this is aaronland

meat grinder prisms


Definitive Agreement

Last Thursday, Neil Walker quietly pressed the deploy button on new API methods that allow applications to receive a stream of new and updated photos (and faves) from your contacts on Flickr. I was fortunate enough to help Neil with this and to build the patient zero (technically patient one but that's another story) API application: I wrote about it, a little, last May in a fuzzy story about a dog and a leg.

The PuSH stuff from Flickr is a big deal. It doesn't provide the full kitchen-sink of search options that people have gotten used to with the Flickr API and it errs on the side of being conservative when it comes to private or not-marked-safe photos because those are still hard questions and there's no putting the paste back in the tube. But it works. It works at a scale that no one has been able to do before and it makes possible all kinds of applications that have either been impossible or so annoying to build that they might as well be impossible.

There's been a lot of talk these days about the crustiness of the photos from your contacts page on Flickr. It shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone that I've long been in that camp having written Flickr For Busy People (FFBP) a few years ago. The value of the PuSH API methods is that they open up the space of possible applications like FFBP or Contacts Who've Faved (CWF) without being so prescriptive about how the API queries the database and returns search results. In fact it makes it possible to rewrite both of those applications to be better, more flexible and more reliable than they are today. It means that some of the burden of sorting photos is pushed back down to the application developer but that seems like a small price to pay for the ability to play with Flickr as it happens.

Neil has spent his time building out some pretty impressive plumbing that makes possible a leveling out of the load, the demand, that applications place on the Flickr servers (and by extension all the people who work there) which makes it possible for more people to do more awesome stuff more often.

I built a variation and a smushing together of both FFBP and CWF. It's called Pua and is still an invite-only thing but it has an about page and this is what it says:

Why did you do this?

Somewhere in Flickr's seven and a half history there is this absurd notion that's taken hold which says Flickr is only for good photos. In fairness, there are a few reasons why that narrative lives on:

Flickr was blessed early on with the arrival, in droves, of people who take seriously the art and craft of photography; Flickr promoted the idea both of an Interestingness metric and an Explore section as a way to highlight even just a slice of all the amazing stuff that is uploaded to the site every day which had the perverse effect of creating a Frankenstein leaderboard cult and an unintended narrowing of people's expectation of what it means for a photo to be good; Flickr hasn't done as a good a job as it coulda-woulda-shoulda keeping up with the pace at which people in their immediate social circles are taking and sharing photos (that shift, from nerdy minority to basically everyone, happened almost overnight with the arrival of cheap and ubiquitous data plans bundled with cameraphones) allowing itself to be painted in to a corner where it looks and feels like a capital-G gallery with all the unfortunate expectations that come with that designation.


But still, this insane measure of good -iness against which everything is judged gets under my skin every time I hear about it. Somewhere between the Hell of HDR photos of sunsets (on beaches (with babies (playing with puppies))) and a barren post-modern world devoid of any critical interpretation lies the territory where most of us live our lives trying to eke out rare moments of beauty in the shifting shadows. Somewhere in there we make a meaning for ourselves that has its roots in how those images shape themselves to the big-little bags of history we all trail behind us while we're otherwise busy trying to be noticed. That is where the magic — the good — happens.

Stewart summed it up nicely, way back in 2006, in his Eyes of the World blog post:

That can manifest itself as art, or using photos as a means of keeping in touch with friends and family, personal publishing or intimate, small group sharing. It includes memory preservation (the de facto understanding of what drives the photo industry), but it also includes the ephemera that keeps people related to each other: do you like my new haircut? should I buy these shoes? holy smokes – look what I saw on the way to work! It let’s you know who’s gone where with whom, what the vacation was like, how much the baby grew today, all as it's happening.

And most dramatically, Flickr gives you a window into things that you might otherwise never see, from the perspective of people that you might otherwise never encounter.

It's the as it's happening part that's suffered until now due in no small part to the sheer big-iness of Flickr and the necessary plumbing to make the broadcasting of photos in real-time possible, at all. But here we are now and one of the things it makes possible is an even bigger window with which a person can look on the world. It's not rocket science: It broadens the opportunities to see more photos and to encourage the time and the space with which we might use them to create moments of poetry.

Pua is the evolution of a similar application called Contacts Who've Faved (cwf) whose starting premise is: I don't really care what an algorithm or even the majority of Flickr users think is a worthwhile photo but I am more than interested in pictures that my contacts, be they friends or simply strangers whose photos I enjoy, have fallen in love with. I add people as contacts now simply to see the photos they fave. cwf favours a minimalist interface — thumbnails and coloured squares to represent the user who faved the photo — because it's meant to emphasize, to make more inviting than anything else, the form and colour and composition of the images themselves.

Pua takes that idea one step further and shows you nothing but a continuous stream of images, scaled to fill the entire screen, with their titles overlayed in big friendly letters. The funny thing about Pua is that, because it is always on and sitting quietly next to me, I both see more photos than I normally would and feel less anxious about the idea that I've somehow missed out on what people are doing because photos that would otherwise fall through the cracks has a lovely way of bubbling back up as people comment on them or they are faved or even just have their title changed.

Pua is not about trying to drink from the proverbial firehose of everything happening right now because the only meaningful consequence of trying to do it is that you hurt your lips. It tries, instead, to be a gentle glimpse into the looking glass of other people's lives and what they imagine to be meaningful or good.

Pua owes a debt of inspiration to the work that the clever people at RIG have been doing with similar projects including DEXTR and Romance Has Lived Too Long Upon This River and to Dan Catt for his work making newpaper headlines fun again. Chris Thorpe also has a really good blog post about glanceables (much as I loathe the term itself) and what we imagine is possible doing with all these spare screens that have already started becoming a constant presence in our lives.

For the time being Pua remains an invite-only thing. I'd like to open it up to everyone but it's a thing that I wrote largely for myself in the margins of the day and I'm not quite ready to accept the burden (the fear) of being woken up at three in the morning to babysit a server. There was a small bump in the number of invite requests after Neil's blog post. They've all been accepted and Pua seems to be humming along fine so if you want to play drop me a line over here and I'll send you an invite code.

Also, untitled moments are the best:

(untitled moments are the best)

On touching — and rubbing up against — broken things

popcorn and ballard

There is a practice in both civil and common law where past cases establish tests used to determine the arguments or the justification of future cases. I asked a friend who is a lawyer about it and he said:

...this practice of establishing tests does not, as far as I know, have a name. It follows as a consequence of the doctrine of precedent - I.e., that a previous case should be followed, this doctrine is called stare decisis.

Often these tests are not conclusive — just a list of indicia. This is especially true in Canada where the Supreme Court loves to province non-limitive lists of "factors to consider". See for example the useless Baker test...

I like the phrase a list of indicia. It's a good way to describe the first pass of a filter you use to block out an idea the way classical sculptors would begin a work in stone.

Public policy wonks do something similar where it sometimes causes people to argue of behalf of some pretty nutty proposals in the service or a particular moral argument. The example I always cite states that a country like Mexico should stop growing corn (one of the bedrocks of its cultural identity) because its production output is not as efficient as other countries and really the long-term goal is to feed the world's under-nourished by whatever means necessary.

I mention that because it seems like it would be useful to have a similar set of tests, or proofs to validate, where anyone claiming to talk about a breathless and magic future world is forced to pass their ideas through the meat grinder prism of a J.G. Ballard novel and the re-evaluate everything they've said in the light of what they might imagine coming out the other end.

I suppose this has always been the science fiction writer's claim and lament, hasn't it Myles?

On the heels of finishing Greg Lindsay's Aerotropolis I read Ballard's Super Cannes which is not an awesome novel but cast a useful shadow not so much on the Rainbow Pony Airport City described in Lindsay's book as it did on the social and physical and emotional machinery that needs to built in order to accomodate it.

There are some common themes that run though all of Ballard's books not least of which is the jigsaw puzzle relationship he is always piecing together between crushed metal objects and the ways in which people can accomodate their naked bodies to them. And the character of the Minotaur always played by an overbearing father figure whose deeper meaning and recurring presence I'll leave to the English lit majors and the Freudians in the crowd.

Overall it's a weird set of devices to use to try and understand the motivations that govern our actions. Super Cannes seems not so much about airplanes as the gated corporate communes those machines and the airports, that Lindsay writes about, give birth to and the freakish culture of performance (and luxury) that has followed and which sometimes seems like its as much a coping mechanism for the September 11th attacks as anything else. It's a doubly curious proposition knowing that the book was published in the year 2000 and it's more about the whispering sounds that the curvatures of an infrastructure — the lists of indicia — present for people to rub themselves against, given the opportunity, than it is about arguing happily ever after.

Just like the last time what follows are the passages I underlined while reading the novel, preserved here because there is still no better alternative. It occurred to me that an interesting alternative would be to set up a Twitter account and push out the interesting bits as they're being read. It might get old and bothersome for people on the receiving end (and I'm sure someone would take it upon themselves to rebroadcast a book in its entirety) but the upshot might be someone approaching the possibilities in the same way Maureen embraced the constraints of an abbreviated text when she set up the @cookbook account.

Maybe one day Amazon and others will make that possible from inside their future-pants reading devices but in the meantime...