Owen Massey McKnight (addedentry) wrote,

Tech lech

I went to NTK's NotCon yesterday, with huskyteer and fivemack. I'm not a fannish sort, so this was my first con of any description; and to paraphrase Douglas Adams, I still think digital cameras are a pretty neat idea, so an emerging technologies con was particularly inappropriate. I had a great time.

The first session was billed as geolocation, but collaborative cartography would be a better description. Biomapping is an art project which equips a homemade polygraph with GPS to create 'arousal maps' of London. That is, your stress or excitement levels are recorded as you wander the streets: reversing the polarity of the biometric power flow, or something.

Urban Tapestries asked 'Do people want to inscribe on the city?' They compile personal responses to locations via a mobile phone interface. Again, rather than consuming commercial content, the idea is to enable individuals to construct their own guides. More concrete was a presentation on nou's OpenGuides, a tourist wiki with the addition of metadata, which makes a librarian glad.

These two projects had concerns about access to Ordnance Survey mapping data: the US Geological Survey is a federal agency, so its maps are public domain, but so far the OS has been dismayingly protective. Another problem they share is the possibility of spamming the real world!

Last, two l33t kids from Project Z talked about their urban exploration adventures, that is, playing Solid Snake in disused buildings (especially London Underground stations). They were amusingly understated about the risks of death, but it can only be a matter of time before they spark a terrorist scare.

The next session showcased hardware hacks worthy of the Ig Nobel prize: a sandwich decay-meter which doubled as a clock; 'how to email your video', remote access to electrical devices via email or SMS or wi-fi (which reminded me of the Red Leader mains controller for the ZX Spectrum), and the latest developments on the Spectrum itself. An IDE interface for a hard disk or CompactFlash storage was demonstrated, allowing streaming video of The Chemical Brothers' 'Let Forever Be'. With a single 4 gigabyte hard disk you can access every program ever written for the Spectrum, which brings us - via fivemack's deathless claim that 'disk space is cheap' - to the Internet Archive.

Brewster Kahle was the reason I attended. He's the chairman of the Internet Archive, and calls himself its (digital) librarian. But where librarians have taken only timid steps towards digitising books and archiving websites, Kahle simply calculated that it could be done en masse and got on with doing it. He uses the slogan 'Universal Access to All Human Knowledge' to summarise this: we have the technology for universal access and the political will to maintain an open society.

Suddenly there is a use for the word 'petabyte'. The figures are impressive - the Library of Congress has 29 million books, the British Library has 10 million - but manageable, and growing geometrically rather than exponentially. Apparently a pallet of 2000 books can be scanned for $10 apiece in India (drawing an accusation from the floor of creating 'library sweatshops') and it's cheaper to print books on demand than administer loans. (The post-scarcity society!)

Human knowledge includes other media: the Live Music Archive invites submissions of recordings from bands with a liberal attitude to bootlegging. That's not just the Grateful Dead but Fugazi and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Best of all, Kahle is involved in a lawsuit against unasserted copyright in out-of-print books: Kahle v. Ashcroft, my new hero versus one of the most conservative men in America.

I took the opportunity to fanboy Kahle before his inspiring lecture, and also chrislightfoot, who writes the most statistically literate British politics weblog.

Alice and I left before our heads exploded, so I missed the talks by simon_cozens and Cory Doctorow, and the launch of http://www.theyworkforyou.com/. But as Tom pointed out, unlike the revolution, they will certainly be blogged.
Tags: computing, libraries, maps
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