle likes to begin by reproducing something side-by-side and then, maybe a few days later, try to reproduce it without the original. The result is stamped with your own take on the original. She did this with the book cover for Imaginary Cities.

She started sketching it from memory. Her version turned out different; more cube-based. She imported that sketch into illustrator and started making outlines with the pen tool. Once the tracing is done, she started filling in shapes with translucent colours. She used the colour picker to take colours from some of the overlapping shapes for use in a different layer with a different mode: the resulting colour fill is very different. She didn’t know what the end result would be but she just tried things out. Once the colours have been gathered together, she created some gradients with them and applied them to some of the cubes. Then she added some dashed lines that she recalled from original cover. Finally, she upped the contrast.

But let’s go a step further. Let’s try to do this with CSS.

Alex Walker’s article The Cicada Principle is all about introducing pseudo-randomness into tiled multiple background images: the image sizes are all based on different prime numbers. The result looks random. For the curtain example, a ruffle is the base unit: the first image has 1 unit, the second image has 3 units, the third has 7 units.

Veerle takes this idea and applies to her cube-based design. She went with multiples of 3: 300 pixels, 600 pixels, 900 pixels. The result is a great backdrop of overlapping cubes and no matter how wide your browser window, you won’t see the repeat. You can see in action at http://www.duoh.com/varia/cicada.

Veerle has some practical tips to finish with.

  • Name your layers. Turn off that preference in Photoshop that says “Add ‘copy’ to copied layers”.
  • If you rotate a bitmap, you sometimes end up with odd shifting pixels that look blurry. Change the point of origin of the rotation: use one of the corners instead of the centre.
  • If you paste from Illustrator to Photoshop the result can be blurry. Before pasting, select exactly the size you want to paste in. Experiment to find the right size to avoid blurring.
  • Tychpanel by Reimund Trost is a very handy tool for calculating sizes.
  • Another useful tool is a plugin called Guide Guide by Cameron McEfee which is particularly useful for grids.
  • Extensible baseline grids by Mike Precious is also really handy technique for creating a baseline grid.
  • When tweaking letter shapes and spacing, for a logo, for example, try turning the letters upside down to get a different perspective. It can be clearer what needs to be tweaked.
  • Colour management is tricky. Some people turn sRGB off for exporting to the web to avoid colour shifting. Actually you need to set up your environment the right way. Calibrate your screen. Then set up colour management for Adobe Creative Suite. Veerle chose the Adobe RGB environment: she works in print as well as web, so just using sRGB isn’t going to work for her. Have your environment set up to have a wide gamut; you can always narrow it down for specific exports like for the web, for example.
  • When importing, assign a profile rather than converting to a profile. Converting is a destructive process whereas assigning a colour profile doesn’t actually alter the image file.

Veerle likes to start by forgetting about technical constrains and just experimenting in a free-form way. That can lead to more creative, new ideas instead of limiting yourself. Of course you can’t go too far, but still, there’s a good zone for experimentation.

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

Cute Roulette: Cutest videos on the web

Kittens, puppies, and other baby animals on continuous rotation.

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Home - LOCKSS

Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe — a digital preservation initiative based at Stanford.

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

hipster puppies

Oh yeah; hipster puppies: I remember seeing them before they sold out.

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Erik Spiekermann | design mind

Erik Spiekermann expounding on the beauty – and the difficulty – of designing numbers.

Monday, June 18th, 2007

SpiekermannPartners › Le Monde Diplomatique

The newly-launched redesign of Le Monde Diplomatique is absolutely gorgeous. Whitespace on a newspaper: finally!

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Message in a Bottle Server: Brighton UK

Type a message into a textarea. It will be printed, placed in a bottle and thrown off Brighton Pier. You can even choose the bottle.

Wednesday, December 13th, 2006

Pie Chart (JavaScript edition)

Dmitry built an incredibly cool JavaScript pie chart. It also integrates with Flickr using Ajax to do a Flickr version of googlefight. Great stuff!

Monday, October 16th, 2006

Istd - Kern up the Volume

Erik Spiekermann is speaking in London at the start of November. For just £15, this event looks like great value.