Thursday, January 13, 2011

The (logarithmic) calendar I want

I was looking at my Google Calendar tonight and I realized that this software was encouraging a way of thinking about time which has significant drawbacks. Namely, it only allows one to look at a small, fixed time window at once: a day, one or two weeks, or a month at a time.* But the question I was asking myself at the time was, what is the shape of my year going to be?

When am I going to make time to visit friends and family in faraway places? How should I spend the 20 vacation days per annum that my employer gives me? What sort of personal projects will I realistically have time to pursue over the course of this year?

Being the morbid type of person I am, these thoughts then led me to other questions about even longer time spans. What do I want my life to look like in 5 years? By contrast, what is the realistic outcome of extrapolating 5 years from the way that my life is moving now? What do I hope to accomplish before I die, and am I going to have time to do it?

All these types of questions cannot be visualized on a month-at-a-time calendar, whether it's Google Calendar, or some other software, or a typical monthly wall calendar printed on paper. Now, the mere fact of having a proper calendar scarcely leads to satisfactory answers to the questions I'm pondering. But clearly the artifacts we use to track time influence our thoughts, our emotions and ultimately our actions. In this light, the limited scope of our calendars seems like a cognitive handicap with potentially huge effects on our lives.

So, here is what I want. I want a logarithmic calendar. I want this week to be visualized large. I want the rest of this month and the next to be visualized somewhat smaller. I want larger and more distant time intervals to be visualized as progressively smaller boxes. And I want the scope of the calendar to be decades — at least as long as my remaining life expectancy, or perhaps a bit longer so that I'm forced to think about posterity.

With a little work, I could write a bit of software that visualized time like this. There's nothing particularly earth-shattering about the code required. It is, as we say in the industry, a Mere Matter of Programming.

In fact, doing it in software is so straightforward that it's almost more fun to puzzle out how to do it with just paper. An argument can be made that paper would be fundamentally better anyway, in at least a few ways. A wall-sized poster is a tremendous display technology, with better resolution, pixel density, and variety of supported input methods than even a 30" touchscreen monitor. And a wall poster doesn't get covered up whenever you open a web browser while craving a moment's distraction. At best, you can ignore it via the old-fashioned method of averting your eyes.

So, let's do the exercise. How would you lay out a logarithmic wall calendar using only layers of preprinted paper? Here's my stab (apologies for the roughness of the sketch):

For every year, you mount a new spiral-bound calendar at the top. The spiral-bound annual calendar has ~52 leaves (give or take depending on the number of calendar weeks in the year). The week currently on top has a lot of writeable area per day, but the bottoms of the pages for the rest of this month peek out from beneath the current week. Below the current month's week pages, there are tabs for each month, which are large enough that you can write notes in them. The months go across from left to right. And beneath that, there's a large writeable area for annual goals, observations, etc. for each of the next 5 years. These are not part of the spiral-bound calendar; instead they are pinned to the wall, and when you reach a year's end, you unpin that year and pin up a new strip. And finally below that, there are undifferentiated strips for each semi-decade following the current semi-decade.

Suggested customization: next to each year, write down how old you will be when that year begins.

Admittedly, it's all a bit ad hoc. Randall Munroe would no doubt have devised some much more rigorously consistent mathematical visualization. But this is just my idle evening doodling, and at each level of time granularity I just chose something that looked good to me.

Now, to start thinking about those actual goals...

*Incidentally, there are deep architectural reasons that interactive calendar software which aims for predictable latency per user gesture will tend to offer (visualizations of) fixed-time-window queries, rather than queries over windows of unbounded size. If you're software-minded you can probably figure these reasons out, and also some ideas for working around them.

UPDATE 2011-10-31: Hacker News reactions.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Sexual desire, authenticity, and Internet business models

Among the many errors in N. Vargas-Cooper's Atlantic article this month on Internet porn, one stands out as the major fallacy. The article's entire argument seems to rest on the assumption that Internet porn reflects a more authentic view of human desire than other forms of cultural production. But the prevalence of low-budget amateur porn on the Internet reflects less on the sexual stimulation that people most fervently desire than on the economic reality that it's vastly easier to build an Internet business on crowdsourced amateur porn than on any other kind of porn.*

To conclude, from the consumption of bad porn, that everyone prefers bad porn when better porn can ostensibly be had if one looks harder, is roughly like deducing from the success of McDonald's that everybody prefers Big Macs to every other type of food. Again this is a question of costs, not authenticity. Sexual desire, like hunger, is an extraordinarily robust urge and can be stimulated (and even, to some extent, satisfied) by relatively low-quality fare. Therefore, people settle. If I offered you a free dinner at McDonald's or a free dinner at French Laundry, you know which you'd pick. And yet McDonald's is a much larger business, for reasons that have nothing to do with McDonald's satisfying a more authentic or deeper hunger.

If you think I'm comparing apples and oranges with McDonald's and French Laundry, substitute In-N-Out for the latter and the answer remains the same. Even when you want a burger, you want a good one; but sometimes you settle for less, because it's cheaper or more convenient.

The analogy becomes even better if you imagine that hamburgers were culturally marginalized and frequently outlawed, such that many people were embarrassed to admit in public that they liked a good burger. Such a social and legal environment would make it hard to build a business around providing high-quality burgers, and In-N-Out or other good burger places would not exist. And cultural critics would conclude that there was some inherent property of human hunger that led us to prefer crappy burgers.

Which is why Vargas-Cooper leaps from a particular configuration of economic incentives, in a particular technological and social context, to a ridiculously broad claim about the ultimate nature of human desire.

*The proliferation of highly specialized niche porn is also a consequence of Internet economics, albeit for different reasons, which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The types of bestselling free Kindle books

Periodically I go on binges where I browse the Kindle bestsellers list and download most of the top 100 free books, more or less indiscriminately, without consideration for quality. I mean, what the hell, it's free and my Kindle 2 still has over 1.2GB of free storage (out of 1.4GB user space). Even the worst piece of formulaic pulp trash might be funny in a so-bad-it's-good kind of way; or at least there may be some anthropological interest (oh, so this is what women fantasize about?). Most of the stuff goes totally unread of course — I don't have time to even glance at a tenth of it — but I suppose I like having the option.

Anyway, it's interesting to note that as of January 2011, the top 100 free Kindle ebooks list consists of the following:

Count Type Example Notes
50 Gutenberg ebooks The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Kindle conversions of public domain etexts from Project Gutenberg; mostly classics.
7 Games Every Word IMO Amazon should segregate these in their own section.
5 Thriller/Mystery The Perfect Woman Mostly in the gruesome-crimes subgenre, not the sleuthing subgenre.
8 Erotica/Romance Rough Cut Romance readers might claim that these are two categories but I defy you to draw the line among these titles.
2 ChickLit Stuck in the Middle (Sister-to-Sister Book 1) Apologies for the derogatory label but what do you want me to do with a cover and title like that?
11 Christian Fiction Fools Rush In (Weddings By Bella, Book 1) Often disguises itself quite stealthily as other genre fiction.
6 Other Fantasy Don't Die, Dragonfly Mostly spirits-and-vampires stuff, not Heroic Medieval Fantasy Product.
8 Alleged Nonfiction The Winners Manual Includes many crappy cookbooks and the Bible.
3 Other Fiction The Stolen Crown Arguably the bravest authors here, as non-series non-genre fiction has the least "author stickiness" of any fiction. Which isn't to say the writing's any good necessarily.