Monday, June 22, 2009

I remember reading Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and his description of the Metaverse, his conception of virtual reality and online communication, thrilled me. I knew in many ways it was more realistic than Gibson's cyberspace. For instance, Stephenson described how people can choose their own avatars and it's a sign of a newbie or at least a non-programmer to have an "off-the-shelf" avatar, and indeed we see this in places from static online forums all the way to Second Life

One thing nagged at me back then: Stephenson realized that there's no reason not to teleport in virtual reality, but explained that the programming rules forbid it.

You can't just materialize anywhere in the Metaverse, like Captain Kirk beaming down from on high. This would be confusing and irritating to the people around you. It would break the metaphor... Once you have materialized in a Port, you can walk down the Street or hop on the monorail or whatever.

This is unrealistic in a virtual reality which is supposed to be the predominant way hackers like Hiro interact with each other online. Today, online gamers tolerate some limitations on teleporting in game environments like World of Warcraft or Puzzle Pirates, but even there, friction caused by do-nothing travel time is minimized. And in a more general communication milieu -- Web forums, Facebook, Twitter -- there isn't a single, limiting place. I can "be" on two forums at the same time on Ravelry, open two or more Facebook windows and chat with multiple people and I'm "there" with them all for some value of "there". Not only is there the ability to go immediately where I want to be in most online fora, but it doesn't even involve leaving the other "places" I already am.

Ok, here's another piece of the picture that didn't bother me in 1993 but does today:

Most avatars nowadays are anatomically correct, and naked as a babe when they are first created, so in any case, you have to make yourself decent before you emerge onto the Street... [Hiro sees] A liberal sprinkling of black-and-white people -- persons who are accessing the Metaverse through cheap public terminals, and who are rendered in jerky, grainy black-and-white.

This assumes an architecture where the client renders their own avatar. Even in that architecture, a proxy for a public terminal could render a classier avatar. Low-res displays would more likely affect the receiver than the sender -- somebody accessing the online universe through a poor public terminal might see every other avatar equally low-res, but their own avatar could still appear fantastic to people on good computers. It's complicated.

I guess the lessons are that today's online fora are less like the real-world than we could imagine fifteen years ago, and future online fora are less like the real-world than we are yet capable of imagining. We're still sending messages that look like paper mail and have envelope icons, and we still think of "bulletin boards" as a real model. We haven't integrated IM or twitter-like experiences fully into other experiences. Today, I'm downloading the Adium beta to see how twitter "what I'm doing" messages and community are integrated with IM and whether that improves on the old IM concept of presence in a significant way. Trivial interface changes in these sites and software can be significant in how people use them.

To borrow Ted's analogy when we touched on this over coffee today, we're in the same phase cinema was in when a movie camera was pointed at a stage, and a stage play acted upon it: the unique affordances of cinema weren't discovered immediately and are still being discovered even today. With online interaction, we're only beginning to discover how different it is from experience in the physically-limited real world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I have a bunch of baking books, or cookbooks that include serious sections on baking. The Joy of Cooking and The New Best Recipe are my favourites by a long shot, and often I enjoy making the "best" scone even if the recipe is basically white sugar, white flour and a pound of butter.

However, sometimes I'm looking for a healthier scone, muffin or coffee cake -- something that I can eat for breakfast without too much guilt, or offer to health-conscious friends -- and I don't have resources that are just right for me. Ideally, a book on healthy baking would balance out a number of factors without being fanatical on any one of them:
  • How is the whole grain content? Can some of the white flour be replaced with wheat, or can the recipe handle an optional addition of wheat germ, ground flax seeds, oats or so on?
  • Can the sugar be cut down and/or replaced with honey or maple syrup?
  • Can the fat be cut down without sacrificing moistness, shelf life, texture and flavour?
  • Is the protein ratio good? Is substituting soy flour an option? Adding nuts?
  • Are the ingredients readily available or can rare ingredients be optional?
  • Is the taste pumped up? I eat less of pure, dark chocolate or tongue-tingling ginger sweets because my palate is satisfied earlier.
I understand some people get fanatical about one thing, just the sugar or fat or whole wheat content to a recipe, but I rather think balance is important and certainly taste is.

Along these lines, here's an adapted recipe for Mango Chutney coffee cake, derived from Light and Easy Baking. That book focuses only on reducing fat content, which I brought up a little again, but the pumped-up taste is there and the hot pepper is surprisingly good.
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 c. milk
1/3 c. canola oil
1 egg, slightly beaten
2 T. orange marmelade
1/3 c. raisins
3/4 c. chopped mango chutney
Additional pepper, cinnamon or cardamom, particularly if chutney is mild

Mix the dry ingredients together then mix the rest in. Bake in a loaf pan at 350 for 65 minutes.

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