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Today's musings: Time Magazine, James Burke, and Social Networking

Alan "reasonably dangerous" Berman


Today's musings: Time Magazine, James Burke, and Social Networking

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My roommate Ryan has a subscription to Time.  Typically I will leaf through it, just to see what's deemed print-worthy these days.  I gotta say, this issue is pretty abysmal.  The cover story is about the worldwide spread of breast cancer.  I am not attempting to mitigate the problem of breast cancer when I say this, but I greet the fact that breast cancer is becoming more common worldwide with a big fat "duh".  Of course it's becoming more common worldwide, the average lifespan of humans is going up.  Quite rapidly in some countries... any disease that is commonly associated with being older is going to be on the rise.  I bet arthritis is on the rise worldwide. And Alzheimer's. And strokes and heart attacks and everything else that afflicts an aging populace.  The article needed to be billed as how the world is dealing with the emerging problem of breast cancer, rather than just stating that it's on the rise.

James Burke
Lately I've been blazing through James Burke's Connections TV Series.  I watched the original 1978 Connections and despite the dated "modern" technology depicted in the show, his conclusions and predictions all echo extremely true, even 30 years later.  I particularly liked when he said

We must be prepared to live in a world of increasingly fast change.  The high paced rate of change of today (1978) will pale in comparison to that of the future. We are poised on the brink of a telecommunications explosion that will change the face of human interaction as we know it. [paraphrased]
I find it funny that the bloggers/technologists/futurists of today are saying the same thing Burke said the year I was born. I'm now about halfway through Connections^2 which he did in 1992.

The other side effect of watching Connections is it makes me want to invent things.  I look around me at all the items I use every day and think "someone invented that".  I find myself looking at how to improve or combine stuff to form new things more often now.  I haven't come up with anything amazing, but if I manage to keep this mindset indefinitely, sooner or later something's bound to spring to mind.  My immediate thoughts focused on how to improve bicycle brakes, as they are of particular concern to me on a daily basis.  The biggest flaw with them, to my thinking, is that they are friction based, and wear out by their very nature.  I feel like there should be a way to use a piston and pressure to slow/stop a wheel from spinning, but I don't have a clear mental picture of how to implement it.  I think I may need access to some high-tech legos or an erector set or something.  Where's a Star Trek replicator when you need one?

Social Networking
Somewhat related to the Time magazine bit, the very back of this week's issue had an opinion piece on social networking.  A hot topic of late, since it's still relatively new.  Facebook represents the best of the social networking sites, in my opinion, and even so, I find myself growing more irritated by it with every passing day.  It's far better than Friendster or MySpace or whatever other smaller operations there are out in the web-o-tubes, but all the same, it's irritating.

Why is it irritating?  Because it forces me to look at it to get even the most basic information.  I've said this before, and I'll say it again -- the best technologies are the ones that blend seamlessly and enhance existing technologies.  Software that blends into the operating system to give it new functionality without looking like a separate program, being my favorite example.  Social Networking sites will force you to look at them to get even the most basic information, like a personal message from your friend.  (LJ seems to be an exception to this, as they will actually email you the comment itself, rather than merely a link or notification that you have a comment. Though it's debatable if LJ even qualifies as a SocNet site at all.)  It is very annoying to get an email that says I need to click a link, log in, and then read the actual message my friend sent me.  That's the antithesis of progressive technology.

Relatedly, the hot new thing in Social-Networking-Land seems to be Facebook Apps.  The clever folks at Facebook went out of their way to make it easy to integrate web-based applications into FB.  Which brings me to a story...

Once upon a time, in the days before the web was really much of anything, there was a Bulletin Board System called PCMM.  I spent vast amounts of time on PCMM because it was a multi-line BBS.  There was a chat room, and I hung out in that chat room for many many hours a day.  Because I was a nerd.  It improved my typing speed considerably, and also lead to meeting quite a lot of friends (in real life too! not just online!).  The chatroom, much like IRC, had "actions" one could do via shortcut commands.  Typing in something like "/hug Sarah" would result in something like *Al gives Sarah a BIG HUG*. The system had maybe half a dozen pre-defined actions built-in, and it was fine.

Then one day the SysOp of PCMM saw fit to grant me the power to create pre-defined actions.  And oh boy did I create them. I probably expanded from that original six to a hundred or more.  Bright colorful blinking things in all colors of the rainbow covering everything from a whack on the head to pinching someone's bum.  Then one day I sat back and looked at my creations in all their glory.  The chatroom log was predefined actions as far back as my screen buffer would scroll.  It was revolting.  I had killed conversation.  No one was talking, they were all just playing with the actions shortcuts.  I promptly deleted nearly all the actions I had created over the previous few months.  I was met with anger from a large portion of the users, but I didn't care. I'd rather have them actually communicating in their own words than just watch them bop, poke, hide, pinch, punch, run, sit, sing, or whatever other stupid virtual-actions I'd come up with.  I learned my lesson.

I see echoes of that lesson in two places these days:

1) Smileys in IM programs.

With regard to the smileys, I know a few people on the Yahoo IM network who are so dependent on the pre-defined smileys that it borders on impossible to communicate with them.  I don't know what +8-D means on the official Y! IM client, nor do I care.  I don't want an animated happy face wearing a hat (or whatever) in the middle of my conversations. Language is a beautiful thing, I hate to see it die because someone invented the smiley button.

2) Facebook Apps

It's really cool and Web 2.0 of them to make it so easy to integrate with FB, however a large portion of the Apps are useless annoyances. I'm lookin' at YOU Zombies/Vampires/Werewolves/Fruit Bats/Robots/whatever.  They seem to fall under the same category as those "forward this to everyone you know and Bill Gates will give you all his money" emails.  The only Apps I've found any use for are file-sharing related, or... well... Scrabble.  Feel free to point me towards any others which might actually prove useful.
  • I agree that most Facebook Apps are annoying - I ignore the vast majority of them. (And I don't play Scrabble, alas.) But I do like basic smiley faces, just because they're useful to express tone of voice. They shouldn't replace language, but sometimes, especially if you're talking to someone you don't know very well, putting a smiley at the end is kind of a way to say "I'm smiling, therefore you know I'm kidding."
    • I keep wishing Facebook had Go or Chess.
    • I use smileys quite a lot. The thing I'm railing against is the smileys which extend beyond what is commonly understood.

      :) ;) :( :| :\ and the like, are all rather easily understood without the need of fancy animated graphics, and they actually convey a range of emotion.

      THIS is the sort of crap I'm talking about. How the hell am I supposed to know that @-) means "hypnotized" -- and why on earth would I need a smiley to convey that, rather than just typing "I am hypnotized by _____" or just *hypnotized* for that matter. When I'm talking to someone and their response to me is =; I have no idea how to take that, cuz I don't know what it means. I'm forced to choose between using a piece of software I don't want, or constantly telling my friends (the few who insist on using Yahoo's emoticons) to stop using the smiley button, cuz I don't know what they mean.

      Someone at Yahoo is goin' crazy with with emoticons, and it's driving me crazy because it's like watching my own mistakes all over again.
  • I remember exactly what you're talking about from PCMM. I also think you're hitting a big nail on the head.

    Normally, I like fun. But every week or so, I log in to Facebook and hit Ignore on the 30-something wacky invites to super-poke or hug-a-bear or whatever. I kinda don't get why that's all going on. More importantly, I'm having trouble seeing the value of Facebook beyond it.
    • I think it can mostly be racked up to newbies. It's new and exciting to be able to add Apps, so people do. It's new and exciting to be able to create Apps, so developers do. Even when the App doesn't really do anything. It's mash-ups made easy, so it's opened the floodgates on a lot of crap. Hopefully the cream will rise to the top and some truly good mash-ups will come of it. I just added the LJ and Yelp Apps last night, and those seem to honestly be somewhat useful in that it consolidates all of my online activities into one feed. I already have the flickr, box.net, and DivShare Apps, so basically... if I do or post anything online, it will now go into my FB feed. That's somewhat useful to me. And to anyone who wants to stalk me. ;)

      I actively dislike the wall and messaging systems however. I'd much rather be able to conduct conversations out of my email, thereby consolidating my correspondences in one place, than be forced to surf to FB to respond to even the most simple of notes. They should take a cue from LJ and send the actual message (and a response box) as a notification to my email. I think that probably breaks their business model though, as it would mean advertisement revenue losses?
      • I was all excited for the apps when I started using Facebook more often, and then about a week later I deleted almost all of them. And I still keep getting invites. I like some of them. The ones where you can send beer to your friends is fun...

        About the wall thing. I like the idea and think it's fun, but I hate the way it ends up being used. MySpace is the same with its comment system. If there's an actual correspondence going on, I'd much prefer messaging instead of wall posts. For example, someone who writes on your wall saying something like, "Hey, what time do you want to meet up on Saturday?" And this continues back and forth for a few posts... "Does 6 work for you? "Nah, I will still be at work." Etc. Wouldn't that just make more sense in a private message? Instead of making your wall look disjointed and stupid, and confusing for others when they read it? I think wall posts should be a random comment about someone, something that doesn't require a specific reply.
  • Yep, facebook apps are usually pretty stupid. Luckily for me there was just a little phase of people being like, "Sure, I'll bite some chumps... wait, this is stupid. O.K. I'll remove it." So after about a week, everyone had been "fooled me once" and so shame on can't be fooled again and I didn't get any more useless invites. Which means no more invites, since they're all worthless.
    • You're lucky you don't have a fresh bunch of people who know you slowly trickling in every week, keeping the damn-this-is-annoying thing afloat.
  • Braking

    Electric and hybrid vehicles use regenerative breaking where when the brake is applied, the electric motor runs as a generator and charges the battery. But, it isn't very effective at low speed, so regular brakes are applied at about 8 MPH and while stopped. A computer modulates the friction and regenerative braking at the hand-off so that the car stops smoothly as the driver would expect. There is no braking effect from the motor when stopped.
    • Re: Braking

      Yeah... there seems to be more efforts in the realm of motorized vehicles to improve braking systems, however I want a non-electrical system for braking a bicycle.

      I'm picturing something like the wheels of a steam train, where you have a piston hinged to a rod which connects to the wheel and as the piston pumps in and out it causes the circular motion of the wheel.... but instead of the piston driving the wheel, using pressure to slow/prevent the wheel from turning. Like putting a mechanical aperture on the casing the piston is moving in and out of, so if suddenly the air in the piston had nowhere to go, the piston would offer some resistance to the wheel's motion. I'm not sure the system would offer enough pressure to completely halt a bicycle safely, however. It seems like the sort of system that would be better suited to long, slow braking conditions, rather than the potential sudden-halts of a bicycle.
      • Re: Braking

        Large truck use a similar system, but they use the pistons of the engine. Called engine braking or "Jake brakes" the wheels drive the engine, compress air (no fuel) in the cylinders, and then the compressed air is exhausted. It makes a very loud noise and the pops of compressed air are released and so you'll see signs along the road that say "no engine braking." If the compressed air were not released then it would do work on the out-stroke and work more like a spring.

        Trucks will use this on long descents and the like so as to not overheat their friction braking systems.

        There is friction associated with a piston, though, so you would add a constant drain on a bicycle unless you could separate the linkage from the wheel under normal operation.
  • Friction braking is ubiquitous for a reason. It's pretty ideal in terms of simplicity of design and interface and intuitiveness of its function. The standard way to mitigate the wear and tear issue is to pair a soft material with a hard one so the soft one takes nearly all the wear. Making the soft side cheap and easy to replace means ongoing maintenance is at a minimum of cost and effort.

    There are two problems with your piston idea. The first and I think biggest one is that you don't actually avoid the issue of wear with a piston. The piston will rub inside the cylinder and you'll need lubricant to maintain a seal through the motion. That means replacing the lube and that means maintenance cost and effort so then why is it any better than existing brakes? The other problem is that a piston with air in it acts like a spring. If you close a valve you'll jar the wheel to a stop and cause the tire to skid (wear -- bad!) or it'll get past the turning point in the piston movement and the compressed air will drive the wheel forward again - the opposite of braking. There are obvious fixes, but they're complicated mechanically.

    You really should look at magnetic resistance that modern exercise bikes use to slow your pedaling. It's basically like regenerative braking for cars, except you don't use the electricity you generate - you run it through a resistor to dissipate the energy into heat. OOh. I could beat you to the punch on this one. Of course, I actually would really like to have a regenerative breaking system for a bike.
  • I think facebook apps are dumb when they ask that you bother your firends with them on their page - like things that you mentioned that send invites or notifications all the time.... The totally harmless ones that don't require other people to do anything I actually like having on my page.
  • Snx for you job!

    Snx for you job!
    It has very much helped me!
  • Hello

    I'm new here, just wanted to say hello and introduce myself.
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