E-books need margins

For some reason I got to thinking yesterday about e-books and margins. Typically, in the west anyway, e-books don’t have margin-like capabilities (e.g. Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader, and even the fantastic Cybook).

If you like to notate or write in margins, as I do, then you don’t need any additional reason for wanting e-margins other than that you miss your real margins and the freedom of parallel thought that they allow you. If you find yourself not caring, however, then consider the added power that true e-margins could have. Consider that an e-book could easily act as a distributed platform for the exchange of criticism, as a permanent site for the accrual of knowledge around the themes and techniques of the original work. Instead of thinking, as Amazon might, of 400,000 “Da Vinci Code” copies sold, why not imagine that there is ONE e-”Da Vinci Code”, and that 400,000 accesses to it were sold. On that one master distributed e-book, thousands of comments accrued. Readers can subscribe to their favorite marginalists, or block them all out.

Suddenly, an e-book goes from an i-Pod style device for retraction and isolation into a kind of universal book-swap. The fruits of inspiration (marginalia) stay connected to the inspiring material. Why isn’t this happening? How could we let books become so isolated from our ability to notate our own reading? It is, after all, the flow of ideas of all kinds through the reading mind that makes books so worthwhile, not just the ideas supposedly ‘contained’ in the book itself.

Of course there is a much broader paean to marginalia of all sorts, including particularly marginal spaces, that one could put in here. If one had all day.

Smart Meters… where it’s at

Here’s a pleasing article from the New York Times about “smart-metering” in English homes.  Basically smart meters are power meters that give nearly live numbers on your home energy use, so if you install them in a public part of the house you can really respond to the numbers as feedback.  Furthermore, the ones described in the article actually beep when you get over a certain power level in the house.

I’ve been wanting to design and install something like this for years and years… perhaps it’s time to try the off-the-shelf solution.  Of course to install such a meter I believe I would need to mess with the electric panel (basically replace the panel), or to install a meter at every power point in the house so that they can communicate with a central hub.  Since I don’t own the house, this may be challenging.

I need to look into options in NYC and report back.  My house is wind-powered but I have very little idea of how much power we use.  The monthly numbers provided on the Con Ed bill are much too stale, of course, to relate to anything.

Finally, a note on privacy/politics: like most new communication technologies, smart meters introduce the possibility of remote monitoring and all kinds of invasive enforcement possibilities.  E.g. what if you were not allowed to tamper with the meter, and its alarm would go off whenever you went over 500W?  Obviously it’s much better for the privacy of citizens if governments allow power prices to go up relatively ‘naturally’ (i.e. driven by the market) rather than to mandate caps on individual power use.  I can’t think of a much more totalitarian form of control than to actually put hard limits on how much power an individual is allowed to use.  But then again, if global warming takes us to the desperate fruit-flies-in-a-jar moment I think many of us fear, then this kind of control will become essential.

Craig Venter blows mind

The Long Now foundation blows my mind yet again, this time with a long talk by Craig Venter that shows me several things:

1. It *is* possible to do something very productive while sailing around the world. I can’t quite tell to what (undoubtedly large) degree the sailing ship was just a vanity project — by which I mean, he just did it because he loves sailing — and to what degree the mode of transportation actually helped with the science. Obviously it’s easier to get pristine water samples if you aren’t emitting exhaust, etc., but there would be many other easier ways to do the sampling he did. As a publicity stunt it must be fairly effective, however.

2. Craig shares my belief that the global environmental problem has reached such a point that only radical technological change will get us out of it. This radical change will also, inevitably, result in radical social change — a complete re-making of everything, including ourselves. I would normally write off his apparent optimism about the final result of such re-making as stupidity, but he’s clearly so far ahead in his technological achievements that I think I have to take his perspective as being considerably more likely to be the right one than, say, mine.  In a way, this gives me a huge surge of optimism — technology such as he is aiming for would actually be able to solve a lot of our global environmental problems.  Just to see a potential technological solution is already a huge step forward.  It almost makes me feel that it’s okay to buy new things again, to take airplanes, to stop worrying so much.

3. But, how not to be left behind? Craig has one of the best seats in the house for watching global change, since he’s pushing a lot of it forward. I envy him hugely — never have I felt the lurking irrelevance of the profession of architect and educator more than while watching his talk. I used to get this feeling when talking to my friends in software, but the technological gap Venter is opening seems to be much larger. To actually be there at the blistering edge of the technological shockwave must be incredibly thrilling and empowering. Meanwhile, those of us in the design professions (well, and almost everybody else) are left to clean up, constantly adjusting our thinking to the technological changes raining down from on high.

This makes me feel very low. I think I need to find the right large project to devote myself to, and I”m afraid even the broadest reach of architecture does not engage with such projects.  But I’m very impressionable at the moment.

FOID: Federal Office of Information Design

Through one of Al Gore’s “We” campaign emails I stumbled upon the good old NREL today, and it got me thinking. I almost did an internship there in my junior year of college; my choice NOT to do it is still one of my big regrets. But anyway, the NREL would seem to be one of the federal “good guys” in the war on global warming (how about “War on Warmth?”, or, just “WARmth?”).

Among other things (e.g. technical research of various kinds*), NREL maintains data about publicly available energy sources like wind. This leads me to the topic of the post; it seems to me that NREL could really benefit from some good, ambitious information design. They have all this data which could, if properly handled, actually inspire and influence the public, instead of just sitting in a database waiting for the right query from an individual with a specific need. Or even just sitting in a beautiful-but-static map which was clearly intended for print — and actually scanned from print for the web.

I feel similarly about the weather. In fact I think there’s a HUGE private opportunity for a really good weather site. It’s a big drawing and information design challenge, of course.

But anyway, I imagine other federal agencies besides the NREL could benefit from a FOID. In some ways, I really like federal webpages because they tend to be ‘ugly’ but full of information. I think the web probably should be ugly, but at the same time some information needs to be given its due articulation, or people will never engage with it.

Without having looked into which information designers actually do work for the federal government, I would like to call for the formation of a Federal Office of Information Design or something similar. Rather than contracting info-design out to the lowest bidders, federal agencies could call on the support of a dedicated team of publicly-minded (since, presumably, underfunded) information designers. In return, these people would, of course, have a major influence on American political (as in, action among citizens) life, shaping the overall interface between citizens and their government, and between citizens and the physical sciences/world that their government strives to model and understand. And if the FOID were to hire contractors to do some of its work, at least they would be under the oversight of federal information designers who had already thought through the issues from a public service point of view.

Of course we do have the GPO:

The U.S. Government Printing Office’s core mission, Keeping America Informed, dates to 1813 when Congress determined the need to make information regarding the work of the three branches of Government available to all Americans.

But they have a lot of other things on their hands, and they do a ton of grunt work. The FOID would be called in on projects, rather than be given an all-embracing mission.

These are but the wanderings of an ignorant mind. If anybody out there actually knows how the feds contract their information design, or can think of examples of good federal information design, please pipe up!

* My internship in ’98 would have been to work on modeling heat flow through houses. They do this to set industry standards, I suppose. Basically I decided not to go because it sounded like I would just be working with depressing (at the time I found all computer work depressing) finite element analysis software, and because I would have had to live and DRIVE in Boulder, CO. I guess if I *had* gone I would now be some uber-connected energy guru.

Scripting and Drawing: Specific Questions

Okay, because my previous post was turning into a multi-headed rant, I thought I would try again to extract useful knowledge from any clever readers. So, questions:

1. theory/content: If you had 45 minutes to give an introductory lecture on scripting to students who mostly have never tried it but have seen some fruits of scripted work (i.e. “think it’s cool”), what would you say? Keep in mind that this is a lecture in a drawing class (“2D Representation”) where the students have learned AutoCAD and how to construct perspectives, cut sections, etc. using projective geometry.

2. technical: If you had 15 minutes for a quick demo as part of your lecture, and then the students probably had half-an-hour on their own to fiddle with something, what kind of sample scripts would you feed them? What tool would you use (though I’ve basically already settled on Processing)?

3. Script precedents: What examples of work that relates somehow to the drawing/scripting relationship (be it “divide”, “transition”, “singularity”, etc.) would you want to show these students?  I’m interested, I think, in scripts that are extremely clear in their workings, and that highlight fundamental concepts.

4. Drawing precedents: What examples of systematic (e.g. projective) drawing would you show as a way to highlight drawing’s parametric potential and the richness of the information it can manipulate?

5. tone: How would you prevent the lecture turning into a “gee-whiz” fest? How to leave the students with the notion that scripting is to be taken very seriously as a mode of thought, not just as pipeline for ‘finding form’ or ‘growing answers’, etc….

What questions am I not asking? See my last post for more background information and some silly brainstorming.  Yes, I realize I’m using my blog as a forum post.  Sorry.