It’s Tuesday, 10 May 2022, an overcast morning in Portland, Oregon and this is episode 1, season 12 of Things That Caught My Attention.
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I saw the other day that the James Webb Space Telescope team released a new image of the Large Magellanic Cloud using MIRI, its Mid-Infrared Instrument.
Caught my attention because…
Last year, in response to the news of the world being just that little bit awful and advances in science being drowned out by (justifiable, true) present concerns of human existence, I had the idea of constructing a new format where real news would be relayed in the guise of communication from your advisors from the game Civilization, “complete with that little drum noise”.
One of the mockups I made was of the JWST being nearly ready to launch, and the first calibrated images from its sensors coming online reminded me. So here’s an update:
This 💰10 billion telescope has taken 104 turns to complete.
When James Webb Space Telescope begins observations, New Physics ⚛, Deep Cosmology 🌌and Advanced SETI 🛸 will become available.
We should increase Science funding 👩🏽🔬 to make the most of these discoveries.
Image description: a mockup of a dialogue from the game Civilization, a blurred background of the James Webb Space Telescope, an illustration of a black scientist as the Science Advisor and the copy above.
Here’s some more I made:
Our civilization has discovered how to make 20 tesla high-temperature superconducting magnets! 🧲 We should keep researching Fusion Power; and
Iceland has successfully built the world’s first large-scale carbon capture plant. Climate change 🏭 has increased the danger of global instability. We should trade gold for Carbon Capture Plant technology.
Whenever I make these mockups or concepts I have this guilty feeling of not being a Real Designer because… I mock them up using Keynote. It’s just so much faster for grabbing images, putting stuff together, doing quick alpha/transparency channels and then you just copy the entire thing, do a Paste As New From Clipboard in Preview and Robert is the name of your mother’s brother. I never really properly learned to faff around in Photoshop and only recently started to use it.
But, you know. It works.
Disclaimer: these are old ideas, and certainly not my ideas, they build on a whole bunch of other peoples’ work and writing. As ever, I have Not Done The Research to look up the citations for you. Just know that this isn’t some sort of unique insight here, just… another build and explanation/pitch.
Let’s start with some of the ideas that jumped into my head again this morning first, and then explain why they caught my attention and are interesting:
A macOS Finder Extension that applies a sepia filter to the icon of any file older then n months. [Tweet]
A macOS Finder Extension that adds a dynamic Metal dust particle system on top of file icons that have not been accessed more recently than n months. [Tweet]
A Google Drive/Docs update that adds dynamic curling pages and yellow tint to the icons of documents older than n days. [Tweet]; and lastly
A Safari or Chrome Extension that parses the Published Date on news articles on websites and overlays a dynamic webgl yellowed-paper shader on the page to instantly and visually convey age of information, for articles older than n years. [Tweet]
Some quick notes on what brings all of these together:
In the Real World, which is bound by physics and materials and living in a corrosive oxygen-rich atmosphere, things get old, i.e. they Look Old. Sometimes they look old because they’re made of metal and they rust. Sometimes they look old (e.g. show the signs of usage over time) by that fancy designery word patina, which is a word some people use to show how they are more sophisticated than you, a design philistine.
In the real world, papers get old and curl and yellow. Desks get scuffed. Things attract dust if they don’t move or aren’t cleaned. Some plastics yellow. Things get brittle.
In the material world of atoms, physics also gives us a bunch of affordances for free, and the old observation is that we, as living beings who have evolved to live in this world, are born with and quickly develop an understanding of this world that includes behavior like “how heavy things behave” or “how things bounce” or “how things accelerate and slow down”, with concepts like “friction” and “inertia” and “mass”.
Whether you know these terms or not, whether you know the underlying principles and theories, they’re things that just… are.
Most of the time, and until recently, computers haven’t really taken advantage of these affordances from properties of the real world. They absolutely take advantage of affordances like colour and size and shape (see, in a way, skeuomorphics, warnings etc) and recently if you’ve put two and two together you’ll see I mentioned “how things bounce” and “inertia”, which hit mass awareness in computer interfaces with rubber-band scrolling in iOS.
There are some easy ones too, like “when you put something down, it stays there, unless it is moved by something”, which explains in part why a lot of people like the Spatial Finder (rest in peace, etc).
But I’ve been long irritated by the lack of usage of these other attributes and quick, visual, instinctive indicators (some (many?) of which, I’ll admit, are cultural) or “oldness” or “freshness” or “heaviness”.
And now we have oodles of computing power, and we especially have oodles of computing power in graphics. We have shaders up the wazoo and GPUs in new cars, so in principle there’s a FLOPs budget to, I don’t know, add dust to old files and folders. There’s, in principle a FLOPs budget to add a dynamic sepia or tintype or whatever filter to “old files” that progresses with age. And people these days are familiar with filters because those FLOPs were flopping around and now they’re dynamic and realtime and used to do stuff to faces or whatever.
So why not filesystems?
One argument is that filesystems are for old people and that reasonable people these days have filesystems that are JBOFs: Just A Bunch of Files and that Search fixes everything, to which I respond: look, list view isn’t the one true view, and also, list view is kind of… one-dimensional? macOS Finder has Group By for List View which is fine, I guess? So you can have a list view with more than one dimension of visual sorting but it’s still… spatial, ish?
So. Use those FLOPs to show age. Make a browser extension that parses published dates and uses those graphics FLOPs to add a dynamic “make this page look old” filter on top of news articles that are older than 1 year. Hell, if Dropbox can add badges to file icons in macOS then at least have some fun with it? Remember when we used to customize our computers and have lots of different icons?
So. Experiment. Have fun. Hell, maybe even experiment with not just using those FLOPs in rendering and, I don’t know, ramp up the mass/inertia with “heavier”, larger files so that they take a bit more oomph to drag? Replace/augment file transfer progress bars with actual piles of files and folders being transferred, and the source and destination piles dynamically changing size as files are copied?
Yes it’s all ones and zeros. But just look at all that metadata we have now. Don’t just hide it all behind Properties in a table view. Think about how we might see it.
Sure, you can get a whole bunch of search results in Docs or Drive. But, you know, use those datacenters to render a whole bunch of layers to those file icons and cache them ahead of time? Or use that browser WebGL to make Drive JUST THAT BIT EASIER TO USE, MAYBE?
Anyway. It caught my attention. Again. Because I would love to see more experimentation. And fun. And, you know. This can still be utilitarian and flat. You know. Patina, right?
Okay, that’s it for today. I thought that was a nice start to the new season.
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