Sunday, February 27, 2005

Flickr of Interest

A recent entry in Aaron’s Blog piqued my curiosity about Flickr, a rapidly growing online photo hosting service that emphasizes community-oriented features. By making it easy for subscribers to locate, organize, and markup their own – and each others’—photos, Flickr becomes one humongous photo album/personal directory with the combined industriousness and intelligence of all its users.

Experiencing the smooth interface and hearing of the free accounts, one might be tempted to place Flickr in the same league as, say, Gmail: internet manna. But alas, Flickr, though a very interesting service, is no land of milk and honey for the poorest of poor wayfaring photographers. The bounty comes with a price.

The problem is that the free account, despite hosting the obligatory ads via Google, is really just a tease for anyone who wants to do more than, say, show off a new grandchild. The most serious restriction is the upload limit of just ten megabytes per month. On the free account I opened, I uploaded twelve images of a trip my wife and I made a few years back to Idaho and the adjacent Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. I had more, but after just these twelve images, which I had already scaled down to the size of a quality desktop background image, I was benched for the next 29 days. So, while Flickr technically offers free account users unlimited storage, it would take one of them more than eight years to upload even a gigabyte of data – an amount which, by 2013, would seem positively Lilliputian; Heck, Gmail users had that much free space back in 2004!

The non-paying subscriber, just like a non-subscriber, faces what are effectively download limitations as well, since Flickr processes each uploaded image into several standard sizes which are henceforth the only ones available to anyone who does not hold a “Pro” account; these can access and download the original uploaded files, regardless of their size. Fortunately, Flickr’s generic “large” size (for original images at least that size) is 1024 x 768 pixels – adequate for most desktop backgrounds, though first-time users may not immediately notice the links to these versions of each picture.

That “Pro Account” currently costs $41.77 a year, boosts the monthly upload limit to a gigabyte, and pretty much removes all other limitations on the account. I suppose 42 bucks isn’t all that much, but it’s more than I am willing to pay for offsite disk storage since photography is, for me, an infrequent hobby at best. If I needed a clever photo organizer, or wanted to get to know other people through their photographs, I would consider joining the club. But, like paid subscription “meet markets” for singles, I think there’s just something slightly unseemly about paying for a service where feature content is provided by other paying members.

At any rate, Flickr is fun just to browse around in, and I’ve begun to use it alongside Google Images when I’m searching for an image of something I’m reading or thinking about. It’s well organized, and the average posted photograph is better than you might think. I guess that makes sense; if you’re a freeloader like me, you’ve got to make those 10 megabytes count.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

'Singularity Sky': Wishes and Warships

“Fertile imagination” would not be the right phrase with which to describe that portion of Charles Stross’s mind with which his readers are most familiar. I am more inclined to use “radioactive mutagenic spawning pit of amusement,” and suspect he would wear this description with pride.

I’ve read, and enjoyed, a number of his stories. But Stross always seems to want to move on to the next story premise in the middle of the one he was writing, so I worried whether his simultaneously heavy, zany, and sometimes macabre style could hold up over the course of an entire novel. It was thus with nervous glee that I picked up ‘Singularity Sky’, his first full-length feature, from my local library.

The novel opens, aptly enough, with high technology raining from the skies on an economically and politically backwater planet, Rochard’s World. It is a dispassionate yet dire threat to the repressive powers that be. Would the long-time would-be revolutionaries obtain fearsome weaponry? Would the big wigs of the old regime even try to maintain the impoverished status quo in light of the inherently prosperous new reality?

The interesting stories that could be told about such a population abound. In fact, stories and other entertainment are the only currency of interest to the interstellar interlopers granting the high-tech wishes, a mysterious entity known as the Festival.

But, perhaps because we have no nanoassemblers which to tempt the author, we never get more than a few outlandish vignettes about those on Rochard’s World. Instead, the novel’s dramatic center of gravity quickly and permanently shifts to somewhere within the Lord Vanek, flagship of a military task force en route to the embroiled planet. Depending on your taste in science fiction, the precise center is either Martin: a civilian contractor who comes aboard with hidden prerogatives, or the miniature black hole that is the ship’s drive kernel.

This is somewhat disappointing, because both planet and starship contain several named characters with whom I was probably expected to take an interest. But most of Stross’s characters lack emotional appeal and become a chore to keep straight. The revolutionaries and their adversaries on Rochard’s World are stereotypical voices in a predictable debate. The Vanek’s crew: empty uniforms wadded up into sweaty ball of intrigue.

There is one important female character, Rachel, who ultimately manages to radiate some warmth and charm, sharing the limelight with Martin and providing some romantic tension.

But before this can happen, she and Martin must burn through a couple layers of identity shielding. They have to have several in order to stand out, since everyone else in the book also seems to have at least one Secret Identity or Great Big Secret. The combined weight of these surprises ultimately becomes rather silly, to the point that the novel’s final revelations made me want to stand up and throw someone a Scooby Snack.

I shouldn’t be so hard on Stross. This was a new format for him, and there were a lot of fun ideas in ‘Singularity Sky’. But this was a book I could, and did, put down. Often. It just seemed like more fun for Stross than for me. Like a three-ring circus, there was more showmanship than I had the attention to be amused by. I found his parallel plot-lines too independent and too lacking in harmony to keep most cliffhangers from turning into offramps. Too much thread, not enough yarn.

And then there’s the fake-out chapter, which I might have been ok with back when I liked Star Trek and its holodeck ‘never happened’ episodes, but truly angered me on this occasion. I won’t reveal the scene here, but after realizing my trust had been betrayed for the sake of a flashy action sequence that could not actually take place within Stross’s chosen plot, I was tempted to put the book down permanently.

Stross also seems determined to make a political statement, but on this occasion lacks the subtlety to work it into the tale in more than the most amateur way. To completely implausible foil characters, Martin and Rachel lecture on the failings of traditional government. Like interstellar hipsters, they teach the squares about the grooviness of techno anarchy and how central control is, like, so 20th century. It’s all so obvious: Rochard’s World is upstate New York. The Festival is Woodstock.

‘Singularity Sky’ is not without its charms, but does not pull itself together into a working whole. Hopefully, Stross will learn to evoke more depth and unity as he continues to stretch his frenetic creativity into novel-length stories. His sequel to this book, ‘Iron Sunrise’, is already out. I’ll look around for it the next time I’m in a Stross mood.

Oh, a few words about the title: Singularity Sky does have something to do with the technological Singularity, but mostly in the sense of sudden abundance changing all the rules, rather than the creation of greater than human intelligence. And the polarized situation on Rochard’s World doesn’t lend itself to drawing intelligent parallels to the consequences of such a Singularity here on earth. But if your favorite kind of singularity is astronomical, you’re in luck: the Lord Vanek's engine room gets plenty of page space.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Technology and the Psychology of Physical Fitness

Some day, hopefully not too far distant, simple drugs or procedures will provide the health and cosmetic benefits of physical fitness without the dieting and exercise. And some day, perhaps not long after that, these primate bodies will become obsolete entirely.

Until that time, we must cope. Unfortunately, modern civilization enjoys the dubious—even ludicrous—distinction of excelling in medicine while neglecting bodily maintenance. It’s like a world where the auto mechanics are practically godlike, but nobody can seem to keep their oil changed regularly.

The problem is not that scientifically researched diets and workout regimens are ineffective, but that so few of us are able to stick with them.

Our overweight society is, fortunately-if-slowly, moving past the fallacious view of obesity as a moral failing. Losing weight is just plain hard on many levels, and the psychological one is the hardest of all.

A miracle pill that causes immediate weight loss might be very efficient, but it would be no more effective than a miracle pill that grants people the willpower to eat right and exercise. Frankly, I would prefer the latter, despite the extra time required, since presumably that extra willpower could be applied to other ambitions.

The gold standard of weight-loss programs, as with drugs, ought to be careful studies that compare the end results of a study group with a control group. How much weight did group A lose and keep off, compared to group B? The pragmatic, fair researcher will not exclude those who quit early from group A from the data, though for publicity reasons weight-loss programs brave enough to do studies at all will often do just that.

In these cases, the baby has been thrown out in lieu of the bathwater. Pretty much any program where calories are significantly reduced and physical activity is significantly increased will result in weight loss. The proportion of subscribers who stick with the program is, in fact, the variable most worth tracking.

The question I am most interested in addressing right now is this: How might we use today’s technology to help people overcome the psychological obstacles to maintaining their bodies? While there is probably much to be said about food, today I’m going to focus solely on exercise.

I think it can be helpful to start by considering if there are any groups of people who, despite living in modern, western comfort, remain physically fit for years or decades at a time. There are. They are called athletes.

An athlete is different from someone who is merely physically fit. In an athlete, the fitness is merely a means to a competitive end. I won’t deny that there are some tough individuals out there able to make themselves run lap after lap, week after week, year after year, with no carrot in front of them except their own good health. But I’ll bet there are fewer of them than people think. Most solitary exercisers are competing for something, and they know it. They are chasing the carrots of wooing potential mates, thwarting rivals for those mates, or the challenge of beating their own best performance.

But these closet athletes are probably outnumbered easily by those who play competitive sports. “Competitive” need not mean league play, either, but rather any situation where a participant can be said to win or lose. Competitive sports dangle so many carrots and flashing trinkets in front of the players that they have an impressive power to overcome the psychological resistance to physical exertion.

Perhaps most importantly, the player is distracted from the discomfort of exercise by the mental and emotional demands of the game. Similarly, the player wants the closure of completing each quarter, inning, lap, etc., and is unlikely to stop in the middle just because he or she is getting a little winded. Players may also be interacting heavily with other team members, an additional distraction bringing the added impulse to not let the team down by stopping short. The desire to impress one’s teammates or trounce one’s opponents even leaks out between the games, helping drive players to train independently during their free time. The player-athlete doesn’t give a hoot about physical fitness. The player-athlete just wants to excel, and win.

So if sports make physical fitness a non-issue, why don’t more people participate? There are plenty of logistical reasons: scheduling issues, equipment costs, facility costs, climate incompatibility. But once again, the chief impediments are psychological. People want to excel, and if they feel they will never be competitive with their peers in a sport they like, they will probably never get into it. Likewise, if they think they could be competitive only after years of training, they are unlikely to bother. And there are many who have simply been bored to tears by every sport they’ve ever been exposed to.

How can technology transform those who are disinclined to sports into athletes? By creating exercise environments filled with distractive engagement and situations demanding closure; environments where any player, novice or expert, can feel competitive; environments that provide, measure and show each player their performance improvements from one day to the next.

The first example I ever recall seeing of this was an arcade game where a player seated at a stationary bike made a virtual flying machine travel from point to point on screen by pedaling. The game seem kind of slow, and I don’t think it ever caught on. But, today we have a nearly ubiquitous workout game to look at: Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), where players step, twist, and jump to the beat on a set pressure pads, as indicated by instructional symbols scrolling in time to the music. (I myself have recently become a DDR convert, but that’s a post for another day.)

DDR, especially in its home console versions, has a lot going for it as a workout device. It’s cheap, storable, and playable (indoors) regardless of the weather. It can be used solo, or with others – even online. But DDR’s biggest advantages are psychological. Mentally taxed by following the stepping instructions, the beat of the music, and the feel of the dance pad, a player is thoroughly distracted into completing whatever outrageously exhausting routine they may have signed up for in selecting a song at a given difficulty level. The game scores and cheerfully comments on each performance in real-time, pushing players on to ever higher scoring combos. After songs, players are scored and graded in ways that let them compare themselves to others or their own prior performances.

But DDR is by no means a total workout solution, and has plenty of disadvantages. Most obviously, the upper body is little-used. And, like any song or video game played solo long enough, it must ultimately become boring. More games are needed, as are more ways for these games to trick their players into gladly working themselves into a fitness frenzy. More competitive games are needed that can accommodate small or large teams of evenly matched player-athletes; more cooperative games are needed that let players work and workout together to pound zombies, terrorists, or tetrads.

I eagerly await a game that affordably and creatively brings full-body aerobic and resistance training into my living room. I suspect I will be waiting a long time. But imagine the possibilities! I want a game where dueling battlemechs charge shields with aerobic exertion while wielding heavy weapons through brute strength. I want a fantasy game where random encounters make me sweat and defeating the boss leaves me sore the next day.

I want the carrots dangling before this sweaty flesh-bag of mine to be rendered in anti-aliased high resolution, with lightning fast frame rates and no less than 64-bit color depth. Is that too much to ask?

Necessary though it may be, I, like most humans, don’t like to exercise. But I do like to play. And I love to win.

Show me a gamer, and I’ll show you an athlete.

We can build him. We have the technology.