r _Web.log

Archives: 2009-03

Omegle: talk to a stranger

K http://omegle.com/

Omegle is the logical endpoint of a ubiquitous global network: a single-page website whose sole function is to connect strangers in one-on-one conversation. Upon visiting the site, you are put through to an unseen interlocutor within a few seconds, and then left to do what you will with this temporary channel of communication.

It's Twitter-like in its elegant simplicity, and another of those oh-so-obvious ideas that makes a programmer wince at not having thought of it earlier. And, given the manifold denizens of the net, the outcome of a conversation is entirely indeterminate.

My experiences with it so far have ranged from a pleasant chat with a college student from Derby (on food, education, and getting lost) to a trolling aggressor attempting to cast spells on me ("i summon EPIC INFERNO"); I gather that the system is being put to use for some sort of player vs player game-playing. Another party left rapidly upon discovering that I was not female, simultaneously honouring some equivalent to Godwin's law that states that any online conversation with strangers will inevitably include a mention of paedophilia, lesbians, or 'cyber' (in this case, all three).

No authorship is given, but a brief whois suggests that the person behind the site may be Leif K-Brooks, an excellently-monikered teenage coder from Vermont. Nice work, Leif!

Jane Prophet

Written as part of Ada Lovelace Day 2009.

Jane Prophet is a UK-based artist whose practice explores contemporary technological processes while retaining distinctly classical referents. Loosely speaking, she could be described as a sculptor, though one whose investigative drive and spectrum of interests leads her through radically fresh terrain with each new project. Working with cutting-edge materials and practices — from CD-ROM and early net art in the 90s, through to recent explorations of fractal-based machine fabrication and stem cell dynamics — the process through which her work is produced is often equally as rich as the end product.

Jane Prophet, TechnoSphere One of her most widely-known pieces is the pioneering online environment TechnoSphere (1995), an immersive, real-time 3D virtual world which was amongst the first major net-based artificial life simulations. Developed by her and a small team of programmers, this world constituted 16 km2 of fractal-based terrain, populated by creatures designed and constructed by visitors to the website. The result was a stunningly complex ecosystem, in which the creatures could grow, eat, fight and mate, with digital DNA giving rise to a degree of evolutionary potential. Over the project's lifespan, more than 3m distinct creatures were created by over 100,000 visitors.

More recently, she has been working with a research group here at Goldsmiths, University of London on the ongoing Net Work (2005-), which takes simple models of stem cell behaviour and translates them into cellular automata: grid-like structures which portray the interactions of discrete cells. Jane Prophet, Net Works These behaviours are translated into a 100m2 web of illumated fishing buoys and floated in a river or lake to create a simple but compelling public artwork, whose intention is to accessibly highlight processes of self-organisation to a wider audience.

(Trans)Plant (2008) is another large-scale public sculpture, duplicating the fractal structures of cow parsely (akin to Lindenmayer systems) in a dynamic installation which expands and contracts in the same manner as the familiar childhood push-button collapsible animals. This, like Net Work, is the product of an interdisciplinary team of designers, biomimeticists and engineers, which serves not just as a work in itself but as a document of a process.

Jane Prophet, Transplant Her adoption of new technologies is far from a case of techno-evangelism, however. Works such as The Internal Organs of a Cyborg (1995) pose questions about identity and the limits of humanity via bodily augmentation, and the potential that this has for fracturing our ideas of selfhood (see Lacan's "fragmented body"). Likewise, Decoy (2002) explores notions of beauty and artifice via synthetic landscape images, referencing the Arcadian dreams of English nature painters and the modern-day drive for atmospheric perfection via regeneration and landscaping.

In a 1998 interview, she discusses her ambivalent relationships with technology.

I'm really drawn to the technology because of the debates that it threw me into, I think, and the questions that I had to ask about what it meant in terms of authenticity of images, what it meant in terms of the physicality or the reality of an image or of a body of work.

But primarily, when I think about the work I make with new media technology I see very little difference between it (other than hopefully it's more mature) and the work I made when I worked in installation and performance when I was a student and the reason for that is that for me at the center of any piece is the idea, is the concept.

As one with an avid (and vested) interest in current tech trends, I'm always keen to explore the latest Vimeo images of bleeding-edge whizz-bang triple-mip-mapped developments. Arguably more crucial, however, as computational advancement continues to accelerate, is a critical engagement and reflection on the meaning and consequences of these technologies. This is perhaps why I find Jane Prophet's work so consistently compelling.

The Lovelace Connection

This piece was written as part of Ada Lovelace Day 2009, a drive to highlight the work of women in technology. I imagine that, even in the age of computational ultra-saturation, Lady Lovelace would be particularly thrilled at the work of Prophet and her peers in the sphere of media art: one of her most imaginative yet accurate foresights was the prediction that computers would not be restricted to the boundaries of logico-arithmetic computation, but could be used to generate new sound and images, reaching out into the realm of creative practice.

Profiling Java and Processing code on Eclipse/OS X

K http://ninjamonkeys.co.za/.../java-performance-profiling-on-mac-for-free-using-shark/

Shark profiler I've been trying to step up my coding game by moving from vim and Processing's straightforward interface to the Eclipse IDE. Having followed the comprehensive Processing in Eclipse howto, the advantages have immediately been manifold: brilliant code refactoring tools, nice javadoc-generation functions, an inbuilt debugger, and svn version control integration with Subclipse.

Best of all, however, was stumbling across this guide to Java code profiling with Shark. The agent component of Eclipse's Test and Performance Tools is sadly unsupported on OS X, but this solution - using part of Apple's free Developer Tools - fits the bill perfectly. Just got an instant breakdown of the execution bottlenecks of my current Processing app, and am well on the way to a turbocharged speed boost...

Livescribe's USB Smartpen records penstrokes and binaural audio

K http://www.livescribe.com/

In another of those episodes that makes you wonder when exactly the Future chose to creep up on you unannounced, Oakland-based startup Livescribe last year launched a device called the Smartpen. It's essentially a ball-point pen, turbocharged with an IR camera in the tip and a microphone, together capable of recording penstrokes and audio -- which can then be collectively transferred to computer via a USB cradle. Entire pages of drawings and text are then accessible onscreen, searchable via OCR and with replayable audio linked to the time of writing. Insane.

Something they don't make such a song and dance over is the fact that its accompanying "3D headset" is equipped with binaural microphones; I imagine it only records in sufficient quality for oral note-taking, but it's still an appealing prospect to have such a compact multifunctional binaural recorder...

mp3 artefacts becoming preferred by young listeners?

K http://radar.oreilly.com/.../...

O'Reilly Radar reports that the 'sizzle' sound of mp3 artefacts is becoming increasingly preferred by music listeners. Yes, preferred; in listening tests performed annually over 6 years, listeners have increasingly rated songs with low-bitrate mp3 compression above those that a higher rate.

The author suggests that this is akin to vinyl listeners preferring the crackle of wax over the cleanness of digital recordings — though I have always figured that the vinyl preference is less subjective and more to do with its innate warmth and high-frequency rolloff. The "hot dog at the ball park" analogy is compelling, however, and there's undeniably something comforting about (say) the compression of FM radio when indoors on a cold winter's night, or listening to a cassette through a battered pair of headphones. It's not inconceivable that the mp3 sizzle could be headed for the same fate.

Zane Berzina's E-static Shadows

Zane Berzina is a Latvian researcher working across the boundaries of textiles, electronics and theory to produce beautiful physical artefacts, with a strong focus on the design and production processes. Her recent practice, at LCF, manifest itself in a series of investigations using the skin as an analogy for textile surfaces to create "polysensual, therapeutic and interactive environments". She's now based at Goldsmiths, with links to the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles.

Her current work is, on display at the Science Museum's Dana Centre (last day today!), exposes the pervasive forces and potential of electrostatic in fabrics: E-Static Shadows.

E-Static Shadows

It's the product of a two-year research project which is beautifully documented on her website. For those around London, there's a talk tonight exploring the issues surrounding this research:

How can electrostatic energy enhance the sensory experience of our surroundings? Join designer Zane Berzina, architect Jackson Tan and material scientist Mark Miodownik in our e-static shadows installation to talk future textiles. Explore the invisible forces of electrostatics in this night of playful interactions.

More information here.

Automatic click track detection with The Echo Nest

K http://musicmachinery.com/.../in-search-of-the-click-track/

The great Music Machinery blog has written a short but compelling piece summarizing their investigations into click-track detection in pop music. It uses The Echo Nest's machine listening API + python + gnuplot, with convincing effect.

rososo, the minimally lightweight RSS reader

K http://rososo.com

rososo is one of those rarities: a Web 2.0 offshoot that actually increases productivity, rather than serving to blithely gnaw away at those spare minutes. Unlike a normal RSS reader which syndicates entire sets of feed entries, this simply provide you with a list of sites that have most recently been updated. After each link is followed, is is removed until next modified. Transparent, instantaneous, and zen-like in its simplicity.

This approach also avoids my main bugbear with other RSS content syndicators; a site's content is presented in the context that was intended by its author, rather than stripping away the stylings to become a raw data stream, a la Google Reader et al.

The only downer is the occasional sluggishness of Rososo's servers, but with luck this is something induced by its recent popularity and will be ironed out as their capacity expands...