Jigsaw Puzzle

When I saw the Photosynth YouTube video a while back, I thought: Wow!…

…and I thought: I wonder if they’ve tried applying it to the fragmentary frescoes from Akrotiri?…

…and I thought: I wonder how they’re handling the copyright questions?

And I had another question.

Photosynth finds pictures from more or less everywhere and anywhere on the web and puts them together, creating a 3-d zoomable collage of Ifor example) frequently-photographed places. The video is a good demo; Photosynth is easier understood when seen than when described.

I ran into someone who works for Microsoft and asked the copyright question. He got a deer-in-headlights look on his face and said, “How did you find out about Photosynth?” “It’s on YouTube,” I said, “and if those videos are bootleg, the TED website has a demo.”[1] “Oh,” he said, and the deer-in-headlights look eased.

I’m guessing the project was secret up to a certain point, but everybody didn’t get the memo when it got declassified.

“Copyright?” I asked again.

“Um. I don’t think anybody actually thought about the copyright questions.”

That’s a different essay.

The software is intended (to spectacularly simplify it) to put pictures together. That’s why my first thought was the Akrotiri frescoes.

I had to wonder, though, if the basic engine might have other applications. I’m not a programmer – I’m so not a programmer – so I have no idea if this is a reasonable question, an interesting question, or a stupid question.

By “other applications” I mean non-graphical applications. The first fragmented thing that comes to my mind that would benefit from being put together is basic research.

Part of the fragmentation, I think, comes because there’s less basic research going on now than there was when I was in graduate school discovering that as a research scientist I make an excellent SF writer. By basic research I mean exploration that isn’t directed at a specific exploitable result. Experiments that ask qustions about the nature of reality. Experiments in which you test your hypothesis, and if you had any clue what was going to happen, you wouldn’t have to do the experiments.

It seems to me that research these days is focused on particular goals, such as the cure of a particular disease. It also seems to me that the goals, all of which are good goals, have to compete with each other for funding. Whatever problem or disease is sexiest, scariest, or has the best marketing plan wins the funding steeplechase.

I just wonder if instead of focusing on the top of the research food chain (human illness), more research embraced the plankton level of the research food chain – the basics of life, the interactions, the evolution of complexity, indeed at plankton itself as an organism rather than as a metaphor – we might be farther along in our understanding by now.

But we aren’t, and we don’t, and that isn’t how most research works these days.

Also, there’s a great deal of information out there, so much that one problem is connecting it. Nobody can read all the journals; everybody specializes. Focus is important; the network of interactions has to be neglected. Information is scattered all over; how to collect these jigsaw puzzle pieces and put them together?

I started wondering if the underlying Photosynth engine could put other things than graphics together. Could it look at research, extract the bits[2] that could add to our understanding of basics in biology, physics, cosmology, identify their edges and surfaces, and stick them together in to a coherent, searchable, explorable whole?

I have no idea. As I said: So not a programmer.

I have asked around to see what other people think. What’s the point of living in a neighborhood beloved of Microsofties if you can’t corner them and pick their brains on occasion?

Email generally gets no answer or “That’s not my field” (which is kind of the point); face-to-face people tell me, “That’s an interesting question” and change the subject.

At least nobody told me they knew the answer but didn’t care to write my master’s thesis for me, as with Food Bugs.

If you have an idea about it, I’d love to hear it.
And I still think: Wow!

— Vonda


Vonda N. McIntyre is the author of the Nebula-winning novel The Moon and the Sun, which is being offered at Book View Café in electronic form for the first time. “The Natural History and Extinction of the People of the Sea,” the faux-encyclopedia article that inspired the novel, written by Vonda N. McIntyre and illustrated by Ursula K. Le Guin, appears as a Book View Café Bonus story.

Other fiction by Vonda N. McIntyre, including cell-phone-friendly formats of The Moon and the Sun, can be found in the fiction section of her website, as can mint copies of her published books. To celebrate the debut of Book View Café, book prices are temporarily lowered.

Books make great gifts!


[1] TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) hosts a conference each year. Unfortunately it costs $6000 just to sign up for, which puts it well beyond the reach of the average midlist SF writer such as my own self. Their website has some good stuff, though.

[2] Some of those bits, of course, are in proprietary formats, some only available in print, some in researchers’ notebooks. And then there’s that pesky copyright question again, never even mind patent and trademark and other denizes of IP law.

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Jigsaw Puzzle — 2 Comments

  1. I thought there was a whole new discipline of study that did that. I forget the name but it’s one of those interdisiplinary things that is supposed to connect dots.