Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pictures at an exhibition

I enjoy art galleries and especially work from the past 100 years or so. I was walking around one the other day and I looked at some video art. Of course I began thinking about preservation. Paintings and sculpture can of course be preserved for hundreds of years for future generations to admire and study but what about film and modern video? If future archaeologists discover a video tape or a DVD how are they going to play them?
Today's artists and writers have a vast range of media by which to express themselves but how will it be preserved for future reference? If Shakespeare had written exclusively on the net there wouldn't be anything left of his work now. The collected letters of Wordsworth or Dickens are still available but who will ensure that the collected blogs or e-mails of today's writers are preserved? Many artists are doing very interesting work using net-based tools but such work will be transient, available only as long as the server is connected or the format becomes obsolete.
I read a great science fiction story as a kid about space explorers who land on Earth to find it uninhabited and in ruins, presumably after a nuclear war. They find the remains of human civilisation and most importantly a film. They take the film back to their own planet and scientists discover how to play it. After years of analysis and study they feel that they have a good idea of what life was once like on Earth. Only one thing baffled them. At the end of the film were four words they couldn't decipher .... "A Walt Disney Production".

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Connecting people

The net keeps on opening up new opportunities for cooperation, communication and access to information and it’s easy to get swept away in the euphoria. There are undoubted benefits in terms of increased democracy, better international understanding and access to education. However the same openness and ease of use also offers boundless opportunities to exploit, cheat and spread hate.
I read a recent article in the local paper about exploitation in connection with virtual worlds. Workers in poorer countries are employed to produce ready made hero avatars for World of Warcraft and suchlike that are then sold to the highest bidder. The bidders are players with money who don’t like the idea of playing all the tedious levels needed to earn a hero of this calibre. The idea is that you just buy your way in at the top and get someone else to do the “dirty work”. Of course I shouldn’t be surprised, that’s the way the real world works and why should the net or virtual worlds be different?
I’ve also found a fun tool called Bambuser that allows you to broadcast video on the net direct from a cellphone or web camera. A chance to share your experiences with friends and family, new opportunities to connect and collaborate. Enormous opportunities in education like live broadcasts from a field excursion. But on the other hand this sort of technology offers new opportunities to break copyright, stalk, spread offensive images and infringe on privacy. There’s plenty of that available on the net already. Even if siteowners tighten up security and delete offensive material there’s always someone with a server somewhere who doesn’t ask questions.
But somehow I have that blue-eyed belief that the net should offer us a new chance to build something positive, something better. Virtual worlds should give us a chance to be different and break out from conventions and preconceptions. Your second life could be somehow “better” than the first. Stupid I know but I don’t think I’m alone in this delusion.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Stream of consciousness

James Joyce took a revolutionary step in English literature when he wrote his epic novel "Ulysses". Instead of using traditional narrative techniques he simply wrote down everything that went through the narrator's head, however absurd, unconnected or irrelevant. The technique became known as "stream of consciousness" and reflects the sort of disjointed thoughts that go through our heads all day every day. Imagine writing down everything that comes into your head in a non-stop flow and you get the idea of what some of the narrative in "Ulysses" is like.
I've been looking at some web tools and they remind me of the stream of consciousness concept. So-called micro-blogging is attracting more and more devotees, using applications like Twitter and Jaiku amongst others. The idea is that you can tell everyone what you're doing right now, all the time. You can send in text, voice and video and your friends can follow your every thought and deed through the day. The real charm of it all is that most people can update their sites from mobile terminals and can therefore update their friends as often as they like and easily.
Friends and family can network and keep tabs on each other without the need to find a computer with net access, especially useful when backpacking and such like. These tools are not meant for blogs like this one but quite simply for your digital stream of consciousness in whatever media form you feel like using from moment to moment.
A Twitter log is, of course, hardly Joycean but I'm sure the old master would be fascinated at the ability to record thought and images as and when they happen or come to mind and make them instantly available. Most of what goes on in there is highly personal and probably of little value to anyone but the author and a few friends but somewhere some people must be doing very creative work with this medium.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Virtual worlds - waiting for take off

I attended an interesting seminar in Second Life yesterday. I've been to quite a lot of events there over the last year or two and still find it fascinating to see my avatar sitting with other avatars participating in a meeting while I sit at my RL desk drinking coffee. This one was about how business and the academic world in Norway were using SL and it struck me that SL seems to have reached a plateau after the explosive development of 2007. Plenty of companies, universities and other institutions working in there but it's still in its infancy really. When will virtual worlds become mainstream?
It's still a bit too exclusive. SL in particular requires client software, regular updates and most importantly a really good graphics card. I've already had 2 computers who couldn't cope with SL and several people I know have given up with SL when their computers started struggling. There are now several new virtual worlds on the market (Google's Lively, Vivaty and 3DXplorer) but all seem to have drawbacks and none are as massive and immersive as SL. The new ones work in your browser and are integrated to the web (great!) but restrict communication to text chat and have only pre-set environments (game set and match to SL).
Businesses in SL are testing the technology and waiting for a mass market which doesn't seem to be happening as fast as we had hoped for last year. Waiting for the killer application takes time and when it comes it's not often what you expected.
Look at SMS. Originally it was a rather basic and dull signalling function in GSM phones to enable operators to tell you that you had a voice mail message. It's not even so simple to use since you have to text everything on a tiny keypad with multiple clicks. The developers could never have imagined that SMS would take off the way it did and even today, when mobiles have every function under the sun, people still text SMS messages like never before.
Virtual worlds need to be linked to each other with servers all over the world as with the web. You create your avatar and can teleport to any other world. You need to have free, open worlds where anyone can meet anyone and anything can happen and you need other worlds where special rules apply and with restricted access and privacy (as on the web). Just now it's all rather fragmented and mainly for enthusiasts. But I'm probably just too impatient.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Digital preservation

Remember the original TV version of Mission Impossible? I always loved the start when Jim Phelps got his orders from a reel-to-reel tape recorder rounding off with the classic line "This tape will self destruct in five seconds" after which the tape magically went up in smoke. Self-destructing tapes are still not commonplace even today but we do have a problem with information that inexplicably disappears.

I've had several cases of files that I've stored on a USB memory stick that suddenly became corrupted and about as useful as a second-hand Mission Impossible tape recorder. My digital camera suffered a similar fate this summer when one day's photos became corrupted data overnight. Back to a favourite theme then; how long can you trust a memory stick to actually store what you put on it? How long will a CD or DVD last?

I read an fascinating article in Dagens Nyheter (in Swedish) about the growing concern about digital preservation. The problem is how we are going to preserve all the digital films, photos and documents on all the world's servers. According to one test around 40% of all DVD-R discs will be unreadable within 15 years and similar figures apply for many other storage forms. All archived material has to be reformatted regularly otherwise the next generation of computers will not be able to read them and just this task will be a full-time never-ending job for a lot of people. In contrast paper can be preserved for hundreds of years.

An interesting example was the BBC's project to produce a digital domesday book to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the first one. One million people contributed to this epic which was produced on a laser disc. Sadly 15 years later the material was unreadable because the technology which could read the files had become obsolete. Furthermore it costs $12,000 a year to preserve a digital movie and a mere $1,000 to keep a traditional film version in a suitable archive.

It's reassuring to read that there are now projects and organisations dedicated to trying to find solutions to this enormous problem. It would also be nice if the industry could cooperate by trying to ensure more compatibility between applications and especially backward compatibility. Otherwise we face losing vast amounts of information, documentation, culture and entertainment for ever.

The Swedish Centre for Long-term Digital Preservation is just one of many international groups working with this. There's also an EU project called CASPAR. Good luck to them!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Dazzled by choice

Back to work again and I'm warming up by checking through the e-mails and clicking on interesting links. I read an interesting piece which likens Web 2.0 to a Turkish bazaar (see article by Trent Batson, "Web Bazaar: The Problem of Abundance," Campus Technology, 8/6/2008). We're used to shopping at convenient and comfortable supermarkets with clearly displayed product ranges and set prices. Web 2.0 is however rather chaotic in comparison and you have to shop your way through a confusing maze of products and services produced by a bewildering number of suppliers.

Nice comparison and it explains some of the problems of trying to explain Web 2.0 to sceptical colleagues. People shop at supermarkets because it's convenient and everything is available under one roof. Teachers who feel unsure of net-based education in general find the supermarket of the IT world daunting enough never mind venturing into the dark alleyways of the Web 2.0 bazaar, especially when you don't even speak the local language. There are some excellent applications in there but which will be the winners and how many will still be here this time next year? It's an exciting place to shop, there's infinite choice but you need to be well-versed in the field to be able to find the right solution.

I like the idea that we are beginners at handling abundance. Choice is stressful as I have no doubt written before. Wouldn't it be wonderful to get say 20 relevant hits when you Google something instead of 10 million? We're not used to dealing with having too much of everything.

How much choice can we cope with? How many different social networking tools do we need? How many video editing applications? How many platforms? How many different types of car insurance? How many different types of pizza? I've been to pizzerias with a take-away menu of over 100 pizzas to choose between. I end up choosing the same one every time because the vast range of choices leaves me like a rabbit caught in a car's headlights and so when the guy asks me what I want I just turn on the auto-pilot.

We need filters/guides/agents/brokers in order to make sensible choices in all the confusion and those who can develop these functions will be winners in the future Web 2.0 bazaar.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Far from the Madden crowd

I must admit I'm a bit of a gaming enthusiast, especially sports games. I've been playing for ten years now though sadly without ever mastering any game I've ever tried; my finger coordination just isn't fast enough to cope with any game at advanced/professional level. Despite my lack of talent I keep hoping that some day I'll stumble upon some magic formula that will enable me to step up a level and play as well as the average 13 year old. I've tried most of the sports available; FIFA, NHL, NBA, Cricket and most recently Madden (American football).

EA Sports' Madden 09 is due for imminent release and that causes an enormous media hype especially in the States. Today I decided to order it and discovered to my horror that it won't be available for PC this year and the message is clear - if you want to play sports games in the future you'd better invest in Xbox or Play Station or you can forget it. Of course it's not too expensive to go out and buy a console and continue playing but I feel frustrated at the whole issue.

How many electronic boxes do I have to buy every year to keep up with development? What's the life expectancy of each of these boxes/formats/programs? We've got lots of boxes, enormous tangles of cables and other electronic equipment around the house but have chosen not to invest in a games console since the computers have so far filled that role. I'll probably be forced to fork out in the end but only under protest.

Think of all the music and films you have. Vinyl LPs, audio cassettes, CDs, mp3 files, VHS, DVDs, mini DV cassettes etc etc. All of them requiring different players and virtually no compatibility anywhere. I've managed to convert lots of music to mp3 but when will that become obsolete? At times like these I can understand how some of my more technophobe friends feel. Whatever you buy will be out of date a couple of months after you've bought it. It certainly keeps the wheels of commerce in motion but I do wish we could have a bit of stability for a while.

Proprietary solutions are the headache. Can't we try and find audio and video formats that can be played by all devices? Games that can be played on all devices? The answer is sadly predictable - companies earn more money by shutting out each other. Your Play Station game is just as useless without a Play Station console as the old Betamax video format (remember that?) was useless without a Betamax player. You pay your money and take your choice but tough luck if you bet on the wrong format.

Will I buy Madden 09? Not at present anyway and maybe not at all. Problem is I suspect that my desire to keep playing sports games will be greater than my futile protest at market forces.