Posted in Uncategorized by johnsnavely on November 15, 2012

Oh boy, it’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to write anything in this blog. But moving on…

I was reading this post on Marginal Revolution, tipped off thanks to the always interesting T on QofW

I’ll try and summarize:

Under fire about the accuracy of his predictions, Nate Silver offered a bet to his critic $1000 donation to the Red Cross. A NYTimes editor, Margaret Sullivan, called the bet “inappropriate” for a journalist. Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution supported the bet and, moreover, offered a way to make similar wagers blind and thus non-partisan, and calls these sorts of bets a “tax on bullshit”– which is an awesome phrase and one which I wish I could use more often. Overall, I like the idea of responding to critics with a wager. It’s something a former poker player like Nate would find as a friendly and easy thing to do. It’s a lovely gesture of confidence. 

But I was puzzling about something else when I read the article(s). Clearly, Margaret Sullivan has assumed that there’s some sort of shared ethics for journalists and reporters of the news. But she’s also assumed that what Nate Silver does is journalism or reporting.

T says (quite rightly):

“Also, do you really think that Nate Silver is a “reporter?” I’m not sure what that label really means in this context — most reporters, I assume, assemble sources, get quotes, filter facts and assertions, and then craft a coherent story to be printed in limited space.


Silver’s running MCMC-simulations of election outcomes using probability distributions inferred from the confidence intervals (Bayesian posterior distributions, natch) he gets from executing a panel of linear regressions. That seems different from what most reporters are doing, at any time, ever–“

I’m not very good at answering questions like this. Usually I work by assuming that an answer is true, hypothetically and then guessing what might happen. 

So let’s say I’m a reporter. I’m giving an assignment to write about an event (maybe a natural disaster hitting a major city) only I don’t have the budget to actually go the the city. And I need to write the report within hours of the event. All my “sources” (data) are going to come from hundreds of thousands of twitter posts that are being produced by people who are there.

I really could use some computational tools that can help me sort through which twitter posts I should read. Which contain relevant information. Suggested organizations/chronologies for events. Help finding “most interesting” quotes. I need to do this very quickly so I can write a canonical version of what happened with poignant bits culled out, maybe even styled for the particular readership of the publication I’m working for.

A reporter’s software helper can do a lot of scraping and gathering, that’s not hard. But what it needs to do is generate a networked map of all the conversations, condensing like a cloud, around the event. And the representation needs to be structured in such a way that it can be built extremely quickly and help answer some basic but ambiguous questions… like “What happened when?”

What if more reporters were armed with better software? I wonder what the news would be like.

Messy is Neat

Posted in technology, work by johnsnavely on November 18, 2011

I published a few images from the Productivity Vision Video that I mentioned in my last post into my portfolio.

The videos have a complex set of criteria. On the one hand, they are used often by marketing folks to give a sense to customers of what we think the future might hold. On the other, we’re trying to inspire product groups within the company to take a fresh look at things. For the interfaces, we try and have a level a detail that is unusually well thought out for a video, but more like a sketch to those who work in interface design. Since we are not a product group, we have a delicate dance to do; we’re not showing the next version of the product and we can’t give away company secrets, but we still need to build something that’s actually relevant. It’s a lot to pack into 5-6 minutes.

I thought I’d give a little behind-the-scenes the thinking process that goes into a few seconds of the movie…

In the home scene, Shannon (the little girl) exits from her math homework and goes to her bake sale scrap book . The sequence takes about 5 seconds (4:50-4:55min on youtube). We thought of Shannon’s device as her digital notebook, a notebook that she took everywhere. There’s a lot of precedence for an “os” that uses the metaphor of books. Most notably Microsoft’s Courier device (in fact we studied some of the early design concepts for the device), but also the Amazon book store, and Apple’s book shelf and One Note for Office.

Most of these interfaces try to take the activity of reading and collecting books and organize it. Bookshelves can be beautiful and are great for displaying books, but when we’re actually working with open books, things look a little different. They might look like this:

Or this:

What would an interface look like that let me “spread out” all my books? What would the books be? How would I navigate it?

For all of Shannon’s digital content, we started to place everything we might traditionally think of as inside “apps” or “windows” as part of books instead. Social networking could be done in her yearbook, while instant messaging and SMS looks like a comic book (see the lower left). Search results are gathered into a book that she could save or dynamically filter. At the beginning of this scene, Shannon learns math from an bear-in-a-book who knows when she should take a break and work on a different project.

To contain all these books we thought a pan and zoom canvas would be ideal for the infinite space, much like the interface Blaise talks about in his TED talk on Deep Zoom & Photosynth. She could organize things spatially and build her own relationships between books– a story about Amelia Earhart sits next to a diagram of how a beetle flies, sits next to a page on how to fold an origami bird. (see the lower right).

As books are layered on and there’s quite a bit of them, however, you might forget where you’ve placed something. Touch and hold brings up a contextual menu. And touch and hold and speech can issue a command, like “Find my bake sale stuff” to search for that book.

There’s more little software secrets hidden in this scene and throughout the video. I wish we had more time to do a video on one of them at a time… I’d love to explore the interaction model we built for the phones, for example.

New Work

Posted in work by johnsnavely on November 5, 2011

Last week I finished up a big project: the latest Productivity Vision Video for Microsoft. It was released on YouTube and within a week generated nearly 2 million views. I was the Creative Director of the project, but it was a big team effort. I worked with awesome folks like Mason Nicoll, Hiroshi Endo and Ethan Keller and many more.

Here’s the video. It’s sparked some intense debates both positive and negative about the role of technology in our lives and that discussion is exciting to see.

Now that the project is finally finished, I’ve taken the opportunity to use my free weekends to updated my portfolio. The video isn’t in there yet, but I’ll be posting some screenshots there and hopefully a few here. There’s a lot of detail in the software and interface design that I’d like to share and hear what people think…

Books Every Futurist Must Read

Posted in books, culture, hobbies, technology by johnsnavely on November 2, 2011

I’m a big fan of science fiction. I read plenty of novels for pleasure, but I’m also constantly trying to find good ideas to steal from books. A few weeks ago, I was chatting with co-workers about which books we thought every futurist needed to read. That’s a pretty tall order, what came to mind were all the books that I’ve recently stolen ideas from. They’re not great literature necessarily, in fact some are rather pulpy (which I love), but all of them have some great concepts in them. Here’s a short list in no particular order.

via Alyssa B.

Old Man’s War
Scalzi is a fun and funny writer. I just finished Agent to the Stars one of his earlier novels. In this novel he imagines a future where the elderly leave earth and are given new bodies and amazing technology to fight an interstellar war. James Cameron must have read this before making Avatar. Some ideas I want to build: Brain Pal and Emotional Instant Messaging

Kiln People
Brin’s novel is a hard boiled detective story. It’s set in a world where people can make copies of themselves, with limited expiration dates and then inload the memories of those copies. The whole concept of parallel lives in this novel basically changed how I understood social networking. Now, when anyone says they want to add “Social” (ugz) to a project I wonder how I can make it more like this novel.

Diamond Age
This book was recommended by a friend. For some reason we were talking about how little cultural groups form and joking about a “Helvetica Tribe”. The Illlustrated Primer, a “magic” book, is artfully done. I keep returning to it as an example.

Gibson’s book has been at the top of many of my lists for a while. Almost everything he’s written about in the novel has come true in some form or other.

Ghost in the Shell (1,2, and 1.5)
These graphic novels are works of art. They’re like a Donna Hathaway’s gorgeous nightmare. Machines and people are melded seamlessly and you can never tell the difference between a robot and a human.

Mary Poppins (the movie is pretty good too)
A shout out to the Berg folks. I read all of these when I was very young. (As well as the whole Doctor Doolittle series.) In today’s world, you expect the newest gadget to do something amazing, these books which use magic bluntly applied to the everyday, without the slickness of technology. I’ve been coveting Mary Poppin’s mirror and her endless carpetbag.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
In Cory Doctorow’s book, nobody dies and a band of people lives and works in an abandoned DisneyLand. Also, there is no money, only reputation points called “Whuffie”– it’s an idea sort of stolen from eBay but it’s evolved into something better here. I’m trying to unify “Whuffie” and “BitCoin” in my brain.

This is one of Nicholson Baker’s early softcore novels. Many of his books dilate time in one way or another, but in this one it’s quite literal: the main character can stop time. The story is both sexually explicit and remarkably boring. Often when I’m thinking about new amazing technology, I’ll try and ask myself how the main character in this story would use it.

Currently, I’m reading “Super Sad True Love Story” which was recommended to me as a book that every futurist must read. Any other suggestions?

What’s a Building 4?

Posted in architecture by johnsnavely on November 1, 2011

A couple months ago I finished work on the new offices for team RED (Research Experimentation Design). The extended team is about 170 people… my team is a tiny 7 of that.

As part of the Workplace Advantage Program, Microsoft Real Estate and Facilities funded a project to refresh the interior of the building. O+A was the architect. It’s a nice building with lots of unexpected places to work.

There’s a somewhat embarrassing video of me walking through the building and highlighting some of its features. I’m not good on camera, but you can see what it’s like.

Here’s a few pictures.

More here


Posted in personal, technology by johnsnavely on July 19, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve updated and there’s a lot going on. I’ve given a couple talks and finished a few big projects (I’ll post on those separately.) But the biggest news is that I’m going to be a dad. Fatherdom is coming this winter.

So I’ve instantiated a new thread in my brain that’s been working on what I’m going to give my son for his first birthday. He’ll have physical toys, to be sure, but I’m talking about a digital bounty (or my digital detritus).

Do I friend him on delicious and show him my network of friends? Or buy him a kindle filled with all my favorite books? Or make a youtube account filled with some Donaghy advice? Maybe I should just buy him a 3d printer and tell him to make his own iPad if he wants one…

I remember when I was a kid my mom brought home an early x86 computer which booted from a floppy. My brother and I broke it in an hour. Later, I started playing early Sierra games– the ones where you had to type commands in: “Feed chickens”. I had a friend named Peter Shin, who was a math whiz and we’d play Kings Quest for hours at his house. Eventually, we decided to make our own game and that’s when I started to learn how to program.

I’ve probably been thinking about Mac Tonnies too long. It’s too early too ponder mortality when I don’t even have a legacy. More than likely, my kid is going to be giving me some digital lessons. I’m going to school him pretty hard in UT, though.

Les Enfants Terribles

Posted in art, technology by johnsnavely on May 30, 2011

A few weeks ago, K and I had dinner with a new couple we hadn’t met before. At one point during the dinner, as I was explaining what I do– that I work at Microsoft to paint a vision of the future of technology. I was asked bluntly if my work was out of step with the world and what the world needed was less technology instead or (gasp) no technology at all.

This has happened before. I’ve spoken a few times at K’s undergraduate philosophy classes and there’s been a reaction each time. “Why can’t we just go into the woods and turn it off?” “There’s too much technology– I wish we could go back in time.” This angst is coming from an age group which, if the numbers are to be believed, is using technology more often than any other. (They’re probably also an age group which is ‘angsty’ more often than any other too, but that’s a new post.)

In fact, these days not a month goes by when I meet someone, explain to them what I do, and have them frown unpleasantly as I said I was a Scientologist, rather than a futurist.

People who say technology should go away because there are some bad experiences out there sound a lot like Hitchens or Dawkins on religion. Religion did something bad, so religion should just go away. Even to an atheist like me this sounds more ridiculous than provocative.

So what do to with this hypocrisy? (And yes, there’s quite a bit about our experiences with technology and information which could be improved. That’s a problem too.) Are these feelings, as a coworker would suggest, the normal, inevitable Luddite backlash you have in any culture at any time in history? (“There’s too much iron, stone tools are more handcrafted.”)

There’s a lot to unpack in the backlash. And I’ll probably need to write more.

But there’s something rumbling around in my brain after a few conversations with August and Edith… we all agreed that we hated the word “content consumption” and I’m trying to figure out why.

via DIS Mag

I found myself thinking of these videos. The idea that given the choice, we prefer to identify with children more than adults. There’s a stunted maturity which, when contrasted with adult concerns (the sexuality in Hafaas videos, for example) is either provocative or wrong…. it’s hard to tell which.

In the back of my mind, I think of technology as aspiring to identify us as children, providing the “simple” interface into the world. In reality, people’s lives are complex– filled with “adult” situations and desires. Relationships between coworkers family and friends may leave one feeling more like the parent than the child. Serving and served. Interactive versus interpassive.

via DannSpann

The concentration of technology on childhood represents a focus on it’s role in our private lives, not in our ability to construct public lives. Sherry Turkle’s call to “put technology in its place” is a little misguided. She suggests that technology works well in our private lives (when I’m alone) but hinders interpersonal relationships. But instead of shrinking from this challenge, technology could be used as a tool to augment social interactions.

As much as I’d like technology for adults, an audience which I think is a bit underserved. I can see that we might build software worlds where you alternatively take turns being the caregiver and the care-receiver. Production and consumption could be given equal weight and each a turn.

I like American Music.

Posted in culture, fashion by johnsnavely on February 1, 2011

If you ever been to my house (maybe for a Salon or something) you know that I am a bit hypocritical. I’m a designer, supposedly I care about how things look. Supposedly I make them look better.

But I haven’t taken much care with my own living quarters. There’s a mish mash of things I like, but not a true sense of style. I’ve been thinking more about making/designing some furniture for K and I and I’ve started collecting images in my never-used tumblr account. There’s a furniture company called bddw which has nailed it, imho. The look is distinctly American, drawing from the Shaker tradition with the furniture, but really a melting pot of patterned rugs and minimalistic decor. Here’s a few images:


Posted in architecture, art, culture by johnsnavely on January 10, 2011

A friend of mine asked me to come and guest lecture at a class he’s teaching at UW. It’s a graduate seminar in design– a theory course. There’s a fairly dense reading list already in the syllabus for each week, but for my guest lecture/discussion, I get to choose the readings.

There is a little irony in this task, since I’m pretty skeptical of theory and criticisms role in the design process. I often think of theory and criticism, especially as it is presented in the pedagogy, as working against the creation of good designers, as it diverts attention from the art making things to the art of talking about them.

As the syllabus has a decidedly modernist bent to it, I’ve decided to inject some pomo into the precedings. Here’s my draft list of readings (and a few comments):

Fredric Jameson
“Postmodernism, or The Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review I/146, July-August 1984

Jameson is the bomb. He pretty much identifies most of the major problem areas within post modernism’s uneasy co-dependence on (Late Capitalist) culture. I’ve chosen the article instead of his book, because the article is a much easier read, the philosophical thought is much less dense, but the banter and critique situate his writing better historically.

Jameson comes down pretty hard on pomo stuff– his description of pastiche being the zenith of the attitude. Jameson is the foundation of the lecture; the rest of the articles are a slush of ideas that put his writing into tighter focus.

Yves Behar
Review of TechnoCraft Exhibition at Yerba Beuna Center for the Arts

They haven’t finished the catalog for this show, so we’ll have to read a review of it first. I’m not Behar’s biggest fan, but this show was quite good and very well curated. It presented a nice summary of a certain set of design trends that have taken root as a response to the same cultural forces of capitalism with which Jameson wrestles. (There’s also an uncomfortable naivete to the show and its design principles that is difficult to stomach.)

Andy Warhol
Final Interview

Jameson holds Warhol up to the fire a bit and it’s only fair to let Warhol defend himself. Warhol’s last living interview does so, in Warhol’s traditional laconic style. The artist’s remarks on The Last Supper and the price of Jasper John’s paintings are to be noted.

Ryan Trecartin
Shades of Notware
Ryan’s Web 1.0

While not entirely criticism, Trecartin’s work hints at much different processes and mental states for designers and artists to inhabit, with new tools and new ways of thinking. Web 1.0’s behind the scenes unveils what a designer’s thought process could look like, if they were as amazing as Mr. Trecartin. The idea that what Jameson calls design/art making might have little in common with the practice we give that name should be in question.

Keehnan Konyha, 2TheWalls
In Praise of Expedit
Dark-est Nostalgia
Lady Fag
Vader Barton
Michael Graves

Keehnan Konyha is an architectural and cultural critic who focuses mainly on interior design. Posts on his blog, 2TheWalls, consist of tightly curated mashups of text and image. Most entries tend to show their postmodern roots and yet, there are often carefully injected contemporary moments that bring the result outside of mere historicism and into current discourse. 2TheWalls might be what Jameson’s work might have looked like if he had been working 30 years later.

Who didn’t make the cut?

Tao Lin
Tao Lin is this decade’s Andy Warhol. A chapter of Richard Yates would have been enough to show some subtleties that Jameson did not see in Warhol. But there’s something to be said for the man himself. Interviews with Warhol read like Tao Lin novels. And so, Warhol stayed and Tao Lin left.

Sylvia Lavin
Sylvia Lavin says some beautiful things:

“[T]o be contemporary- to be on time, to move with time and the times, subject to its losses, entropies, provisionalities, obsolescences, currencies, intensities, fads, and flourishes is a possibility that architecture assiduously avoids.”

– From Lavin’s book Crib Sheets

But ultimately, her focus is much too architectural and her call to action, although compelling, lacks some substance. (Read my friends Stephanie Teurk’s review of Crib Sheets for more.) 2thewalls does more, better and can speak to an audience that Lavin cannot.

Wes Jones
Wes Jones’ article PostCool is pretty great. They should probably read it. Unfortunately, Jones is already in the syllabus and I didn’t want to repeat.

Quentin Tarantino
He’s too good for this lecture.

So that’s what I’m having people read. I’m not sure if I have to give a presentation or what. Are there any texts that you would include? I also don’t have a title for the set of readings…. suggestions?

Artificial Diane Arbus

Posted in culture, technology by johnsnavely on December 1, 2010

This article (via:kottke) about two conjoined twins, who share a portion of their brain was fascinating.

Adding to the conundrum, of course, are their linked brains, and the mysterious hints of what passes between them. The family regularly sees evidence of it. The way their heads are joined, they have markedly different fields of view. One child will look at a toy or a cup. The other can reach across and grab it, even though her own eyes couldn’t possibly see its location. “They share thoughts, too,” says Louise. “Nobody will be saying anything,” adds Simms, “and Tati will just pipe up and say, ‘Stop that!’ And she’ll smack her sister.” While their verbal development is delayed, it continues to get better. Their sentences are two or three words at most so far, and their enunciation is at first difficult to understand. Both the family, and researchers, anxiously await the children’s explanation for what they are experiencing.

Beyond the extraordinary physiological and psychological implications, the article made me wonder if their experience is what it might be like to share our consciousness with an AI of some sort… You would “know” things, without knowing how you knew them.