Tuesday, Oct 07, 2003
If you're in California, dear god, please vote.
Recall Informatics
Tuesday, Oct 07, 2003
The New York Times did an impressive flash presentation of geographic variables in today's recall vote. I particularly like the distribution chart of how often a given candidate's name appears on the first page of the ballot.
How to write a thank you note
Tuesday, Oct 07, 2003
How to write a thank you note. I like it.
Rethinking thinking and ambient displays
Monday, Oct 06, 2003
Probably my hottest passion in HCI is the concept of ambient displays. Ambient displays abound in nature. The way the spectrum of light changes a few minutes before rain starts falling, the way birds waking up at 4am let you know you've been studying too late again, your sense of balance. These are all examples of ambient displays.

In the HCI realm, the hot geek project de l'annee has been to create novel man-made ambient displays. Classic examples are the network activity dangling string and a thicket of waterfall and windchime-oriented projects. In the past few years most of these projects have been filed under the concept of 'ubiquitous computing' though I think this is a bit of a misnomer, since if an ambient display is truly ubiquitou, the 'computing' portion of it should be invisible to the user and therefore should no more have the label 'computing' than a car or DVD player should. The advancement of the field comes in the expression, not the computing.

At any rate, I've been wanting to create ambient displays at home for quite a while, but time, money, or other factors always got in the way. Now that I'm settling in to a new home, the desire to create an ambient informatic environment has risen anew, and I've spent the last several days thinking about two things: What form could these displays take, and what information do I want to display?

Though I don't have a shortage of answers for either of these two questions, I often find a disconnect between the two lists. Without any 'in the world' relationship between, say, traffic to and the sound of flowing water, that relationship has to exist in my head. Therein lies the problem, because there is a deliberate cognitive step that has to happen in my head when I hear the water surge briefly to understand what that display maps to in the real world. Further, someone who hasn't explicitly been told about the relationship between flowing water and my web site traffic (or in the linked example, the dangling string and the office's overall network activity), would never make that connection. This brought me to my first realization:

All ambient displays are learned.

Whether it's the flat sunlight before an imminent downpour, or the birds chirping at 4am, these displays only become effective as the user makes the connection (causal or otherwise) between the two phenomena. In the most effective ambient displays, this connection happens unconsciously, so that not only does the subject not know how they know it's about to rain, but they don't even notice that the light outside has changed.

In the network-string example, it's likely that the information needed to correlate the string to network traffic isn't available to the user, unless they start to realize that their web-browsing gets slower at the same time as the string gets more energetic. In the website traffic and water example, there is even less data to correlate because my website traffic is a metric completely hidden from someone sitting in my living room. The data that the subconscious brain needs to create this binding simply isn't available, and so explicit knowledge is required, negating the very nature of ubiquity.

To take it a step further, I believe that the linkage between the display and the underlying data should not only be available to the subject, but it must be available in a way where it is internalized inexplicitly. In other words, just having a sign saying "this string's activity indicates network traffic" won't do, because the knowledge of the linkage, while in the world, still has to be internalized consciously, and after the first handful of interactions with the display, the user will carry the knowledge in their head, but in their conscious attention.

This creates a direct obstacle to ubiquitous assimilation of the display's information, because a short-circuit to the conscious level has been created. When the subject encounters the ambient display, they think about the display and their explicit learned linkage, eliminating the opportunity for the display to affect them of its own accord.

It's like stopping hiccups: The most successful and difficult method to succeed is to think about something else entirely, only you can't, because you keep polling yourself to see if it worked, at which point you hiccup. By trying to use an ambient display ambiently, people will often try to see 'if it's working' which means it can't. When a linkage between display and data happens in the subconscious, there isn't that conscious recurrent check to see if it's working, because the conscious mind was never given a role in the experience.

So what makes an effective ambient display? What is effectiveness? Is ambience and/or ubiquity the most important facet? Or is it the fidelity to which the changing data is realized in the subject? It must be a middle ground, where explicit data is sacrificed for the sake of 'calm'. A cellphone ring is not an ambient display, while a static painting falls on the 'overly calm' side of the spectrum: a display that might have a deep meaning, but no change over time.

I'm still doing a lot of thinking on the subject, but rather than running headstrong into waterfalls and colored balls, I'm taking a step back and approaching from a research perspective. I'm going to start keeping a log of the ambient displays I sense every day, how I interact with them, and how I learned the relationship between the display and the information behind it.

My next step will be stretching a few of these displays a bit farther from their data, and see if they still work. For example, right now it's very quiet in my apartment because it's 1am. The ambient noise level is a display telling me very roughly what time it is. If I tied this kind of relationship to my radio, so that it grew softer as the evening wore on, and grew louder in the morning, mirroring the average change in ambient background noise, it might give me a better indication of the time of day, both when I'm staying up too late blogging, and when I should be getting up to start the day. In this respect it might serve as both an ambient alarm clock and 'time to sleep' notification, without any of the abruptness of a clock-radio. The most important difference here is that this radio doesn't attempt to tell you what to do or when, it simply gives you a better sense of the world around you.

Approaching the problem from the other end, I should take a look at the pieces of data I want that aren't adequately addressed by ambient displays. Then I need to find the right way to extend that data into the real world, as opposed to creating a display and an arbitrary linkage.

These are slow steps, but hopefully the results will have a greater utility to wow-factor ratio than most of the ambient work I've done so far.

I am not behind!
Monday, Oct 06, 2003
So I have a confession: Like several of my friends this year, last month I joined FlyLady, a mailing list whose whole intent is to help you keep your home clean and under control.

It's been funny, being subscribed to a list that sends you 20 messages a day, giving you support, tasks, and ideas, when I was still living in Ammy and Rick's guest bedroom, but they were energizing to read nonetheless.

One of the things they write in nearly every message, 20 times a day, is the mantra: "You are not behind! I don't want you to try to catch up; I just want you to jump in where we are. O.K.?" As little direct impact FlyLady has had on my apartment cleaning (because first comes the unpacking, rebuilding, sorting, etc., then the maintenance cleaning) I've taken the quote to heart re: blogging.

I have a lot of cool ideas. When I used to ride the train every day I'd get to document at least one neat idea every morning or afternoon. Now I have a scrap of paper in my wallet that's rapidly running out of room, and just knowing I'm so far behind makes it hard to even start blogging things, because I feel I have all this chaff to work through before I get to write about today's stuff. And so: "I am not behind! I don't want to try to catch up; I will just jump in where I am." Of course, by doing so, I get to go back and blog the things I wanted to, after I release the pressure of not having blogged by blogging what I want to and not playing catch-up.

Paradoxical, nu?

And I know I've been blogging last week, but a lot of it is 'blogging' in the sterile crosslinking sense, not 'this is what I do and think' sense which I'm self-centered enough to think is more interesting than just pointing at politics and asking people to discuss.

So anyhow, I'm just jumping in where I am.

( Oh yeah, and the Alaska pictures are coming... :-) )

The Schwarzenegger-Enron Connection
Sunday, Oct 05, 2003
Here's an interesting article which, if true, has amazing implications for the recall. According to the author. Arnold was involved in hotel-room meetings with Enron execs two years ago, planning steps necessary to vanquish an $8 billion lawsuit filed by Bustamente against Enron for unfair business practices.

Read, comment, and pass on, if you please.

New Memes
Tuesday, Sep 30, 2003
I added a couple new memes to the meme-o-matic, and removed 'Amburgers an Wootbear' 'cause it was just too annoying and not quite entertaining enough. Hope you enjoy!

I'd've added the Lego Treasure Hunt weeks ago, but I was pissed at getting almost all the way done before dying stupidly. May you have better luck, and plenty of time on your hands.

China both first and third in manned space travel?
Tuesday, Sep 30, 2003
China's due to launch their first person into space before the end of the year, the third country to do so (after the US and Russia).

But are they really third? Or did a 16th century astronomer beat everyone else to the punch?

Recall: Cheap Entertainment
Monday, Sep 29, 2003
So the recall's a huge mess, and my guess is that the recall will be approved, Arnold will be elected, and the next morning signatures will start being collected for the next recall. After all, he'll win with about 35% of the vote, and less than 3% of eligible voters need to sign a petition to start this whole mess again.

Still, thanks to Ariana, we get a little entertainment out of it (flash, sound, quasi-unsafe for work).

"Everybody please stop dying."
Monday, Sep 29, 2003
It's been the subhead of a site I visit frequently for the past month, yet the dying just doesn't seem to stop.

Volt, a coworker of Ammy's died over the weekend after slipping in the shower and cutting his arm on the glass. He called 9-1-1, but died before the paramedics got there. He was 34.

There's hearing about people you never heard of dying ("Two shot in a school in Minnesota" or "Baby killed yesterday by stray bullet in Bayfair" (links omitted because, really, why do you need to read that?)), then there's celebrities dying (as they seem to every other day nowadays), then there's people your friends know, and then people you know. Why has it been happening on every level, most notably to young and hitherto healthy people?

It's really, really starting to get to me.

Oh, to balance the freak-vibe to friends and family reading this, one of the reasons I'm leaning toward the Prius is that the package I want comes with front, side, and side-curtain airbags. All the better to save me with.


Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
I've been blogging at since 1998.
I can be reached at .

I also have a resume.


I'm co-founder in
a fantastic startup fulfilling the promise of the Internet of Things.

The Imp is a computer and wi-fi connection smaller and cheaper than a memory card.

Find out more.

We're also hiring.


I post most frequently on Twitter as @kfury and on Google Plus.


I've led design at Mozilla Labs, designed Gmail 1.0, Google Reader 2.0, FriendFeed, and a few special projects at Facebook.

©2012 Kevin Fox