Monthly Archives: March, 2012

Emotional Computing

I’ve always been fascinated by the work my friend Peter Robinson and his team have been doing at the University’s Computer Lab, in trying to make computers both understand, and express, emotions.

But I hadn’t seen this very nice little video they made just over a year ago.

Second-hand bookshelves for sale?

The Encyclopedia Brittanica announced this week that, after 244 years, and like the OED not long ago, it was discontinuing its print-based editions. Tim Carmody has a very nicely-written piece on Wired, entitled “Wikipedia Didn’t Kill Brittanica. Windows Did.


Print will survive. Books will survive even longer. It’s print as a marker of prestige that’s dying.

Historian Yoni Appelbaum notes that from the beginning, Britannica‘s cultural project as a print artifact was as much about the appearance of knowledge as knowledge itself. Britannica “sold $250 worth of books for $1500 to middle class parents buying an edge for their kids,” Appelbaum told me, citing Shane Greenstein and Michelle Devereux’s study “The Crisis at Encyclopædia Britannica.”

In short, Britannica was the 18th/19th century equivalent of a shelf full of SAT prep guides. Or later, a family computer.

“I suspect almost no one ever opened their Britannicas,” says Appelbaum. “Britannica’s own market research showed that the typical encyclopedia owner opened his or her volumes less than once a year,” say Greenstein and Devereux.

“It’s not that Encarta made knowledge cheaper,” adds Appelbaum, “it’s that technology supplanted its role as a purchasable ‘edge’ for over-anxious parents. They bought junior a new PC instead of a Britannica.”

The article’s not long, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.

In the meantime, I love the fact that I can now carry both the Shorter OED and the Encyclopedia Britannica in my pocket…

A vision of the future? Yes, indeed.

In 1994, Knight Ridder’s Information Design Lab produced a video which was their vision of the future of newspapers: The Tablet Newspaper. Have a look at around 2:20, and see if it looks at all familiar!

(I guess my nearest equivalent in gadget prediction is shown here.)

Digital Archaeology: Ode to a Cantabrigian Urn

Tucked away on a backup disk yesterday, I discovered a few thousand of my emails from the 1990s. And in the folder from late Feb 1992, I found something I thought was lost forever. Bob Metcalfe was visiting Cambridge, on sabbatical to the University Computer Lab, just as we were setting up the Trojan Room Coffee Pot camera. He wrote about it in his column in Communications Week, a publication which, sadly, closed down not long afterwards (roughly at the time when the camera was connected to the web and became quite famous). This original article was therefore, unknowingly, the first published reference to what was to become the world’s first webcam.

But I didn’t have a copy, and nor did Bob – the old Mac floppy on which he saved it would have been hard to read now even if he could have found it – and if anyone kept an archive of CommWeek articles, I haven’t found it on the web. (Few people in 1992 would have heard of the World Wide Web, even those reading this kind of technical article.) But, as it went to press, Bob sent me a copy by email, and, sure enough, just over 20 years later, there it was, easily readable by my Apple Mail program.

There’s probably some useful lesson there about the longevity of different data formats… Anyway, while it may have little interest to anyone not closely involved with networking technologies at the time, I’m still very glad that, with Bob’s kind permission, I can now make the article available here. And I must take more care of my email archives in future…

Personal Analytics

I wrote a few months back about how I was using a GPS logger to keep a record of my movements. Some people think I’m a little eccentric – I think that’s the word – for doing so.

But my data-gathering is nothing compared to Stephen Wolfram’s. In a splendid Wired article called The Personal Analytics of My Life, he discusses some of the insights he’s been able to glean from his own historical records. One inspired idea, which I confess had never occurred to me, is to run a keystroke logger; he’s captured everything he’s typed for many years. (Now, that’s data you wouldn’t want to fall into the wrong hands!)

I once thought seriously about capturing, say, once or twice a minute, the image of my screen, which I could then later OCR, search, use to recreate lost documents, etc. But other than helping Sheng Feng Li with a system that did some of this for VNC, I never took it any further. Worth reconsidering, perhaps…

Anyway, many thanks to Richard for pointing me at the Wolfram article, which is worth a read.

I suppose that another way to analyse data about your life is to do the analysis on the fly and record the results there and then. That’s called a blog.

Breakfast Time

Breakfast Time



An amazingly bright moon tonight but this was still a 50 sec exposure. I used F/22 to get a bit of a starburst effect. Moon pictures are hard 🙂 Got too cold to carry on….

Embarrassing admission

A conversation with friends this week turned to the subject of recipe websites: and suchlike. I realised that I’d never looked at any of these sites. Mmm.

In our household, we believe in specialisation of function, and, despite my offers to help out, Rose has always preferred doing the cooking to surrendering control of the kitchen! We’ve been married just over twenty years, hence my somewhat embarrassing realisation this week that the reason I’d never seen any recipe websites was actually quite simple…

The last time I looked at a recipe, there was no such thing as a website.

Hidden Implications of Social Linking

Once, when having dinner at the house of some good friends, I discovered that the other guests, a delightful couple, had a place in New York which they would sometimes rent out to friends and acquaintances. They had a strict rule: they would only let this fine apartment on the Upper West Side to people with whom they had personally had dinner. The rationale for this was simple: they wanted something more than a simple contractual agreement with those who would be occupying their home, and they felt that a certain level of social acquaintance was a good first level of filter, as well as imposing some extra obligations of responsibility on the tenants.

Most people apply similar filters to social networks. At the very least, if you are likely to be reading somebody else’s tweets or posts, you don’t want to read that which is likely to be tedious or offensive. You’re likely to be more forgiving of those who are within your real-life social circle. The concept of a friend, contact or buddy in the online world is open to a wide variety of interpretations, of course, but one network which has traditionally had a clearer definition than others has been LinkedIn.

Linking to someone on LinkedIn has, for me, always implied a little bit more than simple acquaintance. In fact, I think the original site suggested that you should link to people you know and trust, though if that wording is still there, it’s much less obvious now. This was, presumably, because others may use the system to ask you for an onward connection to others; a process which is likely to be somewhat awkward if you don’t really know them, or don’t feel that their acquaintance would be beneficial to your other friends!

So I’ve tended to have a fairly strict rule that I only link to people with whom I’ve at least shaken hands, and ideally had some sort of conversation. I’ve waived the former occasionally for those with whom I’ve had videoconferences, but in general it’s worked well since I joined LinkedIn – gosh! – eight years ago.

But it seems to be going through massive growth recently, and perhaps it’s now more of an address book than something that implies any level of recommendation? Is LinkedIn the new Plaxo? At any rate, I’m starting to get more requests for links from people who are just interested in making contact, they’re in related fields, they say nice things about stuff I’ve done, and they seem like people I would like if I did get a chance to shake their hand. So my resolve is slipping. Should I stick to my principles, or am I being very last-millennium to insist on a physical meeting?

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser