Posts tagged technology

Curiosities of Locomotive Design. When I was a kid my favourite toy was an 8-shaped electrical train track, that allowed for the reenactment of awesome rail accidents. Funny how one forgets about such things.

I’ve watched the entire series of Tim Hunkin’s The Secret Life of Machines (page includes torrent links, you can also stream it here). Not only it is a example of really good television that is entertaining and educational, it’s also a reminder of a simpler, gentler era when TV documentaries could be concise, without all those constant “later on… but first”, “after the break…” that are the scourge of cable television documentaries. Despite being twenty years dated, SLOM does a great job at explaining the fundamental building blocks of today’s technology. When technology is deliberately mystified and made to seem like magic (I’m sick of those docs that promise to tell you How It’s Made and then just show you some assembly line without explaining much), The Secret Life of Machines may very well be essential viewing. 

I’ll now watch Why Things Go Wrong, which also seems pretty interesting.

The tumblelog conundrum

Yesterday Tumblr rolled out yet another improvement to their free ‘tumblelogging’ service — the ability to read ‘tag channels’ in your Dashboard, which you can filter by popularity in realtime. I immediately said ‘Wow!’ and found it very cool from a software development standpoint (an aesthetic appreciation my recently academic studies has been sharpening). But still, there was that old part of me that just said:

“Hey, whoa! Wait a minute!”

There’s much to be loved about Tumblr. I happily jumped onboard two-and-a-half years ago, right at the launch. I’ve seen this webservice grow, adding a ton of features in the meantime without losing focus. One of the reasons I like it so much probably doesn’t make much sense: Tumblr is made in New York, not in California, so somehow something has passed into its design and software engineering that I find more appealing to my European sensibility than similar services from the Far West. But there’s another, double-edged reason. When recommending Tumblr to people (which I do, a lot), I tell them “in a nutshell, it’s blogging for lazy people”. I’m lazy, so that’s a great reason. I don’t blog much, and would blog even less if there were no ‘bookmarklets’ or whatever you call them. So in way, the greatest reason for my enthusiasm about Tumblr is the bookmarklet.

If you are one of the two persons who visited If Then Else a few years ago and still do, you know that shortly after I signed up for my Tumblr account my blogging style changed dramatically. It may have taken a couple of years for me to get everything smoothy integrated, but essentially since 2007 If Then Else was ‘possessed’ by my ‘tumblelogging’, and what used to be a text-heavy blog became something quite different, a somewhat random collection of text, yes, but also photos, links, quotes and videos (I never had much care for chats and audio posts), not a web-journal anymore but some cross between a certain 1990s ideal of what an ‘e-zine’ should be and a chaotic Robot Wisdom-esque mess updated for the broadband age (mind you, when I started If Then Else in 2001 it was still costumary for a webdesigner to ensure a webpage’s ‘weight’ was below 50KB — or else people would get fed up with the loading time). In effect, If Then Else became a clone — diligently mirrored by a cronjob I put on its server — of my Found Objects tumblelog.

While If Then Else sports different visuals, a six years deeper archive, a photologue (itself a similar clone of my Fotologue account — I never liked Flickr, so I went Far East rather than West), a pretty pristine hand-coded comment system and some of the other knick-knacks old weblogs usually have, Found Objects ‘follows’ and is ‘followed’, and there are ‘notes’ (that is, ‘likes’ and ‘reblogs’) instead of comments. If Then Else won’t get out much, its best feature is perhaps the RSS feed, which allows people to read it without ever visiting the sorry-ass website a second time. But the party never stops in Tumblelogueland, where people like posts and posts get liked, where reblogs are conduits throughout which content gets pushed and memes gets traced. It’s Web 1.0 versus Web 2.0, my host versus their server.

This is the great trend of the late noughts Internet: centralization. Unless you are an A-lister, your own private, hand-or-Dreamweaver-coded website means squat. Sure you can put a portfolio online on your own host — and you should, as a courtesy for those who google you or so that you can have your vanity address written on the back of your business card —, but all the action’s at Behance, and that’s the place where you should put your stuff. In a sense, we’re back in the old BBS days, and the early Web was a crazy anarchic phenomenon that wasn’t fit to last. Why should I bother building my own spaces if nobody visits them, and people get their dose of whatever Ed is up to in the places everybody lists what they are up to?

I guess the answer lies at the beginning of this rant. While the means to filter huge amounts of information like the ‘tag channels’ are undeniably cool, and somehow meet the romantic promises of early information futurisms such as Vannevar Bush’s Memex, the flipside to the content-sharing cultures of places like Tumblr and Facebook is that nobody’s actually creating anymore. A ‘reblog’, while interesting as a meme-tracing construct, gives us an illusion of production through consumption, and in the end many weblogs and tumblelogs, in their quest for ‘new’ content every day hour become someone else’s parrot so they can improve their ‘tumblarity’ — a Tumblr feature I really dislike, as it introduces a competitiveness that encourages mindless reblogging as original posts are harder to do.

This is why I believe keeping your own, let’s say ‘Web 1.5’, site is still important: It’s your space, so you keep it neat and clean.

I had a couple of Capsela kits when I was a kid (which explains a lot, I know), so this is the kind of things that tickles the geekiest and most obessive part of me:

Siftables, developed at the MIT Media Lab, are little bricks with little monochrome screens and a little wifi you can put together to literally build applications. How sci-fi! I wonder how many years until you can buy these at Toys’R’Us.

On the other hand you can buy the littleBits easy electronic kits right now, but it’s like comparing a MITS Altair against a ZX Spectrum. I’ll pass the Altair and wait for the Speccy.

Mother Earth Mother Board

Neal Stephenson’s great essay about undersea cable laying is a perfect example of what one of my favorite writers does best: take an incredibly dull subject and turn it into the most interesting and exciting story. This text resembles In the Beginning was the Command Line but better — because it’s about an utterly unfamiliar theme which hasn’t dated as much as his 1999 comparison of computer operating systems.