Lens of the Future

From Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku, published in March 2011:

Physics of the Future

From the Google Blog, posted January 2014 by one Babak Parviz:

We’re now testing a smart contact lens that’s built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. We’re testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second. We’re also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we’re exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds.

The future rolls around fast these days. Time to start the clock on this prediction from futurist (and now also Google employee) Ray Kurzweil in his review of Spike Jonze’s Her:

I would place some of the elements in Jonze’s depiction at around 2020, give or take a couple of years, such as the diffident and insulting videogame character he interacts with, and the pin-sized cameras that one can place like a freckle on one’s face. Other elements seem more like 2014, such as the flat-panel displays, notebooks and mobile devices… Samantha herself I would place at 2029, when the leap to human-level AI would be reasonably believable.

— 13 Feb 2014



Look what’s happened. Now we are three: a real family. He arrived home a few days ago, and we have all been getting to know each other and ourselves.

He weighed and measured as much as most babies do, which is astonishingly little when you’re actually holding them. I am in awe of him. His mother too. I can’t begin to tell you.

The whole thing feels like some sort of big bang moment, a sudden simultaneous expansion and contraction of the universe. Silence, followed by everything (and by crying). Soon he will lengthen and toughen, grow larger and deeper. But this is his starting point, his tiny squishy amazing first moments. The start of something new, and of all things new. He is wonderful. Welcome to our world, little Finn!

There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy.
– Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle

— 06 Feb 2014


It takes a special type of person to be surprised by the exact same thing year after year. Yet here I am looking back, once again caught off guard by how the blade of experience never seems to get dull. Contrary to what I had once anticipated about getting older, change is the only constant.

Some of the paths I’ll remember tracing this time around:

  • Paula and I moved from Zurich to San Francisco. We found an old Victorian in a nice neighbourhood, and have been diligently exploring the many wonders of the Bay Area.
  • We’re here mainly because I had the opportunity to work on something interesting. More on that in due course. I’m doing something on the Android Design team and enjoying it mightily.
  • Road trips! We drove from Essaouira, Morocco over the Atlas Mountains and down into the Toubkal Valley. We zoomed around the incredible island of Kaua’i in a jeep. We traced the coast from Seattle to SF in a rental car. With more time available I’d have preferred a more deliberate means, but all things considered just getting in a car and stopping when you see something interesting is a fairly good strategy for travel. I also found out that California is a country unto itself, visiting Los Angeles, Tahoe, and tons of sleepy coastal towns and redwood forests.
  • I got to indulge my inner nerd as one only can in this part of the world. Highlights included meeting some of the inventors of the first PCs at a reunion of the original Homebrew Computer Club, mingling with creative technologists at the XOXO conference in Portland, and a series of talks hosted by the Long Now Foundation.
  • I learned how to do some new things, mostly tinkering with technology: built a videogame computer, some electronics, made a simple drum machine. It somehow feels like hardware is at the same place that software was twenty years ago, which in retrospect turned out to be quite interesting.

Most exciting of all, with a new arrival due to enter our lives very soon I know that an entirely unknown territory lies ahead this next year. The world keeps getting bigger.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
– Mary Oliver

— 05 Jan 2014

I made a Monkey Island computer

Mainframe computers were such a rare commodity back in the day, people had to schedule shared time on each machine. When PCs arrived one computer was shared among a single household. Then came phones and each person had a computer of their own. Now lots of people have a pocket computer along with a couple of bigger ones at home, and some are even starting to wear computers on their wrists and heads. From the very beginning the ratio of computers to people steadily grew, and didn’t stop at 1:1. The computers, they’re multiplying!

Maybe they will diversify into single purpose computers. There are lots of potential uses for a simple computer that costs about as much as a toothbrush. At that price everyone would probably have quite a few of them at play in different parts of their life. With many computers for each person, they could be designed to act as tools that perform increasingly specific tasks. Is this overdoing it? It’s not essential to have one knife in your kitchen for cutting bread and another for buttering it, but it’s a convenience that most people accede to. These are computers melted into banal crannies, maybe feeling more like appliances.

Monkey Island computer

Or like toys. My favourites as a young buck were LucasArts adventure games: Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, etc. So for fun I made a single purpose computer that does nothing but run the single greatest piece of software of all time: Monkey Island 2. It’s made from a do-it-yourself piggy bank kit that I found randomly in a toy shop (toy shops: always worth a look), a Raspberry Pi, one of those screens that you can put in a car to see where you’re reversing, a tiny speaker, and a wireless mouse. They pretty much just snap together. All this stuff is cheap: the ingredients cost about sixty bucks on Amazon, or roughly the price of a copy of Grand Theft Auto 5.

Monkey Island computer

I hadn’t fiddled with the hardware innards of a computer for ages. They’ve become entombed by the seemingly unstoppable trend towards compressing everything into the form of a pure, inert black diamond.

Monkey Island computer

Yes, this is silly weekend noodling, but as someone who mostly works in software I get a simple kick from messing about with the raw materials of computing. To break out of the screen and think about physical objects. There’s a world of interesting new UI opportunities to explore too. What should moving the lid do? Could I add a lock to the chest that makes something happen in the game? What software would I expect to find inside a wooden toy treasure chest anyway?

Moving from multi- to single-purpose UIs allows them to provide more specifically tailored affordances that suggest what I can do with them. There’s a big difference between grabbing a door handle and having to select Modify → Door → Open with a mouse pointer.

Anyway, single purpose computers: coming soon to a toy/hardware/clothes/food/etc. store near you? There continues to be plenty of room at the bottom.

— 27 Oct 2013

Kaeng Karp

You can’t wear sandals, you need them to play. And a stick, you need a stick. Two people are throwers. Everyone else stands in between the two throwers. To start the game, the throwers throw the confiscated sandals at the people in the middle, and the first one to get hit is designated the holder. Being holder is a bum job because the holder has to squat there holding a stick upright while flying sandals whistle past your head. Everyone else has to keep dodging sandals, grab the discarded ones, and hang them on the stick that their unfortunate teammate is holding up. If you’re hit by a sandal you’re out. You win if you hang all the sandals on the stick. The throwers win if they get everyone out before all the sandals are on the stick.

It’s called Kaeng Karp. Played in villages in southern Laos, here in a happy place called Tad Lo.

— 15 Jul 2013

Inward and Outward

There’s a micro-genre of parody tweet that takes the form of vacuous tech blog headlines: “BREAKING: The Novelty Of Touchscreen Telephones Is Wearing Off,” for example. They’re pretty funny, I suppose, but if you read enough tech blogs to actually understand why then the joke’s probably on you.

Silicon Valley is notoriously inward-looking, and that might be necessary: perhaps you need to lock yourself in a room and not come out for a while if you really want to get busy making something. But having ditched manufacturing and now largely betting on the “creative economy”, the US beyond the Bay Area is understandably curious about what’s going on out there. While the tech blogs keep the citizens of the peninsula entertained, the rest of the world has begun looking in. Interesting opportunity for some outside perspective, no?

It’s soap opera stuff. You start with the drama and intrigue of the VC scene, the industry equivalent of American Idol, complete with unsuspecting young innocents hoping to be thrust from obscurity into fame and fortune by a panel of judges. Move on through the rags to riches (riches to riches?) tales of those few who actually make it into the power set. At this point a society that prides itself on being squeaky liberal takes an alarming right turn into individualist techno-libertarianism, tidily keeping their world shaping unfettered and their IPO windfalls unmolested. Set this against the backdrop of the an increasingly-marginalized middle class and some nascent political maneuverings among the technorati and you’ve already got the makings of a pretty good American novel.

That last link is to George Packer’s sadly paywalled New Yorker article (zero comments on Hacker News) that includes this conversation with a twenty-two year old startup founder about his peers:

They’re ignorant, because many of them don’t feel the need to educate themselves outside their little world, and they’re not rewarded for doing so. If you’re an engineer in Silicon Valley, you have no incentive to read The Economist. It’s not brought up at parties, your friends aren’t going to talk about it, your employers don’t care…

People with whom I used to talk about politics or policy or the arts, they’re just not as into it anymore. They don’t read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. They read TechCrunch and VentureBeat, and maybe they happen to see something from the Times on somebody’s Facebook news feed. The divide among people in my generation is not as much between traditional liberals and libertarians. It’s a divide between people who are inward-facing and outward-facing.

I should mention that I say this as an unrepentant, wide-eyed technological optimist. I came here at least in part to dive right in. The work of one person can potentially reach millions, and that’s amazing. But what direction do you face once you’re here?

The obvious answer is forward. There’s a natural tendency for product designers to fetishize the future. Some might even wish for the magic ability to leap forward in time, if only for a few minutes, and have a poke around, see how it all plays out. It would be fun, right? They could then take that knowledge back home with them like Biff’s Sports Almanac, secret clues from the future to be used to get to the finish line ahead of the competition.

This short-term competitiveness is the root, I believe, of the Next Big Thing-ism that dominates much of the insular conversation here. I wish there was more of a tendency to think of design as an opportunity to gently steer a future that’s still unwritten, to have some small influence over the direction of technology or even kick some stones in it’s path. There’s no inevitable endpoint, no predefined linear story of what must come next. There’s only your own idea of what could come next. This is the main difference between the frothy, business-obsessed Silly Valley stuff and the heroic world-shaping that created it. All these products, they’re just ideas, not predictors.

Eno (of course):

I am not sure about the word vision, actually. The idea of the word vision suggests that you are designing a future in a way, but what I think I want to do is make pieces of work that belong to the future I would like to live in. I would love to live in a future where that room was something that was commonplace in cities. You would walk in to places like that – and they would be made by all different artists, they wouldn’t look like that, that’s my version of it – but that kind of space. I would love it if they existed. They don’t really exist.

The point of living here, packed into nerd buses or SOMA lofts, may be to get an early glimpse of the future. But which direction to look? Inward, there are business opportunities, outward perhaps an enlarged future for all.

— 21 May 2013

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