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Archive: 29 June 2004

Patterns of Interest

During my recent trip to San Francisco, I was asked over edamame and sake what interests me right now.  Taken literally, that isn’t something I could possibly answer in a single evening: far too many things interest me.  Like clouds, for example.  However, since the question was actually about the Web and information technology, I was able to answer in only a few minutes.

  1. Ground-up semantics—the area of interest that is actually about the Web itself.  XFN was the first step down what could be a very long, complex, and richly rewarding road.  By leveraging features of HTML, XMDP opens the door to letting people add the kind of information they find useful, and to do so in a way that just about anyone can grasp, which was one of the keys to HTML’s success, you may recall.  The idea is to allow for a distributed creation of semantic information, grown according to people’s interests and needs.  As more bits of semanticism get attached, the possibilities scale up exponentially.  Basically, it’s a self-organizing ad-hoc semantic network.

  2. The intersection of mobile devices and global positioning systems.  One of the most common examples is the ability to leave information “hanging in the air.”  The idea is that if you’re using an M/GPS system, you can call up reviews of all the restaurants within a hundred feet of you, as an example.  These reviews would be data left by other people using the same system.  Another example is the ability to leave a note at a meeting spot for anyone who shows up late and doesn’t know where everyone else went.  I can also envision a variant on geocaching, where “hidden” messages are left in remote spots for others to find.  Walking tours could be highly annotated.  With the right system, you could set up a maze with no visible walls.

    Actually, I have an interest in more intelligent applications of global positioning technology.  In-dash mapping devices for automobiles represent a useful first step, but the devices I’ve seen are kind of crudely limited even compared to what could already be done, let alone what near-future advances might make possible.  But taking those ideas to the limit and crossing them with personal mobile devices just seems far, far too cool.  I wish I had more of an engineering bent, mostly so I could work on designing such devices.

  3. Self-organizing ad-hoc sensor networks, otherwise known as “smart dust.”  There have been articles in recent copies of Scientific American and The Economist, but the general idea is that you create a bunch of tiny, rugged sensors and scatter them around an area.  They take readings and pass them back to a hub using routing that’s determined on the fly.  One example I read about was affixing a hundred or so sensors to a redwood tree in order to better understand the fine details of the tree’s microclimate.  The possibilities are endless, as are of course the privacy concerns.  Nonetheless, these kinds of systems have too many uses to just go away.  Conservation activities could benefit hugely from this kind of technology.  So could installation defense, for that matter.  Again, it looks as though an engineering inclination would really be useful here.

I guess the common theme that runs through all three is pretty obvious: I’m fascinated by systems that use simple (or at least simple-to-understand) parts to enable deep complexity, and those that use self-organizing principles.  Whether those principles are expressed through software algorithms or based on leveraging human behavior doesn’t actually matter to me.  The appeal lies in trying to figure out simple rules that allow for emergent behavior, especially the kind that wasn’t in any way planned ahead of time, and most especially the kind that seems totally chaotic and random until the patterns suddenly become clear.

Yes, I am one of those people who will stare at clouds for long stretches, trying to pick out patterns and understand the fine details of what’s happning within the clouds themselves.  I’m even more intense about it when I’m in the air myself and can see them up close, see them from unaccustomed angles.  It’s a bit of an obsession, to be honest, and one that makes me a bit pouty when I don’t get a window seat.  Even when there are no clouds to be seen, I can satisfy the same impulse by scrutinizing the world below, tracing humanity’s engineering of the landscape and reading what patterns I can find.

So yes, there is a lot that interests me.  Since I was recently asked, I thought I’d share just a bit of it, if for no other reason than to help highlight a few of the patterns in what can sometimes appear to be a very chaotic mind.

June 2004
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