Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Re: A tale told by an idiot

In response to A tale told by an idiot on Ken's blog, in which he bemoans the reality-denying conspiracy theory of the film Anonymous about Shakespeare's works being written by someone else.


To reuse the bard’s form: “A tale told by an idiot is still a tale”

Films are about meaning and narrative, and are in fact usually a way for people to ascribe meaning and overarching narrative to a world full of random chance and no objective meaning. So film is actually about the meta, the meaning, not reality. Just like sci-fi is about humanity, not about science.

So, just as scientists have to do when watching most disaster movies, you must realise that we must leave disbelief at the doors of the theatre. Leave reality behind, and enter fairyland, enter the magical world where everything has a reason.

It probably will do well at the box office, because it has a strong enough premise for you to rail against. Most people won’t really care whether that premise is objectively true or not, because they already have too much objective reality to deal with. All they want is a story. That’s why films do well about dinosaurs roaming the earth, or aliens, or supernatural things.

There is usually a loose connection to reality in order to set the scene, to begin from a common narrative understanding; that there is a bard, that he is famous for writing some of the greatest works in literature. From there, the tale can construct its own world. Ignore the assertions of the nutters, and immerse yourself in the story.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Launderati - smarter, cheaper, more usable laundromat

John emerged from the cardio room at the gym before work. Under the neon Launderati sign in the lobby, with the cold light of morning glancing through the window at an ATM in front of him, he waved his card and entered a PIN, pressing 'Cubicle'. "Cubicle D" appeared on the screen, and to his left a glass door slid open, waiting. Inside, finding the right door, he pushed it open to reveal a spartan changing room and shower, clad in a pale cream, awash with fluorescent lighting. His mid-grey suit, quiet determination on a hangar, hung in an alcove, freshly pressed. Once showered, suited and booted, he stuffed his clammy gym clothes in a chute in the wall and heard them thud somewhere by his knees. On the screen beside the chute, he pressed the 'Gym kit' preset, and exhaled the last of the energetic workout. He walked back down the corridor, chest out, chin up, ready to work.

Later that day amongst the bustle of the early evening, he returned to pick up some laundry from the day before, and noticed the french neon 'r' of Launderati flickering intermittently, oblivious to the crossing paths of the pedestrians beneath it. His thoughts of the turmoil of the day, the confrontation in the side-office, were jarred by the whir of the opening panel revealing his shirts and a bag of socks all shrinkwrapped in a thin layer of shiny green plastic, with Launderati scrawled across the front. After the day he'd had, he headed home to change to meet the guys at the bar. A good day, but definitely one to talk about, drink in hand.


What if laundry was done by machine, from start to finish? If opting for a cooler wash, washing in bulk, unattended, could lower the cost of a laundromat to below that of owning a washing machine? Using electronic tags on laundry bags with washing info would permit garments to be washed appropriately, and enable people to use a laundromat for all their washing. As in the narrative, the laundromat could be integrated into a gym or an apartment building. I did toy with the old idea of the washing appearing in his apartment automatically, through subsurface tubes. Ah, sci-fi is always within a moment's dream.

The realistic part is having a shop-sized machine receiving, sorting and washing garments automatically. Heat-exchangers and reprocessing units could make the energy and water use far more efficient than a home machine, a growing priority in the future. Pricing would no longer be per garment, but paid for monthly on a plan much like a mobile phone. Part of the purpose of the narrative was to emphasize that this would cease to be anything surprising or even special, just a necessary part of low-margin city-living.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

[Idea] Lightbox Photo Mall Concession

As you walk through the mall one day with your family, having finally got them all out the house, you see a room-sized white cube in one of the concession positions. On it, written in huge letters:

"Your family photo now! Before they start arguing..."

Or some better marketing message. Essentially this is a mobile photo studio, with a rapid turnaround service; you take 10 shots, have the customer pick any two they like and give them a small print set (a 6x4 and two wallet sized), a copy of the files on memory stick (in multiple resolutions) and send them any prints they order by post.

Charge a fixed fee for the process, or (more daring) a fixed fee per image they want to keep - we're talking £5 per image, and keep the premium on the prints low. That way if they don't like the images, all everyone has wasted is time, and the photographer's only incentive is to take good photos.

The key to this is rapid turnaround and volume of customers. Normal portrait photographers will charge £100+ for 'creative fees' or just provide a package of prints. That cuts out the majority of families, who can't or won't pay that much for a luxury item. It is also increasingly old-fashioned in a world of digital photos and electronic sharing. By bringing the mobile studio to wherever people are already dressed to go out and families are all in one place - the mall, the cinema foyer, the school concert - you enable on-the-spot service. 90% of getting a good family photo is getting everyone there at the same time, having a decent backdrop, and getting them to smile. Most people have endless photos of part of the family as someone has to hold the camera, against distracting backdrops, where one or other member is blinking.

The team to do this would be a photographer (or two, and have them compete!), a salesperson and an assistant when busy. The customer flow is salesperson to bring them in, assistant to fix their hair or provide entertainment, photographer handles the photographing with the assistant getting people's attention (think babies). Salesperson can then do the finish up with the image selection, prints and so on. All images get uploaded to a central site for safety, reprints, etc.

3 people for an hour could cost £120, suggesting a rate of 6 groups per hour with an average spend of £20. Anything above that in spend or speed is profit.
 This has to be a highly positive business, so give some portion of profit to a children's charity.

Wouldn't it be worth a few quid for a decent family photo? And no hassle getting them there?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Optional paying is giving, so let me give right.

Digital artwork is easily pirated, paying is optional.

Optional payment is a gift, a reciprocation, a thanks, honouring its creator.

We give to reciprocate, so why give most of the price to intermediaries? 

I have come to realise that the above are all unavoidable statements, in order of descending certainty.

In a traditional thing-based society, we can use physical force to make sure people pay for what they take. This is necessary both because taking means the original owner no longer has it (copying is manufacture), and because resource is limited. But in a digital world, I can give you a song and keep it as well. It is also near-impossible to enforce (literatally, force) laws controlling sharing and copying of digital media.

The response of traditional media and the status-quo has been to attempt to enforce thing-world control of digital artefacts; creating rights management software to prevent you distributing your music by making it more like a physical thing; traceable, hard to copy, sending the police to find you if you disobey. Understandable, but a losing battle. Computers change often making any such systems obsolete quickly (Why can't I play my albums any more? I paid for them!) and widely evaded, because imperfections are quickly exploited and the exploits easily distributed. The internet is made to distribute data quickly and freely, so all control systems are fighting the basic nature of the system.

The result has been a two-layer system: On one it is easy and free to get digital artefacts without paying for them; until iTunes and Spotify, it was actually easier to pirate music than to go and buy it. Cheaper, faster and better = revolution. On the other it is easy and reasonably cheap in moderate quantities to buy or license music. Most people, particularly the teenagers who will drive the future culture, therefore have a choice whether or not to pay.

It is not quite as simple as clicking Pay or Free download; for the older generations (twenties and up) there is a significant social distinction between pirating and buying, and the legal difference means Spotify is limited to legally licensed music. So the two layers are quite separate, meaning each group tends to employ only one or other system in the main; some groups download everything, some buy everything. The difference is predictably related to disposable income as well as socially-enforced stigma.

It is, however, already a reasonably free choice for most people whether to accept a minor amount of guilt and download something to try it out, or to stump up for it. The barrier is far lower on renting sites like Spotify, but it still exists. I can opt to look for an illegal electronic version of a new book or buy the hardback; buying the artefact is seen as a way of supporting the author, in the same way that ticket and merchandise sales are seen as a way of supporting a team.

So people are already used to making a morally-guided choice based on personal expression about where their money goes; we have been taught by consumerism "You are what you buy". If you doubt that for a moment, consider whether any advert for a premium brand focuses on the product or the viewer's self-perception. You pay a bit more because you're worth it.

If I buy a hardback book, I know that most of the money is going to the printer, the publisher, the retailer. But some of it will go to the author (once past their advance). We accept this bargain; this is the author-sanctioned mechanism for both thanking the author and obtaining a physical artefact of self-identity; "Thank you Jo Rowling, my copy of The Half-Blood Prince will take pride of place on my bookshelf. I am a Potter fan."

But if I pay for a copy of an ebook, there is no printer, no retailer. If I already like the author, they have no need for a publicist in this transaction. It's me thanking the author and their editors. Why should iTunes or Amazon take a cut?

The (small) cut should go only to whoever creates the system permitting me to thank the artist at my discretion, which somehow lets me build my identity by the same token.

This kind of giving is expressive, social and efficient by minimising middle-men. Just what the internet is for.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Yearning Weight Of Achieving

Compressed, but not crushed, I bear it.

Looking up from my trudging steps, I warily peer about
seeking a path.

I am in the dried ridges of a tractor's track,
compounded by many traversals.
Ahead, the paths diverge in the caked mud;
to the left, to the right, straight ahead.
All lead to more fields, more grass, more brush,
and I cannot see beyond the hill they lead over.

But I am not weary, I am hunted. Life chases me,
and decisions elude me.
I make foolish mistakes, and am humbled daily
by my own failures to live up to anything at all.

Sometimes, I am reduced to a crawl, to dragging forward
my tiredness.

What lies over the hill, past the ridge?
Is the landscape there as empty as this one,
the earth as bare?

Why am I so hunted by opportunity,
so lost amongst the available options?
And why so terrified of the choices I can make,
the decisions that make themselves
in indecision.

A generalist, I could do anything,
when ability was my only guide.
Now, chance has dealt me some distance
in a few directions.
I am walking several paths, pulled one way by day
and another in the shades of dusk and dawn.

Still the creative push inside me demands more
but is that merely the remnant of a constructed identity
based on what seemed to make me different?
Am I not merely the upside of my disability?

Most people are happy, it seems, not to change the world.
Somehow they can live with affecting only themselves,
their family.
But that sounds like arrogance on my part,
that merely being locally worthy is beneath me.

But it is not driven by elitism but by hope,
that against the futility I can improve the world.
Still that goal is worthless if nothing comes of it. Less than
that in fact, it is harmful if the demand paralyses me
and slows my progress in any direction.

So, a hierarchy, then. First I will provide for my family,
but in this time, in this society, that is straightforward.
Second, then, to use whatever I have, whatever I am
to assist those who do not benefit from my opportunities.

This feels like fear and like guilt. Who am I,
that I should be educated and supported and loved
having done nothing?
And why should others be downtrodden and thwarted
having done everything?

I benefit from the actions of the good - but is it the actions
of the many, or of few? Is the bulk of our progress
down an aggregation of many small goods, or of standing
on the shoulders of giants?
I am no giant,
and nor do I really believe a giant is of his own making.
I am one,
but I am possessed of some theories.

If I am right, I am poised to do much good.
If I am wrong, I can only make myself a fool,
another little man with little ideas
that nevertheless grip his little mind
with their dull charm.

Beneath the roaring skies of all these philosophies
tugged by many winds
pressed by the weight of expectation
(or so I feel it)
sometimes giving up life itself attracts.

Yet it is always followed by the simple thought of humility:
I am able, so I must be able to do some small good.


I am shortsighted, and I imagine simple things.
At time, I can screen out distracting detail
and see a truth beyond it.
Othertimes, I can screen out important detail
and see a folly of my own construction.
Convinced by a weasel in the clouds.

Hunted, stressed and fearful,
not useful things to be.
I also feel somehow stupid for feeling them,
get real, princess with a pea.

Confession, then, before absolution.
I start things but do not finish them;
journeying from fever to distraction,
from single-mindedness to
a kind of depressed defeat
at the smallest tangle.

This in particular perplexes me,
why I am so easily defeated by the difficult
by the confusing. Am I so wed to simplicity?
I read that it is fear, but that seems far off -
what could I be afeared of?
Of failure?
Of the unknown?

It feels more like boredom, but it has the ring of helplessness.
A futility with a kind of sadness; clearly I expect to be competent
and find myself wanting. I am no magician,
no sage.
Am I afraid to discover I am not even that clever?

Others are so methodical; they see through the maze,
through the morass. They seem fearless, confident
that the answer can be found,
that the answer can be found soon,
that they will not be swallowed by the task,
left struggling in the belly of the beast.

I suspect this is why I enjoy creativity;
it rewards whatever you do, and often the urge
is enough to produce.
In that sense it is easy, or at least easy for me.
It does not have a pass or fail,
judgement is not passed in the act even if it is later.

To create anew is to conquer the blank,
to defeat the nothingness.
True, that is sometimes a worthy opponent,
but it is nowhere near as hard as
the unyeilding mass of thorns,
the forest of tentacles.
At least to me.

Perhaps this is a skill I can learn,
a role I can become,
an identity I may grow to fulfill,
something not an accident of birth,
but an achievement, a triumph.

I may not get there,
but I will try,
and I will begin,

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Share taxis in the smartphone age

Millions of people drive from A to B every morning and then back again. Between these, their car sits empty and unused. Most people drive alone, an entire car to transport one person. This is the kind of waste that the internet and smartphones are destined to deal with - dynamic, information driven problems with real monetary effect.

So I gleefully imagined a system somewhere between a bus and a taxi; a driver picking up passengers and dropping them off, but not at predefined times and places, rather as driven by demand. No more empty buses trundling to their next vacant rendez-vous.

But most things I think up either exist or have been imagined before. So I looked for it. And in developing countries, where the costs of transport are proportionately higher and time is proportionately cheaper, there are Sharing Taxis. Or Collective Taxis. Often these will wait to fill up and then set off; the trade-off is a significantly longer expected wait for the reduction in price. I had heard of this mode of transport before, where the bus drivers will wait for a morning until they are full.

Some services act more like unscheduled buses - they are official services which travel between specific places. London apparently has some of this, although the page on the Transport for London website doesn't specify any actual information. There are also a number of community bus schemes and dial-a-ride services, largely targeted at those not covered by normal public transport; the elderly, the rurally dispersed, the disabled.

I think the time has come for a more dynamic system. One where a professional can request a service from their smartphone, indicating whether they have additional baggage or passengers, and the taxi companies can bid to take the custom. They give a price and an arrival time, and are penalised for every minute later they are. The users of the service rate their trip; largely this is a feedback mechanism for when the taxi is late, unhelpful etc.

It could begin with manual bidding and selection of services - opting for sooner and more expensive if preferred. I suspect the ultimate aim would be for taxi companies to automatically bid for each journey using live pricing systems taking in traffic data, etc. The user could subscribe to a monthly contract much like a mobile phone, which gave them a certain amount of usage. Thus the price matching would happen between the demand and supply sides.

Ultimately a market in such things, particularly one including forwards or future contracts, would allow a taxi company to buy a minibus and finance the purchase by selling a number of journeys in the near future; demand-led investment. It would also create a market for forward-looking traffic data.

The basic mechanism, however, is just that a user can request a taxi and permit sharing part or all of the journey, with a central system to connect the supply and demand sides of this; the drivers and passengers. With that in place, many daily journeys would be much cheaper, which itself enables a huge swing towards on-demand transport services (taxis).

To bring it back to the current demand-responsive transport, they could hook into such a system as providers if they already run services, or as customers if they are consumers - residents associations, charities etc. It should make both sides of that equation more economically viable as there would be both more available supply and more available demand. How? By reducing inefficiency.