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The WWW of 18th Century London

A new website, London Lives, has been created by researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK. 240,000 pages of manuscripts from between 1690 and 1800, from hospitals, courts, local governments and parishes have been digitized and made available online – that’s half the size of the world-wide web in 1996.

What’s new here though is that the documents have been cross-linked so that you can track individual people’s lives across the different institutions of 18th century London, building up a picture of London life in the period much as you might while browsing the web or reading people’s Twitter updates today.

It’s a refreshingly different way to examine the past, and reminds us the value of open data and what we get from having a cross-linked web of public data sources today.

Read more at or browse London Lives directly.


Mashable has a look at how social networks are the tool of choice for divorce lawyers.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers says 81 percent of its members have used or faced evidence plucked from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites, including YouTube and LinkedIn, over the last five years.

It’s not just compromising pictures that are being used: sometimes, the evidence is nasty–parents tugging at their children’s social graphs to try and pull children away from their alienated spouse. With Overshare the word of the year in 2008, it’s no surprise that all that disclosure is catching up with us.


Augmented reality is getting a lot of attention in the media, but is often misunderstood. It’s only when you see examples that it really makes sense. This video demonstrates an impressive new application of the concept at the Wimbledon tennis championship in the UK.

With IBM’s new Seer 2010 app for iPhones and Androids you can simply point your phone at a court and get live video of the match being played there – effectively you can see through walls. You can also use the app to find food and drink stands or even get a live video view of the taxi queues.

It’s a great example of how augmented reality is already here today and making itself useful. You can read more here.


You are what you click

We all love our devices — a properly configured laptop, a familiar game controller, or a mouse that fits just so, are extensions of ourselves.

As it turns out, that may be more than mere metaphor.

A recent piece in Wired studied the way our brains work with computer mice–and what happens when those mice don’t work properly. When the mouse was responsive, our brains treated it as an extension of ourselves; when it malfunctioned, we became consciously aware of it and treated as an external “thing.”


One of the problems with virtual reality is navigating it: How do you make it feel like you’re walking around? Short of jacking into the spinal cord, Matrix-style, this has always stymied interface designers.

Popsci is reporting that a hotel in Vegas will soon offer immersive VR built on the Virtusphere, a human-sized hamster ball that calculates position from sphere rotation–like being inside a giant trackball. 360 Virtual Ventures is commercializing the technology for installations like the one at the Excalibur.

Here’s a video showing the device in action:

Dim lights

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iPads at Breakfast (picture from the source article at

This article in the New York Times looks at a typical “connected” family’s life, and how the constant pull of e-mail, Twitter and Facebook has interfered with their business and family lives. Here’s an example:

Recently,[Mrs Campbell] was baking peanut butter cookies for Teacher Appreciation Day when her phone chimed in the living room. She answered a text, then became lost in Facebook, forgot about the cookies and burned them. She started a new batch, but heard the phone again, got lost in messaging, and burned those too. Out of ingredients and shamed, she bought cookies at the store.

Is technology diminishing the amount of empathy and the quality of contact we have with each other? As an expert quoted in the article says, “The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other. It shows how much you care.”

The more challenging question of course, is what we can do about this. I’m guessing abandoning technology is not really an option!

Read the full article at


How Apple knows what you like

This MIT technology review explains how the iTunes Genius feature works, parsing millions of iTunes users’ libraries to generate suggestions and recommendations. One of the observations: we’re not unique and special snowflakes. No matter how individual you think you are, you’re part of a large online group.

Discovering the hidden or “latent” factors in your data set is a handy way to reduce the size of the problem that you have to compute, and it works because humans are predictable: people who like Emo music are sad, and sad people also like the soundtracks to movie versions of vampire novels that are about yearning, etc. You might think of it as the mathematical expression of a stereotype–only it works.

Recommendation engines are notoriously difficult to get right, as the Netflix Prize proved.


Open social data is a Wild West for many companies, with Google, Facebook, and dozens of social monitoring tools rushing to map our relationships and lives before legislation catches up with them. But by mapping data captured across open Wifi while taking Street View maps, Google may have triggered our legislative immune system.

Australian joins German police in investigating the privacy breach (which is nothing new — war-driving is a common practice; it’s just been hard to prosecute people for it.) Australia seems an unlikely defender of surfers’ rights, since it’s busy blocking Internet access; by contrast, Germany’s enforcing safe surfing by its citizens, making Wifi passwords mandatory — which would have prevented the Google breach. This is also the first step in making Wifi owners accountable for everything that crosses their network.


Existentialists will have a field day with this one: According to ScienceDaily, an EU research initiative called FuturIcT (a “knowledge accelerator” funded by, among others, billionaire investor George Soros) aims to create a really accurate version of Simearth. By mining many sources of data and simulating them in a supercomputer, the project hopes to understand financial, social, and economic forces in the real world. They call it a “knowledge collider.”

One use for such data is to anticipate and mitigate economic melt-downs, something that’s increasingly likely with real-time trading engines that amplify mistakes and market fluctuations. But why stop at economies? A simulator like this could predict political outcomes, something that’s long been speculated in science fiction, from the Delphis in Shockwave Rider to the real-time polling in Neal Stephenson’s frighteningly prescient Interface.


Did Google kill the phone book?

A stack of Yellow Pages, unopened because nobody needs them

A few months ago I noticed a stack of Yellow Pages directories delivered to my apartment block had laid unopened for months on end in our porch, and I realized, people don’t need phonebooks any more. We all use Google to find business contact information now.

According to the Globe and Mail, the Yellow Pages Group have announced that they will no longer deliver their directory in Canada’s seven largest cities unless it is requested. This seems to confirm that the phone book’s days are numbered, it is now a relic from a time when we didn’t have the world’s information at our fingertips, on our phones and on our desktops. No longer do we need to cut down forests just to stay informed. Besides, if you’re missing the Yellow Pages, you can always download the iPhone app!

There’s more discussion of the story on Slashdot.

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